Stockholm – a surprisingly sensuous city

    Baroque’s world tour started in the 17th century, and reached Stockholm in time to take on a dignified Nordic simplicity

    I shouldn’t tell you this, but Bent Kylsberg drove me onto the lake outside Skokloster Castle for a better look at the fine eastern facade – in his car. The lake was frozen at the time. But we still shouldn’t have done it.

    Bengt, who is a curator at the castle, and one of the most enthusiastic guides to the baroque age it has been my joy to encounter, had been telling me about a short cut he takes in the winter that slices an hour off his daily commute. Please, please take me out there, I begged him.

    As we drove onto the ice, past the sign saying “No driving on the ice”, I knew we were being bad. But breaking rules is baroque behaviour. And the view of the castle from the middle of the lake, surrounded by snow and elks and trees, was worth a few nights in a Swedish clink.

    In the summer, there’s a boat to Skokloster from nearby Uppsala. The journey along the castle’s watery approaches must be spectacular. So I recommend that as a legal alternative to my illegal ecstasies. But however you get here, get here. Sweden is many things that you know about already – saunas, smorgasbords, Volvos, Vikings – but you may not know that it is a baroque treasure house. The baroque arrived here in the middle of the 17th century and changed the nation. Skokloster Castle is one of its finest inventions.

    If, by any chance, you are uncertain of what or when the baroque age was, and are beating yourself up about it, forgive yourself quickly. Nobody knows exactly when the baroque was. The era was unknowable. Beginning in Rome at the start of the 17th century and continuing for 100 years or so in Italy, it went on for much longer elsewhere. In England, for instance, where St Paul’s is our best-known baroque building, it lasted deep into the 18th century. In Latin America, it became the default style of pretty much everything, and is probably still happening today.

    What did it look like? That is not easy either. In Italy, it was florid and swirling, but in Sweden, where it is usually too cold to swirl, it calmed down and grew rather stately. What it was really good at, you see, was ingratiating itself with the locals. Wherever it went, it studied the preferences of the natives and changed.

    Which is how it became the first truly global art movement. So, in Peru, in Cuzco, a thunderously baroque city, it began adding weird Inca symbols to the churches. But in Stockholm, it combined an expensive pink frilliness, imported from Paris, with lots of wintry Nordic simplicity.

    The best bits of Stockholm were built in what is called the Great Power period – a half a century of Scandinavian madness during which the Swedes set about invading all their neighbours: Poland, Finland, Latvia, Russia. Stockholm was rebuilt with the resulting booty. It had been a gorgeous medieval city. Now it became a gorgeous baroque one.

    Stockholm has always been half water. Originally, all there was here was an assortment of islands on a lake. Various places today style themselves as “the Venice of the North” – Amsterdam, Bruges, St Petersburg, even Birmingham, I believe – but in my view only Stockholm actually deserves the parallel.

    The Royal Palace is huge and looms baroquely over the glistening mix of sea and lake below. Somewhere within its bowels – I lost my bearings quickly, as you do in baroque palaces – there is a treasury in which the nation’s crowns and sceptres are kept. The baroque ones were the ones with the most diamonds and rubies in them.

    Up on the palace’s first floor is a biggish baroque audience chamber, and at the bottom of that you’ll find the Swedish royal throne, made, mouthwateringly, of silver. I was allowed up close to examine the protruding female figures representing Justice, Liberty and the like. You won’t be. But I assure you there is enough silver in there to fill a Mexican mountain.

    As you wander through Stockholm’s shockingly pretty old town (the cobbles hurt your feet; the antique shops hurt your pockets), you need to pop into the Storkyrkan, the superb church of St Nicholas, which is gothic on the outside and baroque inside. Three things in the church are worth travelling to Sweden to see. One is the ornate royal pew designed by one of Sweden’s busiest baroque architects, Nicodemus Tessin the Younger.