Gottfried Semper

Gottfried Semper (German: [ˌɡɔtfriːt ˈzɛmpɐ]; 29 November 1803 – 15 May 1879) was a German architect, art critic, and professor of architecture, who designed and built the Semper Opera House in Dresden between 1838 and 1841. In 1849 he took part in the May Uprising in Dresden and was put on the government's wanted list. Semper fled first to Zürich and later to London. Later he returned to Germany after the 1862 amnesty granted to the revolutionaries.

Semper wrote extensively about the origins of architecture, especially in his book The Four Elements of Architecture from 1851, and he was one of the major figures in the controversy surrounding the polychrome architectural style of ancient Greece. Semper designed works at all scales, from major urban interventions like the re-design of the Ringstraße in Vienna, to a baton for Richard Wagner.[1] His unrealised design for an opera house in Munich was adapted by Wagner for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.

Gottfried Semper
ETH-BIB-Semper, Gottfried (1803-1879)-Portrait-Portr 10869.tif (cropped)
Gottfried Semper
Born29 November 1803
Died15 May 1879 (aged 75)
BuildingsSemper Opera House


Early life (to 1834)

Semper was born into a well-to-do industrialist family in Altona. The fifth of eight children, he attended the Gelehrtenschule des Johanneums in Hamburg before starting his university education at Göttingen in 1823, where he studied historiography and mathematics. He subsequently studied architecture in 1825 at the University of Munich under Friedrich von Gärtner. In 1826, Semper travelled to Paris in order to work for the architect Franz Christian Gau, and he was present when the July Revolution of 1830 broke out. Between 1830 and 1833 he travelled to Italy and Greece in order to study the architecture and designs of antiquity. In 1832 he participated for four months in archaeological research at the Acropolis in Athens. During this period he became very interested in the Biedermeier-inspired polychromy debate, which centred on the question whether buildings in Ancient Greece and Rome had been colorfully painted or not. The drawn reconstructions of the painterly decorations of ancient villas he created in Athens inspired his later designs for the painted decorations in Dresden and Vienna. His 1834 publication Vorläufige Bemerkungen über bemalte Architectur und Plastik bei den Alten (Preliminary Remarks on Polychrome Architecture and Sculpture in Antiquity), in which he took a strong position in favor of polychromy - supported by his investigation of pigments on the Trajan's column in Rome - brought him sudden recognition in architectural and aesthetic circles across Europe [1].

Dresden period (1834 - 1849)

Dresden Hoftheater J C A Richter
Dresden, Interior of the first Hoftheater (Semper Oper)

On September 30, 1834 Semper obtained a post as Professor of Architecture at the Königlichen Akademie der bildenden Künste (today called the Hochschule) in Dresden thanks largely to the efforts and support of his former teacher Franz Christian Gau and swore an oath of allegiance to the King (formerly Elector) of Saxony, Anthony Clement. The flourishing growth of Dresden during this period provided the young architect with considerable creative opportunities. In 1838-40 a synagogue was built in Dresden to Semper's design, it was ever afterward called the Semper Synagogue and is noted for its Moorish Revival interior style.[2] The Synagogue's exterior was built in romanesque style so as not to call attention to itself. The interior design included not only the Moorish inspired wall decorations, but furnishings: specifically, a silver lamp of eternal light, which caught Richard Wagner and his wife Cosima's fancy. They gave a great deal of effort to have a copy of this lamp.[3][4] Semper's student, Otto Simonson would construct the magnificent Moorish Revival Leipzig synagogue in 1855.

Denkmal für Gottfried Semper 1887 Ki 00042-02
Monument for Gottfried Semper (1887)

Certain civic structures remain today, such as the Elbe-facing gallery of the Zwinger Palace complex. His first building for the Dresden Hoftheater burnt down, and the second, today called the Semperoper, was built in 1841. Other buildings also remain indelibly attached to his name, such as the Maternity Hospital, the Synagogue (destroyed during the Third Reich), the Oppenheim Palace, and the Villa Rosa built for the banker Martin Wilhelm Oppenheim. This last construction stands as a prototype of German villa architecture.

On September 1, 1835 Semper married Bertha Thimmig. The marriage ultimately produced six children.

