History of the collection
Via inheritance, the Habsburgs were the recipients of objects from the most diverse lands: from the old crown lands and associated territories, from Bohemia and Hungary, Galicia and various Balkan areas, as well as from the territory of the present-day BENELUX countries, in other words the Old Netherlands, from provinces of present-day France such as Burgundy, Alsace, Lorraine, and last but not least from Spain and large parts of Italy. Diplomatic relationships and martial conflicts expanded the collection by objects from the Near Orient, ranging from those of the Turkish enemy to those of the Persians and Egyptians, who were occasionally allied with the Habsburgs.
In the process, imperial status and standards guaranteed objects of the highest quality. Everything that surrounded the ruler and his vassals, from the palace in which he lived to the furnishings of the same, was of the greatest possible refinement. In keeping with this idea, what he wore on his own body had to be particularly precious: from his suit of armour, a magnificent costume, to his sword, dagger and mace. The same applied to the equipment for his horse. Thus, each single one of these objects is a work of art.
When nearly all the various chambers of arms and armour from the Austrian branch of the House of Habsburg were brought together in Vienna during the nineteenth century, there arose a collection which, today, is among the best of its kind worldwide. In its present-day ordering, it is in principle three large collections to which today’s collection owes its special character.
The foundation was laid by the Imperial Leibrüstkammer (Chamber of Personal Armour), documented since 1436, in which the equipment, mainly suits of armour and ornamental weapons of the ruling house and its retinue, was kept. During the early baroque period, the suit of armour completely lost its significance as a symbol of class, as well, for in the “modern” state it was no longer necessary to symbolize knightly virtues or physical strength and performance via armour. It followed that the objects of the Imperial Leibrüstkammer became museum pieces and were eventually brought together with utilitarian military weapons in a baroque hall of honour designed to commemorate Austrian Habsburg history.
From the baroque era onward, artistic creativity was reserved for the decorative and/or technical design of hunting and sport weaponry, as well as for fashionable accessories such as court daggers. These objects are part of the second large part of the collection, the Hofgewehr- oder Hofjagdkammer (Court Weapon or Court Hunting Chamber), which was established under Emperor Ferdinand II (1578/1619–1637); it includes the best-quality works from every era up to the end of the monarchy in 1918.
The third—and, in terms of cultural history, perhaps most important—group of works we have thanks to the unique Heldenrüstkammer (Armoury of Heroes) created by Archduke Ferdinand of Tirol (1529–1595), who began building this collection in 1577 at Ambras Castle near Innsbruck. This collection is the work of a highly educated, artistically minded and extremely liberal prince who possessed great wealth and made use of his various types of relationships with all the great European courts to use in order to realize his “Atrium Heroicum,” the “Ehrliche Gesellschaft.” (Honest Society, whereby the word “honest” (ehrlich) was understood at the time to mean “honourable.”) According to a concept that was surprisingly modern even by today's standards, he collected the armour and weaponry that had been owned by all the famous personalities—from princes to military commanders—of both of his own era and previous centuries. His collection encompasses 125 viri illustri, which inventory he commissioned. This first-ever printed and illustrated museum catalogue was published only after his death, in Latin (1601) and in German (1603). Each “hero” is portrayed here in a full figure copperplate engraving, clad in his armour, and described by a biography. As early as the 17th century, this collection was open to the public for an admission fee.
During the Napoleonic occupations, the Ambras Collection went to Vienna in 1806 as private property of the emperor and was united with the collection holdings described above. In 1889, the Weapons Collection was opened as the first collection of the K. K. Kunsthistorisches Hofmusem. After the end of the monarchy at the conclusion of the First World War in 1918, the Kunsthistorische Sammlungen des Allerhöchsten Kaiserhauses (Art-Historical Collections of the All-Highest Imperial House) passed into the ownership of the Republic of Austria.