Schloss Bruchsal Castle was once the home of the Prince Bishops of Speyer. The size of the complex, with more than fifty buildings, is overwhelming. Architectural features painted by illusionists, stucco ornaments richly gilded in gold, and huge, glittering gold dragons spouting water, add princely elegance to the facade of the central structure. The architecture, painting and stucco blends to form an artistic whole, spiriting the visitor into the world of the late 18th century court. and bears the clear stamp of the Prince Bishop Damien Hugo von Schönborn, the man of influence and connoisseur of art, who commissioned it.
Damien Hugo von Schönborn was the third son of eighteen children of a minister for one of the small German episcopal states. But in a culture where the most powerful rulers were Prince Bishops who underlay strict vows of chastity and celibacy, power did not flow from father to son, but from uncle to nephew. And Damien Hugo’s uncle was Lothar Franz von Schönborn, a very powerful Prince Bishop and Elector in the Holy Roman Empire at the beginning of the eighteenth century. and it was thanks to be careful machinations of his uncle that in 1719, Damion Hugo was elected Prince Bishop of Speyer. He ruled for over twenty years. During those 20 years his territory was always at peace, and Schönborn concentrated on reforming the administration of his territory and its transportation infrastructure. One of his achievements was also introducing compulsory education for school-age children starting in 1722.
The palace was begun in 1720, and several architects had already been involved when, in 1728, Balthasar Neumann, the well-known master builder from Würzburg, agreed to design the central building. His ingenious design created a double stairway at the heart of the building, held by the domed hall above and leading to the two grand reception halls: the Prince’s Hall facing the town, and the Marble (or Emperor’s) Hall on to the garden. He accomplished a structural masterpiece, a unique and ingenious specimen of baroque architecture.
Damian Hugo von Schönborn died as the result of a malaria infection that he caught while in Rome. During his life and time in office, his family reached the pinnacle of their influence in the affairs of the Holy Roman Empire.
In addition to Balthasar Neumann, the Lombardian artist Giovanni Francesco Marchini was also given great scope for his work in the palace. From the years 1731 to 1736 he painted the frescoes in the great hall known as the Intrada, as well frescoes in the Grotto and the Garden Room. He also painted the architectural tromp l’oeil facades of the main building and the orangery.
Under Prince Bishop Franz Christoph von Hutten, who succeeded Schoenborn, the interiors for the Prince’s Hall and Marble Hall were completed with decorative rococo tributes to the role of the prince bishops. The stucco work was completed by Johann Michael Feuchtmayer and the frescoes by Johannes Zick in 1755. The mythological idiom of the frescoes impressively narrates the past, present and future of the ecclesiastical principality. As the architectural and iconographic linchpin of this ecclesiastical seat, the Marble Hall radiates a vision of “the eternal constancy of happiness in the bishopric of Speyer”. The palace itself was finished in 1760.
In the years from 1900 until 1909, in one of the first recognized acts of architectural conservationism in Germany, the colorful tromp l’oeil facades of the buildings, which haand you know it is awe are in ad lightened to the point of invisibility, were restored by Fritz Hirsch.
In the last days of World War II the palace suffered severe damage because of fires caused by aerial bombing. While the substance of Balthasar Neumann’s baroque staircase survive the fire, the huge dome above it was more or less destroyed. The complex was rebuilt thirty years later finishing in February 1975, faithfully re-creating the central structure with Balthasar Neumann’s stairs in the middle. The wing with the church was not restored to its original state however but was reworked in a more modern style. Nonetheless, in exploring Bruchsal Palace we gain a powerful impression of the magnificence which reigned at the only seat of the ecclesiastical aristocracy on the Upper Rhine.
Today Schloss Bruchsal Castle houses a branch of the state museum, the Badische Landesmuseum, and the National Mechanical Musical Intrument Museum (in German: Deutsche Musikautimaten Museum).