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Austrian National Library’s amazing State Hall

One book leads to 200,000 others

At The Budapest Times, Vienna’s Josefplatz has always been something a little more than one of the finest courtyards among the many in splendid Vienna – it is where post-World War Two black marketeer Harry Lime in “The Third Man” novel and film left his apartment at Josefsplatz 5 and was immediately supposedly run down by a truck. Lime’s two villainous companions said they carried his body off the road to the equestrian statue of Emperor Joseph II. But the porter at Josefsplatz 5 claimed he saw three men with the stricken Lime. With all this mystery about the “third man” to ponder, it’s little wonder, perhaps, that over the course of our several visits we totally missed what lies behind one of the doors in the far corner of the square.

Until our latest visit, that is. Josefplatz is enclosed on three sides by sections of the Hofburg Palace, and when our attention was drawn to that overlooked door it turned out to be the entrance to the stunning Prunksaal (State Hall), the central structure – the heart – of the Austrian National Library. Here is to be found one of the most beautiful library halls in the world, the biggest Baroque library in Europe. Some say it might just be the single-most impressive room in all of Vienna.

The magnificent State Hall was built in the 18th century as part of the former Court Library, and as a dedicated private wing of the Hofburg imperial residence. Emperor Charles VI (reign 1711-1740) ordered its construction and it was built by Joseph Emanuel Fischer von Erlach according to plans of his father, Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach.

The State Hall is almost 80 metres long and 20 metres high, and crowned by a 30-metre-high oval dome decorated with frescoes by the court painter Daniel Gran. He worked on the frescoes from 1726 to 1730. The one in the cupola depicts the apotheosis, the “deification” of Emperor Charles VI, as well as the allegorical story of the construction of the Court Library.

In the middle we see Charles VI in all his glory, with pyramid and laurel wreath in his hands, while below that is a golden medallion with a portrait of the emperor supported by Apollo and Hercules; beneath that and around the sides are numerous other symbols of the magnificence of the House of Habsburg.

More than 200,000 volumes originating from 1501-1850 are exhibited, among them the comprehensive library of Prince Eugene of Savoy comprising around 15,000 volumes bound in red, blue and yellow Morocco leather, as well as one of the largest collections of Martin Luther’s writings from the Reformation Era.

The larger-than-life marble statue in the oval-shaped centre of the State Hall represents Charles VI as “Hercules Musarum”. It dates back to 1735 and was apparently crafted by Imperial Court sculptor Antonio Corradini (1668-1752). With elegant gestures, the emperor invites you to marvel at these treasures, for which dark walnut, stone floors and gold adornments provide the opulent framework, and at the allegorical frescos in the war and peace wings.

The other marble statues depict Austrian and Spanish Habsburgs and were created by the brothers Peter (1660-1714), Paul (1648-1708) and Dominik Strudel (1667-1715).

Four magnificent Venetian globes, each with a diameter of over one metre, provide the finishing touch to this superb centrepiece of the Austrian National Library.

The rich holdings of the Court Library originate from a wide range of different sources: Habsburg collections, purchases from famous libraries, donations, mandatory copies, purchases at book fairs and, since the time of the royal family’s Chief Physician, Gerard van Swieten, 1700-1772, systematic purchases of new literature from booksellers.

In addition to its function as a library, the building was designed as a concert hall with excellent acoustics. The library museum suffered catastrophic damage in the 1848 battle for Vienna, with the zoological collection being completely destroyed by cannon fire.

The State Hall currently has an exhibition “Of Gardens and People”, the Austrian National Library having been associated with garden art for more than 400 years. The visitor is guided through this history by means of works of art, some of which have never been shown before. Garden plans, prints, original drawings, publications, photographs and even picture postcards tell of the diversity of green spaces – some of which have disappeared or been reshaped – and turn the Baroque State Hall into a garden building.

“The Third Man” film was famously shot on location in war-ravaged Vienna in 1948 amid bomb craters and piles of rubble. It is a towering masterpiece of British and world cinema. Harry Lime wasn’t killed by a truck: it was a fake death to put the police off the scent. Graham Greene’s “The Third Man” is a rather slight novella written purely as a basis for Greene’s own screenplay for the film. The Budapest Times cannot say for sure but there does not appear to be a copy of the book among the 200,000-plus volumes.


Austrian National Library (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek) State Hall

Josefsplatz 1, 1010 Wien

Tel.: +43 1 534 10-394



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