The Styrian Armoury– deathless husks of human conflicts
Among the 21 departments and institutions of the Joanneum Universal Museum, founded as the Joanneum in 1811, the Armoury is in a class of its own. Attracting around 55,000 visitors annually, it is the Joanneum’s most-visited institution without an exhibitions role. Moreover, as the largest historic armoury in the world, it is a living memorial to a chequered, conflict-ridden past, whose bogeymen and prejudices are still with us.
The Styrian Armoury in Graz
Graz had three armouries. The city had one, as did the ruler of Styria, but it was Styria itself that had the largest armoury. The Styrian Armoury still occupies its historic location, and houses an inventory of 32,000 individual pieces accumulated over a period of three centuries.
It was the need to defend the frontier marches during the 15th to 17th centuries that prompted the establishment of the present Armoury. As a frontier province, Styria was constantly threatened with attack from the east. The genesis of an armoury for the estates of the realm can be dated to the late 15th century.
The oldest surviving inventory dates from 1557, and already included 19,400 items. In 1567, a regional armourer was appointed to look after and administer the equipment. On the death of Emperor Ferdinand I in 1564, the Habsburg Empire was divided up among his sons, whereupon Archduke Charles II of Inner Austria (the Habsburg heartlands) took up residence in Graz. Now that it was a residence city, Graz needed greater protection. The city fortifications were strengthened and stocks of weapons were augmented.
The latter were stored for the time being in various makeshift armoury sheds and vaults around the parliament (Landhaus) and the city gates. By 1629, 85,000 items were stockpiled this way, though of course it was impossible to maintain any proper order.
Centralised safekeeping only became possible with the construction of the present Armoury by master builder Antonio Solar in 1642-44. A passage to the Landhaus was completed in 1645, and the stocks were finally moved in during 1647.
With the Treaty of Karlowitz concluded in 1699, ending the perpetual conflict with the Ottoman Turks, the map of Eastern Europe was rearranged. Notably, the whole of Hungary including Transylvania was ceded to Austria, so that Styria ceased to be a Habsburg frontier province and thus lost its strategic military importance. By that date, the Armoury had 185,000 items in its inventory. With the Turkish wars finally over, the Armoury lost its role as the most important military supplies base for the frontier, now only supplying weapons to combat Kurucz uprisings in Hungary.
During a reform of military administration, Maria Theresa (reg. 1740-1780) wanted to shut down the Styrian Armoury completely. Serviceable equipment would be handed over to the court’s military council, while obsolete weapons could be sold for scrap. However, the Styrian estates insisted that the Armoury had both material and sentimental value for them and should be preserved as a monument to Styria’s past. Their petition was accepted and the Armoury was left intact, although it was kept almost entirely decommissioned. But not entirely or permanently decommissioned – weapons were needed time and again, the last occasion being the revolution in 1848.
From armoury to museum
After decommissioning, the building was given a makeover in the decorative style so beloved of the Late Baroque period. Weapons and armour were removed from their original locations and turned into objets d’art, for example as pyramids and columns, or were tastefully arranged into large displays for the walls and ceilings. The visual aspect was emphasized, rather in the manner of curio cabinets and kunstkammer. One result of this new function was that the finest suits of armour were arbitrarily identified with Styrian military heroes and rulers. The collection thus became a monument to Styrian military prowess, a hall of fame to home-bred heroism without any regard for historical substance.
In 1807, there were plans for a major reconstruction. Floors would be torn up to create grand hall-like rooms so that the objects could be better displayed. The project foundered not just on the opposition of reputable antiquarians but also a shortage of funds.
In the 19th century, when a real appreciation of history came into its own, the historical and sentimental value of the Armoury was recognized, and steps were taken to restore it to its original condition. In 1879, Dr Fritz Pichler and Franz, Count Meran were commissioned to dismantle the dilettante curio-cabinet and kunstkammer display of (by then) 57 purely decorative arrangements of weapons. The new display they set up was more akin to the original 17th century system, and thorough restoration was put in hand. In 1882, the building was opened to the public, and in 1892 it was absorbed into what is now the Joanneum Universal Museum.
The disastrous economic conditions post-World War I brought new dangers, with the Styrian government almost selling some particularly valuable pieces. Fortunately, the trustees of the Joanneum museum managed to dissuade the politicians involved from taking the proposal any further.
During World War II, the entire contents were moved to safety in three castles in remote parts of Styria, and no losses were recorded. With the support of the occupying British army, after the war the historic weapons were brought back to the Armoury, which reopened in April 1946.