The legendary soprano Birgit Nilsson would have been 100 today.
“You are the greatest Brünnhilde I have heard in 40 years.”
“And who did you hear 40 years ago?” inquired Birgit Nilsson of what must have been a momentarily flummoxed Karl Böhm.
The wit and the voice seem utterly inseparable to us now – disarming, unflagging and totally at the legendary soprano’s beck and call. It could lash, or it could draw you in closer: it could certainly do both at the same time. With the advent of the centenary of her birth, the image of the laughing Valkyrie burns brighter than ever. There she jokes about Rudolf Bing being a dependent. Here she accuses a competitive Franco Corelli of giving her rabies. There she identifies her imitation pearls as bought with the meagre fees of the Vienna Opera.
We hear the same stories over and again, some undoubtedly apocryphal. But the spark of a quick mind and the brilliance of a steely attitude makes them evergreen. Akin to putting on one of her records, it makes you wonder, how could this woman, with such outsized, positively Wagnerian qualities, ever possibly exist?
Born on a farm in Västra Karup, Sweden, Nilsson was a bit of a disappointment to her father. Like some of the tales that emerge from those northern climes, young Marta Birgit Nilsson was the only child of a man who desired a son. Nils Svensson, a sixth generation farmer, wanted there to be a seventh – what he got instead was a girl with a preternaturally loud voice, who could play the piano from the age of three and had little ambition of settling down as a farmer’s wife. “At my christening I allegedly drowned out both the pastor and the organ,” was how Nilsson put it in her own memoir.
Though Birgit attended agricultural school, where she learnt how to cook and milk cows, her mother Justina Svensson quietly but firmly nurtured her gifts. Not overfond of being a farmer’s wife herself, Justina had long harboured ambitions of being a singer – it was she that first bought Birgit a toy piano, and she that saved the equivalent of $500 from her inheritance in order to send Birgit to the Royal School of Music in Stockholm. Sadly, her mother heard her sing only once before being killed in a car crash.
Her father, who had little truck with any of these ambitions, never contributed a cent to Nilsson’s education. But despite being disappointed in his hopes for her, he maintained a genial, joking relationship with his child, delighting in his insistence that the great diva was not so good. His party trick, as it were, was to apprehend bemused audience members during the interval, inquiring as to whether they thought Ms Nilsson had been too loud in the first or second act. Invariably he would seize on the one person who gave him any concession on this ground, and present it to his daughter as an overwhelming consensus: she had been much too loud.
At the time, nearly all graduates of the Royal School sang at the Royal Opera in Stockholm, and so it was for Nilsson. In time honoured tradition, her debut came about in 1946 when another singer fell ill, leaving her to jump into the role of Agathe in Weber’s Der Freischütz at rather short notice. While familiar with Agathe’s arias, the spoken dialogue and recitatives proved difficult to master within three days. Her less than perfect performance resulted in the conductor, a cantankerous Leo Blech, temporarily banning her from the house. “I thought I was finished,” said Nilsson, who later revealed that she had contemplated throwing herself into a river close to the theatre.
It was rather the more benevolent Fritz Busch who saved her from being finished at the ripe old age of 28. Recognizing her potential, Busch engaged her for the role of Lady Macbeth in 1947, a part whose difficulties are not so far removed from the big voice-killers that populated her career. One of the most important litmus tests for a successful Lady M is her final high D Flat, which on top of being cruelly exposed is required to be sung piano and held for a respectable length of time. Busch suggested that Nilsson merely mime the note, leaving the task to another singer standing in the wings. In fact, the singer cracked the note multiple times in rehearsal, leading Nilsson to point out that “I will be blamed if that note is cracked anyhow. Why not let me crack my own D Flat?” Suffice it to say, she essayed her own D Flat night after night, with nary a crack to be heard. It was from there that her career took wing, with Nilsson re-engaged at the Royal Opera by Blech a mere 12 months after she had been dumped by him. That house was to become an invaluable training ground, bearing witness to her first Leonores, Marschallins, Sieglindes, Donna Annas, Sentas and Toscas, all sung in Swedish.
Nilsson soon plunged headfirst into the world of Wagner, finding her powerful instrument uniquely suited to his demands. Her timbre, as the critic John Ardoin put it, “was sunlight reflected off a copper surface” – it could slice through a large orchestra “like a marble column from its lowest notes to the high C of its top register”. Allied with reserves of breath, superhuman stamina and a questioning intelligence, Nilsson was a rare creature indeed, her instrument of fire and ice also finding her a home in the works of Strauss and Puccini.
Her Vienna State Opera debut in the spring of 1954 proved a significant turning point. The word “demanding” does it little justice – Nilsson was made to guest four different roles within a period of nine days. “And that was not the worst,” she related in her memoir. “I was singing each role for the first time in its original language. In German, I was performing Elsa in Lohengrin, Leonore in Fidelio and Sieglinde in Walküre; in Italian, Aida. I was granted a musical run-through with piano with the various conductors, but the staging rehearsals were conspicuous by their absence.” (NB. That is still often the case at Vienna State Opera.)
Nilsson rose to the occasion, winning over both critics and audience alike. “I even received applause after Dich, teure Halle (unusual for this opera),” she noted. Fidelio had been dropped for Tannhäuser a few days after she touched down in Vienna, throwing yet another spanner in the works.
An Elsa at Bayreuth soon followed, and her first Brünnhilde in a complete Ring at the Bavarian State Opera in 1955. She impressed enough to be invited by Karajan himself, now artistic director of the Vienna State Opera, to sing Brünnhilde in Walküre. His methods she found disconcerting – he wouldn’t hear of having vocal coaches in rehearsals, and would play recordings (not even his own) to save the singers’ voices while preparing the orchestra. “Karajan was not a one-on-one instructor, and he never discussed the interpretation of a role,” Nilsson later reported. “It was enough for him if you found the spotlight and reined in your acting.”
Once, when Karajan had sent Nilsson a detailed offer of all the roles, repertoire and periods of work for which he would need her, he received a two-word reply: “Busy. Birgit.” Nilsson had some respect for Karajan the conductor, less for him as theatre chief and fee payer, and absolutely none for his role as stage director and lighting designer. Hence the famous episode of her joke appearing on stage for a technical rehearsal of the Met’s Die Walküre wearing a miner’s hat with a built-in lamp.
While she was more or less an established star by the mid-1950s, Rudolf Bing, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, remained unimpressed. He had ample opportunity to see her in action – her American debut had taken place in 1956 with San Francisco Opera; she had auditioned for him in Berlin; and he had seen her Salome in Munich. It was not until he heard her Isolde at the Vienna Opera in 1958 that a contract was forthcoming. “I was not mad,” Nilsson told the New Yorker in 1966. “I develop slowly. I was glad to come to the Metropolitan opera when my voice was better. But, if Mr Bing had hired me then, I might not have been so expensive.” 🙂
Isolde was the role with which she made her Met debut, and it was confirmed: Ms Nilsson, Swedish farm girl, was the real deal, the natural successor to the great Kirsten Flagstad, a star amongst stars at that illustrious house. The New York Times ran its review of the performance on the front page, with the headline “Birgit Nilsson as Isolde Flashes Like New Star in ‘Met’ Heavens”. It was to be the first of 233 appearances by Nilsson at the Met spanning 16 roles. After winning an ovation that lasted 15 minutes, she proclaimed she still had enough breath of sing Turandot “right this minute”.
“The Swedish soprano assumed one of the most demanding roles in the repertory and charged it with power and exaltation,” wrote Howard Taubman in the Times. “With a voice of extraordinary size, suppleness and brilliance, she dominated the stage and the performance. Isolde’s fury and Isolde’s passion were as consuming as cataclysms of nature.”
