A Look At The German Capital Berlin
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The train spins along across great plains gilded by the setting sun; soon night comes; and with it, sleep. At stations remote from one another, German voices shout German names ; I do not recognize them by the sound, and look for them in vain upon the map. Magnificent great station buildings are shown up by gaslight in the midst of surrounding darkness, then disappear. We pass Hanover and Minden; the train keeps on its way; and morning dawns.
On either side stretched a peat-moss, upon which the mist was producing a singular mirage. We seemed to be upon a causeway traversing an immense lake whose waves crept up gently, dying in transparent folds along the edge of the embankment. Here and there a group of trees or a cottage, emerging like an island, completed the illusion, for such it was. A sheet of bluish mist, floating a little above the ground and curling up along its upper surface under the rays of the sun, caused this aqueous phantasmagoria, resembling the Fata Morgana of Sicily. In vain did my geographical knowledge protest, disconcerted, against this inland sea, which no map of Prussia indicates; my eyes would not give it up, and later in the day, when the sun, rising higher, had dried up this imaginary lake, they required the presence of a boat to make them admit that any body of water could be real.
Suddenly upon the left were massed the trees of a great park; Tritons and Nereids appeared, dabbling in the basin of a fountain; there was a dome and a circle of columns rising above extensive buildings; and this was Potsdam. . . .
A few moments later we were in Berlin, and a fiacre set me down at the hotel. One of the keenest pleasures of a traveler is that first drive through a hitherto unknown city, destroying or confirming his preconceived idea of it. All that is peculiar and characteristic seizes upon the yet virgin eye, whose perceptive power is never more clear.
My idea of Berlin had been drawn in great measure from Hoffman's fantastic stories. In spite of myself, a Berlin, strange and grotesque, peopled with Aulic councillors, sandmen, Kreislers, archivist Lindursts, and student Anselms, had reared itself within my brain, amid a fog of tobacco-smoke; and there before me was a city regularly built, stately, with wide streets, extensive public grounds, and imposing edifices of a style half-English, half-German, and modern to the last degree.
As we drove along I glanced down into those cellars, with steps so polished, so slippery, so well-soaped, that one might slide in as into the den of an ant-lion—to see if I might not discover Hoffman himself seated on a tun, his feet crossed upon the bowl of his gigantic pipe, and surrounded by a tangle of grotesque chimeras, as he is represented in the vignette of the French translation of his stories; and, to tell the truth, there was nothing of the kind in these subterranean shops whose proprietors were just opening their doors ! The cats, of benignant aspect, rolled no phosphorescent eyeballs, like the cat Murr in the story, and they seemed quite incapable of writing their memoirs, or of deciphering a score of Richard Wagner's.
These handsome stately houses, which are like palaces, with their columns and pediments and architraves, are built of brick for the most part, for stone seems rare in Berlin; but the brick is covered with cement or tinted stucco, to simulate hewn stone; deceitful seams indicate imaginary layers, and the illusion would be complete, were it not that in spots the winter frosts have detached the cement, revealing the red shades of the baked clay. The necessity of painting the whole facade, in order to mask the nature of the material, gives the effect of enormous architectural decorations seen in open air. The salient parts, moldings, cornices, entablatures, consoles, are of wood, bronze, or cast-iron, to which suitable forms have been given; when you do not look too closely the effect is satisfactory. Truth is the only thing lacking in all this splendor.
The palatial buildings which border Regent's Park in London present also these porticoes, and these columns with brick cores and plaster-fluting, which, by aid of a coating of oil paint, are expected to pass for stone or marble. Why not build in brick frankly, since its water-coloring and capacity for ingeniously varied arrangement furnish so many resources t Even in Berlin I have seen charming houses of this kind which had the advantage of being truthful. A flctitious material always inspires a certain uneasiness.
The hotel is very well located, and I propose to sketch the view seen from its steps. It will give a fair idea of the general character of the city. The foreground is a quay bordering the Spree. A few boats with slender masts are sleeping on the brown water. Vessels upon a canal or a river, in the heart of a city, have always a charming effect. Along the opposite quay stretches a line of houses; a few of them are ancient, and bear the stamp thereof; the king's palace makes the corner. A cupola upon an octagonal tower rises proudly above the `other roofs, the square sides of the tower adding grace to the curve of the dome.
