Nucleus of the University of Würzburg
In 1582, the University of Würzburg was founded by Julius Echter von Mespelbrunn – in a successful second attempt after the first founding in 1402. The Prince-Bishop of Würzburg ordained that a monumental building should be constructed for his university together with a university church. This building can still be admired today as an architectural jewel of the Würzburg city centre.
The Old University of Würzburg is surrounded by three streets, namely Neubaustraße, Schönthalstraße and Domerschulstraße. Today, it has virtually regained its original appearance, as it was built in the period between 1582 and 1591 by the will of Prince-Bishop Julius Echter. At that time, the massive Renaissance building afforded enough space for all university activities. Today, only the Faculty of Law is located there. The former university church, the so-called Neubaukirche (newly built church), serves the university as a location for hosting functions and events.
The cornerstone of the Old University was laid on 11 June 1582 – on the premises of the abandoned Benedictine Monastery of St. Ulrich on the southern fringe of the historic city center. Echter had the remainder of the monastery torn down, thus creating space for the extensive university structure. The construction plans were submitted by Georg Robin (1522-1592), an architect from the Electorate of Mainz: A four-story building surrounds an almost square courtyard, enclosed to the south by the university church.
Completed by 1585, the east wing was constructed first and it contained the seminary. Next, the north wing was built with lecture halls and office rooms, to be followed by the west wing with a large assembly hall, ballrooms, lecture halls and rooms for the rector. The construction of the university church, which was consecrated in 1591, started in 1586. With this ceremony, Echter solemnly concluded the construction of his university.
Relief over the portal to the courtyard
Echter had himself immortalised in a relief, set over the Renaissance portal to the courtyard. It shows the "Descent of the holy spirit on Maria and the apostles"; The Prince-Bishop is kneeling in the foreground of the representation. Three sculptors worked on the relief successively: Firstly, there was Erhard Barg from the town of Schwäbisch Hall, who inserted "Science" and "Diligence" as allegorical figures in the relief. Johann von Beundum created the apostles and Paulus Michel depicted the Prince-Bishop.
Philosophy, theology, law and medicine: These were the academic disciplines at the time of the university's founding by Julius Echter. The Prince-Bishop did not initiate today's Faculty of Medicine right from the start. It wasn't until 1593 that he appointed two Dutchmen, Adrian van Roomen and Gottfried Steegh, doubling as his personal physicians, as Professors of Medicine. At that time, the medical faculty was integrated into the Juliusspital (Julius Hospital), which had been built in 1585 at Echter's request.
Lectures in 1604
What was taught at the University during the first years is not known in detail. The oldest extant course catalogues and syllabi can be traced back to the period between 1604 and 1609. At the Faculty of Philosophy, for instance, the documents list classical languages, grammar, rhetoric and dialectics as subjects on the curriculum. Each student had to take these studies in a kind of foundation course.
Shortly after its founding, an average of 150 to 210 students enrolled at the University each year. When Würzburg was under Swedish rule from 1631 to 1634 during the Thirty Years' War, the number of students dropped to zero: Students and professors had fled as the Prince-Bishop had done himself. However, the students began to return as early as 1636. At the start of the 1650s, shortly after the war, student enrolment had risen to 220 again. With this number of students, Würzburg ranked in the middle among the universities of the time.
University library since 1617
Julius Echter, the founder of the University, died in 1617. Two years after his death, a university library was established: His successor, Prince-Bishop Johann Gottfried von Aschhausen ordered the purchase of a collection of books in 1619 to set up a library in the university building.
Almost 200 years later, from 1803 onwards, the collection grew dramatically in size: Due to the disappropriation of clerical property in the course of secularisation, the library received numerous books, including valuable manuscripts from the cathedral library and from monasteries. In 1806, the library boasted over 25,500 volumes.
Instruction in German
During the 18th century, an average of 200 to 300 students enrolled at the University of Würzburg each year and the teaching staff comprised about 40 people. Most of the students were enrolled at the Faculty of Philosophy, fewer studied theology and even fewer studied medicine. Prince-Bishop Karl von Schönborn (term of office 1729-1746) was the first to allow non-Catholic students into the University and he introduced German as the language of instruction. Previously, the lessons were given in Latin.
Lack of space becomes an issue
In the middle of the 19th century, the University really started to flourish. One of the reasons for this was the incipient boom in natural sciences and medicine. In 1854, the number of students reached its first peak with 818 students, meaning that Würzburg's students surpassed the more famous universities of Jena, Halle, Göttingen or Heidelberg in number. The number of students further rose to 1,028 in 1876 and to 1,624 in 1888.
Slowly but surely, the Old University was getting too small. A new building site was found in the North of the city at the Pleicherwall location (name of a former rampart). There, the removal of the fortifications had created some space for the extension of the city and the University. At this spot, the University built a succession of numerous institutes and hospitals for the emerging natural sciences and for medicine.
New building in Sanderring Street eases space problems
But all this wasn't enough to solve the space problem at the Old University. The building contained not only the classrooms, but also the natural science and historic art collections, some accommodation for the rector and professors, rooms for administrative business as well as the library rooms. Around 1870, this led to the idea of erecting a new building for the library. However, the idea changed and finally the decision was made to build a new main building on today's Sanderring Street. It was inaugurated in 1896.
World War II and reconstruction
At the end of the Second World War, the Old University and the Neubaukirche (newly built church) were severely damaged in a British bombing raid on 16 March 1945. On that day, the university library lost about 80 percent of its inventory. As early as in the summer of 1945, lecturers and students took part in removing the rubble from the destroyed university buildings and started the reconstruction. In the summer of 1946, student enrolment was at 1,279 again.
In the 1950s, the Old University was reconstructed as best possible with only a small budget in order to make it ready to be reopened. In the following years, the Martin-von-Wagner Museum with part of the university collections was transferred from the Old University to the south wing of the Residence (1963). In 1981, the university library moved to its new building on Hubland Campus.
Full restoration completed in 2002
Starting in 1989, the Old University was fully restored with €7.3 million without interruption of its operations. Destroyed parts of the building were reconstructed and new built-in components were made in the style of historic forms and materials in order to preserve the historic design of an important listed building in the Würzburg cityscape. The restoration was completed in 2002.
Sources: "Kleine Geschichte der Würzburger Universität" (A Short History of the University of Würzburg) by Peter Süß, university archive, state building authority, university library