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Würzburg: The Prince-Bishop’s Baroque Palace

Würzburg, Germany

In the 1700s, the ruling prince-bishop lived in his opulent palace in Würzburg. Decorated with frescoes by Tiepolo and awash in lavish Baroque ornamentation, the palace showed that the prince-bishop was more powerful than his visitors.

Complete Video Script

A few hours south of Luther country takes us across that religious divide and into the enthusiastically Catholic region of Franconia and its capital city, Würzburg.

Würzburg is surrounded by vineyards and straddles the Main River. Like so many German cities, it was devastated by WWII bombs. But, while cities like Hamburg and Frankfurt rebuilt on a modern grid plan, Würzburg recreated its charm by rebuilding according to its original layout. The marketplace is an inviting scene. Its 200-year-old obelisk features Romantic maidens selling their produce. And to this day, the square still hosts a charming market. This tourist-friendly town is easy to navigate by foot or by streetcar.

Today, nearly a quarter of its 130,000 residents are students, making the town feel young and vibrant. The town bridge, from the 12th century, is one of Germany’s oldest. It’s decorated with statues of Würzburg’s favorite saints and princes. And it’s busy with people out and enjoying the moment. Scenes like this are ideal for connecting with locals.

Würzburg was the capital of the German state of Franconia. In the 1700s, it was ruled by a prince-bishop. He exercised both secular and religious authority, and this grand palace was his home. Opulent as a German Versailles, the prince-bishop’s Residenz is the main attraction of Würzburg.

Imagine VIP guests arriving for lavish parties. Met here by the prince-bishop, they’d glide gracefully up this elegant stairway, enjoying a grand fresco as it opens up overhead.

Dating from about 1750 and by the Venetian master Tiepolo, it illustrates the greatness of Europe with Würzburg at its center.

The hero is the esteemed prince-bishop, honored by a host of Greek gods affirming his rule. Ringing the room are allegories of the four continents, each with a woman on an animal and celebrating Würzburg as the center of the civilized world.

America, desperately uncivilized, sits naked with feathers in her hair on an alligator among severed heads and a cannibal barbecue. Africa lounges on a camel in a land of trade and fantasy animals. Asia rides her elephant in the birthplace of Christianity, marked by crosses. Europe is the center of high culture, and Lady Culture herself points her brush not at Rome…but at Würzburg.

The adjacent Imperial Hall is a fine example of Baroque — harmony, symmetry, light, and mirrors.

Its ceiling is also by Tiepolo. Typical of the Baroque movement, he was a master of three-dimensional illusion, and he'd heighten the illusion with some fun tricks. Notice how 3-D legs and other objects dangle out of the 2-D frame.

The art, like nearly all art of that day, was propaganda, paid for and serving either the State or the Church. In this case, it’s both. Here, the Holy Roman Emperor bestows upon the bishop of Franconia the secular title of prince. The bishop, now the prince-bishop, touches the emperor’s scepter, performing an oath of loyalty. From this point onward, the prince-bishop wears two very powerful hats at the same time.

A string of splendid rooms evolve from fancy Baroque to fancier Rococo. It all leads to the 18th-century Mirror Cabinet. This was where the prince-bishop showed off his amazing wealth. It features kilos of gold leaf, lots of exotic Asian influence, and eye-popping extravagance. As for the commoners, we were finally allowed inside this glorious palace about two centuries later.