Once Upon a Time There Was a Garden Where Now There Are Five Museums

Raffaela Rondini
Altes Museum

This bit of earth so close to the river was set up for the first time in 1600 not only as a garden of medicinal herbs, but as a botanical garden containing both exotic and aquatic plants where you would also like to walk. And thus it was known as the Lustgarten or Pleasure Garden. When tourists disembark from their buses at these ex-gardens where the cathedral and all the classical museums have flowered, they hear a dry and peremptory voice announce the stop: Lustgarten! something which always inspires a sudden smirk.

The Museum Island has gone and superimposed itself both historically and nominally upon the so-called Pleasure Garden, but the Pleasure Garden has been conserved in the name of the bus stop and the passengers’ snickers. Furthermore, a residual, ancestral memory of sensual pleasure can be found in the little hidden room known as the Garten der Lüste, which is on the first floor of the oldest of the five museums, the Altes Museum, and which just so happens to be located where the section dedicated to the splendid Roman villas with their mosaics, their statues, and their infinite collection of precious silver dishware is to be found. In this little side room, ancient objects of an erotic nature are exhibited, from paintings of excited satyrs jumping out from behind rocks to undress nymphs to scenes of love between satyrs and hermaphrodites, those transsexual beauties of the ancients, those children of gorgeous Venus and lively, mutable Mercury; from hetero and homosexual erotic sequences to sex between young girls and animals; and on to phallic-shaped Roman lamps, bells, and good-luck charms of every dimension; the torso of Venus…but where were we?

At the end of the 18th century, we were saying, they wanted to construct an ideal of history, art, and Prussian pride on the grounds of the botanical pleasure garden at a time when the very idea of the museum was developing throughout the rest of Europe as well.

The word “museum” is ancient and is related to the Muses, those protective goddesses of art, culture, and science. In Hellenistic times, the museum was the place where you could find the famous library of Alexandria, but what we mean by the term today is a relatively young concept.

Up until the 18th century, the collections of artefacts of historical and artistic value were private property and were not exhibited to the public. At that time, common people did not have direct access to wisdom; after all, they didn’t even have schools or a public culture. Pieces of a heterogeneous origin or even connected to a common theme were exhibited in private studies, in so-called Kabinetts, in rooms dedicated to art, in the halls often connected to libraries, in castles or in patricians’ homes. For example, there was the silver room, the natural objects room, the map room, the sculpture room, etc.

In Prussia, official talk about presenting the beauties of antiquity to the public first began in earnest in 1797. The first museum in Europe was founded in London in 1753, while in Germany it was to be that of Kassel in 1779.

If you consider that at the end of 1810 Berlin still did not have a university, you can imagine how the idea of hosting ancient works in an honorable space was one of the very first steps taken in the direction of turning the city into a capital of rank.

Up until a little less than two centuries ago, the Prussian capital – repeatedly oppressed and occupied by soldiers from Austria, France, Russia, and from every who-knows-where – was a very pragmatic and militaristic city and had very little to do with letters or anything resembling a court. In Berlin, the nobility would come all at once to pass a couple of weeks between December and January – as long as the season of balls, theatre performances, and concerts lasted – and then, as there was nothing else of interest, leave again. The common people made do in order to survive while a small circle of enlightened intellectuals and travelers met privately in so-called literary salons – one night at one person’s home, the next at another’s – to talk about how lively other cities in Germany and throughout the world were, and to pass on the echoes of the French Revolution.

Every now and again a democratically exterminating wave of cholera appeared, but for the most part society remained structured in a rather rigid way. The habitués of the salons were polyhedrically cultured and had been formed in a classical and cosmopolitan manner and, vivacious and sensitive as they were, at times praised one another and at others indignantly tore one another to shreds. Be that as it may, they always animated the air of Brandenburg with ideals and knowledge. This intellectual ferment, however, ran smack up against the ambition and pride of the sovereigns who were more or less determined to transform the Prussian capital into a beautiful and lively city or, as started to be said at the time, an “Athens on the Spree.”

