Category Archives: Sweden

Stockholm Old Town

The picturesque Swedish capital is located at the intersection of two bodies of water (Lake Mälar and Salt Bay). At its centre stands Gamla Stan (Old Town), a well-preserved vestige of 16th and 17th century life and the modern-day nucleus of Sweden’s largest city.

During the mid 17th century, the Continental Baroque style permeated Swedish architecture. Plans for elaborate palaces and other buildings of major public significance were drawn from models in Italy, France, Holland and Germany – not infrequently with elements from several different prototypes intermingled. The bold, dramatic forms usually associated with the Baroque style were relatively restrained in Sweden, however, at least in architecture, in which the visual vocabulary and design principles of antiquity exerted strong influence. Thus, though the term Baroque serves throughout Europe to define both the historical period and the prevalent style of the latter 1600s, Swedish architecture from this time can more aptly be termed baroque classicism.

In interiors and furnishings from the period, classicism was heavily overlaid with baroque pomp and grandeur. Splendid stucco work with swelling, curving forms, adorned ceilings and chimney pieces, while walls were decorated with gilt leather, lush tapestries and paintings depicting myths, allegories, moral principles and lofty personages both real and fantastic. In general, Swedish architecture and interior design, which had been dominated by the sometimes stern German style, gave way to the extravagant elegance of the French.

In 1632, Charles Ogier, a delegate in the French legation dispatched by Cardinal Richelieu, did not conceal his consternation over the Sweden he encountered. It was a country, he wrote, in which the aristocracy lived in cold, drafty stone houses with simple wooden furniture and unadorned walls, surrounded by barren, inhospitable nature. Indeed, Jacob De la Gardie, the father of Magnus Gabriel and one of the five regents ruling Sweden during Queen Christina’s minority, lived in a house that was no better than those outside Paris occupied by craftsmen and merchants. From such conditions, Swedish monumental architecture rose in only a matter of decades to a level that compared favourably with that of the leading European nations.

This transformation was first seen in the palaces and manor houses of masonry constructed in the provinces at the centre of the Swedish empire as well as in Stockholm itself. Forty years after Ogier’s visit, the capital city boasted buildings that, according to another foreigner, the Florentine diplomat Lorenzo Magalotti, had no equals outside Italy. “Not with respect to the quantity or size,” wrote Magalotti, “but with regard for the consistency that equals the Italian building traditions and consequently that of Roman antiquity.”

The fortunes made in Sweden during the 17th century provided the economic base for such superior building. Land was considered the safest investment, and tax deferments as well as other benefits assured that property belonging to the aristocracy could be built to a noble standard.

Besides the economic, there were also ideological motivations. What a nobleman built was a manifestation of himself and his family, and often a representation of his class as well. Furthermore, to build on a grand scale was also seen as a way of honouring the fatherland. Erik Dahlbergh’s great volume of engravings, Suecia antiqua et hodierna, is indicative of how patriotism could be a motive for building. This noteworthy tome gives not only an impression of Sweden’s topography and dwellings during the second half of the 17th century, but also a reflection of how the nation wished the rest of the world to see her.

Skokloster Castle, built for Carl Gustav Wrangel, exemplifies the nobility’s use of architecture to display status. Wrangel had been a most successful field marshal during the Thirty Years War before rising to great heights in the state bureaucracy. Sweden’s largest private building, Skokloster took two decades to build (1654-74) and is today one of the best-preserved 17th century castles in Europe, providing an invaluable record of the period. It still contains nearly all of its original baroque furnishings, art and textiles, as well as library, armour and scientific instruments.

Skokloster Castle

Several architects were involved in the design of Skokloster, but the quiet elderly German, Caspar Vogel, was responsible for the general plan. Erected on the site of a former medieval cloister, this imposing building consisted of four wings with octagonal towers at each corner and enclosing a central courtyard. Its lavish interiors gave a vivid impression of the style of living enjoyed by the newly rich Swedes of the period. Here, Wrangel lived like a German prince in luxurious splendour and surrounded by objects of art and curiosities. Lorenzo Magalotti, however, found the castle too much and too showy, preferring a more refined aesthetic taste – such as the Italian. With its conservative – even old fashioned – architecture, however, Skokloster did not serve as a model for buildings. Architecture was already evolving in a different direction.

The House of Nobility (Riddarhuset) in Stockholm was Simon de la Vallée’s most prominent work.

House of Nobility (Riddarhuset)
House of Nobility (Riddarhuset)
House of Nobility (Riddarhuset)

Simon de la Vallée (ca. 1600-1642) was the first trained, professional architect to practice in Sweden. Born in Paris, de la Vallée began his career under the direction of his father, Marin, one of the architects working for Dowager Queen Marie de Médicis; Marin had participated in such prestigious projects as the Hôtel de Ville and the Luxembourg Palace in Paris. In 1633, Simon left France to work for the Dutch prince of Orange, and four years later he moved to Sweden.

During his tenure in Sweden, Simon de la Vallée initiated many projects, but relatively few were completed. With these, he replaced the architecture influenced by German and Dutch late-Renaissance styles with a French-Dutch classicism, which was then taken up by his successors. He attracted numerous commissions from private clients. As word of his gifts spread in his newly adopted country, he found himself sought after for public commissions as well. By 1639, he was named to the position of Royal Architect.

For many years, when noblemen convened in Stockholm for political deliberations, they had to crowd into old-fashioned quarters. This situation was to change, however, with the offer of a parcel of land by the renowned Axel Oxenstierna, who had been appointed Chancellor of the Realm by Gustav II Adolf and who, in this powerful office, effectively ruled Sweden throughout Christina’s years as a minor. Oxenstierna’s generosity made possible a suitably splendid meeting place for the nobility on the waterfront to the west of the Royal Palace. The commission for the House of Nobility went to Simon de la Vallée and yielded the earliest example of Swedish architecture in which one can follow the complete design and construction process through drawings.

In 1641, the architect presented two different proposals for the building. The larger one shows a three-story main structure with corner pavilions and four projecting wings, along with a lower entrance wing. The façade, of alternating red brick and sandstone, rusticated pilasters, and a decorative balustrade along the roof, has clear similarities to city palaces in Paris. His inspiration may have come in part from French architect Jacques Androuet du Cerceau’s (1576-79) work, Les plus excellents bastiments de France (The most excellent buildings of France).

The career of Simon de la Vallée came to an abrupt and violent end in 1642, when he was struck down one November evening and left for dead on the public square, Stortorger, in Stockholm. His attacker, a young colonel, was a nephew of Axel Oxenstierna; a settlement was quickly reached between the powerful Oxenstierna family and the architect’s heirs.

During the long building period between 1642 and 1674, the House of Nobility was slowly modified to consist only of the central block. A Dutch architect, Justus Vingboons, was called to Sweden to complete the project ten years after de la Vallée’s death. Vingboons gave the façade of the building its final, harmonious, classical appearance, with colossal Corinthian pilasters of light grey sandstone contrasting against the brick red walls (originally stuccoed and painted brick red with white joinery imitating masonry). The end result closely resembled buildings in Vingboons’ native Holland, such as the Mauritshuis in the Hague or the Trippenhuis in Amsterdam. The House of Nobility was thus transformed into a genuine example of Dutch classicism.

The building was finally completed by Jean de la Vallée (1620-1696), Simon’s son, who took over the project in 1656. Jean de la Vallée cleverly took advantage of the rich façade and added a magnificent roof, which he divided into two sections with a vertical intermediary part and an elegantly curved lower section. A simplified version of this uniquely Swedish roof form – the säteri roof – came to dominate the aristocratic manor houses and palaces built over the course of seven decades.

Latin inscriptions along the frieze named the virtues and obligations of the nobility and complemented the roof’s allegorical figures. The classical virtues of Honour, Strength and Wisdom were displayed in the pediment, while the entrance was flanked by the Roman deities, Minerva and Mars, holding aloft a shield. For all who entered this space, the classical gods’ message was that, through art and war, the nobility who served as civil officials and military officers thus advanced the cause of their country.

The roof of the House of Nobility, as well as the motifs in the façade decorations, recurred on a smaller scale in many other places. Jean de la Vallée himself was responsible for translating the architectural vocabulary used in the House of Nobility into wood for the manor house Fullerö, in Västmanland (which in fact was completed even before its supposed prototype in Stockholm). With its colossal pilasters, a pediment, a Doric entablature and painted in colours meant to imitate brick and sandstone, Fullerö imparted a Dutch classicism to the architecture of the Swedish countryside.

Jean de la Vallée was well prepared to take over the House of Nobility project. As the first of many recipients of royal travel stipends, he had gone to France and Italy in the late 1640s and would surely have remained abroad longer had he not been called home to Stockholm for the important task of preparing the city for Queen Christina’s coronation. In connection with this event, he created two triumphal arches in the capital, both made of impermanent materials, of which the better known echoed the Arch of Constantine in Rome.

A peer and competitor of Jean de la Vallée, Nicodemus Tessin the Elder (1615-1681), came from Stralsund, in Germany (then part of Sweden), where he had been educated in building fortifications. As an assistant to Simon de la Vallée, he had become well-grounded in civil building, although his future development was greatly influenced by a study tour through Europe in 1651-53 sponsored by Queen Christina. Like Jean de la Vallée, Tessin received many commissions from the high nobility, but unlike his rival, he managed his career carefully and was better focused on his goals. While Jean had trouble delivering drawings on time, Tessin carried his tasks to completion. In 1661, after fifteen years as Royal Architect, he took over from Jean responsibility for the Royal Palace and was given the title of Stockholm’s first City Architect. Later, King Karl XI elevated Tessin the Elder to the nobility.

Thanks to his skill and tenacity, and to whole troops of assistants, Tessin managed to produce over three decades some thirty great country houses, as well as a number of churches and palaces in Stockholm. He was the supreme master of his time, and with his classically composed architecture he was able to realize his clients’ architectural ambitions. While Tessin looked to France, Holland and Italy for prototypes, his models came primarily from the 16th century Italian architect, Andrea Palladio, whose books on architecture wielded great influence throughout Europe. Tessin travelled in northern Italy to study Palladio’s famous villas, in which the Italian master had brilliantly melded visions of the houses and temples of antiquity. Eventually, all of Tessin’s time was consumed by the one project for which he is most renowned: Drottningholm, today the residence of Sweden’s royal family.

Councilmen were required to have residences in the capital, near the Royal Palace and their place of work. Within a relatively short time, therefore, a semicircular zone of councilmen’s houses was built around the palace. The growth and transformation that Stockholm underwent during the 17th century was remarkable, but it was not accomplished without sacrifice. Many less-well-off Stockholm residents witnessed the razing of their wooden houses to make way for expansion of the palaces.

The transformation of Stockholm provided abundant opportunity for a gifted architect to apply his skills. Jean de la Vallée received the title of Royal Architect and with it, responsibility for the city’s building projects. His main task was to be to continue building the empire’s capital and the Royal Palace. Uniform rows of government offices and private palaces were planned on the south and west sides of the Royal Palace.  For various reasons none of these projects could be carried out. Instead, he took on a steady stream of wide-ranging and prestigious commissions from private clients belonging to the aristocracy.

Oxenstierna palace (Oxenstiernska palatset)
Oxenstierna palace (Oxenstiernska palatset)

As a reminder of these ambitious plans stands the palace (or rather, a corner section of it since the plans were never fully realised) that Jean de la Vallée designed for Axel Oxenstierna. Oxenstierna palace (Oxenstiernska palatset) was intended to be the first and largest building west of the Royal Palace. Inspired by Roman baroque buildings such as the Palazzo Borghese, the palace’s monumental façade and recessed mezzanine floors represented something truly new for Swedes. It was completed, however, with certain non-Roman features such as a triangular gable and a steep roof (which was later changed). The façade was coloured a warm, brick red.


The largest concentration of palaces was, and remains today, located on Riddarholmen, a small island between Stockholm’s Old Town and Lake Mälaren. The island had long ago been used as grazing fields for goats belonging to residents of Stockholm and later it became the site of a Franciscan cloister. During the 17th century, the area was transformed into the capital’s most exclusive residential quarter. To the far south stood Carl Gustav Wrangel’s impressive, towered palace, with its system of ramps leading to the water and a boat landing. From here, Wrangel could easily reach Skokloster castle by boat, as could the other Riddarholmen residents with country estates along the shore.

Wrangel Palace (Wrangelska Palatset)

On the highest point of the island stood a palace built in the beginning of the 1650s for the public official and diplomat Schering Rosenhane, one of the most cultivated Swedes of his time. The interiors of Rosenhane palace (Rosenhaneska palatset) reflected the taste of an intellectual and the style of a high official. Probably designed by Nicodemus Tessin the Elder, this three-story building, with its cubic form and rusticated exterior, displays a discreetly restrained classicism. Inside, the rooms are clustered around a central stairway and a simple courtyard that is little more than a light well. As in country manor houses, the utilitarian rooms were located on ground level and the family’s private apartments were on the story above. The top floor was reversed for a banquet hall and guest suites. Everything in the house was carefully thought through following a Palladian pattern and, most likely, the patron’s own taste and wishes. In the upper gallery, Rosenhane could explain to educated guests the meaning of the series of paintings with emblematic motifs that were created to illustrate his own ideas. Today, these are all that remain of the original interiors.

Rosenhane Palace (Rosenhaneska palatset, present Court of Appeals)

The Rosenhane palace was considered noteworthy in its own time. When Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie spoke in 1665 on the question of a new exchange building in Stockholm, he stated that it should be not “costly and magnificent, but beautiful and modestly elegant – like the house of the deceased Councillor of the Realm, Schering Rosenhane.”

Close to Riddarholmen on a parcel of land next to the water and neighbouring the House of Nobility, Gustav Bonde, the Treasurer of the Realm, built his palace in 1662. Bonde palace (Bondeska palatset) became one of Stockholm’s greatest palaces of the period. The building exhibits the expanded French plan that can be seen in Simon de la Vallée’s proposal for the House of Nobility: a main building with corner towers, four projecting wings and an enclosed portico. A garden and a boat landing were probably planned to face the sea.

Gustav Bonde engaged both Tessin the Elder and Jean de la Vallée to work on the project. Tessin gave the palace its principal characteristics: the façade’s classical composition, which consisted of a rusticated base and colossal pilasters in the upper level. Jean de la Vallée worked out the remaining details – a project that nearly cost him his life. He got into such a violent dispute with the major who was leading the daily work that the officer attempted to murder the architect and his family by mixing arsenic into their food. The architect recovered after some months; the major was charged with attempted murder, sentenced to death and executed.

Bonde Palace (Bondeska palatset, present Supreme Court)

In 1667, at the time of Bonde’s death, only the main building of his palace was completed and, despite his widow’s attempts to carry out the plans, the building was not finished during the 17th century. The impressive structure depicted in Dahlbergh’s Suecia antiqua et hodierna showed the palace as it was planned, and this was sufficient to win international admiration. When King Charles II of England first saw Dahlbergh’s engravings in 1668, he proclaimed that Bonde Palace had hardly an equal in all Europe, except perhaps in Paris.

Bonde Palace (Bondeska palatset, present Supreme Court)

In his will and testament, Gustav Bonde expressed his desire for the palace to remain forever in his family’s possession, since he had built it more for the honour of his family than for his own comfort. Family legacy was an important element in the building traditions of the period. Thus, the house became a monument to the late Treasurer of the Realm and his family. Great sums were spent on the external appearance, but the interiors were often left in relatively primitive state. The family’s living quarters occupied only a portion of the house; some of the remaining space was reserved for the staff, and other rooms were rented out. The palace even contained office space for the accountants and bookkeepers who took care of the owner’s finances; from these offices, vast properties could be managed.

The Stockholm palaces from the Baroque period have met with different fates. Today, the Rosenhane Palace is occupied by the Swedish Court of Appeals, while the Bonde palace houses the offices of the Supreme Court. As early as the 1670s, Axel Oxenstierna’s palace came to serve as the headquarters of the Swedish National bank (Riksbanken). Soon, however, the bank acquired its own building, designed in 1676 by Tessin the Elder. As with the Oxenstierna palace, only one portion of the Swedish National Bank building had been completed, on a narrow lot next to a small square, Järntorget, in Old Town; construction was not resumed until 1699.

The Swedish National Bank (Gamla riksbanken) building is considered one of the most Roman structures built north of the Alps. The balance of the façade’s horizontal and vertical elements, the recessed mezzanine floors, the pediments over the windows and the low roof all contribute to its Roman character. The robust doorway is directly inspired by the famous Villa Farnese in Caprarola outside Rome, designed by the architect Vignola in the mid-16th century. It is not impossible that Nicodemus Tessin the Younger had a certain influence on the bank building’s appearance. He was studying in Rome during the 1670s and could have sent reports and drawings home to his father. After all, it was he, more than anyone else, who was responsible for spreading the Roman style in Swedish architecture.

