Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau is a relatively recent concept, originating in the late 19th century as a rebellion against classical and formal designs in art and architecture. Its proponents believed that beauty lay in nature and flowers, and plants feature prominently in its designs, which are also marked by asymmetrical shapes, curves and mosaics. Like many new art forms it had its origins in France, but the enthusiasm for Art Nouveau soon gripped much of the rest of Europe.

Everyone has their favourite buildings a the brief sample below is not intended to represent any kind of ‘best’ list. It just happens to contain some buildings we like…

Prague

Next to Prague’s Powder Tower stands the Municipal House. The contrast between the Gothic tower and the Art Nouveau building is stunning. The latter stands on the site of the former Royal Palace, the residence of the king between 1383 and 1485. The palace remained derelict for centuries and the Municipal House was built in the early years of the 20th century.

Municipal House

Municipal House

The building’s main function is that of Prague’s main concert venue, Smetana Hall. There are many other smaller halls and other rooms, plus a delightful café that is open to the public. Here, one can sit with a coffee and take in the superb decoration of the building’s interior. The outside is impressive, too. Above the main entrance is a vast, semi-circular mosaic entitled Homage to Prague.

Municipal House mosaic

Municipal House mosaic

If this is not enough to satisfy your thirst for Art Nouveau, take a trip to Prague’s main railway station, Hlavni Nadrazi. The large departures hall is a 1970s addition and none too aesthetically pleasing, but there is still plenty of the original left and the station’s façade and interior décor remain stunning.

Hlavni Nadrazi

Hlavni Nadrazi

Belgrade

Belgrade is not exactly teeming with Art Nouveau, but there is one building that it’s well worth seeking out. The Moskva Hotel is a glorious peppermint gateau of a building, another early 20th century creation that deserves its accolade as one of the city’s most famous structures. This is another place where you can stop off for a cup of coffee and take in the splendours of the artwork and imagine you’re sitting in the seat that Einstein, Hitchcock or any of the hotel’s other famous guests once occupied…

Hotel Moskva

Hotel Moskva

Vienna

1897 was a big year for Austrian art. Gustav Klimt found the Secessionist Movement, a group of Austrian artists that wanted to move away from tradition. One of its main characteristics was the use of bright colours, so it is rather ironic that the movement’s flagship building is not especially colourful, its façade being simple white and gold.

Secession Building

Secession Building

The Secession Building was designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich in 1897, the exhibition hall opening in the following year. Some of the building’s features were works that were displayed at exhibitions, notably Klimt’s own Beethoven Frieze and the extraordinary Mark Antony statue, created by Arthur Strasser, that stands outside the building.

It is, however, the ornamentation that stands out and gives the building its Art Nouveau character. The whole structure is decorated with gilt laurel garlands and floral patterns, while the most striking feature is the dome, made up of 3,000 gilt laurel leaves. It is this that has led to the building’s (affectionate) nickname of The Golden Cabbage.

Riga

Riga is one of Europe’s most delightful capitals, with its many green spaces and beautifully preserved medieval centre. It also harbours a fine array of Art Nouveau buildings, with around one third of the buildings in the central area being built in this style.

Art Nouveau is everywhere, even in older buildings. The House of Blackheads was set up as a meeting and party venue and has its origins in the 14th century. Its reconstruction, after the Second World War, encompassed the Art Nouveau style and ensures that the building fits in perfectly with its neighbours.

House of the Blackheads

House of the Blackheads

Most of the Art Nouveau buildings are in the New Town, many in the main shopping area. There is, though, no shortage of such buildings and they pop up almost everywhere. There are shops, offices and private houses in Art Nouveau style and there was even an Art Nouveau fire station, built in 1912. The building still exists and today operates as the Museum of Firefighting. There is also a Museum of Art Nouveau for those that cannot get enough.

Firefighting Museum

Firefighting Museum

Ljubljana

Few European capitals can match Riga for charm, but Ljubljana is one of them. With three rivers to call its own, the city is full of bridges and waterfront buildings. There is no better place to see wonderful examples than Prešernov Trg, the city’s main square named after Slovenia’s most famous poet, France Prešeren. Art Nouveau buildings pop up all through the city, from offices, banks, private residences and municipal buildings.

