A potted history of the Rhine and its art

The Rhine is home to an exceptional number of museums, castles, gardens and beautiful architecture, from Charlemagne’s Aachen, through the cathedrals of Strasbourg and Cologne, to modern masterpieces, themselves often filled with…well… more masterpieces.

The density of cultural heritage along the Rhine is the result of a fascinating history that has, in many ways, shaped modern Europe. This is primarily because before motorised transport, the river was the fastest and most reliable trade route in Western Europe. Its upper reaches, high in the European Alps, connected northern Europe to the Venetian and Genoese trade routes – the western end of the silk road. As the river flows north, its many tributaries connected it to territories with ample farmland and plenty of natural resources. At its end were ports such as Bruges, Amsterdam, Antwerp and Rotterdam connecting western Europe to the world beyond.

This wide, and not always easily navigable, body of water also provided what some in the Roman world saw as a backbone to their defensive line of settlements – the limes – against those barbarian Germanic tribes of the forests to the east. Rather than make the Rhine the barrier, however, Roman conquerors thought it best to control both sides, which would facilitate the movement of people and goods in the northern Empire. Controlling both sides of the Rhine has, since then, become the goal.

But the Roman defensive line was porous – people came and went through it, intermarried, adopted and adapted each others customs and material culture. The result was a Germano-Roman culture along the border, that is still celebrated today in cities such as Cologne, which has undertaken extensive archaeological work beneath its medieval churches and modern public buildings to preserve this history.

Indeed, Kolners are sometimes keen to point out that they’re not like the Prussian stereotype, and have a sunnier disposition and a sense of humour because of their half-Latin roots. Evidence of this humour can be found in such monuments as the statue of Neil Armstrong, inscribed with the exact time it was in Cologne when he set foot on the moon. There is no connection between Cologne and Neil Armstrong, and that, apparently, is the essence of the joke. The excellent Romano-German museum in Cologne provides more substantial connections, and gives insight into the culture that flourished in the region during the centuries of Roman rule.

Roman glass used to make a Germanic drinking horn, from Roman Cologne

With the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west, we again see the Rhine becoming a hotly contested region. The very short version is that different Germanic tribes – Franks, Saxons, Burgundians, Alemmani, and others – competed for control of Western Europe. In the 8th century, they were mostly united (by conquest or otherwise) under Charles Martel, who is best known for ending the Ummayad Caliphate’s advance from Spain into what is now France at the Battle of Tours. Charles’s ambitions were furthered by his son, Peppin, and grandson Charles better known to us as Charlemagne (or Karl der Groβe).

Charlemagne extended his new empire, until it ran from Hungary to the Atlantic, and from Rome to the North Sea. His ambitions were boundless, but the language of his rule was carefully modelled on Roman-Byzantine ideas of what comprised imperial power. Some of the clearest evidence of this is at Aachen, whose UNESCO listed cathedral was the chapel of Charlemagne’s imperial palace, which imitated San Vitale in Ravenna, the imperial chapel of Justinian in Italy. Archaeological work next door has revealed that one of Charlemagne’s great halls was modelled on a now barely extant palatial building at Trier, from the rule of Constantine. Both of these emperors brought formerly Roman territories back under their rule, and Charlemagne’s emulation of them was not accidental.

Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel at Aachen, inspired by San Vitale in Ravenna

Beyond the architecture, the influence of Rome and Byzantium is also found in manuscript illumination, which shows the dress of Charlemagne’s court integrates elements from the court in Constantinople along with more traditional Germanic garb. The huge amount of time and money invested in manuscript production has left us, however, with a far more important legacy. Carolingian monasteries set about copying scrolls from the ancient Roman world on vellum, and much of what has survived of the literature of the ancient past is because of the copies these monks made. Some of these monasteries are still there to be seen, such as Lorsch Abbey, also inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage register.

The 9th-century gatehouse, part of what survives from the Carolingian Abbey of Lorsch

But this culture wasn’t slavish by any means, and jewellery and metalwork that has survived from the Carolingian world is spectacular. Gems and precious stones were set in finely wrought metals, ivory – whether elephant or walrus – was another speciality, along with cloisonné enamel. The aesthetic of these works is unified by a love of precision, apparent in the extraordinary delicacy of the work in fragile materials, and of the natural bounty of the earth, as evident in the use of prominent polished gemstones.

Despite the success of Charlemagne, his empire was short lived. His son, Louis, divided the empire into three parts for his three (legitimate) sons. The eldest and heir to the empire, Lothair, took the prime real estate: the rich, relatively economically developed lands around the Rhine across the Alps and into northern Italy. His brothers (Charles and Louis), to the east and the west of him, didn’t take long to start carving off parts of this territory, despite having authored a fascinating pact between them.

