A ‘German Renaissance Architect’ on the Ottoman-Hungarian Borderlands: Interpretation of Problems, Problems of Interpretation

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Thursday, May 9, 2019 - 5:30pm to 7:30pm


In his 1931 exploration of the differences between German and Italian art, Heinrich Wölfflin asserted that the German Formgefühl precluded the existence of great German Renaissance architects like those in Italy. Although scholarship has abandoned such nationalist interpretations, Central European Renaissance architecture still poses difficulties of interpretation. Sixteenth-century Central European architects worked within a guild system and therefore preferred the traditional titles Steinmetz and Baumeister over the classically derived Architekt. They built Gothic vaults throughout this period, and perhaps most significantly for modern scholars, they did not write architectural treatises. As recently as 2004 Arnold Bartetzky could ask whether the German Renaissance architect was “a myth of art history.”

This paper examines the concept of a Renaissance architect in the context of Central Europe through the example of the Habsburg court architect, Bonifaz Wolmut (c. 1500-1579), who worked in Hungary, Vienna, and Prague. Wolmut received a traditional guild education and described himself as a Steinmetz throughout his career. He considered the Gothic vault he built in Prague castle to be his masterpiece, writing passionately in defense of his design. Nonetheless, he was the earliest Central European architect to thoroughly engage with published architectural theory, developing the principles presented in Serlio’s publications in his own work. He owned a large library encompassing astrological, alchemical, and religious texts, including German manuscript translations of Latin publications. This collection illustrates his participation in intellectual circles at the Vienna and Prague courts. His letters to his patrons, Emperors Ferdinand I and Maximilian II, reveal him to be highly educated and eloquent on all professional topics even while rejecting the new architectural terminology found in Serlio’s treatises. His early work at the castle of Sárospatak in Hungary, located on the border with Ottoman-controlled territory foreshadows his later activities at the imperial courts in Vienna and Prague and sheds light on key elements of an architect’s role in the volatile Habsburg Lands.

Through this material, I propose to reexamine the “Renaissance architect” outside the Italian peninsula, opening this concept to alternate cultural contexts and challenging the utility of the center-and-periphery model of cultural transfer.

Sarah Lynch is a lecturer in art history at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany. She received her PhD from Princeton where she specialized in architectural history in early modern Central Europe and Italy. Her first book, The Habsburg Architect: Bonifaz Wolmut, Prague, and the European Renaissance will appear later this year with Brepols. Sarah’s main interests include artistic migration, the interaction between published architectural theory and the built environment, the translation of designs to construction, and professional identity and professionalization in early modern architecture. Sarah also received master’s degrees from the Courtauld and Warburg Institutes. She has received support for her research from the DAAD and Fulbright programs and has held fellowships at the University of Pisa, the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte in Munich, the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, the Herder Institute for East European Studies in Marburg, and the Kiscell Musem in Budapest.