Winds of change – humanism arrives at Vienna University


The history of Vienna University reflects the political and intellectual currents that prevailed at various times down the centuries. From the fifteenth century onwards the ideas of humanism brought winds of change into the groves of academe.

With the humanist Enea Silvio Piccolomini, later to be Pope Pius II, the ideas of humanism – long resisted by the university – began to spread from Italy to Vienna. At the imperial Court in Wiener Neustadt Piccolomini established a circle of humanists who read the classical Latin authors and cultivated an urbane lifestyle.

A new intellectual current emerged at the university in the fifteenth and early sixteenth century. The science and arts of classical antiquity began to be studied, with translations being made of classical texts of literature together with works on mathematics and astronomy.
In 1501 Maximilian I founded a separate school of poetry at the university, the Collegium poetarum et mathematicorum, headed by the German humanist Konrad Celtis (1459–1508). The society of humanist scholars that Celtis assembled around him had close contacts with the imperial Court. The college had chairs in poetry, rhetoric and natural philosophy (the natural sciences). The rector of the college had the right to confer the degree of poeta laureatus on graduates, a right that was later transferred to the university. By virtue of imperial privilege, the dean of the faculty of philosophy could even invest the doctoral graduates at his faculty with titles of nobility and coats of arms.

During the course of the Reformation and the Turkish siege of Vienna teaching and research declined at the university. It lost its prestige and did not start to recover until reforms were instituted by Emperor Ferdinand I in 1554. While these reforms ensured the university’s financial security and allowed more chairs to be created, the sovereign now had far greater influence and the university was placed under state control.
In the time of the Counter-Reformation the faculties of philosophy and theology were entrusted to the Jesuits, who also supplied the professors from their own ranks. They soon ensured that the university’s reputation as a centre of teaching and research was restored, and commissioned a new building for the university (the Jesuit College) and a university church.

Julia Teresa Friehs