Swedish National Bank (Gamla riksbanken)
Swedish National Bank in Erik Dahlbergh’s Suecia antiqua et hodierna (Sweden in Antiquity and Today)

Swedish architecture in the late 17th and early 18th centuries evolved during a time of extreme political swings within and hostilities without. Between 1690 and 1730, Sweden progressed from the royal autocracy under King Karl XI, through two decades of war and hardship, to a long-awaited time of peace, followed by the institution of a new political system – the parliamentary regime of the Age of Liberty. Throughout it all, a continuous driving force came from the outstanding architect and conscious ideologue, Nicodemus Tessin the Younger. Together with the court painter, David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl, Tessin gave artistic expression to the importance and authority of the monarchy, with work reflecting more strongly than ever before, influences from Europe’s leading cultural nations, Italy and France.

Tessin’s architecture did not win over the conservative Swedish nobility, however, and aristocrats continued to commission buildings in the traditions of their forebears. The tone is different form earlier work, however – stricter and more austere. The architecture from this period is therefore known as late baroque or (for the kings Karl) late Karolinian. Though the terms are used interchangeably, the restrained simplicity of forms is today the most closely associated with the word Karolinian.

No architect in Sweden has ever attained the stature of Nicodemus Tessin the Younger (1654-1728), whose multi-faceted career also won him great influence as a politician and courtier to the king. From his youth, his bright prospects distinguished him from his peers. His education began in Sweden, first under his father, Nicodemus Tessin the Elder, then at Uppsala University. In 1673, when the young Tessin was just nineteen, he went to Rome to continue his studies. While he was there, former Queen Christina, having abdicated the throne and taken up residence in the Eternal City, took a lively interest in her gifted compatriot and helped to see that his stay in Rome was a productive one. Tessin was invited to study with the architect Carlo Fontana, through whom he made the acquaintance of the great Gianlorenzo Bernini.

During this six years in Rome and the following two in England and France, Tessin developed the style that would later determine his architecture. Though both Roman antiquity and the Renaissance were important to him, it was the baroque architecture of Bernini that Tessin admired most and that shaped his future work. In Tessin’s hands, the heavier Roman baroque of Bernini was complemented by the lighter, more decorated baroque classicism of Louis XIV’s France. The surroundings being created by Charles le Brun at Versailles and at the Louvre, and, in fact, the entire artistic devotion to glorifying the king of France, greatly impressed Tessin. He was drawn to the new principles of palace architecture that he encountered in France, especially to those developed and implemented by architect Louis Le Vau in his designs for Vaux-le-Vicomte (1658-1661) and to the landscape architecture of André Le Nôtre. Over the years, Tessin compiled a unique and extensive collection of French drawings and engravings, many of which are now preserved at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Stockholm.

Sweden had high expectations for Tessin. Even while still in Rome, he was appointed court architect. Upon his return to Sweden in 1681, he took over the position that his recently deceased father had held as city architect in Stockholm; along with that post, he inherited responsibility for completing Drottningholm Palace for the dowager queen, Hedvig Eleonora.

Tessin the Younger is best known today as the architect of the Royal Palace in Stockholm.

The Royal Palace was just a fraction of Tessin the Younger’s large-scale plans for Stockholm. During the embattled years in the early 18th century, the king and architect had exchanged letters planning radical changes in the urban environment of the palace. The goal was to create a capital city worthy of the absolute monarchy. In reality, however, the plans were more of an escapist’s fantasy. This was probably understood by both the architect and the king, who was detained in Turkey after his disastrous defeat at Poltava in 1709. The full scope of the project to glorify Stockholm is known today only through a drawing by Tessin that has been preserved.

The general plan was to form an axis running through the northern waterway to a monumental open square located on the opposite shore, today’s Gustav Adolf’s Square (Gustav Adolfs torg). There, on the far side, Tessin planned a large baroque church with domes and clock towers, this would serve as a royal mausoleum. The square was to be flanked by courtiers’ palaces, and between them were to be two fountain sculptures in the form of elephants carrying obelisks – an idea from Bernini’s famed Elefante in Rome’s Piazza Minerva, just steps from the ancient Pantheon. The plans also included new royal stables with a show arena (where the House of Parliament stands today), an arcaded space for an open market, and, in the northeast, an enormous armoury to display war trophies.

If Tessin’s utopian ideal had become a reality, Stockholm would have been one of Europe’s most magnificent capital cities, but plans to complete it collapsed with the fall of the absolute monarchy. Not until the end of the 18th century was the project revived, and then it was only partly realised by architects practising in the neoclassical styles.

Tessin’s plan for Stockholm included his own palace, erected on a property that he had acquired in 1692 on Slottsbacken, just opposite the south entrance to the Royal Palace. Behind a Roman façade, he masterfully created for himself and his family an ideal dwelling, which he conceived as a stylistic continuation of the Royal Palace. His son, Carl Gustav Tessin, later wrote, “The Stockholm house of my father of blessed memory is by no means a big house, but it can certainly be considered a model.” Moderate in size and with a simple, refined exterior, the house is easily distinguishable from the other private palaces that had been built in Stockholm by past generations. For its exterior and general composition, Tessin looked at modern palaces in Rome, and like some of this Italian colleagues, he drew inspiration from the noteworthy aristocratic homes of antiquity. The most important rooms are clustered in one main building, with a foyer forming a classical atrium in the middle of the first floor. From the foyer, one can enter a peristyle of greenery and a miniature baroque garden, which is considered one of the most exquisite in all Europe. From the outside, the second floor gives the impression of a piano nobile, but in fact it housed the family’s private apartments. The formal state apartments, containing a salon, antechamber, bedchamber and a cabinet at each end, was located on the third floor and overlooked the garden.

Tessin Palace

Tessin left this description of his plans for this apartment: “After much thought on how to decorate it, I decided to pain both ceilings and walls with all sorts of [antique-style] grotesque ornamentation… [In these] will be figures and small stories in colours, as well as some mirrors, bronze frames, etc. In the salon, the Fine Arts and Sciences will be the subject; in the antechamber, the satisfaction which comes from the study of Philosophy is depicted.” For the rich decorative paintings that dominate the interiors, Tessin enlisted the help of the same French artists who had come to decorate the Royal Palace, including Jacques Fouquet, Jacques de Meaux, and the painter Evrard Chauveau (brother of René Chauvreau). Trompe l’oeil paintings in the salon depict southern European harbours and sunny Italian landscapes with ancient ruins, while the bedchamber gives the illusion of continuity into an expansive sculpture gallery. This apartment has been referred to as one of the finest “French” interiors of the 1690s and ceiling decorations of this quality in particular are rare indeed. Various figures are combined here with ornamentation in the spirit of Jean Bérain but following a subtle allegorical program of Tessin’s own invention. The salon is dedicated to the god Apollo and the nine muses. The theme of the bedchamber is night, while in the antechamber are depictions of the struggle between Virtue and Vice.

The small, irregular lot that Tessin had acquired he transformed with precision and imagination into a symmetrical, terraced courtyard with a garden shielded by wings on all sides from the city’s jagged skyline. Protruding chimneys were once cleverly concealed by sheet metal cutouts faux-painted as trees mounted atop the wings. A pond and a broderie parterre of boxwood, surrounded by marble sculptures of ancient gods and goddesses, made up the front section of the garden. The garden’s rear section functioned as a stage, separated from the front section by a pair of freestanding wings. Behind these, Tessin created an illusion of depth by using false perspectives with a row of columns gradually diminishing in size like the Italian baroque architect Borromini’s false-perspectives arcade at the Palazzo Spada in Rome. From the beginning, a garden grotto, birdsongs from aviaries, the babble of trickling water and the scent of honeysuckle transported the visitor mentally to a southern European idyll. Landscapes painted in the wing’s original open arcades enhanced this sensation.

In 1700, Tessin wrote to his good friend Daniel Cronström, “As God is my witness, my house is costing me more than a hundred thousand livres, even without the furniture. God willing, everything is nearly completed and I expect it to be my greatest source of happiness in my remaining days.” Tessin proudly had engravings made of his house’s architecture, its interiors and its gardens to make known to the world this ultimate expression of his taste and artistry.

The work on Tessin’s own palace drew on experience gained during the early years of this career. As a young man, Tessin the Younger had captured the attention of the highest stratum of Swedish society. In 1681, when he was just twenty-seven and newly returned from travels abroad, he was commissioned by Count Carl Gyllenstierna, the dowager queen’s chief administrator and marshal, to design a palace.

An urgent matter during the Age of Greatness was the construction of mausoleums to honour military commanders and noblemen. These were strictly a privilege of wealthy patrons. They were constructed near existing churches as freestanding structures with their own architecture. All the symbolic adornments of a funeral procession – funeral escutcheons, ancestral coat-of-arms and flags of mourning – were placed along with the deceased’s sarcophagus.

The Gustavian mausoleum at Riddarholm Church in Stockholm played an important role in the development of this Swedish tradition. It was built just after the death of Gustav II Adolf in 1632, in his honour, and the oldest mausoleums derive from this period. Most are nearly cubic buildings, crowned by a spire and with windows on three sides. The architecture is as simple as possible.

Gustavian mausoleum at Riddarholm Church

In the following years, demands for mausoleums increased. Architects received commissions for grandiose buildings crowned by domes, with exteriors prominently displaying their functions. In the interiors, the worldly mixed with the spiritual. Exploits of war were intermingled with the hope of resurrection and eternal blessedness.

The kings of the Palatine dynasty – Karl X Gustav, Karl XI and Karl XII – all rest in the Karolinian mausoleum at the Riddarholm Church (Riddarholmskyrkan) in Stockholm. This mausoleum can be said to mark the end of the Karolinian epoch. Architecturally, it also signifies the grand finale of a long tradition of mausoleums of this type.

By the mid-1730s, the French Rococo style has a firm hold in Sweden. Applied primarily in interior decoration, the Rococo was reserved mainly for regal environments such as the Royal Palace in Stockholm where the style first became evident in newly completed rooms. Not until the middle of the 18th century, however, did the Rococo become solidly established and common in Sweden’s private houses as well. Swedish Rococo is normally considered to encompass the years 1750 to 1770.

The architect Carl Hårleman, who introduced the Rococo in Sweden and was responsible for forming its Swedish character, had already died by the 1750s. Hårleman is credited with having laid the foundation for the modern Swedish house, although in fact his architecture is based entirely on French prototypes. But the models were not simply copied in Sweden. Rather, they were adapted and modified into more moderate and disciplined forms than appeared in France. The Swedish Rococo has indeed its own, very distinctive character, and this applies comprehensively to architecture, to interiors and to the decorative arts of that period. It is sometimes said that the French Rococo cooled down in Sweden’s Nordic climate.

Carl Hårleman assumed artistic responsibility for completion of the Royal Palace, where work resumed in 1727, considered the starting point of the art and architecture of the Age of Liberty. The second largest royal building project during the Rococo period was the rebuilding of Drottningholm Palace for Crown Princess Lovisa Ulrika.

A major building project during the Age of Liberty and one of the few in which Hårleman was not involved was the exchange house in Stockholm. In affluent trading cities, the town halls and exchange buildings have commonly been manifestations of local wealth and power. This was not the case in Stockholm, however. Lacking the usual array of offices, the city’s various administrative bodies were squeezed together in a jumble of outdated office buildings near Stortorget in the Old Town. Merchants had no public trading facilities at all, which meant that they had to conduct business under the open sky.

The construction of a new exchange house became a drawn-out project that continued throughout the entire Age of Liberty. In 1728-29, the city architect Johan Eberhard Carlberg presented two different suggestions for an exchange building. The first proposal was based on restoring the existing city hall complex, providing more room for commerce; the other plan called for replacing the existing complex with a new, monumental building that would accommodate both the city hall and the exchange building. Neither of the proposals were accepted, however, and the point became moot when, in 1730, the city purchased the Bonde Palace to house administrative offices. The move from the square and Stortorget solved the problem of location and meant that the exchange could lay sole claim to the building contemplated.

Year after year, Carlberg’s initial suggestions were followed by new ones, both by himself and by superintendent Carl Johan Cronstedt. One of Cronstedt’s designs was finally approved by the kind in 1768. The year before, however, a young man in the city architect’s office by the name of Erik Palmstedt presented his ideas for the building’s appearance based partly on earlier drawings by Cronstedt. The city administration granted Palmstedt the task of continuing to develop the plans, which resulted in his proposal’s being accepted by King Gustav III in 1773. The building was completed three years later.

The Exchange (Börsen) currently housing the Nobel Museum

The new exchange building, in the form of a two-story trapezoid with covered corners and a flat, baluster-rimmed roof, took up an entire block on the north side of Stortorget. Its rusticated ground floor opens into generous arcades that face the square; the upper floor is enclosed. The building prompts associations with a French rococo private palace, but emphasizes its public status through an accentuated central section with engaged columns, a pediment and a clock-tower lantern crowning the top (the later being a remnant from the baroque). In the large second-floor reception room, which today houses the Swedish Academy (Svenska Akademien), Palmstedt created an austere interior in white and gold with colossal Ionic pilasters and a robust joist system.

The Exchange (Börsen) currently housing the Nobel Museum

The Stockholm exchange was the first building of monumental scale that Gustav III approved during his reign. It was soon followed by many prestigious projects within Stockholm’s centre in which both Carl Fredrik Adelcrantz and Erik Palmstedt were involved. With these, however, Sweden entered a new epoch: the Gustavian.

Creation of the Gustavian style was to a great extent the work of the renowned and versatile Jean Eric Rehn (1717-1795). In 1756 Rehn returned from a year-long study tour that he, court painter Johan Pasch (1706-1769) and a master builder, Georg Froman, had embarked on together. As a designer at the Swedish Manufacturing Office, Rehn had been dispatched to gather information about silk designs and production in Paris and Lyon. The tree friends continued on to Rome and then Naples, where they were the first Swedes to study the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Rehn zealously sketched the finds: architecture – sometimes just fragments – as well as sculptures, household goods and the furniture depicted in wall paintings. Indeed, the enthusiastic travellers reported having sensed at the ruins the aromas of ancient herbs, grains and balsam – a vivid and very personal experience of the ancient world. Then, en route back to Sweden, Rehn encountered France’s great enthusiasm for antiquity and its influence on the new and prevalent Louis XVI style.

Rehn’s travels initiated a new period in Swedish art history. His exposure to the ancient world and to its echoes in contemporary work definitely shaped not only his own personal artistic development but also that of Sweden. Already before his journey, Jean Eric Rehn had assisted Carl Hårleman with the interiors of the Royal Palace in Stockholm. Rehn’s contributions there obviously pleased Queen Lovisa Ulrika, who soon thereafter engaged him as per personal interior designer. He was also named Court Architect and a professor at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.

Like Jean Eric Rehn, the architect Carl Fredrik Adelcrantz was at the height of his career during the transitional period between the Rococo and Gustavian style. Even more than his Chinese pavilion at Drottningholm, Adelcrantz’s greatest professional challenge came with Gustav III’s commission for a royal opera house in Stockholm (1774-82). This would become the most prominent Gustavian building in Sweden (and, after seven decades, the setting of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, The Masked Ball).

The opera house was just one feature in the grand plans of Gustav III and his superintendent. The project was based on Nicodemus Tessin the Younger’s earlier drawing for the area surrounding the Royal Palace. These plans, which had only recently been discovered, agreed with the contemporary desire to create a space comparable to the monumental public spaces that imparted majesty to many Continental cities.

Erected on the east side of the square, the new opera house provided a main element in the architectural setting of the palace. (In 1891, Gustav III’s opera house was razed to make way for the current Royal Opera House, Kungliga operan.) Nothing on its exterior revealed the building’s function. On a rusticated base with windows and entrances framed by blind arcades, colossal Corinthian pilasters contrasting with the smooth façade stretched two full stories. A central colonnade crowned by an attic story marked the entrance toward the square.

Stylistically, the opera house derived completely from French classicism. It was also to France that Adelcrantz turned for inspiration for the stage and auditorium. The interior resembled the theatre designed by Germain Soufflots in Lyon, with its horseshoe-shaped auditorium, long rows of box seats, and raked stage. Adelcrantz’s design was likely based on the French prototype, since engravings of Soufflots’ theatre were publicised the same year, 1773, that Adelcrantz completed his drawings for the opera house. The furnishings in the auditorium and foyer were in red, white and gold with sculpted decoration of urns, laurel swags and musical instruments all in the spirit of the older Louis XVI style. Jean Baptiste Masreliez was responsible for a large portion of this graceful ornamentation.

