Tag Archives: late baroque

SPÄTBAROCK IN SÜDDEUTSCHLAND IV: The Treppenhaus of the Würzburg Residenz

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In his first year as Court architect and engineer, Johann Balthasar Neumann was charged with designing and building a new Residenz, in Würzburg, from the ground up, for the Prince-Bishops of Schönbrunn. As Neumann was often called away to other projects, his plans were carried out mostly by architects favored by the Prince-Bishop’s uncle and brother, including Lucas von Hildebrandt, Maximilian von Welsch and Germain Boffrand. The stone and masonry exterior was completed in 1744; the interior of the 300-room palace was finished in 1770. After Neumann’s death in 1753, Hildebrandt, Welsch and Boffrand each took full credit for the Residenz’s design in its entirety.

Neumann oversaw the building and decoration of the most important spaces in the Residenz, the suite of formal and ceremonial rooms and antechambers through which visitors passed on their way from the carriage entrance on the ground level to the Kaisersaal on the upper, where the Prince-Bishop would receive them. The centerpiece of this progression is the Treppenhaus, built in 1737. The grand, indoor staircase is the cold-climate equivalent of the double-ramp stairways seen on the exteriors of Italian villas.

Neumann had to get guests up one floor in a manner befitting their rank, without taxing them physically, and while preparing them, step-by-step, as it were, for the magnificence of the Prince-Bishop. Neumann devised a scheme whereby the two stages of the stair, which reverses direction at midpoint, forms a cantilever, allowing the huge mass of stone to be carried on think columns, giving the impression it floats on the air. In Rococo Bavaria, one did not climb or mount the stair, one ascended, drifting upwards towards the vast pastel empyrean above.

The entire span of the Treppenhaus (18m x 30m) is covered by a vast vault composed of rubble and concrete that has no supports other the the walls it rides on. Neumann’s critics warned of collapse; the vault is not only still intact today
, it survived direct hits during the Allied bombing of Würzburg on 16 May 1945, which largely destroyed the old city and much of the Residenz. Neumann made use the vault’s weight, the downward thrust of which clamps the cantilever in place at both ends. By engaging the staircase to the wall the staircase acts as a strainer arch would, countering the tendency of the walls to buckle under the load of the vault. It is a mutually-reinforcing structural solution of great elegance.

A second Treppenhaus of equal dimensions was planned for the other side of the Kaisersaal, but was never begun.

The Treppenhaus vault was frescoed by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo in 1752-53. Measuring 670m², it is the largest painting in the world painted by the highest-paid artist of the 18th century ( Tiepolo was paid 15,000 gulden, for his work at the Residenz, over 13 times the annual salary Neumann drew from his court  appointment). The fresco represents an allegory of the the world, represented by the four continents no less, paying  tribute to the Brince-Bishop. The fresco includes a portrait of Neumann, dressed in his Officer’s uniform, seated on a canon. A trompe l’oeil dog sniffs at his outstretched hand. Canon and dog must have been inside jokes between the painter and architect. Balthasar Neumann died in Würzburg just as Tiepolo was finishing the fresco, in the late summer of 1753.




Cosmas Damian and Egid Quirin Asam were born in Mannheim in 1686 and 1692. Their father, the fresco painter Hans Georg Asam, determined that both sons would be artists and, in 1711, and sent them to study art in Rome at the Accademia di San Luca, where Cosmas was trained in fresco painting and Egid in stucco work, sculpture and altar decoration. Cosmas won the first prize in painting two years later. Although they were not trained as such, both Asams considered themselves architects— Cosmas signed his ceiling fresco at Weltenburg pictor et architectus and Egid designed the Asamkirche. Upon their return to Germany, they mobilized the skills and the connections to church officials they had acquired in Rome to secure a succession of major church rebuilding and decorating commissions, including the the abbey church at Ingolstadt and the cathedral of Freising.

By the mid 1720s, the Asams had gained enough fame as master craftsmen and had made a large enough fortune in doing so to cause them to fear for their salvation. To atone for any sins of pride and avarice that their work as artists may have engendered, they decided to employ the same skills to cure them by designing, financing and constructing a Votivskirche. The votive church, built on a lot adjacent to Egid’s house in Munich’s Sendlingerstraße, was dedicated, appositely, to St John Nepomuk, a confessor saint who associated with the sacrament of confession which is followed by penance. The confessional-penitential theme is strongly felt in the layout of the church’s interior, which has four confessionals in a church of only 12 rows of pews.

Because the church was a gift to God, there were no limits to its decoration, embellishment and ornamentation. There were, however, spatial limits: the lot measures only 20x x 12m—meant that the decorative programs the brothers had developed for large churches either had to be scaled or compressed. For the architecture, they drew on their knowledge of intimately-sized churches on cramped lots by Bernini and Borromini where monumental effects were preserved by scaling down moldings, columns, and domes. In terms of decoration, the Asams compressed the entire gamut of baroque motifs, forms, effects, and materials into the small space: the plan composed of over-lapping ovals, the undulating walls and flared mouldings, an illusionistic ceiling painting the fictive architecture of which carries on from the actual one below, twisted columns polychrome marble, stucco arabesques that blur hounaries, a rippling façade, intarsiated marble revetement, and so on. The result is a density of opulence and decoration that makes even the most richly-elaborated of the contemporary large church interiors seem restrained.

The Asamkirche was originally conceived of as a private chapel attached to the large Asamhaus next door, for use by the brothers alone (Egid went so far as to pierce one the walls in the house so he could see the altar from his bed). However, the burgers of Munich and the church objected to the foundation on many grounds and threatened to hold up the works until the brothers agreed that the church would be open to the public. Cosmas died before the consecration took place in 1746 and Egid lived only 4 years later so the Asamkirche was as much a gift to the city of Munich as it was to God.