The year 1959 was a bumper one for Nilsson, which saw her enter the studio for the first time under Decca’s wing to record excerpts from Tristan und Isolde with Hans Knappertsbusch and the Vienna Philharmonic. Coming into her prime as a dramatic soprano, the thrill of hearing a 41-year old Nilsson remains undimmed. Its majesty, molten power and innate authority is something to behold. Critic David Blum describes her voice in the Liebestod as seeming “to glide on waves and, in its ease and repose, to be transformed into liquid matter. Whether floating full-bodied at piano or riding the breakers with majesty and passion, it has the resplendence of an unblemished pearl, illuminated by a deep lustre at its core.”
No discussion of Nilsson’s career is quite complete without touching on the legendary Solti Ring. Nilsson’s name has become synonymous with the world’s first officially recorded studio Ring (for Decca with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Sir Georg Solti). The autobiography is always warm in her appreciation of Solti – who continued to be regular live colleague both at the Royal Opera House and with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – and her fellow singers. But she is critical of producer John Culshaw and the technical results of the Ring and Salome recordings.
But, the efforts of all involved notwithstanding, I have to admit I am not wholly satisfied with the Decca recordings. I have to agree with the music lovers and critics who say “the balance between the orchestra and the singers finds the singers at a great disadvantage.”
We were often covered by the enormous volume of the orchestra, far, far too often. Throughout, the orchestra was too loud. Of course, one should hear every instrument and the special effects—but not at the cost of hearing the singers! Perhaps the motto for the recordings was the comment attributed to Richard Strauss during an Elektra rehearsal: “Play louder, please. I can still hear the singers.” (Maybe the singers on that occasion were very bad?)
During the period of the loud orchestra and special effects, Salome was also recorded by Decca. On the album cover the producer, John Culshaw, is quoted as saying, “Never before has one been able to hear the triangle in a performance. Here for the first time you can hear this instrument.” I have nothing against the public’s hearing the triangle, but I ask myself whether the voice of Salome is not at least as important. It is always lovely to hear one’s voice praised but it is a bit disappointing to hear that the sound is better live than on the recording. Or worse: that the voice sounds better on some pirated recordings than on takes from the studio.
I had many discussions with John Culshaw and the sound engineer, Gordon Parry, about this. Mr. Parry explained that in the orchestra sat a hundred prima donnas who wished to be heard. I looked at him as sweetly as possible and said it was unlikely that Decca had told any orchestra member what they had told me, namely, that a Ring recording without Nilsson was unthinkable.
Possibly the Decca Boys were so taken with the idea of getting in all of the effects previously unheard that they temporarily forgot that opera is actually singing with orchestral accompaniment.
Later, in transferring the recording to CD, the balance was changed. Despite the hundred prima donnas, the opera was restored to its original form. I was very happy with the result, even though it took twenty-five years for my criticism to be validated.
Solti was responsible for many of her outstanding recordings – her wonderfully nuanced Brünnhilde sits alongside a single-minded Salome, a deranged Elektra and a magnificent Turandot. Nilsson found a way, as did the hundred prima donnas, of getting the best out of, and being lifted by, Solti’s sometimes manic vitality. To spend a few hours in their company is to encounter something profound.
By the late 50s and 60s, Nilsson’s success was such that even her father’s gruff, unimpressed exterior began to slip. At a performance of Tosca, he turned to the unsuspecting gentleman next to him, remarking, “don’t applaud her. She’s only my daughter.”
A heady time that would send many into a tailspin, her sense of humour held her in good stead. In preparation for her Met debut as Elektra, she worked closely with one of the house’s vocal coaches, Walter Taussig. Although she had made her debut as Elektra in Sweden in 1965 and had brought it to Vienna, as was her general practice with new roles, she remained nervous about bringing the part to the Met, never wanting to deliver less than her best. “If you make a big success in New York, it goes all over; if you make a big flop, it goes all over, too,” she explained.
Such anxieties seem to be overcome, as is demonstrated in a delightfully mischievous letter she sent to Taussig’s wife: “Dear Mrs Taussig, I have a confession to make. I have had a child with your husband. Her name is Elektra. I am quite sure she is his because nobody else could have given me this child.”
Nilsson never relinquished this so-called child until the very end of her career – her final ever performance was as Elektra in Frankfurt, 1982. “It was a great performance and I felt I was in my best form, as though it was the high point of my career,” she later said. Though to some her once penetrating voice had lost some of its lustre and earth-shattering power, the burning intensity and sheer presence of Nilsson was never in doubt.
In 1973, Birgit Nilsson made her first (and only) appearance in Australia for the first official public concert at the Sydney Opera House, accompanied by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Mackerras. Nilsson sang the celebrated aria Dich, teure Halle from act two of Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser. Nilsson, 55 at the time, was at the height of her powers and her superlative performance remains one of the most spine-tingling moments in Australian music.
A decade after her retirement, she shared a line with a reporter from The New York Times that for her must have been something of a credo. “I’ve always tried to remember what my mother used to tell me: stay close to the earth. Then when you fall down, it won’t hurt so much.”
Birgit Nilsson died in Västra Karup in 2005, the place where she was born.
Nilsson’s centennial is being celebrated on a suitably Wagnerian scale.
There is a new coffee-table book recounting her career. Not one but two lavish boxed sets of her recordings. A new documentary. And two days ago, the foundation she set up near the end of her life awarded the $1 million Birgit Nilsson Prize — the richest in classical music — to the singer many consider her heir: Nina Stemme. The Birgit Nilsson Prize has been dubbed the Nobel Prize of music, and it is similarly given in recognition of achievements of the highest possible level. The prize can go to any orchestra, conductor or singer for ‘outstanding achievement in opera, concert, Lieder, or oratorio’.
Nina Stemme is the fourth recipient of the prize, following Plácido Domingo, Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic. Nilsson herself decreed that the first prize, awarded in 2009, four years after her death, should go to Plácido Domingo. The choices of the previous prize-winners have come in for some criticism, but the prize is apparently resolutely apolitical, with any activities beyond the musical sphere discounted from the selection process. Hence Vienna Philharmonic’s shocking record in gender equality and cultural diversity didn’t disqualify the orchestra from winning the prize.
A decision was made early on that the prize should have no strings attached, and so far prize-winners have all used the money for their own worthwhile music related projects. Plácido Domingo funds a Birgit Nilsson prize in his Operalia competition with it, given to singers interpreting arias within the German Repertoire of Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner. Vienna Philharmonic has used the prize money to digitise their archive, while Riccardo Muti has apparently used the prize money for youth orchestra projects.
One of today’s most sought-after dramatic sopranos and long recognised as this generation’s Nilsson, Nina Stemme said she was deeply honoured to be receiving the Prize. “It is a great honour to be recognized for my work, but it is even greater to be recognized in my home country by a world-renowned organization that bears the name and carries the legacy of a legend… my idol Birgit Nilsson. As this is her centenary, receiving this award becomes a most humbling and extraordinary honour. I am very grateful to be connected with this great lady and to be in the company of Maestro Domingo, Maestro Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic, all of whom have previously received this extraordinary award.”
Brigit Nilsson also helped Nina Stemme early in her career, awarding her a scholarship in 1996. The Board of the Birgit Nilsson Foundation for young singers continue to manage and award the Birgit Nilsson Scholarship.
Stemme will be formally presented with the Prize by King Carl XVI Gustaf this October at a ceremony held at the Royal Opera House in Sweden.
We saw Nina Stemme in the Ring at Vienna State Opera in 2009. She sang the role of Sieglinde in Die Walküre and Brünnhilde in Siegfried.
