In this post, I’ll talk about some of the most important museums in Strasbourg, for example, Palais Rohan, former residence of the prince-bishops and cardinals of the House of Rohan and now home to the city’s Archaeological Museum, Museum of Decorative Arts and Museum of Fine Arts. This palace has also hosted a number of French monarchs such as Louis XV, Marie Antoinette, Napoleon and Joséphine, and Charles X. If you are interested in folklore, I recommend you visiting the Alsatian Museum, which is housed in several Renaissance timber framed residences and is dedicated to all aspects of daily life in pre-industrial and early industrial Alsace. One of the most amazing features of this museum is the reconstructions of the interiors of buildings typical of various regions in Alsace. Some other museums in the city include L’Aubette 1928, the History Museum, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, etc. and in this post, I’ll also give you a brief introduction to them. For information about the Museum Pass and the opening hours and admission fees of each of the museums, please check Section 2.2.
If you have read my previous posts about Strasbourg, please click here to skip the Introduction and Practical Information chapters and jump directly to the main content of this one. If not, the following two chapters will be about (1) the reason why the Grande-Île and Neustadt of Strasbourg are inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage and (2) some practical information such as how to use the Strasbourg Pass to visit the major attractions and how to use the pubic transport in the city. Now, let’s start exploring France’s 7th largest city, a city of art, history and humanism.
As the UNESCO comments:
The initial property, inscribed in 1988 on the World Heritage List, was formed by the Grande-Île, the historic centre of Strasbourg, structured around the cathedral. The extension concerns the Neustadt, new town, designed and built under the German administration (1871-1918). The Neustadt draws the inspiration for its urban layout partially from the Haussmannian model, while adopting an architectural idiom of Germanic inspiration. This dual influence has enabled the creation of an urban space that is specific to Strasbourg, where the perspectives created around the cathedral open to a unified landscape around the rivers and canals.
Originally I planned to visit Strasbourg in October 2017 but unfortunately the trip was postponed until early March 2018. When I was chatting with the staff from the tourism office, they informed me that currently, not only the historic center, the Grande-Île, but also the Neustadt are inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list. I was surprised and a bit skeptical because I remember clearly that I checked the official website of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention (in 2017) and only the Grande-Île was on the list. After returning home, I checked the website again and I see that now the title of this property has become “Strasbourg, Grande-Île and Neustadt”. Why, after the first inscription in 1988, is the Neustadt added as an extension to this property? In my third post about Strasbourg which focuses on a guided tour and a boat cruise, you will find out the reason.
I total, I’ll write four posts about Strasbourg with the first one focusing on the magnificent cathedral, the second one on the city’s role as the European capital, the third one on a guided tour and a boat cruise and the fourth one on various museums in the historic center. Except the second post, which will be talking about the European Parliament and some other international organizations, all the other three posts will be dedicated to elaborating Strasbourg’s historical and cultural heritage. Now let’s take a brief look at the reason why the Grande-Île and the Neustadt are protected by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
1. UNESCO World Heritage
Do you know that Strasbourg is the first French city whose inscription concerns not a single monument but an entire historic center? Even earlier than Paris! In 1988, “Strasbourg – Grande-Île” was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list for its cultural and historical heritage and outstanding value. Enclosed by the Ill River and Canal du Faux-Rempart, the historic center, the Grande-Île island, is connected with other parts of the city by 21 bridges. It features a remarkably high-quality collection of monuments including the cathedral, the steep roofs with their beautiful dormer windows on several levels, the churches of St. Thomas, St. Pierre-le-Vieux, St. Pierre-le-Jeune, and St. Etienne, the buildings of Œuvre Notre-Dame, the former Grande Boucherie, the Neue Bau, the Rohan Palace, Aubette and many more. Instead of being isolated monuments, these buildings create an original and unique urban fabric, which reflects the city’s revolution from the Middle Ages to the present day.
If you think Strasbourg is only about half-timbered houses, then I’m afraid you are mistaken. As you can see from the two groups of pictures I attached above, the newly inscribed Neustadt, which is also called the German Imperial Quarter, is rather different from the Grande-Île. Does it give you a feeling of Paris, Berlin or Vienna? After the 1870 Prussian siege and French defeat, the city center was severely damaged and three of the four large avenues were destroyed. Though the reconstruction was completed within five years, the extension of the city took much more time because the business circles desired efficient infrastructures and the political authorities wanted a capital for “Alsace-Lorraine Reichsland” that would be “exemplary, grandiose and entirely dedicated to the glory of the Empire and ‘Germanity’“. The plan of the New City was approved in 1880 and the designer was Jean Geoffroy Conrath, the city’s architect since 1849. He gave priority to the development of a prestigious area reserved for official buildings such as the imperial palace, ministries, regional assembly headquarters, library and university, which were completed around 1900. The development of the residential areas progressed at a lower speed and continued after 1920.
Compared with the narrow streets in the Grande-Île, the Neustadt is occupied with large open squares and broad tree-embellished avenues. Particularly noteworthy is the feature that the monuments blend harmoniously with the landscape, for example, the banks of the Ill River and the Church of St. Paul. Both public buildings and private homes in this district to certain degree testify to eclecticism, a 19th- and 20th-century architectural style in which a single piece of work incorporates a mixture of elements from previous historical styles to create something new and original. Some beautiful Art Nouveau constructions such as the Egyptian House and the buildings on 22 rue Sleidan and 56 allée de la Robertsau can also be found here.
