On Site | Bratislava, Slovakia

Posted in Member News, on site by Editor on August 8, 2013

Eighteenth-Century Encounters: Bratislava, Slovakia

By Michael Yonan


Panorama of Bratislava from the Castle
(Photo by Stano Novak, Wikimedia Commons, 2006)

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Bratislava? Is that in Russia?

It was a typical response to my telling friends that this year’s European peregrinations would take me to Vienna, Paris, and Bratislava. The first two need no introduction; Bratislava does. Despite being the capital and largest city of Slovakia and a cultural center in Central Europe, it is nowhere near as well known as Prague or Budapest, nearby cities with some shared history. Although Bratislava has developed in the two decades since Communism’s fall, it still feels somewhat neglected and lags behind its peers. And yet therein lies Bratislava’s considerable charm. During my week there, I was repeatedly impressed by the beauty of the old city and its many attractions for specialists of eighteenth-century art. I left convinced that it is the forgotten gem among European capitals.

Bratislava 1Today Bratislava is a Slovak city with an appropriately Slavic name. Its cultural history, however, is extraordinarily complex even for this region, and the city displays significant influence from its Czech, Austrian, and Hungarian neighbors. For much of its history, it was known principally by its German name, Pressburg, and it has been home to a sizeable German-speaking minority for centuries. A resident from 1777 to 1783, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt produced many of his ‘Character Heads’ while living there. Under Habsburg leadership, Bratislava was the administrative capital of Hungary, and major Hungarian noble clans – including the Esterházy, Pálffy, and the Erdődy families – built grandiose palaces. Maria Theresa was crowned King of Hungary there (that’s not a misprint: it was King of Hungary), afterward riding on horseback to a nearby hill, where with sword held aloft, she swore to defend the Hungarians against military invasion. She also renovated the local castle with rococo apartments, the most important eighteenth-century Habsburg decorative project outside of Austria. Unfortunately, the apartments burned in a fire at the castle in 1811; we know their appearance today from preparatory drawings. Unlike Budapest, which has a distinctly nineteenth-century look, central Bratislava feels firmly entrenched in earlier eras. Its winding streets, plentiful palaces, church after ornately-adorned church, and mysterious alleyways and staircases provide precisely the historical ambience many of us relish in Europe.

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Mirbach Palace, Bratislava

As an example of its eighteenth-century architecture, there is the beautiful Mirbach Palace, located in the city center at Františkánske námestie 11.  Its current name comes from a twentieth-century owner, but the building dates from 1768–1770, when the prosperous local brewer Michal Spech built for his family an impressive palatial residence that easily competes with the noble architecture nearby. The architect’s identity is unknown. What I love about this building is the beautiful rococo ornamentation incorporated onto its façade. These forms are lifted directly from prints, particularly by Cuvilliés, but they have a prominence here not always seen on eighteenth-century façades. And, interestingly, the rococo forms are kept rather abstract, with no special iconographical additions that would alert passersby to the inhabitants’ business or pedigree. Its beauty is all the more evocative by being located on a narrow cobblestoned street, a typical streetscape of central Bratislava.

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Detail from Mirbach Palace, Bratislava

Inside the Mirbach Palace is the Bratislava City Art Museum, which holds a sizeable collection and mounts rotating exhibitions. Not far away is the Slovak National Gallery, Slovakia’s most important art institution. Here one can enjoy a comprehensive collection of eighteenth-century works by artists including Franz Palko, Franz Anton Maulbertsch, and Johann Michael Rottmayr.

While I’m plugging Bratislava, let me add in closing that the Slovaks give the Czechs some serious competition in the realm of beer (as explored by Mark Pickering earlier this year for The Guardian). With brewing skills of this caliber, it’s no surprise that Michal Spech could afford to build a gorgeous rococo abode.

All photos except the first, panoramic view are by the author.

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