With its water gardens and its statue of Hercules, Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe (hillside park Wilhelmshöhe) in the west of the Hessian city of Kassel is an outstanding masterpiece of the self-dramatization of absolutist rulers. Its exceptional topographical setting on the slope of a hill in Habichtswald forest made it possible for generations of rulers and master builders to stage the seemingly impossible: water flowing down the hill in several different artistic forms without previously having been channeled up the slope using technical devices such as aqueducts or water raising machinery.
The initiator and spiritual author of this artistic work was Landgrave Karl von Hessen-Kassel, who ruled from 1677 to 1730. With his choice, in the late 17th century, of such a striking location above the former Weißenstein castle he laid the foundations for a form of princely self-dramatization his successors seized upon and took even further. Landgrave Karl selected an ideal location on which to construct it, the 500-meter high ridge at the eastern edge of Habichtswald forest and placed a monumental cascade on the exposed site, crowning it with an octagonal edifice. Construction work was already underway when, during his grand tour in the winter of 1699-1700, he came up with further ideas for the design of individual garden elements. The octagon creates a unique starting point for the water features, which appear to bubble up from the top of a hill without any spring being located higher up. The way this is presented suggests that inexhaustible supplies of water flow down from the hill; however, it is basically the case that this water, in the form of rainwater and surface water is collected on the plateau of the Essigberg hill in the winter months. The transfer of Italian Renaissance cascades to the monumental dimensions of the Baroque along a planned length of 1.500 meters represented something completely novel.
The octagonal building is crowned with an 8.3 meter copy of the Hercules Farnese. The constructional solution reached in its creation represents the very best in technical and artistic terms for this kind of monumental figure. The fact that it was to be positioned on top of a 40-meter pyramid meant the sculpture needed to be as light as possible.
Even though the design project, which embraced the entire slope of the hill, was not completed in Landgrave Karl's time, the erection of the pyramid and of Hercules on the octagonal building, and the adjoining cascade feature did bring things to a meaningful initial conclusion. Later on, the basic Baroque idea was not rejected but rather formed a starting point and a point of reference for Karl's successors when developing the concept for the park and water features.
These artistic endeavors on the slopes of the Habichtswald forest were accompanied by research, in the course of which the Landgrave specially had leading scientists of the time (e.g., Denis Papin) conduct experiments with innovative machines such as a high-pressure steam pump. These were intended to enable a particularly powerful jet of water to be produced. Although, ultimately, the high-pressure steam pump was never actually used in the water garden it represents an essential link in the development of the steam engine and is thus, in view of the significance that the steam engine was to possess in terms of mechanizing human culture, a particularly important masterpiece of intellectual and creative genius.
Accordingly, Landgrave Karl von Hessen-Kassel and his successors were only able to produce this impressive landscape garden through a combination of ambitious artistic interest, knowledge of the natural sciences and by overcoming major engineering challenges. The choice of topography, not to mention the dimensions of the Bergpark were prerequisites for the prestigious nature of the grounds so desired by the Landgrave and his successors, but also the prerequisite for this technical masterpiece achieved in harmony with nature. It is control over both nature and technology that are expressed in this outsize statue of Hercules and the water features, and which reveal the Prince's self-image. Furthermore, the continuation into the 19th century of this Baroque guiding principle, i.e., the notion of placing water at the center of an orchestrated landscape design and of creating park architecture with the character of a monument (octagon with Hercules / the Löwenburg) as a sign of princely power, also served as a form of self-dramatization for the Landgraves of Hessen-Kassel.
Justification de la Valeur Universelle Exceptionelle
Landgrave Karl chose a site with an extraordinary topography for his gardens, which represents a masterpiece of human creative genius.
The special topography of the slope in Habichtswald forest made possible the outstanding and innovative artistic design behind this Baroque Bergpark (octagon with Hercules, succession of cascades) and the romantic landscape park with its water features. This artistry with water makes the grounds a unique work of landscaped garden art. Both Baroque and romantic design elements are subordinated to the leitmotif of the total control of and spectacular staging of the element of water. In the 18th century the Baroque water features - and in particular the cascades - were, in terms of expanse, the most extensive in Europe. The topography determined the technique used for sourcing water on a slope with no river feed without reverting to building work, e.g., constructing an aqueduct. This enabled the highest, most powerful fountain of the 18th century to come into being; even today, in terms of volume this is the most powerful jet of its kind in the world.
The topography of the site also allowed for a new kind of construction to be used for Hercules. The fact that the 8.3-meter Hercules figure (the largest known copy of the Hercules Farnese) was mounted on a steep pyramid exposed to strong winds made for a new kind of constructional solution, its artisan quality far greater than that achieved in other monumental statues and still unsurpassed today. For the very first time a colossal figure was positioned as the starting point of a park in such a way that, as an image of an outstanding mythological ruler, it at the same time gave the entire landscape a political spin - starting from a dominant point just like later 19th-century national monuments. The octagon is one unique feature of the park architecture that is inseparably linked to the Hercules figure in the perceptions both of contemporary witnesses and later generations. As a monumental building fulfilling no concrete function, the octagon is unique throughout the world as a park building. The edifice was considered a "miracle of recent architecture" (Hirschfeld, Theorie der Gartenkunst, 1782) and it was said of it that "it should be recognized as the eighth wonder of the world, together with its Hercules" (Johanna Schopenhauer, writer, 1787).
Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe is an exceptional testimony to the orchestration, in the form of a garden layout, to claims to power across generations and dynasties.
The notion of continuing, through to the early 19th century, the Baroque principle of placing water at the heart of artistic garden designs and creating park architecture with the character of a monument (octagon with Hercules / the Löwenburg) as an indication of princely power had a decidedly dynastic background. The Bergpark has thus achieved a unique, prestigious status as the crystallization point of dynastic pretensions, a status otherwise often allocated to family estates.
In Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe the different stylistic phases (from Baroque to New Baroque) and design elements that have shaped it manifest themselves in a harmonious, high-quality synthesis. The predominantly natural vegetation, the artificial rock landscape and the tuff stone octagon created outstanding conditions for integrating Baroque elements in the English-style "wild" garden. The water features were consistently extended by adding new watercourses which were linked to the Baroque watercourse. This design idea was particularly distinguished, throughout the generations, by a marked inclination to monumentality.
The significance of Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe is underlined, both in the German and the European context, by the fact that Napoleon's brother Jérôme made Kassel the capital of the newly-established kingdom of Westphalia and established a sumptuous court in the Bergpark. Moreover, after the annexation of Hessen-Kassel to Prussia in 1866, the Wilhelmshöhe gardens were used in particular by the later German Kaiser Wilhelm II as a summer residence.
In the context of Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe future-oriented hydraulic and hydrostatic research was conducted.
Landgrave Karl promoted the hydraulic and hydrostatic sciences in a unique way before and during the construction of the water features in the Bergpark. At the time, research into the production of fountains in a vacuum was an achievement unique to Europe. Landgrave Karl's hydraulic engineering projects not only resulted in unique cascades but also provided crucial ideas for the first steam engine, i.e., a technical idea that was to fundamentally change technology and the economy in the 18th and 19th centuries. Isaac Newton, for example, delivered an expert opinion on a steam pump developed by Denis Papin.
Satements of authenticity and/or integrity
With regard to its function and its use, Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe can be regarded as almost completely authentic. From the water sourcing area to the watercourses and pipe systems in the park, not to mention the centerpiece, the fountains themselves, the water features that serve as the leitmotif feature the original technology of the time and largely still boast the building fabric of the time. The fact that the water features have been in constant use for 300 years documents the real engineering achievement behind them, as well as the Prince's desire for prestigious design that underscored his power. The stability with regard to ownership played a fundamental role in the continued use and especially in the care and maintenance of the park. The social and political upheavals of 1914 and 1945 including the most recent change of ownership from the Free State of Prussia to the State of Hesse did nothing to change these conditions.
The function of Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe to serve as an illustrious location has remained intact over the centuries. It has been sensitively updated from generation to generation, such that its structure can be regarded as authentic. Even today the park reveals the various phases and design elements that have shaped it in a harmonious, extremely high-quality synthesis, maintaining the integrity of the Baroque starting point.
The monumental statue of Hercules on the octagon has formed a point of reference for developing and redesigning the Bergpark, as well as for Kassel's urban development plans through to the present day. In terms of its fabric the Hercules statue can also be regarded as authentic.
The water features operate on the same principle as when they were originally built. Gravity sets them in motion, with gate valves being opened and closed, and dammed basins emptied manually. As when it first opened, the Bergpark is looked after and maintained by its own staff working for a state-run operation, ensuring that experience and knowledge is passed on by generations of gardeners.
Comparison with other similar properties
Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe distinguishes itself from other European gardens dating from between the 16th and the 19th centuries on account of its totally unique natural topography. Unlike Baroque gardens laid out on flat ground, such as those in Versailles, Schönbrunn and Drottningholm, given its location on the side of a the park in Kassel faces the Kassel basin, thereby unfolding the greatest possible effect in the distant landscape. Wilhelmshöhe stands out from other gardens on hillsides such as Caserta, Chatsworth or Frascati, on account of the fact that the cascades do not start in the middle of a hillside or are marked by a small item of park architecture. Rather, Landgrave Karl succeeded in positioning the point at which the water features commence to the most effective spot, the supposed tip of the slope. At the same time, this extension into the landscape enhances the design of the garden. It is its topography on a hillside that represents the most important, most characteristic and most challenging element of this park and the one that has enabled this Bergpark, the dimensions of which are unique in Europe, to come into being.
This topography also determines the use of the leitmotif of dominion over water. It finds particular expression in the fact that seemingly inexhaustible supplies of water flow down a hillside. In this respect, too, Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe is thus unique within the group of European water gardens. The water used for the water features was and indeed still is mainly collected in the form of rainwater and surface water on the high plain of the Essigberg hill and is thus readily available without the need for further pumps or water-raising machines. By way of contrast, in other renowned gardens of the time, the water came from rivers or other water sources and relied on technical equipment such as aqueducts or other mechanical facilities for drawing water (e.g., Tivoli, Versailles, using the Marly machines or Caserta with its Acquetto Carolino).