In order to be inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the property must meet at least one or two of the ten Selection Criteria proposed by the World Heritage Convention. The Grande-Île and Neustadt of Strasbourg meet Criterion (ii), “to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design” and Criterion (iv), “to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history”.
The French and Germanic cultures have influenced the composition of a unique space in which both the architecture and urbanism reflect major significant periods of European history. As I read from the UNESCO World Heritage Center official website, “integrated into a Medieval urban fabric in a way which respects the ancient original fabric, the Renaissance-style private residences built between the 15th century and the late 17th century form a unique ensemble of domestic Rhineland architecture, which is indissociable from the outstanding Gothic cathedral. In the 18th century, French classical architecture became dominant, as exemplified by the Palais Rohan, built by the king’s architect, Robert de Cotte. From 1871 onwards, the face of the town was profoundly modified by the construction of an ambitious urbanistic project, leading to the emergence of a modern, functional city, emblematic of the technical advances and hygienistic policies that were emerging at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.” Imagine, in one single city, you can see architecture and urban planning of the classical antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Rhineland Renaissance, the French 18th-century classicism, and then of the 19th and early 20th centuries which saw the emergence of modernism. No wonder Le Corbusier said that “in Strasbourg, the eye is never bored!” Better than any history books, these buildings and city plans are true witnesses to Strasbourg’s political, social and cultural changes.
2. Practical information
2.1 Strasbourg Pass
If you wanna ask me if there’s any good deal for visiting the attractions in Strasbourg, I would recommend the Strasbourg Pass. Basically the advantages are:
- Visit to one of the museums
- Ascent to the cathedral platform
- Boat-tour through Strasbourg (including the Grande-Île, the Neustadt and the European quarter)
- Astronomical clock of the cathedral
- Half day bicycle rental for free
- Visit to a second museum
- Tour with the mini-train (April to October)
- Guided tour
- Visit to the Vaisseau (science museum)
- Audio-guided tour in the old town
For information about some other offers, please click here and click the pass.
In my opinion, climbing to the platform of the cathedral, the boat cruise and the audio-guided tour in the old town are three must-take activities in Strasbourg. Therefore, including free entry to one of the museums and half-price entry to a second museum, the pass is absolutely worth your money.
2.2 Museum Pass
Nevertheless, if you are a fan of museums like me, visiting only two museums in Strasbourg is certainly not enough. In this case you can consider buying the 1-day museum pass or 3-day museum pass which costs 12 € (6 € for discounted price) and 18 € (12 € for discounted price) respectively. These passes give free access to all the museums in Strasbourg including L’Aubette 1928 (free), Alsatian Museum, Archeological Museum, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Museum of Decorative Arts, Museum of fine Arts, Historical Museum, Museum Œuvre Notre-Dame, Museum Tomi Ungerer, Zoological Museum and so on and one single entry to any of them costs at least 6.5 €. Please note, all the museums offer free admission to all visitors on the first Sunday of each month.
- For more information about the entrance fee for each of the museums as well as conditions for discounted prices and free admission please click here.
- For information about the opening hours of the museums please click here.
- For brief introductions to each of the museums please click here, move your mouse to “Museums” and click the museum that you want to know about.
2.3 Public transport
In general, I would say that public transport in Strasbourg, including various bus, tram and train lines, is very convenient. Depending on where you live and where you want to go, different types of tickets are available. If you live in or close to the city center and just want to explore the center, I think all the attractions can be reached within 20 mins by foot. However, if you wanna to explore the Neustadt (German Imperial Quarter), the European Quarter (such as European Parliament, European Council, European Court of Human Rights etc.), Le Jardin des Deux Rives (a large riverfront garden with a pedestrian bridge connecting French & German sides), and so on, I suggest you take public transport to save some time.
A single ticket costs 1.7 € (2 € if you buy it on board) and you can buy a bundle of 10, which costs 14 € or a bundle of 30, which costs 40.5 €.
Some other types of ticket include:
- round-trip ticket (valid for 2 rides within the same day, with or without connection): 3.3 €
- 24H ALSA + CUS (valid for 24h for unlimited rides on all the bus-tram-coach lines and the TER Train within the EMS and in direction of Kehl): 4.3 €
- 24H TRIO (valid for 2 to 3 people for unlimited rides for 24 hours after validation): 6.8 €
- ALSA+ EMS DAILY GROUP TICKET Bus-Tram-Coach and TER Train (valid for one day on Saturdays, Sundays or holidays for a group of 2 to 5 people for unlimited rides on all the Bus-Tram-Coach and TER Train lines within the EMS and in direction of Kehl): 6.8 €
I think the options above should be adequate for your trip in Strasbourg but if you need special connections to the airport or to other regions in Alsace, please click here for more information.
3. Palais Rohan (Rohan Palace)
Only a few minutes away by foot from the cathedral, Palais Rohan is the former residence of the prince-bishops and cardinals of the House of Rohan, an ancient French noble family originally from Brittany. In 1727, Armand Gaston Maximilien de Rohan, bishop of Strasbourg since 1704 and cardinal since 1712, commissioned the architect Robert de Cotte to design the palace and de Cotte provided the initial plans in the same year. It is considered a masterpiece of French Baroque architecture. Since its completion in 1742, the palace has hosted a number of French monarchs such as Louis XV, Marie Antoinette, Napoleon and Joséphine, and Charles X. In December 1989, Palais Rohan hosted the dinner parties of the heads of state or government of the European Council, including François Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl, Margaret Thatcher, Giulio Andreotti and Felipe González. Twenty years later, before the 2009 Strasbourg–Kehl summit, it was the site of a meeting between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and American President Barack Obama as well as their wives Carla Bruni and Michelle Obama.
As I learnt from Wikipedia, “reflecting the history of Strasbourg, the palace has been owned successively by the nobility, the municipality, the monarchy, the state, the university, and the municipality again.” The House of Rohan owned the palace until the French Revolution, when it was confiscated and declared “state owned”. Bought by the municipality in the auction in 1791, it became the new town hall (Hôtel de Ville) in the same year, succeeding the Neubau. Palais Rohan remained the Hôtel de Ville until 1805, when the municipality presented it to Napoleon, who returned Hôtel de Hanau in exchange. This was actually a win-win decision because for the municipality, the maintenance of Hôtel de Hanau was less costly than that of the larger Palais Rohan and for Napoleon, Palais Rohan was the more obvious display of grandeur. The “present” to Napoleon was officially accepted by decree in 1806. The year 1871 signified the end of French rule and the beginning of German rule over Alsace-Lorraine Reichsland. Under new administration, a new role was assigned to Palais Rohan, that is to say, seat of the newly established Kaiser-Wilhelms-Universität, the Imperial German version of the University of Strasbourg. The palace played this role from 1872 to 1884, when the Palais universitaire was opened, and then served as the university’s library until the opening of the National and University Library in 1895. After that, it again became the property of the city.
Nowadays, the palace is a major architectural, historical, and cultural landmark in the city and since the end of the 19th century it has been home to three of Strasbourg’s important museums. The Archaeological Museum (Musée archéologique) is located in the basement, the Museum of Decorative Arts plus the apartments of the cardinals (Musée des arts décoratifs) are located on the ground floor and the Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des beaux-arts ) is located on the first and second floors. The latter two are actually among my personal favorites. After giving you some practical tips, in the next three sections, I’ll introduce them on by one in detail.
For information about the opening hours of the museums please click here and for information about the admission fees of each of the museums please click here. Considering these three museums are not that big, you can include them easily in your one day plan. In this case I suggest you buy the one-day Museum Pass because it’s a better deal. For more information about the different Museum Passes and their prices, please check Section 2.2. Another tip I’d like to give you is that you should obtain a series of flyers called “My First Visit” before entering each of the museums because on them, the most important paintings, objects or rooms are listed and explained for your first experience. Of course, if you are particularly interested in certain museums and want to know more about them, audio guide and more detailed info sheets are also available upon request. Now, let’s start with the Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des beaux-arts ) located on the first and second floors.
3.1 Museum of Fine Arts
On 24th August, 1870, the museum, which was housed in the Aubette on Place Kléber, (which I will talk about later) was set on fire by Prussian artillery and completely destroyed. After the Franco-Prussian War, the imperial art historian Wilhelm von Bode, who is the creator and first curator of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, now called the Bode Museum on the Museum Island in Berlin, was commissioned to re-establish it. In 1890, the museum was launched and it has been housed in the first and second floors of Palais Rohan since 1898. In 1931 under the direction of Hans Haug, works by old masters from the upper-Rhenish area (such as Konrad Witz, Hans Baldung and Sebastian Stoskopff) were transferred to the newly founded Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame while the collection of modern art went to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Strasbourg. As I learnt form Wikipedia, nowadays, the museum displays works by non-Upper Rhenish artists from between the 14th century and 1871 and by Upper Rhenish artist from between 1681 and 1871. You can rent an audio guide at the entrance if you wanna know more about the history of the museum and its collections.
3.1.1 Non-Upper Rhenish works
It seems a shame that I first introduce to you artworks by Italian or Dutch painters even though I’m in France, but as a huge fan of Italian painting, I can’t help emphasizing them when I see the big names such as Raphael, Sandro Botticelli, Veronese, Tintoretto, Canaletto, and Giambattista Tiepolo. Honestly speaking, I really didn’t expect I could see their paintings in Strasbourg and I guess this is the reason why this museum is among my favorite attractions in the city.
For me, the most notable Italian paintings in this museum are probably “Portrait of a Young Girl” (as you can see in the 3rd picture above) by Raffael and “Madonna and Child with Two Angels” (as you can see in the 4th picture above) by Sandro Botticelli. I’ll talk about them later when I introduce to you in detail the masterpieces. Since my trip to Venice, I fell in love with the masters of the Venetian school such as Titian, Paolo Veronese, Tintoretto and Jacopo Bassano. Surprisingly, here I saw “Cephalus and Procris” by Paolo Veronese (as you can see in the 1st picture above) and “Descent from the Cross” (as you can see int he 2nd picture above) and “Portrait of a man in Bust” (as you can see in the 1st picture in the gallery above) by Jacopo Tintoretto. During your visit, don’t miss the Room of the Italian Renaissance and before entering you can get a small brochure introducing the paintings in this room in French and German. Raffael‘s “Portrait of a Young Girl” and Jacopo Palma‘s “Christ as Salvator Mundi” (as you can see in the 2nd picture in the gallery above) are exhibited here.
By the way, I was shocked when I saw Leonardo da Vinci’s “Virgin and Child with St. Anne” in the second room. I remembered clearly I saw it in the Louvre and after a few seconds I realized that this is a copy because it appeared to be much darker than the original one. The first picture above shows the copy in Strasbourg and the second one is a picture that I took of the real “Virgin and Child with St. Anne” by da Vinci in Louvre, depicting St. Anne, her daughter Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus. Christ is shown grappling with a sacrificial lamb symbolizing his Passion as the Virgin tries to hold him back. Though bearing certain similarity, I believe you can notice the differences easily between the two paintings. Next to it, you will see a copy of “Danaë Receiving the Golden Rain” by Titian, depicting the moment in which Jupiter possesses the princess in the form of golden rain. The original is now owned by and exhibited in Museo del Prado in Madrid.