A companion structure on the opposite side of the square, another palace – also designed by Erik Palmstedt – was erected in 1783-94 for Gustav III’s sister, Princess Sophia Albertina. With money inherited from their mother, Sophia Albertina had purchased the property in 1782; on it had stood a 17th century palace. Having offered to pay to construct his sister’s new palace, King Gustav gave the architect orders to copy the opera house’s façade. The palace was furnished with a number of exquisite interiors by Louis Masreliez. Thus, Sophia Albertina’s palace, which is still standing, gives quite an accurate reflection of Gustav III’s original opera house. The building currently houses the Swedish Foreign Ministry (Utrikesdepartementet).

Arvfurstens Palace –
Designed by Erik Palmstedt, the palace was originally the private residence of Princess Sophia Albertina

The new square just opposite the Royal Palace provided an ideal site for the equestrian statue of Gustav II Adolf, which was commissioned from the sculptor Pierre Hubert L’Archeveque in 1775 but not inaugurated until 1796. In Paris, many of the public spaces created during the 18th century survived the French Revolution intact, while all the effigies of monarchs perished. In Stockholm, the opposite occurred: The architectural framework surrounding the statue was truncated, but the king was allowed to remain in the saddle.

Not far from Gustav Adolf’s Square, work began in 1783 on the Customs House (Tullpackhuset), which consisted of a warehouse and offices. This project afforded Erik Palmstedt an opportunity to carry out on Swedish soil more ideas shaped by his foreign travels. Palmstedt’s customs house is firmly anchored in the Italian Renaissance; it has a severe, uncompromising, rusticated facade in stucco but imitating Italy’s stone, classically shaped window casements, and a portal with heavy banded columns. The building foreshadows the stern neoclassicism that would soon permeate Swedish design. In 1784, Gustav III returned from Italy a strong advocate of a strict, austere neoclassicism. This radically affected the style of public architecture, since the king’s personal tastes were decisive in the aesthetics of all new projects. Though drawings for public buildings were submitted first to the superintendent, the king of Sweden exercised his right to approve or deny all designs. This king often made changes to proposals with his own pen. When reviewing a suggestion for an inflated, baroque-style bell tower for the Kartulla church in Finland (then a part of Sweden), the monarch quickly transformed the drawing to a simplified clock turret composed just of four Doric columns.

Customs House (Tullpackhuset)

From this moment, Jean Eric Rehn and Carl Fredrik Adelcrantz – the proponents of the earlier, much softer classicism – lost their grip on aesthetics in Sweden. Though they retained their influential positions as court architect and superintendent, the king now marshalled fresh creative forces that could better meet his new demands and stylistic ideals.

The Royal Mint (Kungliga mynthuset) in Stockholm illustrates this development. In 1783, Carl Fredrik Adelcrantz began plans for a new Royal Mint to be located just west of the Royal Palace. While the new opera house magnificently displayed the architect’s skills, it also exposed his limits with regard to classicism. Just weeks after his return from abroad, Gustav III approved a new proposal, submitted by a younger architect named Olof Tempelman (1745-1816) for the mint house. Tempelman, who in 1779 had been appointed Sweden’s first professor of civil architecture at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, had also recently returned from Italy; he therefore had a clear understanding of what the king wanted. His drawings depict a building with very pronounced rustication and a temple portico with four robust Doric columns. In the last phase of construction, however, Adelcrantz did rework the facade slightly. On direct orders from the king, the rustication was removed and the portico was given greater emphasis by extending the height of the columns. The Doric temple facade of the Royal Mint became the first manifestation in Sweden of this new style.

Mynttorget is named after the vicinity to the royal mint (Kungliga mynthuset), during the period 1696-1850 located by the square, and the name appears on a map dated 1733. The location of the royal mint is not known.

Mynttorget – oldest public square in Stockholm
Mynttorget – oldest public square in Stockholm
Stockholm Monuments

All Aboard the Story Train

Little bears are at Junibacken.

They are listening to Astrid Lindgren read The Story Train, the last book she wrote. But wait, there is a Story Train that dives straight into the magical world between the pages of books, where you can meet Madicken, Emil, Karlsson and the others on an enchanting journey between the Swedish summer of fairy tales and stories and the roaring Karma Falls. Let’s go, let’s go!

Now we are off on a little trip to visit some other children, whom I think you may already know.

Mardie and Lisbet who lived in Junedale, you’ve heard about them, haven’t you?
Do you remember when they had an outing and Mardie jumped off the roof of the wood-shed and nearly killed herself?

Abe made up all kinds of crazy stories. Like the night when he persuaded Mardie to go into the washhouse, and pretend to be a ghost.

Now we come to Katthult, where Emil lived. And look, there’s Alfred!
It was Sunday, and they were having a party at Katthult. People where on their way to the party, and the flag was up the pole. Haha, that’s what you thought! It was little Ida, whom Emil had run up the flagpole. So it was the tool shed for Emil as usual, after one of his pranks.

Suddenly they found that Emil had disappeared.
Oh, how they searched for him everywhere.
But there was no sign of Emil, for Emil had moved out of the tool shed… and over to the food store. And there, if you please, he lay down and went to sleep in a cupboard with a lot of sausage skins scattered around him.

Another party that everybody in Lonneberga were talking about for a long time was the one given by Emil on Boxing Day. He invited all the poor hungry people from the workhouse to come to Katthult and eat their fill. He had a good heart, that Emil!

Have you noticed that we are flying?
And those lights down there, that must be Vasastan in Stockholm. And Midge’s house. He is probably down there, waiting for Karlsson as usual.

Karlsson is a handsome, intelligent and reasonably stout man in his prime, and he flies in when he likes.
Karlsson lives in a little house on the roof. And here it is! Oh dear, oh dear, what a mess! We don’t want to stop here.

But what has happened to us now? We have become as small as Simon Small himself. He was no bigger than a thumb, and he lived under the floor under Bertil’s bed. He rented a flat there from a horrid rat.
Bertil wanted to be as small as Simon, so that they could play together.
It’s fun to be so small that you can bathe in a sugar bowl.

Oh, what a storm!
And we are in the middle of a great forest. This is Matt’s forest, where Matt’s robbers hang out…

… where treacherous grey dwarves live behind the boulders and rumphobs beneath the roots of the trees. And there are Ronja and Birk, too. They have moved to the Bears’ Cave to get some peace, and escape from the row between Matt’s robbers and Borka’s robbers.

Matt’s robbers were standing beside Hell’s Gap, furious because Borka’s robbers had moved into the fort without permission.
But in the end they became friends, and when spring came at last, Ronja yelled her old spring yell for joy.

But what’s going on here?
There’s a fire! This is where Jonathan took his sick little brother on his back and jumped out of the window.
There was no more Jonathan. He died when he jumped out, and poor Rusky was left alone.
But one evening, a snow-white dove flew up and perched on the window ledge, and Rusky knew, at once, that it was Jonathan.

Jonathan had talked about a place called Nangiyala, where you went when you were dead. And Rusky went there too, to Cherry Valley in Nangiyala. Jonathan was sitting there, fishing. Imagine Rusky’s joy!

But in Nangiyala, there was also Wild Rose Valley, which was no longer free. It was ruled over by cruel Tengil, and his even more cruel dragon, Katla. But a nice old grandfather, Mattias, lived there too.
Jonathan and Rusky hid in his house until it was time to set out for Tengil’s country.

Their journey led across the bridge over the terrifying Karma Falls. And it was there, for the first time, that they saw Katla, the she-dragon from ancient times.
Then came the great final battle, which set Wild Rose Valley free again, but by then Jonathan had already been paralysed by Katla’s fire.
As they rested by the precipice that plunged straight down into the depths, Jonathan talked about Nangilima, and how wonderful it was there.
Then Rusky took his brother on his back and jumped over the edge, into the lights of Nangilima.

The Storybook Train took nearly two years to create. During this period, the Swedish theatre and music world was practically devoid of leading talent in stage design – everyone was working on Junibacken! Doll-makers, scenic artists, prop-makers, theatre carpenters – everyone was working feverishly to complete the Storybook Train in time for the opening on 8 June 1996. Astrid herself was very happy with the result. She wrote in a letter to Marit Törnqvist on 4 February 1997:

“Everyone who visits is amazed that something like this exists, and I cannot think of any other children’s museum that even approaches what you have achieved at Junibacken.”

Villa Villekulla
Villa Villekulla
Villa Villekulla
Pippi’s horse

Fika in Stockholm

Fika is a concept in Swedish (and Finnish) culture with the basic meaning “to have coffee”, often accompanied with pastries or sandwiches. A more contemporary generalised meaning of the word, where the coffee may be replaced by tea or even juice or lemonade for children, has become widespread. In some social circles, even just a sandwich or a small meal may be denoted a fika similar to the English concept of afternoon tea. In Sweden pastries in general (for example cinnamon buns) are often referred to as fikabröd (“fika bread”).

Fika is considered a social institution in Sweden and Finland; it means having a break, most often a coffee break, with one’s colleagues, friends, date or family. The word fika can be used as both verb and a noun. You can fika at work by taking a “coffee break”, fika with someone like a “coffee date”, or just drink a cup of coffee, tea or other non-alcoholic beverage. As such, the word has quite ambiguous connotations, but almost always includes something to eat, such as biscuits, cakes and even sweets, accompanied with the drink. This practice of taking a break, often with a cinnamon roll or some biscuits, cookies, or a fruit on the side, is central to Swedish life.

Little bears are quite happy to make fika central to their life 🙂 Yummy cinnamon buns, apple and custard and blueberry and custard buns… all from Vete-Katten. Why mess with perfection?

Drottningholm Palace and Theatre

Drottningholm Palace

When Dowager Queen Hedvig Eleonora took over Drottningholm in 1661, the palace was owned by Chancellor of the Realm Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie. On the same lakeside site stood a palace erected nearly a century before by the Vasa King Johan III for his wife, Katarina Jagellonica. It was for her that the palace on Lake Mälaren came to be called “the Queen’s Isler”.

Shortly after Hedvig Eleonora bought the property, the old palace was destroyed by fire. The queen turned to Nicodemus Tessin the Elder and ordered him released from his other royal duties to prepare drawings for a new palace.

Nicodemus Tessin the Elder (1615-1681) came from Stralsund, in Germany (then part of Sweden), where he had been educated in building fortifications. As an assistant to Simon de la Vallée, he had become well-grounded in civil building, although his future development was greatly influenced by a study tour through Europe in 1651-53 sponsored by Queen Christina. Like Jean de la Vallée, Tessin received many commissions from the high nobility, but unlike his rival, he managed his career carefully and was better focused on his goals. While Jean had trouble delivering drawings on time, Tessin carried his tasks to completion. In 1661, after fifteen years as Royal Architect, he took over from Jean responsibility for the Royal Palace and was given the title of Stockholm’s first City Architect. Later, King Karl XI elevated Tessin the Elder to the nobility.

Thanks to his skill and tenacity, and to whole troops of assistants, Tessin managed to produce over three decades some thirty great country houses, as well as a number of churches and palaces in Stockholm. He was the supreme master of his time, and with his classically composed architecture he was able to realize his clients’ architectural ambitions. While Tessin looked to France, Holland and Italy for prototypes, his models came primarily from the 16th century Italian architect, Andrea Palladio, whose books on architecture wielded great influence throughout Europe. Tessin travelled in northern Italy to study Palladio’s famous villas, in which the Italian master had brilliantly melded visions of the houses and temples of antiquity. Eventually, all of Tessin’s time was consumed by the one project for which he is most renowned: Drottningholm, today the residence of Sweden’s royal family.

Drottningholm Palace

Tessin made use of the foundation and the surviving walls and laid out a pair of larger rooms – the so-called guards’ rooms – plus a stair hall and a vestibule. Around this core, two state apartments with the most prestigious rooms were linked by a gallery facing the sea. All this was contained in a rectangular building with a recessed central section looking toward the garden. The second floor followed a similar arrangement.

Soon after the new foundations were laid in 1662, the queen decided to enlarge the palace. Four two-story corner pavilions were now added, as well as single-story, flat-roofed wings that enclosed two inner courtyards. At the outer corners stood two smaller pavilions to which were affixed, as accenting finials for the building, two doomed towers; the southern tower housed the palace kitchen, the northern one was to house the palace chapel (though it was not completed until 1728). Tessin’s ability to divide the building’s volume into small, well-proportioned, interconnected segments gave the palace a harmonious rhythm while sustaining its overall architectural integrity. The exterior was completed around 1671.

Drottningholm Palace

When completed, the palace consisted of a central, three-story main block facing the water, with only two stories on a low base facing the garden. Above the rusticated ground floor, the façade was articulated by pilasters and mouldings. The main portico toward the lake – the formal entrance – was flanked by paired Doric columns and adorned with Sweden’s coat of arms. On the opposite side of the building, a double stairway provided an imposing passage to the garden. The walls around the three arched openings that formed the entrance were capped by a cornice, with, among other things, console brackets, lion heads and the Swedish and the Hostein-Gottorp dynasty’s coat of arms. The architect gave the corner pavilions on this side more elaborate façades, columns and pediments, while the lower wings were completely rusticated. From the beginning, the stucco walls were pale red with the articulation in grey.

Tessin was able to combine prototypes from different places at Drottningholm to create a personal and independently interpreted baroque classicism. That Tessin possessed detailed knowledge of his classical sources of inspiration is evident in his floor plan for Drottningholm, which derives from Palladio’s villas but with a French baroque palace service as intermediary, or perhaps another prototype, the Dutch palace, Huis ten Bosch, in the Hague. Just as the system of corner pavilions was inspired by French models such as Luxembourg Palace, the idea to extend the Swedish palace lengthwise may have been derived from Villa Doria Pamphili in Rome; the latter, which also exhibits similar characteristics, was just being completed when Tessin was there. A likely prototype for the garden façade was the Villa Borghese in Rome, with its arcade and loggia.

Drottningholm Palace

The central core of Drottningholm palace contains a stairwell, a vestibule and on the two main floors, long galleries, the lower one of which takes the form of an interior loggia. On either side of this core, on the two upper stories, is a suite of rooms. The lower north suite was furnished as the dowager queen’s state apartment and consisted of a small antechamber next to a guards’ room, a small audience hall, a state bedchamber (though in fact not for sleeping, and hence referred to instead as the alcove) a large audience hall called “the Ehrenstrahl salon” for the court painter, many of whose works adorn the walls, and a state antechamber. The most distinguished suite, the king’s apartment, was to be on the top floor, but the rooms were not completed during the 17th century.

During more than half a century, the aging Hedvig Eleonora was occupied with the construction and furnishing of the palace, with the work in her apartment going on for thirty years. It was here that the most important room of the palace was located: Hedvig Eleonora’s state bedchamber. The room was designed in a strict classical manner with a flat ceiling above walls articulated with pilasters and with an overabundance of gilding, stucco carvings and marquetry. Here David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl depicted in allegorical paintings the history of the queen’s marriage and the life of her young son, later King Karl XI.

Drottningholm Palace – Hedvig Eleonora’s State Bedchamber
Drottningholm Palace – Hedvig Eleonora’s State Bedchamber

The interior feature most admired during the 17th century was the magnificent stairway, which reaches up through the full height of the palace. In this space, all forms of art were combined to create a splendour never before seen in Sweden, with robust stucco reliefs, marble sculptures, as well as perspective fresco paintings by Johan Sylvius. These depicted guests in the garb of faraway places gazing out over the stairway. Geatish kings from Nordic mythology, along with deities and muses from antiquity, were associated with contemporary theories that Sweden was the origin of all European civilizations. The decoration in all the great halls at Drottningholm carried significant symbolism and propaganda. Johan Philip Lemke, the battle-scene painter, depicted the Palatine kings’ war deeds in the two galleries, while in the state rooms Ehrenstrahl glorified the Holstein-Gottorp dynasty’s good deeds for the people and the kingdom. The architecture and furnishings combine to make a grand testimonial to the greatness of the dynasty and of the fatherland.

Drottningholm Palace Staircase
Drottningholm Palace Staircase

Upon Tessin’s death in 1681, work on Drottningholm’s interiors was taken over by his son, Nicodemus Tessin the Younger (1654-1728), who completed them with great respect for his father’s earlier achievements. For the garden, Tessin the Younger designed a new general scheme that was a free interpretation of André Le Nôtre’s landscaping at Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles. As if by magic, the architect transformed the rocky, swampy land surrounding the palace into parterres, bosks, fountains and allées. Particularly striking are the many bronze sculptures by the Dutch mannerist artist Adriaen de Vries, which were, in fact, plunder from Prague and Denmark’s Fredriksborg castle. (Today they have been replaced by copies, and the originals reside in a nearby museum).

Well before Louis XIV transformed Versailles and before the construction of such famous palaces as Schönbrunn in Vienna and Charlottenburg in Berlin, Drottningholm Palace was heralded throughout Europe for this artistic achievements. Its balanced composition and magnificent stairwell astounded foreign visitors, and Drottningholm came to stand as a symbol of Sweden’s newly acquired position of power among nations.

