Picture Piece: Frederich the Great's palace of Sanssouci

Don't worry about the cryptic messages at Frederick the Great's Potsdam palace

Friedrich the Great’s palace of Sanssouci (literally, ‘without worries’) in Potsdam, just outside Berlin, was begun in 1742 while the 30 year old king was commanding his army in Bohemia. Being on the battlefield didn’t keep Friedrich from pursuing what he called his ‘doll’s house game’: a six-storey cake of vineyard terraces topped by a delicate Rococo pleasure seat, built according to his own design. He monitored its progress as relentlessly as he brought the military power of Prussia to bear upon Austria.

When you reach the top terrace, you finally get a view of the bacchanalian Caryatides that carry the rather lightweight cornice. Just above their heads can be read the words: ‘Sans, Souci.’ The comma and full stop are strange. To assume shaky grammar on Friedrich’s part would be more far-fetched than to consider it an odd little riddle: unlike other hawks, he knew his French. He once sent a letter to his friend Voltaire, which simply read:

P 6
a 100

Voltaire decoded it (à sous p à cent sous six = à souper à Sanssouci = ‘Have supper at Sanssouci’) and replied: ‘G a’ (G grand a petit = J’ai grand appetit = ‘I’m hungry’). Some have suggested an armchair-philosophical reading of the inscription as sans comme à souci (with, as well as without, worry). But as historian H. D. Kittsteiner has pointed out, that would have been against French speaker’s instinct to pronounce the comma as virgule.

Eavesdropping on a tour-guide one mild spring Sunday, I learned that currently in vogue is a more ambivalently Freudian etymology of virgule, the Latin origin of which is virgula (little rod). Would that mean ‘Without little rod, worry’? Well, there are persistent rumours that crown prince Friedrich, after early carnal adventures encouraged by his beloved friend Hans Hermann von Katte (who was beheaded in front of his eyes on the orders of Friedrich’s tyrannical father Friedrich Wilhelm I), caught a disease that led to a quack mutilating his royal organ. Thus Friedrich, it is claimed, preferred whippets, horses and war to boys, let alone girls. This bitter, oedipally charged victory of Thanatos over Eros is just one possible reading of the comma – and I haven’t even started on the full stop.

frieze magazine

May 2003
Issue 75

First published in Issue 75

May 2003

Most Read


Kukje Gallery, Seoul, Korea


Kunsthaus Zurich, Switzerland
Agata Bogacka, Composition With Eyes, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 114 x 146 cm. Courtesy: Dawid Radziszewski Gallery, Warsaw

Critic's Guide

The pick of the shows opening today as part of Warsaw Gallery Weekend

Culture Digest

Following the recent New York Art Book Fair at MoMA PS1, Dan Fox profiles three independent publishers


Vincent Fecteau and Mary Reid Kelley are awarded MacArthur genius grants; Ulay victorious in court case against ex-...


Mealworms and Chinese scrolls: Ahead of her show at London's Cell Project Space, the Berlin-based artist...
Haegue Yang, Cubes (Small), 2015, commissioned for ‘The 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT8). Installation view Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane

City Report

Within the city’s tropical climate a tenacious and passionate art scene is thriving


A newly-released album gives overdue attention to the innovative, politicized music of the late Julius Eastman


A report from the culmination of the 2016 Bergen Assembly 
David Hammons, The Wine Leading  the Wine, c.1969, body print, 1 × 1.2 m. Courtesy: George Economou Collection, Athens; photograph: Bill Orcutt 


Mnuchin Gallery, New York & The George Economou Collection, Athens


Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, UK


A new Smithsonian Museum highlights African American history and culture


The multiple worlds of Hugh Frost and Leon Sadler’s experimental magazine-turned-exhibition, Mould Map

Culture Digest

From gay communes to surrealist ethnography: what to read about this weekend

Culture Digest

The final part of this week's Culture Digest looks at two recently reissued books by Eileen Myles


Finland cuts state funding for Guggenheim’s proposed Helsinki museum; Barack Obama to inaugurate new Washington D...

Picture Piece

Georgiana Houghton's 19th-century spirit paintings


On using art to reflect on its own labour
Anna Ostoya, A Kiss, 2016, oil on canvas, 61 x 76 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Silberkuppe, Berlin; photograph: Timo Ohler

Critic's Guide

The best shows opening as part Berlin Art Week

Latest Magazines

Frieze Week

London 2016
frieze d/e issue 25, Autumn 2016

frieze d/e

Autumn 2016

frieze magazine

October 2016