Can you recognize the person in the 1st picture above? If you have seen Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, I’m sure you’ll recognize him immediately. He is John the Apostle. In fact, even I was fooled by these photographs in Room 2 (I guess these are photographs of the original fresco) because I thought they were of da Vinci’s “Last Supper” but it turns out they are of Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio‘s version. Who is Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio then? He was an Italian painter of the High Renaissance from Lombardy and worked in the studio of Leonardo da Vinci. It is said that Boltraffio and Bernardino Luini are the strongest artistic personalities to have emerged from Leonardo’s studio. I guess this is why his fresco could be so similar to da Vinci’s style that it looks as if it were from the master’s own hand. If you make a comparison between his other works and da Vinci’s, you will find quite some similarities. As you can see from the second picture above, it’s a photograph I took of da Vinci’s “Last Supper”. In the near future, I’ll write a particular post dedicated to this fresco and the convent and I’ll take you to see all the stories that it tells.
If you are interested in Flemish and Dutch painting, you can see in this museum “Le Christ Triomphant de la Mort et du Pêché” (unfortunately I can’t find a proper translation for this name) by Peter Paul Rubens (as you can see in the first picture above) and the “Portrait of Luigia Cattaneo-Gentile” by Anthony van Dyck (as you can see in the second picture above), a Flemish Baroque artist who became the leading court painter in England after enjoying great success in Italy and the Southern Netherlands. (He is most famous for his portraits of Charles I of England and his family and court, which influenced English portrait-painting for the next 150 years. The Van Dyke beard is also named after this great painter.)
Now let’s start exploring the masterpieces of the museum either recommended on the flyer which I mentioned above or by me myself.
Portrait of a Young Woman by Raphael
Together with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael forms the traditional trinity of great masters of the Renaissance. He was very productive, running a large workshop, and despite his early death at 37, leaving a large body of work. Many of his works can be found in the Vatican Museums, where the four frescoed Raphael Rooms were the central and the largest work of his career. The best known work is of course “The School of Athens” in the Vatican Stanza della Segnatura and even the cartoon of this large fresco is now a treasure in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. However, today I will not talk about his large frescoes but his depiction of Virgin Mary and other girls. Widely distributed, when I was visiting Milan, Munich, London, Paris, the Vatican City, Florence, Madrid and so on, I could almost always recognize his works easily. Why? I’ll use this painting in Strasbourg as an example to explain.
Almost all the paintings of his depicting girls deliver one central message, which is “ideal beauty“. From “The Wedding of the Virgin“, the most sophisticated altarpiece of his early works, in Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan to his later works, such as the one I showed you above, it seems he had developed his own interpretation of beauty at a very early stage and has been pursuing it all his life. As you can see in the pictures above, the smooth and radiant face of the young woman looks very lively. It is this feature that has been attracting me towards his works all the time. One of the mysteries about this painting is the identity of the young girl, which has already been forgotten over the centuries. Additionally, the hand movement of her is also curious. Does it mean sensuality or motherhood? Why are the hand and the face painted differently, both the color and texture? Unfortunately, I don’t have the “correct” answers for you. In my opinion, if a painting makes you think, it’s part of its charm and value.
Madonna and Child with Two Angels by Sandro Botticelli
Sandro Botticelli was an Italian painter of the Early Renaissance and he belonged to the Florentine School under the patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici. I became acquainted with his works when I was visiting the Uffizi Galley in Florence, where his most famous paintings “The Birth of Venus” and “Primavera” are exhibited. I’m most impressed by this master’s attention to details and in this painting this feature is well demonstrated. From the veil and cloak of Virgin Mary to the garments and halos of both Virgin Mary and infant Jesus and then to the lilies, it won’t be difficult to notice how much effort Botticelli has made to make the details visible. If you take a close look at the angel on the right, you can even see the eyespots (eye-like markings) of the peacock’s feathers, of which his garment is made.
The Crucification by Giotto
Giotto di Bondone, commonly known as Giotto, was an Italian painter and architect from Florence in the Late Middle Ages. In his “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects”, Giorgio Vasari described Giotto as making a decisive break with the widespread Byzantine style and as initiating “the great art of painting as we know it today, introducing the technique of drawing accurately from life, which had been neglected for more than two hundred years”. Giotto’s masterwork is the decoration of the Scrovegni Chapel, in Padua, also known as the Arena Chapel. The fresco cycle depicts the Life of the Virgin and the Life of Christ and is regarded as one of the masterpieces of the Early Renaissance.
In the Middle Ages, the most important figure is always depicted most prominently and in this paining, the figure is Christ. At the foot of the cross we see Mary Magdalene kneeling and on the two sides, we see Virgin Mary supported by the female saints and St. John in pink robe. The riders at the background seem smaller, which indicates distance. This feature, together with the painful facial expression and the realistic body representation, testifies to one of Giotto’s most important innovations, which is, as commented by Giorgio Vasari, to draw accurately from real life.
