A Cloister for Academics: The Habsburgs’ University

The University of Vienna is the oldest in the German-speaking world, with vast imposing architecture and fascinating relics.

Europe’s academic giants in the University of Vienna’s Arkadenhof | Photo: Duncan J.D. Smith

The history of the University of Vienna (Universität Wien) stretches back almost 650 years. During that time it has grown enormously, both in the number of students who have passed through its doors, and in the number of books on its library shelves.

Birth of an institution

The university was founded on 12 March 1365 by Rudolf IV, Habsburg Duke of Austria (1339-1365), hence its sobriquet Alma Mater Rudolfina. Married to a daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV (1316-1378), Rudolf was eager to elevate Vienna to the grandeur of the imperial city of Prague, home to Central Europe’s oldest university.

Rudolf initially established his university on Dr.-Ignaz-Seipel-Platz in the city centre, in a building used today by the Austrian Academy of Sciences (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften). The library was housed in the students’ infirmary before eventually being moved to an extension on Postgasse in the 1820s.

Move to the Ringstrasse

With the demolition of Vienna’s old city walls and the subsequent construction of the Ringstraße, the university moved to new premises at Karl-Lueger-Ring 1. The building was executed in neo-Renaissance style to a design by the architect Heinrich von Ferstel (1828-1883). Construction commenced in 1873 and the finished building was unveiled by Emperor Franz Joseph I in 1884. As with other grand buildings on the Ring, the chosen architectural style reflected the origins of the institution.

The imposing façade carries nameplates along its roofline inscribed with renowned academic luminaries, such as economist Adam Smith, jurist Friedrich Carl von Savigny, philologist Friedrich Christian Diez, and the decipherer of Egyptian hieroglyphs Jean-François Champollion. The same device is used on other buildings on the Ring, including the Burgtheater and the Kunsthistorisches Museum. No women are mentioned, however, since females were not admitted as full students to the university until 1897 to study philosophy, and in 1900 for medicine.

The Great Reading Room

Much of the university is open to the public, without identification. The first port of call is the bustling main entrance, where a series of red marble wall panels detail all the university’s chancellors since 1365. Alongside is an exhibition celebrating Nobel Prize Laureates associated with the university, including Julius Wagner-Jauregg (1927, Medicine) and Elias Canetti (1981, Literature).

To the left are the lecture halls and Small Ceremonial Chamber (Kleiner Festsaal), ranged around a grand staircase (Feststiege) with a stuccoed ceiling, lorded over by Franz Joseph looking somewhat unfamiliar in academic garb. To the right is a matching staircase giving access to the Main Ceremonial Chamber (Großer Festsaal), with ceiling paintings by Franz von Matsch and black-and-white reproductions of the huge, controversial panels by Gustav Klimt destroyed in 1945. Also here is the Great Reading Room, its sturdy wooden bookcases, encircling balconies, and individual green-glass reading lamps imbuing it with considerable Old World charm.

Famous names

Directly beyond the entrance hall is the Arcade Court (Arkadenhof). Resembling a monastic garden cloister it is the spiritual heart of the place. The court contains more than 150 busts, recalling many of those who have taught at the university. They include Ignaz Semmelweis, remembered as “the saviour of mothers” for his pioneering work establishing standards of cleanliness that ended child-bed fever, Ludwig Boltzmann, an early advocate of atomic theory, and, of course, Sigmund Freud, whose famous practice is just around the corner on Berggasse. There is also a sober wall memorial recalling those academics persecuted and murdered after the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938. Notable among them was Elise Richter, who became the university’s first female assistant professor in 1907; being Jewish she was dismissed from her post and deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where she ended her life in 1943.

Approximately 86,000 students are currently enrolled at the university, shepherded by a staff of 8,900, more than 6,700 of whom are scholars of one sort or another. The academic facilities of the “Uni Wien” now occupy more than 60 locations across the city, and the library, together with 50 departmental branches, houses more than 6.5 million books, making it the largest teaching and research institution in Austria.

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