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The Versailles Model - With the Research Center Sanssouci, the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation and the University of Potsdam have set their sights on international cooperation

Dr. Jürgen Luh (SPSG) and Prof. Dr. Iwan-Michelangelo D‘Aprile. Photo: Karla Fritze.

Dr. Jürgen Luh (SPSG) and Prof. Dr. Iwan-Michelangelo D‘Aprile. Photo: Karla Fritze.

In 2013, Sabine Kunst, who at the time was Minister for Science, Research, and Culture for the State of Brandenburg, returned from Versailles. There she had visited the “Centre de Recherche”, which is a research institute that began in 2004 to connect the state’s universities with Versailles and the history of King Louis XIV. We can do that too, she thought to herself, and brought on board Dr. Jürgen Luh from the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation and Prof. Dr. Iwan-Michelangelo D’Aprile from the University of Potsdam. And they did it: on January 24, 2016, the Foundation and the University celebrated the joint inauguration of the Research Center Sanssouci (RECS). Both directors talked about what RECS is up to during a tour of the New Palace.

“The aim of the Foundation and the University working together is to project our research results into the world from a broader foundation,” says Luh. This kind of institutional cooperation has been in the works since the University’s founding. “It’s only natural that the region’s largest educational institutions come together with the region’s largest cultural institution,” says D’Aprile. The institute also fills a looming gap; in September 2016, the University of Potsdam will discontinue the last professorship for Prussian history in Germany. “It’s worthwhile to pick up the thread and continue doing research on the history of Brandenburg and Prussia,” says Luh. 

A tour with a historian through Frederick’s living quarters in the New Palace quickly becomes a personal tour. Luh seems to know everything there is to know about Frederick the Great and his palace: the precious Meissner snowball vases in the “flesh-colored room” constitute one of the largest snowball vase collections ever. There isn’t even anything comparable in Saxony. “They show the military successes of the king – without having to mention them explicitly,” Luh explains. This is because the porcelain is actually looted art that the monarch had taken from Meissen at the end of the Second Silesian War. 

The partnership will also reach the citizens of Potsdam

One of the most important tasks of the RECS is to bring this kind of knowledge to the public. The project’s subtitle is, “For Knowledge and Society.” “We believe that we are charged with communicating our findings and knowledge to the city’s society,” says D’Aprile. “These are after all two large institutions that shape the city of Potsdam.” The newly founded institute, with its presentations and events, is oriented directly at the citizenry, and was represented for example at the Potsdam Music Festival in 2016. The new offices are located in the Zivilkabinetthaus, in the middle of the city. “Potsdam has enormous advantages as a location,” says D’Aprile. International visiting scholars value the compact density of archives and libraries; cultural offerings are diverse; and Park Sanssouci is an attraction for visitors from all over the world. This is also due to the cooperative ventures between the University and the Foundation that date back to before the RECS’s founding. “Previously, the Uni and the Foundation only worked together on specific projects. Now, for the first time, we have an institutional basis as a platform to bring these research projects together,” says D’Aprile. 

Both directors of the new research institute have known each for a long time. After all, Luh was a staffer for the Professor for State History with a focus on Brandenburg-Prussia. He curated the exhibit, “Friederisiko,” in the New Palace four years ago. D’Aprile was working at the time on “developmental policy.” The RECS directors are supported by the five members of the board of trustees as well as a scholarly advisory board. To begin with, the institute, which is funded by Foundation and University funds, is on trial for three years. 

The RECS agenda includes materiality research between cultural studies and natural science

 “Frederick wanted fruit, and he also wanted to eat cherries in the winter,” explains Luh in the dining room of Frederick’s living quarters, looking at one of the king’s grand bureaus, covered in images of fruits. He paid dearly for his passion. Frederick’s private account invoices show that he paid the exorbitant price of one Taler per cherry, and sometimes more. The fruits chiseled into the bureau mirror this passion and illustrate how important material culture is for history. “Working with objects also gives us insight into the character of their owners,” says Luh. Yet it is not only the cultural dimension of materiality research that stands on the RECS agenda. The institute’s name, “Research Center Sanssouci,” is intentionally held open to be able to bring in the natural sciences. For example, the countless objects in the collections of the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation have to be researched through the lens of materiality.  The institute is already working together with a chemist, Prof. Dr. Hans-Gerd Löhmannsröben from the Faculty of Science, who is rendering the history of these materials visible with his chemistry equipment. The age or origin of paintings, furniture, and signatures can be determined in this way. In the New Palace’s Grotto Hall, Prof. Dr. Roland Oberhänsli has worked for a while on ascertaining the origins of the 24,000 shells, glass, corals, and snail shells. 

Potsdam as a center of the European Enlightenment 

Another important field of work at the research institute is to develop the links between the cultural heritage of Brandenburg-Prussia and the history of the European Enlightenment. “Potsdam is closely affiliated with the Enlightenment era,” explains D’Aprile. “The tolerance of the Edict of Potsdam made the city into a center of the European Enlightenment.” Frederick the Great supported this development with intense effort: he hosted French philosophes and also participated in Enlightenment debates with his own philosophical texts. He also invited great French Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire or Julien Offray de La Mettrie, the latter of whom was no longer allowed to publish in his own country, for longer stays at his court. 