A convinced Republican, Semper took a leading role, along with his friend Richard Wagner, in the May 1849 uprising which swept over the city . He was a member of the Civic Guard (Kommunalgarde) and helped to erect barricades in the streets. When the rebellion collapsed, Semper was considered a leading agitator for democratic change and a ringleader against government authority and he was forced to flee the city.

He was destined never to return to the city that would, ironically, become most associated with his architectural (and political) legacy. The Saxon government maintained a warrant for his arrest until 1863. When the Semper-designed Hoftheater burnt down in 1869, King John, on the urging of the citizenry, commissioned Semper to build a new one. Semper produced the plans, but left the actual construction to his son, Manfred.

"What must I have done in 48, that one persecutes me forever? One single barricade did I construct - it held, because it was practical, and as it was practical, it was beautiful", wrote Semper in dismay.[5]

Post-revolutionary period (1849 - 1855)

After stays in Zwickau, Hof, Karlsruhe and Strasbourg, Semper eventually ended up back in Paris, like many other disillusioned Republicans from the 1848 Revolutions (such as Heinrich Heine and Ludwig Börne). In the fall of 1850, he travelled to London, England. But while he was able to pick up occasional contracts — including participation in the design of the funeral carriage for the Duke of Wellington and the designs of the Canadian, Danish, Swedish, and Ottoman sections of the 1851 Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace — he found no steady employment. If his stay in London was disappointing professionally, however, it proved a fertile period for Semper's theoretical, creative and academic development. He published Die vier Elemente der Baukunst (The Four Elements of Architecture) in 1851 and Wissenschaft, Industrie und Kunst (Science, Industry and Art) in 1852. These works would ultimately provide the groundwork for his most widely regarded publication, Der Stil in den technischen und tektonischen Künsten oder Praktische Ästhetik, which was published in two volumes in 1861 and 1863.[6]

Zürich period (1855 - 1871)

Gottfried Semper Wien
Gottfried Semper
ETH Zurich from Polyterrace
ETH Zurich Hauptgebäude (main building)
Winterthur Stadthaus
Stadthaus (city hall) Winterthur

Concurrently with the onset of the industrial revolution, the Swiss Federation planned to establish a polytechnical school. As the principal judge for the competition held to select a design for the new building, Semper deemed the submitted entries unsatisfactory and, ultimately, designed the building himself. Proudly situated (where fortified walls once stood), visible from all sides on a terrace overlooking the core of Zurich, the new school became a symbol of a new epoch. The building (1853–1864), which despite frequent remodeling continues to evoke Semper's concept, was initially required to accommodate not only the new school (known today as the ETH Zurich), but the existing University of Zurich, as well.

In 1855 Semper became a professor of architecture at the new school and the success of many of his students who attained success and renown served to ensure his legacy. The Swiss architect Emil Schmid was one such student. With his income as a professor, Semper was able to reunite his family, bringing them to Zurich from Saxony. The City Hall in Winterthur is among other buildings designed by Semper in Switzerland.

Semper provided Bavaria's King Ludwig II with a conceptual design for a theatre dedicated to the work of Richard Wagner to be built in Munich. The project, developed from 1864 to 1866, was never realized, although Wagner 'borrowed' many of its features for his own later theatre at Bayreuth.

Later life (from 1871)

Friedhof Piramide - Grab Semper
Semper's grave in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome
Gottfried Semper 1879
Franz von Lenbach's portrait of Gottfried Semper shortly before his death

Already in 1833 there were first plans in Vienna for the public presentation of the Imperial Art Collections. With the planning of the Vienna Ring Road, the museum question became pressing again. Works forming the imperial art collection were scattered among several buildings. Semper was assigned to submit a proposal for locating new buildings in conjunction with redevelopment of the Ring Road. In 1869 he designed a gigantic 'Imperial Forum' which was not realized. The National Museum of Art History and the National Museum of Natural History were erected, however, opposite the Palace according to his plan, as was the Burgtheater. In 1871 Semper moved to Vienna to undertake the projects. During construction, repeated disagreements with his appointed associate architect (Karl Freiherr von Hasenauer), led Semper to resign from the project in 1876. In the following year his health began to deteriorate. He died two years later while on a visit to Italy and is buried in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome. [7]