The Exit by Pieter de Hooch
Pieter de Hooch was a Dutch Golden Age painter famous for his genre works of quiet domestic scenes with an open doorway. In this painting, a couple walks through the lobby of the Amsterdam City Hall and a dog is waiting at the feet of its owners. Behind them we can see a nurse with her child. The painter here draws a poetic scene of the daily life of the patricians of the Dutch Republic in the 17th century (nowadays the Netherlands) and his skillful play of light and shadow makes the general environment and atmosphere more real and harmonious. Another notable depiction is the small hall at the background, whose windows reveals the view towards the distance.
The Currant Cake by Willem Claesz. Heda
Willem Claeszoon Heda was a Dutch Golden Age artist from the city of Haarlem, who devoted exclusively to the painting of still lifes. As one of the greatest masters of this particular genre, he chose objects of the same color family and painted them with such great care that we are always fascinated by their realistic nature. Moreover, his works provide us with more than just aesthetic pleasure because the objects usually reflect on the meaning of life. For example, in this painting, the currant cake symbolizes the temporariness of all pleasures and the half-peeled lemon is a sign of the pass of time.
The Beautiful Woman from Strasbourg by Nicolas de Largillière
Under an imposing two-pointed hat, the young woman wears the traditional patrician costume of Strasbourg at the time of Louis XIV. The painter, one of the best portraitists at that time, gave the materials (satin, lace and ribbon) a very real texture and precise appearance. Against the blurry scenic background, the details become even more apparent. Although the identity of the woman remains a mystery, the pearl necklace and the puppy dog reveal her bourgeois social status. Nowadays, she has become the symbol of the museum, that is to say, the “Mona Lisa” of the Strasbourg Museum of Fine Arts.
Some other famous works
Some other notable works you can learn about include the “Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation” by Hans Memling, a German painter who moved to the Flanders and worked in the tradition of Early Netherlandish painting. In 1480, he was listed among the wealthiest citizens in a city tax list; “Loue Valley in the Rain” by Gustave Courbet; and “Roman Landscape” by Frederik de Moucheron, the favorite of the director of the museum.
Unfortunately, during my visit, the second floor was closed and I didn’t get the opportunity to see the works by Giambattista Tiepolo or Canaletto. I hope that when you are here you won’t miss them. Now, please follow me downstairs and visit the apartments of the cardinals and the Museum of Decorative Arts. Trust me, the rooms are breathtaking.
3.2 Museum of Decorative Arts and apartments of the cardinals
As I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, it was Armand de Rohan, bishop of Strasbourg from 1704 and cardinal from 1712, who initiated work on the Rohan palace. He desired a building in the style of the Palace of Versailles and commissioned the plan to the king’s chief architect, Robert de Cotte. The construction, decoration and furnishing lasted from 1732 to 1742 and from its completion to the French Revolution, the palace was the residence of four successive bishops of Strasbourg, all of whom were from the Rohan family. If you think the brief presentation of the selected rooms on the “My First Visit” flyer, on which my introduction below will be based mostly, is not enough, you can obtain a set of more detailed info sheets upon your entry to this museum. Now, let’s take a look at these splendid rooms as well as the Museum of Decorative Arts.
Once entering the museum, you will be at the Entrance Hall (as you can see in the 1st picture above), which was essentially a reception area and played a second role as a guardroom. By gong through the arches, you will arrive at the former Dining Room (as you can see in the 2nd picture above), indicated here by the presence of basins used for rinsing glassware. Normally, tables were not put in place unless banquets were to be held. Above the central sideboard is a trompe-l’œil mural painting depicting Ceres, goddess of agriculture, grain crops, fertility and motherly relationships.
Chamber of the bishops
Belonging to the suite of rooms forming the king’s apartment, this room generally served as a gaming room, thus the gaming tables as you can see in the picture above. It was the royal antechamber and took its name from the portraits of bishops originally decorating the walls. In 1793, the paintings were destroyed by the revolutionaries, who replaced them with allegorical figures representing the civic virtues. Above the fireplace you can see the replica of a portrait of Armand Gaston Maximilien de Rohan and opposite to it is a painting dating from the First French Empire, which depicts the monogram of Napoleon I and the Empress Josephine.
This room, which housed the king or members of his family during their visit to Strasbourg, is probably the most impressive room in the palace. King Louis XV slept here during his stay in October 1744 and the Dauphine, Marie Antoinette, slept here a few years later. As you can see in the picture above, the decoration in this room is more lavish than that of any other rooms in the palace. In addition to the gilding, the decor is further enhanced by mirrors and tapestries.
The balustrade enclosing the alcove protected the privacy of the royal family and acted as a barrier in front of the assembled courtiers during the king’s levee (meaning “getting up” or “rising”) and coucher (meaning “going to bed”) ceremonies.
This imposing space closes the suite of rooms of the royal apartment and opens onto the chapel. On special occasions, the two rooms can be combined to form a particularly spacious chapel. The library shelves are made of mahogany and above them you can find large tapestries from the “History of Constantine” series, which is designed by the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens and Italian artist Pietro da Cortona depicting the life of Constantine I, the first Christian emperor of Ancient Rome. In the center of the room are portraits of King Louis XIV and King Louis XV in their coronation robes and below the latter you can see a bust of Armand Gaston, a work by the French sculptor Edmé Bouchardon.
Once entering this room, I guess you will ask why Napoleon chose such a small room as his bedroom. Originally a closet, it was chosen by Napoleon because of its casual style. To furnish it, Napoleon chose his official cabinetmaker François-Honoré-Georges Jacob-Desmalter and commissioned him to make the chairs, a sofa, a table and a bed, which are still in place today. Napoleon saw the bed in his chosen place during one of his rapid visits but never got the opportunity to sleep on it.
