The Oriental Outpost of the Republic of Letters. Sebastian Tengnagel (d. 1636), the Imperial Library in Vienna, and Knowledge about the Orient


Not always has the Orient been the Orient. The academic public would agree today that “Orientalism” is a product of western minds with an imperial agenda, but not much of the discussion in the aftermath of Edward Said’s monumental statement has seriously considered historical settings before 1800. Hence it is still widely assumed that knowledge-power relations are intimate by-products only of Western European national state imperialism.

Around 1600, one of the realms actually bearing the title “empire” was the Holy Roman Empire. Its elected rulers, the Habsburg emperors, heirs to ideas of imperial universalism, strove to deal with issues of confessional war and colonial expansion, to balance the familial union with Spain and the competition with France, and, not least, to come to terms with the new south-eastern neighbour: The Ottoman Empire, which during the 15th and 16th centuries had conquered large parts of the Balkans and Hungary. It was certainly not the first nor the only encounter between the Muslim and the Christian world, nor was the imperial librarian Sebastian Tengnagel the first mediator of knowledge in this regard; but it was the first time that this encounter occurred in a context in which, on the “western side”, the systematic acquisition and curation of knowledge became an integral part of the process of state building.

Court libraries played a pivotal role in this process, as they not only became the material manifestations of a knowledge believed to be both universal and dynamic, but they also represented the scholarly arsenals from which to draw the weapons of intellectual warfare. At the same time, however, they were viewed as repositories of knowledge used, augmented and treasured by the citizens of the res publica literaria: an imagined community of scholars built on the ethics of friendship and the goal of a common enhancement of knowledge, yet also a filtered mirror of political, military and human tensions.

Sebastian Tengnagel belonged to both worlds in that he was the Habsburg rulers’ court librarian from 1608 to his death in 1636 as well as an active member of the international community of scholars. Large parts of his correspondence are dedicated to the enrichment of the collection of manuscripts, among them that of Oriental manuscripts which his predecessors had started to gather; much of the material written by him that has survived until today documents his work with manuscripts in Arabic, Ottoman and Hebrew. The project aims to investigate the intrinsic relationship between the redefined position of the Holy Roman Empire on a global scale and the knowledge about the Orient that came through Europe filtered by the imperial library of Vienna.

(FWF-Projekt P-30511)

Project Team: Hülya Celik (Institut für Orientalistik), Paola Molino (co-lead, Universität Padua), Chiara Petrolini (Institut für Österreichische Geschichtsforschung), Claudia Römer (co-lead, (Institut für Orientalistik), Thomas Wallnig (lead, Institut für Österreichische Geschichtsforschung). 

Partners: Österreichischen NationalbibliothekTranskribusACDH

Events and Activities:


  • Workshop on oriental manuscript description standards – Vienna, 1 March 2019 – Organisiert von Hülya Çelik
    Gesprächsteilnehmer*innen: Paul Babinski (Princeton); Hülya Çelik (OORPL); Thomas Efer (Bibliotheca Arabica); Katharina Kaska (ÖNB);  Solveigh Rumpf-Domer (ÖNB);  Chiara Petrolini (OORPL); Christoph Rauch (Staatsbibliothek Berlin); Claudia Römer (OORPL); Daniel Schopper (ACDH/ÖAW); Thomas Wallnig (OORPL).
  • Creating the Digital Republic of Letters, Rome: “Early modern “Orientalism” – Rome, Österreichisches Historisches Institut in Rom, 30 October 2019 (program)
    Speakers: Julian Bogdani, Clizia Carminati, Mario Casari, Lorenzo Mancini, Paola Molino, Franco Motta, Serena Di Nepi, Sabina Pavone, Chiara Petrolini, Thomas Wallnig