Hedvig Eleonora used the palace as a summer residence until her death in 1715. After her death, Queen Ulrika Eleonora of Sweden and King Frederick I of Sweden held court at the palace in the summer. In 1744, the palace was given as a gift from King Frederick I to the then Crown Princess, later Queen of Sweden, Lovisa Ulrika of Prussia when she married Adolf Frederick of Sweden, who became King of Sweden in 1751.

From the very beginning, Lovisa Ulrika demonstrated exceptional aptitude as a patron, becoming deeply engaged in the remodelling of the Drottningholm. Her first concern was the extension of building that was to provide modern private apartments for her family.

Where to place these apartments was a dilemma that Carl Hårleman ingeniously solved by adding a second floor to the one-story wings that connected the central building of the palace to the two round towers at the north and south ends. These additions (replacing what had earlier been open roof-terraces) integrated well with Nicodemus Tessin the Elder’s work, though the overall character of the palace changed slightly. The original, rhythmic counterbalance of the imposing central building, lower wings and terminating towers was transformed into a single, cohesive composition of even more monumental aspect.

Hårleman’s interiors at Drottningholm resemble those he designed for the Royal Palace, even though they were planned for different living conditions. The emphasis at Drottningholm was more on private life than on public duties. From a forthright exchange of ideas among the commissioner, Lovisa Ulrika and, most likely, her personal aesthetic advisor, Carl Gustav Tessin, Hårleman was able to create a more restrained but elegant environment that was equally well suited to family life, entertaining and study.

In the treatment of the interiors, decoration was generally concentrated around the windows, doors and chimney-pieces. Otherwise, many of the rooms were given only basic wall treatment, such as a dado with circular and rectangular fields below, and above this, fielded panels (that is, panels framed by a system of raised mouldings) of textile. This was the approach in the newly furnished Green Cabinet, in which green silk damask was adorned with portraits of the princess’ Prussian family. In this room, a large mirror with a heavily carved and gilt frame was also mounted between the two windows. Crowning the mirror is a still life of a hare and a partridge painted in 1739 by the French artist Jean-Baptiste Oudry.

Drottningholm Palace – The Green Drawing Room

Originally part of the dowager queen’s state apartment, the Green Cabinet, as well as her splendid bedchamber and audience room now constituted the core of Lovisa Ulrika’s private apartment. This was situated in the northern part of the palace’s main building and in a second story newly added to the northwest wing. To these three formal rooms, the crown princess also adjoined a suite of more intimate rooms. One – formerly Lovisa Ulrika’s dressing room – was embellished throughout with blue boiserie panels and garlands. The chandelier and silvered bronze appliqués were purchased in 1754 in Paris. A stove, with blue Swedish tile decoration from the Rorstrand ceramics factory, stood in a niche on the limestone floor.

Drottningholm Palace – The Chinese Drawing Room – Gobelin tapestry, gift from Louis XVI
Drottningholm Palace – The Chinese Drawing Room

Originally intended to house a portrait gallery, the oblong room in the palace’s north wing facing the gardens instead became Lovisa Ulrika’s Natural History Cabinet; the great botanist Carl Linnaeus helped the princess to organise her collections here during the summer of 1751. From this room, one could reach to the northwest pavilion, which was fitted out as a cabinet d’étude (study library). Though it was completely rebuilt after just a few years, Hårleman’s original drawings give an accurate picture of its strict classical appearance, with glass-fronted bookshelves incorporated between pilasters spanned by arches. In a 1748 letter to her sister, Lovisa Ulrika described her favourite room: “Here at my home Drottningholm, I live like a philosopher. If you could see me at this moment, you would find me sitting in my Cabinet which I have commissioned, with all my books on shelves that are built into the wall and equipped with doors of glass, all gilt and carved with ornament. The overdoors depict the attributes of the sciences; there is a mirror over the chimneypiece, and below are bronze sculptures from antiquity. In the centre of the room there is a table of a completely new type that has come from France and is fitted out with a hutch that supports a clock. It is at this very table that I now write to you; a barometer is hanging by one window and by the other is a sundial. A lovely chair completes my description and it is sitting in this chair that I make these observations.”

Next to the library, in the section that connects the palace’s northwest and northeast wings, is the Coin Cabinet, which Carl Hårleman designed to house the large coin and medal collection that Lovisa Ulrika acquired from Carl Gustav Tessin in 1746. The cabinet walls were panelled and faux-painted as walnut and embellished with carved, gilt rococo ornaments, trofée groups, and portrait medallions. Similar motifs were repeated on the bronze hardware on the eight tall, walnut cupboards in which the collections were stored. Prototypes for this interior could be found in Germany in the library at Sanssouci, the country palace in Postdam of Lovisa Ulrika’s brother, King Frederick II (ie, the Great), as well as in the royal palace in Turin, Italy. The Coin Cabinet at Drottningholm was the first in a suite of display rooms that Lovisa Ulrika ordered for the use of scholarly purposes. The others were completed later by Hårleman’s successors.

Drottningholm Palace – The Hall of State

One of Adolf Fredrik’s and Lovisa Ulrika’s primary contributions to Drottningholm is the Chinese Pavilion, constructed in a wooded area adjacent to the baroque garden. In the 18th century, a fascination with East Asia spread through Europe, and it is reflected in this pavilion. The Swedish royal couple associated themselves with other European rulers who showed this interest by erecting special buildings a la chinoise – in the Chinese style. Again, counterparts are to be found elsewhere in Europe. Closely related to the Drottningholm Chinese pavilion was the now-lost Maison sans Gene at Schloss Augustburg outside Cologne. Another German prototype was erected at Schloss Wilhelmsthal by the count of Hessen-Kassel. In France, meanwhile, Jossigny-en-Brie was built outside Paris in 1743; this example has especially close similarities to the Drottningholm pavilion in both construction and decor. Soon after Jossigny, still another Chinese pavilion went up, this one at Sanssouci. During the 1750s, when King Frederick was planning his Chinese teahouse, he and his sister Lovisa Ulrika were regularly exchanging letters.

The Chinese Pavilion to be seen today at Drottningholm replaced a smaller version that was given to Queen Lovisa Ulrika on July 24, 1753 as a birthday present from her husband. The king’s gift was a wood frame structure made in Stockholm and shipped on barges to Drottningholm, where it was secretly assembled in an overgrown area just south of the formal gardens. The pavilion comprised five rooms and its façades were painted to imitate woven reeds. Its roof was covered with pleated cloth and hung with tassels and lanterns. The main building was flanked by smaller wings. Several days after the dedication, the queen wrote in delight to her mother, Sofia Dorothea of Prussia, “Everything is distinguished with the magnificence and good taste of the one who presented the gift.” The new superintendent, Carl Johan Cronstedt, is believed to have been the last architect involved with the pavilion’s construction, although he based his design on that of his predecessor, Carl Hårleman.

Plans to expand and beautify the site around the pavilion came under consideration early on. The natural environment complemented the desired informal character and closeness to nature, but the royal couple also yearned for something more lasting. After only a few years, they had the site expanded to include two additional pavilions. One was the king’s pavilion, which Adolf Fredrik used for a woodworking shop with a lathe; the other, called Confidencen from the French confidence, functioned as an intimate dining room. By means of an ingenious rig of ropes and pulleys, the dining table – already set – could be raised from the basement and presented to the assembled guests. With these additions, the architectural standard rose.

In the damp of its woodland setting, however, the original pavilion was vulnerable to mould and decay, and it was torn down in 1763 to make way for the current masonry building. The architect responsible for the new drawings was Carl Fredrik Adelcrantz (1717-1796).

In Adelcrantz’s plan, the new corps de logis consisted of a two-story main building connected to a pair of lower pavilions by curved galleries augmented by two freestanding wings; the whole assemblage enclosed a courtyard. On the outside, the new structure was to blend with the king’s pavilion and Confidencen. These in turn were stylistically anchored to the first main building, which allowed many original elements to be carried over into the new construction. The roof, of sheet metal bent in an undulating tent-like pattern, was painted green and appears to be supported by pilasters resembling the trunk of palm trees. Yellow dragons brace the balcony over the main entrance, and urns crown the chimneys on the roof. One the stucco façade, Adelcrantz replaced the wall panels’ woven-reed pattern with solid red panels decorated with lighter meander borders and spatter-painted, marbleized frames. The red panels were varnished to achieve a glossy surface to resemble Chinese lacquer. For all its exotic motifs, though, the façade has also been compared to rococo interiors, with its wall panels of glossy silk surrounded by faux-marble panels.

Chinese Pavilion
Chinese Pavillion, interior

Responsibility for designing the interiors fell to Jean Eric Rehn, whose ideas for colourful, richly varied furnishings came from many sources. A collection of engravings called Designs of Chinese Buildings, compiled by the Swedish/English architect William Chambers and published in 1757, is often thought to have provided much of the inspiration. The collection was said to derive from Chambers’ own interpretation of buildings in Canton, but it also shows clear traces of European classicism. While Sir William’s patterns were used for the décor in some of the rooms, engravings by the French artist Francois Boucher inspired the wall paintings that Johan Pasch did in a few of the other rooms, such as the Blue and Green salons in the pavilions at each end of the curved galleries. The strong colours, as well as the inclusion of East Asian objects and materials such as lacquer, silk and porcelain, contributed to the “Chinese” character of the rooms; some of these were newly acquired, others were already in the royal collections. Otherwise, it is the connection to French interior decoration that is most obvious – for example, in the disciplined vestibule, the marble hall with its polished stucco walls painted different colours, and the oval drawing room, with its large framed panels and restrained white and gold décor.

That the Chinese Pavilion is more characteristic of Europe than of Asia was clear at least to one 18th century visitor, Nathaniel Wraxall, who had spent time in Canton as a cargo merchant on an English ship. The pavilion, he wrote, is built “in that taste which we usually call the Chinese; though unless a few [costumed] Mandarins and Vases from China form this style, of which we really know scarce anything, it may just as well be called a European structure, where whimsy and caprice form the predominant character and spread a grotesque air through the whole.” Even if the exotic mood at Drottningholm was only superficial, it still helped to keep the dream of the Far East alive.

Carl Fredrik Adelcrantz had been discouraged from becoming an architect by his father, Goran Josuae Adelcrantz, the former city architect in Stockholm and a colleague of Nicodemus Tessin the Younger. Nonetheless, Adelcrantz attended lectures at the Royal Drawing Academy (Kungliga ritareakademien) while working for the government as a clerk. After his father’s death, Adelcrantz was free to depart Sweden for a long study tour to France and Italy (1739-43). Later, while working with Carl Hårleman at the Royal Palace, he made other trips as well. In 1757, he was made superintendent, a position he held for almost forty years.

Drottningholm Theatre – Carl Fredrik Adelcrantz portrait
Drottningholm Theatre – Adelcrantz’s Bedroom

While Adelcrantz was completing his drawings for the Chinese Pavilion, Queen Lovisa Ulrika, known for her talents as a flautist and composer, asked him to construct a new court theatre at Drottningholm, the older one having burned down in 1762. The story goes that the day of the incident, the audience assumed that a performer’s cries of “Fire!” were part of the show.

This was not Adelcrantz’s first experience with the special design challenges of theatres. Less than a decade before, when a French theatre company arrived in Stockholm, he had been called upon to contrive a small stage at Ulriksdal Palace on short notice. Expectations for the theatre at Drottningholm, however, were higher.

Drottningholm Theatre

Adelcrantz thought big, his edifice proved to be twice as big as the original theatre. The exterior facade is typically Nordic in its austerity. A central pediment is the only ‘decorative’ element. Its position at the entrance to the royal residence’s gardens adds much to the general feeling of tranquillity. Time seems to have stopped, far from the bustle of the capital.

Clockwise: Queen’s Pavilion, The Lord Chamberlain’s Wing, Drottningholm Theatre, Hunting Pavilion (not visible, now the theatre shop) and the Church Pavillion

The drawings and plans for the Drottningholm theatre occupied Adelcrantz until 1764, when preparations for the construction finally got under way. Despite the risk of fire, the new theatre was built of wood and finished with plaster. Mindful of the fire that destroyed the previous theatre, Adelcrantz provided five staircases that allowed a quick exit if required. The southern half of the length of the building houses the theatre salon with suites of rooms arranged around it; the northern half was the stage area, with performers’ and stage crews’ accommodations and studios. The style of the exterior is a restrained classicism, while the interiors consist of a series of charming rococo reception rooms with hand-painted wall-paper. The foyer, designed in 1791 by the French painter Louise-Jean Desprez is minimalist. The salon, with its stalls, can be characterised as a form of rococo classicism. The room is held together by sixteen Corinthian pilasters and a robust entablature that leads to the proscenium. The marbleized wall decoration, in pale pink, yellow and grey, is painted on fabric. And the console brackets seeming to support the balcony boxes are constructed of papier-mache. The ornament sculptor, Adrien Masreliez, renowned from the Royal Palace project, was responsible for the refined interior ornamentation. The front curtain, by court painter Johan Pasch, depicts Minerva, the goddess of the arts, bearing a floral festoon in the shape of Louisa’s crest.

Drottningholm Theatre Foyer
Drottningholm Theatre

Prior to opening, the theatre’s acoustics were tested by the royal family themselves. Prince Gustav stood on the stage and recited excerpts from French dramas, a foretaste of his involvement in developing a national Swedish opera and theatre company. Although not fully completed until November 1766, enough work on the stage and auditorium had been completed for it to be inaugurated with a play on Louisa’s birthday in July. The first opera performance – Psyché (1678) by Jean-Baptiste Lully – did not take place until October 28.

After its dedication in July 1766, the theatre held a central position in court life. It was filled not only with actors – who performed, ate and slept there – but also with members of the court who lived there. As superintendent and project supervisor for the French theatre troupe, Adelcrantz had the use of a suite located to the right of the main entrance and consisting of an antechamber, bedchamber and servants’ room.

Drottningholm Theatre
Drottningholm Theatre

If Drottningholm is now considered one of the most beautiful opera houses in the world, it is largely because of its auditorium, an intimate, tastefully decorated room with stucco pilasters, which allows an ideal relationship between stage and audience. With the exception of a few scattered boxes, there are no balconies, but its amphitheatre orchestra has 454 seats and spans the same depth as the stage, creating a perfectly symmetrical effect. The royal box, surprisingly located in the first rows of the orchestra, is immediately noticeable. Its Louis XV chairs are in pointed contrast with the spartan benches intended for the public. Originally, a divider could be set up between the royal boxes and the benches. At a depth of 65 feet, the stage is one of the deepest in Sweden. Depending on the production, spectators might see one of the 30 original sets, beautiful painted backdrops with subtle trompe l’oeil effects.

Drottningholm Theatre
Drottningholm Theatre

A visit to the theatre’s wings reveals period stage machinery conceived by Donato Stopani. Pulleys, ropes, cable drums, capstans, you’d think you were on a ship. Everything creaks and groans as the cloud cars, trap doors and the flying machines are set in motion. The theatre also allows directors to stage historical re-enactments with period sets, costumes, and blocking. Its acoustics are ideal for period instruments.

In the 18th century, the theatre employed Italian stage machinist Donato Stopani to design the stage machinery, based on the innovations of the great Italian stage designer Giacomo Torelli. A capstan turned by six stagehands controls two sets of traction lines that draw one set of side flats into the wings, simultaneously pulling a second set onto the stage. Painted clouds can drop from the flies, and gods and goddesses – so important in the operas depicting Classical myths – can descend from above on a rope-drawn cloud chariot or zig-zag across the stage on smaller clouds.

Performers and objects can ascend from or descend below stage using the three trapdoors. At the rear of the stage, five horizontal spirals are turned to create the illusion of ocean waves. A stage flat, painted like a ship, can even be pulled through the rolling waves. Built into the proscenium is a box with stones, which when rocked creates the sound of thunder. In the wings, a wooden cylinder is turned against a canvas sheet to simulate the sound of howling wind.

Entering the Slottsteater in Drottningholm, a few miles from Stockholm, is like stepping into a time machine. The theatre, the machinery, and the stage sets have been conserved exactly as they were at the inauguration in 1766. Moreover, the ingenious original stage equipment, such as ropes and pulleys can still, to an audience’s amazement, evoke thunder, whistling winds and crushing waves. Only the candles have been replaced by electric lightbulbs (which perfectly reproduce the soft light of the period). Thus the theatre is an ideal setting for baroque and classical music, which is why Ingmar Bergman shot his opera-film The Magic Flute here.

After Adolf Frederick died in 1771, Louisa could no longer afford to live at Drottningholm Palace and the theatre was rarely used. In 1777, Drottningholm Slottsteater was taken over by Louisa’s son King Gustav III, who brought his Swedish opera company of about 150 members there. Gustav III adored performances and amusements, and he loved to help plan them. He suggested décor and costumes and even coached performers and played a part in some plays. Gustav III also expected his courtiers to mingle with the performers – whether they wanted to mix with mere commoners was irrelevant.

