Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin
A brief guide to a beautifully restored royal palace
Charlottenburg Palace is a remarkable ensemble of buildings and gardens that demonstrate the wealth and splendour of the Hohenzollern monarchy of Prussia during the 18th and 19th centuries. Situated in the northwest of Berlin, but within easy reach of the centre, it is well worth a whole day visit.
The Palace suffered considerable damage during World War II, but the restoration work was done to a very high standard, so one can be assured that one is seeing the Palace much as it would have appeared to its first royal residents.
The Palace started out as Lietzenburg, a modest summer residence built between 1695 and 1699 for the Electress Sophie Charlotte, the wife of Elector Frederick III of Brandenburg. However, when he declared himself “King Frederick I in Prussia” in 1701, Lietzenburg underwent a major expansion with the main axis stretched out both east and west and – on the city side – two wings built at right-angles to the main building to create the Great Courtyard.
This work was completed in 1702, but Queen Charlotte did not live long to enjoy her private retreat. She died in 1705 at the age of 37, after which King Frederick renamed the palace in her honour and it has been Charlottenburg ever since.
Not much changed at Charlottenburg until the grandson of Frederick and Charlotte became King Frederick II (“Frederick the Great”) in 1740. He commissioned the long eastward extension of the main axis that was known – then and now - as the New Wing. He had the rooms of the extension richly decorated in the Rococo style that was fashionable at the time and indulged his taste for collecting paintings, furniture and objets d’art that were used to fill the spaces.
Frederick’s successor, his nephew King Frederick William II, had some of the rooms redecorated in Neoclassical style and indulged a taste for Chinoiserie – Chinese style.
Later monarchs and their consorts used Charlottenburg to varying degrees and did not make huge changes to the décor. Interest waned after the death of King Frederick William IV, as neither his brother, who succeeded as King William I (and then became the first German Emperor in 1871) lived in the Palace at any time of the year.
After the end of the monarchy following Germany’s defeat in World War I in 1918, Charlottenburg Palace became a field hospital and plans were then put in place to transform it into a museum.
During World War II Berlin suffered considerable air raid damage and during the heaviest raid, on 22nd November 1943, the Palace received several direct hits. These destroyed much of the original structure, including the central domed tower and portions of the wings to the west and east. Fortunately, most of the contents had been placed in safe storage, but nothing could be done to save elements such as many ceiling paintings.
The later reconstruction and restoration were done extremely well, and at great expense, although some of the work proved to be controversial. Most visitors, however, find little to complain about!
A look at some of the rooms
This room was probably used as a conference room by King Frederick I. The walls are hung with red damask wallpaper and gold braid. Portraits of Sophie Charlotte and King Frederick I hang over the doors at each end of the room.
The Porcelain Cabinet
This room was badly damaged during the 1943 air raid and it demonstrates the enormous efforts made at restoration. The porcelain collection of the Hohenzollerns was extensive and a testament to their love of chinoiserie (including pieces from Japan). Most of the pieces currently on display are replacements, there being around 2,700 items predominantly from the K’ang-hsi period (1622-1722). The ceiling painting (much restored) dates from 1706 and shows the goddess Aurora surrounded by personifications of the continents, signs of the zodiac and allegories of the seasons.
The Palace Chapel was consecrated on 5th December 1706, which was after the death of Sophie Charlotte. She had taken particular care over its planning, which she decreed should be “the most richly decorated place of any in her palace”. She certainly got her wish, if only posthumously. Enormous care was taken over its restoration following massive air raid damage, including total reconstruction of the ceiling painting and the organ.
A carved oak pulpit stands opposite the royal gallery, above which a huge golden crown and the Prussian eagle are held aloft by trumpet-blowing angels. Temporal and spiritual power are therefore held in balance and are in accordance with the Hohenzollerns’ Reformed Calvinist faith and their belief in the divine right to rule.
The Golden Gallery
This ballroom is on the upper floor of the New Wing and extends across the whole width, being 42 metres (138 feet) long. It was completely restored between 1961 and 1973 and is a splendid example of Rococo interior design.
The gilt décor features shells, tendrils, flowers and fruits set against green marble-effect stucco.
The most notable feature of this room is the painting “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” by Jacques Louis David (1748-1825). This is one of five versions of the painting made by the artist, each of them being slightly different from the rest. This one was originally housed in the Chateau de Saint-Cloud in Paris, from where it was “liberated” by Count von Blucher after the defeat of Napoleon and presented to King Frederick William III.