Brünnhilde, which Nina Stemme first sang in 2008, is the ultimate test for the dramatic soprano – or, rather, the ultimate three tests, because Wagner presents a different Brünnhilde in each of the operas in which she appears – Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.
The Siegfried Brünnhilde is the most lyrical of the three Brünnhildes, the end of Siegfried is Tristan-like in the passion of the love duet. Eva Johannsen sang the other two Brünnhildes but she was well and truly upstaged by Nina Stemme, whose luscious-voiced Brünnhilde followed an exquisitely melting Sieglinde.
Based on the article in the May issue of Limelight Magazine.
The Noble Museum is a small museum on the ground floor of the beautiful 18th century former stock exchange building in the heart of Stockholm old town. The rest of the building is used by the Swedish Academy that awards the Nobel Prize in Literature. A Nobel Centre will be built on the Blasieholmen peninsula, at Nybroviken, an inlet of the Baltic Sea in the heart of Stockholm, next to the National Museum. The Nobel Centre is still a few years away. The Nobel Museum will probably have room to expand in the new location.
The museum has a section dedicated to the life of Alfred Nobel, a section for the growing collection of artefacts donated by various Nobel laureates and a section for the Nobel Prize ceremony at Stockholm Town Hall. Then there is a display area for information on all Nobel Prize Laureates and an area for exhibitions.
When little Puffles and Honey visited, the exhibition was Literary Rebellion – Images of Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature by Kim Manresa and Xavi Ayén.
In Literary Rebellion, twelve Nobel Laureates in Literature are depicted in the Spanish photographer Kim Manresa’s gripping and beautiful images. The authors have in different ways used their writing as a way to question, create change and make resistance. Through their literature, they have in different ways worked to create and maintain spaces for the free word.
The Nobel Laureates in Literature whose authorships were highlighted in the exhibition are: Svetlana Alexievich (2015), Dario Fo (1997), Nadine Gordimer (1991), Imre Kertész (2002), Doris Lessing (2007), Toni Morrison (1993), Herta Müller (2009), Orhan Pamuk (2006), Kenzaburo Oe (1994), José Saramago (1998), Wole Soyinka (1986) and Wisława Szymborska (1996).
Winning a Nobel Prize is considered one of the world’s greatest honours. The laureates for Literature have caused quite a stir at times.
The Swedish Academy’s selection of British writer Kazuo Ishiguro as its 2017 literature laureate was well-received, but this has not always been the case.
The Academy’s decision to bestow its distinguished literary award — and the accompanying $1.1 million (€937,000) prize — to Bob Dylan in 2016 unleashed a storm of criticism, with many arguing the American musician and songwriter did not deserve an award that was typically bestowed on novelists, dramatists, and writers of non-fiction. Dylan’s reluctant acknowledgement of the award and his decision to be absent at the official award ceremony only added fuel to the fire.
Other individual recipients have led to outcry and insults, such as Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, the 2010 literature laureate who was said to focus more on politics than prose. And Russian dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s decision not to attend his 1970 Stockholm prize ceremony due to fear of Soviet repression escalated to the point that he said the Swedes’ conditions for acceptance were “an insult to the Nobel Prize itself”.
In addition, the Academy itself has been accused of Eurocentrism and gender biases. Critics of the literature award, in particular, argue it is highly subjective.
Based on the will of philanthropist and dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel, the award should go to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Yet there is no unanimous consensus on what constitutes this “ideal”.
Giant of American letters John Steinbeck beat the British authors Robert Graves and Lawrence Durrell to win the Nobel prize for literature in 1962, but he was not a popular choice. The names of 66 authors were put forward for the prize that year, with the shortlist consisting of Steinbeck, Graves, Durrell, French dramatist Jean Anouilh and Danish author Karen Blixen (author of Out of Africa, rendered herself ineligible by dying that September).
Although Steinbeck was praised by the committee “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception” when his win was announced, the declassified documents show he was actually chosen as the best of a bad lot. “There aren’t any obvious candidates for the Nobel prize and the prize committee is in an unenviable situation,” wrote committee member Henry Olsson. How about not awarding a prize then?!?
The choice was heavily criticised, and described as “one of the Academy’s biggest mistakes” in one Swedish newspaper. The New York Times asked why the Nobel committee gave the award to an author whose “limited talent is, in his best books, watered down by tenth-rate philosophising”, adding; “we think it interesting that the laurel was not awarded to a writer … whose significance, influence and sheer body of work had already made a more profound impression on the literature of our age”. Steinbeck himself, when asked if he deserved the Nobel, replied: “Frankly, no.”
Moving on… to the display on Alfred Nobel.
Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm on October 21, 1833. His father Immanuel Nobel was an engineer and inventor who built bridges and buildings in Stockholm. In connection with his construction work Immanuel Nobel also experimented with different techniques for blasting rocks.
Alfred’s mother, born Andriette Ahlsell, came from a wealthy family. Due to misfortunes in his construction work caused by the loss of some barges of building material, Immanuel Nobel was forced into bankruptcy the same year Alfred Nobel was born. In 1837 Immanuel Nobel left Stockholm and his family to start a new career in Finland and in Russia. To support the family, Andriette Nobel started a grocery store which provided a modest income. Meanwhile Immanuel Nobel was successful in his new enterprise in St. Petersburg. He started a mechanical workshop which provided equipment for the Russian army and he also convinced the Tsar and his generals that naval mines could be used to block enemy naval ships from threatening the city.
The naval mines designed by Immanuel Nobel were simple devices consisting of submerged wooden casks filled with gunpowder. Anchored below the surface of the Gulf of Finland, they effectively deterred the British Royal Navy from moving into firing range of St. Petersburg during the Crimean war (1853-1856). Immanuel Nobel was also a pioneer in arms manufacture and in designing steam engines.
Successful in his industrial and business ventures, Immanuel Nobel was able, in 1842, to bring his family to St. Petersburg. There, his sons were given a first class education by private teachers. The training included natural sciences, languages and literature. By the age of 17, Alfred Nobel was fluent in Swedish, Russian, French, English and German. His primary interests were in English literature and poetry as well as in chemistry and physics. Alfred’s father, who wanted his sons to join his enterprise as engineers, disliked Alfred’s interest in poetry and found his son rather introverted. In order to widen Alfred’s horizons his father sent him abroad for further training in chemical engineering. During a two-year period, Alfred Nobel visited Sweden, Germany, France and the United States.
In Paris, the city he came to like best, he worked in the private laboratory of Professor T. J. Pelouze, a famous chemist. There he met the young Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero who, three years earlier, had invented nitroglycerine, a highly explosive liquid. Nitroglycerine was produced by mixing glycerine with sulphuric and nitric acid. It was considered too dangerous to be of any practical use. Although its explosive power greatly exceeded that of gunpowder, the liquid would explode in a very unpredictable manner if subjected to heat and pressure. Alfred Nobel became very interested in nitroglycerine and how it could be put to practical use in construction work. He also realized that the safety problems had to be solved and a method had to be developed for the controlled detonation of nitroglycerine. In the United States he visited John Ericsson, the Swedish-American engineer who had developed the screw propeller for ships.
In 1852 Alfred Nobel was asked to come back and work in the family enterprise which was booming because of its deliveries to the Russian army. Together with his father he performed experiments to develop nitroglycerine as a commercially and technically useful explosive. As the war ended and conditions changed, Immanuel Nobel was again forced into bankruptcy. Immanuel and two of his sons, Alfred and Emil, left St. Petersburg together and returned to Stockholm. His other two sons, Robert and Ludvig, remained in St. Petersburg. With some difficulties they managed to salvage the family enterprise and then went on to develop the oil industry in the southern part of the Russian empire. They were very successful and became some of the wealthiest persons of their time.
