Episode 291 – Schloss Charlottenburg

When we booked our month in Berlin, the palace that was at the top of my “must see” list was Sanssouci in Potsdam, King Frederick II (aka Frederick the Great)’s summer retreat, but once we got here I realized that there is an even BETTER palace just 6 km away.

The “Old Palace” portion of Charlottenburg as seen from the parade grounds facing the street.
A closer view of the central entryway to the original portion of the palace.

Charlottenburg is the largest and most significant palace complex still standing in Berlin, built for Queen Sophie Charlotte by King Frederick I in 1695-1699 – actually just before Prussia became an official kingdom. Once that happened in 1701, the palace immediately had to be upgraded. It became one of the favorite retreats of seven generations of Hohenzollern rulers: beginning with the Brandenburg electors, then the Prussian kings and German emperors.

The spectacular façade of the palace that looks onto the gardens. This side boasts the rounded shape of the upper and lower oval halls, topped by a cupola and unique weather vane which is attached by gears to a compass in King Frederick I’s bedroom which indicates the wind direction.
The roof of the palace featured many gorgeous details, from copper cladding to statues…
…to the very uniquely shaped golden weather vane (top right).

Each successive occupant redesigned their individual rooms to reflect the style and luxury of their own era, transformed sections of the vast royal gardens, and even added new wings (hence our visits today to the “Old Palace” and the “New Wing”).

The portion in red on the ground floor is original to King Frederick I and Queen Sophie Charlotte, and includes their suites, portrait galleries, reception rooms, and chapel, all in Baroque style.
The portion in orange on the upper floor housed the suites of King Frederick William IV and Queen Elizabeth, and now also displays some of the royal porcelain and silver.
Yellow is the “New Wing”, housing the banquet halls and suites of Frederick the Great, Frederick William II, Frederick William III and Queen Luise. The grey areas housed staff, and are currently used for administration, special exhibits, and the museum shop.

Only a limited number of people are allowed into the Old Palace at one time, so we had to book a timed entry. Fortunately, Charlottenburg was not at all crowded, so we had lots of time to listen to the audio guide and gawk (me) and take photos (Ted).

After suffering severe damage in World War II, the palace was largely rebuilt and then refurnished in the original styles, which means that tourists today get a sample of the various historic periods from Baroque through early 20th century. What was surprising to me was how much original decoration, furniture, and original artwork did survive, making it much easier to recreate the missing elements.

One of Queen Sophie Charlotte’s harpsichords, which survived unharmed.

There was so much to take in that I can’t remember it all, or even some of the room identities, but the pictures are well worth being able to look back on, so here they are. Where I’ve remembered details, I put them in. These first sets of photos are all from the “old” palace.

Two of the breath-taking ceilings. On the top one, notice that it’s 3-dimensional – not only the figures, but also the flowers and some of the gilded framework – and there are also trompe l’oeil elements. The lower ceiling, the centre of which was at least 2 storeys high, featured a flat top with the signs of the zodiac and 4 slanted sides each painted to represent a season of the year. AND… this was not painted onto plaster, but oil on canvas and then assembled onto the ceiling!
The King’s ceremonial bedchamber, not used for sleeping. This is where the King could meet his closest friends and show off the opulence of fabrics and workmanship he could afford; it’s also where wedding nights were “officially” consummated. The bottom picture is of the wind compass on the bedroom wall, attached by gears to the weathervane on the palace cupola.
Centre L: the Queen’s audience chamber, overlooking the gardens and filled with mirrors to create even more light; the green silk wallpaper is designed to connect the outdoor greens with the interior of the room. Bottom: the ground floor oval reception room, where guests could enter from either side (garden or parade grounds).
The view from the second level oval reception room.
Top R and bottom L: ornate 3-D fireplace overhangs. The one bottom left actually “flows” from the ceiling. Bottom R: the hall of portraits.
Top L: one of the many pieces of Meissen porcelain on display.
Centre L: one of King Frederick’s jewelled snuff boxes.
Bottom L: a formal silver table set presented to the Crown Prince.
Right: one of the silver elephants (who doesn’t need those?) from the table service, carrying an obelisk engraved with the names of the major cities in Prussia.
Also on display were a room full of very tall porcelain urns presented to the King by Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, each hand-painted with a scene glorifying an event in Prussian history, and a feathered funeral helmet used in the funeral procession of each Prussian king from Frederick I onward.
Despite being Protestants and supposedly eschewing symbols and decoration in churches, the Hohenzollerns somehow managed to create this VERY ornate chapel in the palace, complete with frescoes, statues, gilding, and a pipe organ. The picture centre bottom shows the Prussian eagle holding the crown, surrounded by an embossed swath of golden “fabric”, and trumpeting angels. Not ornate at all !!
Possibly the most impressive room in the Old Palace is this chamber filled with King Frederick’s collection of Chinese porcelain. Visitors were brought here to be awed, much in the way some castles display weaponry to make an impression.

The “new” wing was added by Frederick the Great in the mid 1700’s, around the same time he built his retreat in Potsdam (Sanssouci). It’s not really a wing, but a self-contained palace in its own right (although to be fair, it is attached and does share the Old Palace’s kitchens) with two stunning Rococo festival halls (the White Hall and the Golden Gallery) and 2 royal apartments. This palace was also heavily damaged in WWII, so what we see today is mostly a reconstruction.

It took 2 photos to capture the new wing’s full length.

Almost the first thing we saw in the new Wing was the very familiar painting below, part of one of the largest collections of 18th century French painting outside France.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps is a series of five oil on canvas equestrian portraits of Napoleon Bonaparte painted by the French artist Jacques-Louis David between 1800 and 1805. The first version hangs in the Château de Malmaison outside Paris, the 1802 and 1805 versions are in the museum at the Palace of Versailles (one was originally in the Tuileries Palace), the 1803 hangs in the Belvedere Gallery in Austria … and the 1801 second version is here in the Charlottenburg Palace!

If anything, the “Frederican” Rococo decor of the royal apartments in the New Wing were even more impressive than the opulent ones in the old palace.

The aptly named Golden Gallery. In addition to all of the gold, much of which is crafted to look like vines and leaves against the green marble stucco, there were originally 20 busts on multicoloured marble pillars. Only 2 busts remain; the others are in museums of antiquities.
Rococo = over the top.
The White Hall currently holds an exhibit explaining the contest that was held to decide how it would be restored, ultimately resulting in the ceiling fresco being painted with a more abstract design than the Rococo original.
Throughout the palaces are numerous original French, English, German, and Chinese tapestries, dating as early as the 17th century, and all original to either Charlottenburg or one of the destroyed Hohenzollern palaces.
One of the rooms in the king’s north-facing “summer” suite, with solid silver decorations on the walls and ceiling, and paintings by the court artists insert into the walls.
The king’s office, decorated with gold. The desk is not original to the room, as evidenced by the fact that its decoration is silver plate.
Queen Luise’s bedroom, with uniquely feminine silk draping of the walls.
Top: the Indian Chintz room. Bottom: the King’s bedchamber, with a recess (on the right) in which his bed would have been located. The yellow striped “wallpaper” is (of course) silk. While the original wall coverings were destroyed during the war, the upholstered chairs survived, allowing the restorers to source reproductions for the walls.
Another gorgeously appointed room with floors made pf many kinds of wood, beautifully woven tapestries, and perhaps my favourite chandelier in this wing (even if it was nowhere near the biggest).

Frederick II also had an independent Theatre Building constructed in 1788–91, along the Large Orangery, as well as a garden pavilion known as The Belvedere, which usually exhibits the royal porcelain collection, but is currently closed to the public.

Two palaces are never enough though, so the next King, Frederick Wilhelm III, had the New Pavilion built in Charlottenburg’s palace gardens in 1824-25, as a private retreat and “summer house” closer to the river. It is a cube-shaped, two-story building apparently modelled on neo-classical Italian villas – because, why not?

And the gardens…. Wow! Originally Baroque in design, Kings after Frederick II laid out English style landscaped gardens, which is the style maintained today. As with the rest of the palace complex, the gardens were severely damaged in the war; the recreated gardens have been given some very modern additions, including a children’s playground.

A view of part of the garden from inside the upper oval room of the old palace.
Portions of the gardens are left for wildflowers, and there is a large tranquil pond surrounded by statues of children and animals that is home to swans, ducks, and coots.
A portion of the palace fence, featuring the Prussian eagle atop the gateposts.

Our last stop at Charlottenburg was the Mausoleum that King Frederick William III had built in the shape of an ancient temple for his wife Luise upon her death at only 34 years old in 1810. He was entombed next to her, and later Emperor William I and Empress Augusta were
also laid to rest here. The sarcophagi truly are beautiful works of sculpture.

HISTORICAL NOTE: Why is Charlottenburg, a summer palace, the oldest existing Hohenzollern palace? Because of WWII of course. The Berlin Palace (Berliner Schloss) on the Museum Island was the main residence of the House of Hohenzollern from 1443 to 1918, but was damaged during the Allied bombing and subsequently demolished by the East German authorities in 1950. Between 2013 and 2020 the palace was reconstructed incorporating 3 Baroque facades into an otherwise modern building which now houses the Humboldt Forum Museum. The other original palace in Potsdam was also destroyed, and never rebuilt, although many of its moveable artifacts (furniture and art) are now on display at Charlottenburg, since they are of the same vintages.

THE HOHENZOLLERN MONARCHS. All those Fredericks and Williams (Friedrichs and Wilhelms) get confusing, so here’s the order of Prussian monarchs, starting in 1701 when Prussia changed from a Duchy to a Kingdom: Frederick I, Frederick William I, Frederick II (“The Great”), Frederick William II, Frederick William III, Frederick William IV, William I, Frederick III, and finally William II (the one we know as Kaiser Wilhelm).

It was a full day, but we remembered to stop and rest for a bit in the café housed in the small orangerie. “Lunch” was coffees, a slice of cheesecake with baked sour cream topping, and a slice of Sacher torte.

Oops. I started to eat the cheesecake before getting Ted to take a picture.

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