July 4, 2011

Spoils of Love and War

In the heart of rural Germany lies Fulda an elegant baroque town that before 1806 was the seat of one of the myriad principalities that made up the Holy Roman Empire. During the 1730s, a time of peace and prosperity, the prince abbots of Fulda decided to build a country house six kilometers south of the town. Built as a summer residence, it soon proved too small and between 1739 and 1750 was enlarged by a baroque architect, Andrea Gallasini, and given the name Schloss Fasanerie-pheasant house. It was a time when nothing could go wrong in the arts in Germany, and the result is light, elegant, and spacious. Schloss Fasanerie combines grandeur and simplicity in a manner characteristic of central Europe but almost unknown in France or England. The staircase and state apartments are more impressive than anything in England. Beyond the first courtyard, however, the Schloss becomes a farm. Agricultural implements replace baroque statues on the lawns. This unaffected juxtaposition has a peculiarly beguiling charm.

With the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in the Napoleonic era, Fulda changed hands. Briefly the property of the prince of Orange, it was then given by Napoleon-who disposed of conquered property as he pleased-to his favorite courtier, Duroc, the grand marechal du palais. Since Duroc was too busy running Napoleon's court to have time for Fulda, in 1812 it became a hospital for soldiers wounded during the retreat from Moscow. In the subsequent peace settlement, Fulda and Fasanerie were assigned to the most powerful local ruler, His Royal Highness William I, the elector of Hesse-Kassel. Fasanerie is still in the hands of the Hesse family, represented by the Hesse House Foundation.

The house of Hesse-Kassel was one of those dynasties, now half forgotten, that helped to shape the history of Europe and America. Thanks to its tradition of patronage of the arts, Fasanerie contains many treasures, some of the finest of them coming from other Hesse-Kassel palaces that have been relinquished, destroyed, or confiscated, including Rumpenheim, Philippsruhe, Philippsthal, and Wilhelmshoehe, the town palace at Kassel. Among them are also objects that once belonged to the prince abbots. The arrangement of art objects was made largely after World War II by the head of the family, Prince Philipp of Hesse-Kassel. He was a connoisseur of genius who inherited from his grandmother the empress Frederick, Queen Victoria's eldest daughter, a passion for collecting, as well as many of her treasures. He was a nephew of Kaiser Wilhelm, a son-in-law of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, and a very rich man indeed. There is nothing faded about the grandeur of Fasanerie. Everything is in excellent condition and of the highest quality, including the display of treasures.

The superb baroque staircase, lined with imperial Roman busts and portraits of emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, symbolizes the majestic superstate, founded in 800, by which Europe was haunted and embraced for a thousand years. Even in the eighteenth century, when the Holy Roman Empire had fragmented into hundreds of principalities and was surrounded by dangerous and greedy neighbors, it retained authority and popularity among the Germans. Indeed, Napoleon later used it as a model for his own, brief empire. The gallery of the staircase leads into a dream-like interior that persuasively suggests better than any other house open to the public the life and artistic taste of the dynasties that ruled Europe for centuries.

Among the first rooms the visitor enters is the magnificent baroque Herons' Hall. It is hung with pictures by the brilliant court painter Johann Heinrich Tischbein the Elder in the 1760s, showing Landgrave Frederick II of Hesse-Kassel and his court, dressed in red and silver uniforms, hunting herons. The Herons' Hall leads into a series of neo-classical apartments designed in the 1820s by a local architect, Johann Conrad Bromeis. In deliberate contrast to the glare of the French Empire style, favored by Napoleon, these rooms are simple and elegant, decorated in pale, monochrome colors, without a trace of gilding.

The names and decoration of the rooms are a tribute to the success with which the Hesse-Kassels married into the royal families of Europe. In one, the stupendous state dining room, the Grosser Saal, hang portraits of a Hesse-Kassel who was married to Ulrika Eleanora of Sweden, sister of the hero King Charles XII. Her husband ruled Sweden later, from 1720 to 1751, as King Frederick I. The dining room also contains a gilded bronze surtout de table made in Paris in the 1820s.

Frederick's nephew, Landgrave Frederick II, married Princess Mary, daughter of King George II of England, and her English books remain in the castle's library. There were also frequent marriages between the Hesse-Kassels and the Danish royal family. Prince Charles of Hesse-Kassel commanded the Danish army in the late eighteenth century, and the so-called Danish apartment contains portraits of many members of that royal family, easily recognized by their receding foreheads and albino complexions.

The unforgettable Russian Dressing Room belonged to the grand duchess Alexandra Nicolaievna, who married another Hesse-Kassel, Prince Frederick William, in 1843. She died within a year, but her room still contains her dressing table and toilet service. Elsewhere in the dynastic treasure trove of Schloss Fasanerie are a silver-gilt toilet service that belonged to Catherine the Great and a mirror that was Marie-Antoinette's. Grand Duchess Alexandra is said to have brought so much linen with her in her trousseau that the family has never had to buy any since.