After Gustav III’s ascension, members of the public were admitted to the theatre, and French plays, pageants and masked balls were held in the theatre and palace grounds. Gustav III made one major alteration to the theatre. He wanted to be able to hold banquets and receptions at performances and in 1791 he commissioned his favourite theatre artist and designer to build a dining room overlooking a new English style garden. Louis-Jean Desprez added a suite of rooms leading into the larger Salon pour Les Festins et Les Ballets, later called the Déjeuner Salon. The salon displayed the antique sculptures Gustav III had brought back from a trip to Italy, and was often used for concerts by favourite artists. Sadly, the king would enjoy the expanded theatre for only a few months, as he was assassinated early the following year. The salon was never fully completed and it was only restored in the 1930s, when the theatre was brought back to life.

After Gustav III’s death, theatrical activity at the court quickly declined. The court resided at Drottningholm Palace each summer, but fewer performances were given at the theatre. During the following century, the theatre was used infrequently, only two performances are known to have been given, in 1854 and 1858. The stage machinery and scenery were left in place, and adjoining rooms and living quarters were used to accommodate members of the court or the military. The theatre building underwent some improvements, with restoration of the living quarters.

Then, in 1921, Agne Beijer, an assistant at the royal library, went to the disused theatre in search of a painting. Passing through a dark, narrow passages, he found himself on stage surrounded by the still intact theatre machinery. “To put it into working condition, the only requirement were coils of rope for … the pulleys,” Beijer recalled.

Obtaining permission to rescue the old theatre, Beijer had electricity installed. Yellow coloured lights approximating candlelight were inserted in the chandeliers, which dated to 1766. Beijer found over 30 complete sets and many props as well as the front curtain. Once new ropes had been positioned, the stage machinery moved as silently and quickly as it had done almost two centuries before.

In 1991, the Royal Domain of Drottningholm (including the theatre) was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, and its preservation is now carefully controlled. Drottningholm Slottsteater’s public opening seasons are limited, and guided tours are regulated to reduce the impact on the fragile building. Only eight to ten performances of two or three operas are given each summer in the theatre.

The interiors and furnishings at Drottningholm Palace had been left uncompleted after Carl Hårleman’s death. The completion became one of Jean Eric Rehn’s main commissions. The suite of furnishings that Rehn designed here during the 1760s marked a breakthrough for the early Gustavian style in Sweden. His first project at Drottningholm was a new library for the queen’s growing collection of books; this was to occupy the oblong room in the northwest wing that until now had functioned as Lovisa Ulrika’s Natural History Cabinet. In a succession of proposals, the architect tested an increasingly radical neoclassical style. In the end, the drawing that the queen accepted and that was eventually followed showed a moderate and soft form of classicism. Observers often note that a major source of Rehn’s inspiration was the great neoclassical work, Receuil elementaire d’architecture (Elementary Collection of Architecture) of 1757-72 by the French architect-engraver, Jean-Francois de Neufforge; but Rehn’s interior appointments still had distinct rococo characteristics. This was actually typical for Rehn, whose work often resulted in a blend of classical and rococo elements – a combination that, under his direction, had a particular and unique elegance and refinement.

Drottningholm Palace – The Library

The library at Drottningholm is considered one of Sweden’s most beautiful interiors. One side of the room is made up of a series of French windows with views toward the baroque garden; the opposite side consists of built-in book-shelves separated by Corinthian pilasters. Below the ceiling, everything is held together by friezelike panels bearing Queen Lovisa Ulrika’s monogram alternating with the three crowns of the lesser national coat-of-arms and a cornice of festoons with Latin inscriptions and images of ancient philosophers in medallions. The repetition of forms and the interplay between cool and warm colours – pearl grey and gold against cedar wood and the brown leather of book bindings – give the room a pleasing harmony. Crowning the doors and windows are lunettes with plaster reliefs of female allegorical figures most likely modelled in the studio of the French-born sculptor Pierre Hubert L’Archeveque. The craftsmanship in the library is of the highest quality; Rehn had been assisted by such leading Swedish artisans as master carpenter Lorentz Nordin and ornament sculptor Adrien Masreliez.

After the new library was completed, the space in the northwest corner pavilion that had earlier served as the queen’s workroom and study library needed to be modernized and adapted for a new use. The Marble Cabinet (Marmorkabinettet) as it later came to be called still retains the original décor based on Rehn’s drawings from 1765.

The point of departure for Rehn’s redecoration of this room was a pair of antique green marble columns in the queen’s collection. Using these, Rehn created a heavy Ionic aedicule and placed in it a bronze urn – a decorative element commonly used in neoclassicism – designed after an antique model. Contrasting with this severe creation, which in fact disguised a tile stove, were the smooth, marbleized, painted walls of the room in pale colours. Two tall built-in book-shelves and a desk made for the queen in 1770 by Georg Haupt, Sweden’s foremost cabinetmaker and marquetry craftsman, confirm that the room retained its use as a workroom well after the new library was completed.

The Marble Cabinet conveys a more severe tone than is normally seen in Rehn’s designs. The two connecting rooms in the north cross wing, the Mineral Cabinet (Mineraliekabinettet) and the new Natural History Cabinet (Naturaliekabinettet) that were fitted out to house Lovisa Ulrika’s collections are more characteristic of Rehn’s early Gustavian style. Both rooms have marbleized panelling with precise rectangular fields. The National History Cabinet, with its glass-fronted display cabinets, is adorned with friezes of laurel garlands and portrait medallions, by Sweden’s prominent sculptor Johan Tobias Sergel, of famous contemporary Swedish scientists (including, of course, the botanist Carl Linnaeus). The Mineral Cabinet has imposing overdoors made in 1768 by sculptor Johan Ljung who ornamented them with seashells, corals, coins and medallions – in other words, examples of the types of objects in Lovisa Ulrika’s museum rooms.

Drottningholm Palace

Kungliga Nallebjörnarat på Kungliga Operan

Royal Opera House Stockholm

Little bears are the Royal Swedish Opera to see the premiere of Cinderella.

La Cenerentola, ossia La bontà in trionfo (Cinderella, or Goodness Triumphant) is an operatic dramma giocoso in two acts by Gioachino Rossini. The libretto was written by Jacopo Ferretti, based on the fairy tale Cendrillon by Charles Perrault. The opera was first performed in Rome’s Teatro Valle on 25 January 1817. Directed by Rossini himself, the composer prophesied that the production would take over the entire continent in spite of its poor initial reception by critics. He was right.

Gioachino Rossini

Rossini composed La Cenerentola when he was 25 years old, following the success of The Barber of Seville the year before. La Cenerentola, which he completed in a period of three weeks, is considered to have some of his finest writing for solo voice and ensembles. Rossini saved some time by reusing an overture from La gazzetta and part of an aria from The Barber of Seville and by enlisting a collaborator, Luca Agolini, who wrote the secco recitatives and three numbers (Alidoro’s Vasto teatro è il mondo, Clorinda’s Sventurata! and the chorus Ah, della bella incognita). The facsimile edition of the autograph has a different aria for Alidoro, Fa’ silenzio, odo un rumore; this seems to have been added by an anonymous hand for an 1818 production. For an 1820 revival in Rome, Rossini wrote a bravura replacement, La, del ciel nell’arcano profondo.

In Cinderella we break through to a woman who truly is her own person. Rossini’s Cinderella falls in love with the prince when he’s still disguised as his own valet, and we love her because when given the choice, she still chooses the valet she loves over the wealthy and powerful trappings of the faux prince.

Based on Charles Perrault’s version of the fairy-tale but without the magic elements (no fairy godmother, no pumpkin or mice and no glass slipper), Rossini’s witty version is an opera-buffa, which features some dazzling composition for voice. No glass slipper, but Johanna Rudström’s Angelina still finds her prince (Don Ramiro), sung by Ole Aleksander Bang, in this sparkling performance conducted by Jean-Cristophe Spinosi. The Prince’s tutor Alidoro, having spotted the heroine’s essential goodness, enables Angelina to go to the ball, despite opposition from her unkind sisters and greedy father.

»What is a ball at the palace after all?« Probably absolutely wonderful. The severe Don Magnifico (John Erik Eleby) has two daughters and a stepdaughter, Angelina (Cinderella). Destitute, he dreams of a rich suitor for one of his daughters, and everything is on the line when the prince announces a ball.

Although Cendrillon inspired Rossini’s La Cenerentola the composer’s fertile imagination transformed it. Rossini’s exuberant re-telling of the fairy tale avoids the sentimentality associated with Disney’s version of the Brothers Grimm’s Cinderella but it certainly doesn’t shy away from the cruelty. Rossini’s ingenious, untamed music tells a very human story about kindness, forgiveness and generosity. The male chorus wraps up over two-and-a-half hours of sparkling music and visual fantasy with the moral: “Envy and pride are vanquished, and goodness wins the day”.

La Cenerentola, Kungliga Operan

The production we are watching is the stunning and highly acclaimed production that premiered at Opera Queensland in Brisbane, Australia in 2013 – and has since taken the world by storm. The original production was commissioned by, designed for and created by Opera Queensland and New Zealand Opera. Inspired by vaudeville, Charles Dickens and Tim Burton, director Lindy Hume and set designer Dan Potra have created a colourful, romantic production in which goodness triumphs in the end. Lindy Hume does not shy away from the firmer themes of fairness, and cruelty versus goodness, that pervade the various retellings of the story.

Lindy Hume

Charles Dickens, with his notions of social justice, was popular shortly after Rossini wrote Cinderella, so Lindy Hume’s choice to reset the work in Dickensian London has inspired designer Dan Potra. He has created a Dickensian chocolate box set for the production that reflects the romantic side of La Cenerentola. There’s an Olde Curiosity Shoppe, allusions to the gardens of Brideshead Revisited’s Castle Howard, and a nod toward Downton Abbey, where the servants are not always what they seem.

Dan Potra
Cinderella, Dan Potra set design

From her cast Hume extracted a nimble, well-timed ensemble effort, and her overall concept clearly won the audience’s lavish enthusiasm from beginning to end. Dan Potra’s costumes tended to storybook vivid: who could resist the stepsister’s neon green and red dresses, not to mention Dandini’s blazing red “look, I’m a prince!” suit? Potra’s design of Don Magnifico’s two-story emporium was as crammed with sumptuous detail as his stylized garden at the Prince’s summer palace was skimpy. Moving the scenes at the Prince’s residence outdoors muted the dramatic effect of Cinderella’s surprise appearance at the Prince’s elaborate ball, which we were forced to imagine rather than see on the stage.

Don Magnifico Emporium
Ole Aleksander Bang as Don Ramiro

Lindy Hume has remounted the opera in New Zealand in 2015, Leipzig and San Diego in 2016, with the same directorial concept and eye-popping visual design.

Cinderella, New Zealand 2015
Cinderella, Leipzig 2016
Cinderella, San Diego 2016

Little bears are spellbound and totally focused on the stage! Lindy Hume’s stage direction makes use of almost every kind of comedy that can be invoked on the opera stage and she keeps varying each artist’s movements so that nothing is ever repeated. If they look away for even a moment they might miss something! With the opera sung in Italian and the surtitles in Swedish, it was easy to focus on the action while enjoying the spellbinding music.

Another stunning performance

Swedish architect Carl Fredrik Adelcrantz is known for the exceptional theatre he designed for the royal residence in Drottningholm. What is less well known is that some fifteen years after the latter edifice’s inauguration, King Gustav III of Sweden charged the same architect with building an opera house in the very centre of Stockholm. All eyewitness accounts agree that it was a grandiose structure with two facades, respectively overlooking Gustav Adolf Square and the canal. The plans for this building reminiscent of those by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, were allegedly developed in close collaboration between Adelcrantz and Gustav III himself – as a proper enlightned king, the Swedish sovereign was a great lover of art.

The King’s passion for opera drove him to create one of Europe’s greatest operatic centres, emulating his uncle, Frederick the Great, in attracting the best artists and fostering Swedish singers who would become renowned throughout the world.

Becoming king in 1771, Gustav III nurtured music in Sweden much as his famous uncle did in Prussia. He founded the Royal Academy of Music and had the Bollhuset games court converted into the Royal Opera, inaugurating it with Thetis och Pelee (1773) by Francesco Uttini, the composer and director of the theatre at Drottningholm. Thetis och Pelee used a Swedish libretto by the king himself and starred Swedish singers Elizabeth Olin and Carl Stenborg. Foreign operas were given in Swedish, including Christoph Willibald Gluck’s influential reform opera Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) in 1773, eight months before it reached Paris.

The Royal Opera House was inaugurated on September 30, 1782, with Cora och Alonzo (1782) by Johann Gottlieb Naumann. Gustav III’s new opera house hosted a variety of entertainments, including masked balls; the king was fatally wounded at one of these balls in 1792. The king’s death inspired operas by Daniel Auber (Gustave III, ou Le bal masque, 1883), Saverio Mercadante (Il reggente, 1843) and most famously, Giuseppe Verdi (Un ballo in maschera, 1861). Lars Johan Werle’s opera Tintomara, commissioned for the 200th anniversary of the Kunglica Operan in 1973, also features Gustav III’s murder.

Gustav IV Adolf had an understandable aversion to the Kunglica Operan because of his father’s murder, and he may have been relieved when it was used as a military hospital during Sweden’s war against Finland, which began in 1808. Gustav IV Adolf was deposed a year later, and his successor, Charles XIII, reopened the theatre.

Swedish soprano Jenny Lind sang at the Kunglica Operan in 1838. She went on to become one of Sweden’s – and the world’s – greatest singers and was hailed as the “Swedish Nightingale”. In 1881, the theatre came under state control and was run as a company. The century-old building was considered unsatisfactory for staging modern works, and its halls and foyers too narrow and uncomfortable. A proposal to refurbish the theatre while keeping the original façade was made, but an appointed consortium commissioned the architect Axel Johan Anderberg to plan and build an entirely new theatre. And so a masterpiece of Swedish architectural heritage disappeared, to be replaced by the current Kungliga Operan.

The cost of the building would be borne jointly by a grant from the City of Stockholm and the sale of 500,000 bonds. The old theatre was demolished in 1891, and it proved to be not as dilapidated as first thought – dynamite was required to blast away the still solid walls. Anderberg made a special tour of European theatres before commencing the project, and during the seven years required to construct the new Kunglica Operan he also designed a theatre in Karlstad. Anderberg also designed Stockholm’s Oscarsteatern in 1906, the city’s main venue for operettas and musicals.

Arvfurstens Palace, across Gustav Adolfs Torg from the opera house. Designed by Erik Palmstedt and completed in 1794, the palace was originally the private residence of Princess Sophia Albertina. It gives an indication of what the original opera house looked like.

The new opera house was inaugurated in 1898. The architect adopted an overly safe, rather monumental neoclassical style. The building’s massive footprint was largely intended to allow for colossal public areas. With a vestibule, grand staircase and two foyers (the court did not mix with mere mortals), the style was intentionally demonstrative and clearly inspired by the already legendary Palais Garnier in Paris. Anderberg worked with artists including Axel Jungstedt and Carl Larsson for the paintings in the foyers and on the staircase.

Royal staircase
Royal Foyer
The grand staircase

The majestic marble staircase of the Kunglica Operan was based on the grand staircase designed by Charles Garnier for Paris’ Palais Garnier. The Guldfoajén (Golden Foyer) was lavishly decorated with gold stucco and varnished compounds resembling marble. The ceiling paintings were framed in richly gilded moldings and massive crystal chandeliers were installed. Separate reception rooms were built for the king and queen. The gilded auditorium featured a central ceiling painting by Vicke Andrén and a red-velvet stage curtain bearing the royal crest.

Golden Foyer
Golden Foyer
Golden Foyer

Anderberg was also required to include spaces that could be rented as businesses to help finance the opera house. The oak-panelled Operakällaren restaurant takes its name from the tavern in the cellar of the previous theatre. The Operabaren (Opera Bar) was added in 1905 and features ceiling paintings by Andrén, recalling his paintings for the opera house’s main auditorium.

The theatre holds 1,200 seats divided between the orchestra, two balconies and a large amphitheatre gallery. An eye-catching succession of colonnades at the gallery level forms an appealing pattern.

Though it lacked audacious architecture, the new theatre quickly distinguished itself by its programming. In 1907, it held the highly anticipated Stockholm premiere of Wagner’s Ring. Since then, the Wagnerian repertoire has always been superbly served by Swedish opera singers, ranging from Birgit Nilsson to Nina Stemme. The Kungliga Operan has also regularly highlighted contemporary music, both Swedish and international. It was notably here that Ligeti’s Le grand macabre, whose themes of death and sexuality make it one of the most scandalous operas in the repertoire, was premiered in 1978.

Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle (1876) was given at the Kungliga Operan for the first time in March 1907 under the direction of the Swedish bass Johannes Elmblad, who had sung in the world premiere of the Ring Cycle at Bayreuth in 1876. On his return to Stockholm, Elmblad had become the director of productions at Kungliga Operan, the first in a line of Swedish singers who found fame at Bayreuth and then returned to the Kungliga Operan as singers and administrators.

Bass-baritone Joel Berglund was director between 1949 and 1956, followed by tenor Set Svanholm, who had made his debut at the theatre in 1930. Becoming an acclaimed Wagnerian tenor at Bayreuth, Stockholm and other major opera houses, Svanholm also sang Peter Grimes in Benjamin Britten’s opera at the Kungliga Operan in 1946, the first performance outside Britain after its premiere in 1945. Svanholm was director from 1956 to 1963. In 2009, another renowned Swedish Wagnerian, mezzo-soprano Birgitta Svendén, became artistic director, the Kungliga Operan’s first female director.

During the 1950s and 19560s, the opera house was home to some of the world’s greatest singers including Svanholm, Jussi Björling, Birgit Nilsson, Elisabeth Söderström and Nicolai Gedda. In the 21st century, the Kungliga Operan boasts a new generation of Swedish singers including the Wagnerian sopranos Katarina Dalayman and Nina Stemme. Stemme sang Isolde in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1865) there in 2004, an opera not heard at the theatre since 1977.

The Kungliga Operan was listed as a heritage site in 1935, but in 1954 the National Board of Public Buildings approved building works that would reinstate a feature from Adelcrantz’s old theatre and introduce a new performance space to Anderberg’s new theatre. Architects Peter Celsing, Bengt H. Johnson and Nils Erik Martin Tesch were commissioned to renovate and add to the restaurant facilities, to create permanent banquet and reception rooms on the roof terrace and to renovate the public areas.

They also remodelled the side terrace, adding on to it a flat-roofed annex housing the chamber theatre, the Rotunden. With only four rows of seats, the Rotunden opened on May 26, 1964, with Drömmen Om Thérèse by Lars Johan Werle. The opera was specially composed for the space and performed in the round; film projection was used to position the musicians along the walls behind the audience.

Celsing and Tesch also designed the garden terrace area looking at across the Norrström River to the royal palace. A more modest café, the Bakfickan, was also added to the existing Operakällaren restaurant.

Stage renovations were made in 1975 in time for the world premiere of the controversial Le Grand Macabre by György Ligeti in 1978. In the 1980s, newer stage machinery replaced the hydraulic systems, and in 1989 the public interiors and façades were restored. The gilding in the famous Golden Foyer, dulled mostly from cigar smoke, was laboriously rubbed clean with bread. The gilding on the mirror frames was replenished and the furniture was reupholstered in Florentine gold brocade supplied by the original manufacturer, who was still producing the same fabric!

The theatre is now capably managed by the Statens fastighetsverk (National Property Board) and since 1993 it has been forbidden to make any renovations or improvements that interfere with the original building’s appearance. The Rotunden was modernized in the 1990s, adapting to serve as an orchestra rehearsal space. Tapestry curtains that completely encircle the space were commissioned from architect and textile designer Ulrika Mårtensson. The chorus rehearsal space, orchestra pit and auditorium acoustics were also modified, and microphones were concealed in the chandelier for recording and broadcasting of performances.

The Operakällaren was renovated in 2006, without making any alterations to the original building. Architect Mårten Claesson said that the heritage regulations were so strict that they could not put a single nail into the panelled walls or touch the oak-coffered ceiling beyond modernizing the lights. The glassed-in veranda added by Celsing in 1955-61 had no protection status, so Claesson levelled the floor to ensure that the transition from the veranda to the restaurant appears uninterrupted. Further preservation of the theatre has been promised by Sweden’s Ministry of Culture.

With a long history of performing the standard repertoire, and particularly Wagnerian opera – which director Birgitta Svendén says particularly suits Swedish voices – the Kungliga Operan is set to continue the tradition for many years to come. As Svendén has observed: “Everyone I work with has something to contribute. It is my job to spark their creativity and talent and provide the best possible circumstances to bring it to fruition.”

A distinguished feature of the Stockholm opera house is its tradition of leadership by former singers, of whom Birgitta Svenden is the latest. In this nation where parity is a fundamental political issue, many women hold the top positions in cultural institutions. The opera has 550 permanent employees, including a company of twenty-five soloists and an orchestra of 107 musicians, which makes it one of the biggest Scandinavian symphony orchestras.

The opera makes everything in-house, ie all the sets and all the costumes.

Some of the 200,000 costumes at the opera house
Storage area for over 200 stage backdrops
Lift to bring sets up to stage – 8.4 metres tall, 2.4 metres wide

The opera is state-owned, with a generous budget. 85 percent of the budget comes from the state and 15 percent from sponsorship. In return for the generous state funding, the opera house has to stage several productions a year (about 17, opera and ballet), make them the best production ever and keep ticket prices low so everyone can afford to attend. Often, several productions are running in parallel. Currently, the opera house is showing Cinderella, Dracula and the Merry Widow. The opera house is also home to the Royal Swedish Ballet, whose former dancer Alicia Vikander is now a rising star in Hollywood.

With so many productions running at once, in so many different languages, the opera house uses a prompter. The opera house actually employs four prompters.

Prompter cubby hole 🙂
Prompter box at front of stage

King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia are not into opera or ballet but they attend a performance of each a year, to do their duty. Crown Princess Victoria on the other hand loves the opera and ballet, and attends a performance every couple of months or so. She chooses to sit in the audience! Incognito. If she uses the royal box, then it becomes a state affair with all the pomp and circumstance, full on security, etc, etc. Her security detail was not thrilled at the idea originally, but now it’s part of her personal schedule. And apparently the audience believes she is just someone who looks like the princess. The princess couldn’t possibly sit in the audience like that!

Royal box

We highly recommend the guided tour of the opera house. It is informative and entertaining and a simply delightful experience. Allow a couple of hours.

Sibelius at Koncerthuset Stockholm

Koncerthuset Stockholm

Home to the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, the blue concert hall at Hötorget is one of Stockholm’s most recognisable buildings. It was designed by architect Ivar Tengbom during a period of expansion in the capital. Explaining his choice of colour for the Concert Hall, Ivar Tengbom said he wanted a blue ‘like condensed air’.

Stockholm Concert Hall

Konserthuset Stockholm is one of Sweden’s foremost architectural masterpieces. Opened in 1926, Konserthuset Stockholm was built in order to provide a base for the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and host the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony, among other events.

The Stockholm Concert Society was formed in 1902 with the aim of arranging regular concerts in the capital. The orchestra then performed at the somewhat run-down Auditorium at Norra Bantorget, among other venues, and there was a growing need to find an independent base. After raising funds and organising a lottery, there was enough money to organise an architecture contest, which was won by Ivar Tengbom, the young architecture professor.

A site was chosen at Hötorget’s market stalls among the run-down, drab, low-rise buildings in the area, and a classical Greek temple would emerge in the honour of music, according to Tengbom’s firm vision. Konserthuset was constructed between 1923 and 1926. The building is one of Stockholm’s foremost examples of neoclassicism, an era when the spirit of democracy was strong, and drew stylistic inspiration from the cradle of democracy itself – Athens.

The venue’s ample, “democratic” audience capacity was unique at the time, with different social classes entering through the same door before taking their seats once inside. This was not the case, for example, at the Royal Dramatic Theatre and the Royal Swedish Opera, where those from different social backgrounds were kept apart.

Since opening, Konserthuset has been the base of the orchestra first known as the Stockholm Concert Society, which was later renamed the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. It has been called the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra since the start of the 1990s. The Nobel building envisioned by the Nobel Foundation at around the same time Konserthuset emerged was never built, and ever since 1926, the venue has played host to the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony on 10 December each year.

Outside the hall’s entrance, visitors encounter a work which was designed to adorn the venue. Conceived by Carl Milles, the Orpheus Well sculpture group can be found on the stairway from Hötorget. It was opened in 1936 by the artist himself.

Orpheus Well sculpture, by Carl Milles

Most of the décor inside the imposing vestibule was designed by Einar Forseth, including the large mosaics in the floor and the stucco in the ceiling, which can also be found in the Main foyer further inside the building. In the Main foyer today stand Carl Milles’ statues depicting the four Muses, Erato, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore and Euterpe, which were previously located on the balconies behind the podium in the Main Hall until its restoration in the 1970s. The glass fittings and mirrors in the public spaces were designed by Simon Gate and Edward Hald, at Orrefors glassworks. In order to create a sense of daylight indoors, some of the fittings were made with lightly blue-toned glass.

Moreover, small sculptures created by Ansgar Almqvist can be found at the bottom of the banisters leading up to the Main Hall. In the staircase, there are also beautiful weavings by Elsa Gullberg, which were previously situated to the rear of the podium in the Main Hall before being relocated during its restoration.

All of the stucco reliefs in the ceilings and pillars, as well as the stucco composers’ portraits above the doors to the stalls in the Main Hall, were created by Nils Olsson and Robert Nilsson. Palestrina, Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven can be found in the left hand stalls, with Schubert, Schumann, Wagner, Bruckner, Brahms and Franck appearing on the right, with each one accompanied by a famous quote.

Ewald Dahlskog’s delightful, austere intarsia works, featuring playful, imaginative details, can be found on the first balcony on the doors to the Main Hall. Each door includes a history of instruments from all corners of the world. Dahlskog also painted the lintels which appear in the promenades on the second balcony.

Drawing inspiration from patterns used in the old carpets, textile artist Kajsa Melanton has produced new runners in the foyers around the first balcony. Melanton also designed the carpet in Gustaf V lounge as well as the curtains in the stalls promenades, known as the Dancing taburetes.

Throughout Konserthuset there is wonderful furniture made by Carl Malmsten, much of which was restored during the 1990s by students at the Carl Malmsten Centre for Woodworking and Design.

Koncerthuset Main Hall

Ivar Tengbom’s vision – and the original design of the Main Hall – involved the creation of a square; an open space, surrounded by columns, with the podium as the focal point. A forced perspective behind the podium, comprising four statues by Carl Milles in their own balconies, was intended to suggest a continuation into the fantasy Greek landscape.

The coarse, greyish brown colour scheme found on the walls of the stalls and along the podium transforms into yellow, increasingly lighter shades leading towards the ceiling (sky). The white sky ceiling, originally appearing between the decorous capitals of the columns, is framed by the second balcony’s golden coffer ceiling and the soft glow of the lights. Both the lights and the capitals of the columns in the hall are designed by the sculptor Ansgar Almquist.

Designed by the artist Einar Forseth, textiles were weaved at the venue itself by Elsa Gullberg’s weaving house as construction took place. Weavings hang from the balconies in the Main Hall, while curtains and carpets could be found in the foyers. However, most of these have been worn out over the years, with only some fragments remaining. With support from the Jacob Wallenberg and Prince Carl Gustaf foundations, Åke Livstedt has overseen the production of new textiles.

Koncerthuset Main Hall

A number of extensive renovations have seen the Main Hall change substantially, primarily acoustically and technologically. The major renovation carried out between 1971 and 1973 was overseen by Anders Tengbom, Ivar Tengbom’s son. The old wall and ceiling behind the podium were overhauled, and the statues removed, and to make room for essential technology and improve acoustics, the ceiling was made to look like a black velvet Mediterranean night rather than a sunny day. Moreover, due to acoustics issues and wear, some of the textiles hanging along the second balcony were also removed.

The next major change in the venue involved the construction of the organ. During the 1970s, considerable time and effort was devoted to the construction of a great organ in Konserthuset Stockholm. This was finally made possible thanks to generous donations, and the magnificent instrument was unveiled in 1982. Incorporating 6,100 pipes and 69 stops, the impressive instrument spans the entire wall above the choir loft. The longest organ pipe measures 11 metres, with the shortest just a few millimetres in length.

The Main Hall was given a further facelift in the summer and early autumn of 2001. All of the seats were replaced by new models, manufactured in England according to Tengbom’s original sketches. Thirty-two hydraulic lift tables were added to the podium, considerably improving flexibility for stage construction, and a series of technical and acoustic adjustments were carried out. The ventilation system was extensively renovated and modernised between 2007 and 2009, while further improvements were made to the acoustics in the Main Hall over the same period.

The Main Hall currently holds 1,782 people, spread across the stalls, first balcony, choir loft and second balcony.

Koncerthuset Main Hall

The stage area is overhauled for the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony, with the addition of flower arrangements and special textiles, including the so-called Royal covering. During the ceremony, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra plays from the choir loft in order to accommodate the Royal personages and dignitaries on the podium.

Koncerthuset Grünewald Hall

The beautiful chamber music hall is named after Isaac Grünewald, who was responsible for the design. It has a magnificent Renaissance interior and features a warm ambience and intimate beauty. In just six months, the artist Isaac Grünewald filled the walls and ceilings with his flowingly sensual “body music”.

He drew inspiration from the grandly decorated rooms of Italian Renaissance palaces, with motifs evoking classical Greek myths and the history of music. The large ceiling painting depicts Apollo, god of the sun and music, grasping for the sun’s rays, which form the strings of a lyre. Beethoven’s features, among other things, can be discerned in the right hand corner at the front.

The walls are divided into sections of stucco pilasters by Gustav Cederwall. The lights are the originals and were designed by Robert Hult, at Tengbom Architects. Hult designed most of the lighting appearing in Konserthuset’s public spaces. Stronger lighting, such as spotlights and floodlights, was added later. The architectonically designed curtain was weaved by Elsa Gullberg in line with Tengbom’s vision, however, the original became worn and was replaced by a newly produced copy by Astrid Sampe.

The Grünewald Hall can accommodate up to 460 people.

The foyer in the Grünewald Hall is dominated by its distinctive carpet, spanning 76 square metres, which shows how Isaac Grünewald was inspired by the sun-baked Minoan culture on the island of Crete. The original carpet was hand-weaved at the Bror Höögs weaving house, outside Borås.

A copy of the original, which had become worn, was laid in 1987, and there was no carpet in the foyer for a number of years. The carpet is encircled by dark mahogany columns incorporating bronze capitals, supporting a white arched oval which is illuminated by lights concealed by gilded leaves.

Koncerthuset Aulin Auditorium

Up to 1993, it was known as the Attik auditorium and used primarily for rehearsals. In 1994 the newly renovated venue was reopened as the Aulin auditorium, in recognition of Tor Aulin. With capacity for 154 people, the auditorium is used mainly for seminars, lecturers and stage experimentation rather than regular concerts.

The area has dark blue walls in the foyer, with soft grey shades appearing in the auditorium itself. At the very top, along the ceiling, there are windows which allow the light to stream in over the oak stalls. Smart technology enables the gallery, with its blue seats, to be retracted into the rear wall, allowing a range of configurations in the auditorium.

Taking pride of place at the front is a bust of Tor Aulin, one of the founders of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, by Carl Eldh. Tor Aulin was a versatile musical figure and highly prominent in the Swedish musical scene both as a composer, conductor and violinist.

On 21 October 1902 he conducted the very first concert performed by the Stockholm Concert Society, which later became the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. Together with his composer colleague Wilhelm Stenhammar and the director John May, Tor Aulin decided to start up an orchestra in Sweden’s capital. In the early 1900s there was only one professional orchestra in Stockholm: the Royal Court Orchestra at the Royal Swedish Opera.

Tonight little Puffles and Honey are in the Main Hall for a concert with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra with conductor Dima Slobodeniouk.

This year, Finland is celebrating 100 years as an independent nation and is marking the occasion with massive amounts of music. Naturally, Jean Sibelius is one of the most prominent figures and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra has received numerous awards for its Sibelius interpretations. Tonight they are performing the great Finnish composer’s most beloved work: Symphony No. 5.

Jean Sibelius

The first piece is music from contemporary Finland: in the orchestral work Hava, Lotta Wennäkoski (b.1970) aims to “explore how music can illustrate a subject the way a novel does, with contrasting light and its own language.” Wennäkoski is among the most acclaimed composers of the younger Finnish generation, and Hava (2007) is an exquisite example of her capacity to make music emerge from a single gesture.

Lotta Wennäkoski, composer of Hava (2007)

Baiba Skride is currently one of the world’s most celebrated international violin stars. Tonight we experienced the Latvian violinist in a performance of Shostakovich’s colourful and technically challenging Violin Concerto No. 2 – a piece that Shostakovich composed for and dedicated to the charismatic violinist and countryman David Oistrakh.