Semper's (second) Dresden Opera House as it is today


  • Semperdepot, Lehargasse, Vienna

Works (selected)

Alte Synagoge Dresden 1860 2
The Semper Synagogue c. 1860

See also


  1. ^ Dorothea Schröder: "Nibelungenring und mystischer Knoten. Gottfried Sempers Entwurf zu einem Taktstock für Richard Wagner" Jahrbuch des Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg,1993, P.120
  2. ^ H.A. Meek, The Synagogue, Phaidon, 1995, p. 188
  3. ^ Colin Eisler "Wagner's Three Synagogues", Artibus et Historiae 2004, Vol. 25/Nr. 50
  4. ^ Eytan Pessen, Zusammenhängende Reliquien, eine Geschichte über Richard Wagner und Gottfried Semper, pp. 1-22, Semperoper Dresden, Erchien in Wagnerjahr 2013, Spielzeit 2012-2013 & 2013-2014
  5. ^ Letter to Heinrich Hübsch, January 1852
  6. ^ Curl, James Stevens (2006). A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (Paperback) (Second ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 880. ISBN 0-19-860678-8.
  7. ^ Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome databases Semper Goffredo Archived 2013-02-07 at the Wayback Machine


  • Berry, J. Duncan. The Legacy of Gottfried Semper. Studies in Späthistorismus (Ph. D. Diss., Brown University, 1989).
  • Hvattum, Mari. Gottfried Semper and the Problem of Historicism (Cambridge, 2004). ISBN 0-521-82163-0
  • Herrmann, Wolfgang. Gottfried Semper: In Search of Architecture (Cambridge, MA/London, 1984). ISBN 0-262-08144-X
  • Karge, Henrik (ed.). Gottfried Semper. Die moderne Renaissance der Künste (Berlin, 2006). ISBN 3-422-06606-3
  • Mallgrave, Harry Francis. Gottfried Semper - Architect of the Nineteenth Century (New Haven/London, 1996). ISBN 0-300-06624-4
  • Mallgrave, Harry Francis. Modern Architectural Theory: A Historical Survey, 1673-1968 (Cambridge, 2005). ISBN 0-521-79306-8
  • Mallgrave, Harry Francis. Architectural Theory: An Anthology from Vitruvius to 1870 (Malden, MA/Oxford, 2006). ISBN 1-4051-0258-6
  • Muecke, Mikesch W. Gottfried Semper in Zurich - An Intersection of Theory and Practice (Ames, IA, 2005). ISBN 978-1-4116-3391-9
  • Nerdinger, Winfried and Werner Oechslin (eds.). Gottfried Semper 1803-1879 (Munich/Zurich, 2003). ISBN 3-7913-2885-9
  • Semper, Gottfried. The Four Elements of Architecture and Other Writings. Trans. Harry F. Mallgrave and Wolfgang Herrmann (Cambridge, 1989). ISBN 0-521-35475-7
  • Semper, Gottfried. Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts; or, Practical Aesthetics. Trans. Harry F. Mallgrave (Santa Monica, 2004). ISBN 0-89236-597-8

External links

1803 in architecture

The year 1803 in architecture involved some significant architectural events and new buildings.

Carl Semper

Carl Gottfried Semper (July 6, 1832, Altona, Hamburg – May 29, 1893, Würzburg) was a German ethnologist and animal ecologist.

Conrad Hinrich Donner

Conrad Hinrich Donner (11 April 1774, in Altona – 1 January 1854) was a German banker

and art collector.

Conrad Hinrich Donner was the son of Johann Christian Donner (1739-1804), a buyer and the Danish consul in Hamburg and Maria Anterrer (1742-1802) from Altona. Donner was at first the owner of a tobacco factory with 150 workers. In 1798 he established the Company Conrad Hinrich Donner for the sale of goods and the provision of marine insurance(Assekuranz). Company Conrad Hinrich Donner was also a shipping company from which sailing boats operated. Later the banking transactions stepped ever more into the foreground, with the formation of Conrad Hinrich Donner Bank. He had close business ties to the shipping magnate Johann Cesar VI. Godeffroy. In 1820 Donner bought Sieveking Garden (today Donners Park de:Donners Park) and there in 1843 he established an art museum containing sculptures of Bertel Thorvaldsen and Herman Wilhelm Bissen). The museum and an orangery was designed by of Gottfried Semper. Conrad Hinrich Donner donated large sums for charitable purposes and was a promoter of art and science. Through his father, Donner was a personal friend of King Christian VIII of Denmark who stayed with him at Altona.

