The Würzburg Residence: A mesmerizing Baroque palace described by Napoleon as the “nicest parsonage in Europe”

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Katerina Bulovska
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The Würzburg Residence is a magnificent palace and one of the greatest in Southern Germany, built between 1720 and 1744. It is a remarkable example of Baroque architecture, initially designed for Prince-Bishop Johann Philipp Franz von Schönborn, but later on would become the residence of all the following Würzburg prince-bishops. For the purpose, the young and then-unknown German architect Balthasar Neumann (1687-1753) was commissioned, whose work was supervised by the architects Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt of Vienna and Maximilian von Welsch of Mainz and the prince bishops.

Although the German Baroque style prevails in the architecture of the massive building, its design was also influenced by French château architecture and the imperial baroque style of Vienna, inspired by the magnificent  Palace of Versailles in France and Schönbrunn Palace near Vienna. The total price of the construction of the mesmerizing Würzburg Residence was estimated to be around 1.5 million florins, which was a huge amount of money–at the time, a week’s payment for a day-laborer was only one florin.

With spending a small fortune on its construction, it was no surprise that the residence became one of the most impressive palaces in Europe during the 18th century, described by Napoleon himself as the “nicest parsonage in Europe.” Bishops lived in the palace until secularization, when the residence, together with all the other properties of the church, were confiscated. Today, the remarkable palace is open to visitors.

The Würzburg Residence. Author: Guliyev. CC BY-SA 3.0

The interior of the residence was completed in 1780 with the finest furniture, impressive frescoes, and fancy tapestries. In the process, many artist and artisans from across Europe were involved. Of all the exquisite rooms in the palace, only forty are open to the public.

Neumann’s impressive staircase. Author: Bundesarchiv. CC BY-SA 3.0 de

The focal points of the extravagant Palace are Neumann’s impressive staircase and the fresco above it. It was painted between 1751 and 1753 by the greatest Italian Rococo painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and is the world’s largest ceiling fresco, measuring 18 x 30 meters. The fresco depicts the four continents that were familiar at the time: Europe, America, Africa, and Asia.

Tiepolo’s largest ceiling fresco in the world measuring 18 x 30 meters. Author: Myriam Thyes. CC BY-SA 4.0

The Northern Imperial Apartments and Southern Imperial Apartments were luxuriously furnished and decorated by Prince-Bishop Friedrich Carl von Schönborn with rich tapestries and gilded stucco work. The most striking room in the Northern Apartments is the Green Lacquered Room, while in the Southern Apartments there is a marvelous room covered with mirrors called the Mirror Cabinet, modeled after the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles.

The Imperial Hall (Kaisersaal). Author: Andreas Faessler. CC BY-SA 4.0

In the center of the residence is the most lavishly decorated room, with enormous oval dome and 20 half columns in red stucco work, the Imperial Hall (Kaisersaal). The glittering hall was designed to impress, especially the ceiling, which is painted with three frescoes by Tiepolo.

Detail of the stucco work in the White Hall

The White Hall is the only room in the palace designed to contrast all the others, as it is supported by twelve marble columns and features impressive Rococo white stucco tracery by the Swiss-born stucco artist Antonio Bossi. The Hall’s ceiling is decorated with frescoes by the German painter Johan Zick, representing Diana Resting and The Feast of the Gods. 

Fresco in the White Hall

The residence also has a small but lavishly decorated chapel (Hofkirche) with paintings by Tiepolo, stucco and marble sculptures, and altars designed by Austrian architect Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt. The chapel is among the best-preserved 18th-century religious buildings in Germany.

The Baroque Palace is surrounded by splendid gardens that were initially designed in the mid-18th century by garden designer Johann Prokop Mayer, commissioned by Bishop Adam Friedrich von Seinsheim. The gardens were restored and today they feature thousands of flower and plant species, sculptures designed by Johann Peter Wagner, ponds, and fountains.

View of the Residence from the Court Gardens. Author: –Nightflyer. CC BY 4.0

The Würzburg Residence was seriously damaged in 1945 by an air raid and luckily, the White Hall, the Imperial Hall, Neumann’s staircase and Tiepolo’s frescos were undamaged. After a restoration that cost around 20 million euros, the residence and gardens were restored to their former glory and were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.