Ambras Castle is situated upon a rock ca. 100 meters above the valley floor created by the River Inn. News of Ambras, spelled “Amras” or “Omras,” has come down to us from as early as the 10th century. Long before Innsbruck became a city, it achieved more than just local importance as the established seat of the Counts from the House of Andechs, whose original lands lay in Upper Bavaria.
There remains nothing of the original Andechs castle, which was destroyed in 1133. The castle later passed by inheritance from the Andechs family into the possession of the Prince of Tirol. The only evidence of this early, medieval period can be seen in some of the materials that were used to build the Upper Castle.
The Castle of Archduke Ferdinand II
The Upper Castle was conceived as a residence. Beneath the Upper Castle, Archduke Ferdinand II (1529–1595) constructed one of the most artistically important halls of the late Renaissance, which since the 19th century has been known as the Spanish Hall. Southwest of the Upper Castle he had the so-called Lower Castle built.
Even before construction began, Archduke Ferdinand signed over the castle—including the fiefdom associated therewith—to his wife Philippine Welser (1527–1580), to whom his marriage was secret at the time. Even while Philippine Welser was still alive, Ferdinand had his already widely famous collection of suits of armour, weapons, portraits and natural objects, as well as rarities and precious objects, brought to Ambras Castle. In 1589, he had an additional building constructed to the west of the Lower Castle for the purpose of housing his collection of weaponry.
Archduke Ferdinand, the second-born son of Emperor Ferdinand I, was initially under consideration as a possible groom for a French and Portuguese princess, and even the two queens Mary Tudor and Mary Stuart were thought to be potential marriage candidates. In 1557, however, he secretly married Philippine Welser, the daughter of a wealthy Augsburg patrician and businessman.
Such a morganatic marriage was considered valid according to church law, but according to the legal codes of most German cities it was a punishable offence. The marriage therefore had to be kept secret, and Philippine was officially thought to be unwed. Only two years thereafter did Archduke Ferdinand II finally inform his father, Ferdinand I, of his secret wedding.
Philippine’s constant and universal willingness to provide help made her a beloved figure, particularly in Tirol, and not even the nobility hesitated to bring their petitions to the former commoner. The forms of address used in the numerous written petitions ranged from “Merciful Miss” to “serene Princess Mrs. Philippine of Austria.”
Nach dem Tod Ferdinands II.
The second son of Philippine Welser and Ferdinand II inherited the castle and its collections in 1595. This son, however, had little interest in the costly preservation of Ambras and the collections, and he sold both to Emperor Rudolf II (1552–1612) in 1606. During the years that followed, the palace no longer had the status of an official residence and was only seldom lived in. Insufficient preservation measures led to losses, and these were documented in the collection’s handwritten inventories. It was especially books, manuscripts and probably hand sketches, as well, that fell victims to moisture and hungry insects.
Collection Holdings move to Vienna
Even in the 17th century, Emperor Leopold I (1640–1705) had the most valuable—and most vulnerable—items including books, manuscripts and early printed works brought to Vienna. Today these are kept at the National Library. The collection was in extreme danger in the year 1805, following the defeat of Austria by the French Empire. Only after Napoleon I (1769–1821) had recognized the private-law character of the Ambras Collection in 1806 was it brought to safety in Vienna.
Ambras during the 19th Century
In the period following 1855, the palace was remodelled for use as the summer residence of Tirol’s then-Statthalter (governor) Archduke Karl Ludwig (1833–96). In the process, deep-reaching changes were made to the palace and the surrounding park. The most noticeable changes were undergone by the Vorschloss (outer bailey) via the construction of an ivy-clad entrance ramp for carriages, while the park was redesigned as an English garden. Following Karl Ludwig renouncement of Tirolean rule, the palace remained in a more or less ruinous condition. Only in 1880 was it converted into a museum and subsequently renovated.
Ambras during the 20th Century
In 1919, Ambras Castle passed into the ownership of the Republic of Austria. In 1950, the Kunsthistorisches Museum took over the administration of the castle and its collections. During the 1970s, the comprehensive restoration of the Spanish Hall, the residential quarters in the Upper Castle and the painting work in the inner courtyard of the Upper Castle was begun. The year 1974 saw the Chamber of Art and Curiosities, and 1980–81 the Armoury, set up once again in the Lower Castle, and in 1976 the Habsburg Portrait Gallery covering the 15th to 19th centuries was completed.