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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Great Designs in Wood (44) - The Roentgen's Berlin Secretary Cabinet

Fred Deneke of Arizona sent this along, and an amazing piece of mechanical woodworking it is.
"One of the finest achievements of European furniture making, this cabinet is the most important product from Abraham (1711--1793) and David Roentgen's (1743--1807) workshop. A writing cabinet crowned with a chiming clock, it features finely designed marquetry panels and elaborate mechanisms that allow for doors and drawers to be opened automatically at the touch of a button. Owned by King Frederick William II, the Berlin cabinet is uniquely remarkable for its ornate decoration, mechanical complexity, and sheer size. 
This cabinet is from Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, and is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in the exhibition Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens. http://www.metmuseum.org/en/exhibitions/listings/2012/roentgen 
Footage courtesy of VideoART GmbH and Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.
- http://www.youtube.com/




As you might imagine, the person who commissioned this walnut-veneered masterpiece must have had a bit of money. It was, in fact, the desk of King Frederick William II of Prussia, the well-fed fellow at the right, who ruled during the turbulent years of 1786 to 1797.

While we here in the newly-formed United States of America were struggling to feed the army and were making simply elegant but strictly functional wooden furniture, the heads of state over on the continent were still living the good life while most people were slowly starving. Frederick William went down in history as incapable of dealing with the political turmoil of the time, but nevertheless, a great friend of the arts. In the secretary cabinet above, we see that he clearly had a taste for flair in even something as theoretically simple as a desk. I'm sure his cabinet makers, the Roentgen brothers, appreciated his taste for the extravagantly exceptional, and the money it undoubtedly brought in.

His greatest contribution to the world of the arts, however, is one that you may be a little more familiar with. He commissioned the design and building of The Brandenburg Gate, which was completed in 1791. The Tor, as it is known in German, it a focal landmark of Berlin and has been an ironically glorious silent witness to many of the key moments in history: the rise of Nazism in Germany, the Cold War, and German re-unification. Intended by Frederick William as a monument to peace, it represented to many of the time the insensitivity of royalty to the plight of the masses while they, the royals, were enjoying the peak of their power.

Napoleon passing through the Brandenburg Gate after the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt (1806).
Like so many things created by well-intentioned but tone-deaf leaders, the Gate outlived its builders to provide a quite different context to events. Fifteen years after its completion, and only nine years after Frederick Williams death, the People's Army of the Republic of France under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte marched through the Gate, spreading the slow but sure death knell for the royalty on the continent.

And while the Brandenburg Gate remains as a testament to the fragility of man's design for the world, the Roentgen's masterpiece in wood reminds us of the durability of man's creative genius.

1 comment:

JLK said...

Hi Chuck

Being a history fanatic I am not so sure of your statement about the "death knell of royalty"

After Napoleon's final exile in 1814, even the French, after another Monarchy Restoration, ended up with Napoleon 111.

Meanwhile, 50 years later, Bismarck was uniting Germany under Wilhelm 1.The irony being his victory over France in 1871 led to chaos (the Paris Commune)then the 3rd Republic which like all "Republics" until today's 5th was a corrupt mess. And one could argue about today's 5th zRepublic..

Although the Habsburg Empire was already in tatters was already and the Tsar, after 1905, was on the brink, the Hohenzollerns were still a power to be reckoned with.

With the most powerful land army in Europe in 1914, the British and the hapless French (especially after the battles of Verdun and Chemin des Dames) had to depend on American help without which Europe would probably have been a Monarchy for another few generations

So obviously the evolution of monarchies in Europe is not so simple


Cheers
JLK

PS The desk is fantastic.