by Roderick Conway Morris

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Würzburg with its ancient bridge over the Main

Art, Wine and Charity

By Roderick Conway Morris
WURZBURG, Germany 3 May 1996


This attractive and prettily-situated Franconian town has been taking the opportunity of the 300th anniversary of Giambattista Tiepolo's birth to remind us of its good fortune in having in the Prince-Bishop's Residenz some of the Venetian painter's most stupendous frescoes.

But, as anyone who comes here will soon find out, Würzburg has many additional things to offer - and, though only about an hour from Frankfurt by road or rail, it provides an agreeable contrast to its neighboring modern metropolis.

An initial stroll along the banks of the Main, with the heart of the medieval, Renaissance and Baroque town on the left and, across the river to the right, steep wooded and vine-clad slopes, on the summit of which stands the picturesque Marienberg Fortress, is an excellent way of getting one's bearings. The Fortress was from 1201 until the 18th century the home of the Prince-Bishops who ruled this small, but prosperous and artistically rich, realm. The Marienberg also marks the site of the original Celtic settlement going back to 1000 BC.

At the old stone bridge whose arches span the Main, we encounter some of the most influential figures in Würzburg's history, in the form of a series of larger-than-life statues that adorn the parapets. Here are the martyred Irish saints Kilian (with his gilded sword), Kolonat and Totnan, murdered by the pagans in the 7th century, but not before they had won enough converts to launch Würzburg as a beacon of the new faith.

Here also is the town's first bishop, St Burkard (742-753), as well as Charlemagne and Pippin, forerunners of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarosa, who granted Bishop Herold the Duchy of Franconia, making him both a temporal and spiritual ruler. Finally, as a kind of insurance policy perhaps, the Bohemian Saint John of Nepomuk, patron saint of bridges.

Würzburg's geographical location and position on the River Main trade route opened it to artistic influences not only from other German states but from France to the west (Frederick I's marriage to Beatrix of Burgundy, which took place here in 1156, is flamboyantly commemorated by one of Tiepolo's frescoes at the Residenz). The sophisticated tastes and lavish spending of the Prince-Bishops assured a steady stream of visiting Italian artists, further enriching the cultural and architectural blend.

In March 1945, a massive conflagration started by RAF incendiary bombs, gutted nearly every building in the city, though fortunately some key parts of monuments, such as the central section of the Prince-Bishop's 18th-century Residenz containing Tiepolo's masterpieces, did survive. Wisely, the townspeople decided to keep their ancient street plan when beginning reconstruction - a task that was to take the best part of thirty years - so that narrow streets and little squares have been preserved, as well as Baroque avenues (and much of the center is closed to traffic).

The restoration and recreation of the main monumental buildings has been an outstanding achievement. In addition to the severely-damaged wings of the Residenz, the work included reconstruction of the devastated Marienkapelle, the Gothic 'citizens' church' on the central market square, financed by Würzburg's more prosperous families in the late 14th and 15th centuries, in which Balthasar Neumann, Germany's greatest rococo architect and designer of the Residenz and numerous other buildings here, is buried.

The impressive St Johannes Stift Haug (1670-1691) by the Italian Antonio Petrini has equally been returned to its pre-1945 architectural splendor - although no attempt has been made to reproduce its majestic and intricate wooden altar piece, this lost masterwork being judiciously substituted with a monumental Tintoretto Crucifixion canvas.

Another merciful survival of the disasters of war is the wonderful collection of sculptures (at the Mainfränkisches Museum of the Marienberg Fortress) by Tilian Riemenschneider (c.1460-1531), a remarkable artist who bears witness to the fact that the Renaissance was by no means an exclusively Italian affair.

Petrini was also the architect of the stylistically eclectic and adventurous bell tower (1696) of the Neubaukirche that forms part of the complex of the Alte Universität founded by the enlightened Prince-Bishop Julius Echter in 1583. The University, which has produced half a dozen Nobel Prize winners, including W.C. Röntgen, who discovered X-rays here in 1895, now has 20,000 students. Indeed, the combined student population, including those at the Conservatory and other colleges of higher education, is nearly 50,000 (out of a total of about 130,000 inhabitants), giving the city an unusually young and lively profile.

The presence of so many college students has also contributed to the success of Würzburg's well-established festivals, which include ones for Classical and Contemporary (in January) and Baroque Music (in May), Mozart (in June), Bach, and Jazz (both in November).

Prince-Bishop Julius Echter was also responsible for founding in 1576 another of the city's most striking buildings (upon which Antonio Petrini later left his mark), the Juliusspital, a hospital, orphanage and refuge for the old and needy, open to both Catholics and Protestants, which remains a hospital till this day. An unusual feature of this medical institution are its extensive wine cellars and Weinstube, where one can eat and drink the excellent produce of the foundation's vineyards.

In the Middle Ages Franconia was easily Germany's most important wine-producing region and the flat, flask-like 'Bocksbeutel' in which the best wines are bottled, harks back to the typical containers of those times. To assure his hospital's future, Echter endowed it with some of his finest vineyards, among them ones that extend down from the surrounding hill right to the edge of town. In this he followed the example of the nearby Bürgerspital, or Hospital of the Holy Spirit, founded in 1319 by a philanthropic nobleman.

Both the Bürgerspital and the Hofkeller, the now Bavarian state-run Court Cellars at the Residenz, also own estates, produce top-quality dry, but intensely fruity Franconian wines - notably Silvaner, Müller-Thurgau, and Reisling, along with new varieties, such as Bacchus, and even some interesting new Spätburgunder, Portugieser and Reisling reds - and have Weinstuben where they are served in the traditional chalice-like, quarter-litre 'Schoppen'.

The poet Goethe ordered no less than 900 litres of Franconian wine in 1821. But in later years poor harvests, phylloxera and a rise in the popularity of beer, coffee and tea, severely undermined wine-growing in the region.

Since the 1960s this situation has been reversed, thanks in part to strict self-imposed controls (involving, among other things, the reduction of the number of clusters of grapes per vine to optimize quality). Today wine production is thriving once again and the number of hectares cultivated has risen from 2,360 in 1959 to about 7,600 today.

In the 18th century their were laws forbidding the sale of wines outside the area for fear that Würzburg would run dry, but though there is no danger of that now, the locals consume the home-grown product with such enthusiasm that 50 per cent of it is sold within 80 kilometres of the city and a further 33 per cent within 250 kilometres.

(A shorter version of this article appeared in the International Herald Tribune.)

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023