Just discovered: the unconventional life of Marianne of Prussia

25.09.2020Just discovered: the unconventional life of Marianne of Prussia

Two researchers at the Geheimes Staatsarchiv have been sifting through hundreds of prints, drawings, and photographs. This amazing chance find reveals the strong personality of a princess of Prussia.

By Oliver Hoischen

Graphite drawing of an ancient travel party
Travel party in Italy (sketch after the painting "Marianne on a mountain tour", collection of Schloss Reinhardtshausen). Undated (probably around 1850) Signature: BPH, Rep. 60 I, No. 136/3 © Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Anja Wagner

It all began as Marie-Luise Adlung, an experienced archivist at the Geheimes Staatsarchiv (Secret State Archives), was walking along the endless rows of items in external storage at Westhafen in Berlin. Her eye was caught by a yellowed piece of paper between a pile of folders on a shelf. There was handwriting on it. "Probably BPH, Rep. 60 I," she read. "I got a real shock. Oh lord, what's that?"

Adlung and some colleagues examined the pile of papers. They found loose folders without shelf marks – something that is unusual for the Geheimes Staatsarchiv. Altogether, they were "certainly 40 centimeters high and 1.5 meters wide." Adlung had already spent several months collating the estate of Prince Albert of Prussia, known as Albrecht the Elder. He was the youngest child of King Frederick William III of Prussia and Queen Louise. Two of his elder brothers became King Frederick William IV and Emperor William I. So Adlung knew that "BPH, Rep. 60 I" referred to documents of Prince Albert's that had once been in the Brandenburg-Prussian House Archive (BPH). “But when the storage people in Westhafen sent material for me to the archive in Dahlem, they evidently didn't find everything," she recalls. "They hadn't noticed this pile, doubtless because the yellow slip was so inconspicuous."

That was five years ago. In the meantime, it turned out that the prints and drawings, sheet music, books, and photographs that Adlung found by chance once belonged to Prince Albert's wife, Princess Marianne of Prussia. Marianne, of all people – a woman of character with an unusual life story, who left her husband and in 1849 got divorced, who was banished from the Prussian court and separated from her children, who found new happiness with her personal coachman and later cabinet secretary, Johann van Rossum, who traveled through half of Europe and in particular Italy, finally settling at the age of 45 in Erbach in the Rheingau. There she bought the palace of Reinhartshausen and had it enlarged.

Marianne, of all people, whose father was King William I of the Netherlands. She was a strong woman who took a personal interest in the management of her villas, castles, and estates, and who had the good fortune to be independent as a wealthy member of the highest ranks of the nobility. She also had a deep appreciation of art, which she had learned from her mother and which she passed on to her children. And perhaps that is why this find is so unusual, why it breathes life into the dry-as-dust contents of the Brandenburg-Prussian administrative files that languish in the Geheimes Staatsarchiv. It contains wonderful pictures, some of which are quite large, and unique items such as drawings or photographs, figuratively bringing rays of Italian sun to the grey skies of Prussia!

Ancient lithograph of a noble woman
Marianne of Prussia (1810-1883) as a young woman. Undated (probably around 1830) Signature: BPH, Rep. 60 I, No. 125/3 © Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Anja Wagner

There was a long way to go, however, before this became clear. That was because the sheets with views of Italian landscapes, the books on frescoes from the Vatican, and the portraits of European monarchs were in a very poor state. Some of them were torn. Dirt and fragments fell from between crumpled papers. Each sheet had to be professionally cleaned (sometimes vacuumed), smoothed, and even disinfected by the restorers at the Staatsarchiv.

Graphite and brush drawing of a small castle
Kamenz, castle (K. F. Schinkel's design in 1838, inaugurated in 1873; owner Marianne of Prussia). Undated, BPH, Rep. 60 I, No. 151/3 © Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Anja Wagner

“We had the impression that someone had trodden on the sheets with shoes on,” comments Adlung. The archivist began looking through the sheets and sorting them into rough groups, such as views of German landscapes, or portraits of members of the Prussian royal family. Again and again, she asked herself: How did they come to be like this?