A bridge spans the river, reminding me, with its white marble groups, of the Ponte San Angelo at Rome. These groups—eight in number, if my memory does not deceive me—are each composed of two figures; one allegorical, winged, representing the country, or glory; the other, a young man, guided through many trials to victory or immortality. These groups, in purely classic taste, are not wanting in merit, and show in some parts good study of the nude; their pedestals are ornamented with medallions, whereon the Prussian eagle, half-real, half-heraldic, makes a fine appearance. Considered as a decoration, the whole is, in my opinion, somewhat too rich for the simplicity of the bridge, which opens midway to allow the passage of vessels.
Farther on, through the trees of a public garden of some kind, appears the old Museum, a great structure in the Greek style, with Doric columns relieved against a painted background. At the corners of the roof, bronze horses held by grooms are outlined upon the sky. Behind this building, and looking sideways, you perceive the triangular pediment of the new Museum.
On crossing the bridge, the dark facade of the palace comes in view, with its balustraded terrace; the carvings around the main entrance are in that old, exaggerated German rococo which I have seen before and have admired in the palace in Dresden. This kind of barbaric taste has something charming about it, and entertains the eye, satiated with chefs d'oeuvre. It has invention, fancy, originality; and tho I may be censured for the opinion, I confess I prefer this exuberance to the coldness of the Greek style imitated with more erudition than success in our modern public buildings. At each side stand great bronze horses pawing the ground, and held by naked grooms.
I visited the apartments of the palace; they are rich and elegant, but present nothing interesting to the artist save their ancient recessed ceilings filled with curious figures and arabesques. In the concert-hall there is a musicians' gallery in grotesque carving, silvered; its effect is really charming. Silver is not used enough in decorations; it is a relief from the classic gold, and forms admirable combinations with colors. The chapel, whose dome rises above the rest of the building, is well planned and well lighted, comfortable, reasonably decorated.
Let us cross the square and take a look at the Museum, admiring, as we pass, an immense porphyry vase standing on cubes of the same material, in front of the steps which lead up to the portico. This portico is painted in fresco by various hands, under the direction of the celebrated Peter Cornelius. The paintings form a broad frieze, folding itself back at each end upon the side wall of the portico, and interrupted in the middle to give access to the Museum. The portion on the left contains a whole poem of mythologic cosmogony, treated with that philosophy and that erudition which the Germans carry into compositions of this kind; the right, purely anthropologic, represents the birth, development, and evolution of humanity.
If I were to describe in detail these two immense frescoes, you would certainly be charmed with the ingenious invention, the profound knowledge, and the excellent judgment of the artist. The mysteries of the early creation are penetrated, and everything is faultlessly scientific. Also, if I should show you them in the form of those fine German engravings, the lines heightened by delicate shadows, the execution as accurate as that of Albrecht Durer, the tone light and harmonious, you would admire the ordering' of the composition, balanced with so much art, the groups skilfully united one to another, the ingenious episodes, the wise selection of the attributes, the significance of each separate thing; you might even find grandeur of style, an air of magisterial dignity, fine effects of drapery, proud attitudes, well-marked types, muscular audacities a la Michel Angelo, and a certain Germanic savagery of fine flavor. You would be struck with this free handling of great subjects, this vast conceptive power, this carrying out of an idea, which French painters so often lack; and you would think of Cornelius almost as highly as the Germans do. But in the presence of the work itself, the impression is completely different.
I am well aware that fresco-painting, even in the hands of the Italian masters, skilful as they were in the technical details of their art, has not the charm of oil. The eye must become habituated to this rude, lustreless coloring, be-fore we can discern its beauties. Many people who never say so—for nothing is more rare than the courage to avow a feeling or an opinion—find the frescoes of the Vatican and the Sistine frightful; but the great names of Michel Angelo and Raphael impose silence upon them; they murmur vague formulas of enthusiasm, and go off to rhapsodize—this time with sincerity—over some Magdalen of Guido, or some Madonna of Carlo Dolce. I make large allowance, therefore, for this unattractive aspect which belongs to fresco-painting; but in this case, the execution is by far too repulsive. The mind may be content, but the eye suffers. Painting, which is altogether a plastic art, can express its ideal only through forms and colors. To think is not enough; something must be done.
