“At Potsdam, at Potsdam there is the wherewithal to make us happy.”
Fredrick the Great from the memoirs of his reader, Henri de Catt – 1758-1760
The enchanting landscape of lakes and forests surrounding Potsdam had captured the imagination of the Prussian Empire’s royal family, dating back to the 16th century. These hunting grounds inspired Fredrick the Great to create his own retreat there – Sans-Souci. Drawn out of his love of the place and a longing to the escape from the life of the court, the name itself reflects the ideal dreamscape he had in mind – Sans-Souci – “without care” – creating a place that reflects the absence of protocol, where life is dedicated to the Arts, Nature and the delight of conversations. A place where this feeling can still be captured to this day.
So dear to his heart, the design for his Summer Palace was based on his own sketches and he would integrate his vision of a simple retreat for family and friends into the landscape.
Grand, yet intimate in scale and plan – the single story Rococo villa was designed and built by Georg W. von Knoblesdorff. The building’s central rotunda was ornamented by sculptural hermes and its framing linear wings evokes a sense of the grandeur of the period, as they overlook the ripple of vine terraces which descend the hill below, where a vineyard and orchard covers six stepped stone curving terraced retaining walls.
Walking the terraces, you can feel Virgil’s inspiration to Frederick, to create a landscape shaped by man but true to nature and most of all the vine. Each wall contains twenty eight inset, glass- doored niches containing figs and vines. Between the niches, espaliered cherries, apricots and peaches are spaced along the stone wall creating a colorful and fragrant fruit orchard, taking full advantage of the variation of seasons.
Despite the rich embellishment of the villa itself, the isolated siting and integration into the landscape has much more the feeling of a hermitage than a royal palace. Extending out from either side of the villa, a trellis-work framed by pavilions make the width of the garden and is framed on either side by avenues of five rows of chestnut and walnut trees enclosing the central parterre below, with its cutwork sections – each with an extravagant selection of flowers, arranged around a quatrefoil pool and fountain. The gravel’s crunch below your feet as you walk out into the parks carries you into an extended landscape through narrow, framing axes cutting across the surrounding forest to vistas beyond.
Despite his wishes, the grounds and park of Sans Souci would have a life beyond Fredrick II – he had intended it to be for his life alone and saw it as a living building destined to become a romantic ruin after he was gone. His heir the Crown Prince Frederick William would add his own mark to the park in time, exceed the vision of his father. On lands that at the time were adjacent to Sans Souci, his father would make a Christmas gift of them for his son and his wife to create a place of their own. Working on the foundations of an already existing farm house, Frederick would engage Karl Schinkel with the help of his student Ludwig Persius, to design a small Neo-Classical palace in the image of a roman villa.
Like his father before him, he was integrally involved in the planning process and worked with both Schinkel and Persius to realize this idealized roman form complete with its inspired interiors, garden spaces and out buildings. In what at first seems a very simple siting of the villa, the experience is as vivid and playful in the garden as it is the interior spaces, all aligned to follow the trajectory of the sun and the play of light during different seasons. Walking up through a vine covered, trellised pergola, the land and your perspective are constantly manipulated to create a distinctive setting within the larger park. Intimate courts with delicately scaled fountains and runnels connect the villa’s portico to an exedra terrace under a dramatic tented vine that carries over to a lower garden court.
Making a formal connection to, but also leaving behind the Sans Souci, landscape architects Hermann Sello and Peter Joseph Lenne would transform this flat and marshy landscape into an English styled interpretation of the villa form and its gardens with the treatment of follies along wandering paths – discoveries within the broader landscape – like the Schinkel’s elegant Roman Bath House whose loggias and courts create its own exceptional gardenscape whose details and interiors reflect a contemporary expression of the roman myth of our imagination;
or the Chinese Tea House by Johann Buring, whose blending of Rococo ornament with Chinoiserie creates and exotic pavilion to adorn the flower and vegetable garden.
Frederick IV would also add the great Orangeries Palace, built in the style of the Italian Renaissance and influenced by the Uffizi and Villa Medici in Florence. The grandeur and inventiveness of the architecture here is almost unmatched in the park. Again using the terracing of a hillside, this exceeds its function creating some of the most engaging spaces in the park. Lenne would shape his gardens for this space from these and other inspirations – the Paradise garden below with its grottos and more Italianate influences, the Norse garden with its great grotto like stone entry portal and its tall pines lining garden paths lies to the east and the Sicilian Garden with its abundant palms, laurels and myrtles, framed by the dappled light of arcades and the sounds of gently lapping fountains line sun drenched to the south.