After his return to Sweden in 1863, Alfred Nobel concentrated on developing nitroglycerine as an explosive. Several explosions, including one (1864) in which his brother Emil and several other persons were killed, convinced the authorities that nitroglycerine production was exceedingly dangerous. They forbade further experimentation with nitroglycerine within the Stockholm city limits and Alfred Nobel had to move his experimentation to a barge anchored on Lake Mälaren. Alfred was not discouraged and in 1864 he was able to start mass production of nitroglycerine. To make the handling of nitroglycerine safer Alfred Nobel experimented with different additives. He soon found that mixing nitroglycerine with kieselguhr would turn the liquid into a paste which could be shaped into rods of a size and form suitable for insertion into drilling holes. In 1867 he patented this material under the name of dynamite. To be able to detonate the dynamite rods he also invented a detonator (blasting cap) which could be ignited by lighting a fuse. These inventions were made at the same time as the diamond drilling crown and the pneumatic drill came into general use. Together these inventions drastically reduced the cost of blasting rock, drilling tunnels, building canals and many other forms of construction work.
The market for dynamite and detonating caps grew very rapidly and Alfred Nobel also proved himself to be a very skilful entrepreneur and businessman. By 1865 his factory in Krümmel near Hamburg, Germany, was exporting nitroglycerine explosives to other countries in Europe, America and Australia. Over the years he founded factories and laboratories in some 90 different places in more than 20 countries.
Although he lived in Paris much of his life, he was constantly traveling. Victor Hugo at one time described him as “Europe’s richest vagabond”. When he was not traveling or engaging in business activities Nobel himself worked intensively in his various laboratories, first in Stockholm and later in Hamburg (Germany), Ardeer (Scotland), Paris and Sevran (France), Karlskoga (Sweden) and San Remo (Italy). He focused on the development of explosives technology as well as other chemical inventions, including such materials as synthetic rubber and leather, artificial silk, etc. By the time of his death in 1896 he had 355 patents.
Intensive work and travel did not leave much time for a private life. At the age of 43 he was feeling like an old man. At this time he advertised in a newspaper “Wealthy, highly-educated elderly gentleman seeks lady of mature age, versed in languages, as secretary and supervisor of household.” The most qualified applicant turned out to be an Austrian woman, Countess Bertha Kinsky. After working a very short time for Nobel she decided to return to Austria to marry Count Arthur von Suttner. In spite of this, Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner remained friends and kept writing letters to each other for decades. Over the years Bertha von Suttner became increasingly critical of the arms race. She wrote a famous book, Lay Down Your Arms and became a prominent figure in the peace movement. No doubt this influenced Alfred Nobel when he wrote his final will which was to include a Prize for persons or organizations who promoted peace. Several years after the death of Alfred Nobel, the Norwegian Storting (Parliament) decided to award the 1905 Nobel Peace Prize to Bertha von Suttner.
When Alfred Nobel died in 1896, he bequeathed the bulk of his fortune to create five annual prizes honouring ingenuity. He wrote his will in Swedish a year before his death while he lived in Paris, and the portion dealing with the prizes was one long paragraph. It named the groups to make the awards: the Karolinska Institute (medicine), the Swedish Academy of Sciences (chemistry and physics), the Swedish Academy (literature) and the Norwegian Parliament (peace). Nobel named these institutions without consulting them first! And the prize money was to come from a non-existent foundation that his executors had to create posthumously! He bequeathed his fortune to this foundation, that would then provide the funds to the various institutions.
Nobel said in his will that he wanted to reward those “who during the preceding year shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind” in five categories. The economics prize was created later, after an endowment from the Swedish central bank (Sveriges Riksbank) in 1968 “in memory of Alfred Nobel”. The Economic Sciences prize has been awarded every year since 1969.
The Nobel prizes almost never came to be, largely because of the unsophisticated way Nobel drew up his will. It was flawed and legally deficient because he lived in many places and never established a legal residence. Nobel resided for many years in France, made intermittent visits to a home in Sweden and amassed assets in many countries before dying of a stroke at his villa in Italy.
To secret Nobel’s French assets to the Swedish consulate in Paris before claims might be made on them there, the will’s principal executor literally sat on Nobel’s millions as he rode a horse-drawn cab through Paris. “I sat with a revolver at the ready in case of a direct attack or a prearranged collision with another vehicle, a trick not unusual among thieves in Paris at the time,” the executor, Ragnar Sohlman, wrote in The Legacy of Alfred Nobel, which was published in English in 1983.
Large philanthropic gifts to science were rare in Nobel’s day. Moreover, establishing annual international prizes in any field was novel. And controversial. News of Nobel’s plan sent shock waves through Sweden with the intensity of a dynamite blast.
Bitter members of Nobel’s largely disinherited family fought the will in court. Scorn was heaped on Nobel’s gift, the equivalent of $9.5 million and one of the largest fortunes of his time, by the king of Sweden, Oscar II, newspapers, political leaders and other Swedes.
Nobel’s earnings came from his 355 patents and factories in many countries. Swedish leaders vehemently opposed dispersing a Swedish fortune to the rest of the world. Among their reasons: it was immoral, particularly at a time when many Swedes were impoverished.
King Oscar II changed his mind after the Nobel Foundation was established in 1900, in part because he thought publicity about the prizes might benefit Sweden. He was too ill to attend the first ceremony in 1901. Starting in 1902, Oscar II and his royal successors have handed the prizes to the laureates on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death.
Alfred Nobel never explained his choice of prize categories. Chemistry and physics seem obvious choices because he was a trained chemical engineer.
The medical prize appears to reflect his heritage and interests. A 17th century ancestor, Olof Rudbeck the Elder, a professor of medicine at Uppsala University, was a discoverer of the human lymphatic system. With other researchers, Nobel discussed experiments in blood transfusions. While alive, he gave generously for research at the Karolinska Institute and at Ivan Pavlov’s laboratory in Russia.
Nobel often relieved his depression by writing fiction, drama and poetry, which probably explains his interest in the literature prize.
The reason for the peace prize is less clear. Many say it was to compensate for developing destructive forces. But his explosives, except for ballistite, were not used in any war during his lifetime.
Swedes were astonished that Nobel prepared his will unaided and without consulting the executors of his estate and the institutions that he entrusted to make the awards.
Ragnar Sohlman had to persuade the Swedish institutions to overcome many objections before agreeing to administer the prizes. The new demand was costly and added to the workload of academicians whose salaries were meagre. No blueprint existed to guide the prize juries. Those “who during the preceding year shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind” was a rather non-specific and subjective directive. Sweden had produced leading scientists, but insecurity existed about whether a small group of scientists in a small country could effectively judge claims for the discoveries made worldwide.
If any institution that Nobel named in his will rejected his charge, there probably would be no prizes. But by 1900, Mr. Sohlman had gained their cooperation.
The Karolinska Institute decided to primarily reward fundamental biomedical research, not clinical research. That action is credited for linking medicine to the emerging wave of laboratory science illustrated, for example, by Louis Pasteur, a chemist and bacteriologist. Pasteur, who died the year Nobel wrote his will, was ineligible for a prize because the Nobels are not awarded posthumously.
There were many competitors for the first awards, which went to well-recognized scientists: a German, Emil von Behring, for developing a diphtheria immunization; a German, Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen, in physics for the discovery of X-rays; and a Dutchman, Jacobus H. van’t Hoff, for discovering the laws of chemical dynamics and osmotic pressure in solutions.
No more than three individuals can win in any science category. The system to choose Nobel medical prize laureates is costly. About $700,000 is spent for the research into the medical prize, now worth about $1.4 million.
