Episode 296 – Without A Care: Sanssouci

If this gorgeous palace were built today, it might be called Hakuna Matata, since Sanssouci literally means carefree, or “no worries”, and was built by Prussia’s King Frederick the Great as a summer retreat from the pressures of ruling a kingdom. It was not originally the Baroque mini-Versailles-like palace it is today, but a 10 room “villa” in the Rococo style overlooking vineyards.

Don’t worry, be happy!

I’d thought that after visiting Charlottenburg I didn’t “need” to visit another Hohenzollern palace, but Sanssouci kept coming up in conversations and correspondence – and it was, after all, the palace we’d intended to visit once I booked our time in Berlin.

So off we headed for the hour-long trip by train and bus, through lots of picturesque streets lined with stunning architecture and lush trees.

No other palace is so closely linked with the personality of Frederick the Great, and perhaps that is why it attracts so many more tourists than other palaces. There is something special about that King that draws people into his story.

Andy Warhol’s 1986 depiction of Frederick the Great.

Prince Frederick was twenty-eight years old when his father Frederick William I died and he became King. By all accounts, the father was a brute, who reacted to his son’s love of books by selling all of them (his sole idea of appropriate education was the learning of military strategy), who reacted to his son’s interest in music and art by threatening to remove him from the line of succession, who apparently thought beating his son would make him less “effeminate”, who once even threatened to execute him, and who forced Frederick into a marriage that was by all accounts so unhappy that as soon as Frederick II ascended the throne, he and his wife led completely separate lives.

The 1781 painting by Anton Graff that inspired Warhol’s.

Frederick II (“The Great”) had his own revenge, I guess, by not only creating a royal library, but Germany’s first purpose-built art gallery. He sponsored dozens of artists; commissioned paintings, sculptures, and music; wrote libretti and music himself (26 flute sonatas, among other things); read philosophy extensively, and became a close friend of Voltaire. He reinstituted the Prussian Academy of Sciences which his father had closed down. He also managed to annex significantly more lands, far surpassing his father as a military strategist. He ended up as King of Prussia, whereas his father could only be called King “in” Prussia. He also neglected to produce an heir (it would have been difficult given that he and his wife lived separately their entire lives), and was eventually succeeded by his nephew Frederick William II.

Statue of Frederick the Great in the gardens below the Orangerie Palace. His uniform looks vaguely French, which was very much the style until the Prussians “borrowed” the spiked helmet from the Russians. I originally thought the statue might be of Napoleon, who was a contemporary. I was surprised to learn that Frederick the Great was only 5’3” (1.6 m) in stature. By comparison, Napoleon was 5’6” (1.68m) tall.

The whole combination of factors makes the idea of him building a place where he could be “without care” particularly attractive.

Once again, we pre-booked our timed tours of the main palace, and arrived well before our designated time slot to visit some of the other buildings within the Sansoucci park complex.

We arrived at the park (whose buildings open at 10:00 and close at 5:30) just before noon. That’s when it hit us that there are a LOT more buildings spread over a much larger area at Sanssouci than I’d realized. In 5-1/2 hours we were only able to tour a fraction of them, and missed a couple that I wish we’d had time for (the Bilder Gallerie/Picture Gallery and Neues Palais/New Palace, for instance) but…. we had only so many hours and so much energy, especially on a really hot day. It would be impossible to see everything in a single day anyway.

The entire green area is Sanssouci Park!

TIMELINE OF BUILDINGS AT SANSSOUCI PARK: Sanssouci Palace was built in 1747 by and for Frederick II. He also built the Picture Gallery (1763), the New Chambers (1747), the Chinese House (1754-57), the New Palace (1763), and the Belvedere on Klausberg (1769). Schloss Charlottenhof was completed between 1826 and 1829 by Frederick William III, for the eventual Frederick William IV. The Roman Baths (1829), the Church of Peace (1845), and the Orangerie Schloss (1851-64) were all built by Frederick William IV. Of course, there was extensive building going on at many other sites in Prussia as well during the Hohenzollern dynasty’s rule.

The Chinese House, built at a time when fascination with all things Eastern was at a high point, and being able to show off Chinese artistry a sign of wealth. The house in in a state of disrepair, partly wrapped as restoration work begins, and its interiors not open to the public. Frederick II designed this ornate Rococo structure himself!
The Belvedere on Klausberg drew us in, placed as it was at the end of a gorgeous tree-lined promenade. It is open to the public during special events, but when we peeked inside, the floor mosaic was being extensively reconstructed, explaining why we couldn’t go inside.

We did three actual “tours”, beginning at Schloss Charlottenhof (not to be confused with the gorgeous Schloss Charlottenburg that we toured last week, which was built by Frederick I, grandfather of Frederick the Great), partly because I assumed that a building with “Schloss” in its name would be palatial. Not so. Charlottenhof was originally a manor house, that was renovated into a royal summer cottage. King Frederick William III of Prussia bought the land that borders the south of Sanssouci Park and gave it to his son Frederick William and his wife Elisabeth Ludovika for Christmas in 1825.

The original manor house had its roof removed to create a flat roof in the style of an Italian villa, and a pillared portico added, as well as Italian style gardens. So that the Crown Prince’s view from his rooms would mimic and Italian countryside, artificial hills were created using the earth excavated from the Roman baths he had built, and a marble gravestone was erected (no grave, just the stone) to imitate the kind of hilltop monuments seen in Italy.

The “cottage” has 10 rooms, coincidentally the same number as the original Sanssouci, but that’s where the similarity ends. The house is cozy, with small rooms, which our guide described as “klein aber fein” (small but elegant). The décor and furniture are largely the work of the very prolific Karl Friedrich Schinkel, a Prussian architect, city planner and painter who also designed furniture and stage sets. Everything from cornice paintings, to lights, to chairs, desks and cabinets are his design, reflecting Frederick William’s love for natural stone and clean classical lines in his private spaces. Ornate remained the watchword for official residences.

The Crown Prince had a real love of the Italian artist Raphael’s drawings, and had both originals and copies in that style throughout Charlottenhof. By modern day standards the walls are cluttered, although everything follows straight lines, and all the frames (designed by Schinkel) are homogeneous. This room was only about 10 ft x 10 ft, so it was a challenge for Ted to photograph the ceiling, which also incorporated Raphaelite drawings in the centre and at the 4 corners.
The décor featured a LOT of green in various shades, but Elisabeth’s small bedroom also featured pink, as well as silver plating on the doors and furniture. The furniture pieces, the silver cornice moldings, and even the pink glass light are all Schinkel designs.
Green and more green in the Crown Prince’s private bedchamber (bottom), plus a liberal lashing of gold. The Schinkel-designed mahogany and leather office chair in the upper picture featured wheels on the legs, an adjustable seat back, and a swing-away tilt-able surface that our guide joked was ready for an iPad!

The original wood floors have held up really well for 200 years. We were each given a pair of one-size felted wool “pantoufles” (slippers) to wear over our shoes as we toured Charlottenhof. Clearly, if there are enough tours, no one would ever need to dust the floors – except that guests never get into the corners!

Our guide was very knowledgeable, but honestly we found the buildings interiors underwhelming… until we got to the “tent room”, which was just strange enough to be interesting. Apparently if you have enough money and imagination you can have a desert camp built in your home and use it to entertain adult friends for exotic sleepovers, or for tea and recitation of stories and poems.

Top left: a wood and marble inlaid chess table. Top right: a marble table inlaid with a massive piece of gold-veined lapis lazuli. Bottom: the tent room, where the papered walls and the fabric hangings are such a perfect match that the transition between the two is almost invisible.

Leaving Charlottenhof we had to walk (literally) past the Roman baths – past them because we needed to be at Sanssouci Palace for our timed entry, or risk not getting in.

The bath house included guest suites, since Charlottenhof only had the single guest room (the one with the tents). There are Roman style gardens behind the pillars that are visible at the left.

On to Sanssouci, the original reason for this park: the summer retreat that Frederick II built, where he could enjoy his vineyards and fig orchards, his dogs, his books, and his many artistic friends.

The palace façade seen when approaching the castle from the lower fountain through the vineyards, using the 6 sets of 22 steps, is breathtaking.

The closer you get, the more beautiful it becomes. In the bottom picture, you can see that the exterior of the palace facing the vineyard seems to be held up by 36 bacchantes – companions of the god of wine in Greek mythology.

To reach the visitors’ entrance, we walked around to the “front” of the palace, first passing an ornate fence and the gorgeous green and gold gazebo.

The main entrance to the castle is not the stunning view that today’s visitors first see, but is a semicircular main courtyard formed by double Corinthian columns.

No gardens or fountains, just ample space for visitors‘ carriages.

To the east of the vestibule are the Frederick II’s 5 private rooms. To the west are five separate guest rooms. Since they didn’t live together, no space was provided for Queen Elisabeth Christine.

The Ladies’ Wing (left) and Palace Kitchen wing (right) were added after Frederick the Great’s death, and are not part of the tour except as special exhibits.

We began in the vestibule and the oval marble hall, and then moved into the King’s 5-room apartment: his audience/dining room, concert room, study/bedroom, library, and small gallery.

The gold and silver-grey vestibule.
The oval marble hall. Unlike the exterior sandstone columns, and vestibule stucco marble columns, the eight pair of Corinthian columns here are Carrara marble, and there is more Carrara and Silesian marble in the window frames and inlaid floor.
Details from around the dome of the marble hall.
The concert room is a great example of German (“Frederican”) Rococco, with its gold embellishments reflecting shapes in nature. The harpsichord here is original.
Details from the concert room. Notice the gold spider web above the chandelier, complete with gold spiders. (Ted said it was “Charlotten’s Web”)
The study/bedroom. This room is the only one that no longer shows the original interior, having been redesigned in the classicist style by Frederick the Great’s successor and nephew Friedrich Wilhelm II. There’s no longer a bed displayed in the room, but note the chair bottom right – it may be the world’s first “LaZBoy chair, designed with an adjustable reclining back so that it would be comfortable for “Old Fritz” (the King’s nickname as he aged) who had gout and became uncomfortable sitting.
We were only allowed to peak in through the glass window in the door to the library, a room into which during his lifetime only Frederick II and his valet were allowed. The short bookcases were designed to make it easy for the short king to reach his books. The inlaid wood floor and tall windows lend to the room’s charm.
The Small Gallery room filled with gilt-framed paintings. It’s a pretty narrow space, but custom-made as a place in which to display art.

In the guest wing are 5 more rooms, all beautiful but not of the calibre or ornateness of the King’s spaces.

The blue-themed and pink-themed guest rooms.

The notable exception is the Voltaire Room, with its incredible naturalistic sculptural wall decorations in bright colors are on a yellow background. The amazingly realistic carved fruits, birds, flower garlands and little monkeys were all created by the younger of the Hoppenhaupt brothers in around 1745. The chandelier and four sconces are porcelain. Although the King built this room for his friend, records indicate that Voltaire preferred to stay in the Potsdam City Palace. Maybe being watched by all these animals prevented him from getting a good night’s sleep!

Our last stop for the day was a wonderful guided tour of the Orangerie.

Top: centre portion of the Orangerie.
Bottom left: the west plant wing. Bottom right: the arched arcade at the end of the east plant wing (there is one at each end)

In addition to the lateral plant halls, which are still used as winter storage for frost-sensitive tubbed plants like the many, many palm trees in the gardens, the over 300-meter-long building also used to house royal suites and servants’ quarters.

A few more pictures of the magnificent exterior and gardens.

For perspective, the plant halls are the largest indoor special events locations in the Berlin-Brandenburg region, able to accommodate 1000 people each.

We toured only the area coloured rust, the “Mittelbau” (central structure).

The central section of the three-winged palace complex is comprised of the impressive Raphael Hall, containing more than fifty 19th century copies of paintings by Raphael, in gilded frames hung on red silk walls.

Some size perspective.
In addition to the Raphaelite paintings, there were many sculptures by German sculptors who had studied and worked in Rome. The bottom 3 are larger than life-sized. At the top, the goddess of the Arts surrounded by symbols of Prussian culture.

Guides always ask “are there any questions?”, and usually there aren’t, but there were two very curious children in our group, aged around 10, who had LOTS. Our guide enthusiastically and patiently answered all of them, to everyone’s benefit.

The porcelain room in the Orangerie, featuring pieces by Meissen and KPM (Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Berlin, also known as the Royal Porcelain Manufactory)

There’s also a Malachite Room in the guest apartments, containing fabulous Russian green malachite objects gifted to Frederick William IV by his sister Charlotte, who became Empress Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia, married to Tsar Nicolas I.

Yes, that entire fireplace is made of Malachite! It was never lit though – it is a “pro forma” fireplace in a summer residence.

After all that grandeur it was time to take off our second pair of pantoufles and head home to our cute little 2-room apartment… it does have 10 foot long floor to ceiling draperies though!

4 comments

  1. Hello Rose. We just got back from three weeks in the Netherlands and caught up on your blog. I wanted to comment on your last entry about the changes you noted. While we were in Amsterdam we noted the same thing – litter and cigarette butts, beer bottles both whole and smashed into pieces, pop cans and other general garbage strewn everywhere making the city quite ugly. However we noted once out of the city and into the small towns and villages they were still clean and people still friendly. In Edam we had an elderly lady approach us to ask where we were from and when we said Canada I thought she was going to cry as she explained how as a child she remembers the Canadians liberating them. We had smiling, friendly service in restaurants and cafes, particularly when I practiced my Dutch on them. Maastricht where we ended our tour is a decent size and it too was still clean and friendly. Let’s hope that is a sign that the normal will improve as they recognize the impact of the ugly side on people both living there and visiting. Hope you find England in good shape.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Absolutely glorious! My last time in Berlin I took an afternoon guided bus tour to Brandenburg to see all the palaces. They only let us out at Sanssouci palace to wander around outside with the guide. My plan was to come back and do it privately but I ran out of time. So this was my first time seeing it from the inside. Thank you so much for sharing. My dad, who grew up in Berlin, Spoke of these palaces and their beauty. He also said that the Russians took the most beautiful part of the city. After the wall fell, I returned to discover the east section of the city truly was the most beautiful.

    Like

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