Out and About near Frankfurt

THONET 24.07.2009 in der Residenz Würzburg

Following on from my post about Frankfurt itself, here’s what I managed to see on two trips outside the city, with pictures, of course. Both Karlsruhe and Würzburg are a little over an hour from Frankfurt by train and the connections are pretty regular, so it’s easy to do as I did and go just for a morning or afternoon. Right. Let’s continue…


 Karlsruhe didn’t endear itself to me as a town: all the main streets are currently being dug up and, in short, the place is a mess. Fortunately it has redeeming features, one of which is the Handel Festival and another its impressive little art gallery. (There’s also a good collection of prints and drawings here, though I didn’t have time to see any of it and stuck with the pictures.) There’s a local slant to the earliest parts of the collection, featuring some names that were unfamiliar to me, like the Master of the Bodensee whose Crucifixion with the Virgin and St John has a remarkable embossed gold-ground ornamented with leaves, flowers and kneeling harts. Other names were better-known: there’s a world-class collection of Cranachs, including the small paired roundel portraits of Frederick the Wise and John the Steadfast and a familiar Portrait of Philipp Melanchthon, and an pair of grisaille martyrs by Matthias Grünewald, in which the thin linen folds of their gowns and their tumbling curls are rendered with breathtaking skill. There were few Italian pictures overall, although one of those few was a lovely Lorenzo di Credi tondo of the Madonna and Child with St John.

The French paintings really were a strength, though. There were pictures by Poussin and Vouet and a super little pastel Portrait of Caroline-Louise of Hesse-Darmstadt by Liotard, not to mention a portrait of a dashing young hunter by Largillière, which displays a dazzling treatment of his silver-trimmed blue silk frock coat. Splendid fabrics were also in evidence in a pair of portraits by Frans Pourbus the Younger of Louis XIII and his sister Elisabeth, both of them decked out in white silk embroidered with slashes and gold. There’s even a Rembrandt Self Portrait. But I can’t round up without mentioning two quirkier pictures that caught my eye. One was a bizarre but brilliant portrait by Johann Georg Dathan, described on the label as Portrait of an Old Woman in Hussar’s Uniform, from around 1749. And that’s exactly what it was: the lady’s softly crumpled face looking out from beneath a flamboyant feathered cap, and a sword gripped in her fist. I bet there’s a good story behind this picture. And, last but not least, there was a nightmarish Temptation of St Anthony (c1650) by Joos van Craesbeeck, who’d either been looking at too much Bosch or smoking something very odd: a disembodied man’s head seems to have washed up on a beach and bird-shaped demons clamber from his mouth, while a flap in his forehead opens to reveal little figures including an artist working on a canvas. St Anthony himself looks wearily resigned (“Not all this again?”) as he is tempted by a harlot brandishing a nautilus cup. It really was an unexpectedly good collection and I’m thrilled to have seen it.


When I was in Würzburg, for reasons I shall explain below, I decided to pay a quick visit to this museum which occupies one wing of the Residenz. It’s a university museum, tucked away on two upper floors reached by an out-of-the-way pillared staircase: one floor houses an art gallery and the other an antiquities collection. The paintings are fairly modest, with lots of later copies after Renaissance masters and a few pictures by the founder, who was himself an artist in the monumental Neoclassical mode. There are, unsurprisingly, a few Tiepolos and, when I went, a sketchbook of drawings on blue paper by Giandomenico was on view. But for the most part I was attracted to pictures for their character and quirkiness: the solemn, elongated face of a girl in a Netherlandish portrait; a double portrait of two women in mob-caps, one of whom has a parrot perched on her hand (the label was missing, so I’ve no idea who it was by); and, one of the better pictures, a Portrait of Sixtus Oelhafen by Schäufelein. On show in a special exhibition on ‘The Glance in Art’, there was an impressive gold-ground triptych by Gherardo Starnina, with industrious music-making angels; and in the final room there was a carved Lamentation by Tilman Riemenschneider, the brilliant German sculptor, who ran a studio in Würzburg.