While today historians such as Luh and D’Aprile can move freely about the library, in Frederick’s time, this was a privilege reserved only for the king. The bookshelves hold ancient classics, French philosophers, and works on military history. The library also gives information about where Frederick’s knowledge as a philosopher came from, and what kind of reading behavior he cultivated. A few books have signs of having been read, such as tiny burns from when a candle tipped over at night; there are inserted pieces of paper with notes. “Frederick was very, very shortsighted, and often had people read aloud to him. He also wore glasses, although we no longer have them,” says Luh. Frederick also had a particular love for the octavo format, which is easy to see when looking at the volumes in his library. 

Researching which volumes Frederick received can also be important for one of the research institute’s first edition projects. Historian Dr. Avi Lifschitz from the University College of London is currently working with RECS on the first English-language critical edition of Frederick’s philosophical works. The critical edition will be published by Princeton University Press. Both directors are pleased about these international partners. After all, one major goal is increase the visibility of the region and and its cultural heritage in the world. 

RECS is building an international network with its research projects

Although Frederick is one of the most important German protagonists of the Enlightenment, RECS research is going far beyond the research on the best-known Prussian king. A publishing project is dedicated to the letters of Wilhelmine von Bayreuth, Frederick’s sister. Rashid Pegah and Yvonne Rehhahn are preparing the online edition of over 100 letters, many of them never seen before, from the margravine, who composed them on her journey to France and Italy. The pamphlets by and about Frederick II are also being edited and will be published on the online portal “perspektivia.net.” In 2017, RECS’s annual summer school, “Global 18th Century,” can also get started. And the RECS Voltaire Fellowships will bring international visiting scholars to Potsdam for three months. 

Furthermore, there is a student project in the winter semester 2016/17 on the colonial history of Brandenburg. Truc Vu Minh, director of the RECS office and a graduate of the “Cultural Spaces of Encounter in the Early Modern Period” program at Potsdam, is involved in the seminar project. “The Foundation’s collections include several traces of Brandenburg’s colonial history, including paintings and sculptures,” says Vu Minh. Students in the seminar will comb through the Foundation’s holdings, looking for materials related to colonial history. For example, in some portraits of the royal family, there are courtiers labeled as “Moors.” “They had a privileged position at court, were often splendidly dressed, and depicted on horseback.” They were well-paid for their services; in no way were they slaves. The seminar also includes a critical assessment of contemporary descriptions and the position that African courtiers held in Prussia. The course may result in the production of a digital historical park tour for smartphones, for Potsdamers and for visitors from all over the world. 

By the way, Frederick the Great slept with socks that his servants warmed up at the oven at night – Frederick was constantly worried about freezing – and also slept with a pillow bound to his head. Even today, the New Palace is rather cool; people prefer to keep their jackets on. It’s therefore no surprise that Frederick only used it as a summer residence, living there in July and August. It was probably easier to do some enlightening after a good night’s sleep, warmly tucked into bed.

The Project

The Research Center Sanssouci officially opened in January 2016. It is a joint research institution between the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation and the University of Potsdam. The Center examines the historical and natural scientific foundations of today’s global knowledge society and generates new approaches to the cultural heritage of Brandenburg-Prussia and the history of the European Enlightenment. RECS will promote the internationalization of these fields of research and strengthen the international orientation of Brandenburg as a place to do research.

Research Center Sanssouci. For Knowledge and Society
Allee nach Sanssouci 6, 14471 Potsdam
Office: Truc Vu Minh
Email: t.vuminh@recs.nomorespam.academy

The historian Dr. Jürgen Luh has a research focus on the history of the Holy Roman Empire, military history, and the history of Brandenburg-Prussia. He has been responsible for scholarship and research at the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation since 2008. In 2012 he was the curator of the “Friederisiko” exhibition, which marked the 300th anniversary of Frederick II’s birth. 

Prof. Dr. Iwan-Michelangelo D’Aprile was Junior Professor for the European Enlightenment from 2009 to 2015 at the University of Potsdam. He holds the professorship in “Cultures of Enlightenment” since 2015. His research focuses on the cultural and intellectual history of the Enlightenment. He has coordinated international research projects in this field, including “ENGLOBE” and “WORLDBRIDGES.”


Dr. Jürgen Luh
Research Center Sanssouci. 
For Knowledge and Society
Allee nach Sanssouci 6, 14471 Potsdam
Email: j.luh@recs.nomorespam.academy

Prof. Dr. Iwan-Michelangelo D´Aprile
University of Potsdam
Institute for Germanic Studies
Am Neuen Palais 10, 14469 Potsdam
Email: daprile@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Text: Jana Scholz
Translation: Dr. Lee Holt
Published online by: Agnetha Lang
Contact for the editorial office: onlineredaktion@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de