lördag 7 januari 2012

Stig Johansson: Slottsbyggarna ("The palace builders")

In 1697, the Swedish royal castle in Stockholm, Tre Kronor ("Three Crowns") burned and was largely destroyed.

The old castle depicted by Govert Dircksz Camphuysen, 1661 (Wikipedia).

Sweden at the time being a great power in Europe – Karl XII hadn't yet managed his impressive feat of destroying Europe's most invincible army (twice!) – it was obvious that the castle would have to be rebuilt in style. The old castle had been old-fashioned for quite a while, its origins were medieval even though it had been modernized by Sweden's Renaissance kings. Architect Nicodemus Tessin the Younger had already started turning it into a strict Baroque palace, starting with the northern part.

The fire as depicted by Johan Frerik Höcker, 1866 (Wikipedia).

The fire meant that that work was halted, even if the northern part to some extent survived the fire. But this was an excellent opportunity for building a completely new palace according to the most modern architectural fashions of the day. (The really big tragedy, IMO, was the loss of so much of Sweden's national archives, which could have been very helpful to today's historians.)

Post-fire (Wikipedia).

So Tessin the Younger got the job, and set to work. He had a design ready the very same year, and work started tearing down the remains of the old castle. It was hard, dirty work, done by soldiers in clouds of unhealthy dust and soot – but not just soldiers; women also worked there, picking up and taking care of things that could be salvaged. People convicted of theft but unable to pay their fines could be condemned to working there. The hard work and lousy working conditions killed a few.

Then Karl XII lost the battle of Poltava, and most of the Swedish army, and holed up in Turkey. He could no longer properly oversee the work, and it ground to a halt – first for that reason, then because Sweden had become impoverished by all the wars, and once it lost large parts of its empire, it couldn't afford the expense. By 1709, the outer walls had been erected one floor high, and that's where things would stand until 1727, when it was finally deemed that Sweden could afford restarting the work.

By then, Tessin the Younger had but one year left to live. His son Carl Gustaf took over, but not being the architect his father had been, left the practical work of designing the palace, especially its interior, to the talented Carl Hårleman who created a beautiful Rococo palace, since Baroque had by then gone out of style. Tessin instead concentrated on getting enough money from the parliament to keep the work going, and on getting French artists and artisans to Sweden to do the actual work and decorations – and to teach talented young Swedes how to do it, as well. This would eventually produce several generations of skilled and talented Swedish artists, sculptors, architects and artisans, and is something to be very grateful for. Building the palace was costly, in money as well as in human toil, but at least some really good and beautiful things came out of it in the end.

Wikipedia has a bunch of pictures of the palace and its interiors here.

        Cover pic borrowed from this bookseller.

Stig Johansson's excellent book Slottsbyggarna tells the story of how a new palace was built to replace the old one, and tells the stories of some of the people who worked on it in various capacities by going to the archives to see what they did, how they were paid, and in some cases, what eventually became of them. That is in itself enough for a good book, but he also describes the crafts involved in the building process (like bricklaying, masonry, stucco etc) as well as how the necessary resources were extracted from nature or produced at various mills, and transported to Stockholm. To this he also adds observations on how life was for the ordinary people of 1700s Stockholm. It's an impressive feat, and at times quite fascinating.

(Though occasionally, when Johansson delves a bit too deeply into the details of some crafts and/or building techniques, I will admit to my eyes glazing over slightly. In those cases, when the text becomes too technical, I do wish for some pictures or diagrams illustrating what he's talking about.)

Anyway, this is an great and impressive book, and recommended for the Swedish-speaker who is at all interested in those beautiful old palaces and how they were built, as well as for those who want to learn about what people's lives and work looked like 300 years ago.

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