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History of the collection

Since the 16th century at least, the Habsburgs at the Vienna Court had collected antiquities. Thus many outstanding pieces were acquired at an early date: the precious Gemma Augustea under Rudolf II (ruled 1576-1612), the Amazonian Sarcophagus in the 17th century, and the Senatus Consultum de Bacchanalibus under Charles VI (ruled 1711-1740).

In the 18th century the finds in the towns around Vesuvius as well as German Classicism rekindled interest in Greek and Roman antiquity and triggered an unrivalled collecting zeal. Archaeological finds from throughout the monarchy entered the imperial collection in Vienna, some of them found by accident, such as the golden treasure of Nagyszentmiklós discovered in 1799, but others that were the result of purposeful excavation or had been acquired during travels.

The year of birth of the Collection of Greek and Roman Antiquities must be seen as 1798, the year in which Franz de Paula Neumann was named sole director of the newly united Imperial and Royal Cabinet of Coins and Antiquities. From throughout the court, from the Treasury and the palaces Schönbrunn and Belvedere, ancient stone sculptures, busts and bronzes were brought together and placed in the Augustinian Corridor of the Hofburg Palace.

Decisive for the expansion of the collection, finally, were also the acquisitions from private collections, usually acquired at considerable expense, which provided the basis for today’s holdings of antique vases and bronzes. In 1802 the painter Michael Wutky, acting on behalf of the imperial collection, acquired numerous antiquities worth more than 9,000 florins in Rome and Naples. In 1804 sculptures, vases and bronzes from the collection of Vincenz Maria von Rainer zu Harbach were acquired in exchange for a life annuity of 2500 florins a year. In 1808 the sum of 30,000 florins was paid for numerous pieces from the estate of Angelo de France, and in 1815 125,000 florins purchased the sculptures and more than 600 vases in the collection of Anton, Count von Lamberg-Sprinzenstein. Such funding was never again available, and it was thus impossible to systematically expand the collection.

The space available in the Augustinian Corridor was soon completely full, and in 1823 a large number of Roman antiquities were placed on display in the subterranean rooms of the Temple of Theseus, which had been built by Peter Nobile in Vienna’s Volksgarten. This display was initially open to the public but soon had to be closed because of excessive humidity. In 1845 all the antique sculptures and inscribed stones were moved to the Lower Belvedere Palace.

The collection was enlarged considerably on several occasions. Austrian archaeological work in the eastern Greek cultural area (1873), Samothrace (1875), Gölba_ı-Trysa (1882-1884) and Ephesus (1895-1906) added substantially to the collection of sculpture and architectural artefacts. In 1880 the antiquities of the Ambras collection and in 1923 those of the Este-Catajo collection were added to the inventory. In 1940 numerous precious items from the former Austrian Museum for Art and Industry were added to the collection of Greek vases.

In 1891 the Collection of Greek and Roman Antiquities moved from the Augustinian Corridor in the Hofburg Place and from the Lower Belvedere Palace into the newly opened Kunsthistorisches Museum. However, there was still not sufficient space to display either the finds from Ephesus and Samothrace or the reliefs from the Heroon of Trysa. Following a series of provisional solutions, the Ephesus Museum opened in the Neue Burg in 1978. A suitable place for displaying the reliefs from the Heroon of Trysa remains a desideratum.

Because of urgently needed renovation and general repair work, in particular to provide adequate electricity to all of the exhibition spaces, as well as the desire to redisplay the permanent collection, the Collection of Greek and Roman Antiquities had to be closed for a longer period of time. Following its reopening in 2005, the collection is presented not only in a new light but also in a space expanded to nine halls and seven cabinets. The number of the items on display was increased to around 2500 objects, more than a third more than the number previously displayed.

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