Constantin Lipsius

Johannes Wilhelm Constantin Lipsius (20 October 1832 – 11 April 1894) was a German architect and architectural theorist, best known for his controversial design of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and Exhibition Building (1883–1894) on the Brühl Terrace in Dresden, today known as the Lipsius-Bau.

Dresden school

The Dresden school was a baroque Neo-Renaissance architectural style developed in Dresden, Germany, primarily by Gottfried Semper and Hermann Nicolai.The style is associated with European architects mainly from Germany and Italy who built buildings and later city villas in large numbers, but also synagogues and public schools.

Semper built the Dresden Semperoper, with the panther-quadriga (chariot) by sculptor Johannes Schilling (1828–1910).

Important sculptors were Ernst Rietschel and Ernst Julius Hähnel.

Emilie Bach

Emilie Bach (born Neuschloss, Bohemia, July 2, 1840; died Vienna, Austria April 29, 1890) was an artist and journalist. In 1873 she co-founded the Imperial and Royal Vocational School of Art Embroidery [1] with fellow needleworker Therese Mirani in Vienna, Austria, where she also filled the role of director. She also established schools in Graz, Laibach, Prague, Brünn, and Agram. She published several works on the subject of embroidery, including Muster Stilvoller Handarbeiten für Schule und Haus in two volumes (1883), and Neue Muster im Alten Stil (1887), which was later published in English as New Patterns in Old Styles. She contributed to many daily papers, such as the Neue Freie Presse, Heimat, and Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung [2] and delivered many lectures on arts and handicrafts, most of which were published.Bach and Mirani's dress and design reform efforts were covered in Viennese periodicals, including feminist journal Dokumente der Frauen and fashion magazine Wiener Mode. Design history scholar Rebecca Houze likens the attention to detail in Bach's publications to the works of German architect and author Gottfried Semper, in particular Der Stil in den technischen and tektonischen Künste... (1860-63).Multiple designs by Bach, including those for an embroidered sachet and a parasol "with a border in Spanish embroidery" were featured in Harper's Bazaar in 1881.

Ferdinand Stadler

(Caspar) Ferdinand Stadler (23 February 1813 – 24 March 1870) was a Swiss architect of the generation before Gottfried Semper. He was born and died in Zurich.

All his buildings are in Switzerland, mainly Zurich, except for the Christ Church, Nazareth and an apartment in Neustadt an der Weinstrasse. His most notable designs include the City Church in Glarus and the Elisabethenkirche in Basel. Ferndinand Stadler also rebuilt the Augustinerkirche at the Münzplatz in Zürich.


Heldenplatz (German: Heroes' Square) is a public space in front of the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Austria. Located in the Innere Stadt borough, the President of Austria resides in the adjoining Hofburg wing, while the Federal Chancellery is on adjacent Ballhausplatz.

Many important actions and events took place here, most notably Adolf Hitler's ceremonial announcement of the Austrian Anschluss to Nazi Germany on 15 March 1938.

Kunsthistorisches Museum

The Kunsthistorisches Museum (lit. "Museum of Art History", also often referred to as the "Museum of Fine Arts") is an art museum in Vienna, Austria. Housed in its festive palatial building on Ringstraße, it is crowned with an octagonal dome. The term Kunsthistorisches Museum applies to both the institution and the main building. It is the largest art museum in the country.

It was opened around 1891 at the same time as the Natural History Museum, Vienna, by Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria-Hungary. The two museums have similar exteriors and face each other across Maria-Theresien-Platz. Both buildings were built between 1871 and 1891 according to plans drawn up by Gottfried Semper and Karl Freiherr von Hasenauer.

