TOWER OF FOOLS
Vienna’s history as a royal residence has shaped the city's architecture. Many buildings are not only significant as art historical objects but can be an indication of the political and social ideals of a ruler. One prominent example of this is Joseph II (1765-1790) and his Allgemeines Krankenhaus. Today it is known as Altes AKH (Old General Hospital) or the Campus of the University of Vienna. As an institution, the General Hospital exists up to this day and is now located at the Währinger Gürtel.
Known for his social reforms and religious beliefs, Joseph founded many public buildings for different health institutions. The function of the AKH turned Vienna into a city preeminent in the medical field until the Twentieth century.
The foundational architecture of the old hospital is visible up to this day. The complex of buildings encircled seven yards, which were organized in a symmetric shape. If you walk into yard six you will find a tower there that seems to disagree with the overall design. Its perfect round shape located on top of a small hill does not fit into the geometrical order of the surrounding architecture. The Narrenturm (Fool’s tower) housed an early mental hospital separating the so-called mad people from the sick.
The five floors of the tower were divided into their separate departments. All the patients on the first floor were soldiers - or the so-called ‘military insane’. At the time, a categorization of mental illnesses did not exist. Some patients were referred to as the mad, the raging and the unclean. Diagnoses ranged from melancholia to delirium tremens (a severe form of alcohol withdrawal). In traveller’s journals from the 1800s, visitors often painted a disturbing picture of the institution. Dust lay in the air from all the material that was used to elevate the ground, on which the tower was built. They described the keen smell, when entering the yard, as well as screams of inmates that could be heard day and night. It is also known today, that some inmates were chained to the wall with iron handcuffs. Patients seem to have been grossly neglected. Other facts indicate a rather progressive treatment, though. Some of the patients were allowed to walk freely inside of the building and even outdoors in the summer. In contrast to some reports, the building was attached to a sewage system and each room had a WC. “That is why the outer walls are so thick”, says Eduard Winter, manager of the Pathologic-Anatomical Museum collection, “they are full of pipes”. But since they ended up in a ninety degree angle in the ground, the waste could not flow off. Hence, the smell. In general, the treatment was modern for its time, but some of the practiced methods can be considered as cruel from our contemporary point of view.
Narrenturm, Photo © Ewa Stern
The first look at Narrenturm nowadays might be a little disappointing. Compared to the university’s main buildings and their polished appearance, the tower seems rather neglected. The façade is in bad shape and in need of a renovation. Its lower end is covered in graffiti. Of course, there are no inmates inside anymore. The building now houses the Federal Pathologic-Anatomical Museum. But its round, immense shape with little windows which bear no hint of what is inside, still manages to fascinate visitors.
Narren Turm floor plan
The architectural structure is indeed peculiar and follows a numerical logic that is still not fully unraveled. Historians believe that the tower’s round shape, its number of rooms and other elements follow a mathematic calculation based on mystical beliefs. The idea was to recreate an astrological order that would help the patients regain sanity. However, some of the visitors at the time reported that the round shape was meant to copy the confused mind of an inmate. Walking from chamber to chamber in the round building can still make you dizzy.
Narrenturm Model © Kriminalmuseum, Vienna
Before 1900 there used to be a small tower at the top of Narrenturm, now only visible in old engravings and photographs. When the Danish poet Wilhelm Schack von Staffeldt-Leonet visited Vienna and the Narrenturm in 1796, he wrote that Joseph II used to visit the tower at least once or twice a week. Due to safety regulations, he had to use the same staircase as every employee to get to the top of the building. Apparently, the emperor remained there for hours by himself. What he did there remains a mystery. A rumour around 1790 had it that due to the elevated position of the building, he came to enjoy the view over Vienna. This is hardly likely considering conditions like the smell and the noise. Another theory proposes that Joseph II did certain astrological experiments in the tower. The room was about twenty square meters big and had windows on each wall of the octagonal shape. The emperor may not have had the most beautiful view over the city, but he had a perfect look at the sky. Choosing the seclusion of the place, he may have tried to prove astrological theories of his time.
The clinic was closed in 1869 and afterwards used for several purposes. For example, mechanics of the General Hospital installed workshops in the ground floor. Around 1905, nurses moved into the upper parts of the building. Despite the odd appeal of the building’s architecture, they enjoyed living and working there. Even today, some ex-residents come by to tell the staff about their life at Narrenturm. “They enjoyed the quietness here”, says Winter. Some tell about celebrating Christmas in the tower and some even refused to move out, when the builiding was rededicated. In 1971 the building became the Federal Pathologic-Anatomical Museum. If you have a strong stomach and are interested in early medical research you should definitely visit it. The uncanny atmosphere of the Narrenturm is palpable in its history and the exhibition. The various displays of human illnesses in engravings, preparations and carcass certainly make an impression on every visitor.
View of the Federal Pathologic-Anatomical Museum Collection
Some may regard the preparations of various diseases and deformations as a disturbing side of medical inquisitiveness. The collection was founded in 1796 with the goal to collect preparations of any kind. Odd deformations as well as common embodiments of illnesses became part of the collection. The intention was to research and understand human diseases in order to develop better treatments. The Preparations shown are anything but outdated in medical research. Even though most universities now show photographs in seminars, a real 3D-object can teach a student much more about human diseases than a flat image. As Eduard Winter explains it: “Seeing the picture of a grossly enlarged liver is one thing, but seeing a 35 kilo heavy organ in front of you helps you really understand human anatomy and disease.” Even though people outside of the medical field find the exhibition difficult to understand, it portrays a vital part in the fight against diseases. Each preparation is a donation by a person, who dedicated her body to science.
View of the Federal Pathologic-Anatomical Museum Collection
After visiting the Narrenturm, go through the gate opposite the entrance and enjoy the beautiful and peaceful yard of the University Clinic of Dentistry. If you need a drink to calm down, try one of the many beers on offer at Lane & Merriman’s. There are also many nice coffee places at the Campus. With their fair trade policy and homemade pastries, the stylish bars and cafés around the campus are popular among students.
The Altes AKH now houses departments such as African studies and contemporary history. The architecture generally remains in the style Joseph II had intended but you can discover little additions and changes that were made over the years. Many buildings were attached through glass façade annexes, which blend in beautifully into the historical surrounding. The campus is a good example of social life at the University. In the yards, students and employees alike sit have their lunch breaks on the benches. Parents come to take a walk through the complex with their children. Visiting the Altes AKH lets you experience an unknown historical side of Vienna as well as the contemporary lifestyle of Viennese students.
University of Vienna Campus Photo © Ewa Stern
You can continue with a journey to the early days of modern medicine with another building by Joseph II close to Altes AKH. The Josephinum used to be a medico-surgical military academy training prospective doctors and houses the institute for the history of medicine now. It is famous for showcasing the world’s largest collection of wax anatomical models.
Narrenturm, Campus of the University of Vienna, Spitalgasse 2, 1090 Vienna. Open Wednesday 10am - 6 pm, Saturday 10 am -1 pm.
Josephinum, Währinger Straße 25, 1090 Vienna. Open Friday & Saturday 10 am – 6 pm.