This pact – the Treaty of Verdun – set out who ruled what, the obligations of each ruler and the people they rule, amongst other things. Interestingly the treaty is written in three languages so that the feudal elites could understand it.; Latin – the legal language, Old French for leaders of the western kingdoms, and Old German for the leaders of the eastern kingdoms. The structure of the settlement between the brothers cemented a political, linguistic and cultural divide: a German speaking east and a French speaking west. Competition, warfare and intrigue between them to control the bit in the middle recurred throughout the following millennium, and both claimed Charlemagne/Karl der Groβe as a founding father.

Unsurprisingly, Lotharingia – the kingdom in the middle – didn’t last long, and by the late 9th century it had been absorbed into the sprawling Holy Roman Empire, an institution of awe-inspiring complexity. Myriad mostly autonomous principalities – each making its own laws, circulating its own currencies, using its own weights and measure – vied for an increasing share of power through marriage, warfare, plotting and the currying of favour. The emperor – himself elected by the larger member states until the 1400s – had somehow to manage this system, often by endless negotiations, council meetings and brokerage to keep enough of the states onside. That this empire lasted 1000 years is extraordinary.

The number of principalities left a deep mark on the Rhine today, and has shaped its history. The absence of a strong, centralised government for most of the empire’s history left each princeling with the need to provide for his or her status – castles, summer residences, winter palaces, art collections. Some of the most extraordinary to have survived are in the Rhineland Palatinate and Baden-Wurtemburg. Schloss Favorite, for example, was built as the summer residence of the margraves of Baden-Baden in the early 18th century. Its primary resident, Sibylla Augusta von Saxe-Lauenberg, the Margravine of Baden-Baden, was enamoured of the speciality of the day – Florentine pietra dura produced by the Medici’s personal workshop. This artform – made from finely cut pieces of marble glued and locked into place to form detailed, life-like pictures – was very expensive, and usually a large plate or a small table would be the perfect gift for a king or pope. Sibylla had her entire sitting room made from it, and it is intact to this day.

Sibylla Augusta’s sitting room, decorated entirely with pietra dura, at Schloss Favorite, near Rastatt

Nearby are numerous other palaces, including Schloss Rastatt with its baroque gardens and frescoed interiors showing the defeat of the Ottomans, and Schwetzingen Palace, the summer residence of the Electors Palatine, with beautiful French and English landscape gardens replete with surprises, such as a theatre, a replica mosque, and other follies to delight their guests.

The mosque at Schwetzingen Palace, just one of the follies in its extensive gardens

The late 1600s and 1700s, when these palaces were built, was a period of relative stability along the Rhine. The previous 200 years, however, had been tumultuous, with peasant rebellions, the wars of religion – even more complicated along the Rhine where each principality was permitted to make its own laws about religion – and the rise of France under Louis XIV, who conquered Alsace, giving the French direct access to the Rhine as well.

Yet this period was not without world defining achievements. First among them was Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type printing presses. That Gutenberg was successful in the German states is not surprising – moveable type requires the production of thousands of identical small metal letter blocks, and German smithing was recognised as the finest in Europe well before Gutenberg.

But the idea was also successful because of two chief sources of income. The first was Mainz, a city that had for centuries been the centre of Church administration north of the Alps. Administration generates volumes of paperwork, and all sorts of documents that need to be produced identically in large numbers. Printing these saved money and time, and the Gutenberg press was quickly adopted. Best of all, the press allowed for the production of form letters – identical text, with a blank space for names and dates to be added. Indulgences could be printed on mass, and their blanks filled in when they were sold.

The second, and perhaps more famous, reason for Gutenberg’s success was the Frankfurt Fair. Large medieval fairs such as this weren’t farmers’ markets – they were where merchants and bankers from across Europe met to do business. Frankfurt was one of the major commercial events in Western Europe, and it attracted literate people with the spare cash to buy a personalised, illustrated printed Bible. Gutenberg took a small number of his new printed bibles to generate interest. They sold quickly and he took numerous commissions. Three of the early Gutenberg Bibles are in Mainz’s Gutenberg Museum, along with a host of manuscript and early printed materials.

