Summary: The story of Heidelberg’s cityscape is reflected directly in the story of its reconstruction, the dichotomy of lofty aspirations and hard politics.
The city of Heidelberg boasts a captivating cityscape that unravels a one-of-a-kind tale. A cultural hub that rose from the ruins of foreign occupation, Heidelberg has laid the groundwork for a novel architectural expression. The towering ruins of the Renaissance castle have served as a source of inspiration for many 19th-century romantics, who have contemplated its forgotten glories. This article aims to delve into and guide you through the fascinating narrative of Heidelberg’s architectural heritage.
If you want to know if Heidelberg is worth visiting first, see this article below:
Traveling Around Heidelberg
Once at Heidelberg’s main station, don’t make the mistake of walking to the old town. As with every German city, Heidelberg was not spared wartime destruction, and the large stretch of the city between the main station and Bismarkplatz was cleared in the postwar period (Though even here, there are still some nice corners, but none really worth chasing after).
To reach the old town, you can take a tram, bus or continue on a light-rail connection to the Altstadt Station, which will deposit you at the heart of the old town. The preserved old town can be divided into three parts, of which only one will likely be of interest. The portions of Heidelberg to the north of the Neckar River and the south side of the city are beautiful pieces of 19th-century urban planning, full of late Historicist and Art Nouveau architecture. There is nothing special to mention about them. For the most part, the quality of the buildings in these areas is pretty average. Unfortunately, the richest collections of 19th-century architecture would have been around the main station, which were lost in the war.
The rest of the tour will focus on the city center and chronologically explore the cityscape. By doing so, I will tell the story of the Baroque architectural style and the reconstruction of the Palatinate following the destruction of the War of Palatine Succession.
Before the Fall
In 1697 Heidelberg was reduced to ash on the orders of King Louis XIV during the War of Palatine Succession, more broadly part of the French Wars of Reunion. The King had been denied his decisive blow on the Holy Roman Empire and was forced to concede that he could not annex the entire left bank of the Rhine. Instead, he launched a scorched earth campaign, burning cities, blowing up castles, and driving the population across the Rhine. His goal was the utter destruction of the Rhineland, and the region never fully recovered from his campaign.
Heidelberg was the capital of the Palatinate, a mid-sized state in the Holy Roman Empire with the right to vote for the Emperor. It was the only political entity with any strategic relevance on the left bank of the Upper Rhine. This was a prime motivating factor for the French conquest and later destruction of Heidelberg.
Church of the Holy Spirit
So complete was the destruction of Heidelberg in 1697 that there is virtually nothing left which predates this period. Indeed only the Church of Holy Spirit on the main market square offers a preserved interior space from Medieval Heidelberg. This is remarkable, given that the French army specifically designated the church for destruction, and they intentionally sacked it and set it ablaze. The building has several interesting characteristics that make it worth nothing.
The current building replaced a late Romanesque basilica completed around 1300. A century later, in 1389, Elector Ruprecht III ordered the choir to be broken up for a more modern Gothic-hall design to suit his new status as King of the Germans. The remainder of the church was replaced a century later in 1441, using a later Gothic style reflecting south German stylistic preferences. This can be seen with the inclusion of raised Galleries, a feature more typically associated with the Middle-Rhine and but also with later Renaissance churches in Eastern Germany
A unique stylistic feature of the building is the visual axis down the nave towards the choir. From the back of the church, the focus is placed not on the windows but on the supporting pillars in the choir. This is enabled by the hall-church design of the choir and draws the eyes to the triumphal arch created at the intersection of the nave and choir. This was a design paradigm found occasionally in South German architecture, most famously in the Church of the Holy Cross in Schwäbisch Gmünd, the largest hall church in Germany.
Of the once-rich collection of epitaphs and effigies celebrating the local nobility and patrons of the city, most were destroyed and plundered by the French. Only the sarcophagus of King Ruprecht III remains in its late Gothic glory. Additionally, several frescos survived the centuries, including the angelic concert in the nave ceiling and the list of family arms on the southern transept wall. Most of the baroque furnishings were distributed after WWII to other churches emptied of their inventory, and today only the pulpit remains of the original liturgical inventory.
More visible from the cityscape is the exterior roof of the church. Once the French allowed people to return to the ruined city, the church was the first building to receive repairs. On this note, the roof is special, being one the first, and the oldest surviving mansard roof in Germany. It reflects the beginnings of the architectural ambition that would shape the reconstruction of Heidelberg and later Mannheim.
The Palace of the Electors
The now ruined palace rising above the hill was once an artistically ambitious project that projected the Renaissance into the Rhineland. Today it is a monument that inspires both awe and melancholy, as so the romantics of the 19th century thought, famously including the US author Mark Twain. It is also a landmark in the architectural development of Germany, featuring the oldest surviving examples of Renaissance architecture on German soil, and whose great gardens contributed greatly to the development of court garden culture.
The Electoral Palace has its roots in a late medieval castle complex, likely completed around 1300, when the Palatinate passed into the hands of the Wittelsbach dynasty. The city of Heidelberg was relatively young by this point, having been raised to the county capital only in 1225 when the court arrived from Bacharach on the Middle Rhine. As a result, the castle remained small and was thus deemed insufficient in 1401, when King Ruprecht III ordered the castle transformed into a palace worthy of his stature. The remains of his medieval Palace are still visible in the pointed arches of the Ruprechtsbau.
The most architecturally significant components of the Palace are the Ottheinrichsbau and the Friedrichsbau, both early examples of the German Renaissance. Of course, by the end of the 15th century, when both buildings were finished, the Renaissance had been underway for almost a century in Italy. Both buildings would better be described as part of the Mannerist movement, evident in the allegorical program of statues from Greek mythology representing the Elector. The composition reflects the Renaissance view of an organized universe, the figures at the base representing human achievement, such as military conquest, overlooked by Christian virtues, such as justice and loyalty on the next level, themselves governed by God and the higher powers of nature and fate at the top.
Though the French would destroy both the Ottheinrichsbau and the Friedrichsbau, the Prince-Elector began the reconstruction of this Palace almost immediately afterward. This reconstruction would be given up shortly after, as the Catholic Prince-Elector was evicted from the predominantly Protestant city. However, the interiors of the reconstructed Friedrichsbau are not original to the time period. Though some furnishings date to the reconstruction, most are 19th-century interpretations of what the interior would have looked like before the French sack of the castle. Overall, the effect is quite tasteful and worth a visit if you have the time to spare.
The Reconstruction Begins
In this section, I have highlighted a series of specific buildings that reflect the different stages of the reconstruction period and what the architecture says about that period.
The reconstruction proceeded in roughly four stages:
- Local Traditions: The use of traditional styles from the region
- Plans of the Elector: to standardize and expedite the reconstruction process
- Homes of the Bughers: Innovation in construction among the towns’ citizens
- Residences of the Nobility: Wealth and prosperity return to Heidelberg
Other than the elector himself, perhaps the most important figure in this story is the Court Architect Johann Adam Breunig. He would design most of the buildings that we will be looking at in this article. It is also rather appropriate that his death in 1727 corresponds with the capital’s move to Mannheim, thus largely ending the reconstruction story in Heidelberg.
Stage One: Local Traditions
The first buildings reconstructed after the war ended in 1697 followed traditional wooden-frame designs from the region. In particular, this style of gable construction, with an open facade facing the street, dates back to the middle ages and was popular in Swabia and Württemberg (e.g. Tübingen is perhaps the best example of this cityscape). The buildings from this period reflect some extent, how Heidelberg would have appeared in previous centuries, and at least one case (Zum Seppl) is built on the original medieval foundations of the previous building.
It’s unlikely that many buildings of this style were completed before the Elector began to plan for a unified reconstruction effort.
Stage Two: Plans of the Elector
The Elector Johann Wilhelm intended to use the destruction of his city as an opportunity to build a modern and representative capital. Even before the war ended, he had plans for a unified style. His efforts are evident in the main market square, with “Model Houses” built on the south and north sides of the market square, along with a representative town hall.
The designs are likely influenced by sketches from the Belgian architect Bertholet Flémal and represent simple appeals to the baroque style. Each building has three main components, the ground floor, facade, and roof, each with the same number of stores. Despite the relative uniformity, each building displays a degree of uniqueness, including varying widths and differing levels of ornamentation. The Town hall was expanded in the 19th century, with the original facade now surviving as only the central portion of the new one. Its original symmetry was heavily influenced by examples from the lowlands (c.f. Maastricht, Liege, Lier, etc.).
That the homes appear so different from each other despite efforts to create a unified image program for the city has much to do with the independence of the property-owning class. Most of the homes were built on the remnants of medieval foundations, which largely predetermined the size and position of the new homes. This was due in no small part to the dire financial straights that the city and its citizens were suffering under in the post-war period. This also affected the style, reflected in most homes’ reserved and unadorned facades.
Finally, the religious conflict would eventually drive the Elector from Heidelberg. Seeking to enforce the Counter Reformation in his capital, the Elector would adopt the symbols of a catholic monarch to enforce his rule. This ranged from the establishment of the Jesuit Monastery to the incorporation of religious statues throughout the city. The effect was to enrage the populace and increase the resistance to his grand ambitions. By 1720, the new Elector Carl Philipp had given up, and he moved the capital to his planned city in Mannheim, giving the residents of Heidelberg more freedom but reducing the city’s economic and political relevance.
Stage Three: Homes of the Burghers
Even without the intervention of the Prince-Elector, the cityscape of Heidelberg slowly began to reflect the social hierarchy of 18th-century Europe. The rich and famous could afford to live on the Hauptstraße (Main Street) and on the various plazas throughout the city. Wealthy burghers could find an affordable home on the Untere Straße (Lower Street), and the remaining workers and artisans would inhabit the many radiating side streets and alleyways.
The “Heidelberg Baroque” is not really a coherent term in the sense that it conveys a set of stylistic preferences unique to the city. Most of what makes the buildings in Heidelberg unique is due to the destruction of the entire city, the planned reconstruction efforts, and the need to reuse medieval foundations to save money. As a result, there are many buildings with shared characteristics, but these do not extend beyond the unique history of the city, and the Court in Mannheim would ultimately be the driver of architectural innovation in the Palatinate.
A number of features characterize the typical homes of the middle classes:
- Simple and symmetric designs with little to no ornamentation
- Ornamentation is limited to the profiled window and door frames, which would become increasingly intricate over time. Heidelberg, in particular, had a specific affinity for the volute.
- The reuse of medieval foundations and cellars led to complications and odd-shaped buildings. One notable consequence was that the ground floor often had to be raised a half-story above the street level to incorporate street access to the cellar. This resulted in elaborate doorways and door-window combinations to ensure that the entrance stairway could be both accessed and illuminated from the outside.
One notable case is the Haus zum Ritter on the main market square. Constructed in 1592 by a religious refugee from France, it is the only surviving secular remnant of pre-1697 Heidelberg. Built in an elegant late Renaissance style, the facade follows strict symmetry and includes the traditional classical orders. The building has a great deal in common with the Renaissance styles found elsewhere in Germany, such as the Main and Weser regions, and those styles likely took inspiration from Flanders.
Stage Four: Residences of the Nobility
With the reconstruction in full swing, the nobility would return and begin to reconstruct palaces and residences, reflecting the return of wealth and status of the city. Unlike the regular citizenry, they were not bound to the original medieval city plan, and many places would replace ruined medieval institutions such as hospitals and monasteries. These new palaces would introduce the high baroque to the city, which can still be seen today. The palaces generally display a collection of provincial styles based on French and Italian models. Below is a list of some of the more interesting ones to see.
Haus zum Riesen (Hauptstr. 52)
Build Year: 1707
Architect: Johann Adam Breunig
In the most resplendent example of the early Baroque places, the central axis is covered in rich details describing the owner’s characteristics. At the top is Lord Venningen himself. On the left are musical and scientific instruments, and on the right are hunting and military motifs.
Palais Morass (Kurpfälzisches Museum)
Build Year: 1712
Architect: Johann Adam Breunig
Constructed on the site of a ruined hospital for a Professor of Law, Philipp Morass, the Palace is the only one with a preserved interior. The facade is simple, with an 11-window axis. The facade has a strong vertical emphasis thanks to the ornamentation under each window.
Travel Tip: The Museum has some fantastically preserved interiors, artifacts and clothing showing the lifestyles of the Heidelberg elite throughout the centuries and up into the modern day. Its worth a visit.
Palais Rischer (Untere Str. 11)
Build Year: 1713
Architect: Johann Jakob Rischer
As with the Pfälzer Hof, the Italian palazzo influences the design, with the facade framed by a more traditional Corinthian column and heavily accented window frames.
Pfälzer Hof (Hauptstr. 127)
Build Year: 1721
Architect: Johann Jakob Rischer
The facade is framed nicely by two elaborate pilasters on the sides, a balustrade above the shop floor, and a continuous Ionian roof-line. The design hints at a more provincial Italian baroque.
With growing religious and civil unrest, the capital was moved to Mannheim, an act that made Heidelberg largely irrelevant to the members of the Electoral court. As a result, major palace construction would cease, and many of the established families would sell their palaces and move to Mannheim. Heidelberg would remain an essential city to the Electors of the Palatinate, even as it began to lose political relevance. The prestigious university, in particular, would increasingly define the city’s identity.
Civic and Religious Life
The civic life in Heidelberg was characterized by increasing religious strife. The largely Reformed (Calvinist) city became the target of increased counter-reformation efforts by the Catholic Elector. Symbolically this included the construction of the Jesuit monastery, the catholic hospital of St. Anna, and the incorporation of catholic symbols around the cityscape.
The Jesuit Monastery is the most significant construction in this category. Begun in 1711 following plans by the court architect Johann Adam Breunig, it broadly follows the template set by the (then) Jesuit monastery church of St. Martin in Bamberg. The distinctive hall church design was fashionable at the time in southern Germany. The facade is also somewhat unique for the German baroque, as a rough copy of the Jesuit mother church Il Gesu in Rome.
The church was unfinished when the capital moved to Mannheim, and construction would not resume for nearly 30 years as funds were diverted to the Mannheim Jesuit church. This kept much of the design to a simplistic minimum. Likewise, there is no original inventory to speak of, and the many artifacts in the interior date from the 19th century.
While the Jesuit church would be the most prominent symbol of the Counter-Reformation and Electoral Power in the reconstruction period, the cityscape has numerous other artifacts from this period. Below is a list of some of the more noteworthy inclusions.
Haus Meder (Hauptstr. 168)
Build Year: 1720s
Architect: Johann Adam Breunig
The best example of the Counter-Reformation in Heidelberg is the Meder House. The late Baroque ornamentation is the richest of any non-noble residence and, unusually for its purpose as a secular residence, is covered in religious iconography. The reliefs display symbols of the trinity, along with the life-size statue of St. Mary as the ruler of heaven.
St. Anna Hospital
Build Year: 1714
Architect: Johann Adam Breunig
One of the first major civic works undertaken was a hospital to replace the many that had been destroyed in the fire. It was built on the field hospital site, which had initially managed the casualties related to the siege. The building is otherwise only noteworthy for its distinctive Baroque facade, mirroring the Jesuit Church. The building was likely never finished, construction being simplified after the capital was moved to Mannheim.
Old University Building
Build Year: 1712
Architect: Johann Adam Breunig
The university building is straightforward, marked only by the repeating pilasters on the exterior walls. This reflects the decline in importance that the university faced with the move to Mannheim, and it was when Heidelberg came under the control of the Duchy of Baden in 1820 that it would see new life.
By now, it should be clear that with the move to Mannheim, the story of Heidelberg’s reconstruction ends. The city’s influence on regional patterns of architecture is transmitted through its influence on the architecture of the new capital in Mannheim. Though not negligible, other sources of influence, particularly from France, would dominate the construction paradigms of the new capital city. That Heidelberg would never attain the cultural and political influence it had during the Renaissance is perhaps all the better, as it would be Mannheim that consequently would bear the weight of destruction in WWII.
Heidelberg Opening Hours
The main sights in Heidelberg have accessible opening times, so there’s no need to plan your day in advance.
|Castle Ruin (Museum)||Everyday 10 am–5 pm|
|Church of the Holy Spirit||Everyday 11 am–5 pm|
|Jesuit Church||Everyday 10 am–5 pm|
|Kürpflälzisches Museum||Tuesday-Sunday 10 am–6 pm|
Heidelberg is a charming town with an unusually coherent cityscape and narrative attached to it. The city deserves its status as one of the top destinations in Germany, though it falls short of the hype due to its small size and limited tourist capacity. It is worth a day to enjoy the city and its environment.
- Wikipedia for a lot of the dates and names, see the embedded links
- If you speak German, the website Heidelberg im Barock has an excellent breakdown by building with pictures.
- Mueller, Carla, and Katrin Rössler. 2007. Barockschloss Mannheim. München: Dt. Kunstverl.
- Luzie Bratner, and Rheinland-Pfalz. Generaldirektion Kulturelles Erbe Rheinland-Pfalz. 2014. Mit Allen Sinnen : Reisewege Zum Barock in Rheinland-Pfalz. Regensburg:Schnell & Steiner.
- All Maps made with Datawrapper
- St. Anna: Wikipedia
- Old University: Wikipedia