City Life

Michael Baxandall

  • German Renaissance Architecture by Henry-Russell Hitchcock
    Princeton, 380 pp, £50.00, January 1982, ISBN 0 691 03959 3

The first point to make about this book, which is that it is an event, should not muffle the second point, which is that it is enjoyable. But it is an event. Though there are good recent studies of details, this (as Hitchcock himself points out) is the first comprehensive book on the subject in any language since a clutch in the 1920s. What Hitchcock does not say, but someone else can, is that those books of the 1920s are diversely repellent – paper or pictures, baffling allusiveness – and only to be addressed on days of high vitality and bright sun. The one attractive book on German Renaissance architecture as a whole has previously been K.A.O. Fritsch’s Denkmäler Deutscher Renaissance of 1882-91, this for its 300 big, velvety plates of buildings, many now lost or spoilt by over-polishing, as they were a century ago. But that is a largefolio giant in four volumes, only in libraries, and its range is narrower than here.

Hitchcock formally identifies an enemy and it is the notion that German Renaissance architecture is really the Ottheinrichsbau at Heidelberg, ‘with its profusion of decoration and its northern corruption of Italian Renaissance forms’. He traces this misconception back to the period of Bismarck and Wilhelm I (and Fritsch) and draws a funny picture of the Ottheinrichsbau pullulating with tourists while the real stuff lies deserted. He is partly having his joke: many other buildings play their part in the image. The magic tunnel of the Antiquarium in the Residenz at Munich is not untrodden; scars won on a summer Saturday at Burg Trausnitz, Landshut, fighting through a throng, are this reviewer’s main claim to be qualified to review. But the basic point is real. There is clearly a quantity and diversity of idiosyncratic Renaissance building in Germany which we do not attend to, and much of it is fascinating.

A reader who has to think twice even at words like ‘archivolt’ looks first at the 457 pictures. (There are also 74 plans and elevations.) Hitchcock would approve, I think: as he hints, their collection from the desperately scattered sources for such things in Germany is itself an achievement. The pattern that emerges from the pictures is complex. It is possible to sort them out in the mind by various kinds of section. By region, to some extent: but here a sense of there being NNW and SSE poles seems to help a great deal more than trying to break Germany down into provinces possessing regional styles. By Netherlandish stimulus and Italian stimulus, sometimes: this is only partly a matter of NNW as against SSE, because it is also often a matter of burgher as against prince. And it leaves some of the best originals out, particularly to the east. By historical phase or development only if one works very hard indeed. The genetic grain that helps one grasp the pattern of many other episodes of architecture – as in Brunelleschi to Palladio, say – is not strongly marked here. By great masters hardly at all: of course, there are distinguished recurring names – dry Elias Holl in Augsburg with his astonishing taste for disproportion, smooth Italo-Netherlandish Sustris in Bavaria, subtle Cord Tönnis of the quiet Scots-looking houses in and around Hameln, and others – but you cannot plot your way through the episode with bearings taken primarily on a score of great architects, as you can in Italy. Big names do not dominate.

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