Friday, 11 January 2013



This is going to be a series of my favourite historic room views, and the first one has to be taken from the famous book by Mario Praz, which in English is called:  An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration from Pompeii to Art Nouveau (1964, available in paperback)This is the work that pioneered the study of historic room images and it is still a good place to start (although, frankly, I find the text a bit overblown).  
The room is one of those fantastical, slightly mad and totally 'designed' rooms which only happen in the kind of Royal palace where there is a lot of money to spend, but not a lot to do all day. It is the kind of room that you walked through, admired the design of, and revelled in the fashionable strangeness. 
The artist was Friedrich Wilhelm Klose and he painted this around 1840. 

The theme is etruscan, a style that appeared in the early 19th century as part of the renewed interest in all things classical, although the decorative scheme is based on vases from Greece.
The room was created in the 'Stadtschloss', or Palace, of Potsdam, near Berlin, which was the winter residence of the Kings of Prussia. Originally built in the 17th century, it was enlarged in several stages and Friedrich Wilhelm III had interiors, including this one, redesigned in 1802- 04 by Friedrich Gottlieb Schadow.  
The room was on the corner of the building that is closest to us in this view and had three windows on the south front and one looking west.

Although it was the Etruscan Room, there were no actual etruscan objects in it, but there were seven Greek vases on display. These may not even have been originals, but I guess they were. The rest of the room is pure decorative entertainment, an ornamental fantasy inspired by the vases, that celebrated their beauty and strangeness; it does not try to be an ancient room. This was long before the excavations of Troy etc, so there was very little known about etruscan or ancient greek culture, and the smooth black pots with their terracotta decorations must have seemed truly other wordly to the average courtier at the time.
So we find black panels with pale figures all around the room, including on the ceiling. There are black palmettes in the freeze, which in plaster would become a very common motif in 19th century interiors.

The dado area is rather plain and must have looked very unusual, as instead of the classical skirting board, the wall is flat, with a graphically strong greek key ornament, inlaid in the wood. The architect seems to have been experimenting here and with the traditional chairrail he dispensed all together.  

I love this mad sofa, and actually all the soft furnishings in the room are wonderfully inventive. Somebody had great fun designing these black embroideries on the pink, which looks like it could be silk satin. The design and wooden front is in the style of Schinkel and it looks like a very smart piece of furniture.

The curtains had similar black ornamentation, fringes and even black tassels.  I love the drapery on the window on the left. It is slighlty mad and assymmetrical and must have been balanced by the third window on that wall, the one we can't see. The middle window, which was opposite the sofa, probably had the same arrangement as the one that we can see, in the middle of the picture.

There don't seem to be draw curtains, but the tails are unusally long. In fact they reach the floor, next to the pots that are standing on their own bespoke little podium in front of the mirror. 

I'm intrigued by that round table in the corner, which doesn't look designed to go in this room. It suggests some use of the room that developed in later years. Perhaps tea was had in this room and the table was left empty to receive a cloth and a tray. The chairs and the open window look inviting and the 'double aspect' must have given interesting views and very nice light. I can imagine the whole room glowing in the low evening sun.

It is the only the chandelier that I find a bit disappointing. It looks like any other palatial chandelier really, and perhaps somebody could have had a go at designing something more fitting for this weird and wonderful room.

Amazingly, although the room was designed and decorated at the beginning of the 19th century, photographs exist of it from around the 1930s and they show the room virtually unchanged. They also show the incredible detail and accuracy of Klose's painting. The detailing of the sofa is slightly different but I suppose the cover needed to be remade at some point in the almost 100 years between these images. Otherwise the chairs in the window and the curtains look totally as they did in 1840.

I suppose this perfect survival shows how much of a 'set piece' this room was. It was a perfect and complete design and the furniture that was designed for it never moved to another room because it would have look out of place anywhere else.
And here is a view of the other side of the room, that shows how there were three windows on the long wall and two sets of pots on the floor between them. The curtains look as if they have exactly the border that is shown in the painting, but they, too, were remade at some point. 

Given the beauty and quality of the original design and the near survival of the whole scheme,  including the vases and furniture, for more than a century, it is incredibly sad that the room was totally destroyed in the war. The exterior of the Potsdam palace is being recreated at the moment (it will house a modern office building), but this wonderful room is one of the many cultural casualties of war.


The Etruscan Room, Potsdam, by Friedrich Wilhelm Klose
View of the Palace at Potsdam  (detail), by Johann Friedrich Meyer (1728-1789)

Photograph Max Baur, between 1928 and 1944  (German Federal Archives)


  1. The man who designed the sofa in the Etrurian Cabinet, the vases and some of the antique scenes at the walls, was Franz Catel.

    The vases had been produced in the manufactory of his brother Ludwig Catel, himself an architect, who had founded an arts and crafts manufactory in Potsdam.

    The manufactory delivered complete interior decorations.

    An article about Ludwig (Louis) Catel and his manufactory

    and an article about Franz Catel, the designer of the sofa

  2. Thank you so much Alexander Roslin, I did think it was a bit odd that they would have survived on the floor if they had been real vases !

  3. I love an etruscan room and have long been planning to do one about Osterley Park. Great post.

    visitinghousesandgardens (

  4. Hello, I learned of your blog from the Devoted Classicist, and have immediately recognized a kindred spirit. I occasionally write about interiors of historic houses on my own blog, and have an historic Federal period house in the Hudson River Valley in New York that we have been painstakingly (and ruinously) restoring and furnishing. I very much look forward to following your blog. Many thanks, Reggie

    1. Hi Reggie - welcome - yes, I have been reading your blog for a few months and know about Darlington. Looks like a fine project! Thanks for the compliments.

  5. Excellent post, and an unexpected treat to follow up the watercolour with photographs shot a hundred years later.
    Wouldn't you say that someone like Renzo Mongiardino was influenced by this particular room? There were a few
    examples in Italy, now that I think of it.

    1. Yes, I love the photos too, next to the original watercolour. I didn't actually know they existed when I started this post (I'm grateful to Alexander Roslin for pointing me towards them) but they make for a retty unique record of this room, which stayed so remarkably unchanged for all of its life.

      As for Mongiardino, I'm not familiar enough with his work, but have noticed he never left walls painted flat, there is usually some kind of 'mottled' paint finish, isn't there? A bit like the walls in the watercolour.
      He certainly must have known it. The watercolour is a full colour page in my version of Praz and I would be very surprised if he didn't study that book a lot.

  6. Long an admirer of the Etruscan style, I was familiar with this room from the Praz book. But what a treat to see the photos. It is interesting to see that the choice of replacement upholstery fabric, the same sort as often used today, pales in comparison of the original.