Bedchamber of the prince-bishops
The prince-bishop’s bedchamber later became the Morning Room (living room which gets the sun in the morning) of Emperor Napoleon I and the furniture arrangement belongs to that period. It includes a sofa called Canape Confident (a sofa having a seat at each end at right angles to the main seats), six armchairs and two candle stands, which are from the collection of the last prince in Château des Rohan in the city of Saverne in Alsace.
Museum of Decorative Arts
This museum can be found in the wing of the palace which formerly housed the stables. Please note, according to the recommended itinerary, you should visit this museum before going to the Napoleon’s Bedchamber. I want to introduce to you all the rooms together and that’s why I place the introduction to this museum at the end of this section (Section 3.2). It includes collections of china, jewelry, clocks and watches and clockwork toys formerly belonging to the illustrator Tomi Ungerer. These collections testify to the golden age of the craft industry in Strasbourg in the 18th century, which was dominated by the Hannong ceramics factory, renewed for its fines fleurs decoration and trompe-l’œil terrines.
Now, let’s go downstairs again and visit the Archeological Museum.
3.3 Archeological Museum
The collection of this museum is arranged in chronological order and by going through different rooms, you will see how people lived here thousands of years ago, from prehistory to the early Middle Ages. Below I’ll introduce to you some of the major works in the museum based on the information from the “My First Visit” flyer and if you are particularly interested in archeology, you can rent an audio guide at the entrance to deepen your knowledge.
In the Paleolithic (Room 2)
Early humans were nomadic with no fixed dwellings and they used carved stone tools to hunt large animals for food. In Room 2, you will see the oldest tool in Eastern France. Used for slicing or scraping, it was found in Achenheim and has been dated from the early Paleolithic (around 600,000 B.C.). To be honest, there are so many stone tools in Room 2 and I couldn’t find the particular oldest one. If you have sharps eyes maybe you can spot it with some effort.
In the Neolithic (Room 3)
During this period of time, humans cultivated land, domesticated animals, made earthenware objects and polished their stone tools. Pottery is the greatest invention of the Neolithic and studying how the designs of the vases developed helps the archeologists to date the sites where they have been found. This “bird-shaped” vase is one of the most mysterious pieces found in Alsace.
This piece of jewelry doesn’t seem spectacular at all from today’s aesthetic view but it was certainly a precious and prestigious possession of its owner. Found in a Neolithic tomb, it was made from a spondylus shell fossil imported from the shore of the Mediterranean Sea through long and complicated trade networks.
In the Iron Age (Room 6)
The tombs of the Celtic princes are characterized by the richness of their funerary objects such as bronze tableware, jewelry, pottery and the presence of a large funeral chariot. The one that you can see in the picture above is reconstructed according to a discovery made under a large burial mound at Ottenheim. Original parts of the chariot can also be seen in this room.
In the Roman period
(Room 8) In the Roman Period, writing appeared in Alsace. The texts and images on the monuments provide historian and archeologists much information about this region in the Gallo-Roman Period. At the beginning of the 1st century A.D., the soldier Caius Largennius, a legionary of the Legio II Augusta, was stationed in Argentoratum, the current day Strasbourg. As you can see in the picture above, he is shown, with his weapons and in his military uniform, on the funerary stele erected on his tomb. This stele was found at the edge of the suburb of Königshoffen.
(Room 11) The walls of the rich Roman houses were usually decorated with mural paintings depicting episodes from the lives of gods, scenes from everyday life or landscapes. Here (as you can see in the picture above), we see Bacchus, god of vine, grape harvest, winemaking and wine, and Hercules stealing a waistband from Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons.
(Room 14) In the Gallo-Roman sanctuary at the summit of the Donon Mountain, numerous sculptures of divinities have been found. One of them is the forest god (as you can see in the picture above), dressed in wolf skin and accompanied by a large stag. This is a god from the Gaulish tradition, who is now worshipped in the Romanized form.
(Room 16) In the 2nd century A.D., the cult of Mithra, god of light, developed through the Roman Empire. It spread from India in the east to as far west as Spain, Great Britain, and Germany. The fragments shown in the picture above are supposed to depict Mithra sacrificing a bull in a cave. An inscription found in the Mithra sanctuary at Königshoffen tells us that the relief was originally painted in bright colors.
In the Merovingian Period (Room 19)
The Alemanni (a confederacy of Germanic-speaking people) and the Franks settled in Alsace after the Romans had left and though they gradually became christianized, they continued to bury the dead with their belongings. This ceremonial helmet, in gilded iron and covered in silver, dates from the late 6th or early 7th century. It was probably made in Byzantine workshops and belonged to a Frankish chieftain settled in Alsace. Placed in his tomb with his military equipments, this helmet is a symbol of power and prestige.
This headstone (late 3rd century A.D.) is the curator’s (Bernadette Schnitzler) favorite because she finds it particularly touching. As she comments, “in this sculpture we meet a Gallo-Roman couple wearing their everyday clothes. Together in the afterlife, they are setting off to a funeral banquet. They hold objects in their hands, a little basket filled with fruit and a jug. Here in front of us, they have traversed the centuries and yet they are not so very different from us.”
If you are interested in archeology, or in other words, in the people and their lives from the past, you can rent an audio guide at the entrance and lean much more about the objects exhibited. Now, we have finished our visit of Palais Rohan including the three museums and rooms of the Palace Apartments. Let’s cross the Ill River and visit the Alsatian Museum, housed in 16th- and 17th-century residences and exhibiting Alsatian art, folklore and rural life.
4. Alsatian Museum
From 1871, Alsace constantly changed hands between Germany and France and someone who was born there before 1871 and died after 1945 would have gone through four changes of nationality! The Alsatian Museum was founded in 1902, when European intellectuals became interested in the rural world and its traditions. Their initial purpose was to safeguard the value of the small regional entities and prevent them from being “swallowed up” by the large national ones. The museum is housed in several Renaissance timber framed residences and is dedicated to all aspects of daily life in pre-industrial and early industrial Alsace. It contains over 5000 exhibits including painted furniture, dresses, ceramics, pottery, toys, religious and secular prints, etc. and is notable for the reconstruction of the interiors of several houses characteristic of different regions in Alsace.
To be honest, the museum is like a maze and if you don’t get a map you can easily get lost. The floor plan is included in a set of colorful info sheets which you can obtain in front of the ticket desk. It’s available in various languages and you can take it with you to orient your visit and read about the exhibits and rooms. If you find it too much trouble bringing a “big book” everywhere, you can also try to follow the direction signs and read about the exhibits from the info boards on site. The general themes include polychrome furniture, Renaissance Stube, kitchen, pharmacist’s dispensary or alchemist’s laboratory, cake and biscuit moulds, stages of life, the religions in Alsace, Jewish Museum, protestantism, wooden sculptures, dress styles, toys, farmhouse Stube, the marcaires (dairymen in the Vosges Mountains who make the famous Munster cheese), vine-growing, and so on.
However, my introduction below will be based neither on the big info “book” nor on the info boards on site. I found the brief introduction on the “My First Visit” flyer quite interesting. It doesn’t focus on certain items or rooms but answers some questions, or more precisely, explains and clarifies some clichés that people commonly have about Alsace. Now, accompanied by examples from the Alsatian Museum, let’s start discovering the truth of the Alsatian culture and tradition.
In Alsace, house façades are brightly colored?
As you can see in the picture above, it was traditional to decorate the façades. Inscriptions were usually among the decorations, which made the owners’ identity known to the people passing by. However, the façades of the traditional timbered houses were usually not brightly colored, not like those of today’s houses which you can see in La Petite France. This is because color pigments were, and still are very expensive. The recent use of bright colors is attributed to the creation and development of modern paint.
4.2 Polychrome furniture
In Alsace, furniture is painted in various colors?
In other French provinces, quality furniture was made of superior wood such as walnut or fruitwood, which was usually left visible. In Alsace, a kind of cheap wood, pine, was more often used and it was often stained to look like superior wood. If the owner was rich, he would then have it decorated with various designs. When a young woman was about to get married, wardrobes, sideboards, chests etc. were usually ordered from a village carpenter by her parents and this explains why the date of the wedding and the bride’s name frequently appear on the furniture. In fact, except the inscription part, this tradition is very similar to that of China before the 1990s.
In Alsace, housework is a serious matter?
Among the domestic objects preserved in this museum, the floor sprinkler seen in the 2nd picture above testifies to the importance of household maintenance. At the beginning, I was a bit confused because it couldn’t stand on the table and I had no idea what it was used for. After reading the flyer, I realized it was used to sprinkle water on the floor to avoid raising dust during sweeping. I remember my mum did the same thing before sweeping the floor but she just used a cup or bowl instead of a special floor sprinkler.
The sprinkler shown in the 2nd picture was a gift to a young woman by her suitor, which carries an inscription in verse revealing the qualities expected of a future wife. It says: “Lass, get up and cook the soup. Milk the cow and Sweep the Stube. See how well she sweeps the Stube, sweeps the nooks and seep the crannies. Then the dust away she carries.” Probably a nice gift in the old times, would the girls of the present days accept it? I really doubt it.
In Alsace, people eat Sauerkraut?
Known since the Middle Ages, sauerkraut is the main ingredient of the Alsatian meal choucroute garnie, which is made of sauerkraut with sausages, charcuterie (bacon, ham, etc.), and often potatoes.
4.4 The ages of a man
In Alsace, babies come with the stork?
Before coming to Strasbourg, I already heard about this legend from a touching animation produced by Pixar or Disney and when I visited Colmar. From the 1850s onwards, babies were said to be brought by storks, who found the boys in the cabbages and the girls in the roses. This idea probably came from Germanic mythology, in which stork is the messenger of Goddess Holda, protectress of the wetlands where the souls of the dead are believed to reincarnate. Its task is to bring the new-born babies to the parents who want children.
In Alsace, religion is an affair of state?
Being part of Germany at the time, Alsace was not affected by a French law in 1905 separating church and state. It continued under the regime of the concordat, a treaty signed by Napoleon with the Holy See in 1801. Under this system, Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed and Jewish worships are regulated and recognized by local law. The celebrants of these churches are appointed and paid by the authorities. Muslim communities as well as some of the Protestant and Jewish communities which are not recognized by the concordat are responsible for paying the stipends of their officiants by themselves. The teaching of religion is compulsory in primary and secondary schools but exemptions are granted on written requests from parents. The universities in Strasbourg and Metz are the only two French state universities teaching and giving state diplomas in theology.
In Alsace, women wear big bows on their heads?
You might find them funny when you see these bow headdresses, but there was actually a large variety of them existing in Alsace. The kinds of headdresses vary depending on different traditions of the villages and different religions of the wearers. The ones we see in this museum are just one kind of them. It is essentially made up of a bonnet and a ribbon is tied around it and fastened at the forehead. Originally, the ribbon was only around 3 cm wide and the bow was a very simple one. From 1800 to 1910, the ribbon became much wider and the bow also became so large that it had to be supported by an iron frame.