Art Nouveau offices

Art Nouveau offices

Gothic

Gothic architecture, with its pointed arches and ribbed vaulting, can be found across Europe. It is probably fair to say that the further east you travel, the less Gothic you are likely to find. Gothic was a style developed in France and it is natural that there are more examples closer to its home base, but many fine examples can be found in central and Eastern Europe.

Like most things, Gothic has been in and out of fashion. The style had a renaissance in the 19th century and this is described as either Gothic Revival or Neo-Gothic. The following buildings have been selected as good examples of Gothic and while the choice is not exactly random, it is based on the tastes of the Duck Holiday explorers.

Prague

Prague is an excellent place for many things and architecture is one of them. Perhaps the outstanding example of Prague Gothic is St Vitus’s Cathedral. The present building, set within the grounds of Prague Castle, represents something of a trip through history, as there are elements from different periods. The original rotunda was built in the 10th century and the basilica during the following century. The main – and very Gothic – cathedral dates from the 14th century and there are 19th and 20th century additions at the western end, Neo-Gothic, but faithful to the original plan.

St Vitus's Cathedral

St Vitus’s Cathedral

The chancel is especially beautiful, with immensely high vaulting and intricate artwork. In the St Wenceslas Chapel, there are Gothic frescoes and biblical scenes. The chapel is almost an art gallery in its own right. The Royal Oratory provides a later example of medieval Gothic, with branches rather than ribbing.

There are always little quirks in buildings that span several centuries and one of cathedral’s oddities is to be found in the bell tower, or rather at the top of the tower. While the tower itself is a Gothic structure, the cap is decidedly Baroque.

More Cathedral

More Cathedral

Prague is a city of many architectural styles, but there is plenty of Gothic. Check out the splendid little castle that is the Powder Tower at the castle or wander across Charles Bridge to the magnificent Old Town Bridge Tower. The latter was designed by Peter Parler, the same architect responsible for St Vitus’s Cathedral.

Powder Tower

Powder Tower

Charles Bridge tower

Charles Bridge tower

Charles Bridge

Charles Bridge

Churches are rife throughout the city and many are of Gothic style. Two of the finest examples are the Church of Our Lady before Týn, which dominates the Old Town Square and the huge Church of Our Lady of the Snows, just off Wenceslas Square. Also worth noting is Prague’s oldest synagogue, the curiously-titled Old-New Synagogue, with its Gothic main portal depicting a vine with twelve bunches of grapes symbolising the tribes of Israel.

Church of Our Lady before Týn

Church of Our Lady before Týn

Our Lady of the Snows

Our Lady of the Snows

Budapest

If the building of the Hungarian Parliament looks suspiciously familiar to British visitors, this is no coincidence. It was designed by Imre Steindl, who based his plan on the Houses of Parliament in London. The result was the Neo-Gothic masterpiece that stands beside the Danube on the Pest side of the city.

The façade is a riot of gables, arches, pinnacles and sculptures. If the exterior is impressive – and it is – the interior is stunning. The extravagant central staircase is overlooked by typically Gothic arches, along with ceiling frescoes and sculptures. The dome, 96 metres tall, is laced with intricate gilding and its huge pillars are topped with figures of Hungarian rulers. Stained-glass windows throughout the building give it the look and feel of an enormous cathedral.

Parliament

Parliament

In the castle district, the original Gothic Royal Palace no longer exists, though a few tantalising hints can be found in the Parish Church of Our Lady Mary, otherwise known as the Mátyás Church, originally built around the time of the building of the palace. It was converted into a Mosque by the Turks in 1541 and then almost completely destroyed in the liberation of Buda. It was then rebuilt in Baroque style, but this too was seriously damaged and another major restoration work, undertaken in the late 19th century, brought back many of its Gothic features. The beautiful rose window above the main portal is a faithful reproduction of the original medieval design.

Mátyás Church

Mátyás Church

The sometimes turbulent history of Hungary has meant that a number of buildings have, like the Mátyás Church, been rebuilt, repaired and restored, often several times over. The result is that styles have become intermingled, so you can never be quite sure where you might find a little outburst of Gothic amid the Baroque, and vice versa.

