Thursday 11 December 2014

A bird room in Bamberg

It's not strictly for the birds: upstairs you can gain, as the Bamberg Natural History Museum's leaflet puts it, 'an overview of the different phyla of the animal kingdom, beginning with the lowest and ending with the highest organized living species'. But what hits you as you enter the blue, white and gold early neoclassical Vogelsaal are the birds: European in and above the central cases, exotic around the walls.

The reason this was always going to be a highlight of my long-anticipated trip to Bamberg, Germany's most beautiful town of the ones I've seen (and it would, I think, be impossible to surpass in the whole of Europe, up there with the Italian gems), was the way that Simon Winder sold it to me in his freewheeling encyclopedia of the Teutonic weird and wonderful, Germania.'The real reason for mentioning Bamberg,' he writes with typical hyperbole of a city with one of the world's great cathedral areas, 'is that it contains perhaps the most wonderful room in the world. There are many grander, more original or more powerful rooms, but in the admittedly implausible context of being forced for no conceivable reason to choose one, it would have to be the prince-bishop's Natural History Museum in Bamberg'.

The history is a little confusing as applied to the exhibits. The Nature-Cabinet was founded by enlightened Prince-Bishop Franz Ludwig von Erthal, pictured above with ancestors and stones beneath him, as a source of wonder for the ordinary Bambergers - almost too late, since secularization soon spread to the left of the Rhine in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. Bavarian troops marched in seven years after Franz Ludwig's death and the 'independent ecclesiastical principality of Bamberg' was no more. Franz Ludwig, incidentally, did make far-reaching reforms in education, the legal system, care for the poor and health: I had the good fortune to be staying in what in 1789 was the most modern hospital in Europe.

In 1803 another collection, from the Banz monastery, was moved in to the Natural History Museum and Father Dionysius Linder raised the collection to a whole new level. Throughout the rest of the century, mostly under his successor Andreas Haupt, the focus on avian species led the hall to take the name 'Vogelsaal'.

Let Winder add some flavour:

The cases themselves are a monument to a specific, pretty neo-classical moment in design that enjoyed pyramids, bobbles and high little galleries [one could add the putti and the gold busts of naturalists ancient and modern]. Everywhere there are stuffed animals, skeletons, piles of hedgerow birds' eggs [hence the section title, 'A glass pyramid filled with robin eggs', which again may be slightly overegging the pudding]

...The room requires no soundtrack; so many historical spaces need sprucing up with some mental Bach or Mozart, but the stuffed creatures and the delicate architecture chase off that kind of extra, as though you have come through to the exact, silent heart of Enlightenment idealism.

I also like Winder's delight at the way the 'stolid purpose' of the Prince-Duke's practical museum is underlined by 'fun extras' like 'a glass obelisk of hummingbirds' placed at one end of the room.

Upstairs it just gets wackier. I'm not sure what the order is in the combination of grinning stuffed monkeys and stones in the vestibule - maybe higher and lower orders represent both the start and the end -

or the rather mangy, lonely stuffed lion on top of a cabinet full of skeletons

but out in the upper gallery

you turn left for invertebrates first - sponges and cnidaria like coral,

before moving on to fish at the south end, below a portrait of (I'm guessing) Andreas Haupt

where old and new labels mix in delicious confusion, and on to amphibians and reptiles: frogs and toads

and snakes in jars.

Let Winder take over again for the 'Pomological Cabinet', 'wax models of all the edible fruits of Franconia (accidentally preserving just how small fruit used to be)'.

These strange masterpieces were designed to cut through the wilderness of folk names for different kinds of plum and pear and establish a definitive name and definitive appearance. Some of the fruit are somewhat damaged, with holes in the thin wax both destroying and enhancing the illusion of exact ripeness and desirability. They were made in the 'Landes-Industrie-Comptoire' of Friedrich Justin Bertuch in Weimar between 1795 and 1813, and the fact that most of the cultivars have been lost adds to their ephemeral quality.

On the way out of a room I was very reluctant to leave, I descended the staircase past antlers attached to early 19th century model deers' heads

and out in the courtyard there's a splendid old black walnut tree.

Life is all around the Natural History Museum in the Inselstadt, enlivened by the presence of the university and its students. The lively Grüner Markt is still the place of choice for fruit, vegetables and flowers, here attracting a couple of nuns in front of St Martin's Church

while a place where I spent several happy hours, surrounded by folk of all ages, none of them on mobiles or laptops (was there a house rule?), was the Cafe Müller.

Its clean white lines reminded me of our dear friend Marta's favourite in Vienna, the Cafe Prückerl. I could get just as attached to this place if I lived here - and while Berlin might make more sense for a life, I can imagine the bürgerlich perfection of this place would be fun for half a year.

Anyway, there it is, a post I've been wanting to put up for months. Too many bright ideas come and go under pressure of work, but I feel I still haven't done extraordinary Bamberg full justice despite the Arts Desk piece, the little Hoffmann homage and this. Cathedral and riverside still on the list, but they may have to wait some time.


Susan Scheid said...

I'm so pleased you've given us a bit more of Bamberg, not to mention the associations with that wonderful book Germania. I've been feeling quite impoverished for visual stimulae here, and it brought to mind, among other things, all the wonderful places you've been able to get to in what seems to me to be a relatively short span. All the greater pleasure, then, to be able to enter into the world of Bamberg through your post. I'll look forward to more, whenever you can.

David said...

Thanks, Sue - I also have to chronicle the astonishing capitals of the Carmelite cloister (zzz, I hear from other readers, but if you read the post on the Monreale cloister and liked it, this is more of the same).