The winners are announced in October, over consecutive days. But the nomination process for the next year’s prizes begins a month earlier. The Karolinska Institute asks 3,000 scientists and administrators to nominate by January 31 researchers who they believe have made the most prize-worthy discovery for consideration in that year’s competition.
The first prizes were awarded in 1901, five years after the death of Alfred Nobel. One hundred years later, the Nobel Museum was opened, as a fascinating homage to geniuses and their pathways to their Nobel Prize.
That took a while to read about… 🙂
And it’s time for lunch! At Bistro Nobel, located in the same building. We want this table!
Being on the short side 🙂 little bears easily found the chair signed by Barry Marshall.
In 2005, Barry J. Marshall and J. Robin Warren were named joint winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of “the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and its role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease”. Professor Marshall is based at UWA and The Marshall Centre was founded in 2007 to celebrate the award of the Nobel Prize.
Love this photo from the Marshall Centre!
In the artefacts collection, we found the item donated by Professor Marshall, the sample jar that he used to drink the bacterium Helicobacter pylori in a broth solution. He contracted an infection, thereby proving that the bacterium causes gastric ulcers.
Next time you stop for a coffee or a meal at Bistro Nobel don’t forget to turn your chair upside down and see if it has been signed by one of the Nobel Laureates.
There is a more formal guest book for the laureates 🙂
Suitably fed, little Puffles and Honey went to explore Stockholm City Hall where great Nobel banquet is held.
Stockholm City Hall, with its spire featuring the golden Three Crowns, is one of the most famous silhouettes in Stockholm. It is one of the country’s leading examples of national romanticism in architecture. Designed by the architect Ragnar Östberg, the City Hall is built from eight million bricks. The 106-meter tall tower has the three crowns, which is the Swedish national coat of arms, at its apex. Behind the magnificent facades are offices and session halls for politicians and officials, as well as splendid assembly rooms and unique works of art. Stockholm’s municipal council meets in Rådssalen, the Council Chamber.
After dinner in Blå Hallen, the Blue Hall, Nobel Prize laureates, royalty and guests dance in Gyllene Salen, the Golden Hall, with its 18 million gold mosaic tiles.
Nobel laureates walk down the stairs to join the great Nobel banquet held in their honour. If they have stage fright 🙂 a star has been provided on the wall to help them focus!
The Blue Hall, with its straight walls and arcades, incorporates elements of a representative courtyard. But, not so blue! For a long time the architect, Ragnar Östberg, wanted to paint the brick walls in the Blue Hall blue, but he changed his mind when he saw how beautiful the red brick was. Although the hall remained red, he kept the name “Blå Hallen” (Blue Hall) because it was already in general use among Stockholmers. The Nobel Banquet takes place here in the City Hall’s largest ceremonial hall on 10 December every year. The actual prize award ceremony takes place at the Stockholm Concert Hall. The Blue Hall also houses one of the largest pipe organs in Scandinavia, with 10,000 pipes and 135 stops.
The walls of the Golden Hall are decorated with mosaics created by Einar Forseth, depicting the history of Sweden from the 9th century to the 1920s. The images consist of more than 18 million mosaic pieces made of glass and gold. The Queen of Lake Mälaren, that is, Stockholm in human form, sits on a throne and beside her there are figures and buildings from the rest of the world. The balls after the Nobel Banquet always take place in the Golden Hall.
The City Hall of Stockholm can only be visited with a guided tour. Little bears went walkabout 🙂
The Council Chamber is where the 101 members of Stockholm Municipal Council meet. The meetings are open to visitors, who are welcome to sit on one side of the gallery. On the opposite side there is a gallery for journalists. The painted opening in the beamed ceiling is designed to resemble a Viking longhouse.
The walls in the Oval Room are covered in tapestries which were woven at the end of the 17th century in Beauvais, France. On Saturdays civil weddings take place here.
From the Prince’s Gallery you can see the view over Lake Mälaren and Stockholm’s shores. On the other side of the room you can see the same motif in a painting by Prince Eugen. The black pillars are made of diabase rock. By the windows facing the water there are reliefs featuring male and female characters from Norse and classical mythology.
“Between four and five o’clock, the great new warship Vasa keeled over and sank.” A few short lines about a major disaster were written in a book on August 10, 1628. For a magnificent ship that sank on her very first voyage, this could have been the end. Instead, it was the beginning of an adventure that is still in progress. The Vasa was found almost intact, standing on the seabed, after three centuries. The ship was salvaged and it is on display at Stockholm’s Vasa Museum, one of Sweden’s most popular tourist destinations.
Stockholm, summer 1628. For three years, carpenters, pit-sawyers, smiths, ropemakers, glaziers, sailmakers, painters, boxmakers, woodcarvers and other specialists had worked on building the Navy’s new warship – the Vasa. She was a “royal ship”, the 17th century designation for the largest type of naval vessel. The Vasa was designed to be the foremost of Sweden’s war-ships, with a hull constructed from one thousand oaks, 64 large guns, masts more than fifty meters high and many hundred gilded and painted sculptures. The shipyard where the Vasa was built, Skeppsgården, was located on the island of Blasieholmen in the middle of Stockholm. In 1628, the Vasa was moored immediately below the Royal Castle. There, ballast was loaded, as well as the ammunition and guns required for the maiden voyage.
The new ship aroused the admiration and pride of Stockholmers, but intimidated the country’s enemies. We know that her construction was followed with interest abroad. One good source of information on the Vasa’s guns, for example, is a letter written by Erik Krabbe, the Danish Ambassador in Stockholm. Impressed, he reported that Vasa had 48 big guns for 24-pound ammunition, eight 3-pounders, two 1-pounders and six mortars.
By Sunday August 10, everything was ready for the maiden voyage. The weather was fine and the wind light. On board were around a hundred crew members, but also women and children. This was to be a great ceremonial occasion, with pomp and circumstance, so the crew had been given permission to take their first families on the first voyage out through the archipelago.
Countless curious spectators gathered in the harbor. They had plenty of time to follow the ship’s departure. The wind was from the south-west and, for the first few hundred meters, Vasa had to be pulled along using anchors. At Tranbodarma, the present-day Slussen, Captain Söfring Hansson issued the order: “Set the foresail, foretop, maintop and mizzen!”
The sailors climbed the rig and set four of the Vasa’s ten sails. The guns fired a salute and slowly, serenely, Vasa set off on her first voyage.
In a letter to the King, the Council of the Realm described the subsequent course of events: “When the ship left the shelter of Tegelvikden, a stronger wind entered the sails and she immediately began to heel over hard to the left side; she righted herself slightly again until she approached Beckholmen, where she heeled right over and water gushed in through the gun ports until she slowly went to the bottom under sail, pennants and all.”
Struck by a powerful gust of wind, Vasa capsized and sank after a voyage of only 1,300 meters.
Admiral Erik Jönsson witnessed the terrifying seconds on board when water poured in through the gun ports and the ship began to sink. Jönsson was inside the ship, checking the guns: “By the time I came up from the lower deck, the water had risen so high that the staircase had come loose and it was only with great difficulty that I climbed out.”
The Admiral became so “waterlogged and badly knocked about by the hatches” that he was near death for several days. Some fifty people are said to have followed Vasa into the deep.
Before continuing with the Vasa’s story, let us for a moment imagine what would have happened had the ship never sunk. As a warship, she was built for the purpose of warfare – the fact that she was the most heavily armed warship in the Baltic and perhaps of the day, with a total of 64 guns on board (including forty-eight large guns for 24-pounder ammunition, eight 3-pounders, two 1-pounders and six mortars) attests to this. Had she managed to leave the harbour, had she arrived in Prussia, had she recuperated the King, and had she gone off to war, one of two things would have happened. Either she would have had a successful career spanning between 20 and 30 years, after which she would have been dismantled as was customary for warships of the day, or she would have been so heavily damaged during combat that she would have met a watery grave following a bloody battle, lost to the world forever. In either case, the Vasa would not have been here today, and the contemporary world would have been all the poorer for it. By sinking, the Vasa did modern times a favour, and as such her sinking can be seen as a (very) fortunate tragedy.
