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.
Ever an adventurer, Pückler traveled widely in Africa and the Middle East dressed as a pasha. While at a slave market in Egypt in 1837, he acquired a 13-year-old Abyssinian girl named Machbuba, who became his mistress. After teaching her to speak Italian, the prince escorted Machbuba to Viennese balls and introduced her to the composer Franz Liszt. Then he brought her home to Muskau, where she died.
Machbuba was but one of Pückler’s hundreds of purported female conquests. In the garden at Branitz, he placed a gilded bust of the opera singer Henriette Sontag, with whom he was infatuated. Ardent correspondence piled up in his rooms—he kept copies for himself and labeled them “Old love letters, to be used again if required.” But Pückler’s correspondence was confiscated by the Soviet army after the defeat of Nazi Germany and hauled off to a library in Cracow, Poland. Two years ago, with the Cold War receding into the past, Polish authorities opened their archives so that copies of the letters could be made. Some of the books from his extensive personal library were recently returned from a state library outside Berlin, where they had been placed by the Germans during World War II.
Plaster casts made from one of Machbuba’s tiny hands and one of her delicate feet, as well as her death mask, are on display in a glass case beneath her portrait. The portrait hangs on the second floor, in a suite of rooms decorated in vibrant colors and Oriental motifs, including several canopic jars, containers used to hold the internal organs of the mummified dead.
Egyptian burial rites were adopted by Pückler himself, albeit in modified form. In his will he requested that his heart be placed in a glass urn and his body be dissolved in chemicals. His wishes were carried out, and his remains were interred within the “pyramid”—now carefully restored to its original height and form—at the western end of the estate. Rather than build a stone burial mound like those he admired at Giza, Pückler erected a tumulus out of the soil he had dug up to create one of the artificial lakes on the grounds.
The tumulus, covered in grass and vines, is some 60 feet high and 120 feet wide. Its reflection in the lake’s surface gives it the appearance of a diamond-shaped emerald. A short walk away stands a second grassy pyramid that can be scaled via a narrow granite staircase. It is crowned by a gilded fence emblazoned with the words GRAVES ARE THE MOUNTAINTOPS OF A DISTANT, LOVELY LAND.
The prince intended the monument to himself to last forever, noting that even though many of the wonders of the ancient world had vanished, “the tumuli to the kings of Crete and the Pyramids of Egypt still rear their youthful heads today.” So, too, does Branitz, or as Pückler would have it, Bransom Hall.