Whether it was a question of a new church or a magnificent palace, during the first half of the 18th century many important German clients favored only one man—the Bohemian-born Balthasar Neumann. His name was heard everywhere, his trademark being magnificent staircases.
Neumann’s beginnings were comparatively modest. The son of two cloth-makers, he was apprenticed to his godfather, a metal caster. But as a 25-year-old, having meanwhile moved to Wurzburg, Neumann became deeply involved in other interests. He entered the artillery, which enabled him to begin a career as an engineer, and to receive further training in hydraulics, geometry, fortifications, and architecture.
The Home of a Prince-Bishop
Neumann’s talents were in demand as early as 1715, when the influential Schonborn family commissioned him to build a fountain for the family palace. They were clearly satisfied with the result, for further commissions followed immediately. The Schon-borns were to become the master builder’s most important patrons. When Johann Philipp Franz von Schonborn was chosen as Prince-Bishop of Wurzburg in 1719, his preferred architect was already in place: under Neumann’s direction, work began on the Prince-Bishop’s new residence. Together with Lucas von Hildebrandt, Maximilian von Welsch and a number of other artists he created, over the next decade and a half, a superb complex, whose four wings surround a cour d’honneur (a courtyard for ceremonial occasions). For one of the structural high points, the impressive staircase, Neumann made himself personally responsible. From the entrance hall on the ground floor, a wide step leads to a gallery placed around the staircase. To ascend, visitors must first climb the lower flight of steps and thus reach a landing. Now they have to change direction and decide in favor of one of the two flights of stairs leading to the gallery. With this sophisticated arrangement, Neumann succeeded in directing the visitor’s gaze slowly but surely upwards—above the white stucco decorations of the gallery walls, step by step there opens up a view of a monumental ceiling fresco, executed by the Venetian artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.
For Pilgrims and Baroque Fans
It was not only for innovative staircase designs that Neumann was engaged over the years that followed. He also found ample opportunities to prove himself in church architecture. He created a number of churches that clearly illustrate that there were no limits to his wealth of invention. In Vierzehnheiligen, a Bavarian pilgrimage church, for example, he created a ground plan composed of ovals of various sizes. The facade of the building, flanked by two towers, projects in the central area, and in the interior too Neumann stressed its three-dimensionality, so that the church appears almost to move— a feast for the eyes for both religious and architectural pilgrims.