I shall not now give an inventory of the Museum in Berlin, which is rich in pictures and statues; to do this would require more space than is at my command. We find re-presented here, more or less favorably, all the great masters, the pride of royal galleries. But the most remarkable thing in this collection is the very numerous and very complete collection of the primitive painters of all countries and all schools, from the Byzantine down to those which immediately precede the Renaissance. The old German school, so little known in France, and on many accounts so curious, is to be studied to better advantage here than anywhere else. A rotunda contains tapestries after designs by Raphael, of which the original cartoons are now in Hampton Court.
The staircase of the new Museum is decorated with those remarkable frescoes by Kaulbach, which the art of engraving and the Universal Exposition have made so well known in France. We all remember the cartoon entitled "The Dispersion of Races," and all Paris has admired, in Goupil's window that poetic "Defeat of the Huns," where the strife begun between the living warriors is carried on amidst the disembodied souls that hover above that battle-field strewn with the dead. "The Destruction of Jerusalem" is a fine composition, tho somewhat too theatrical. It resembles a "close of the fifth act" much more than beseems the serious character of fresco painting. In the panel which represents Hellenic civilization, Homer is the central figure; this composition pleased me least of all. Other paintings as yet unfinished present the climacteric epochs of humanity. The last of these will be almost contemporary, for when a German begins to paint, universal history comes under review; the great Italian painters did not need so much in achieving their master-pieces. But each civilization has its peculiar tendencies, and this encyclopedic painting is a characteristic of the present time. It would seem that, before flinging itself into its new career, the world had felt the necessity of making a synthesis of it* past.
This staircase, which is of colossal size, is ornamented with casts from the finest antiques. Copies of the metopes of the Pantheon and friezes from the temple of Theseus are set into its walls, and upon one of the landings stands the Pandrosion, with all the strong and tranquil beauty of its Caryatides. The effect of the whole is very grand. At the present day there is no longer any visible difference between the people of one country and of another. The uniform domino of civilization is worn everywhere, and no difference in color, no special cut of the garment, notifies you that you are away from home. The men and women whom I met in the street escape description; the flaneurs of the Unter den Linden are exactly like the flaneurs of the Boulevard des Italiens. This avenue, bordered by splendid houses, is planted, as its name indicates, with lindens; trees "whose leaf is shaped like a heart," as Heinrich Heine remarks—a peculiarity which makes Unter den Linden dear to lovers, and eminently suited for sentimental interviews. At its entrance stands the equestrian statue of Frederick the Great. Like the Champs-Elysees in Paris, this avenue terminates at a triumphal arch, surmounted by a chariot with four bronze horses. Passing under the arch, we come out into a park in some degrees resembling the Bois de Boulogne.
Along the edge of this park, which is shadowed by great trees having all the intensity of northern verdure, and freshened by a little winding stream, open flower-crowded gardens, in whose depths you can discern summer retreats, which are neither chalets, nor cottages, nor villas, but Pompeiian houses with their tetrastylic porticos and panels of antique red. The Greek taste is held in high esteem in Berlin. On the other hand, they seem to disdain the style of the Renaissance, so much in vogue in Paris; I saw no edifice of this kind in Berlin.
Night came; and after paying a hasty visit to the zoological garden, where all the animals were asleep, except a dozen long-tailed paroquets and cockatoos, who were screaming from their perches, pluming themselves, and raising their crests, I returned to my hotel to strap my trunk and betake myself to the Hamburg railway station, as the train would leave at ten, a circumstance which prevented me from going, as I had intended, to the opera to hear Cherubini's "Deux Journees," and to see Louise Taglioni dance the Sevillana.
For the traveler there are but two ways: the instantaneous proof, or the prolonged study. Time failed me for the latter. Deign to accept this simple and rapid impression.