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History of the collection

The present-day appearance of the Viennese Treasury is the result of a long developmental process which began back in the 14th century. Back then, the secure vaults located beside the Hofburg’s Imperial Chapel were used to hold implements made of gold and silver, coins, precious stones and pieces of jewellery, as well as documents and insignia important to the House of Habsburg for the purpose of legally ensuring earthly power. Also kept were numerous relics that served as the ecclesiastical prerequisite for this power.

It was probably at the behest of Emperor Rudolf II (who reigned from 1576 to 1612), one of the greatest collector-personalities of the House of Habsburg, that a separate wing was built on the northwest side of the Hofburg—a wing referred to as the “Kunsthaus” (Art House) - some of which still forms part of the Treasury’s exhibition rooms today. The medieval princely treasury had by then grown into an encyclopaedic chamber of art which, alongside valuable vessels made of precious metals and gems, clocks and automats as well as items made of ivory and carved wood, also contained natural objects, paintings and sculptures. This Habsburg treasury or art chamber was thus to become the cradle of the present-day collections of the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

The first detailed descriptions of the Imperial Treasury are preserved from the reign of Emperor Leopold I (ruled 1658-1705), and these provide valuable information on the collection’s holdings and the way they were presented at the time. Maria Theresia (who reigned from 1740 to 1780) ordered an extensive reorganization of the Treasury and, for this purpose, had magnificent walnut display cases made which are still used today in the Ecclesiastical Treasury.

Significant changes to and expansions of the Treasury resulted from the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars. Between 1794 and 1800, the insignia, jewels and vestments of the Holy Roman Empire were removed from Nuremberg and Aachen to Vienna, and the treasures of the Order of the Golden Fleece was brought here from Brussels. In this way, the collections were kept safe from the French troops. When Francis I elevated the Austrian hereditary lands to the status of an Empire in 1804, the private Habsburg insignia from the early 17th century were declared official symbols of the state. The insignia of the Holy Roman Empire, on the other hand, lost their official character upon the demise of that empire in 1806.

Concepts developed based on academic criteria for the reorganisation of the Imperial Collections finally led to the untangling of the former Treasury collections and resulted in the establishment and construction of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, which was opened in 1891. The old Treasury vaults at the Hofburg continued to house the insignia as symbols of the power of the House of Habsburg, as well as remembrances of individual personalities from the ruling family and objects that had been used in earlier ceremonies of the court.

New displays following the two World Wars, set up in the years of 1928 and 1954, respectively, suffered from severe spatial limitations and were followed by the comprehensive alteration of the Treasure Chamber from 1983 to 1987, a project which resulted in the appearance of today's presentation.

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