The two Ringstraße museums were commissioned by the emperor in order to find a suitable shelter for the Habsburgs' formidable art collection and to make it accessible to the general public. The façade was built of sandstone. The building is rectangular in shape, and topped with a dome that is 60 meters high. The inside of the building is lavishly decorated with marble, stucco ornamentations, gold-leaf, and paintings.

Leipzig Synagogue

The ornate Moorish Revival Leipzig Synagogue in Leipzig, Saxony, Germany, was built in 1855 by German Jewish architect Otto Simonson who had studied under Gottfried Semper, architect of the Semper Synagogue in Dresden.

The synagogue was commissioned by the small Leipzig Jewish community and by Jewish merchants from throughout Europe who gathered for the annual Leipzig Trade Fair.The interior featured horseshoe arches, an Aron Kodesh in the style of a mihrab and a pulpit in the style of a mimbar. Because so many businessmen gathered in Leipzig for the fairs, the synagogue is thought to have influenced the decision to build Moorish revival synagogues in other cities.

The synagogue was destroyed on Kristallnacht by the Nazi regime.


The Maximilianeum, a palatial building in Munich, was built as the home of a gifted students' foundation and has also housed the Bavarian Landtag (state parliament) since 1949.

The principal was King Maximilian II of Bavaria, who started the project in 1857. The leading architect was Friedrich Bürklein.

The building is situated on the bank of river Isar before the Maximilian Bridge and marks the eastern end of the Maximilianstrasse, one of Munich's royal avenues which is framed by neo-Gothic palaces influenced by the English Perpendicular style. Due to statical problems the construction was only completed in 1874 and the facade of the Maximilianeum, which was originally planned also in neo-Gothic style, had to be altered in renaissance style under the influence of Gottfried Semper. The facade was decorated with arches, columns, mosaics and niches filled with busts. The building was extended on its back for new parliament offices, and several modern wings were added in 1958, 1964, 1992 and again in 2012.

Semper's organ

The Semper's organ is an anatomical structure, a gland located in the head of some land snails, pulmonate gastropod mollusks.This organ was named after the German zoologist Carl Gottfried Semper, who first published information about this anatomical structure in 1856.

Semper Gallery

The Semper Gallery or Semper Building (German: Sempergalerie or Semperbau) in Dresden, Germany, was designed by the architect Gottfried Semper and constructed from 1847 until 1854.

The long-stretched building in Neoclassical style closes the Zwinger courtyard on its northern side. It faces the Zwinger to the south; to the north it borders on the Theater Square (Theaterplatz) with the Semper Opera House as well as Dresden Castle and the Catholic Church of the Royal Court (Katholische Hofkirche).

The Semper Gallery houses the Old Masters Picture Gallery (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister).

Semper Synagogue

The Semper Synagogue, also known as the Dresden Synagogue, designed by Gottfried Semper and built from 1838 to 1840, was dedicated on 8 May 1840. It was an early example of the Moorish Revival style of synagogue architecture.


The Semperoper is the opera house of the Sächsische Staatsoper Dresden (Saxon State Opera) and the concert hall of the Staatskapelle Dresden (Saxon State Orchestra). It is also home to the Semperoper Ballett. The building is located near the Elbe River in the historic centre of Dresden, Germany.

The opera house was originally built by the architect Gottfried Semper in 1841. After a devastating fire in 1869, the opera house was rebuilt, partly again by Semper, and completed in 1878. The opera house has a long history of premieres, including major works by Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss.


Stilfragen: Grundlegungen zu einer Geschichte der Ornamentik is a book on the history of ornament by the Austrian art historian Alois Riegl. It was published in Berlin in 1893. The English translation renders the title as Problems of style: foundations for a history of ornament, although this has been criticized by some. It has been called "the one great book ever written about the history of ornament."Riegl wrote the Stilfragen while employed as director of the textile department at what was then the Österreichisches Museum für Kunst und Industrie (today the Museum für angewandte Kunst) in Vienna. His primary intention was to argue that it was possible to write a continuous history of ornament. This position is argued in explicit opposition to that of the "technical-materialist" school, according to which "all art forms were always the direct products of materials and techniques" and that ornamental "motifs originated spontaneously throughout the world at a number of different locations." Riegl associates this view with the followers of Gottfried Semper, who had advanced a related argument in his Der Stil in den technischen Künsten; oder praktischer Ästhetik (Style in the technical arts; or practical aesthetics, 1878-79). However, Riegl consistently disassociates Semper's followers from Semper himself, writing that

The theory of the technical, materialist origin of the earliest ornaments is usually attributed to Gottfried Semper. This association is, however, no more justified than the one made between contemporary Darwinism and Darwin.

