The bleak terrain near Germany's border with Poland seems an unlikely locale for an elegant arcadia. Yet Branitz, the fanciful estate and personal pleasure ground of Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau, arose out of these arid stretches more than a century ago.
The rise, fall, and resurrection of Branitz brings into sharp focus the extraordinary life of a Byronic figure who literally moved the earth in order to realize his romantic vision. Beginning in 1846, Pückler frenziedly transformed what was then a decrepit palace surrounded by a treeless wasteland into an edenic showplace. This fortune-hunting lady-killer was born in 1785, fought in the Napoleonic wars, became a best-selling author who consorted with Europe's crowned heads, took an Abyssinian slave as his mistress, and according to his biographer had "more love affairs than Don Giovanni and Jupiter combined."
Branitz—which Pückler, who fetishized everything English, called Bransom Hall—sits at the edge of the eastern German city of Cottbus. Once a gathering spot for royalty and the European intelligentsia, his estate managed to survive two world wars and seizure by the Communists. Only following the reunification of Germany in 1990 did it undergo extensive renovation. The original pink stucco façade of the Baroque residence is freshly bright, and much of the palace's ornate interior refurbished. In the 250-acre park, modeled on English gardens, aged trees have been replanted and the graceful bridges and walkways, designed by Pückler himself, rebuilt.
Branitz was, in fact, the masterpiece of Pückler's celebrated career as a landscape architect. He spent two decades planting thousands of trees brought from miles away, digging lakes and canals, forming hilly slopes out of the pancake-like topography, and building a pair of towering pyramids. His remains are preserved in the larger of the two. By the time he started work on Branitz at the age of 60, Pückler, known as "the Goethe of landscape gardening," had honed his skills on a number of important commissions, including the gardens at Babelsberg outside Berlin for Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, and a refashioning of the Bois de Boulogne for Napoleon III.
Alternately hailed as an aesthetic genius and derided as a dandified wastrel, Pückler cultivated eccentricity as assiduously as he did flora. As a young man he rode through the center of Berlin in a coach drawn by a team of tame deer. He regularly donned a tasseled fez and red silk pantaloons to greet his guests, and thought nothing of keeping a flock of ibis in the northern European cold. Said to have been the inspiration for the character of Lord Smorltork in Charles Dickens's Pickwick Papers, Pückler was indeed a highly talented poseur whose colorful history has the ring of fiction. His own writings (he was an avid diarist and travel chronicler) were praised by Goethe and Heinrich Heine. They fill 28 published volumes, several of which are still in print and read in Germany today. The final volumes were written at Branitz, where Pückler moved in 1845 after he sold his ancestral seat in the nearby town of Muskau to cover mounting debts.
The East German government's own financial woes contributed to Branitz's deterioration for much of the 20th century. Berthold Ettrich, director of the foundation that oversees the property, told me of Branitz's decline when it was part of Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. East Germany's Communist ideologues were initially hard-pressed to defend the merits of a retreat built by a slave-owning, aristocratic aesthete. "Pückler fit the image of an enemy set out in the theory of class warfare," said Ettrich. In 1946, the Communists seized the property and expelled Pückler's heirs. Party newspapers printed letters from readers condemning Pückler as an "exploiter" and an "oppressor." The vast lawn behind his house was split into small parcels and given over to tenant farmers.
The residence became a regional museum in 1947, with little emphasis on the man himself, though five years later the East Germans declared the park and the palace national landmarks. By 1985, the bicentennial of Pückler's birth, the East German Communists were prepared to accord him increased attention as part of a new official interpretation of German history, which included an acknowledgment of the previously scorned legacy of the imperial ruling class. The regime did its best to maintain the property, but, Ettrich said, material shortages meant that repairs were often substandard.
Now one can again see what Pückler meant when he said that Branitz's paths were "the silent guides of the park." Walking along them, it becomes clear that Pückler composed the landscape as a painter would, creating meticulously staged vistas. Red maples, chestnuts, spruces, ashes, and oaks are skillfully arranged to achieve splashes of color, light, and shadow. Often, distant structures and artworks can be partially glimpsed amid the foliage, as if they were meant as lures to unsuspecting visitors.
From the entrance to the grounds, a path leads toward the 18th-century palace, which Pückler, when he bought the property, asked eminent architect Gottfried Semper to redesign. Classical sculpture decorates the terrace surrounding the building, and a pergola is flanked with terra-cotta reliefs made by Berthel Thorwaldsen, one of the leading sculptors of Pückler's day. In the gloomy foyer hang portraits of Pückler's blue-blooded forebears; the adjacent rooms are more lively, lined with exhibits documenting his antic life.
After inheriting his family's castle at Muskau, Pückler married Countess Lucie von Pappenheim, daughter of the Prussian chancellor, Prince Karl August von Hardenberg. The newlyweds were fond of luxurious living and soon ran up expenses far in excess of their income. When the chancellor bequeathed his assets to a mistress, depriving Pückler's wife of an expected inheritance, the couple divorced, and Pückler set off for England to find another heiress who would put him back on a comfortable financial footing. His account of his travels and travails was published anonymously in 1830 under the title Letters from a Dead Man. The book became an overnight literary success, but the hunt for a wealthy new wife proved fruitless. All the while, Pückler retained amorous ties with Lucie, who continued to live at Muskau.