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.

What do dominate are three building types: town halls, town merchants’ houses and princes’ palaces. It is true that there are some church interiors (there is really nothing to say about church exteriors), but many are surface remodellings only and they surely do not add up to anything coherent: some are provincial Italianate stuff, some are just weird, and the best seem to me Late Gothic hiding behind round arches. Torgau, the first Lutheran church, is a case of this last. If it were not that they come between two great episodes of church-building in Germany, Gothic and Baroque, one might be inclined to address them more doggedly, but they are certainly the part of German Renaissance architecture where it is hardest to share Hitchcock’s enthusiasm. And given the place of religious feeling and action in the period – which runs from the Reformation to the Thirty Years War – this is fair warning that any relations between architecture and social reality here are going to be complicated.

For instance, what do all these marvellous town halls and merchants’ residences correspond to, in the cities’ life? One thing might be the tendency to shift from direct taxes on wealth to indirect taxes on consumed commodities. The earlier system whereby the bulk of a city’s fiscal income was supposed to come from annual tax on the cash and real estate of the richest third or so of the people was now tipping rather more – this is a very broad generalisation and counter-examples could be adduced – towards straight imposts on foodstuffs, including bread. The point is simple: whether or not the well-to-do mercantile folk were really prospering more – and this is debatable – they clearly have fewer inhibitions about displaying prosperity and differentiating themselves from other people. The social constraints the Medieval communal ideal and framework had put on self-assertion, if not self-interest, were progressively fraying. In the 15th century, they had started fitting out family side-chapels in the churches – already self-differentiation from the mass. In the 16th century, they felt free to build themselves showy family houses, many of which would have also been the head office of a family banking or trading company and some of which would have included stock rooms. It is not really disconcerting that many of them should be beautiful and some very likeable.

As for the town halls, their air of pride and grandeur is a curiously urgent and specialised one. The timing corresponds, in fact, with a weakening of the real independence and corporate vigour of many of the cities. The reasons for this were complex and various: what one would say for Augsburg would not hold for Hameln. The general range of possible factors in any one case includes newly-organised and aggressive princes in the territories around, the decay of the guild-dominated constitutions some cities had worked out after the Black Death, a hangover from a period of rapid growth and immigration, a tendency for prominent families to move out to rural estates and go county, distortions arising from the multiply-caused ‘price revolution’ or inflation of the 16th century, shifts away from Germany in the main channels of world trade, the development of heavy artillery able to knock down city walls, and more.

Many of these town halls are, in one very obvious aspect, extensions of the old patrician club-houses, now to be paid for out of taxes. To the parties held in these grand rooms one would not oneself have been invited. Nor would Hans Sachs, though Walther might. But they seem also the period’s means of meeting an old need, emblems of communal identity in societies that were in danger of fracturing completely. It was not only a matter of poor citizens – petty masters, journeymen, labourers and casualties. There were also residents without citizenship, some of them indispensable. And there were real outsiders.

The bird’s-eye-view city maps popular round 1600 show the cities snugly inside their walls: outside is grass and trees. It is beginning to seem that this may be an interesting fiction. Outside the walls, some recent studies suggest, we should be visualising not just grass but under-enfranchised shanty suburbs, non-citizen peasants with a version of feudal duty to till the fields in order to feed the town, and perhaps also odd encampments of semitransient people engaged in such things as the transport business. The cities were certainly less tidy, less one, than the maps seem to want to show. The town halls, perhaps, were intended partly as signs of authority and partly as signs of city identity. In which case, one does wonder how well they worked.

These problems go back into the Pre-Reformation period. It is no accident that socially the nicest of the great southern cities, Ulm, was already moving into decline at the beginning of the Renaissance: its relaxed, craftsman-monitored decency did not equip it to run as efficiently as Nuremberg and Augsburg in the mercantile race of the day. And so it is represented in this book with only one building, but this is a particularly beautiful and resonant one, the municipal granary for storage of the city’s corn supplies. It is deeper than it is wide. The walls are decorated only by an arrangement of closely-paired small windows – married couples – and on each end wall a centralised vertical register of seven delivery ports topped by a winch. The whole is covered by an extraordinary great roof pitched at 45 degrees and rippling with something like seventy hipped light-cum-vents in regular rows; and these rows are then quietly picked up on the front and back of the building in a simple cascade profile running down the gable ends. That is all. This is the sort of building that makes one wonder for a moment how people could choose to build in any less sparely rational way. In fact, for a time the Ulm Kornhaus and a dozen other chastely Attic buildings – including several merchants’ houses and a couple of palaces – can spoil one’s eye for the ornateness elsewhere.