It was a real detective story. Adlung and her colleagues wanted to find out the places where the material had been before it ended up forgotten on that archive shelf in Westhafen. And they wondered how they could prove that the find belonged to the estate of Princess Marianne, given that there were no labels or notes. The archivist spoke to former employees who had been present when all the contents of the Geheimes Staatsarchiv were returned to Berlin from storage in Merseburg after the fall of the Wall.

The material had been taken there for safe-keeping during the war, and for decades afterwards it had belonged to the state archives of the GDR. But none of the former personnel could remember this particular compilation – although it should have stood out, being so big and unusual. So might Marianne's possessions not have been in Merseburg at all? Did they come from her palace in the Silesian town of Kamenz, which had passed to one of her sons on her death, together with part of her estate – and which went up in flames after the war?

Adlung sought help from her colleague Claudia Czok, an experienced art historian who had previously worked at the Kupferstichkabinett (Museum of Prints and Drawings) for many years. She brought a different perspective from which to consider the material. “The stages of Marianne's life are clearly recognizable from the prints, drawings, and photographs,” she remarks.

Czok noticed that they probably correspond to the places where the Prussian princess stayed, as well as the many tours that she undertook. They include works by Dutch or German artists who she met or admired. Among them are architectural drawings of Marianne's villa on Lake Como, sketches by the sculptors who decorated the church and tombs that she commissioned near Reinhartshausen Palace, sheet music with piano scores after Mozart and Gluck, and a veritable portrait gallery of Marianne's Dutch ancestors.

Photography of a castle
J. Weissbach: Jagdschloss Weißwasser (then Austria-Silesia, since 1854 owned by Marianne of Prussia). Undated, BPH, Rep. 60 I, No. 119/3 © Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Anja Wagner
Geheimes Staatsarchiv PK in Berlin-Dahlem
© GStA PK/ Christine Ziegler; Joachim Kirchmair

Geheimes Staatsarchiv – Preussischer Kulturbesitz

The Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Secret State Archives) is located in the Dahlem district of Berlin. It preserves the official records of Prussia, in the form of certificates, files, official gazettes, maps, and other documents from over 800 years of Prussia's (and Brandenburg's) history. It also possesses a library with about 190,000 volumes. 

In addition to preserving its holdings and making them accessible, the Archive issues publications of its own, thus contributing to research into the history of Brandenburg and Prussia. It also offers services for academics and members of the public. Furthermore, it is the central administrative archive for the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation). 

Website Geheimes Staatsarchiv – Preußischer Kulturbesitz (in German)

In addition, there are sheets by her mother's drawing teacher – along with pencil drawings that look like the exercises of somebody who is learning to draw. Maybe Marianne herself? The art historian is particularly enthusiastic about a portfolio of around fifty sheets with colored lithographs showing Italian folk costumes in all their splendor. Little by little, the owner’s identity becomes certain. "Such pictures show that Marianne had her own, definite taste in art," explains Czok. "For example, the big, aesthetic question of the time was: Do you prefer Michelangelo or Raphael? Here it becomes clear that Marianne preferred Raphael."

The two researchers are fascinated not only by Marianne's artistic sensibilities, but also by her personality. "This find clearly shows, once again, how unconventional the life of Marianne of Prussia was," declares Czok. Above all, it offers plenty of material for further research: for historians, musicologists, and photo specialists – and doubtless also for gender studies. After all, the way in which Marianne continued to help her children and keep in touch with them, despite being banished from court, is not to be taken for granted.

The Westhafen find, comprising 650 or so sheets in a variety of formats as well as fifteen books, is now properly stored in new, perfectly sized folders. By the end of this year, every item should be recorded in the database, together with information on the date of origin and condition. Adlung and Czok, the interdisciplinary research team on Marianne, have turned a chance discovery into usable material. They hope to gain further insights by working together with their counterparts at the Marianne Museum in Erbach – and, of course, with Dutch admirers of the princess. Marianne is said to have described her life as a novel. After the Berlin find, it will be even more exciting.

Weitere Artikel

In addition to the technically required cookies, our website also uses cookies for statistical evaluation. You can also use the website without these cookies. By clicking on "I agree" you agree that we may set cookies for analysis purposes.

Please find more information in our privacy statement. There you may also change your settings later.