Innsbruck “Street Art” (Early Modern Edition)

At the end of the previous post, I left you standing under the late medieval portico of town magistrate Walter Zeller’s house in Innsbruck. Now, if we move out from under the portico, into the street, you’ll find that there’s yet another piece of decoration on the facade of Zeller’s house: At the base of the oriel there’s a set of reliefs showing the family’s motto and coats of arms…

Crests of the Zeller Family, House of Walter Zeller, Herzog-Friedrich-Straße 35

These reliefs are slightly younger than the paintings in the portico; they were added in the early 16th century by Zeller’s son, Walter Zeller the Younger. Heraldic reliefs like these were highly popular in late medieval and early modern Innsbruck. Indeed, they can still be found on many of the houses along Herzog-Friedrich-Straße, usually placed on the base of the oriel just above eye level:

Trautsonhaus, Herzog-Friedrich-Straße 22

Depending on the tenants’ wealth, some oriels were more richly decorated than others. A case in point is the so called Trautsonhaus (pictured above). In 1541, it passed into the ownership of Hans Trautson, marshall of Tyrol, and was subsequently altered and adorned by architect/sculptor Gregor Türing. The painted and sculpted decoration on its facade is only exceeded by the nearby Katzunghaus, another work of Gregor Türing, executed c. 1530:

Katzunghaus, Herzog-Friedrich-Straße 16

In this case, the obligatory oriel has been turned into a proper corner turret with relief decoration on all four storeys. On the top floor, these consist merely of blind tracery in the late Gothic tradition. On the third floor, however, we find figures of musicians and of dancers, and their whole attire leaves no doubt that by and large the Gothic style has already given way to the Renaissance:

But, of course, the Middle Ages didn’t just end in the blink of an eye, and even as Francisco Pizarro was conquering Peru, back home in Europe people were, for instance, still enjoying the fine “medieval” art of jousting. Unbeknownst to many, jousting was actually hugely popular until well into the second half of the 16th century, especially in the southern parts of Germany. One major difference from tournaments in medieval times lies, however, in the fact that early modern jousts were usually held in cities and that not only noblemen but also members of the cities’ merchant upper class participated in them. Such tournaments were frequently held in Innsbruck, too, or more precisely, they were held on Innsbruck’s main street, Herzog-Friedrich-Straße (which, at its northern end, is wide enough to be considered a town square rather than a street).

It is only fitting, therefore, that the reliefs on the first and second floor level of the Katzunghaus show a series of jousting scenes.

Now, the Trautsonhaus and the Katzunghaus may be the most richly decorated among the burghers’ houses, but they are eclipsed by another building on Herzog-Friedrich-Straße, the famous Goldenes Dachl [Golden Roof] commissioned by none other than emperor Maximilian I. himself:

I must confess, it feels a little weird to be blogging about the Golden Roof because it’s such a well known landmark (at least here in Austria). You find its image on postcards, on the cover of guidebooks and on all kinds of souvenirs, from fridge magnets to shot glasses. In other words, it’s so over-exposed that it’s hard to see through all the tourist kitsch and realise what a great work of art it actually is.

Attached to the facade of the Habsburgian city residence, the Neuer Hof, the Golden Roof is usually referred to as a “Prunkerker” which translates as something like a “state oriel”. Technically, though, it’s not an oriel at all, but a balcony because it’s actually supported by two pillars and therefore rests directly on the ground. Its iconic roof is covered with 2657 gilt copper shindles which, of course, have given the whole structure its name.

On the first floor level, a set of windows is framed by wall paintings showing two men in armour bearing the standards of the Roman Empire and of Tyrol. At the centre, right over the windows, a small cartiglio gives the date 1500, presumably the year of the Golden Roof‘s completion. Right underneath the windows, on the other hand, we find the already familiar display of heraldic reliefs. From left to right it shows the crests of Austria, Hungary, the Holy Roman Empire (double-headed Imperial eagle), the King of the Romans (single-headed Imperial eagle), Burgundy and Milan, with the crests of Styria and Tyrol added on the narrow sides of the balcony. The two different versions of the Imperial eagle allude to what may be called the small print in the constitution of the so called Holy Roman Empire: Upon his election, the new ruler was officially titled Rex Romanorum [King of the Romans], and only when he had been crowned by the Pope did he assume the title of Emperor. Usually, several years passed between the two events. Maximilian, for instance, was elected King in 1486, but received the title of Emperor only in 1508. It has therefore been suggested that the heraldic reliefs on the Golden Roof couldn’t have been executed before 1508. This, however, would imply that they are later additions or, at least, that later alterations were made to them.