At that time, here in Berlin men like Friedrich Schinkel – designer, painter, and architect, not to mention Superintendent to the Prussian Building Commission and personal friend of the extremely cultured Wilhelm von Humboldt, Minister of Culture and the founder, in 1810, of the University of Berlin – were active.

Schinkel was asked to build the first museum of the island, the one we now call the Altes Museum. Constructed between 1825 and 1830, it was still completed with raw material and ancient manufacturing methods. To construct the foundation alone – which, essentially, consisted of planting 3000 posts into the water by purely mechanical means – took two years. Just a single post required a squad of about fifteen workers.

At the end of an incredible amount of effort, you could see that which for many is the most important of Schinkel’s buildings and the most impressive example of German classicism. In fact, right before our eyes there still stands this portico recalling the stoa of ancient Greece where the philosophers would walk, discoursing among themselves and their disciples on every subject under the sun. The portico of Berlin is not meant to protect philosophers from the sun, but to gradually harmonize the open space of the square with the building’s internal mass in a sublime fashion. Even if only with your eyes, once you have climbed up the extremely wide and peaceful staircase – crowned by eighteen elegant Ionic columns that correspond to the eighteen, perfectly arranged Prussian eagles perched up on the roof, nine to the east and nine to the west –, you are ready to immerse yourself in history.

Ancient Greece and Rome are the civilizations of honor in the magnificent Altes Museum. With its gigantic Corinthian columns, the rotunda at the entrance is like a miniature Pantheon with the exception that the skylight here is covered by glass. There are Greek and Roman statues both on the ground floor and up on the balcony of the circular hall, which are surrounded by a beautiful golden balustrade. The most impressive thing about this space, however, might just be its splendid warm and soft colors: from the cream of the columns to the peach of the walls, from the shades of antique pink to the salmon of the ceiling coffers, and, finally, the Pompeian red of the upper walls that make the pure white statues stand out all the more in their pleasant, enchanting, and ancient harmony.

The vault is a secret surprise enclosed inside the building because, at the time, only churches or imperial palaces were officially allowed to be externally covered by cupolas. In the central room behind the rotunda, we find the famous Betender Knabe, or Praying Boy, doing the honors of literally receiving us with open arms. Today it is not our intention to illustrate all the objects on display, a lifetime would not be enough, but more than a statue, this young boy is a myth.

Praying Boy

The boy was sculpted in Rhodes in 300 BC or, as we said before, here in East Berlin, 300 v.u.Z.; which is to say, vor unserer Zeit i.e. before our time. He was re-found in 1505, that is, 1800 years later, still as young as ever but missing his left foot as well as his forearms. The limbs, however, had not been lost. He was brought to Venice in the second half of the 16th century and there his foot was reattached. After that, he traveled to England and then to France, like a Baroque globetrotter. By the middle of 17th century, he had new arms and even new eyes so that he could see a new world. The wound on his neck was taken care of, as were the three cuts on his legs and his toes.

As new as he was, at the beginning of 1700s he went to Vienna and there he was painted black. In 1717 he was sold to Prince Eugenio of Savoia for 18,000 franks only to be bought in 1747 for 5,000 thalers by Frederick II to be shown off in his beautiful park of Sanssouci. The young Greek boy stoically weathered all the storms but his lovely body was once again ruined. He therefore was moved to the inside of the castle until he was abducted by Napoleon and briefly put on display in the Louvre before once again being liberated and brought back to Berlin. The 19th century provided him with new arms once more, and his body was retouched.

After the war, the handsome boy was to go the Soviet Union where he would remain until 1958. In 1998, however, he took up his role here to play host to visitors from all over the world, an eternal adolescent of sublime allure, just like the city of which he is part. Kalimera! Guten Tag!

