January 7, 2007

A Palace Built for a Prince-Bishop

Kevin and I have lived in Würzburg for almost a week now, and we’ve only just had the time to explore the city during the daylight. And what a city it is: 39 church spires, a 15th century university, a castle fortress, and the Baroque palace of the Würzburg Prince-Bishops. It was more than we could do in one weekend, so we decided to start with just the two biggest attractions: the fortress and the palace.

On Saturday, we braved the cold and drizzle to walk up the hilly vineyards across the River Main and explore the Festung Marienburg. The fortress, begun about 800 years ago, really isn’t very attractive, as its purpose was not to be beautiful but heavily protected and imposing. And boy is it protected. It took us about half an hour to climb to the top, because the only path leads you around the entire perimeter twice. We figured that there had to be another entrance, but in fact there was none. I guess it wouldn’t have been a very good fortress if it were easily accessible.

The palace that sits above the fortifications was the home of the first Prince-Bishops of Würzburg – until they built even nicer digs on the other side of the river. The Prince-Bishop was, as his name suggests, a peculiar mix of municipal and spiritual ruler. Even today, there isn’t much separation of church and state in Bavaria in general, and in Würzburg in particular. According to local friends of ours, a large portion of city taxes goes straight into the coffers of the Catholic Church!

At right is the castle keep, which came in handy during the pesky Peasants’ Wars of 1476 and 1525 (Prince-Bishop 2, peasants 0). And I've read that if you were very naughty back then -- a continual drunk, for instance -- they'd drop you from the window as punishment.

Despite their early success, these fortifications couldn’t withstand the Allied bombing raids of World War II, which razed most of the city. Using the blueprints from the 18th century, the locals rebuilt the entire complex, which now houses the Bavarian State Archives, two museums and offices, and a really nice restaurant.

Sometime in the late-17th century, property values in the neighborhood around the fortress really started to drop (“Once the peasants start moving in …”), so the Prince-Bishop bought a small tract of land on the other side of the river in Würzburg’s most up-and-coming area. There he built a palace to put all neighboring ruler – spiritual or temporal – to shame. Giving credit where credit is due, Napoleon dubbed it “Europe’s most beautiful parsonage.”

Inside are some of Germany’s best examples of Baroque architecture and Rococo interior design: entire gilded rooms, an astonishing inlaid floor, and some really fabulous frescoes by Tiepolo. I wish I could provide pictures of his exotic scenes and intricate tromp l’oeil, but, alas, cameras are not allowed inside the building, and scanning a silly postcard, just wouldn’t do it justice. So, you’ll all have to pay me a visit in Würzburg, if for no other reason than seeing the Tiepolos for yourself.

To me, the most amazing thing about the Residenz, as the palace-complex is called, is not it’s old world opulence (I mean, they actually gilded and entire room and then painted over it!), but the fact that they pretty much rebuilt it from scratch after World War II. In one corridor of the prince-bishops chambers, there’s a photo display of what the building looked like in 1945: a mere shell of a building. There were no windows, now doors, no floors, and most of the plaster tromp l’oeil had been completely incinerated by a fire that left no room unspared. But, the Germans are an industrious and meticulous people. And they kept good records. So over the next fifty years, every thing was put back just as it had been. The final repairs were unveiled in 1980s. Can you image the same happening in New Orleans?

Since, I can’t take you inside, I’ll just leave you with these views of the palace gardens (my favorite part, anyway). In spring, the locals tell me, the flower-beds are filled with roses. And for three weeks every summer, concert-goers overtake the residence and gardens for Würzburg’s annual Mozart festival. The orchestra will even serenade you in the rose garden by candlelight.

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