Jan. 23 (Bloomberg) -- The shopping list for a festive meal in the north German city of Luebeck in 1596 comprised six young lambs, seven ox tongues, two wheels of cheese, one hare, seven fresh salmon and 173 pounds of beef.
All that was to be washed down with three barrels of beer and 20 liters of wine.
The queen of the Hanseatic League -- and the birthplace of Thomas Mann -- was a bustling commercial center and one of Europe’s wealthiest ports in medieval and Renaissance times, comparable with Venice and Genoa.
A compact new museum celebrates Luebeck’s rich bourgeois heritage with style and simplicity. Tucked into a narrow side street in the cobbled, Unesco World Heritage-protected old town, the St. Annen Museum was first built 500 years ago as a convent, and served as a poorhouse and orphanage for centuries.
The charming, unassuming red-brick exterior is assembled around two pretty courtyards. Inside, the museum has vaulted halls and colonnades on the ground floor, where art from the Middle Ages to the present day is displayed.
Upstairs, a tour through 25 rooms featuring quaint painted beams, elaborate wood carvings and frescoed ceilings lends historical insight into the lives of the burghers of Luebeck over the centuries. Merchants toasted their contracts with the elaborate wine flagons on show -- usually emptied in one swig.
Imposing carved cabinets and faience from the nearby village of Stockelsdorf decorated the homes of the wealthy. In the late 18th century, these gave way to a demand for English Wedgwood furniture and china, its simple elegance a far cry from the heavy opulence of the German cabinets. The craze spread fast, despite an import ban obtained by Luebeck’s carpenters on mahogany furniture from England.
Luebeck’s 17th-century popstar was Dietrich Buxtehude, an organist and composer whose “Abendmusik” concerts attracted musicians from across Europe, including the young Johann Sebastian Bach, who walked 400 kilometers to hear him.
Local personalities bring the show to life, such as the mayor Juergen Wullenweber, who melted down all the church silver in 1530 to fund a futile war aimed at reestablishing Luebeck’s Hanseatic supremacy.
The jewel in the collection’s crown is a 1491 altarpiece by the Bruges-based painter Hans Memling, which unfolds to reveal three different scenes. The central image, exposed only on special holy feasts in medieval times, shows the story of the Passion, rich in symbolic detail and luminous colors.
Commissioned by the Greverade family for their chapel in Luebeck cathedral, it was an opportunity to flaunt their wealth, and was Memling’s last work.
The St. Annen Museum is, like many other cultural institutions in Germany, a beneficiary of the economic crisis. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 82.2 billion ($109 billion) economic stimulus programs of 2008 and 2009 included several billion for local infrastructure.
Spending on a museum has to be one of the best ways to give the local economy a quick lift while simultaneously investing in the future. Luebeck city authorities are hoping the newly renovated museum -- also funded by private donors and the city council -- will draw a large proportion of the 1 million tourists who stay overnight each year.
Those who do visit it will go away with a much better sense of Luebeck’s proud cultural and commercial history.
Muse highlights include Warwick Thompson on London theater, Richard Vines on food, Jorg von Uthmann on Paris arts and Ryan Sutton on New York restaurants..
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