Baiba Skride, Violin

Shostakovich’s 1967 Violin Concerto no. 2 in C sharp minor is a work more to be admired than loved. Although Shostakovich’s place in the Soviet political regime was relatively secure by then, the austerity of this concerto and other late works are perhaps reflections of the composer’s failing health. It is a triumph of motivic development; short phrases are repeated, combined, developed. Melodies tend to be short-lived and are rarely expansive. The solo violin is often incorporated into the overall orchestral texture, although there are several extended cadenzas that give the soloist a few moments in the spotlight. Especially in the second movement, the soloist plays in the lowest register of the violin, but with a feeling of desolation rather than warmth. Skride threw herself fearlessly into a work which chugs along, often in a seeming bureaucratic frenzy. Not until the third movement does all of the activity pay off, with a rondo of perpetual motion, showing Skride’s virtuosity to fuller extent and demonstrating the precision of Lahti Symphony Orchestra.

Baiba Skride plays the most famous Wilhemj Stradivarius, ‘Ex Baron Feilitzsch’ violin (1734), on loan to her from Gidon Kremer, which enhances her resonant sound.

Baiba Skride with Lahti Symphony Orchestra

If one work could be said to characterize Jean Sibelius’ mature style, it is the Fifth Symphony. The first movement grows organically, from nebulous beginnings and the majestic emergence of a theme of compelling grandeur, through music of scherzo-like momentum surging with life and growing ever more fleet, to a final, exhilarating rush of energy. It’s a stunning example of Sibelius’ ability to build a symphonic movement on the dynamic development of a single idea, in this case the first four notes of the horn theme that opens the work.

In the symphony’s breathless moto perpetuo finale, Sibelius introduces one of his most memorable ideas: a bell-like tolling of chords among the four horns that is said to have come to him after he watched a flock of swans pass overhead. This “swan theme”, which emerges from the giddy rush of the tremolo strings, is the soul of the movement, and it’s accompanied by a poignant, singing subject given out in octaves by the woodwinds and cellos.

Sibelius brings the finale to climax by means of a grand slow-down, the reverse of the method he used in the first movement. The last pages of the symphony offer a mighty apotheosis of the “swan theme”, capped by six isolated, powerful chords. The world that has been summoned out of the ether ends as a succession of huge, monolithic shouts of “Amen”.

Lahti Symphony Orchestra

Venice of the North

Many cities have been nicknamed the ‘Venice of the North,’ but alongside St Petersburg it is Stockholm that has the greatest claim to such a title. Though many travellers spend most of their time in the medieval centre, Stockholm actually comprises 14 islands of an archipelago, which makes it a perfect location for island hopping.

Stockholm has been named one of the best cities in the world in the 2017 Readers’ Choice Awards survey by Condé Nast Traveler. And with good reason.

The picturesque Swedish capital is located at the intersection of two bodies of water (Lake Mälar and Salt Bay). At its centre stands Gamla Stan (Old Town), a well-preserved vestige of 16th and 17th century life and the modern-day nucleus of Sweden’s largest city.

In 1650, the only daughter of King Gustav II Adolf of the Vasa dynasty was crowned Queen Christina of Sweden. As part of the scene set for the ceremony a triumphal arch modelled after the ancient Arch of Constantine in Rome was erected in the centre of Stockholm. Made of wood and canvas rather than marble, Queen Christina’s arch nonetheless connoted supremacy. How better to assert the new superpower’s might than through classicism?

Queen Christina, portrait by Sébastien Bourdon

The arch stood in sharp contrast to the capital’s medieval houses and church spires and to the antiquated royal castle, Three Crowns (Tre kronor). Thus it prominently showed the direction that Sweden’s architecture would take for the rest of the 17th century.

By the time of Christina’s coronation, Sweden had risen from her earlier humble position among nations to become one of Europe’s great military powers. King Gustav II Adolf and his field generals had laid the groundwork with their successful campaigns during the Thirty Years War (1618-48). In this seemingly endless and devastating war, Sweden, alongside various German princely houses, had fought against the papist Holy Roman Empire – that is to say against the Hapsburgs of Austria and their cousin on the throne of Spain, as well as several minor German states that also practiced Catholicism. Led by Cardinal Richelieu, France too sought to undermine the power of the Hapsburgs and did so in part by augmenting the forces of Protestant Sweden. For France, the result was a strengthened position in Europe. Sweden, meanwhile, increased her territory by conquering several provinces on the Baltic Sea (besides Finland which was already part of Sweden). Thus the Swedish empire reached its zenith around the middle of the 17th century, a rank it then held for more than fifty years. In Swedish history, this epoch is referred to as the Age of Greatness.

The bold expansionist stance that Sweden had taken demanded considerable changes in society. New government offices were to be created, the judicial administration modernised, and the military organisation made more effective. Achieving all these objectives required a great many loyal servants. Because Sweden’s high offices were accessibly only to nobility, noblemen were generously allotted land and riches as reward for their dedication to the state. When there were too few men of noble birth to fill the state offices, able commoners were chosen and elevated to nobility. Ennoblement and the distribution of fiefdoms owing allegiance to the Crown reached an all-time high during Queen Christina’s reign.

Architecture provided a visual expression of the power of the nobility. Private palaces that were constructed throughout the country exhibited a level of significance never before seen in Sweden. The building boom culminated during the 1660s and 1670s, led primarily by Chancellor of the Realm (rikskansler) Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie, one of the period’s luminaries. In 1674, De la Gardie was said to be building in some fifty different places in Sweden and its provinces, in addition to the many churches that he built or repaired.

Aspiring to compete with the luxury and refinement of Continental’s Europe upper classes, the Swedish nobility and the state itself drew inspiration and professional help from abroad. Although Swedish architecture already relied on imported expertise – canal and fortification engineers from the Netherlands, for example, and German sculptors and master builders – design in Sweden was to a great extent guided by utilitarian rather than aesthetic considerations. This pragmatism was not strict or universal, however, and especially in Stockholm some houses were erected with attention to ornamental details. North German and Dutch influences contributed to a Swedish synthesis of late-Gothic and Mannerist Renaissance styles that resulted in houses built with brick-red exteriors adorned with rich decorative window quoins and sandstone rustication, and topped with steep roofs and high gables.

The first architect in the modern sense of the word – that is, a professional with intellectual education and special training that places him on an equal social footing with his patrons – the Frenchman Simon de la Vallée raised the standard of Swedish architecture from the time of his arrival in 1637. Simon de la Vallée’s most important commission was a new meeting place for noblemen, the House of Nobility (Riddarhuset) in Stockholm. The architect based his original proposals on French palace architecture, but as the project progressed under later architects, its style came close to contemporary Dutch classicism. With its distinct classical elements and an original roof design, however, the House of Nobility exerted a significant influence on Swedish architecture.

House of Nobility

During the intensive building period that followed, Jean de la Vallée, son of Simon, and Nicodemus Tessin the Elder became prominent as Sweden’s two leading architects. Both had been trained in France and Italy, and both knew theory and the classical motifs as well as trends taking shape in the cultural centres of Continental Europe. As a result of their work for the monarchy and the nobility, both rose to great heights in Swedish society. Through them, international architecture was seriously introduced in Sweden.

Dowager Queen Hedwig Eleanora ca 1655
painting by David von Krafft

In 1662, for Dowager Queen Hedvig Eleonora, Nicodemus Tessin the Elder designed the Drottningholm Palace, the most grandiose Swedish composition ever created. Erected just outside Stockholm besides Lake Malaren, the splendid baroque palace was a manifestation of Sweden’s newly attained position of power. At the same time, it also symbolised the new dynasty that claimed the throne with the coronation in 1654 of Queen’s Christina cousin, King Karl X Gustav, by whose name the new Palatine royal line became known as the Karolinian. Drottningholm represented something truly new in Sweden: a precise, symmetrically organised building following the classical vocabulary and set amid an elaborate, formal, baroque garden parterre and park. The pattern realised at Drottningholm served as a prototype for the country palaces and manor houses later erected for Swedish aristocracy.

Drottningholm Palace

Elsewhere, beneath the anomalous and striking exterior of a copper-clad cupola atop the University of Uppsala’s Gustavianum, a superb anatomy theatre (1662-3) offers an example of the Swedish fascination with classical antiquity. Its architect, the versatile scientist Olof Rudbeck the Elder, shaped the auditorium interior as an octagonal amphitheatre with steps radiating upward from the stage supporting the dissection table. A series of pilasters adorning the rows of seats and representing the classical orders of architecture attest to Rudbeck’s affinity with the architecture of antiquity.

University of Uppsala’s Gustavianum

The strong attraction of both ancient and contemporary Rome for the young Swedish superpower is evident not only in the allusions in the art and architecture of the period but also in the growing numbers of travellers to the Eternal City. While it became almost obligatory for an artist or architect with ambitions to visit Rome; noblemen as well, thirsting for cultivation and refinement, made their way there. (After abdicating the throne in 1654, Queen Christina too set out for Rome, propelled by both her admiration for Continental European culture and her Catholicism.) And there was another culture the Swedes wished to adopt: the French, especially as it flowered during the glorious reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV. In the late 17th century, Versailles became the leading model in interior furnishings, gardens, theatre and ceremonial life.

The Swedes did their best to copy all things French, though they were also eager to show that they stood apart. In emulation of the French use of the Sun as a symbol for King Louis XIV, the Swedes designated the Polar Star as a symbol of their monarchy; it was usually accompanied by a proud motto, Septentrioni Ortum quod Merito nescit Occasum, meaning that, as the Polar Star never sets, so the Swedish empire guaranteed world harmony and order.

The same national self-assertion was a force driving the building activity during the Age of Greatness. This was displayed especially clearly in Erik Dahlbergh’s Suecia antiqua et hodierna (Sweden in Antiquity and Today), an impressive collection of engravings that presented Sweden’s newly erected palaces and manor houses to the rest of Europe and attested to the Nordic nation’s greatness and honour. Today the book, compiled in 1715, still provides a rich source of knowledge about 17th century Swedish architecture. To be sure of capturing the precision and elegance of architects’ original concepts, Dahlbergh sometimes followed the initial drawings instead of depicting what was actually built. In some cases, therefore, Dahlbergh’s renderings give a somewhat loftier impression that do the buildings themselves.

In 1672, Karl XI, then just seventeen years old, claimed the throne after the country had been controlled for twelve years by a regency led by Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie, Karl’s uncle by marriage. The young king became engaged to a Danish princess, but this did not dissuade Denmark from declaring war on Sweden, which successfully defended her domination of the Baltic during the Scanian War (1675-79). Not three decades after the end of the Thirty Years War, the new hostilities plunged Sweden into acute financial crisis. One result was a call from an inquiry into the administration of the previous regency. Another was a demand for a reduktion (Reduction), meaning a return to the Crown’s control of all the lands recently granted to the expanded nobility. Although the estates of the old nobility were relatively unaffected, many newly rich clans that had attained noble status only in exchange for pledges of loyalty to the Crown now faced financial ruin. Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie was probably the person most affected: In a single sweep, he lost nearly all his properties. Though the land-owning nobility managed to save many of their belonging, their power was diminished, and a new privileged class – man with skills and competence but no high titles – took their place.

The Reduction had been supported by the clergy, the burghers and the peasants, that is, the three lower of the four Estates that constituted the Parliament. Since the days of Gustav II Adolf, the king, through holding a strong position, had formally reigned with the advice of a Council and the Parliament – the latter being especially influential on decisions concerning war, taxes and conscription. Now, however, parliamentary support gave absolute power to the king and led during the 1680s to the foundation of a royal autocracy.

With the royal autocracy in power, the architectural initiative shifted to the state. Much of Sweden’s labour force now became engaged in national defence. Under the leadership of Erik Dahlbergh, Swedish fortifications underwent their own great age, and activities in fortress building along the country’s borders intensified. Large sums of money went toward the main fortified cities such as Goteborg and Karlskrona, with the latter founded as a new base for the Royal Navy in 1680. Karlskrona was built on an ideal baroque city plan, with a grand boulevard and streets radiating from an open public square. Meanwhile, a nationwide military allotment system (indelningsverket) instituted by Karl XI enabled the creation of an army of professional soldiers and the construction of housing for them. Proper houses were built for officers; for lower-ranking soldiers, crofts were provided, all on the economic base created by the Reduction. Moreover, in peacetime, Swedish agriculture had the benefit of soldiers’ working as farmers.

Karl XI also harboured a strong interest in religion and declared himself head of the Swedish Protestant church. During his reign, which lasted until 1697, baroque church building reached its pinnacle. While the king’s involvement with the church was rooted in his own deep piety, it also had another goal: every citizen’s regular participation in church services. From the pulpit, one could easily disseminate not only religious messages but also political propaganda. Church interiors that were open and had good sight lines as well as good acoustics offered the advantage that the minister could be seen and heard by all. The aristocracy’s main contribution to ecclesiastical architecture was mostly limited to mausoleums erected at old country churches.

Nicodemus Tessin the Younger, son of Tessin the Elder, took charge of the treat majority of the royal autocracy’s artistic undertakings. His great competence and political loyalty were qualities that the Crown needed and could appreciate. In exchange for high titles and honours, the architect glorified the monarchy through all aspects of architecture and elevated ceremonial court life to a level comparable to that of the leading nations of Continental Europe. Though Tessin ranks among the most important baroque architects in Europe, he was also a pragmatic ideologue and politician. His most prestigious work, the Royal Palace in Stockholm, became the most prominent symbol of the Swedish empire.

Stockholm Royal Palace

In 1697, the same year that the old Tree Crowns was destroyed by fire and work began on a new royal palace, Karl XI died. The throne was claimed by his son, who, as Karl XII, became the third and last king of the Palatine dynasty. Three years later, an alliance of Denmark, Poland and Russia attacked Sweden, and the young king left Stockholm at the head of his army. This was the beginning of the Great Nordic War (1700-21).

During the first few years at war, Sweden received regular victory messages from the front on the far shore of the Baltic Sea, but soon her luck changed. At the battle of Poltava in 1709, the entire Swedish army was captured by Czar Peter the Great and herded to Russia. Karl XII escaped to Turkey, where he remained isolated for five years. In Stockholm, construction on the Royal Palace halted, and the country stood on the verge of economic ruin.

After Karl XII’s return to Sweden, the country’s last resources were mobilized in an attempt to invade Norway. At the siege of the Fredriksten Fortification on November 30, 1718, the king was shot through the head and killed. Whether the shot was fired by an enemy or came from one of his own men remains a question. His death brought to an abrupt end both the Crown’s absolute rule and the Age of Greatness.

Freed from the grip of royal autocracy, Sweden started life afresh, with a new constitution, social structure and spirit. “Here everyone is behaving like flies that have survived the winter and come to life again” is how one citizen described the political mood in Stockholm in 1718, shortly after the king’s death.

In the new Sweden that was taking shape, power was divided between the Council (i.e. the government) and the Parliament. Karl XII’s younger sister Ulrika Eleonora was elected queen but only after renouncing all claims to absolute power and she quickly relinquished the throne to her husband, Fredrik I of Hesse. Fredrik, in turn, settled for a limited role in politics as chairman of the Council. In time, a parliamentary system similar to that of Great Britain was developed; it was characterized by frictions between the two parties, the Hats (hattarna) and the Caps (mossorna).

The Hats, led by military officers, public officials and large company holders, allied themselves with France and against Russia and governed the country for thirty years. Active economic policies were at the top of the Hats’ agenda. The cautious and realistic Caps, representing the lower ranks of the bourgeoisie, the land-owning nobility, the clergy and the peasants, took over in 1765. Through foreign policy, the Caps were more closely allied with England, Denmark and Russia. The political opposition turned what Swedish history refers to as the Age of Liberty into a disorderly epoch, but one that laid the foundations for a more peaceful Sweden.

Though the wars and hardships of the Karolinian period had drastically depleted both the country’s economy and its population, recovery occurred quickly. Several years of abundant harvests and the swift development of many newly established manufacturers stimulated the Swedish economy, largely because of the Hat party’s politics. Most of the measures undertaken benefited Swedish society. In 1735, the Royal Drawing Academy was founded, laying the foundation for the later Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Four years later came the establishment of the Royal Academy of Science, founded with an explicit objective of furthering the nation’s interests. Within fourteen years, Sweden also had its Royal Academy of Arts and Letters.

Meanwhile, in 1739, the Parliament had created the Department of Manufacturing to promote domestic production, especially of decorative materials such as silk and faience. From the standpoint of the national economy, these enterprises were of relatively little significance, but for artistic and cultural life, the influence of the new department was great.

In terms either of corporate profits or the penetrating effect that a single company had on the times, no firm compared to the Swedish East India Company, which had been established in 1731 with headquarters in Goteborg. Under the firm’s auspices, Chinese goods poured into Sweden throughout the century, generating immense profits for the company’s owners and promoting a lively interest in East Asia that spread deep into the Swedish countryside.

Sweden’s clock had turned from twelve to one: Karl XII fell, and Fredrik I rose. A new period began with renewed spirit and promising potential. To be sure, peace in Sweden always faced challenges; now the main threat came from Russia. Strengthening the defence of the country’s eastern parts therefore became an important task for the Age of Liberty’s leading politicians. On a rocky island off the Finnish coast at Helsinki, a great fortress, Sveaborg, was constructed. The builders of Sveaborg aspired to make it impregnable, and the fortress became Sweden’s biggest building project of that period.