Wish you'd been with us last night - I took the class through Nielsen's Second Symphony, the wonderful Four Temperaments. Have always loved it but never studied it in detail, and how astonishing it is for 1902. There's also a programme note by Nielsen, who like Prokofiev could have been a professional writer. It includes a poetic, lilting (in what must be a very good English translation) short story about the character Nielsen imagines as his 'phlegmatic'. Will put it up in a post soon, I love it so.

Laurent said...

We only did a train stop in Bamberg on our way to Dresden in June. It looks fascinating, thank you for this post.

David said...

It's well worth a weekend if not a whole week, Laurent. I still haven't covered the outer regions like the castle zone or the unique market garden area which helped gain Bamberg its UNESCO World Heritage status. Italians apparently flock there, to one of the few towns comparable to their own; the English don't really seem to know that this should be Germany's No. 1 tourist attraction if it's a medieval and 18th century past you're looking for.

Susan Scheid said...

David: I'll look forward to the Nielsen posting, and I'm very sure I would have enjoyed your class about the 2d. Now seeing your response to Laurent, it's even clearer that Bamberg should be high on the list for future vacation planning. Our next "big trip" is a while off yet, but in the meantime I can dream . . .

David said...

The Nielsen post may be some time, Sue, but in the meantime the Arts Desk review is up of Friday night's concert. The Four Temperaments stunned, but I was taken aback by how well Busoni's 85 minute Piano Concerto worked - of equal interest in a vintage programme. Five stars - since we're obliged to give them - despite small faults.

One of Bamberg's virtues is its closeness to 'Czechia', the Bohemian part of which at least could be easily embraced on some such trip. There's Bayreuth too, of course, but reports have it that the Ring in nearbly Nuremberg will be much better than the Castorf overload when it's completed. Our friend Rachel Tovey is singing Brunnhilde, so we'll make a week of it when the whole cycle is ready.

Susan Scheid said...

Holy mackerel! I'm listening to BBC Player now, though I'll probably have to start in again tomorrow, as the hour is late, but this Busoni is something else!

Your review is fabulous, really captures the evening, and of course I love Busoni's design for the score's cover, not to mention your use of "anorak" in the first para. Nope, I don't think you tied yourself in knots trying to describe it, on the contrary, your recounting is vivid and particular, and of course I have to laugh when I think it took me three days to write 400 words about 1 CD with two pieces I've listened to repeatedly of a composer (Adams) whose work I know fairly well.

Well, I'm sure glad I ordered up my ticket to the Oramo/NY Phil concert in New York (February), though the program is nothing like this. I'm wondering now if I should try to make it in for the open rehearsal, too--what do you think?

You have also just added, in your latest comment, to the virtues of Bamberg and environs (as if I needed more convincing . . . ).

David Damant said...

David, you are addressing a highly sophisticated group here on your blog, but you should hope that your recommendation to the English ( and others) to take more notice of Bamberg is NOT taken on board more widely. Numbers alone, quite apart from any other consideration, can ruin a place, especially as the locals respond by providing profitable services which are not medieval or 18th century.

David said...

Yes, absolutely, do go to the open rehearsal. It will depend on what stage they've reached as to whether you just get a straight playthrough or more, and I usually can't hear what the conductor's saying from where I'm sitting. But Sakari is clearly a great guy, plenty of encouraging grins to the orchestra, obviously loves what he conducts to bits. I'll find out for myself in Januray when I interview him (finally; it was supposed to happen in Stockholm last March, when he was sick and Jukka-Pekka stepped in with that phenomenal Beethoven 7).

Herr Damant, du hast recht. So many places I discovered as a 'traveller' have been ruined by 'tourists' (defined by busloads and the herd mentality). I somehow suspect that apart from the cathedral area, which already fills up with vast parties of Chinese and Japanese especially, the rest of Bamberg - including places like the Carmelite cloister - would be left alone. Mind you, that used to be true of Venice beyond St Mark's Square and the Rialto, and now everyone is everywhere. We can't complain, as however selective we like to think we are, we're still part of the problem.

If, however, the most loyal blogfolk like Sue and wanderer get to go (you've been, I guess), my enthusiasm will have been well spent.

Congatulations, by the way, for getting the Lampedusa heir Gioacchino and the lovely Nicoletta (aka the Duke and Duchess of Palma) to the Garrick. Damn nuisance that I was talking myself that evening (to an audience of five, as I think I've mentioned). Great report from diplomate and a few tasty morsels to sample

wanderer said...

Rachel Tovey is stunning! Well, she stunned me in Elektra in Nuremberg, ears still ringing, and what about the (Bieito) Turandot here. For The Ring I would travel there depending on the usual variables, so who knows!

I have to say, nothing prepared Nuremberg: the German in Germany, the home of Dürer, the home of the Reich as much as anywhere else, its horrors on display, the vast hideous Hitler rally fields suburbanizing themselves with car races and dance parties, the great churches (Meistersingers), the home of the bay window one floors up for the rich and discrete to observe the street in privacy, the walls unbreached till the Americans arrived bringing money, and men ...

Bamberg I did visit on a day trip from Bayreuth PC (pre Castorf) and defer of course to David's vastly superior everything. Actually, what sticks in my mind were the shops and dealers in religious icons and statues, wooden of course, some of museum quality and likewise priced.

One really needs a car down there.

David Damant said...

Age has a few disadvantages, but one advantage is that I saw so many marvelous places before the crowds. Only half a dozen people in the Sistine Chapel and the Escorial. As for the great temple at Angkor Wat I was alone except for a priest in a saffron robe burning incense and chanting

Whereas can only employ the comment made by the Guards Officer when he was asked what it was like on the beaches at Dunkirk
"My Dear - the Noise ! And the People!"