My previous visit to Berlin, three and a half years ago, was mainly in the city centre ie what was East Berlin – this time I spent a couple of nights in Charlottenburg, to the west, and then passed through Potsdam, a small city to the southwest of Berlin – both are known for their massive Baroque and Rococo palaces, which would not ordinarily be my preferred style but which would in fact blow almost anyone away. Berlin (and the surrounding state of Brandenburg) were once full of these over-the-top statements of royal power, but the Royal Palace (the Berliner Schloss) and the City Palace in Potsdam (the Potsdamer Stadtschloss) were destroyed in World War II. There was really no need to rebuild them, but they have been – the Schloss has been recreated to house the Humboldt Forum, due to open in 2021 (as mentioned in my previous post but of course delayed by Covid-19), and the City Palace in Potsdam was rebuilt by 2013 and now houses Brandenburg’s parliament. Some of the historic furniture from both palaces is now in the Charlottenburg Palace.
The Hohenzollern rulers of Prussia wanted to set themselves up as equal to the French monarchs in particular, so they had to out-do Versailles and its satellite palaces; on my previous trip to Germany I was also struck by the row of Versailles-type palaces facing France along what is now the German side of the border, erected by far less powerful princes and bishops in cities such as Baden-Baden, Rastatt and Mannheim, but I never managed to write up a blog post.
In Charlottenburg (as in Potsdam) there are various palaces and annexes to be visited, so the Charlottenburg+ day ticket is a wise investment. Even so, it was a bit of a hassle to get started at the Old Palace, and then it was a stop-start process of waiting for other people’s audioguides to finish in each room (no overtaking, due to Covid-19). This is the central section of the complex, facing you as you enter through ceremonial gates from Spandauer Damm; in the 1690s this was the rural village of Litzow, and the country retreat built for Sophia Charlotte, wife of Friedrich I, Elector of Brandenburg, was christened Lietzenburg. In 1701 Friedrich proclaimed himself King of Prussia and in 1702 began a massive expansion of the palace, which he renamed after Sophia Charlotte’s death in 1705. His grandson Friedrich II (Frederick the Great), who came to the throne in 1740, added the east wing or New Palace, but also built Sanssouci at Potsdam (see below) and decided he preferred to spend time there; his successors Friedrich Wilhelm II, III and IV did spend much of their time in the New Palace, so many suites of rooms have been repeatedly redesigned, although always to the highest level of luxuriousness. Rococo interiors predictably feature large quantities of complicated white and gold mouldings, but in fact the Berlin-Brandenburg (or Frederician) variant is subtler than some others, with a surprising use of negative space and contrast. The palace was badly damaged in World War II and rebuilt, with furniture and furnishings drawn from other palaces that did not survive.
Highlights of the Old Palace include Sophia Charlotte’s Glass Bedchamber and Porcelain Cabinet, and the chapel, which is decorated in the most over-the-top Counter-Reformation Catholic style and totally unProtestant. The communion table was carved by Charles King, a student of Grinling Gibbons in England who moved to Berlin and died there in 1756 aged almost 100; he was also probably responsible for the oak carvings in the Old Gallery. There’s a lot of art as well, but eighteenth-century French painting is not to my taste – still, there are a lot by Watteau. In Sophia Charlotte’s second apartment, there’s Bathsheba Bathing by the workshop of Rembrandt, and paintings by Bronckhorst and other Dutch artists.
In the New Palace, the White Hall and Golden Gallery are beautiful Rococo confections, and there are rooms in Chinese, Etruscan and Neoclassical styles, the latter including Queen Luisa’s bedchamber, designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (see below) in 1810. There’s a wider range of art here, with sculptures by Rauch, Johann Gottfried Schadow (1764-1850, famed for the quadriga chariot on top of the Brandenburg Gate) and his son Rudolf Schadow (1786-1822), and paintings by Gérard, David, Carle Vernet, Friedrich Wilhelm von Schadow (1789–1862, also a son of Johann Gottfried) and Karl Blechen (1798-1840). As a travel writer I was pleased to see the great paintings by Friedrich Georg Weistch of Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bompland with a view of Chimborazo in Ecuador (1810), and of Krusenstern in Kamchatka, with remarkably similar volcanoes! Upstairs there’s more fluffy stuff by Watteau, Lancret, Boucher and Rigaud, and also one ‘studio of Rubens’ and others by Antoine Pesne (1683-1757), another Frenchman who was court painter to three successive kings of Prussia between 1711 and 1757, and a fine portraitist.