The Neues Museum, or New Museum, was built next and got its name so as to distinguish it from the first, in perfect accordance with the iron nature of Prussian logic. At that time, however, the first museum wasn’t known as the Altes Museum, but the Königliches Museum or Royal Museum. Thus the name Neues Museum is older than the name Altes Museum, a chronological joke or, if you like, an excess of Prussian logic.

For the moment, we have to let some years go by before the Pergamon is reopened and have to entertain ourselves with something, we shall add, just for conversation’s sake, that the Neues Museum is host to, in spite of the name and the proverbial precision of these places, the oldest artifacts, that is, those that have to do with pre-history, ancient Egypt and the Middle Ages, another chronological trompe l’oeil. Naturally, however, there is a granite-like explanation.

If the Altes Museum was the work of the great classical artist and visionary Friedrich Schinkel, the Neues Museum was constructed according to plans by Friedrich August Stüler in more of a historical than artistic sense thanks to the profound conviction that only those who knew history could appreciate art. The decades at the middle of the 19th century were indeed characterized by a true furor, an unrestrained passion for history.

Neues Museum

The Neues Museum is therefore not simply Museum a patre beatissimo conditum ampliavit filius MDCCCLV as is rhetorically written up on the pediment, it is not only an extension of the Altes Museum Frederick Wilhelm IV desired in honor of his father Frederick Wilhelm III who, for his part, wanted the Altes Museum, but something truly new in its scope. And we can immediately discover this modern soul even in the way it was constructed.

Only a little more than ten years had passed from the inauguration of Schinkel’s museum when construction of the Neues Museum began in 1843. Now, as we know, not all decades are alike. In that handful of years, the Prussian capital, in addition to being possessed by the love of history, had become possessed by technical progress. Let us not forget that Berlin would soon become one of the most important cities of the Industrial Revolution. In just a few years, AEG, Osram, the pharmaceutical company Schering, and AGFA would all be born here and the surrounding area in no time at all would be transformed from a wilderness of military camps into an oppressive industrial and working-class city full of gray and insalubrious workers’ quarters with the workers themselves lacking food and decimated by various epidemics.

The first big factory in Berlin was Borsig. It saw the light of day in 1837 and would grow to be the second biggest producer of locomotives in the world. The Neues Museum was thus constructed with the help of a Borsig steam engine, which helped transport materials and plant the wooden foundation piles in the mud. The foundation of the Neues Museum was therefore finished in the arc of only a year while, as we saw, it took two years to complete that of the Altes Museum. In addition, they used a great deal of iron for the framework and so, as a result, the building immediately took on its slim and elegant and definitively new appearance.

Naturally, of course, it also had its critics who saw only a lack of solidity – and thus a lack of the guarantee of any sense of longevity – in modern technology and the building’s lightness. And as a sign of such new times, from the southern end of the building, that closest to the Altes Museum, a timid cupola arose, one whose room functioned as an elegant intersection between the two buildings by means of a passageway. From the southern cupola’s room you only had to walk down eleven steps, say hello to a painting Constantine accepting Christianity, and step into the Altes Museum. The same went for the other direction: you walked up the eleven steps and met in turn the “Portrait of Emperor Augustus” and you were in the Neues Museum. Sadly, this most interesting of communicative passageways between the Old and the New, together with the timid cupola and a host of other beautiful things, was destroyed by the bombs in the last war.

Alte Nationalgalerie

The Alte Nationalgalerie was primarily the result of banker Joachim Heinrich Wilhelm Wagener’s final wish to dedicate his collection of more than 260 works to Kaiser Wilhelm I on the condition that a National Gallery be founded. In 1861, works were begun according to plans by the aforementioned Stüler. However, he died in 1865 without being able to see his work finished; the completion of this ancient temple raised up on its 12-meter (39 feet) base which you entered by using a two-sided staircase was thus left for the architect Johann Heinrich Strack to complete. In reality, however, you comfortably enter from below through the deep, arched portal and the solemn staircase is primarily ornamental, crowned by an imposing equestrian statue of Frederick Wilhelm III.

