I suppose it’s pretty cliche to come to a European capital and see a palace. Another gaudy building honoring a family who had everything, largely while the poor starved. I get it. And yet, each of these terrible beautiful structures has a story to tell, a unique tale, if only we listen.
Today I am at Berlin’s Charlottenburg Palace, a – by European royalty standards – small, domed chateau. Construction here started in 1695 on a tiny palace for Sophie Charlotte, the wife of Frederick I of Prussia. She would die in 1705, and the palace and town (now part of Berlin) would be named in her honor, Charlottenburg. Over the next decade, until his own death in 1713, Charlottenburg Palace would be expanded from a tiny summer home for the queen to a huge center of power for one of Europe’s leading states, Prussia.
This history is a tad bit confusing, so here it goes. Frederick I was born in 1657. Upon the death of his father, he became Frederick III, Elector of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia. In 1701, after petitioning the Holy Roman Emperor for permission, he crowned himself Frederick I, King in Prussia. (Yes, king in, not king of, as there was dispute with the Polish crown over the validity of the newest European kingdom and he didn’t want to ruffle too many feathers.) His house, the house of Hohenzollern, could trace back to 1061, and would ultimately shape 18th and 19th century Europe more than nearly any other. Their lands included territory both within and outside of the Holy Roman Empire, hence the twin titles of Elector and Duke/King. Got it? Yeah, me neither.
Frederick’s reign was marked both by political intrigue (his marriage to Sophie Charlotte of Hanover would be one of the spurs to Prussia being able to ultimately dominate a united Germany down the road) and military preeminence, as Prussia would be one of the main powers allied against Napoleon. In fact, this would begin a few centuries of German-French enmity, as prior to this, Frederick’s father had actually sought alliance with France under Louis XIV. As I said, this family and kingdom would shape much of modern Europe.
Back at Charlottenburg Palace, I do my best to absorb this history, though the toggling back and forth between Frederick III and Frederick I confuses me. The palace was expanded greatly over time, both by Frederick I after his wife’s death, and by his grandson, Frederick II (Frederick the Great, about whom I’ll be writing more at another time). Much of it was destroyed by allied bombing during World War Two, and what visitors tour today is a mixture of original rooms that survived nearly intact, rooms that have been rebuilt as they would have looked during the palace’s heyday, and features that haven’t been redone at all. That makes an exploration pretty interesting, and signage in each room is great at explaining which features (or paintings, pieces of furniture, etc…) are original and which have been either reconstructed or imported from other contemporary palaces of the Prussian dynasty.
Overall, the palace isn’t anywhere near as ostentatious as Versailles (click here to read about Versailles). While there is the ever-present gold inlay, there is also a huge element of floral design. Doors are carved wood rather than shining with golden patterns, and hunting themes (both actual antlers and mythological scenes featuring Diana) give off a slightly more modest vibe than some of the other palaces on the continent.
While the most infamous room of Charlottenburg Palace has not been reconstructed (the Amber Room was said to have been covered in amber, and was made a gift of to Peter the Great), some spectacular rooms still exist. The Porcelain Room is a hideously gaudy (but undeniably impressive) room of priceless Chinese porcelain and carved Asian caricatures, while an upstairs ballroom has some of the best views of the palace’s gardens through both windows and the mirrored walls.
The upstairs of Charlottenburg Palace is now a museum to the Prussian dynasty, from the establishment of the House of Hohenzollern to the fall of the German Empire after World War One. Portraits, huge ornate vases, and – of course – crowns and other trappings of royalty sit side by side with maps of Prussian territories over the years.
As with many palaces, one of the highlights of Charlottenburg Palace is the gardens. Unlike many other palaces, these are free to access, either via the street through a side entrance, or through the gift shop from the front facade of the palace. Flowers line designs made of colored rocks, with a fountain sitting at the center. A lake at the far end is peaceful, and the Spree River flows slowly to one side. If I lived in West Berlin, this would be my daily walk, and I wouldn’t be alone; many Berliners seems to use this as their own backyard or picnic grounds.
In all, a visit to Charlottenburg Palace is a nice way to spend a day in Berlin. It is also a great insight into a monarchy that would play a huge role in European history, and its founder, Frederick I.
Thank you to Charlottenburg Palace for offering free admission to writers.
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