Wallraf in the times of the old Reich Free City of Cologne
Born in 1748, Wallraf grew up in the final phase of the Free Imperial City of Cologne, where the talented young man could make a career out of simple circumstances through a variety of support.
Wallraf attended the Gymnasium Montanum and later also taught there. Ordained a priest in 1772, he became canon of St. Mary in the Capitol in 1784 and of St. Apostles in 1795. In 1786 he received a university professorship for natural history, botany and aesthetics, in 1788 he also received a doctorate in medicine. In 1793 he was elected the last rector of the old university.
In those years he cultivated many contacts with intellectual circles in Cologne and Bonn that were inclined towards the Enlightenment; his understanding of art and his collecting skills developed through the support of influential friends who recognized his unusual talents early on and supported them in a targeted manner.
Collecting all kinds of artistic and scientific rarities and curiosities was a passion that was widespread in the 18th century. In Cologne there were some famous "cabinets" whose owners competed for recognition. Wallraf did not have great means at his disposal due to his origins and position, but his skill, thrift and the circumstances of the time nevertheless enabled him to acquire outstanding works of art and collectibles.
In these early years, Wallraf wrote the Latin inscriptions for the elector's funeral service in 1784, for example, thus drawing attention to himself. In 1786, the talented pedagogue produced a memorandum for the Cologne Council on the "Improvement of the Cologne city school system". The desolate situation of the university and the grammar schools required urgent reforms in order to meet the massive competition from the emerging Bonn Academy and later University.
Wallraf in two decades of French rule
For Wallraf, the period of French occupation from 1794 was the high point of his many activities. Secularisation and the abolition of monasteries and convents in the Rhineland opened up undreamt-of possibilities for the passionate collector. Thanks to his generous bequest to the city, invaluable cultural assets have been preserved for Cologne and are still accessible to the public today.
Although Wallraf had initially refused to take the oath of allegiance to the French constitution in 1797 and was therefore relieved as rector of the university, he quickly found his feet again in the new situation. He was later even responsible for organising the celebrations during Bonaparte's visit to Cologne in 1804 and later also for the street renaming of the French in Cologne. His endeavour was to bring back art and cultural assets from Cologne to Paris, which he succeeded in doing with the Rubens painting "The Crucifixion of Peter" (1638). His extremely successful collecting activity secured him recognition from all sides.
Cologne becomes Prussian - and Wallraf also
In 1815, Cologne finally became Prussian - and this was not to the detriment of the famous collector: he hurried to pay homage to the king enthusiastically, was honoured with medals in return, and in the last years of his life even received a regular pension from the Prussian state. On his 75th birthday, his hometown of Cologne honoured him with a public celebration and raised him to the status of (incidentally the only) "Archbürger Kölns". Ferdinand Franz Wallraf died in 1824 and was buried with honour in the Melaten cemetery which he had designed.