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
Born the son of the future Emperor Ferdinand I, Archduke Ferdinand II (1529–1595) was a member of one of the most important ruling dynasties of Europe. Initially, the Habsburg Archduke was entrusted with the governorship of the kingdom of Bohemia in his father’s place, residing in Prague from 1547. After moving to Innsbruck in 1567, he steered the ship of state of the County of Tyrol and in Further Austria for a period of around thirty years. Ferdinand II raised both the courts where he held political office to remarkably high levels of cultural attainment and excellence, and as an outstanding humanist ruler made an essential contribution to the spread of Renaissance culture in Central Europe.
Ferdinand rebuilt the remains of the medieval fortress into a Renaissance palace, which he gave to his beloved first wife Philippine Welser. The Spanish Hall, built 1570–72, is among the most beautiful hall structures of the later Renaissance.
The historical import of the castle doubtless lies in the fact that the archduke had assembled a renowned collection of armour, weapons, portraits, natural objects, rarities, 'wonders of nature', most recent scientific instruments, musical instruments, and precious items at Ambras. Ferdinand accommodated his world-famous collections in a museum built specifically for that purpose in the 1570ies. So, the Lower Castle as building itself became an exhibit, making Castle Ambras Innsbruck today the oldest museum in the world. In 1589, Ferdinand had an additional building constructed to the west of the Lower Castle, the Heldenrüstkammer, to house the collection of suits of armour of the 'heroes' of the time.
Philippine Welser, secret owner of the castle
King Ferdinand I would have liked to see a marriage of his second born son with a French or Portuguese princess, and even the two queens Mary Tudor and Mary Stuart were potential marriage candidates. In 1557, however, Ferdinand II entered into a morganatic marriage with Philippine Welser (1527–1580), the daughter of an Augsburg patrician and merchant.
Such a morganatic marriage was not tolerable in most of the countries. Ferdinand’s father, Holy Roman Emperor from 1558, recognized the union in 1559 but insisted that it remain strictly secret. Philippine was not permitted to make official appearances as Archduke Ferdinand’s consort. It was not until 1576, when Philippine and Ferdinand’s son Andreas was made a cardinal, that Pope Gregory XIII confirmed the marriage, thus releasing the couple from their vows of secrecy.
Philippine Welser became very popular, not only amongst the nobility but also amongst the general population. Contemporary sources relate that she took an active part in the treatment of the sick in the city and its environs.
After the death of Ferdinand II
After the death of Ferdinand II in 1595, the castle and the collections passed to the younger son from Ferdinand’s first marriage, Margrave Karl of Burgau (1560–1618). Karl, however, was not interested in the costly maintenance of Ambras and his father’s collection. He soon entered sales negotiations with Emperor Rudolf II (1552–1612), which were ratified in 1606. The emperor, who resided in Prague, left the collection almost entirely at Ambras Castle, as he himself was one of the most important Habsburg collectors.
During the following period, the castle lost its status as a residence.
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 Vienna took over the administration of the museum. During the 1970s, the comprehensive restoration of the Spanish Hall, the residential quarters in the Upper Castle and the fresco painting in the Inner Courtyard of the Upper Castle was begun. The year 1974 saw the Chamber of Art and Wonders, and 1980–81 the Armouries, set up once again in the Lower Castle, and in 1976 the Habsburg Portrait Gallery covering the 15th to 19th centuries was completed. The Strasser Glass Collection was integrated in 2013.