Disraeli on Munich

Updated Wednesday, 7th September 2016
Writing in 1840, Benjamin Disraeli shared his passion for the Bavarian capital.

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Benjamin Disraeli

The destiny of nations appears to have decreed that a society should periodically, though rarely, flourish, characterised by its love of the Fine Arts, and its capacity of ideal creation. These occasional and brilliant ebullitions of human invention elevate the race of man; they purify and chasten the taste of succeeding generations; and posterity accepts them as the standard of what is choice, and the model of what is excellent.

Classic Greece and Christian Italy stand out in our universal annals as the epochs of the Arts. During the last two centuries, while manners have undergone a rapid transition, while physical civilisation has advanced in an unprecedented degree, and the application of science to social life has diverted the minds of men from other pursuits, the Fine Arts have decayed and vanished.

I wish to call the attention of my countrymen to another great movement in the creative mind of Europe; one yet young and little recognised, but not inferior, in my opinion, either to that of Athens or of Florence.

It was on a cloudless day of the autumn of last year, that I found myself in a city that seemed almost visibly rising beneath my eye. The street in which I stood was of noble dimensions, and lined on each side with palaces or buildings evidently devoted to public purposes. Few were completely finished: the sculptor was working at the statues that adorned their fronts; the painter was still touching the external frescoes; and the scaffold of the architect was not in every instance withdrawn. Everywhere was the hum of art and artists. The Byzantine style of many of these buildings was novel to me in its modern adaptation, yet very effective. The delicate detail of ornament contrasted admirably with the broad fronts and noble façades which they adorned. A church with two very lofty towers of white marble, with their fretted cones relieved with cerulean blue, gleamed in the sun; and near it was a pile not dissimilar to the ducal palace at Venice, but of nobler and more beautiful proportions, with its portal approached by a lofty flight of steps, and guarded by the colossal statues of poets and philosophers—suitably guarded, for it was the National Library.

As I advanced, I found myself in squares and circuses, in every instance adorned by an obelisk of bronze or the equestrian statue of some royal hero: I observed a theatre with a lofty Corinthian portico, and a pediment brilliantly painted in fresco with designs appropriate to its purpose; an Ionic museum of sculpture, worthy to enshrine the works of a Phidias or a Praxiteles; and a palace for the painter, of which I was told the first stone had been rightly laid on the birthday of Raffaelle. But what struck me most in this city, more than its galleries, temples, and palaces, its magnificent buildings, splendid paintings, and consummate statues, was the all-pervading presence and all-inspiring influence of living and breathing Art. In every street, a school: the atelier of the sculptor open, the studio of the painter crowded: devoted pupils, aspiring rivals: enthusiasm, emulation, excellence. Here the long-lost feudal-art of colouring glass re-discovered; there fresco-painting entirely revived, and on the grandest scale; while the ardent researches of another man of genius successfully analyses the encaustic tenting of Herculaneum, and secures the secret process for the triumph of modern Art. I beheld a city such as I had mused over amid the crumbling fanes of Pericles, or, aided alike by memory and fancy, had conjured up in the palaces and gardens of the Medici.

Such is Munich, a city which, half a century ago, was the gross and corrupt capital of a barbarous and brutal people. Baron Reisbech, who visited Bavaria in 1780, describes the Court of Munich as one not at all more advanced than those of Lisbon and Madrid. A good-natured prince, fond only of show and thinking only of the chase; an idle, dissolute, and useless nobility; the nomination to offices depending on women and priests; the aristocracy devoted to play, and the remainder of the inhabitants immersed in scandalous debauch.

