September 16, 2013

Sans Souci

Coleridge had to rely on an opium dream for a glimpse of Xanadu, the "stately pleasure-dome" of Kubla Khan. But the Xanadu of the Western world, Sans Souci, is a well preserved reality. More alluring even than Versailles, it exists just half an hour from the center of Berlin-about as far a ride as Versailles is from Paris-in the city of Potsdam.

Sans Souci was the brainchild of Frederick II of Prussia, known as Frederick the Great-the philosopher-king, the warrior-king, and probably the most versatile ruler in history. He gave the name Sans Souci, “without care,” to the residence begun in 1745 by his architect, Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff, a master of rococo. The name eventually came to describe a full square mile of parks, palaces, and stunning curiosities created by Frederick II and augmented in the mid-nineteenth century by another aesthetic Hohenzollern, King Frederick William IV.

During much of the last century, the world wars and the Cold War had kept Potsdam off the tour Americans usually made of the Continent, and although the East German government boasted two million visitors a year, you could still score points at a sophisticated dinner in Paris or London by saying you've been to Sans Souci. "Anything on Sans Souci?" two Parisian librarians were once asked. Both thought Sans Souci was an author. "Son prenom, monsieur?"

Like Louis XIV, who preferred to live at Versailles, Frederick II chose Potsdam over the capital as his residence. The similarity, though, ends there. The Palais de Versailles is a monument to the power of the Bourbon Sun King, who shrewdly built a huge seat to consolidate his reign. He saw to it that any ambitious French noble would have to dwell in his entourage and await his favors. Sans Souci is first of all a tribute to the sensibility of a monarch who loved the arts, wrote essays on philosophy, and exchanged puns with his friend Voltaire when he wasn't leading Europe's most efficient army. If Versailles was like a big hotel swarming with nobles, Sans Souci was a retreat for Frederick, who would come with ten or so world class minds. Here, the luminaries of the Enlightenment supped at the Round Table at midnight, discussed the universe, and listened to flute music that the king himself had composed.

Frederick II was the only Hohenzollern to have been called "the Great," but no one could have predicted such glory considering just his early years. Reared by a French governess and a French tutor, he disliked speaking his native German and loathed the prospect of assuming the throne. He quarreled with his crude, militarist father, and in 1730, at the age of eighteen, he actually ran away from home with an army lieutenant. Caught trying to escape Prussia, Frederick was imprisoned and forced to witness the beheading of his companion. The experience was sobering. Frederick knuckled down; he assumed responsibilities and began studying warfare and statecraft along with art and philosophy. In the years to come he would build an army more than twice as large as his father's and lead it brilliantly to battle with the Austrians, the French, and the Russians.

In 1733 Frederick married Elizabeth Christine, daughter of the duke of Brunswick-Bevern, but she didn't play an important role in his life, nor it appears did any other woman. In 1740 he inherited the throne of Prussia. Within a few months he invaded Austria. Five years later, having gained Silesia, he made peace with the Austrian empress, Maria Theresa. For the next decade, Frederick devoted himself to the exquisite life at Sans Souci.

The focal point of Sans Souci is the rotunda, where the Round Table met to discuss the dizzily changing times over fine food and wine. From 1750 to 1753 Voltaire was present at every meal since he was a permanent guest in the palace. Among the other guests were Italian writer Francesco Algarotti and French astronomer Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis.

In his memoirs Voltaire recalls the bachelor suppers in the rotunda, where the backdrop was an erotic painting of nymphs, satyrs, and cupids: "If anyone had suddenly come in, seen this picture, and heard us, he would have believed that the Seven Wise Men of Greece were convening in a brothel. Nowhere in the world were the superstitions of mankind so freely discussed, and nowhere with such ridicule and disdain. God was made an exception, but of all the illusions mankind created in His name, none was spared."

Frederick kept his builders busy at Sans Souci. For the pleasure of his eye as he looked out the windows of the rotunda, the king had false ruins of antiquity constructed on a hill. He built Neptune's Grotto, a decorative pavilion, and because China was believed to be an earthly paradise, he built two pagoda-type buildings, the extravagant Chinese Tea house and the Dragon House.

He built an orangery with lavishly paneled guest rooms. 

For For his art collection, he created the first palatial building devoted entirely to paintings.

The days of the Round Table were short-lived. The king became absorbed in the most trying experience of his life: the Seven Years' War. Frederick suffered numerous defeats, while the Russians, French, and Austrians ravaged his territories of Prussia, Brandenburg, and Silesia. The death of Czarina Elizabeth of Russia in 1762, however, was providential for the King of Prussia. Her successor, Peter III, an admirer of Frederick and a weak ruler, sued for peace, and even placed 18,000 Russian soldiers at Frederick's disposal. The Austrians and French felt bound to make peace as well. Although Prussia had been badly bled of resources, Frederick celebrated his good fortune by erecting the last great monument at Sans Souci, its first symbol of power: the New Palace.