Visit: 24th May 2015
We arrived from Bamberg into Würzburg railway station surrounded by local youngsters dressed in Dirndls and Lederhosen. Perhaps there was some kind of folk event going on that weekend, we thought, or perhaps this is just how young people like to dress in Bavaria. If the latter, I wondered if they wear these clothes out of a desire to preserve traditional customs, or if it is just some sort of semi-ironic outfit just to wear on a pub crawl (a bit like we English do for ‘pub golf’).
After checking into our hotel and meeting Danny’s girlfriend Tina, we headed straight for the Residence – the grand bishop’s palace that is the focus of this World Heritage Site. It was commissioned in 1719 by Prince-Bishop Johann Philipp Franz von Schönborn, who was effectively a sort of local king. Kenneth Clark visited it in his series Civilisation, in which he wondered how much the local people forked over in tithes and taxes in order for the bishop to build such a marvelous abode. The main reason Clark was there was the palace’s renowned ceiling, painted by Italian baroque master Giovanni Tiepolo.
This fresco is the most famous aspect of the Würzburg Residence, for it is painted on a large expanse of vaulted oak ceiling that is completely unmarred by any columns getting in the way. This was possible thanks to the innovations of the palace’s 32-year-old chief architect, Balthasar Neumann, in his design of the grand staircase.
Tiepolo painted himself into the fresco as well as his son (also a painter) and Neumann, who is depicted with a cannon. The reason for this is that in response to criticisms by rival architects that his ceiling would never hold its own weight, Neumann retorted that the ceiling would hold even if a cannon were to be fired beneath the vault. Although his claim was never put to the test, Neumann become associated with the cannon.
There are over 300 rooms in the residence, many of them restored since destruction in World War II. In either a stroke of luck or a symbolic vindication of Neumann’s design, the staircase managed to survive the war completely unscathed. The sumptuously decorated rooms of the Residence put me in mind of Blenheim Palace, which was built around the same time.
All-in-all, though, we came out of the Residence feeling a little underwhelmed. We had expected something grander, I think: a more impressive fresco with the wow-factor of those in the Sistine Chapel – however unrealistic that now seems. It was impressive, of course, but not what we had hoped. But there was more left to see. On a small sign I spotted an arrow pointing to the Residence’s Hofkirche, or Court Chapel (above). Again the work of Balthazar Neumann, this chapel really took our breath away, being impossibly ornate and riotous with colour and shape. Inside an inconspicuous wing of the Residence, Neumann took a rectangular space and transformed its interior into three overlapping ovals. Like with Gaudí, there are few straight lines. The overall effect is one of majesty, which must be so difficult to achieve in such a small space.
Although I noticed through a window how impressive the Residence’s gardens were, unfortunately we became too fixated on getting a beer in the palace’s bar to remember to look around. As for the Residence Square referred to in the title of the WHS, I believe that is just the car park in the foreground to the picture at the top.
After leaving the Residence we went on the enjoy the general hospitality of Würzburg with our local guides. The photo above shows us engaging in the local custom of drinking Riesling on the town’s oldest bridge (shown below). It was a nice day for it, and made a pleasant change from all that smoked beer and lager that one traditionally drinks in Germany. We went on to have a surprisingly good meal at what turned out to be the Brauerei-Gasthof Alter Kranen – it was probably the best meal I’ve ever eaten in Germany. We followed that up by drinking in the town’s pubs until daylight came around again, which signified that it would soon be time to head back Nuremberg airport and thence home.