The building was inaugurated in 1876, but on its frontispiece you can read the date of German unification, 1871, a little chronological stretch which suits the patriotic dedication Der Deutschen Kunst, To German Art, rather well.

The museum was therefore supposed to have collected, above all, German art but, nevertheless, from the very beginning its collection took a rather international turn.

Hugo von Tschudi, a passionate lover of modern art – in those days represented primarily by the scandalous Impressionist painters who were, lest we forget, French, which is to say, the most recent of enemies –,  was named director.

In just a few years, the Museum of German Art was suddenly full of Impressionist paintings, more than any other museum in the world. Over the years, this fed a sense of resentment in more conservative souls and led to the termination of the innovative and cosmopolitan von Tschudi’s mandate in 1908.

Bode Museum

The Bode Museum only received its current name after the war in 1956 in honor of the cultured director of all the museums of the island, Wilhelm von Boden, a law-abiding man with a passion for art who, thanks to his temper, was also known as the “Bismarck of the Museums.”  Built between 1896 and 1904 by court architect Ernst von Ihne, at first it was to be dutifully called the Kaiser Friedrich Museum.

This building of a late-Renaissance/Baroque feel evocatively rises at the extreme point of the island and, like the prow of a mighty ship, seems to split the waters of the Spree from its small tributary, the canal known as the Kupfergraben. Naturally, it required great effort to erect this imposing cargo ship of terra ferma almost on the water.

Bode Museum

With the Bode Museum, everything has been theatrically conceived in order to amaze, just as in the best examples of Baroque art. The objects have been exhibited in chronological order and, of course, according to historical epoch with an emphasis on Gothic, Romanic, Renaissance and Baroque art. However, they have also been arranged heterogeneously, as if to suggest more emotional and global interpretations.

The two opulent ramps of the large staircase twist and turn and have nothing in common with the classical, clear, and geometrical stairs of the Altes and Neues Museum or the Alte Nationalgalerie. The Baroque of the Bode Museum is clear and airy and therefore far removed from the decorative heaviness of the Italian or Spanish Baroque of the 1600s. In the end, it is a 20th century neo-Baroque, maybe even a bit of a child of Art Deco: snow white, smooth, and trimmed with gold. Even the bathrooms by the entrance are presented to the whole world with pride, their theatrical Damen and Herren written in highly visible letters in the friezes above their respective doorways, a great conquest of early 20th century Berlin.

The Pergamon Museum was the last to be built, and under great strain, between 1912 and 1930; that is, in the years of the First World War, the great inflation and world economic crisis. It was planned by the architect Alfred Messel and completed by his friend and colleague Ludwig Hoffmann with the primary intention of housing the Pergamon Altar. Today, with its millions of annual visitors, it is the most frequented of the five museums.

Up until 1958, it was still annoyingly referred to as the Museumsneubau, the New Building of the Museum, but, with time, the muscular altar, honoris causa, swallowed it up with a much more straight-forward name.

Here, however, in the name of truth we must remind you that there had been an earlier attempt to construct the Pergamon. It was inaugurated in 1901 but, after only seven years, was knocked down in 1908 for being unstable. What we now see is thus really Pergamon 2.0 or its second life.

In the end, the fact that today its most famous rooms are closed to the public due to the long-standing renovations allows it to remain elegantly aloof.

At this moment, the future James Simon Gallery consists of pumps, containers, scaffolding, floating barges on the Kupfergraben carrying caterpillar-tracked cranes, lots of sand and mud, and the continuous sound of yelling and drilling and motors and booms.

Nevertheless, Pergamon 2.0 in all its wisdom is aware of the fact that everything changes form and is simply awaiting the arrival of “Modern Times” to come.

( Translated by Alexander Booth )

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3 years ago