The son of a provincial sculptor and turner, Fischer was trained in his father’s workshop.
He went to Rome at about age 16 and had the good fortune to enter the studio of the great Baroque sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. In Rome he acquired considerable knowledge of ancient art and of the scientific methods then beginning to be used in archaeology - methods that formed the basis for his own later archaeological reconstructions. He also studied ancient Roman, Renaissance, and Baroque art and architecture. About 1684 he went to Naples, then under Spanish rule, probably in the service of the Spanish viceroy. He is reported to have been ambitious and even to have acquired considerable wealth.
After some 16 successful years in Italy, Fischer returned to his homeland at an opportune time; after the imperial victories over the Turks, the Habsburg empire was emerging as a great European power, and the Holy Roman emperor Leopold I wished to emulate King Louis XIV of France by representing his power as an absolute monarch visibly in magnificent buildings. The aristocracy followed his example by erecting splendid palaces, and the Roman Catholic clergy, too, wanted to glorify, in ecclesiastical architecture, the victory over the infidel as well as that over the Protestant Reformation. Moreover, the Turks had destroyed many country seats of the aristocracy and had severely damaged the suburbs of Vienna during the siege of 1683. The need for new buildings as well as the quick economic recovery following the victories brought about a great increase in building and a resultant flowering of art and architecture.
In 1687 Fischer embarked on a brilliant career as court architect to three successive emperors, Leopold I, Joseph I, and Charles VI, and also designed buildings for the aristocracy and the archbishop of Salzburg. In 1689 Leopold I appointed him to teach his elder son, Joseph, perspective and the theory and history of architecture. In 1690 Fischer won public recognition with two temporary triumphal arches erected in Vienna to celebrate Joseph’s entry into the city after his coronation in Frankfurt am Main as king and future ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. During the next 10 years, Fischer was much sought after as an architect in Vienna and Salzburg and in the Habsburg lands. In 1693 alone he was commissioned to design 14 important buildings.
During these years he created a new type of country house, combining the most important achievements in suburban architecture since the 16th century. He united the ideas of the French Baroque country palace made up of many joined pavilions with that of the classically inspired Renaissance villa, typical of Andrea Palladio, surrounded by low detached wings. By using the powerful curving forms of the Roman Baroque architects, especially Bernini, he gave his villas a more dynamic form. One of their outstanding features is the spacious oval hall in the centre of the plan, as in Schloss Neuwaldegg (1692–97), near Vienna, and in Schloss Engelhartstetten (c. 1693), in Lower Austria. Fischer’s country house designs had a decisive influence on the architects of his time. In a similar synthesis of Roman and French Baroque seasoned with Palladian elements, he also created a new type of town palace characterized by impressive form, structural clarity, and the dynamic tension of its decoration. The Winter Palace of Prince Eugene of Savoy, begun in 1695, and the palace of the ban of Croatia, Count Batthyány (1699–1706), both in Vienna, are notable examples of this type.
As architect to Johann Ernst, Count von Thun, the archbishop of Salzburg, Fischer displayed his talent in church architecture and town planning. The domes and towers of his churches changed the whole appearance of Salzburg. In their exquisitely proportioned, lofty interiors he tried to achieve a balance between the longitudinal and central schemes, a problem all great church architects had been faced with since Michelangelo’s projects for St. Peter’s in Rome. All of Fischer’s churches have two-towered facades accented by dynamic curves and elegant decoration, but each has its own special quality, determined by its location and by its particular function, as attached to a seminary, a university, or a nunnery. The elegant concave facade of the Dreifaltigkeitskirche (Church of the Holy Trinity), for example, contrasts to and heightens the effect of the sober front of the adjoining seminary buildings. The almost geometric forms of the Kollegienkirche (University Church) surmounted by the undulating forms of its towers crown the university complex, providing a new architectural and symbolic accent to a city dominated by its massive cathedral, as Salzburg had been. Fischer also designed a new facade for the archbishop’s stables and laid out a square in front of it. He changed an old quarry into a summer riding school and built the archbishop’s summer residence, Schloss Klesheim (1700–09), outside Salzburg.
