Dear 19th century…

September 20, 2011

…I’m aware that in the past I have, occasionally, spoken somewhat dismissively about some of the architecture, especially some of the castle architecture, you have produced. Now the thing is, dear 19th century,* I don’t have anything against you and your castles, but as a medievalist I do sometimes find it frustrating when, for instance, a signpost or a guidebook announces a medieval castle but then I get you instead. Let me explain this to you and to our readers…

Today, when it comes to the preservation and restoration of historical buildings, the usual approach is to secure the existing fabric without altering it and, most importantly, without adding anything to it. In most cases, of course, some additions (like roofs, stairs etc.) are indispensable, but nowadays they are usually executed in a way that makes them distinguishable from the original structure and clearly marks them as modern add-ons. For instance, when (the 19th century part of) Tyrol Castle was adapted as a museum in 2003, architect Markus Scherer chose artificially rusted steel as the material for the necessary additions:

Besides the fact that this looks simply amazing and makes a great contrast to the bare stone walls, it also makes it easy to distinguish “new” from “old”.

In the 19th century, however, the preferred approach was rather different, and what restorers tried to do was to reconstruct a given building’s “original appearance”. One of the major flaws in this approach is the fact that, more often than not, there simply was no (visual or documentary) evidence regarding a castle’s actual medieval appearance – so what 19th century architects and restorers did was, basically, that they invented an imaginary “original appearance” of the building, based on an idealized conception of what a medieval castle should look like.

This idealized conception was pretty much based on the idea of the picturesque, an aesthetical category introduced in the late 18th century by English artist and theorist William Gilpin (1724-1804). For Gilpin, both texture and composition were important in a “correctly picturesque” scene, be it in a painting, be it in a real landscape. The texture should be “rough”, “intricate”, “varied”, or “broken”, without obvious straight lines. I think it’s quite apparent how all of these qualities come together in the design of Runkelstein Castle, restored from 1884-1888 by famous architect Friedrich von Schmidt:

As in most castles rebuilt in the 19th century, in Runkelstein, particular care was devoted to creating richly textured “roof landscapes” with a preference for curved or bent outlines penetrated by spires, turrets and elaborate chimneys:

I believe it’s quite revealing to read the following passage from volume 4 of John Ruskin’s Modern Painters, published in 1856, after looking at the above photos of Runkelstein:

A broken stone has necessarily more various forms in it than a whole one; a bent roof has more various curves in it than a straight one; every excrescence or cleft involves some additional complexity of light and shade, and every stain of moss on eaves or wall adds to the delightfulness of colour. Hence in a completely picturesque object, as an old cottage or mill, there are introduced, by various circumstances not essential to it, but, on the whole, generally somewhat detrimental to it as cottage or mill, such elements of sublimity — complex light and shade, varied colour, undulatory form, and so on — as can generally be found only in noble natural objects, woods, rocks, or mountains. This sublimity, belonging in a parasitical manner to the building, renders it, in the usual sense of the word, “picturesque.” (6.15)

Like Runkelstein, Tyrol Castle, too, was “restored” according to picturesque principles in the 19th/early 20th century. Substantial additions and alterations were made especially to the part on the right (in the above photo): With its its high rising tower (elevated in 1904), its battlements and pointed roofs, and with its overall jagged and irregular outline it creates a sufficiently picturesque effect, especially in contrast to the rather plain, blocky building to the left. As has been mentioned before, it is this plain building that may be considered the most authentically medieval part of the castle – but this part, too, was subject to 19th century restoration work, directed, once again, by Friedrich von Schmidt. Now, von Schmidt, it should be noted, was the most important Gothic Revival architect in the Habsburg Empire, and he certainly knew his Middle Ages well. This becomes quite apparent when one looks at the Neo-Romanesque capitals he had inserted in the Great Hall of Tyrol Castle:

Not only do they show an extremely high level of craftsmanship, they also go together well with the original 12th century sculptures of the adjacent castle chapel. Of course, those capitals aren’t part of the castle’s “original appearance” but were invented only in the 19th century, but they still are great works of art in their own right. So, why was I complaining about this kind of thing in the first place? Because, on the path that leads up to Tyrol Castle there’s a signpost pointing to another nearby castle which reads: “Brunnenburg, 13th century”.

The Brunnenburg in 1845 (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

The Brunnenburg, just an arrow-shot away from Tyrol Castle, was indeed built in the 13th century, but – or rather BUT – by the mid-19th century it was nothing more than an increasingly decayed ruin. What you see today, is a structure that was more or less built from scratch in 1904:

Granted, the overall structure still bears some resemblance to the medieval disposition of the building, but with its turrets, oriels and merlons, today’s Brunnenburg is essentially a Neo-Romantic fantasy. And the way it seems to grow out of bare rock, while being overgrown with ivy itself, certainly makes it one of the most picturesque sights you’ll ever see…

So, if you ever happen to go there, have a look at it, enjoy it – it really is pretty – but don’t let the local tourist board trick you into believing that what you see actually dates to the Middle Ages.


* Perhaps I should clarify that when I say “19th century” it should be intended as the “long 19th century“.


September 12, 2011

As you may already know, [c] and I spent this year’s summer holidays at the place I was born and raised, in a small and idyllic valley high in the South Tyrolean mountains. Somewhat hastily, he promised you a heidi-esque expertise on grewing up and living  in the mountains, but to tell the truth,  I just do not know what I could tell you except that this is home to me: