June 21, 2015

A Visit to Sanssouci Palace

From 1740-1786, Prussia was ruled by King Frederick II, also known as Friedrich der Große (Frederick the Great) for his prowess on the battlefield and his unification and expansion of the Prussian territories.  He was also affectionately referred to as Der Alte Fritz (Old Fritz) by his subjects as the mighty warrior also had a penchant for the finer things in life and a strong interest in the fine arts, the applied arts, gardens and literature.

Looking for a refuge from the pomp and ceremony of the Berlin court, Frederick the Great hired the architect and designer Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff to build a summer home with a park where he could relax in his private time.  The result is "Sanssouci", a 700 acre site comprising vineyards, water fountains, a picture gallery, Roman Baths, a greenhouse, a chapel, various temples and pavilions and a small but impressive Schloß, or palace, overlooking the creation.

I too was looking for a break from exhibitions and galleries on a recent sunny Sunday in Berlin and decided that a day trip to Sanssouci was just the ticket!  Forty minutes on the S-Bahn to Potsdam followed by a short bus ride to the Park and I was there, ready to discover and enjoy the legacy of Der Alte Fritz!

The name, Sanssouci, is from the French phrase meaning "no worries", and that is exactly what Frederick II wanted when he spent time here.  Every detail was designed for his pleasure, whether reading in his well appointed library, walking in his flower gardens, playing his flute or composing music for it, enjoying his art collection or entertaining his many guests. 

Let's begin our tour in the main building, the Sanssouci Palace, that sits on a crest overlooking the terraced gardens.  Built in the Baroque style, the building is contained on one story with the main reception rooms facing the view to the south and the very comfortable bedrooms (with private w/c and baths) on the other side.  The décor in all of them is sumptuous, as stipulated by the King himself in a style that became known as "Frederician Rococo".

Next to the main palace is the former orangerie that was converted by King Frederick into guest chambers.

And near the west wing of the palace is the wine cellar and kitchen - with its immense, new-fangled "cooking machine" - separated from the residence to avoid cooking odors and the risk of fire.

The Bilder Galerie houses King Frederick's painting and sculpture collection.  Built on the site of the original greenhouse, the gallery structure is as magnificent as the artwork within.  No expense was spared from the rare yellow marble mosaic floors to the golden reliefs on the cornices, to showcase his collection of Italian and Flemish Baroque, Renaissance and Mannerist art.  Works by Rubens, Rembrandt and Van Dyck hang salon style covering the dark green walls.  Remarkably, over half of the paintings now on display were those purchased by King Frederick.

A walk through the landscaped park cannot be missed as the grounds are as much a part of Sanssouci as the palace.  Beside the terraced vineyards and the myriad flowers and fruit trees are pavilions and temples both small and large serving as an extension of the palace's public rooms.  The most charming of these is the Chinese House built between 1754-57.  A mélange of Rococo and Chinoiserie, both the interior and exterior abound in gilded Buddhas, monkeys, birds and kimono-clad characters.

Frederick the Great died childless in 1786 and Sanssouci remained in the possession of the Prussian Royal family until World War I and the end of the German monarchy.  But the magic of Der Alte Fritz's creation survived, and Sanssouci was spared the wrecking ball even during the Communist occupation of East Germany.  Today, the "Prussian Versailles" is a UNESCO World Heritage Site receiving thousands of visitors each year who come to enjoy the folly of Germany's most popular ruler.

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