But the most fascinating part of the collection is up in the antiquities museum. This is only open in the afternoons and I arrived early, but the custodian took pity on my pitiable German and my air of confusion, and allowed me in to have a look around. It was a very pleasant surprise. There’s material running through from the Egyptian to Roman periods, but the highlights are their Greek ceramics, particularly red-figure vases, of which there’s a dazzling assembly. I noted that there was a disproportionate number of banquet scenes and, probably as a result of that, a much larger of women present in the decoration than usual. Some are hetaerae, including the poor girl who’s steadying a drunk youth’s head while he’s sick (painted on the bowl of a drinking cup, which says something about Greek humour), but there are also female musicians and a scene of an Athenian girl helping her brother with his armour. And on one vase I saw, to my delight, a painting of a Persian (or, since the figure’s beardless, perhaps an Amazon?) riding a Bactrian camel, wrapped up in a cloak against the highland cold, his characteristic zig-zag leggings peeping out underneath. The unknown artist has, fittingly, been given the moniker The Master of the Würzburg Camel, which I think is rather lovely. A fascinating group of artefacts and very highly recommended if you have the time. (Entry is free, too.)


Wurzburg Residenz (1)

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, The Four Continents: Detail of Asia with her retinue, 1752-1753, fresco, Treppenhaus (Grand Staircase), Residenz, Würzburg

But the real reason I’d come to Würzburg was the Residenz. This was begun in 1720 by the Prince-Bishop of Würzburg, who’d decided to move down from his castle up on the hill at Marienburg. Sending servants back and forth to the town was proving too expensive and it was time to economise. It’s rather amusing to realise that the Residenz began life as an attempt to save money, because it now houses one of the most dazzling Baroque decorative schemes in the world (and is a UNESCO world heritage site because of it). Its fame is down to two men, employed by another of the Prince-Bishops in the mid-18th century: the master stuccoist Antonio Bossi (1699-1764) and the Venetian painter Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770).

This was the first time Tiepolo ventured out of Venice for any length of time, so the financial incentive must have been staggering to induce him to journey north across the Alps with his two sons, Giandomenico and Lorenzo, in tow. First they painted the Imperial Hall, in which the Prince-Bishops celebrated their links with the Holy Roman Empire, and then Tiepolo was asked to turn his attention to the vault over the main staircase. Like the Imperial Hall, he was to paint a scheme carefully devised by others: this time, nothing less than the four corners of the world (Australia had been discovered but no one knew enough about it to bother including it). Each is represented by a beautiful, commanding woman surrounded by bystanders in colourful exotic dress, and all the riches of their respective regions. The Olympian gods look down benignly from the clouds overhead and, at the end over the main landing, above the court of Europe, geniuses lift a framed portrait of the Prince-Bishop himself. The fresco measures about 680 square metres and Tiepolo and his team painted it in only 218 days. It’s still one of the biggest vaults ever created.


Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, The Four Continents: Detail of Mars and Venus, 1752-1753, fresco, Treppenhaus (Grand Staircase), Residenz, Würzburg

The staircase fresco is the showpiece, and rightly so. It’s recently been restored to remove stains and repair cracks and the result is deeply impressive, if not quite as gorgeous as it would be with Venetian sun streaming through the windows. The Imperial Hall is equally stunning, though, with its clever mixture of trompe-l’oeil and genuine sculpture, such as the frescoed musician whose painted instrument projects over the edge of a window recess and, at its top, transforms into a real trumpet. Papier-maché is moulded into tumbling draperies and there’s stucco everywhere, ranging from subtle decorations on the walls to fully sculpted angels. Bossi and Tiepolo were evidently a bit of a dream team. There are state rooms too, which rather pale in comparison to the glamorous reception rooms, and usually you can see the State Gallery and Garden Hall too, but these were closed for restoration when I was there.

However, despite the frescoes and the stuccoes, perhaps the most amazing thing about Würzburg is that it’s there at all. The town authorities were fairly sanguine during the war, pointing out that there were no munitions factories nearby – Würzburg is a university town, famous for its medicine, its hospitals – so there was no need to fear air raids. They were right. Almost. Then, in March 1945, a squadron of Lancasters came over and bombed the town to pieces. Photos in the Residenz show the heart-rending result: a town of ruins. 75% of the Residenz was destroyed (although compared to many other buildings it got off lightly). The wing with the state rooms was nothing but a shell: what you see now, from the ground up, has been patiently and admirably reconstructed from detailed photographs taken before the bombing. The roof above Tiepolo’s vault fell in but, by some miracle, the vault itself took the weight and stood firm. The visit becomes a far more sober and poignant experience when you realise how close all these wondrous things came to being destroyed. If you have the time, I’d recommend going on one of the English-language tours, which gives you a lot of information on the building’s recent history as well as its dazzling 18th-century past. There’s no doubt about it: Würzburg is a treasure and I’m deeply glad I decided to make time for it.

If you won’t be able to make it to the Residenz yourself, you can take a very detailed look at Tiepolo’s frescoes over the staircase and in the Imperial Hall through these two books (both of which I bought and which seem very thorough and interesting): Tiepolo’s World (staircase) and Tiepolo’s Empire (Imperial Hall).

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, America

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, The Four Continents: Detail of America with her retinue, 1752-1753, fresco, Treppenhaus (Grand Staircase), Residenz, Würzburg

7 thoughts on “Out and About near Frankfurt

  1. Dan Clode says:

    I visited the Residenz in 2012. It's a fabulous fresco to see in situ and such a miracle it survived (you can see the path cut by the Lancasters through the town – by the contrast between old and new buildings – bearing directly towards the Palace). I'd suggest some alternate (larger) books to the ones you've suggested that give great crops of the highlight compositions in it. There's a 1996 book 'Heaven on Earth' by Peter Kruckman (specifically focussed on Wurzburg). Better still Filippo Pedrocco's 1995 monograph 'Giambattista Tiepolo'. The gardens at the Residenz are also beautiful, but beware the poison ivy under the trellises!

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Thanks Dan! Yes, I should point out to other readers that Heaven on Earth is an exhibition catalogue and exists in two versions: a two-volume set in German, and a one-volume translation into English, which I bought a few years ago when I was working on Tiepolo. You're absolutely right in that it's a fascinating book, because it brings together the drawings and the paintings for the project. However, while the 'picture books' can't compete on the academic front, they do have one major advantage over Heaven on Earth and the Pedrocco, in that they show post-restoration photographs of the frescoes. (And the interesting comments on the technical processes of restoration and the sheer challenge of taking on such a massive project.)

    Thanks for the warning about the ivy. 🙂 I didn't make it out into the gardens (got far too caught up in the Martin von Wagner Museum!) but maybe next time.

  3. Dan Clode says:

    I didn't realise there was a two volume version, maybe I should upgrade? But I'm guessing the English one has all the best art. I saw a tempting book on the restoration in the gift shop, but failed to buy it as my bags were already overloaded with art books. From an online browse I think it might be Die Restaurierung eines Meisterwerks by Matthias Staschull (2007). You've inspired me to chase it via online shopping! I don't like it when the books I left behind weigh on my conscience.

  4. The Idle Woman says:

    Ha ha – I know the feeling! From what I remember of the German version (it was a while ago) I don't think it's necessary to have both. One volume is pretty much the same as the English language version and the other – confirmed by this Amazon listing (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Himmel-Erden-Tiepolo-W%C3%BCrzburg-Aufs%C3%A4tze/dp/3791316400) – seems to be papers on the topic. So I guess it depends how deeply you want to get into the topic (and how good your German is!).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s