November 6, 2012
This past weekend I went to see an exhibition on medieval Byzantium which was held at Schallaburg Castle, located approximately an hour’s drive west of Vienna. As interesting as the exhibition was, I was even more intrigued by the castle itself which, I must confess, I hadn’t visited in years…
Schallaburg Castle has been used as an exhibition venue since 1974, and the first exhibition to be shown there was dedicated to the Renaissance in Austria. This was quite fitting seeing as Schallaburg Castle is one of Austria’s most remarkable pieces of Renaissance architecture. Though its origins go back to the 11th century, the castle as we see it today was mostly built during the 16th century.
This is even true for its iconic tower with its distinctive black and white decoration. This tower never had any use as a fortification but it was built right from the start – that is shortly after 1569 – as a sort of showpiece and, presumably as a symbol of lordly power (the lord in this case being a local nobleman by the name of Christoph II von Losenstein).
The tower emerges from a small, open colonnaded courtyard with round arcades, decorated in a similar black and white style.
But this is nothing compared to the much larger main court:
Here too there are open arcades both on the ground floor and on the first floor level, but instead of a simple painted decoration they boast an impressive ensemble of terracotta sculptures and reliefs.
All in all, there are about 1600 single pieces of terracotta used to decorate the arcades on the first floor alone. Some of them are dated, with the years given ranging from 1572 to 1578. There even is a signature letting us know that they were executed by one Jacob Bernecker and by the monogrammist PR.
Terracotta decorations such as this were quite popular in Central European castle and palace architecture during the Renaissance era – presumably because they were a cheap way to imitate the much more exquisite red marble.
The courtyard of Schallaburg Castle, though, is perhaps the most extensive example for the use of terracotta in this period. Its ‘pictorial’ programme includes, among other things, personifications of virtues and of the Liberal Arts, scenes from the history and myths of ancient Rome, coats of arms and a gallery of pseudo-portrait busts representing men and woman of all kinds and nations.
Most famous among them is the ‘dog lady’, a bust clad in female clothes but sporting the hairy head of a dog:
So far, there is no satisfactory explanation for this anomaly, but there’s a good chance it simply was intended as a joke – after all, this is the age of Mannerism and these terracottas are pretty much contemporary to, say, the works of Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
And humour definitely played a certain part in the decoration of the Schallaburg courtyard, as is exemplified by this fellow…
…or, indeed, by this one…
But perhaps this is not a good image to end this post with, so here’s another view of the courtyard arcades instead: