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Mořic and František Antonín for over a century embellished Brno with European Baroque

Outside Moravia, the surname Grimm is known mainly due to the linguists and philologists Jacob Ludwig and Wilhelm Karl Grimm, the initiators of German studies. Their “Es war einmal”, our “once upon a time”, opens for over a century and a half stories like Hänsel und Gretel, Rapunzel or Schneewittchen – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for anglophones – which marked the childhood (and not only) of entire generations, at least in the western world.

On the other hand, around Brno, Grimm is the surname that signed castles, noble residences and religious buildings for almost the entire eighteenth-century. In the historic Moravian capital, Mořic Grimm and mostly his son František Antonín had a meaningful career although their work is nearly unknown to the central architectural histories.

The name of the German architect and builder Mořic Grimm – from neighboring Bavaria – appears in the registers of the Praguian Building Guild around 1690. However, shortly after, at the beginning of the following century, he steadily ran his activity in Brno. As soon as he arrived in the city, he completed the Dominican monastery, whose reconstruction works were started in the mid-seventeenth century by Giovanni Battista Erna from Como.

In his fifty-year career, Mořic was able to work as an architect and even more as a builder on many constructions, some of which cannot be ignored. Among these – all in Brno – we must mention the development of Schrattenbach Palace (nowadays the Jiří Mahen library) based on a project of the Austrian Christian Alexander Oedtl, the partial baroque adjustment of the interiors of the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral and the restyling with extension of Reduta, one of the oldest theatrical buildings in Central Europe. Also, Mořic took part in the eighteenth-century expansion of the Buchlovice Castle, when, based on a project of Domenico Martinelli, a comfortable Baroque villa and garden both in “Italian style” were added to the medieval fortress.

Among Baroque adaptations, completions and post-war reconstructions, the activity of Mořic marked the architecture of the first half of the eighteenth century in Brno’s surroundings, fascinating the talented František Antonín to whom he left the stage entirely starting from 1750.

Like every young European artist and intellectual of the eighteenth century, František Antonín aspires – as we would say today – to “international education”. His talent and desire to learn lead him to search for an intellectual landscape decidedly broader than the horizons the Margraviate of Moravia could offer him. Thus, only in his twenties, he began his “little” Grand Tour. The first stage, Vienna. In 1730, he enrolled here at the Academy where he studied drawing and painting. The first real turning point took place in 1733 when his name is documented as Academicus militaris and pupil of the Milanese Donato Felice d’Allio. Following his master, he took part in the design of some of his works, including part of the extension of the Klosterneuburg abbey complex in baroque and rococo patterns, an ancient spiritual center in the vicinity of Vienna that the Habsburgs aspired to transform into a sort of Austrian Escorial.

A few years later, young Grimm arrived in Rome, a sought-after destination by all architects since the Renaissance. In between the glorious relics of the past and the artistic turmoil spinning around the papal court, František Antonín stayed there for about two years, entering the studio of Nicolò Salvi, author of one of the symbols of the eighteenth-century in Rome: the Trevi Fountain. Salvi would become a great designer of scenographic equipment, a student of Antonio Canevari who introduced him to an in-depth knowledge of the classic. These circumstances influenced František Antonín, as shown by the graphic studies reflecting Salvi’s style and his powerful scenographic ability and sensitivity for classical language. Among these, there are some sketches precisely for the Trevi Fountain and the facade of the San Giovanni Basilica in Laterano, as well as the reliefs of St. Peter’s dome.

Grimm’s Italian visit – during which he collects drawings and documents – reaches other essential destinations for an architect like Vicenza, Caprarola, Milan, Turin, and Bologna, bringing back information (inevitably touched by Salvi’s ideation) on the firing debate amid “ancient” and “modern” between Italy and France. In 1740, František Antonín arrived in France for a short visit to which dates back the plan for a castle attributed for a long time to Fischer von Erlach as an early work.

Ironically, the short visit in France stylistically conditioned the work of young Grimm at his return home much more than the Roman studies, even though some details typical of the Italian plasticity appear in his facades. Unlike the buildings on which he worked alongside his father, the French baroque emerged clearly in many of his autonomous works, both when engaging delicately in sacred architecture – as in the case of the Church of Holy Trinity in Drnholec – or developing large noble residences. We mention the Napajedla castle built for Anna Maria von Rottal or the most impressive Židlochovice and Vizovice castles, real baroque castles having even their parks dominated by the French style. Reconstructed by František Antonín in classical forms in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the church of the Annunciation in Šternberk is a curious case where the facade seems to blend with elegance the thorough knowledge of the classic, the Central European tradition and the grand French mansions.

František Antonín was a tireless designer and collector of architectural plans. His collection goes far beyond the local interest, reflecting the story of his career and talent along with the cultural magnitude of a Central European architect of that time.

Besides his projects and architectural sketches, the collection of over a thousand sheets includes art drawings adapted to operating machines, studies and findings on existing buildings he came across in his travels and many designs of others collected by him and his father. On the death of František Antonín, the rich collection escaped the unfortunate destiny of many similar funds and collections passing to his latest patron, Prince Karl Salm-Reifferscheidt, who enabled its conservation in an exceptionally intact form. Although restricted, the collection is available even online, a large part of it being nowadays preserved in the Moravian Gallery, in the Governor’s Palace in Brno city-center, reconstructed in baroque style by Mořic and František Antonín Grimm.

by Alessandro Canevari