Alexandra's father, the awesome "Iron Czar," Nicholas I, gave the Hesses a magnificent vase of green malachite from Siberia and products of the Imperial Porcelain Factory at St. Petersburg, decorated with views of the interior of the Winter Palace. There are the inevitable and innumerable dynastic portraits, some of them of high quality, by flattering court painters such as Antoine Pesne, Hans van Martes, and Elizabeth Vigee Lebrun. One, painted by Wilhelm Bottner, depicts a current event: The Hessian Generals Paying Homage to William I on His Assumption of the Title of Elector in 1805-one year before the dissolution of the empire whose emperor he was meant to elect.

After their defeat by Prussia in 1866, the Hesse-Kassels were ruling princes no more, but by a special arrangement they were allowed to keep Fasanerie. The landgravine Anna spent every summer there until her death, at the age of eighty-two in 1918, the year when the princely German world collapsed. Nonetheless, the Hesse-Kassels' loss of sovereignty long before World War I may have worked to their advantage. They were able to keep, as private property, treasures that more successful dynasties, such as the Wittelsbachs and Hapsburgs, lost in the revolutions of 1918. Fasanerie is consequently a family house containing works of art that, in Bavaria or Austria, would be in public museums. How many other defunct German dynasties possess treasures, still their own, stored in castles as remote as Fasanerie?

Every continent and century seems to have been scoured to provide masterpieces for the house of Hesse-Kassel. There are Japanese pots, Gobelins tapestries, Persian carpets, and a collection of Sevres, Meissen, and Berlin porcelain that rivals the royal collection at Windsor. A magnificent collection of classical antiquities acquired by Prince Philipp of Hesse-Kassel, including Roman busts and Greek vases, many of the fifth century B.C., fills several galleries. One room is lined with seventeenth-century Chinese painted silk; another, with early-nineteenth-century French wallpaper by Dufour that depicts a landscape with nymphs. Among the 1,200 paintings are a Guido Reni, a portrait of Eleanora de' Medici by Bronzino, and a sketch of the Madonna and Child with saints, by Rubens.

However eclectic its contents, Fasanerie is overflowing with reminders of the superb quality of German pictures and furniture. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Hesse-Kassel's small capital town, Kassel, produced cabinetmakers, potters, and painters of the highest order; even the smaller town of Fulda had an excellent porcelain factory. Elegant furniture made in Kassel in the 1790s fills the Blue Bedroom, which also contains a remarkable collection of early nineteenth-century pictures by the German painters known as Nazarenes, who worked in Rome. Among them were August Schott (1811-43) and Johann Martin von Rohden (1778-1868), court painter to the elector of Hesse-Kassel. The splendid bust of the landgrave Frederick II by Johann August Nahl (1760) and that of King Frederick William III of Prussia by Gottfried Schadow, as well as the quality of the carving on the walls throughout Fasanerie, demonstrate the excellence of German sculpture of this period.

Amid all this elegance, it is easy to overlook the darker side of the Hesse-Kassels, who during the nineteenth century were arbitrary and avaricious rulers. These peerless patrons of the arts-who erected the first specially built theater in Germany, in 1606--were often ruthless politicians. In the sixteenth century, the landgrave Philipp was an enthusiastic supporter of Martin Luther. In the eighteenth century, the landgrave Frederick II hired out 20,000 Hessian troops to fight as mercenaries in the armies of his nephew King George III against the American colonists. Though they failed to ensure a British victory, many of their descendants now live in the United States, while the money the landgrave made from this arrangement-nearly five million pounds, which would have to be multiplied by 100 to approximate today's value-went to the economic and intellectual improvement of the country, the building of the magnificent palace of Wilhelmshoehe, and the founding of the Fridericianum museum, in Kassel. The rise of the house of Rothschild owes much to Frederick's successor, William I, one of the most reactionary rulers in Europe, who by asking the Rothschilds to manage his investments during the Napoleonic Wars helped them make their first fortune.

The Hesse-Kassel family's political record reached its nadir in this century. Prince Philipp of Hesse-Kassel combined excellent artistic taste with execrable politics. The man who could spend six hours contemplating one exquisite Renaissance drawing was a Nazi who prided himself on helping to bring Hitler and Mussolini together. Territories that his ancestors had ruled as landgraves and electors he governed for the Third Reich. All this did not prevent Hitler from arresting both Prince Philipp and his wife, Princess Mafalda of Italy, daughter of King Victor Emmanuel, in revenge for her father's imprisonment of Mussolini. She died in a German concentration camp.

From 1949 to 1972, Prince Philipp contributed considerable sums to restoring Fasanerie, which like almost every building of importance in Germany had been damaged by Allied bombs. Fasanerie is a treasure house comparable to Chatsworth and Chambord, but few travelers in Europe know of its existence. The chance to enjoy its splendor free from the pressure of crowds should be sufficient inducement to travel into the depths of rural Germany.