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
à
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.

Issue 75

First published in Issue 75

May 2003

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