On the second floor, there’s an open balcony or loggia with more reliefs on its balustrade. Maximilian himself appears in the two central panels, once with his two wives, Mary of Burgundy (who died in 1482) and Bianca Maria Sforza (whom he married in 1494), and once with his court jester and, presumably, his chancellor:

Surrounding these panels there’s a series of Moriskentänzer [Morris dancers] in extravagant poses:

As on the first floor, the reliefs continue on the narrow sides:

On the back wall of this balcony there are more wall paintings, showing figures of courtiers engaged in conversation:

Apart from the horse, these paintings probably give a good impression of the kind of social engagements which actually took place on this balcony. While there are no written sources regarding the Golden Roof‘s original purpose or function, there is a consensus among scholars that it was used as an elaborate Imperial box which allowed Maximilian and his household to watch the tournaments and other spectacles which took place on the street right in front of it. It has also been suggested that the magnificent balcony was built in memory of Maximilian’s wedding to his second wife, Bianca Maria Sforza, which took place in Innsbruck in the spring of 1494. Be that as it may, what’s certain is that Maximilian assigned the task to his most trusted artists: The wall paintings are by his court painter Jörg Kölderer, while both the architecture and the relief decoration are by his court architect Niclas Türing the Elder, father of the aforementioned Gregor Türing. And if it’s true that the heraldic panels on the first floor were only added after 1508, there’s a good chance that Gregor himself was involved in their making as a collaborator of his father.

On a final note, for conservation reasons, the reliefs were substituted by copies in the mid-20th century. If you want to see the originals you have to go and visit a museum after all: They’re on display in the Tyrolean State Museum. So, in a way, we have now come full circle and are back at the starting point of this series of posts – which, I believe, is a good excuse to draw a line and call it a day.

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9 Responses to Innsbruck “Street Art” (Early Modern Edition)

  1. I have no deep input but these are marvellous, and beautifully-restored too. I guess once we get to the Renaissance it’s somehow OK to repaint things every once in a while!

    • Thanks, Jonathan. Im not sure, though, wether it’s ever OK to repaint artworks from any historical period. But I guess the question is how exactly you define “repainting” and how much artistic freedom you grant to the people responsible for it.

      • I think that, in principle, if the paint can be washed off without damage to the surface, I’m fine with it. Most of this stuff probably was painted after all, the bare stone thing is often a misleading mental image to give people. But I’m not sure such paints exist. If they do, however, I think various versions could be tried and recorded and maybe sponsorship raised through careful marketing of chances to do it :-)

      • Sorry for replying so late! Anyway, you’ve more or less summed up the basic principle of modern restoration/preservation standards: Every intervention you make on an existing structure has to be reversible (and of course documented) which isn’t too hard to do when you apply the right techniques. As for trying out various versions, that is usually done by computer simulation.
        The problem is that until at least the 1960s most “restorations” weren’t done that way, which leaves us with many e.g. 16th century monuments covered in a coat of e.g. 1890s paint with no way to reconstruct how the thing would actually have looked like in its original state.

  2. Pingback: Same same but different. – Another post about a detached fresco in the V & A, Andrea Mantgena and the idea of progress « L'Historien Errant

  3. Liz Silk says:

    I am an artist with a couple of projects on the go that have benefitted immensely from this site. I am very grateful for the information as well as the images. Is there a book where I might find all these medieval reliefs? Perhaps not just Innesbruck but the region as a whole? We have our misericords, of course, but nothing like this wealth of larger panels.

    Liz Silk, Bedford, England.

    • Thanks for the comment, Liz! I’m glad to hear you found my site helpful.

      At the moment, I’m afraid I can’t think of any single book where one might all these reliefs – but I believe something will come to my mind if you give me a little time to think about it… Would it be ok if I come back to your question in a little while? (Considering my current schedule, though, I can’t say for sure whether that would be in a couple of days or only in a couple of weeks.) Also, are you only interested in those “chivalric” and heraldic reliefs I blogged about or also in religious scenes from carved altarpieces?

      Best regards,

      • Liz Silk says:

        I was especially delighted by the scenes of everyday life, such as the couple dancing. My main interest is in the freize of jugglers and acrobats. I have very poor reproductions in a 1931 book called “Masks, Mimes and Miracles – studies in popular theatre” and that led me to your site via a Google search for the Golden Roof. I know I could hunt down something through Amazon, but I might buy something disappointing, so if you should have a good suggestion I’d be grateful.


  4. Liz Silk says:

    forgot the website!

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