As the technical-materialist position had attained the status of dogma, Riegl stated that "the most pressing problem that confronts historians of the decorative arts today is to reintegrate the historical thread that has been severed into a thousand pieces." Accordingly, he argued for a continuous development of ornament from ancient Egyptian through Greek and Roman and up to early Islamic and, eventually, Ottoman art.

Sächsische Akademie der Künste

The Sächsische Akademie der Künste (Saxon Academy of Arts) is a German cultural organisation for the state of Saxony, based in Dresden. It awards an esteemed individual annually.

The Four Elements of Architecture

The Four Elements of Architecture is a book by the German architect Gottfried Semper. Published in 1851, it is an attempt to explain the origins of architecture through the lens of anthropology. The book divides architecture into four distinct elements: the hearth, the roof, the enclosure and the mound. The origins of each element can be found in the traditional crafts of ancient "barbarians":

hearth – metallurgy, ceramics

roof – carpentry

enclosure – textile,weaving

mound – earthworkSemper, stating that the hearth was the first element created:

The first sign of settlement and rest after the hunt, the battle, and wandering in the desert is today, as when the first men lost paradise, the setting up of the fireplace and the lighting of the reviving, warming, and food preparing flame. Around the hearth the first groups formed: around the hearth the first groups assembled; around it the first alliances formed; around it the first rude religious concepts were put into the customs of a cult... Throughout all phases of society the hearth formed that sacred focus around which took order and shape. It is the first and most important element of architecture. Around it were grouped the other three elements: the roof, the enclosure, and the mound. The protecting negations or defenders of the hearths flame against three hostile elements of nature.

Enclosures (walls) were said to have their origins in weaving. Just as fences and pens were woven sticks, the most basic form of a spatial divider still seen in use in parts of the world today is the fabric screen. Only when additional functional requirements are placed on the enclosure (such as structural weight-bearing needs) does the materiality of the wall change to something beyond fabric.

The mat and its use in primitive huts interchangeably as floors, walls, and draped over frames was considered by Gottfried Semper to be the origins of architecture.

Semper's Four Elements of Architecture was an attempt at a universal theory of architecture. The Four Elements of Architecture was not the classification of a specific typology but rather was more universal in its attempt to offer a more general theory of architecture. Rather than describing one building typology as being the beginning, he considers what assemblies and systems are universal in all indigenous primitive structures.”The Four Elements of Architecture as an archeologically driven theory stressed functionalism as a prerequisite to intentionality.Sempers primitive hut theory as put forth by the Four Elements of Architecture is considered to be significant in contemporary theory. Semper continues to explore the four elements more closely in subsequent works such as Der Stils.

Zwinger (Dresden)

The Zwinger (German: Dresdner Zwinger, IPA: [ˈdʁeːzdnɐ ˈt͡svɪŋɐ]) is a palace in the German city of Dresden, built in Baroque style and designed by court architect Matthäus Daniel Pöppelmann. It served as the orangery, exhibition gallery and festival arena of the Dresden Court.

The location was formerly part of the Dresden fortress of which the outer wall is conserved. The name derives from the German word Zwinger (an enclosed killing ground in front of a castle or city gate); it was for the cannons that were placed between the outer wall and the major wall. The Zwinger was not enclosed until the Neoclassical building by Gottfried Semper called the Semper Gallery was built on its northern side.

Today, the Zwinger is a museum complex that contains the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery), the Dresden Porcelain Collection (Dresdener Porzellansammlung) and the Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon (Royal Cabinet of Mathematical and Physical Instruments).

Unfinished operas
Opera excerpts
Film adaptations
Non-operatic music
Bayreuth Festival
Wagner family
Named for Wagner
Cultural depictions

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