Tallinn

For Gothic aficionados, there is not an awful lot to get get excited about in Estonia. However, a trip to Tallinn’s Town Hall Square produces a notable gem. The Town Hall building itself is not only the sole surviving late Gothic building in Estonia, but is the only remaining Gothic town hall in Northern Europe.

If the square bears a distinct resemblance to many in the north of Germany, this is no coincidence. The square was the centre of trade for Baltic-Germans and a goodly proportion of the population of Tallinn was made up of Germans in medieval times.

Town Hall Square

Town Hall Square

The town hall, completed in 1404, is an impressive building both externally and internally. The whole building has a distinctly Germanic feel, which is unsurprising given that it is largely the work of German architects, artists and craftsmen. Indeed, for a long time, all documents were written in German, even during periods of Swedish and Russian rule. The sole exception to the German theme are the tapestries, which are of Flemish origin.

Town Hall

Town Hall

Town Hall Square has some other claims to fame. The pharmacy, dating from 1422, is still used for that purpose, although the medicines are a little different to what one may have found in its early days. In 1441, a large Christmas tree was displayed in the square and this is believed to have been the first of its kind.

Vilnius

Baroque predominates in Lithuania’s capital, but there are Gothic treasures to be found, notably among some of the city’s churches. One of the best-known, and best-loved, of these is the Church of St Anne, on the eastern edge of the Old Town.

The church is part of the Bernardine Friary, though there is much uncertainty about the exact date of its construction and, indeed, who constructed it. It was believed to have been the work of 15th-century German craftsmen, but more recent evidence suggests that it was built during the following century by locals.

St Anne Church

St Anne Church

Whatever its origins, what is not in doubt is that it is a magnificent display of Gothic brashness, all sweeping arches, studded steeples, narrow windows and octagonal towers. This is as Gothic as Gothic gets and images of the church adorn souvenirs from Lithuania, from postcards and calendars to chocolate boxes and biscuit tins. Tradition has it that Napoleon was so charmed by the church that he wanted to carry it back to Paris in the palm of his hand.

The only disappointment is to be found on wandering inside the church. The interior is surprisingly spartan, but this is a minor quibble. The church deserves its place on any list of great Gothic buildings.

Dubrovnik

Further south, in the Balkans, Gothic can be hard to find, but there are outposts and oases to be discovered. Frequently, there are Gothic elements to buildings or Gothic buildings within a larger complex.

An example is to be found at the Franciscan Monastery. The cloisters were designed by an architect from Florence, Maso di Bartolomeo, with some additions made by local stonemasons. This result is a classic late-Gothic masterpiece, its pleasing aspect enhanced by the orange and lemon groves in the courtyard.

Franciscan Monastery courtyard

Franciscan Monastery courtyard

The Rector’s Palace, about 200 metres south of the monastery, is one of those buildings that rather defy classification. This is largely due to the fact that it has been rebuilt so many times, suffering the inevitable results of gunpowder accidents in the 15th century. The first rebuilding produced a Venetian-Gothic style, but after this one suffered damage, the restoration work left an eclectic style all of its own. The original rebuilding, incidentally, was undertaken by Onofrio della Cava, whose magnificent fountain stands behind the city gate as you enter the Old Town.

Rector's Palace

Rector’s Palace

The mix of style can be seen immediately by the visitor. The entrance is a loggia with marble pillars. The outer pairs are the original Gothic, while the three in the middle are in the Renaissance style.

Rector's Palace (with random people)

Rector’s Palace (with random people)

Located half way between the palace and the monastery is the Sponza Palace, which also has a mix of Venetian-Gothic and Renaissance. The entrance is via a Renaissance portico, but the first storey is in the Venetian-Gothic style, though this, too, has Renaissance elements in the form of the windows. The main purpose of the palace was as the customs house (it is next to the port) and today, it houses two museums.

Sponza Palace

Sponza Palace

Dubrovnik has suffered variously from the careless use of gunpowder, earthquakes and wars. All of these, of course, mean damage to buildings, so it is not surprising that many of its older buildings have such an intriguing mix of styles. Amongst it all, there is Gothic. Sometimes, you just need to look a little harder.