Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach

Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach (1656-1723) was the greatest architect of baroque Austria. He blended Italian baroque ideas with French classicism and created an architecture magnificent enough to express imperial authority and grandeur.

On the upsurge of the arts that took place in central Europe after the lifting of the siege of Vienna (1683) and the subsequent expulsion of the Turks from Hungary and the Balkans, Austria, as the hereditary home of the Hapsburgs, and through them of the Holy Roman Empire, enjoyed what was probably its most important and splendid period of artistic development. Inspired by French and Italian examples, enough native artists appeared on the scene to compete with the Italians, who had dominated the arts north of the Alps since the Renaissance. Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach was one of the first figures in this group and certainly the most imposing.

Fischer was born in Graz on July 18, 1656. (When the artist was ennobled in 1696, von Erlach was added to his name.) The son of a Styrian sculptor, Johann was trained as a sculptor by his father. After a lengthy sojourn in Rome (about 12 years, it is believed), Fischer returned to Graz in 1687 and immediately found employment executing stucco decorations in the interior of the ducal mausoleum.

Fischer's study of architecture led to his appointment as instructor to the heir apparent of the crown, Archduke Joseph (later Joseph I), in civil architecture. While thus occupied Fischer also designed two triumphal arches for the entry of the Emperor into Vienna and, from 1690 to 1694, the Althan Palace at Frain (Vranov) in Moravia. This palace, his first important building, was particularly noteworthy for the large oval Great Hall, a form that became almost his trademark. The high dome of the room, pierced by oval windows, was decorated in fresco by Johann Michael Rottmayr.

Imperial and Princely Palaces

In 1696 Emperor Leopold I commissioned Fischer to design a new palace for Archduke Joseph at Schönbrunn on the outskirts of Vienna. The architect had submitted a plan, the famous "first project," some years earlier. It combined Italianate and French ideas with some suggestions from Fischer's studies of ancient site planning and was perhaps the most audacious design for a palace to come out of the baroque period. Obviously intended to overshadow Versailles, it placed the palace at the top of the hill at Schönbrunn, with huge ramps and stairways leading up from the entrance to the main building, which took as its inspiration Gian Lorenzo Bernini's design for the Louvre facade. The "first project" was too daring and grandiose even for the Emperor, and Fischer had to produce a more conservative design, with the palace at the foot of the hill, and only elaborate formal gardens leading up to a small summerhouse at the top. This plan was executed between 1696 and 1700, but much of it was changed some 40 years later for Maria Theresa.

Fischer was also employed by the prince bishop of Salzburg, for whom he produced some of his best church designs, including the Church of the Holy Trinity (1694-1702), the Ursuline Church (1699-1705), and the University Church (1696-1707). In Vienna he built a large number of palaces, such as the Winter Palace for Prince Eugene of Savoy (1695-1698), later altered by Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt, Fischer's greatest rival; the Batthyany Palace (1699-1706); the Trautson Palace (1710-1712); the Bohemian Court Chancellery (1708-1714); and the Rofrano Palace (now Auersperg; 1721-1722).

As court architect, Fischer was in charge of all works under three emperors, and for the third, Charles VI, the last of the male Hapsburgs of the main line and the father of Maria Theresa, he produced his two most famous works, the Karlskirche (Church of St. Charles Borromeo) and the Hofbibliothek (Imperial Library). During this time Fischer was also working on a scholarly work dealing with the great buildings of the past as well as some of his own, called Entwurfeiner historischen Architektur (A Plan for a History of Architecture), which he presented to Charles VI in manuscript form on his accession to the throne in 1712. It appeared in print, in an enlarged and fully illustrated version, in 1721, and it is as much a monument to Fischer's erudition as his buildings are to his talent. On the basis of descriptions and his own observations he reconstructed such buildings as the Forum of Trajan in Rome, the palace in Persepolis, the Porcelain Pagoda in Nanking, and Stonehenge in England.

The Karlskirche

In 1715 Fischer received the commission for the church, vowed by the Emperor in 1713 for the deliverance of Vienna from the plague. This is Fischer's masterpiece and one of the outstanding architectural creations in Western art. Using the oval form again, he designed a church that was to be seen on a height outside and above the city proper, as much a monument to imperial glory as to Faith triumphing over disease.

Drawing on his knowledge of the monuments of architecture past and present, Fischer placed before the church with its high drum and cupola a low facade incorporating French classicistic elements and references to the broad facade of St. Peter's in Rome. Probably inspired by the minarets of Moslem mosques (and those of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople), he placed high Roman triumphal columns on either side of the entrance, with reliefs depicting scenes from the life of St. Charles, similar to those on the columns of Trajan and Antoninus Pius in Rome. The broad low front over which the huge dome hovers, flanked by the columns, achieves an interplay of vertical and horizontal movement and a projection and recession of forms that give an almost unparalleled grandeur to the whole.

The Hofbibliothek

Fischer did not live to see the Karlskirche completed; it was finished by his son, Joseph Emmanuel Fischer von Erlach (1693-1742). The same is true of Fischer's other great architectural achievement in Vienna, the Hofbibliothek, begun in 1722.

If the "first project" for Schönbrunn is one of the most daring plans of the whole period for a palace and its setting, and the Karlskirche one of the greatest churches, the Great Hall of the Hofbibliothek is certainly one of the period's greatest secular interiors. Here Fischer again used the oval cupola form but set transversely to the length of the hall. The exterior, following French ideas closely, for all its simplicity clearly reveals the interior arrangements, and it is dominated by the central dome (the projecting side wings enclosing the square in front of the main building are later additions). The interior blends the monumental with the practical in the high open bookshelves (inspired by Francesco Borromini's libraries in Rome) and the interrelation of the central space with the adjacent vaulted side halls. Like the first design for Schönbrunn and the Karlskirche, the significance of the building is not only the obvious one based on its function but is also a glorification of imperial power—in this case its patronage of the arts and sciences.

Fischer died on April 5, 1723. His son, Joseph Emmanuel, in spite of Hildebrandt's efforts to the contrary, took over his father's official position and commissions and completed the Hofbibliothek in 1735.

Further Reading on Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach

The best study of Fischer von Erlach in English, and one of the best books on Austrian baroque art, is Hans Aurenhammer, Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach (1972). Based on the author's catalog of the commemorative exhibition of 1956-1957 in Graz, Vienna, and Salzburg, it far exceeds, in scholarship and interpretation, the monograph in German by Hans Sedlmayr, Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach (1956). Fischer is discussed in surveys of central European art, such as John Bourke, Baroque Churches of Central Europe (1958; 2d ed. 1962); Nicolas Powell, From Baroque to Rococo (1959); and Eberhard Hempel, Baroque Art and Architecture in Central Europe (1965).