News of the disaster did not reach the Swedish King, who was then in Prussia, until two weeks later. He wrote to the Council of the Realm in Stockholm that “imprudence and negligence” must have been the cause, and that the guilty parties must be punished.
Why did Vasa sink?
Where you intoxicated? Had you failed to secure the guns properly? Questions and accusations echoed in the hall at the Royal Castle. Just twelve hours after the loss of Vasa, her Danish-born captain Söfring Hansson, stood before the Council of the Realm. He had been taken prisoner immediately afterwards and the report on his interrogation has survived to this day.
“You can cut me in a thousand pieces if all the guns were not secured,” he answered. “And before God Almighty I swear that no one on board was intoxicated.”
Söfring Hansson thus swore that he was innocent.
“It was just a small gust of wind, a mere breeze, that overturned the ship,” Söfring Hansson went on to relate. “The ship was too unsteady, although all the ballast was on board.”
Thus, Söfring Hansson placed the blame on the ship’s design – and, by the same token, the shipbuilder.
When the crew were later questioned, they said the same thing. No mistake was made on board. It was impossible to load more ballast. The guns were properly lashed down. It was a Sunday, many people had been to Communion and no member of the crew was drunk. Instead, the fault lay in the unstable construction of the ship: the keel was too small in relation to the hull, the rig and the artillery.
“The ship is top-heavy with her masts and yards, sails and guns,” they declared.
Shipmaster Jöran Matsson also revealed that Vasa’s stability had been tested before sailing. Thirty men had run back and forth across Vasa’s deck when she was moored at the quay. After three runs, they had to stop – otherwise, Vasa would have capsized. Present during the test was Admiral Klas Fleming, one of the most influential men in the Navy. The Admiral’s only comment, according to Jöran Matsson, was: “If only his Majesty were at home!”
Those responsible for Skeppsgården, where Vasa was built, were then questioned. These were shipbuilder Hein Jakobsson and Arent de Groot, the lessee of Skeppsgården. One complication was that the actual builder of Vasa, the Dutchman Henrik Hybertsson, had died the year before. However, Jakobsson and de Groot also swore their innocence. Vasa conformed to the dimensions approved by the King himself, they said. On board were a number of guns, as specified in the contract.
“Whose fault is it, then?” asked the interrogator.
“God only knows,” answered de Groot.
God and King, both equally infallible, were thus drawn into the case. The subsequent deliberations of the Council of the Realm on the issue of guilt are unknown to us. No guilty party was ever identified, and no one was punished for the disaster.
Can we today, 390 years later, identify the guilty party and explain why Vasa sank?
The accusation that the guns were not properly secured can be dismissed. When Vasa was salvaged in 1961, the gun carriages were still arrayed in neat rows, and the ropes were in place around the carriages’ wheel axles. Present-day technical calculations have also shown that Vasa is extremely top-heavy and requires only a moderate wind to overturn her. Thus, “a small gust of wind”, as the captain said during the interrogation, was enough.
Who, then, was at fault?
Admiral Fleming? He failed to prevent the ship’s departure after the stability test, although it was within his power to do so. Not enough backbone to do so since Vasa had already been completed and the King was waiting impatiently in Prussia.
King Gustavus II Adolphus? He was anxious to acquire a ship with as many guns as possible on board. He had also approved the ship’s dimensions and was keen to have it completed rapidly.
The shipbuilder? Henrik Hybertsson was a very experienced Dutch shipbuilder. He had previously built many good ships. Vasa was extremely well constructed and the shape did not differ from other naval vessels that sailed in the 17th century. All ships carrying many guns were tall and highly unstable. It was impossible to see that Vasa was top heavy.
The theoretical know-how of the period? 17th century shipbuilders did not have the capability to make construction drawings or mathematical calculations of stability. The only recourse of the shipbuilder was to a table of figures, the ship’s reckoning, which recorded certain ship measurements. The reckoning was often a well-kept secret – something a father passed on to his son. Thus, a new ship was often modelled on its predecessor.
Fred Hocker, an archaeologist at the Vasa Museum, has been trying to find some definitive answers. Hocker and his team spent three years measuring every single piece of the wood in the ship. “If we want to understand how the ship was built, that’s what it takes,” says Hocker.
Hocker’s meticulous measurements paid off. They gave him fresh insight into what made the Vasa unstable. For one thing, the ship was asymmetrical, more so than most ships of the day. There is more ship structure on the port side of the hull than on the starboard side, Unballasted, the ship would probably heel to port.
No wonder the ship tipped to the port side when the winds hit. But why was the ship so lopsided? While examining the ship, Hocker discovered four rulers the workmen had used. Those rulers were based on different standards of measurement at the time. Two were in Swedish feet, which were divided into twelve inches. The other two were in Amsterdam feet, which had eleven inches in a foot. So each carpenter had used his own system of measurement.
“When somebody tells him, make that thing four inches thick, his four inches is not going to be the same as the next guy’s four inches,” says Hocker. “And you can see those variations in the timbers, as well.”
But that wasn’t the only reason the ship sank. Hocker says the Vasa was also top-heavy. “The part of the ship that was above the water is too heavy compared to the part of the ship that’s in the water. [It] makes it too easy for it to heel over.”
People in the 17th century were aware of that fact, but they didn’t understand what made the ship top-heavy, or whom to blame for the poor design. Some historians and military architects have blamed the King.
They thought that he had interfered with the ship’s dimensions after the construction had begun. But Hocker’s measurements offered no evidence to support that theory. He uncovered a simpler cause.
“The deck structure is simply too heavy,” he says. “It’s heavier than it needs to be to carry the guns that Vasa was armed with.”
Why were the decks so heavy? Hocker studied historical documents and found that the shipbuilder, Henrik Hybertsson, had never built a ship with two gun decks or with so many guns. He thinks Hybertsson erred on the side of caution and made the decks heavier than they needed to be. In other words, as Hocker puts it, “the design was simply flawed from the beginning.”
The management world has a name for human problems of communication and management that cause projects to founder and fail – Vasa syndrome. The events of August 10, 1628 had such a big impact that the sinking is a case study business experts still read about.
“An organization’s goals must be appropriately matched to its capabilities,” write Kessler, Bierly and Gopalakrishnan. In the case of the Vasa, “there was an overemphasis on the ship’s elegance and firepower and reduced importance on its seaworthiness and stability,” they write, “which are more critical issues.” Although it was originally designed to carry 36 guns, it was sent to sea with twice that number. At the same time, the beautiful ornamentation contributed to its heaviness and instability, they write. These and a host of other factors contributed to Vasa’s sinking and provide a cautionary tale for those designing and testing new technologies.
Salvage attempts in the 17th century
After sinking, the masts (the only parts of the ship that were still visible above water) were removed in order not to interrupt ship traffic in the busy harbour, but no attempts were made to bring the ship to the surface as technology was not yet far enough advanced to undertake a project of this magnitude.
While Captain Söfring Hansson was still in captivity, the first wreck salvagers arrived at the site of the shipwreck. The Englishman Ian Bulmer was the first to arrive; only three days after the disaster, he was given the sole right of salvaging Vasa. But the Council of the Realm stipulated that no money would be paid until Bulmer had fulfilled his promises.
