The Festung: Salzburg’s Historic Home

Things to Do — By Lorraine Seal on February 15, 2012 at 4:18 pm

The iconic Festung Hohensalzburg dominates both the skyline and Salzburg's history.

Photo: Flickr user SteFou!

Salzburg’s long line of ruling Prince-Archbishops displayed their wealth and power through building magnificent churches and palaces, many of them breathtaking in their architectural beauty. But the most important building in Salzburg’s history is arguably its iconic fortress.

The Festung Hohensalzburg, to give it its formal name, rests atop Mönchsberg, the mountain in the centre of the city’s Altstadt. Mönchsberg (‘Monk’s mountain’) is 504 metres (1,654 feet) high, so the large, sprawling white fortress at its height dominates the city skyline. It can even be seen from the 1,972-metre high summit of Untersberg, the mountain massif on the Austrian-German border 12 kilometres to the south.

There has been a citadel on the spot since at least Roman times, if not before.  Excavations within the existing complex have revealed Roman coins and jewellery, including a rare Mars brooch. Even older artefacts have been found, such as a stone axe from the Neolithic period and jewellery and utensils from the Celtic period. Fragments of brick Roman structures, including foundations and retaining walls, are being excavated and can be seen.

Today’s fortress, however, was begun by Archbishop Gebhard, who reigned from 1060 to 1088. In 1077, during the dispute between the pope and the emperor known as the Investiture Controversy—a struggle over political power between secular and religious authorities—Gebhard took the perhaps politically unwise position supporting the pope. Feeling as a consequence vulnerable to the powerful petty kings of southern Germany as well as the emperor himself, Gebhard built a series of three mountaintop fortresses to protect himself and his interests in the province of Salzburg.

He built Hohensalzburg on Mönchsberg amid the remains of older structures and adjacent to Nonnberg Abbey, a 7th century cloister established by St. Rupert. Hohensalzburg was the biggest of his fortresses, and it remains the best preserved and largest medieval fortress in Central Europe.

In the succeeding years, as archbishops came and went, and as the struggle between religious and secular princes (and emperors) continued, Hohensalzburg remained the secure seat of the archbishops. Its walls were reinforced, bastions added and artillery towers built. It became a stronghold in the heart of the medieval city, protecting the townspeople as well as the elite from conflict and invasion.

In Early Modern times, as firearms became more powerful and siege tactics evolved, Archbishop Leonhard von Keutschach (reigned 1495-1519) and his successor Matthäus Lang (reigned 1519-1540) greatly expanded the defensive capacities of the fortress with solid gate towers, shield walls, and ultimately, a massive cannon roundel with 6-metre thick walls. These works proved effective in 1525 when the archbishop was forced to flee to the fortress, where he survived a three-month siege by angry Salzburg residents before being rescued by the Swabian Alliance.

It was during this period also that the magnificent Golden Hall and other state rooms were decorated. Sumptuously painted in rich colours, with deep blue ceilings spangled with gold stars, the rooms reflect the majesty and grandeur with which the archbishop was regarded.

However, even this splendour was insufficient to please later archbishops. By the 17th century, the principal residence of these princes of the Church had moved to the grander Baroque Residenz near the Dom. More and more, the Hohensalzburg became primarily a military garrison, home to the countless soldiers who trained there. After the mid-19th century, when Salzburg was no longer a military city, the fortress became a military detention centre, storehouse and barracks. In 1892, construction began on a funicular to whisk the growing number of tourists up to the Festung and a restaurant to feed them there.

Today, the Festung remains one of Salzburg’s most visited attractions. It merits a spot at the top of your list of things to do here.

Tags: Celts, Festung, Medieval Fortress, Neolithic settlements, Romans in the Alps, Salzburg history, Salzburg rulers, Siege of Salzburg