Sanssouci is the summer palace of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, in Potsdam, near Berlin. It is often counted among the German rivals of Versailles. While Sanssouci is in the more intimate Rococo style and is far smaller than its French Baroque counterpart, it too is notable for the numerous temples and follies in the park. The palace was designed/built by Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff between 1745 and 1747 to fulfill King Frederick's need for a private residence where he could relax away from the pomp and ceremony of the Berlin court. The palace's name emphasises this; it is a French phrase (sans souci), which translates as "without concerns", meaning "without worries" or "carefree", symbolising that the palace was a place for relaxation rather than a seat of power. The name in past times reflected a play on words, with the insertion of a comma visible between the words Sans and Souci, viz. Sans, Souci. Kittsteiner theorizes that this could be a philosophical play on words, meaning "without, beware" or it could be some secret religious message which nobody has interpreted, left to posterity by Frederick II.
Sanssouci is little more than a large, single-story villa—more like the Château de Marly than Versailles. Containing just ten principal rooms, it was built on the brow of a terraced hill at the centre of the park. The influence of King Frederick's personal taste in the design and decoration of the palace was so great that its style is characterised as "Frederician Rococo", and his feelings for the palace were so strong that he conceived it as "a place that would die with him". Because of a disagreement about the site of the palace in the park, Knobelsdorff was fired in 1746. Jan Bouman, a Dutch architect, finished the project.
During the 19th century, the palace became a residence of Frederick William IV. He employed the architect Ludwig Persius to restore and enlarge the palace, while Ferdinand von Arnim was charged with improving the grounds and thus the view from the palace. The town of Potsdam, with its palaces, was a favourite place of residence for the German imperial family until the fall of the Hohenzollern dynasty in 1918.
After World War II, the palace became a tourist attraction in East Germany. Following German reunification in 1990, Frederick's body was returned to the palace and buried in a new tomb overlooking the gardens he had created. Sanssouci and its extensive gardens became a World Heritage Site in 1990 under the protection of UNESCO; in 1995, the Foundation for Prussian Palaces and Gardens in Berlin-Brandenburg was established to care for Sanssouci and the other former imperial palaces in and around Berlin. These palaces are now visited by more than two million people a year from all over the world.
It was no coincidence that Frederick selected the Rococo style of architecture for Sanssouci. The light, almost whimsical style then in vogue exactly suited the light-hearted uses for which he required this retreat. The Rococo style of art emerged in France in the early 18th century as a continuation of the Baroque style, but in contrast with the heavier themes and darker colours of the Baroque, the Rococo was characterized by an opulence, grace, playfulness, and lightness. Rococo motifs focused on the carefree aristocratic life and on light-hearted romance, rather than on heroic battles and religious figures. They also revolve around natural and exterior settings; this again suited Frederick's ideal of nature and design being in complete harmony. The palace was completed much as Frederick had envisaged in his preliminary sketches (see illustration above).
The palace has a single-storey principal block with two flanking side wings. The building occupies almost the entire upper terrace. The potential monotony of the façade is broken by a central bow, its dome rising above the hipped roof, with the name of the palace—remarkably written with a comma and a full stop—on it in gilded bronze letters. The secondary side wings on the garden front are screened by two symmetrical rows of trees each terminating in free-standing trellised gazebos, richly decorated with gilded ornaments.
The garden front of the palace is decorated by carved figures of Atlas and Caryatids; grouped in pairs between the windows, these appear to support the balustrade above. Executed in sandstone, these figures of both sexes represent Bacchants, the companions of the wine god Bacchus, and originate from the workshop of the sculptor Friedrich Christian Glume. The same workshop created the vases on the balustrade, and the groups of cherubs above the windows of the dome.
By contrast, the north entrance façade is more restrained. Segmented colonnades of 88 Corinthian columns—two deep—curve outwards from the palace building to enclose the semicircular cour d'honneur. As on the south side, a balustrade with sandstone vases decorates the roof of the main corps de logis.
Flanking the corps de logis are two secondary wings, providing the large service accommodation and domestic offices necessary to serve an 18th-century monarch, even when in retreat from the world. In Frederick's time, these single-storey wings were covered with foliage to screen their mundane purpose. The eastern wing housed the secretaries', gardeners' and servants' rooms, while the west wing held the palace kitchen, stables and a remise (coach house).
Frederick regularly occupied the palace each summer throughout his lifetime, but after his death in 1786 it remained mostly unoccupied and neglected until the mid-19th century. In 1840, 100 years after Frederick's accession to the throne, his great-grand nephew Frederick William IV and his wife moved into the guest rooms. The royal couple retained the existing furniture and replaced missing pieces with furniture from Frederick's time. The room in which Frederick had died was intended to be restored to its original state, but this plan was never executed because of a lack of authentic documents and plans. However, the armchair in which Frederick had died was returned to the palace in 1843.
Frederick William IV, a draftsman interested in both architecture and landscape gardening, transformed the palace from the retreat of his reclusive great uncle into a fully functioning and fashionable country house. The small service wings were enlarged between 1840 and 1842. This was necessary because, while Frederick philosophised and played music at Sanssouci, he liked to live modestly without splendour. As he aged, his modesty developed into miserliness. He would not permit repairs to the outer façade and allowed them in the rooms only with great reluctance. This was ascribed to his wish that Sanssouci should only last his lifetime.
The additions included a mezzanine floor to both wings. The kitchen was moved into the east wing. Frederick the Great's small wine cellar was enlarged to provide ample store rooms for the enlarged household, while the new upper floor provided staff bedrooms.
The west wing became known as "The Ladies' Wing", providing accommodation for ladies-in-waiting and guests. This was a common arrangement in mid-19th-century households, which often had a corresponding "Bachelor's Wing" for unmarried male guests and members of the household. The rooms were decorated with intricate boiseries, panelling and tapestries. This new accommodation for ladies was vital: entertaining at Sanssouci was minimal during the reign of Frederick the Great, and it is known that women were never entertained there, so there were no facilities for them. Frederick had married Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Bevern in 1733, but separated from his wife after his accession to the throne in 1740. The Queen resided alone at Schönhausen Palace in Berlin after the separation, and Frederick preferred Sanssouci to be "sans femmes" (without women).