Behind the palaces (to the north) are large formal gardens that are open to the public (with a fairly poor cycle route along the river); just north of the New Palace is the New Pavilion, built in 1825 by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, whose Neoclassical architecture largely defines Berlin to this day; there’s a good display here on his work, not only architecture but also interior design and furniture, aiming for a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art (an idea made famous by Wagner from 1849); he was also a self-taught painter, and designed the Iron Cross medal. Also in the park are the Belvedere (1788), a viewpoint tower, and the Mausoleum (1810), a Doric temple designed with Schinkel’s help for the tomb of Queen Luise, who was very popular and died suddenly at just 34; the marble sculpture on her tomb is a masterpiece by Christian Daniel Rauch. Both are closed from November to March, but the Belvedere was in fact already shut in October 2020 due to Covid-19.
Across the Spandauer Damm, the buildings that form a symmetrical counterpoint to the Old Palace gates, now house a couple of fine museums. Known as the Stülerbauten, after the architect FA Stüller, they were built in 1851-9 to house the palace guard; the western block, once the officers’ mess and from 1937 a training centre for Nazi detectives and Gestapo officers (including Klaus Barbie, the ‘Butcher of Lyon’), now houses the Museum Berggruen, a superb collection of modern art (in 2013 it expanded into the former commandant’s house to the west). It’s rightly known for its superb Picassos (mostly pre-World War II) but is also strong on Klee, Matisse and Giacometti, and has works by Braque, Henri Laurens and Cézanne too.
Since 2008 the Eastern Stülerbau has housed the Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection, dedicated to surrealist art and the fantastic since the eighteenth century (some brilliant Piranesis and Goyas); mercifully there’s just one small Dalí, but there are weird prints by Charles Méryon, Ensor and Klinge, some very atypical Manet prints of Poe’s The Raven, and four pieces by the writer Victor Hugo. Upstairs there’s a fairly representative collection of Ernst, Picabia, Man Ray, Grosz, de Chirico, Hans Bellmer, Dubuffet, André Masson, Miró, Magritte, Victor Brauner, Schwitters and Hans Arp, sculptures by Henri Laurens, and a room of Klees. In 1967, the stables were taken over by the Egyptian Museum, which moved to Museum Island in 2005; however a couple of huge columns and gateways remain here (the columns from Abusir were stored in the Charlottenburg Palace when it was bombed and cracked due to water from the firehoses, and were only reassembled in the 1980s). Your ticket for the Berggruen Museum is valid here too, so you might as well make time to visit.
Incidentally, Charlottenburg remained independent from Berlin until 1920; from 1862 villas were built here, and it then developed into an important town (an opera house opened in 1912, and from 1918 to 1946 it was the administrative centre of the province of Brandenburg). In the Weimar era the Kurfürstendamm (or Ku’damm) was known for its cafés and cabarets, and after World War II it became the commercial and entertainment district of West Berlin. It is still known for department stores, boutiques and restaurants and is I suppose the Kensington of Berlin.
It’s not too far south, beyond the Westkreuz railway junctions, to Dahlem, another village incorporated into Berlin in 1920 that also became an affluent villa district; the insurance magnate Otto Gerstenberg had a villa in Dahlem, where his grandson Dieter Scharf was born; together they created the Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection (see above), and Heinz Berggruen (see above as well) was buried here. There’s an attractive half-timbered U-Bahn station with a thatched roof, and it’s the starting point for a pleasant cycle route to Berlin’s botanic garden and the woods and lakes between Berlin and Potsdam.
After World War II the US Army’s headquarters in Berlin were here, on Clayallee (named after General Lucius D. Clay, the mastermind of the Berlin Airlift); a couple of years ago I met an American whose uncle had stayed in Berlin after World War II, marrying a local woman and becoming fluent in colloquial German, and spent his whole career in US intelligence, handing over bags of cash on bridges in exchange for prisoners, and so on. After 1948 the Free University of Berlin, set up to counter the increasingly communist universities in what became East Berlin, was based in Dahlem (it’s still very active), and some of West Berlin’s most important museums were built here (see my previous post). Since 2016 most of these have been closed, with the collections of the Museum of Asian Art and the Ethnological Museum moving to the new Humboldt Forum in the centre, now due to open in 2021. The Museum of European Cultures will remain in Dahlem.