Marc Chagall’s windows in St Stephen’s in Mainz, another of this little-visited city’s treasures

Large, economically powerful cities such as Frankfurt were not uncommon along the late medieval Rhine. As part of a policy to boost the imperial economy, quite a number of cities – Strasbourg, Basel and Cologne for example – were granted the status of “Free Imperial City”, and the burghers were given political autonomy and significant tax concessions. These cities became economic powerhouses along the Rhine trade route – and some such as Frankfurt, now the centre of European banking, have retained this status – but also developed their own unique civic identities. The wealth these cities generated was often funnelled back into public monuments – especially the cathedrals, guildhouses and town halls, each of which became an emblem of the citizens success and independence. Indeed, the bell tower of Strasbourg Cathedral was so high that it required a special insert into the 15th century Nuremberg chronicle because the illustration of it wouldn’t fit on a standard page.

The spire of Strasbourg Cathedral dominates the medieval city skyline and the valley between the Vosges and the Black Forest

The wealth of these cities also led them, in the 1700s and 1800s, to develop their own cultural institutions – theatres, museums and galleries. Such institutions, along with public parks, were inspired by an Enlightenment ideal that access to culture would improve the lives (and morality) of the public. These collections often form the core of state-owned museums today – such as the Staedel in Frankfurt, which has masterpieces by Van Eyck, Vermeer, Rembrandt and Botticelli. These galleries, and the kunstverein (private art societies) that fostered them, remained active into the modern era. They have continued to build collections that run through impressionism, post impressionism and the diverse movements of the 20th century.

Vermeer’s The Geographer, one of the many stunning old masters in Frankfurt’s Staedel Museum

The development of the modern art collections was certainly assisted by proximity to the key centres of modern art in the German world. New Objectivity, for example, was born in Mannheim, and Dusseldorf has been the pre-eminent centre of German art since the 1950s. Its alumni include Joseph Bueys, Anselm Keiffer, Gehrard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Hilla and Bernd Becher, Candida Hoffer, and Andreas Gursky. Works by these artists can be found right throughout the region’s museums of modern and contemporary art.

But the flavour of postwar West German art is also deeply rooted in history. After World War II West Germany was rapidly rebuilt with foreign money, to make it a bastion against communism. Simultaneously, there was an influx of American culture: part of the US’s foreign policy was to promote faithfulness to the Western block through promotion of its culture – magazines, pop music, fashion. West German artists often rebelled against both, critiquing the new consumerist culture and the bourgeois conservatism of their industrialist patrons, whom they often thought were too keen to forget the horrific legacy of the Third Reich. Their works are often challenging, but equally fascinating. Throughout the Rhine region they are well represented along with the previous generation of artists that the Nazi party had declared ‘Degenerate’, but Cologne’s Museum Ludwig and the collections of nearby Dusseldorf are particularly strong.

Max Ernst’s shocking Madonna, spanking the baby of Christ before the three witnesses in the Museum Ludgwig in Cologne. Merry Christmas!

In more recent times the Rhine has witnessed a boom in the number of modern and contemporary galleries. In the 1970s, three Swiss gallerists got together and decided to take advantage of being in the geographic centre of western Europe. Rather than have gallerists, collectors and art lovers travel from place to place in search of their next purchase, they organised for leading galleries from Europe, the UK and the US to bring their wares to a mega event in Basel. This became the first Art Basel – the model for later commercial art fairs around the globe – and it remains one of the most significant international art events in the world.

A knock on effect was the development of new galleries, museums and private collections in the Upper Rhine Valley – the area where Switzerland, Germany and France border one another. Ernst Beyeler, one of Art Basel’s founders, kicked off this proliferation in the early 1990s when he commissioned a villa from Renzo Piano to house his private collection. Other private collectors followed suit, including the Frieder-Burda family in Baden-Baden, who commissioned Richard Meier to design the museum.

The Fondation Beyeler, a short tram ride from Basel, designed by Renzo Piano to house Beyeler’s exceptional private collection of modern art

One of the most interesting approaches to housing contemporary art collections in the Rhine region, however, was undertaken by the Wurth family. Their multibillion-euro family business is pretty mundane – they manufacture nuts, bolts, fittings, hardware and power tools – but they have one of the largest private art collections in Europe. In the upper Rhine valley, they’ve built a museum and gardens in the industrial area outside of Strasbourg, next to their warehouse and head office. It’s not what you expect to see in an industrial estate, but is just one of the many surprises along the Rhine resulting from its rich history at the centre of western Europe.

Another surprise is always around the corner in Alsace. This music room was designed by Kandinsky in Berlin and moved piece by piece to Strasbourg’s Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art

Dr Nick Gordon

Dr Nick Gordon is a cultural historian and artist, with over 10 years of experience leading tours to Europe. He has strong interests in art, history, philosophy and architecture, from the ancient world to the present. Nick is also a practicing painter and brings this passion to the visual arts. He holds a University Medal and PhD in history from the University of Sydney.


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