4.7 A reconstructed interior
In Alsace, people spend much of their time in the Stube?
A Stube (which is a German word) in Alsace refers to a room used for communal get-togethers at a home or in a brasserie (a type of French restaurant with a relaxed setting). In an Alsatian home, the Stube was a charming and pleasing room, heated by a large stove fueled from the kitchen. It was at the same time a family dining room, a living room for ling winter evenings and a bedroom for the parents and their last-born child.
4.8 The great courtyard
Actually, I decided to visit this museum because I saw a picture of this courtyard on the brochure. I was immediately attracted to it because though there are no exhibits here, the courtyard itself is part of the collection. During your visit, you will realize that there are two courtyards in the museum, one is small while the other one is quite big (as you can see in the picture above). You won’t miss any of them because you will walk past them a few times. I liked both of them but loved the big one. There were not so many people during my visit and the great courtyard brought me back in time, into a tranquil world, although I could hear from time to time the wooden floors creaking when people passed by.
If you are interested in folklore or rural traditions, I recommend you coming here and taking a look. If you are particularly interested in certain aspects of the Alsatian culture, you can read more about them either from the “info book” or on the info boards on site. Now, I’ll give you a brief introduction to some other museums in Strasbourg so that depending on your interest, you have more choices.
5. L’Aubette 1928
Please note, L’Aubette 1928 is only open from Wednesday to Saturday from 14:00 to 18:00. Visit is free of charge including the rental of an audio guide and a brochure in your preferred language.
The creation of the Aubette was the wish of Duke de Choiseul, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, War and Admiralty. In 1765, the project was commissioned to the architect and architectural theorist, Jacques-François Blondel. In 1922, Paul and André Horn of Mulhouse (an architect and a pharmacist) rented the right wing of the Aubette on the condition that they would preserve the frontage which was a classified historic monument, aiming at creating a leisure complex. They entrusted the interior refurbishment project to Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp, who invited their friend Theo van Doesburg to join them. As I read from web.archive.org, this complex is referred to by art historians as the “Sistine Chapel of Abstract Art“.
The Aubette leisure complex was made up of four levels, that is to say, the basement, ground floor, mezzanine and first floor. However, only the first floor spaces have been restored. During your visit, you will see the Stairs (as you can see in the 5th picture above) designed by Theo van Doesburg and situated in the position planned by Paul Horn in his blueprints; the Function Room (as you can see in the 2nd picture above), designed by Theo van Doesburg; the Foyer-Bar (as you can see in the 3rd picture above), decorated by Sophie Taeuber-Arp; and the Ciné-Dancing (as you can see in the 4th picture above), decorated by Theo van Doesburg applying aesthetic theories of Elementarism, the movement he founded in 1924. From the audio guide and info brochure, you can learn more about these spaces.
6. Strasbourg Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art
If you are interested in contemporary and modern art, the Strasbourg Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art is located close to the Covered Bridges and you can see it easily from the roof terrace of Barrage Vauban. Being one of the largest of its kind in France, the museum houses extensive collections of paintings, sculpture, graphic arts, multimedia and design from the period between Impressionism and today. Works of some of the biggest names in modern and contemporary art history including Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Paul Signac, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Max Liebermann, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Auguste Rodin, are on display here.
7. Musée historique de Strasbourg
Started in 1587 on the bank of the Ill to replace the old slaughterhouse which had been in use since the 13th century, the construction of the Grande boucherie (Butchers’ House) is attributed to Hans Schoch, the municipal architect who was also responsible for the Neubau. Completed in 1588 as an outstanding example of Renaissance architecture, the ground floor was occupied on the north side by butchers’ stalls, while the vaulted east and west wings were used as cold stores. The first floor was used for theatrical performances and during special periods of time, it provided space for trade fairs. In the 19th century, the building had a variety of uses and since 1919 it has been housing the Musée Historique de la Ville de Strasbourg (History Museum of the City of Strasbourg), dedicated to the turbulent political, economic and social history of the city from the early Middle Ages to the contemporary period.
On display is a series of paintings, engravings, models and other items, which range from masterpieces produced by the local guilds to personal items or souvenirs of the great men (such as General Kléber) or ordinary citizens. The collections are generally arranged based on three themes, that is to say, the free town of the Hoy Roman Empire (1262 – 1681), the royal city (1681 – 1789) and the period between 1800 and 1949. An unmissable exhibit is the impressive plan-relief of 1727, replicating the layout of the city 1/600th of it actual size.
Talking about museums, don’t forget the Museum Œuvre Notre-Dame, which I introduced in detail in my first post about Strasbourg. It not only provides a view of the evolution of art in Strasbourg and the Upper Rhine region between the 11th and 17th centuries but also houses the Foundation of Notre-Dame, which, since the 13th century, has been responsible for the administration of the construction of the cathedral. By now, I’ve finished a series of four posts about Strasbourg, introducing to you the cathedral, the European quarter, La Petite France, various monuments, churches and museums. I hope you’ve learnt much about the city including its history and culture and can already decide where to go and what to visit when you’re here. By the way, do you know that Strasbourg is also called the capital of Christmas? It has the oldest Christmas market in France and one of the oldest in Europe. If you plan to come here during this festive season, don’t miss the giant Christmas tree planted on Place Klébe, the highest natural decorated Christmas tree in Europe.