Born close to Sibiu in 1721 in the village of Nocrich (known in those days by its German name, Leschkirch) where his father was a judge, Brukenthal attended school in Sibiu before studying law and philosophy at the universities of Halle and Jena. Well connected, Brukenthal mixed with members of the Hapsburg court and on leaving university was offered a minor administrative post in Vienna, where he began collecting books and works of art. He returned to Sibiu in 1745, and took up a post at the chancellorship. While on a trip to Vienna in 1753 he met Maria Theresia for the first time, who immediately took a shine to him. She made him first an advisor, then a baron in 1762, and a Chancellor of the Court in 1765. When he was made Governor of Transylvania in 1777 he became the first local Saxon to hold the title. (He would in fact be the only local Saxon to ever occupy the office).
It was during his time as governor that Brukenthal - by now impossibly wealthy - had himself a palace built on Sibiu’s Piata Mare: the palace which still carries his name and which houses the Brukenthal Museum. The museum’s collection is based on Brukenthal’s personal hoard, which in 1773 had been identified by an unnamed writer as ‘one of the finest and most extensive in the empire.’
By most accounts an accomplished administrator who did much to modernise the city, Brukenthal was an energetic sponsor of artists, and his palace became a veritable cultural centre, hosting concerts, plays and art exhibitions.
It is to his eternal credit (for which the city of Sibiu remains grateful) that Brukenthal decreed in his will that on his death (which came in 1803) his collection should be kept together in the palace, which should be opened to the general public.
A German language high school in Piata Huet (the oldest in Romania) is also named for Brukenthal.