At the turn of the 18th century, Fischer was at the height of his career. In a visible sign of his success as a court architect, he was raised to the nobility in 1696. The imperial alliance with Prussia, Holland, and England during the War of the Spanish Succession enabled Fischer, in 1704, to visit those countries and to study their architecture, particularly in relation to Palladio. The result was a remarkable change in his architectural style. In 1707 he went to Venice to study Palladian architecture at its source. The result was his development of a new type of “Palladian” palace facade, classical in its proportions but enlivened with richly sculptured decoration. It consists of a central projection accentuated by a giant order and surmounted by a triangular pediment and of relatively unarticulated lateral sections. Its models were English and North German Baroque interpretations of Palladian architecture as well as the works of Palladio himself and of his Italian followers. Fischer’s major achievements in this field are the facades of the Bohemian Chancellery (1708–14) and Trautson Palace (1710–16), both in Vienna, and of the Clam-Gallas Palace (begun 1713), in Prague, which were imitated by architects all over the Habsburg empire.
During the first 10 years of the 18th century, however, Fischer designed fewer buildings than in the years before. His time was taken up by his administrative duties as chief inspector of court buildings and his work on a great history of architecture, Entwurf einer historischen Architektur. His book, which reveals the wide range of his learning, was the first comparative history of the architecture of all times and all nations; it included significant specimens of Egyptian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Muslim, Indian, and Chinese architecture, illustrated by engravings with explanatory notes. Some of the archaeological reconstructions that appeared in the book were among the best of Fischer’s time. At the end of the historical survey he placed his own achievements, which he saw as a logical continuation of the Roman tradition of architecture. The book was published in 1721.
When his second imperial patron, Joseph I, died in 1711, Fischer’s position as the principal architect at the Viennese court was no longer uncontested. Many preferred the more pleasing and less demanding architecture of his rival Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt to Fischer’s lofty conceptions. Yet he was also able to gain the favour of Charles VI, to whom he dedicated his history of architecture in manuscript in 1712, and to obtain the commission for the building of the Karlskirche (Church of St. Charles Borromeo; begun 1715).
Charles had vowed to build the Karlskirche as an offering to his patron saint for the city’s deliverance from an epidemic of the plague. In its imperial grandeur the building Fischer conceived not only glorified St. Charles but was also a monument to the emperor himself. In this church he attempted to incorporate and harmonize the main ideas contained in the most important sacred buildings of past and present, beginning with the Temple of Jerusalem and including the Pantheon and St. Peter’s in Rome, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and also the Dôme des Invalides in Paris and St. Paul’s in London. The relatively independent parts of the building - a pair of Roman triumphal columns, low towers, a high oval dome, a central portico modeled after a Roman temple facade, a transept and presbytery - are harmonized to form a visual unity from whatever point they are seen. The complex formal and symbolic structure of the building is the result of its twofold function. For example, the most striking feature of the church - the pair of giant triumphal columns on either side of the portico - is decorated with spiral reliefs glorifying the life of St. Charles. The pair of columns, however, also alludes to the emperor’s emblem, the “pillars of Hercules.”
Fischer did not live to see his masterpiece completed, but his son Joseph Emanuel Fischer von Erlach completed the church with some alterations. Joseph Emanuel also completed the Imperial Stables (1719–23) and built, according to his father’s designs, the Imperial Library (designed 1716, built 1723–37), the interior of which was the most imposing library hall of its time.
Plague Column, Vienna1687
Pilgrimage Church Maria Straßengel1687
Winter Palace of Prince Eugene1697
Pilgrimage Church in Kirchental1701
Holy Trinity Church1702
Franciscan Church high altar1708
Bohemian Court Chancellery1714
Austrian National Library1726