The name of the palace, built by workers for Frederick the Great in the 1740s, is Sanssouci. Meaning ‘carefree’. But everywhere the evidence of great pains taken to ordain the landscape just so. Extremely orderly vegetable rows, the house set on a hill with a precise vista, geometric mowing, lawns punctuated by evenly placed statuary.
No matter how much empire desires order, the chard bolts, the nasturtiums unfurl over everything. It’s not a new thought, but I was struck by it here. The order of the placement of things. My feeling for the correctness of placement an order in and of itself: how some things seem, by dint of a habit of historical association, to belong together. How surprised and not surprised I was to cross a bridge and see the Italianate building there (so beautiful and graceful; so Italian, all of a sudden in the German landscape, a reminder about how recently the invisible lines we call national borders were applied, and how fluidly culture moves across them, even now but certainly in the past of this land and these buildings, if one is only rich enough). The building itself crumbling inside, windows boarded up on the back façade. In an upstairs room I saw a huge black-and-white poster of a Classical statue. Kings may have intents and purposes for their kingdoms, but individual humans/plants/animals—not to mention the movement of tectonic plates, the action of water on concrete and metal, the accumulation of toxins and abrasives in rainwater—tend to circumvent these plans. At least in fragile, minuscule ways.
A palace is an attempt at preservation. For one, the building (even ownership of the land) retains value and pomp and position in ways that currency or gold cannot; ownership of a building like this is not anonymous. It will always have belonged to the emperor. I nearly wrote ‘it will always have been built by F. the G.’, but realized that tic is habitual. The emperor did not build his own house, but his is nearly the only name that remains (yes, the architect is known. But who were the masons?). And now the palace is Historic; a double preserve. Holding the Name in itself, and held from outside by the State which longs to maintain a sense of its past. The Way We Were.
Sanssouci is fascinated with a past it imagines itself into: not only the palace of Now imagining itself into the time of the great emperor, but the palace as it was in 1747 imagining itself (in company with palaces all over Europe, not to mention buildings elsewhere) back into a refracted Classical antiquity. Geometry a demonstration of the perfection of forms. The ‘true style‘—simple and symmetrical. In Man as in Nature (no place for Woman, then, except as allegory to be subdued—domesticated and made to bear fruit).
In the woods (sometimes almost wild, but never so unkempt or uncontrolled that I forgot I was walking on a planned estate—and never far from a paved path, even when I walked on a dirt one), we came across hidden gardens or remnants of gardens. A statue of the empress has been missing since the early part of the last century. There were plinths without busts. A rose garden where the rosebushes were absent and the grass had been mown into the geometric shapes—complex, interlocking circles and rectangles—where they would have been. The follies included a truly hideous ‘Chinese house’ which I thought might be a building brought in by the emperor (like the Chinese Pavilion in Brussels) but which turned out to be this. An overdecorated imperial cupcake. I suppose another right of empire is the right to control the depiction of the other.
As usual the things that appealed to me most were the gardens that were used to produce flowers and vegetables, and to work in—not the formal gardens or lawns or the remnants thereof, but the ‘parent’ gardens (above, where plants are grown for transplanting throughout the park). And also the yellow-ochre house with its cape of rosehips and the server in the outdoor café just behind the house, who made jokes when we asked whether they had tea. We saw maybe a quarter or a fifth of the grounds in an afternoon, and even after so little it was hard to imagine how anyone really could have lived in these places or why they should stand empty as historical markers when there are families who have nowhere to live and when, in the history the houses and grounds are meant to mark, there would have been hundreds of courtiers, royal family members, and servants living in these spaces. The daily life of the human is the first thing to go when it comes to historical sites, I guess. If people lived here, their presence would ruin the effect of timelessness (timelessness in sites like this is the representation of history-in-the-now; history-then is gone and unrepresentable, at least in life, maybe in books it is still there).