With these recollections of the past, let us enter the palace of the present sovereign. With habits of extreme simplicity, and a personal expenditure rigidly economical, the residence of the King of Bavaria, when completed, will be the most extensive and the most sumptuous palace in the world. But, then, it is not merely the palace of a king: it is a temple dedicated to the genius of a nation. The apartments of state, painted in fresco on the grandest scale, bold in design, splendid in colour, breathe the very Teutonic soul. The subjects are taken from the ‘Nibelungenlied,’ the Gothic epic, and commemorate all the achievements of the heroic Siegfried, and all the adventures of the beautiful Chrimhilde. The heart of a German beats as he gazes on the forms and scenes of the Teutonic Iliad; as he beholds Haghen the fierce, and Dankwart the swift; Volker, the minstrel knight, and the beautiful and haughty Brunhilda. But in point of harmonious dimension and august beauty, no chamber is perhaps more imposing than the Kaiser Saal, or Hall of the Sovereigns. It is, I should think, considerably above one hundred feet in length, broad and lofty in exact proportion. Its roof is supported on either side by columns of white marble; the inter-columniations are filled by colossal statues, of gilded brass, of the electors and kings of the country. Seated on his throne, at the end of this imperial chamber, Louis of Bavaria is surrounded by the solemn majesty of his ancestors. These statues are by Schwanthaler, a sculptor who to the severe and classic taste and profound sentiment of his master, Thorwaldsen, unites an exuberance of invention which has filled Munich with the greatest works since Phidias. Cornelius, Julius Schnorr, and Hess are the principal painters who have covered the galleries, churches, and palaces of Munich with admirable frescoes. The celebrated Klenze is known throughout Europe as the first of living architects, and the favourite of his sovereign when that sovereign did not wear a crown; but we must not forget the name of Gartner, the architect who has revived the Byzantine style of building with such admirable effect.

But it was in the private apartments of the king that I was peculiarly impressed with the supreme genius of Schwanthaler. These chambers, eight in number, are painted in encaustic, with subjects from the Greek poets, of which Schwanthaler supplied the designs. The ante-chambers are devoted to Orpheus and Hesiod, and the ornaments are in the oldest Greek style; severely simple; archaic, but not rude; the figures of the friezes in outline, and without relief. The saloon of reception, on the contrary, is Homeric; and in its colouring, design, and decoration, as brilliant, as free, and as flowing as the genius of the great Mæonian. The chamber of the throne is entirely adorned with white bas-reliefs, raised on a ground of dead gold; the subjects Pindaric; not inferior in many instances to the Attic remains, and characterised, at the same time, by a singular combination of vigour and grace. Another saloon is devoted to Æschylus, and the library to Sophocles. The gay, wild muse of Aristophanes laughs and sings in his Majesty’s dressing-room; while the king is lulled to slumber by the Sicilian melodies and the soothing landscapes of Theocritus.

Of these chambers, I should say that they were a perfect creation of Art. The rooms themselves are beautifully proportioned; the subjects of their decorations are the most interesting in every respect that could be selected; and the purity, grace, and invention of the designs, are equalled only by their colouring, at the same time the most brilliant and harmonious that can be conceived; and the rich fancy of the arabesques and other appropriate decorations, which blend with all around, and heighten the effect of the whole. Yet they find no mean rivals in the private chambers of the queen, decorated in an analogous style, but entirely devoted to the poets of her own land. The Minnesingers occupy her first apartments, but the brilliant saloon is worthy of Wieland, whose Oberon forms it frieze; while the bedchamber gleams with the beautiful forms and pensive incidents of Goethe’s esoteric pen. Schiller has filled the study with his stirring characters and his vigorous incidents. Groups from ‘Wallenstein’ and ‘Wilhelm Tell’ form the rich and unrivalled ceiling: while the fight of the dragon and the founding of the bell, the innocent Fridolin, the inspired maiden of Orleans, breathe in the compartments of the walls.

When I beheld these refined creations, and recalled the scenes and sights of beauty that had moved before me in my morning’s wanderings, I asked myself, how Munich, recently so Boeotian, had become the capital of modern Art; and why a country of limited resources, in a brief space, and with such facility and completeness, should have achieved those results which had so long and utterly eluded the desires of the richest and most powerful community in the world?

It is the fashion of the present age to underrate the influence of individual character. For myself, I have ever rejected this consolation of mediocrity. I believe that everything that is great has been accomplished by great men. It is not what witnessed at Munich, or know of its sovereign, that should make me doubt the truth of my conviction. Munich is the creation of its king, and Louis of Bavaria is not only a king but a poet. A poet on a throne has realised his dreams.


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