Bulmer failed, and Admiral Klas Fleming – the same man who interrupted the stability test – took over attempts to salvage the ship and save the many valuable guns. To assist him, he engaged Hans Olofsson from Karelia, who “could walk under water”. But Olofsson failed as well, and after a year of fruitless attempts Fleming wrote to the King: “This is a more onerous test than I could ever have foreseen.”
Fleming gave up, but many others were attracted by the valuable Vasa guns. In the decades after the shipwreck, numerous adventurers, treasure-seekers and inventors arrived in Stockholm. Hooks and anchors were fastened to the hull; they pulled and tugged, but all to no avail. The treasures of Vasa remained inaccessible right up to the 1660s, when Albrecht von Treileben, the Swede from Värmland, and the German Andreas Peckell began to take an interest in the 64 guns. Both men had extensive experience of salvaging wrecks, and their primary tool was a diving bell. The first diver to be lowered to Vasa was called Anders Amundsson. He reported that the previous salvagers had caused considerable damage to the ship: “It looks like a make-shift fence down there,” he said.
Under the leadership of von Treileben and Peckell, the salvage work commenced. In pitch-darkness, at a depth of thirty meters, the divers were to:
– loosen the guns, weighing one ton each, from their carriages;
– remove the guns through the gun ports;
– bring the guns up to the surface.
The succeeded, over fifty guns were lifted during the years 1664 and 1665.
An eyewitness account of the salvage operations has survived. Francesco Negri, an Italian priest who was on a short visit to Stockholm, observed the diving operations of 1663. He wrote in his diary: “The diver was entirely clad in leather and had double leather boots. He stood on a platform of lead hanging under the diving bell.
“I asked him how long he would stay down there on the seabed. He answered ‘Half an hour’. But this was at the end of October and after quarter of an hour the bell was hoisted up, and the man was then shivering with cold although he was a strong, native Swede.
“I myself wanted to try the diving bell, but was advised to refrain since the water was so cold and there was a danger of falling ill in consequence.”
The achievement of the “men who could walk under water” was a remarkable one. These men included Abraham Eriksson, Anders Dykare, Johan Printz, Johan Bertilsson, Johan Wik and Lars Andersson, all from Goetheburg. By way of comparison, in the 1950s, it took a whole day for a deep sea diver with modern equipment to salvage one of Vasa’s remaining guns.
Discovery and salvage
On September 13, 1956, a notice in Expressen, the evening paper, announced: “An old ship has been found off Beckholmen in the middle of Stockholm. It is probably the warship Vasa, which sank on her maiden voyage in 1628. For five years, a private person has been engaged in a search for the ship.”
It was a short notice about a major sensation. The “private person” was the 38-year-old engineer Anders Franzén. He was one of Sweden’s foremost experts on naval warfare in the 16th and 17th centuries and a specialist on wrecked naval vessels. He was also one of the few who both researched in archives and then went out on a boat to find the site of the wreck.
Franzén knew that the Baltic is unique. Here there is no shipworm, the tiny Teredo that destroys all wood in saltier seas. Wooden vessels that sink in the Baltic are therefore preserved for centuries, even millenia.
Historians know of twelve sunken warships from the 16th and 17th centuries, six of them not yet located. Between the cold brackish water protecting them from shipworm and the Swedish laws protecting them as national antiquities, chances look good of finding and benefiting from yet another treasure trove of history.
It was professor Nils Ahnlund, an authority on 17th century Sweden, who first aroused Franzén’s interest in Vasa. Professor Ahnlund did not know exactly where Vasa had sunk, since the data in the 17th century archives pointed to several different locations. Franzén set out to search the seabed of Stockholm harbour with a grapnel, a sounding line, maps and information from the archives.
After searching for several years, Franzén succeeded on August 25, 1956. His home-made core sampler, with its hollow punch at the tip, got stuck and came up containing a plug of blackened oak. A few days later, the diver Per Edvin Fälting went down and was able to confirm Franzén’s find. Over a crackling diver’s telephone, he reported: “I can’t see anything, since it’s pitch-dark here, but I can feel something big – the side of a ship. Here’s one gun port and here’s nother. There are two rows. It must be Vasa.”
A large, nationwide “Save the Vasa” campaign was launched, and money and materials were donated by foundations, individuals and companies. The Navy made staff and boats available and in autumn 1957 the divers began to dig, or rather flush out, tunnels beneath the ship. Their tool was a hosepipe with a special mouthpiece. Mud and gravel were washed away – a task requiring immense technical skills and even greater courage. The work was carried out at a depth of more than 30 meters and in total darkness. The tunnels were so narrow that the divers had to squirm through.
Work on the tunnels went on for two years without serious accidents. At the end of August 1959, it was time for the first lift. The Neptun Salvaging Company’s salvaging pontoons were placed above Vasa, cables were pulled through the six tunnels and the old ship was raised from the seabed without any problems. The hull did not give way, and Vasa was then lifted into shallower water in 16 stages. It was still too early to bring the ship up to the surface. The hull had to be made watertight and reinforced for the final lift. Again, it was the divers who performed this task. For two years, they were busy filling in the thousands of holes formed where iron bots had rusted away. The partially broken stern had to be reconstructed and all the gun ports fitted with new, watertight hatches.
On April 24, 1961, everything was ready for the lift. After 333 years on the seabed, Vasa broke the surface and a piece of untouched 17th century history came to light. When the railing was above the surface, powerful bilge pumps were started. By May 4 the ship was so free of water and mud that she was able to float and be towed into a dock at Beckholmen. The first people to board Vasa were Anders Franzén and Per Edvin Fälting.
Since 1961, Vasa has been gradually restored in its entirety. The destroyed portions of the ship, the main deck, the sterncastle, the bow of the ship and the fitments inside the ship had to be rebuilt. This work was undertaken by ship technicians, shipwrights, and museum staff, using the original timbers and parts of the structure. 98 per cent of the ship and 60 per cent of the sails are made up of original parts.
Vasa offers a window onto the past, illuminating the life of a 17th century sailor and the horrible scenes of a desperate, drowning crew. Teams of archaeologists have explored every nook and cranny of the veritable time-capsule, complete with 500 sculptures and such ordinary objects, as watches, games, forks, shoes, a bible, carpenter’s tools and Sweden’s oldest clay pipes. They have also uncovered remains from 25 of the 50 men and women who went down with the ship, including the skeleton of a sailor still carrying his leather money pouch.
The brackish water in the Stockholm archipelago didn’t provide perfect conditions just for the preservation of the shipwreck but also for everything – as well as everyone – inside. About 50 people perished in the sinking, and the remains of about 15 of those who died during the accident were so well preserved that some were found with their hair (and even their brains) still intact and with their shoes still on their feet. Tests done on these remains have been able to determine the kinds of diets that they had, which grants significant insight into the daily life of early 17th century Stockholm. Along with these remains, many personal belongings such as clothes, shoes, combs, sewing thread and smoking pipes were found, along with eating utensils, over 4000 coins, medical equipment and even a board game that one sailor brought on as an off-duty pastime. By studying these items, it is possible for archaeologists and anthropologists to piece together the lives that surrounded them, which helps us to better understand the conditions during this time and ultimately leads to better understand life as it is today.
Up until 1990, the Vasa Museum was housed in a basic aluminium building which slowly rusted with the 98% humidity need for the ship’s restoration. But in 1990, a new museum awaited: a modern building crowned by three masts, complete with cinemas, computer rooms, replicated captain’s quarters, sailors’ cabins and a cannon deck.
The Vasa was the centre of all activity at Skeppsgården, the Stockholm shipyard, for two years. Skeppsgården was not only a shipyard but also the main station for the naval forces in a country that was constantly armed for war. 400 people worked there.
