Eighteenth-Century Encounters: Lövstabruk, Sweden

Posted in on site by yonanm on July 31, 2014


by Michael Yonan

In traveling through the forested plains of eastern Sweden, one encounters a Nordic rural idyll. Abundantly verdant, dotted with charming red houses, and home to the occasional moose, it is a region seemingly far removed from the bustle of Stockholm or the university culture of nearby Uppsala. The presence of scattered Viking runestones in the landscape only adds to the feeling of having traveled far from the modern world. Yet as one enters the front gates of Lövstabruk, a beautifully preserved eighteenth-century mining estate, it becomes apparent this was in its time no remote backwater but that, instead, it kept in touch with the most current continental developments in the sciences and arts.

Truthfully, the realization didn’t come entirely as a surprise when I visited Lövstabruk in May. Virtually every Swedish dix-huitièmiste speaks of the town with great affection, and many conveyed the belief that one finds there something very Swedish indeed. That interested me greatly, since one of Sweden’s more remarkable eighteenth-century qualities was its cosmpolitanism, its participation in cultural developments we associate mostly with other places. The best known to art historians is the Swedish connection to France. Yet that’s just the beginning of a much larger history of Swedish cultural exchange, of which Lövstabruk is a prime example.

To understand this place, one needs to be familiar with the Swedish institution of the bruk. The word has no exact English equivalent; it can mean forge, mine, or mill. In Sweden the bruk was a major impetus for small-scale civic development based on Sweden’s immensely rich mineral and metal deposits. The largest of the nation’s many mines was the Great Falun Mine (Stora Kopparberg), which operated for a millennium and at its peak supplied Europe with two-thirds of its copper. Lövstabruk was an ironworks that processed ore from the nearby mine at Dannemora. Interestingly, the region’s miners were a mixture of native Swedes and émigré Walloons who relocated to work in the industry. One can find in Sweden today the legacy of mass Walloon migration in the occasional French or French-sounding name.

IMG_4314For art historians, Lövstabruk is most interesting because of its material legacy. The nobles overseeing the estate originated in the Netherlands, and it was they who expanded Lövstabruk’s footprint after a 1719 fire. Notable among them was Charles de Geer (1720–1778), who began collecting books and natural specimens for the library at Lövsta. De Geer published a comprehensive multivolume study of insects—modeled after Réaumur and Linnaeus—and oversaw an extensive building campaign that resulted in many of Lövstabruk’s architectural glories. The manor house contains a series of rococo rooms hung with dozens of beautiful eighteenth-century portraits. The musical culture at Lövstabruk was also world-class; the de Geers collected musical scores from Amsterdam and Paris for use in local concerts. But the jewel of Lövstabruk is unquestionably the library, designed by Swedish architect Jean-Eric Rehn (1717–1793). Housed in a separate little building immediately overlooking the central waterway and garden, the library gives the impression of having been left untouched since 1780. It
perfectly evokes the nobleman–scholar–entrepreneur ideal so
cherished during the Enlightenment.

IMG_4312Postal deliveries to this little Swedish town must have been incredible indeed, containing as they did drawings by Watteau and Boucher, scores by Handel and Vivaldi, and the latest volumes of Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie. I spotted Mme de Graffigny’s Lettres d’une péruvienne and books by Montesquieu and Rousseau on the library’s shelves. This give-and-take between such a distinctively local institution, the bruk, and the larger international culture is what makes Lövstabruk so distinctive. Recently, historian Göran Rydén has described Lövstabruk as an architectural metaphor for eighteenth-century Sweden as a whole: “a local community reaching out to a much wider global setting,” as well as “a place consuming commodities from other global places.”1 That interaction between the local and the global produces a “provincial cosmpolitanism,” to use Rydén’s term, the effects of which shaped the formation of Swedish society. To a visitor like me, it seems correct to claim that Lövstabruk was a microcosm of the eighteenth-century world.

1. Göran Rydén, “Provincial Cosmopolitanism: An Introduction,” in Sweden in the Eighteenth-Century World, ed. Göran Rydén (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), p. 5.

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Michael Yonan is the president of HECAA and author of Empress Maria Theresa and the Politics of Habsburg Imperial Art (Penn State Press, 2011). From January to June 2014 he was research fellow at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study, Uppsala.


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