Some of Sweden’s greatest contributions to the world at large were products of the Age of Liberty, mostly notably in the fields of science, letters and culture. Age of Liberty coincided with the Age of Enlightenment, which had its origins in England and flowered in France. The broad swing in Continental Europe away from superstition, prejudice and unquestioning acceptance of authority and toward reason, logic and learning occurred in Sweden as well, although it affected only a minority of the people. France’s influence on Sweden grew stronger than ever before, at least at the court and among aristocrats and intellectuals, who took a lively interest in the writings of Voltaire and Rousseau. Members of the Swedish middle classes, meanwhile, were particularly attracted to England’s more utilitarian and bourgeois outlook. Swedish academicians of the time attained a stature comparable to that of the great thinkers and investigators abroad, most especially in the natural sciences. The Age of Liberty produced such eminent Swedish scientists as Anders Celsius (astronomer and physicist), Emanuel Swedenbourg (philosopher, theologian and natural scientist) and Carl Linnaeus (botanist) – all fathers of modern science.

Tranquillity, economic progress and widespread optimism led to a renewed interest in building. The development of discernible new stylistic ideals took time, though. The late baroque style still dominated the architecture of manor houses as well as provincial churches, though a new tone different from the earlier one gradually emerged. As a result of the newly invigorated ambition to build, the Parliament voted in 1727 to resume work on the Royal Palace after a standstill of nearly two decades. This action, however, encountered an unforseen complication. Completion of the palace required a massive work force, and the lack of qualified craftsmen was obvious. Count Carl Gustav Tessin, the son of Nicodemus Tessin the Younger and his father’s successor as superintendent of buildings, and court architect Carl Hårleman, who took the greater role in the completion of the palace, decided to recruit the needed manpower in France; it was there that Hårleman had become familiar with the new Rococo style. Soon, French artisans and craftsmen in the workshops around the palace were ably rendering the Swedish palace’s rococo carvings and paintings from Carl Hårleman’s drawings.

Through his architecture and furnishings based on French prototypes, Carl Hårleman created an ideal, simple and restrained style that set the tone for most of 18th century Swedish architecture. This is especially beautifully expressed in his manor houses, which certainly contributed to shaping what today is considered the Swedish style.

Sätuna Manor by Carl Hårleman (near Uppsala)

As the marriage of Fredrik I and Ulrika Eleonora produced no children, the Parliament was compelled to seek a suitable heir to the throne elsewhere. After pressure from Russia, it was decided in 1743 that Adolf Fredrik, a scion of the north German ducal dynasty of Holstein-Gottorp, would be the new Swedish heir. Not only was Adolf Fredrik a grandson of Karl XII’s elder sister, but also and more important, be was a relative of the Russian empress, Elizabeth. As Russia had just defeated Sweden in battle (1741-43), the victor got its way: access to the Swedish throne. In the following year, the crown prince married Lovisa Ulrika, sister of Frederick the Great of Prussia. The couple produced four lively children, all of whom reached adulthood: Gustav (the third of that name), Karl (the thirteenth), Fredrik Adolf and Sophia Albertina. In 1751, Adolf Fredrik was crowned king of Sweden.

Lovisa Ulrika and Adolf Fredrik

Raised in autocratic Prussia, Lovisa Ulrika had more trouble finding her way in the Swedish political system than did her quiet, good-natured husband, and she made several attempts to strengthen the power of the monarchy. She was discovered as the instigator of a coup d’état, albeit unsuccessful, in 1756. The royalist aristocrats involved with the conspirators were executed, and the royal couple threatened with dethronement and exile. After some embarrassing reprimands, however, the alleged insurgents were pardoned.

The Prussian princess made her greatest contributions to Sweden in art and culture. She brought about the refurbishment and enlargement of Drottningholm Palace as a modern summer residence for the royal family, and she participated in developing the exotic Chinese Pavilion nearby. She pursued such cultural interests as book collecting, theatre and the study of natural history, which resulted in a series of milieus that are considered the most exquisite of 18th century Swedish creations. It was she who founded the Royal Academy of Arts and Letters, where annual gatherings were held on her birthday. Virtually without political power and access to government funds, the royal family had to make do with the palaces that already existed. Nevertheless, the royals were in a class of their own when it came to constructing buildings and commissioning art.

During the 18th century, another group of patrons arose from the internationally oriented bourgeoisie. Together with office holders from the lower nobility, these wealthy merchants and industrial leaders assumed the initiative in most areas. Carl Gustav Tessin – a diplomat and art collector, and by now a leading Hat politician and Sweden’s Court Marshal – belonged to this group and counted as one of the most illustrious personalities of the 18th century. Carl Gustav Tessin’s country house, Åkerö, housed an exceptional collection of French art and in all respects exhibited the ultimate in good taste and refinement. His collections today constitute an important basis for the National Museum of Fine Arts in Stockholm.

For Sweden to rise from the poor condition in which it began the Age of Liberty to the commercial, scientific and cultural level of many other European countries took just fifty years. Throughout these decades, Sweden’s population continued to grow steadily, reaching more than two million in 1770. The population of Swedish-held Finland, meanwhile, reached 600,000. Ten percent of the population in both countries lived in the cities, Stockholm being the largest, with 75,000 followed by Göteborg and Karlskrona, with about 10,000 each. The remaining towns were small and rural. The nobility made up about five percent of the population. Nine out of ten Swedes lived in the country and under meagre conditions.

Social change characterised the final years of the Age of Liberty. But the initial, ebullient optimism had cooled down. Disputes between the political parties increased, while divisive antagonisms between the aristocracy and the lower classes deepened. Open criticism of aristocratic privileges was on the rise, as were corruption and misuse of power. It was time to go in a new direction – but which way?

Crown Prince Gustav was attending the theatre in Paris one evening in 1771 when the received the news of the death of his father, Kind Adolf Fredrik. Upon his return to Sweden, the prince was crowned King Gustav III, Sweden’s second ruler from the Hostein-Gottorp dynasty. In the following year, on August 19, King Gustav took advantage of the current political instability and carried out a bloodless coup d’état. In one swift moment, Sweden’s political system changed dramatically. A new constitution was established, which essentially reintroduced the principles of sovereignty and the parliamentary government was replaced by Gustav III’s own royal autocracy.

During the next twenty years, nearly everything that occurred, was said, or was thought in Sweden was influenced by Gustav III. Gifted, egocentric and frenetically busy, he controlled both domestic and foreign politics while enthusiastically leading the country’s cultural life as well. Some people viewed him as the country’s saviour, others as an evil tyrant.

Gustav III

The first decade of his regime was politically calm, and the French-oriented Gustav III stood out as one of Europe’s most enlightened monarchs. But the 1870s saw growing tensions between the king and his opposition. Paradoxically, it was within the nobility that power struggles ruffled the most feathers. In an attempt to regain popularity and break the opposition’s power, Gustav III attacked Russia, the official rationale being to regain some of the Finland’s Baltic provinces that had been lost earlier. The Russian War (1788-90) ended in a status quo ante bellum, but it led to a group of noblemen’s openly opposing the king. Gustav III summoned the Parliament, and in 1789 he pushed through a new form of government, reinstating an absolute monarchy. Although the French Revolution, which occurred in the same year, won little support in Sweden, the king nevertheless decided to tem any attempt at insurgency by introducing censorship, curtailing the nobility’s privileges and giving the lower estates more rights.

Though opinions of Gustav III’s political contributions vary, his reign was indisputably a period of unprecedented artistic flowering in Sweden. Gustav III consciously used art and culture for patriotic purposes. Inspired by the cultural institutions in France, the founded the Royal Academy of Music, reinvigorated the newly established Royal Academy of Arts and Letters, and founded the Swedish Academy, the eighteen members of which were bidden not only to groom the language but also to honour the regent. The Royal Academy of Fine Arts experienced a golden age during his reign, and both opera and theatre won the king’s favour and were awarded a national stage. No other Swedish monarch had had so great an interest in theatre, and no other had promoted it as he did. Gustav III is still known today as the Theatre King.

As absolute monarch, Gustav III was able to initiate various building projects and to fulfil his elaborate architectural dreams without interference from the Parliament. Despite this, he left behind no royal palace of monumental scale. Haga, the king’s pavilion outside Stockholm, which occupied his interest during his last decade, still stands out as a gem in Swedish architecture; however, the enormous palace intended for the site never advanced beyond a foundation.

Gustav III left so great a mark on both art and architecture that even today Swedes refer to the Gustavian style. This style, which replaced the rococo, is often thought of as the Swedish national counterpart to the French fine and decorative arts of King Louis XVI. The lines and shapes that characterise the Gustavian style had in fact been developed several years before Gustav III’s coronation, but it was the monarch – greatly influenced by French art and culture – whose patronage contributed to the style’s popularity and dissemination. Elegant and restrained, the Gustavian style is still widely regarded as the ultimate expression of Swedish good taste.

Gustav III’s journey to Italy in 1783-84 is usually seen as the preface to the Late Gustavian style. As the king’s tastes changed, architecture and interior decoration in Sweden developed toward a more stern and international form of neoclassicism. The Late Gustavian style, on which the king himself exerted an especially strong personal influence, continued well after Gustav III was gone.

As it had in the mid 17th century, 18th century Rome attracted more Swedes than the king. For architects, the journey to Rome was nearly obligatory. Many continued south to Naples and to the excavations of the ancient cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii, or still further, to Paestum and Sicily, where they came into direct contact with Greek originals. The results reached Sweden quickly. Swedish churches and other public buildings were soon adorned with heavy Doric columns and pilasters. Palaces and manor houses, meanwhile, were being furnished in the style seen in Roman wall paintings. Circular temples, figures of ancient deities, and obelisks emulating those that Roman conquerors had hauled home from Egypt appeared in Swedish parks and gardens. The sight amazed foreign visitors. During a visit to the Gunnebo estate outside Goteborg, the English feminist writer and traveller Mary Wollstonecraft could not contain her astonishment over the Swedes’ need to install, in this untouched Nordic landscape, not only columns but also “Venuses and Apollos condemned to lie in snow three parts of the year”.

In keeping with his enthusiasm for Italy, Gustav III acquired a collection of ancient sculptures. The most admired pieces were a figure of the sleeping Endymion and a sculptural group representing Apollo and the Muses. Awaiting the completion of the new residence at Haga, the sculptures were installed in a gallery in the Royal Palace. Years later, the king’s collection was moved to a pair of galleries in the lower northeast wing, where it constituted Sweden’s first public museum, dedicated to Gustav III.

Within the noble circle as well as among more radically minded citizens, the king’s autocratic behaviour eventually provoked a drastic reaction that led to a decisive step: the murder of the king. The last act of Gustav III’s life played out in a theatre – or rather, in the opera house in Stockholm that the king himself had commissioned. At a masquerade ball on March 16, 1792, the king was mortally wounded by a pistol shot in the back, and he died two weeks later. The murderer, Captain Johan Anckarström, was publicly executed in front of the House of Nobility; no other suspects were apprehended. The deceased king’s brother, Prince Karl, found it in his best interest to close the case quickly.

The assassination of Gustav III failed, however, in the sense that the absolute monarchy continued with his son, Gustav IV Adolf. Under the new king, Sweden again became unstable, with politics deeply affected by the Napoleonic wars. Gustav IV Adolf’s disgust both for the revolt and for Napoleon contributed to his decision, in 1805, to enter into a war with Russia and England against France. The French easily captured the Swedish province of Pomerania on the far side of the Baltic Sea, and, when Napoleon and the Czar agreed to peace in 1807, Sweden was ordered to break off her alliance with England. When Swedes refused to comply, Russian troops invaded Finland. The war of 1808-9 ended in complete defeat for Sweden. Finland was once and for all lost to her and Stockholm waited for the enemy’s approach.

In light of this situation, a group of civil and military officers deemed Gustav IV Adolf incapable of ruling, and in March 1809, before the war was over, the king was arrested and deposed. A parliamentary session quickly formed a new constitution, which, to a great extent, is still in effect today. While the deposed monarch was driven into exile, the late Gustav III’s brother was nominated to succeed Gustav IV Adolf as King Karl XIII. The Gustavian absolute monarchy was abolished. Sweden was now a constitutional monarchy.

In 1810, the French Field Marshal Jean Baptiste Bernadotte was elected heir to the Swedish throne. He was met with great enthusiasm when he arrived in his new country, where he was adopted by the childless King Karl XIII. Within months of Bernadotte’s arrival, Désirée, the wife of Sweden’s French crown prince, followed. The lady radiated a glamorous aura owing in part to her prior engagement to Napoleon. But Désirée had a difficult time with the Swedish climate, and almost immediately she went home to France. Not until 1823, for the marriage of her son Oscar, did she return to Sweden.

Though Bernadotte was not crowned until 1818, under the name Karl XIV Johan, he had in reality been acting as regent for eight years. He immediately took control of politics, skilfully leading a badly damaged Sweden through the difficult aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. From a cautious distance, Sweden participated in the great coalition of countries that, in 1813, finally triumphed over Napoleon’s troops in Leipzig.

Karl XIV Johan
portrait by François Gérard

Many Swedes had hoped to reclaim Finland, but Karl Johan had other plans. Instead of marching on Finland, he turned his troops against Denmark, which, in 1814, was forced to relinquish control of Norway to Sweden. Faced with the superiority of Sweden’s weapons, the reluctant Norwegians had no choice but to enter into a ninety year union with their neighbour. Thereafter, peace dominated the Scandinavian Peninsula.

The Karl Johan period, which continued until 1844, was a time that historians characterise with the military expression, “marching in place”. The opposition complained about the lack of actual change and about what they called the king’s “bedchamber regency” (Karl Johan made a habit of addressing advisors and government representatives in his bedchamber as he prepared to rise in the afternoon.) Despite this, there were a number of substantial advances in the social and economic spheres, as well as in the cultural, but they often took place in silence, and therefore went largely unnoticed.

The arts from the Karl Johan period have always stood in the shadow of the artistic achievements of the Gustavian age. Neoclassicism continued to colour academic art well into the 19th century, and the same applied to architecture. The country manor houses that were built reflected a taste for moderation, with their foremost traits being simplicity and good proportions, although they were not entirely without monumental elements. Columns continued to be the prevalent symbol of power and status. In the growing cities, classicism, well balanced and sombrely expressed, reached its full height during the first half of the century.

The harsh times called for utilitarian buildings such as hospitals, barracks, and schools. Most of these were erected in a severe, toned-down style. Function was the watchword. The period’s largest undertaking involved something as pragmatic as the Göta Canal (1810-32), which linked the country’s east and west coasts via waterways. The canal was an enormous project, led by military officers and carried out by soldiers. Construction of the Karlsborg military fortress in southwest Sweden was closely connected to the building of the Göta Canal and was intended to be the main fortress for Sweden’s troops. Such projects demonstrated that the military was in charge.

Bernadotte’s time as crown prince and regent coincided with the French Empire style, which in Sweden was named for him: the Karl Johan style. The two terms are almost interchangeable, though the Swedish version is usually lighter and somewhat simpler than its French counterpart. It is, in effect, a continuation of European neoclassicism, with inspirations still drawn from antiquity, mostly from the Roman Empire.

The style was applied primarily to interiors. Rooms were painted to imitate marble or cloaked in textiles to give the impression of a military tent. Furniture of dark mahogany, gilt ormolu bronzes, vibrant colours and shiny fabrics – everything that characterizes the style – is evident at Karl Johan’s summer palace in Stockholm. Called Rosendal, it is considered the most harmonious and best-preserved Empire environment in Sweden.

Rosendal Palace
Rosendal Palace Interior

Toward the end of the Karl Johan period, there was no longer any dominant ideal style in Sweden. Academic classicism in architecture went into eclipse. New technical and practical advantages allowed architects to experiment freely with shape and form, and to explore other sources of stylistic ideas. The derivative “neo” styles, such as neo-Gothic and neo-Renaissance, permeated Swedish architecture throughout much of 19th century.

Awareness of the national heritage that developed during the Karl Johan period found expression beyond architecture. Native Nordic gods and heroes took up the fight with imported classical Greek and Roman gods. As his predecessor acquired sculptures of Apollo and the nine muses, Karl Johan ordered colossal sculptures of the ancient Nordic Asa gods. He also had a frieze painted in one of the salons at Rosendal depicting the Scythian chieftain Oden, founder of the Asa line, coming to Sweden and saving the country. The allegorical connection between the king and the mythological figure was obvious. Karl Johan was most assertive that his life as king was unlike that of any other living being. As he said on his deathbed, Personne n’a fourni une carrière semblable à la mienne – No one has completed a path comparable to mine.