Forchtenstein Castle is the emblem of Burgenland. A landmark seen from afar high above the Wulkatal valley, the castle looms up on a foothill of the Rosaliengebirge mountain range. Its characteristic feature is the castle keep towering above the building complex. It is the oldest part of the castle and partly dates from the Middle Ages.
The grandees who commissioned the medieval building were the Mattersdorf Counts, who also named themselves lords of Forchtenstein after their new residence. The castle keep with the coat of arms of the Mattersdorf Counts is from this period, also the great tower. The dynasty died out in the male line around 1450, and the castle was taken over for 170 years by the Habsburgs, who leased it to the Counts of Weisspriach and Hardegg. The castle was not subject to any major alterations during this period.
Change of owners around 1622
In 1622, Nicholas Esterházy received the castle and overlordship of Forchtenstein from Emperor Ferdinand II as compensation for ceding the Munkacs domain in north-eastern Hungary to the Prince of Transylvania Gabor Bethlen. After only four years, it became entailed with inheritance rights, along with the title of hereditary count. Palatine Nicholas Count Esterházy then began reconstructing the dilapidated castle into a mighty fortress. A strongly fortified bastion course was built, then, starting in 1632, the castle chapel, and from 1642 on the treasure chamber, also new residential wings.
Extension of the high castle
His son Paul started the extension of the high castle in the second half of the seventeenth century, with plans by Domenico Carlone and executed by the princely architect and building director Simone Retacco. Moreover, great value was placed on the artistic appointments of the buildings. To ennoble the military fortress, alterations included decorative wall paintings, entrance portals with sculptural adornment, a baroque equestrian statue, and, hung up in 1707, a crocodile, 2.5 metres long.
From fortress to family treasury
After the death of Prince Paul the castle’s function changed, too. It was no longer used as a fortified residence, but as a treasury for valuables and for the archive, and as arsenal for the prince’s troops.
Reconstructions and restoration
In the 1770s, the roof truss was raised and renovated under the direction of the princely architect Ferdinand Mödlhammer; renovations and refurbishments were also carried out in the interior. In 1887, the baroque castle chapel was remodelled by Franz Storno in the spirit of the historical revival. It underwent a general refurbishment yet again in 2000. Throughout the centuries, the baroque murals of the inner courtyard had been whitewashed over several times. The gradual exposure of the murals, started in 1993, was completed by 2004. The high castle now stands as a colourful baroque ensemble, a unique example of its kind north of the Alps.
Baroque murals in the inner courtyard of the high castle
Since its foundation, the Esterházy Private Foundation has invested in extensive and elaborate restorations and so has succeeded in making Forchtenstein Castle accessible to the public and preserving it for future generations. Especially worthy of mention are the exposure and conservation of the murals in the inner courtyard, reviving the former colourful splendour and glory of the baroque castle.
Baroque splendour at Forchtenstein Castle
A characteristic feature of Hungarian noble residences of the seventeenth century was their fortress-like appearance on the outside and baroque splendour inside. Forchtenstein Castle is the sole, completely preserved example of this type of noble residence. After Paul I Esterházy’s elevation to the dignity of imperial prince in 1687, he made the castle into his princely family seat and centre of his art collections. The remodelling of the castle by wall paintings and installation of his equestrian statue were completed by 1691 and converted the castle into a place of courtly splendour.
The inner courtyard served as a baroque banqueting hall and is thus the centre of the castle complex and the summit of its resplendence in artistic achievement and conceptual function. The baroque wall paintings are of illusionistic architecture in glorious colour (secco technique) with columns, cornices and 130 portraits of emperors, surrogate for a sculptural wall decoration; measuring almost 1,000 m² they are considered the largest north of the Alps.
Restoring the façade in the inner courtyard
The paintings no longer seemed contemporary in the early eighteenth century and were whitewashed over. This lime whitewash initially provided excellent protection for the paintings, but they were increasingly weathered and worn by environmental influences like acid rain.
Bacteria and fungus destroyed the organic binding agents of the painting substrate, gypsification (transformation of lime content in the painting substrate) and sintering (lime deposited as crust on the surface) did the rest. Between 1991 to 2005, the Esterházy Private Foundation with the aid of the Federal Monuments Office and the Burgenland Government succeeded in preserving the remarkable murals in elaborate and cost-intensive restorations.
Banqueting hall of the high castle
The missing parts of the façade painting – mostly lost on the west and north façades – were restored only frugally wherever decorative elements were felt to be needed. Thus the baroque splendour of the inner courtyard has been successfully revived for visitors. The inner courtyard, de facto the banqueting hall of the high castle, is now the imposing starting point of the castle tour and a splendid entrance for the visitors.