Returning to this, now in its princely inflection, the palaces in this book are extraordinarily heterogeneous and some are beautiful, at least in parts. One would have to study them very closely to decide whether stylistic richness or stylistic instability was the way to describe the variety here. Hitchcock, who really knows them, would say richness. The effect intended by many of them seems to be a combination of strength and culture: strength is signalled with turrets, culture – which does have an Italian accent – with colonnaded arcades or belvederes. But there is also something oddly opaque about them, in the sense that they are not structurally transparent through to a precise human requirement.

This is, first, a matter of their plan. If one walks through a Medieval German castle or a Baroque German palace one has a clear sense of the manner in which a large number of people lived there: the differences and sequences of rooms declare it. Purposefulness is at all levels of the design. For that matter, when you walk through the Renaissance palace built at Urbino by Federigo da Montefeltro you walk through a lucid diagram of the behaviour of several hundred people as designed by or for a shrewd, sensitive and un-malign man with a strong sense of how things and people should, in relation to himself, be. It is moving, at least at this distance of time.

One misses that here. Going through the German Renaissance palaces, either on the ground or with this book, it is often difficult to know how to behave, empathetically, even though some rooms are big and grand – parties again? – and some small. There is a mail-order feel, not so much about the detail, adaptation of pattern-book designs though it may sometimes be, as about the concept. The very notion of palace, as a purposeful ordering of matter towards a matured Renaissance style of living, seems underassimilated. Not surprising, then, if the relations between use and structure and ornament – the Renaissance terms for thinking about such things – are in turn flat-footed and occasionally quite out-of-joint.

So the buildings do not speak of their makers’ situation. Some of these princes were strong, some weak; some, one happens to know, had the advantage of mineral royalties levied on foreign extractors – a locally uninvidious wherewithal – while others would have been using revenues from taxes on their subjects. You cannot relate such things to the form of the building. Urbino, again, may be unfair as a comparison but makes the point. Given the terms of Federigo da Montefeltro’s situation – the bloody end of his predecessor and half-brother, the appalling Oddantonio; his own illegitimacy and acceptance on sufferance by a people who had first made him sign a contract of good behaviour; a young and sickly and insecure heir; large funds earned outside his duchy as mercenary general; a need to compensate for this tough profession and differentiate himself from men like Malatesta down in Rimini; pride in three or four years of genuinely enjoyed humanist education, and so on – given this, one would like to be gifted enough to come up with his particular solution. Right through, from the marquetry decoration of his study (scholarly books and chivalric bric-à-brac shown as happening to be lying about) to the total exterior aspect of the complex (bristling towers looking protectively outwards from Urbino, modestly low frontage with an almost joky sub-machicolation towards the town), the form registers his situation as he saw it.

Not so at, say, Landshut. Burg Trausnitz and the Town Palace are grand, but they were built by a Duke of Lower Bavaria who had just lost his power to the Munich Wittelsbach. He is diverting himself by playing at Gonzagas, but you would not know it. His palaces are opaque. It is as if one needs two contrasted concepts for what usually comes under the term ‘genre’. One would be for an institution of performance that is plastic from inside: by responding to a complex of circumstances it registers them in a mature and sensitive medium. The other would be for a type of object with associations, off-the-peg but adapted here and there.

It may be that all this is a priggish way of resisting the Hans Andersen and Anthony Hope romance of so many of these buildings. It certainly is tangential to the concerns of architectural history. It might be fun simply to yield to the appeal of these gabled houses and turreted schlosses, a bit blowsy though it sometimes is. The trouble is that building is inherently a social behaviour – as painting and sculpture often are not – and it is hard to avoid imagining the people who lived in all this architecture; and there is then a worry about whether the image is right.

Either way – buildings as art or buildings as history – Hitchcock’s book is just the handbook to the architecture one needs. Moving from the pictures to the text is easy and helpful. Ten chapters order the material partly by chronology and partly by type. Most of the buildings get a paragraph or two, some much more, pointing out relations to other buildings which had not occurred to one and giving such information as there is about their designers. Cruxes – one of local interest is the issue of whether Inigo Jones had a hand in the Englischer Bau at Heidelberg – are clearly laid out. There are no maps, but the index is good. Detail and balance will be scrutinised in the journals by the experts, all of whom apart from Hitchcock himself are in Germany, in about two years’ time, but for the rest of us the book has immediately opened up a rich field previously closed. Anyone interested in Germany will want to move in.