The shipyard model shows the intensive activity in the spring of 1627. Raised on her bed of supports the Vasa is almost ready to be launched. Woodworkers of all sorts dominate the work. Visitors can make out sawyers, turners, platform makers and mast makers, carpenters, painters, sculptors, sail makers, rope makers, anchor smiths, blacksmiths, nail smiths, and a fine smith. The shipyard also employs a master glassworker, a tar-spreader and a nail bearer.
The construction of the Vasa required thousands of oak trees. Her rig used almost twelve kilometres of rope.
The model shows the construction of the Vasa at different stages.
A painted model of the Vasa (1:10) gives visitors an idea of how the ship might have looked as she sailed out in 1628.
The model was built by four model builders at the Maritime Museum in Stockholm. The work took 12,000 hours and the model is adorned with over 500 sculptures.
First Harpa in Reykjavik. The venue is unusually defined by its facade. It’s a powerful statement created by fusing the creative visions of Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects and internationally acclaimed artist, Olafur Eliasson. The sparkling glazed fenestrations transform the public areas, which are now often seen as being almost as important as the performing spaces themselves.
It is probably no coincidence that although Eliasson is Danish, his parents are Icelandic, allowing the citizens of Iceland to have at least part ownership in this world-class success at a difficult time in their history.
Seen from the foyer, the halls form a mountain-like massif that similar to basalt rock on the coast forms a stark contrast to the expressive and open facade. At the core of the rock, the largest hall of the building, the main concert hall, reveals its interior as a red-hot centre of force.
Little bears attended Kristján Jóhannsson’s annual Christmas concert, a festive program also including Dísella Lárusdóttir, Ólafur Kjartan Sigurðarson and Margrét Eiríksdóttir performing opera favorites and classic christmas songs with the Reykjavík Opera Choir and Kópavogur Men’s Choir, accompanied by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Bjarni Frímann Bjarnason.
Little bears attended another two shows at Harpa, Arvo Pärt and Mozart and How to Become Icelandic in 60 minutes, a hilarious comedy that taught them how to say Eyjafjallajökull!
Musiikkitalo deliberately reveals its treasures only after one actually enters the building. In the lobby huge panoramic windows look into the dark stained concert hall. Not only does the rather understated building have an auditorium with 1700 seats and five smaller halls – there are also three saunas!
Musiikkitalo was the least fun place to visit.
The stairs and stand of the auditorium are dazzling; the asymmetrical seats remind one of jammed rafts. The big hall resonates richly, but at the same time transparently; acoustics guru Yasuhisa Toyota was involved in the planning process from the start and did a great job here, where it is all about communication and not worship.
Wozzeck at Oslo Opera House was also not fun. Not the most cheerful of operas! Just between us, we can say we were present at Wozzeck but not that we have really seen Wozzeck.
The location, Oslo’s Bjørvika neighbourhood, was chosen because it was in need of urban renewal. The building had a subsidiary role in spearheading dockland redevelopment. Snøhetta opted for a roofline that rose from up from the waterline and the structure has been likened both to an iceberg and a stealth bomber that crashed into Oslofjord. The edges of the building can be used as a diving platform where they meet the water, and visitors can also walk up its sloping walls to the very top to admire the view. Passers-by often find themselves wandering into this fun structure without realising they have entered a concert hall.
In common with Harpa at present, the Oslo Opera House is surrounded by construction sites as the area continues to be renewed.
Wondering around the opera house was a bit more fun 🙂
The Oslo Opera House has proved a remarkably successful building, although the general view remains that there is a lot of bloom to the sound and that the overall building is more visually stunning than its auditorium.
Little bears found Stage 2 where Jingle Horse! was playing, a Christmas collage of well-known stories with a new twist, sometimes funny, sometimes less so. The show was in English, none of the stories escaped parody and not much was off-limits! Not even Mary Mother of God or the refugee crisis.
One of the reviews said the ensemble acting was so strong that it could carry any kind of text you could imagine. That was certainly true!
But the main character was very cute indeed! And an excellent actor 🙂
And yet at the end, everybody left the stage and left him all alone…
Little Puffles and Honey went to the rescue… 🙂
Danish Broadcasting’s new concert hall in Copenhagen, DR Koncerthuset, is sultry, curvaceous and clothed in aromatic reds and oranges. It is also spatially deceptive.
The performance of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Fabio Luisi was outstanding. It received a standing ovation and rightly so.
Many moons ago, we selected a number of locations for the best chance of seeing the northern lights.
We have now visited all the locations and we have selected our favourite location for the northern lights: Tromsø. And not just because we were very lucky indeed to see the northern lights three nights in a row. As we have now discovered, there is a fundamental difference between the northern lights tours in Tromsø and the ones in Iceland, Sweden and Finland.
Given a clear and dark sky, suitable solar activity and a bit of luck, you can see the northern lights in each of these locations. You can choose to sit there and wait for the lights to come to you (it does happen!), or you can go find them! You might need a bit of help from the locals to find them.
The lights came to us both in Tromsø and in Abisko. It was playtime with little bears 🙂
The tours from Tromsø essentially come under the category of chasing the northern lights, which means that the tour operators have a single focus, finding a location to see the lights. They will drive 150-200km if that is what it takes to find a spot with a clear sky and aurora activity. I did find it odd that in the small print of the tour from Tromsø with AuroraPhotoGuide it said to bring my passport, but now I know that they will go all the way to Finland if that is what it takes!
By comparison, the tours from Abisko, Sweden, and Rovaniemi and Levi, Finland, have a set location, and seeing the northern lights would be a nice experience while they are filling in the time with other activities. At least in Abisko we had a photography focus and took some interesting photos.
During the first “northern lights tour” in Rovaniemi I got quite cranky. I could imagine Geir (the aurora guide from Tromsø) saying, “did you come here to see the aurora or did you come here to cook sausages?” And worse, there were children everywhere! Needless to say, we didn’t see the northern lights. The cloud cover was thick and covered the sky as far as the eye could see. At the end of the night, the tour guide made so many cheesy comments about the failure of the tour that if I rolled my eyes any harder, they would have got stuck permanently backwards!
All the tours were pre-booked and paid for, so sausages or not, I went on a second tour in Rovaniemi the following night. There was an improvement, no children in sight! I mean, late nights, cold nights and children. What could possibly go wrong? The sky was perfectly clear but the aurora did not show up at that location. And we had to survive -25C while waiting for it! It took so long to cook the sausage that I gave up and ate it half cold!
I also scheduled two “northern lights night tours” in Levi, but cancelled the tour on the first night. It was cloudy with no chance of a clear sky, -25C was the maximum temperature that day!!! so I abandoned the tour, which was essentially snowshoeing. I went out on the second night for the experience of driving the snow mobile. I didn’t think we had any chance of seeing the lights, but I took my camera and tripod just in case. The snow mobile experience was a lot of fun, but we didn’t see any lights.
As for Iceland, we joined a tour called Northern Lights Escape. Yeah, right! Zero effort was made towards the northern lights aspect. Adding the ‘northern lights’ to the names of the tours has become a nifty marketing ploy. And if you get really lucky and see the lights, they will happily take the credit.
There are plenty of fun activities in all these places, but if you want to maximise your chances of seeing the northern lights, and getting some good photographs of them, you need to look for a tour like the ones in Tromsø where the focus is only the northern lights and nothing else. And stay off boats. They are not suitable for photographing the northern lights. If the ‘northern lights’ tour includes snow shoes, snow mobiles, huskies, reindeer or some other similar thing, then the focus is on the snow shoes, snow mobiles, etc. etc., and not on the northern lights. But a warning, a real northern lights night tour can take 6-7 hours to 2am. With no toilet break! Remember, you are not at an established location. Like Geir would say, did you come to see the northern lights or did you come to sleep?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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 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 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).
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.
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.