Saturday, 15 February 2014
A short drive of only six kilometres takes me from Oranienbaum to the Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm, Germany’s oldest landscaped park. Because it is a cloudy and cold day in February there are hardly any visitors about, though several extensive parking lots offer a clue to the numbers of people visiting in the warmer seasons. But at this time of year it is possible to wander lonely as a cloud along paths that meander through the grounds, follow waterways, cross bridges, loop around little hills and traverse woodlands. Following these unknown, silent and solitary trails, I find myself once again in my true element.
Created in the late eighteenth century by a great if little known ruler, this garden realm is now a Unesco World Heritage site and one of the loveliest man-made sceneries. Prince Leopold III Friedrich Franz von Anhalt-Dessau, head of a tiny principality and the youngest of Germany’s rulers under King Frederick the Great, had been much impressed on his travels by England’s naturalistic, informal gardens. Inspired by their departure from the symmetry of the baroque garden of the times, the prince introduced this novel concept to his homeland. From the start he also intended his grounds to be accessible to the public as a place of recreation, as well as an educational site where his subjects could inform themselves, refine their cultural taste and learn about new methods of gardening, agriculture and architecture – all in the rational spirit of the Age of Enlightenment.
Between 1765 and 1773 his gardens were laid out – in flat and formerly unattractive land – with the help of the garden architect Eyserbeck, whereas the buildings were designed by his friend von Erdmannsdorff. And while Europe was shaken by the turmoil of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, Prince Leopold was busy creating his own version of Eden on roughly one hundred and fifty square kilometres in the floodplain of the River Elbe.
Earlier, at the tender and impressionable age of seventeen, the prince – descendant of a line of highly-regarded military leaders – was serving in the Prussian army while the Seven Years’ War pitched Prussia against the Austrian empire. Leopold experienced his first battle and was horrified by the reality of warfare. He became seriously ill, resigned forthwith from the military and declared the neutrality of his little realm. King Frederick, outraged, laid a heavy financial penalty upon him for such unheard-of action; but the young prince, instead of raising taxes, sold the family silver and other valuables from his private assets to meet this crushing demand. Then he set about improving the living conditions in his land, making use of all he had learnt on his Grand Tour. Dams were built to keep the recurring floods at bay, marshy grounds were drained, fields reclaimed and agriculture revived. The prince set up a flourishing tree nursery, encouraged the breeding of cattle and sheep, and – himself an excellent horseman – initiated the breeding of fine horses for export. Thus the economy recovered and supported Leopold’s wide-ranging improvements in the social realm. In the considered opinion of a historian, “Leopold III can be regarded as a pioneer of sustainability. Here, the magic triangle of sustainable economy, ecology and social affairs had been achieved in an exemplary manner.”
Wikipedia features the following heartwarming summary of Prince Leopold’s interests and mission: “An Anglophile and strong supporter of the Enlightenment, Leopold took special interest in the education of the population of his principality in science and nature. His numerous reforms in the areas of education, health care, social services, roads, agriculture, forestry, and industry made Anhalt-Dessau one of the most modern and prosperous of the small German states. The most conspicuous of his improvements included planting fruit trees along dykes and the construction of beautiful buildings. However his reforms included public works programs repairing dykes destroyed by flooding, providing social housing, education, sanitation, the first public parks, burial grounds irrespective of social rank, as well as liberal policies towards the Jewish community, including allowing for the founding of a Jewish school and the first Jewish newspaper in Germany.”
By those familiar with his achievements, Leopold III of Anhalt-Dessau is regarded as one of the three most exemplary rulers of German lands at the time (and, it seems fair to say, probably of all lands at all times). His subjects referred to him as their father, as ‘Vater Franz’; and Napoleon himself, impressed by Leopold’s reputation (if not his pacifist stance), invited him to Paris.
“Ich glaubte, den äußeren Menschen und seine Verhältnisse müsse man erst verändern, dann werde der innere Mensch wohl von selbst sich bessern,” was his opinion. (“I believed that one had to begin by improving people’s external circumstances, then their inner nature would follow suit of itself.”) His last words are reported as “Man muss für Arbeit sorgen. Darauf kommt alles an.” (“One has to provide work. That is all-important.”) It makes me wonder why this admirable man is so little known and talked about. Surely, governments and heads of state ought to look to him and learn from his example.
As one wanders among the trees, attractive, historic buildings come into view every once in a while. First and foremost among these is the prince’s Wörlitz Palace, modelled on an English mansion and finished in 1773, with the high steeple of St Peter’s Church beside it reflected in the water amongst floating swans and flocks of ducks.
At this time of year, the park is reduced to the bare bones of its layout. Trees without foliage allow for vistas that will be veiled by green later on. The water surface, still unbroken by leaves of water lilies and gondolas, reflects the light like burnished pewter. Swans are grazing in adjacent fields. One feels one has strayed into a painting; the living portrait of a nobler age.
Set in a small, Grecian temple are two marble tablets. Their chiselled inscriptions quote the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, describing a walk in these gardens in a letter to Charlotte von Stein on May 14th 1778, at a season when they looked their best:
“Hier ist’s jetzt unendlich schön. Mich hat’s gestern Abend, wie wir durch die Seen, Kanäle und Wäldchen schlichen, sehr gerührt, wie die Götter dem Fürsten erlaubt haben, einen Traum um sich herum zu schaffen. Es ist, wenn man so durchzieht, wie ein Märchen, das einem vorgetragen wird, und hat ganz den Charakter der Elysischen Felder. In der sachtesten Mannigfaltigkeit fliesst eins in das andere, keine Höhe zieht das Aug’ und das Verlangen auf einen einzigen Punkt, man streicht herum ohne zu fragen wo man ausgegangen ist und hinkommt. Das Buschwerk ist in seiner schönsten Jugend, und das ganze hat die reinste Lieblichkeit.”
(“Here it’s infinitely beautiful at this time. Yesterday evening, as we wandered about the lakes, canals and woodlands, I was much moved that the Gods granted the Prince to create such a dream all about him. Ambling through it all, it is as if one were presented a fairy-tale, and it has fully the nature of the Elysian fields. In the gentlest variety one view flows into the next, no height attracts one’s eye and desire to a single point, one roams without asking where one started or means to arrive. The bushes are in their most splendid youth, and the whole is of the purest loveliness.”)
He too walked these same paths, took in these same views … and his description helps me to picture the scenery in summertime.