Augsburg preserves the Renaissance spirit

beautiful cities & towns germany renaissance cities Jul 09, 2023
Renaissance Augsburg

Augsburg's old city is a Renaissance jewel with more than a hint of Italian polish. No German city has anything like Augsburg's ensemble of Renaissance buildings, onion-domed churches, canals and narrow, late medieval streets. Most of this escaped destruction in World War II.
Augsburg became the archetype of an affluent, independent German city. In its golden age it was the centre of European finance.
But from Renaissance times there were two Augsburgs, one represented by a commercial class of riches and political influence. These families left us today's broad Maximilianstraße and its palaces and townhouses. Their display of wealth was highlighted by sculpted fountains dominated by the figures of Hercules and Mercury.
The other Augsburg was home to a class of craftsmen and guildsmen, preserved in the curling streets around the city's narrow canals. The canals were fed by the rivers Lech and Wertach and served the needs of water supply and mill-driven machinery. The contrasting areas are easy to see on the streets today. Venice claims greater beauty, but Augsburg claims more canals and bridges.

Augsburg and the wealth of Europe

For centuries, Augsburg was close to the seat of power. Its commercial riches financed Europe's imperial throne and its influence was vast long before Munich became mighty.
Late in the Middle Ages textiles and cloth drove the city's growth in commerce and formed the basis of the wealth of the Fugger family. Much of the family trade was with Italy and Jakob Fugger ('the younger', later 'the Rich') learned banking in Venice as a youth. He later brought perspectives on Italian business practice to Germany.
Jakob Fugger dominated European copper mining and his trade networks extended into Poland, Russia, Portugal and Asia. He also brought the Italian Renaissance in the shape of a family burial chapel, the oldest Renaissance building in Germany. Jakob and his two brothers lie there today, in part of the St-Anna-Kirche.
It's possible to see the Fuggers as Germany's counterpart to the Medici, whose role in European finance Jakob Fugger replaced. The family firm became bankers to Habsburg Holy Roman emperors and the papal court. They also financed international political plays in Spain, Hungary and Bohemia.
Jakob the Rich, noted for his work ethic, nonetheless created a model of social welfare that endures today. The Fuggerei was a retirement home ahead of its time and still operates on the principle of tenants paying peppercorn rents. In return, they are expected to offer daily prayers for the souls of the Fuggers. Travellers can wander through parts of the complex to see this legacy.
The Fuggers' banking rivals, the Welsers, were almost as important in business terms. They even briefly and surprisingly acquired Venezuela as security on an imperial loan. The Fugger und Welser Erlebnismuseum concentrates on this most spectacular period of Augsburg's past, using multimedia and other recreations.
The affluent families of the period set up their homes on today's Maximilianstraße. The Fugger city palace, known as the Fuggerhäuser, dominates the street. The nearby Schaezlerpalais, now a Rococo building housing art collections, was at one stage a home of the Welsers. The Catholic church of St Ulrich und Afra is at the south end.
Also belonging to this period is the superb Goldener Saal, the main hall of Elias Holl's distinctive onion-domed Rathaus building. This hall's ceiling is one of the city's chief attractions. Next to the Rathaus towers the 70-metre-high Perlachturm, also onion-domed. Its observation deck gives a bird's-eye view of Augsburg's old town. This area was bombed heavily in 1944 but restored, creating the Rathausplatz.
At the height of the Fugger-Welser age, Augsburg was also at the centre of key events of the Reformation. In 1518 Martin Luther defied the pope and defended his revolutionary Protestant theses for the first time before a senior cardinal.

Augsburg and Rome

But the city's origins go back much further, to the Roman empire, showing that links with Italy were always critical. The city is one of Germany's oldest, founded by order of the emperor Augustus in 15BCE and named Augusta Vindelicium or Augusta Vindelicorum.
Later the emperor Claudius built his military road Via Claudia Augusta – today's Maximilianstraße – through Augsburg to the north. The city became the capital of the Roman province Raetia. Like a handful of German cities, its imperial name has lasted more than 2000 years. Augustus is celebrated as Augsburg's founder by a fountain in the Rathausplatz.
Outside the Gothic cathedral are casts of Roman remains, including a funeral monument and some reliefs unearthed by excavators. The Roman building foundation there is assumed to be a thermal bath. In Augsburg's Zeughaus, or armoury building, is a museum of objects from Augsburg's Roman past. These include a beautifully sculpted bronze horsehead and items from a nearby Roman camp. Also on show is a copy of the Tabula Peutingeriana, a Roman strip road map later owned by an Augsburg collector.
It is fitting that the symbol of Augsburg, the pine cone, is associated with Rome, which brought the city into existence. But the pine cone's connection to a city goddess called Cisa or Zisa is unproven. A pine cone is perched on the Rathaus gable.

Augsburgers in industry and the arts

The Fugger business failed in the 17th century. It was not until the 19th that growth returned to Augsburg in the shape of heavy industry and a return to textile manufacture. The engineer Rudolf Diesel was born to an Augsburg family and his earliest preserved engine can be visited at the city's MAN Museum by appointment.
Other sites in Augsburg are associated with names prominent in the arts. These include the poet, playwright and director Bertolt Brecht, whose birthplace, the Brechthaus, is a museum. Leopold Mozart, the musician father of Wolfgang Amadeus, was born in the city and the Leopold-Mozart-Haus is another museum.
Other famous citizens are the father and son artists Hans Holbein, the younger of whom became one of Europe's great Renaissance portraitists, the father and son Jörg Breu, and the artist and printmaker Hans Burgkmair.


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