Berlin’s Peacock Island (Pfaueninsel)

William Thirteen explores art and artifice in ‘Prussia’s Arcadia’…

‘On Rabbit Island neither the merest tree nor bush may ever be felled again!’

With this bold edict in 1793 Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm II took possession of a small island in the Havel river, erected a fairy tale castle for his favourite mistress and re-christened it Pfaueninsel. While he disported himself here among the peacocks for only two short summers before dying in 1797, Friedrich’s royal proclamation initiated a playful discourse between untamed nature and carefully cultivated artifice—between illusion and reality—which can still be enjoyed today.

Following his father’s footsteps, Friedrich Wilhelm III and royal wife Luise welcomed life on the island as a romantic retreat, far from the stresses of courtly life in Berlin and the endless battles with Napoleon.

The Pfaueninsel was soon identified with the beloved Prussian queen and after her death a heartbroken Friedrich built a temple to her memory here. On one of our rare and recent sunny days I hazarded a journey beyond the Ringbahn to wander among the unfelled oaks and enjoy the ambiance and artifice of ‘Prussia’s Arcadia’.

Peacocks go free

After the thirty minute journey by S-Bahn out to Wannsee I hopped a bus for the short ride to the Pfaueninsel ferry landing, the only entrance to the island. Crossing the narrow channel takes less than five minutes but, as a protected nature reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site, access to the island’s flora and fauna is carefully controlled—no dogs or smoking allowed!

I’ve made the short crossing a few times before but today I was thrilled to see that one of the local residents was also boarding the ferry—a brilliant peacock queued up like the rest of us, though the ferryman gave the bulky bird a pass on the entrance fee. Our feathered friend amused himself during the crossing by accepting crumbs from fascinated children before waddling ashore once we reached the other side.

Wandering uphill, left past the ferryman’s house (now converted into the island’s museum shop) and past the caretaker’s cottage, I quickly arrived at the Pfaueninsel’s most recognizable structure, a fairy tale castle built for a king’s illicit love. Constructed from timber which was then painted white to create the illusion of stone, the Schloss offers an exhilarating view across the waters of the Havel and is the focal point of the island’s perspectives.

Its compact form, twin towers and the faux ruins of its battlements are the opening movements in the island’s sentimental symphony of landscape and memory. But its simple clapboard facing conceals elegant interiors still in their original condition as, unlike the rest of Berlin’s palaces, this fairy tale castle escaped the ravages of World War Two.

However, as the sun was shining for the first time in what seemed like weeks, I decided to put off taking a tour in order spend a few hours ambling along the meadows and through the woods.

Nature and Artifice

One of the Pfaueninsel’s greatest charms is the constant shift between the natural world and human artifice. Friedrich Wilhelm II’s edict of 1793 preserved a unique biosphere and the island’s woodlands are rich in impressively old oaks. A number of the trees have died through the years but, rather than being removed, they’ve been left in place to create landscapes reminiscent of a Caspar David Friedrich painting.

Wandering towards the gardener’s house I chanced across one these massive oaks into whose base was built an old wooden door. An ancient padlock kept it firmly closed, so it was unclear as to whether it was keeping the curious visitor outside the tree or something much more sinister inside.

The gardener’s house itself, built in 1830 by Friedrich Schinkel, is modelled after a Swiss chalet. I carefully stepped inside to admire the four large format photographs of plants by artist Martin Weimar, his tribute to the work of the generations of gardeners who have cared for the island.

Continuing across through the forest I paused to admire the cast iron fountain. Erected in 1825 at the island’s highest point it forms the only visible marker of the island’s intricate irrigation system. While enjoying a cooling mist I could also gaze back towards the Schloss along a green alley through the trees.

Luise Temple and The Blind Pavilion

Walking further through the woods I reached the Luise Temple, the Pfaueninsel’s most explicit gesture of memory and romantic love. After Luise’s death in 1810 her mausoleum was established at the Charlottenburg Palace, where it can still be visited today.

When, in 1829, it was replaced by one of red granite, the mausoleum’s original sandstone facade was brought here and erected at the edge of the wood. A bust of Luise by Christian Daniel Rauch mounted on the wall behind the four sandstone columns floats above the ‘Army of Hydrangeas’, a floral honour guard made up of the queen’s favourite blossoms, another work by Martin Weimar.

A few steps away from the temple’s classical lines I stood before The Blind Pavilion, a circular construct of steel and black glass by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. Eliasson, a professor at the Universität der Künste Berlin, often works with space and perception, and here again takes up themes of perspective, framing and the visible versus what cannot be seen.

Its contemporary design makes for a striking contrast with the ninteenth-century landscapes; I chuckled to myself imagining the ripe comments the Prussians—not known for their openness to experimentation—might have let slip from beneath their bushy mustaches.

The Meierei

Strolling onward I finally reached the far end of the island, home to the Meierei, a two-storey dairy built the same time as the Schloss, and designed to appear as a ruined Gothic church. A few years later a barn in the form a chapel was added and by 1803 there were over fifty heads of cattle, dozens of sheep and two goats playing their roles for all to see.

Poking about the outbuildings of the dairy I could quite easily comprehend the entire construct as a three dimensional backdrop for the fantasies of pastoral life so popular at the end of the eighteenth Century. (Legend has it the royal family was ‘keepin’ it real’, taking turns with the cow milking and butter churning).

The dairy’s “ruined church returns to nature” theme is once again a clever illusion though, as the second floor of the structure is a large, well-appointed banquet hall complete with wooden vaulting and theatrical paintwork designed for royal entertaining.

Leaving the dairy I paced slowly back to the Schloss. I passed the Cavalier House, a faux fortress half hidden behind the trees, and the four sandstone pedestals, all that remains of the impressive Palm House which, until it burned down in 1880, housed hundreds of exotic plant species.

I peered around the tumbledown Jacob’s Well, a pseudo Greco-Roman ruin, and stopped to admire the twelve sided Aviary. Erected in 1825 the Aviary is the last remaining evidence that the animal affections of the royals were not limited to livestock.

Indeed, at its peak the Royal Menagerie on the Pfaueninsel was home to 900 animals of more than a hundred different species. Alligators, buffaloes, kangaroos, lions and llamas were kept in large enclosures and dozens of exotic birds filled the aviary with their songs.

Mere citizens were also permitted to enjoy the menagerie, which was open to the public three days each week. But in 1842, tired of the crowds and the noise, Friedrich Wilhelm IV sent the animals ashore where they formed the beginnings of the Berlin Zoo, Germany’s first.

Inside The Schloss

I returned to the Schloss just in time for my tour of its interior, the last of the day. Slipping my feet into the felt slippers required to protect the polished wooden floors, I followed behind our tour guide as she explained the history of the Schloss, the island and its inhabitants.

The interiors have been left almost exactly as they were when Luise and her husband amused themselves here and, though I may have been a bit sun dazed from the afternoon’s wanderings, I couldn’t help but feel as if someone had left each room mere moments before we entered.

A cabinet decorated with paper cutouts by the royal children, a pair of Luise’s bonnets in the closet, a vase full of blossoms bathed in the sun, all combined to create an emotional effect which suggested that time on the island was oddly fluid. Our tour now ended I stepped back outside, blinking in the bright late afternoon sun, and watched a duck follow her mate across the lawn.

While the llamas and lions are long gone and the Hohenzollern monarchs have now been relegated to the history books, the works of the Pfaueninsel’s landscape artists and garden architects, their leafy meditations on the consolation of nature and memory are as effective today as they were during Luise’s summer idylls.

For more information on the Pfaueninsel click here.

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