The modernist red-brick Jesus-Christus-Kirche (dating from 1932) was the base of pastor Martin Niemöller, one of the most outspoken Christian opponents of Nazism (known for his poem that begins First they came for the socialists…); after World War II it became the main rehearsal and recording space of the Berlin Philharmonic, and where they meet in conclave to elect their chief conductors.
Potsdam’s palaces and parks
From Charlottenburg I cycled through the Grunewald woods (and via the grave of the writer Heinrich von Kleist and his lover) to Potsdam (also easily reached by S-Bahn and regional express trains), where the princes of Brandenburg and then Prussia built more grand palaces. A settlement was established in the tenth century (well before Berlin) on the site of a Slavic fortress, and the town on the site of the present Alter Markt followed after about 1200. It became a princely residence in 1660, and from 1685 was home to thousands of French Huguenots (followed in the 1730s and 1740s by Protestants from Austria, Dutch builders and gardeners, Russian soldiers and Jews), and it was a military base from 1713 and then a major manufacturing centre.
Friedrich II (Frederick the Great) rebuilt the centre, creating one of the most beautiful Baroque squares in Europe, a twenty-year process that was concerned entirely with façades and not with what might be behind them. He also created Sanssouci (1744-7), perhaps the finest Rococo palace, although it’s actually tiny, initially with just ten main rooms, followed by the Neues Palais (New Palace; 1763-9) a couple of kilometres away on the western side of the Sanssouci park; this was intended only for occasional use for receptions and state visits but is still absolutely immense and very splendid (it did end up being the preferred residence of Kaiser Bill, Wilhelm II, until 1918). Only a few rooms are open, and be sure to to go to the right from the Shell Grotto to the Marble Gallery and then back, or you’ll miss one (there are no signs, and it’s easy to miss); this is not to be confused with the spectacular Marble Hall above. Facing it symmetrically to the west, the Comuns are two matching buildings linked by a colonnade, that housed kitchens and other services plus accommodation for servants and guards; they were finally linked to the palace by a tunnel in 1896, and are now the headquarters of the new University of Potsdam.
Friedrich Wilhelm IV (reigned 1840-61) also had grandiose plans, sketching out a two-kilometre-long Via Triumphalis and aiming, with Schinkel, Ludwig Persius and the landscape architect Peter Joseph Lenné, to turn Potsdam into a Gesamtkunstwerk (see above) with buildings blending seamlessly with the landscape. They built a belvedere and the Temple of Pomona, Roman baths, the Italianate Church of Peace (as a royal mausoleum), a pumping station disguised as a mosque, and most famously the Orangery (1851-64), based on the Villa d’Este at Tivoli, and the Charlottenhof.
I don’t remember much of my first visit, in about 1990, except for the cute and very photographable red squirrels in the park (I enjoyed the urban red squirrels in Berlin on this most recent visit); this time the highlight was the Picture Gallery, next to Sanssouci Palace, built for Friedrich II in 1755-63, essentially one large hall, all white and gold with marble taken from Roman ruins. Two or three rows of paintings hang facing south, with some glare, and organised by schools (ie countries), which was a new idea at the time. There are a lot by Rubens (and school of and workshop of Rubens, and The Battle of Hercules & the Amazons, by Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder), Caravaggio’s Doubting Thomas, a striking Lievens (Man in Oriental Costume), and more by Flinck, de Gelder, Jordaens, van Honthorst, van Dyck, and a few Italians such as Procaccini, Bassano and Guido Reni. There are no Rembrandts now, although a couple were removed to the Altes Galerie in 1829. I entered at the top and emerged in the gardens below, although that may be a temporary response to Covid-19.
The city centre was heavily damaged in the closing days of World War II, and was then subjected to Soviet-style town planning; now they seem to be ‘doing a Dresden’ and trying to rebuild it as it was, at least on the surface. The rebuilt City Palace (built in 1763-9) now houses the state parliament, and the Barberini Palace next door (1771-2) reopened in 2017, putting on temporary art exhibitions, based on the Impressionist collection of Hasso Plattner, co-founder of the software company SAP. In the Old Town Hall (1753-5), the Potsdam Museum offers free entry to its history galleries on the top floor (and paid entry to art exhibitions downstairs) – it’s not entirely clear on the development of the royal palaces and parks, but is strong on the twentieth century in particular (in German and English). There are also film and natural history museums in Potsdam, among others.