This modest, shell-encrusted box doesn’t complain as it sits, day after day, on a Miami Beach tourist shop shelf. It dreams about a change of scenery and some relief from the heat; going home with a Minnesota tourist would be nice.
But what it really wants to be when it grows up is a shell grotto; just like the lollapalooza at the Residenz in Munich.
Walking into the courtyard and seeing this grotto is a shocker. The number of shells and the intricacy of the design is astounding. It’s beyond bizarre … but in a good way. Given the formal opulence of the rest of the palace, it seems outlandishly out of place, but there it sits. In fact, it’s the first stop on the palace tour.
I’ve never really understood the appeal of artificial shell grottos, until I read an explanation by grotto expert (Yes, I said grotto expert.) Hazelle Jackson:
“The earliest grottoes were shrines built over sacred springs in ancient Greece. Over time these evolved into temples and were popular in ancient Rome, where the term “nymphaeum” was used for both formal temples dedicated to water deities and artificial grottoes surrounding public fountains. Smaller grottoes were also popular additions to Roman villas and gardens, decorated with shells and a maritime theme. Architects in Renaissance Italy revived the grottoes of ancient Rome to lend an air of historical authenticity to their neo-classical villas and gardens and these caught the public imagination and swept across Europe.”
The original courtyard grotto was built in the 1580s, but like much of Munich, was destroyed by Allied bombs during the war. But, there’s an inspirational story of its subsequent reconstruction. After the war, people had no money to rebuild, so small-town Bavarians volunteered to gather the hundreds of thousands of freshwater shells needed for reconstruction, and thanks to photographs taken by the Nazis, an exact replica was built.The amount of time and energy required to fabricate this shell-encrusted extravaganza must have been staggering.
There are fish, mermaids, pots of flowers, baskets of fruit, and comical faces – all 100% shells. A golden statue of Mercury is the centerpiece, and when the royal family was home, red wine flowed from the mermaids’ breasts and dripped from Medusa’s head. I bet happy hour at the palace was a hoot.
Did I not say that this spectacle was bizarre? I came away thoroughly shell-shocked.
1. Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons