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Saturday Volcano Art: Wörlitz – a volcano in the garden 22 September 2009

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Carl Kuntz, Der Stein zu Worlitz (c.1796)
Carl Kuntz, ‘Der Stein zu Wörlitz’ (c.1796).

Leopold III Frederick Franz (1740-1817) was the ruler of the small German principality of Anhalt-Dessau in what is now the German Bundesland of Saxony-Anhalt. He was a great admirer of England, making several visits there between 1763 and 1785 and bringing back ‘advanced’ English ideas in economics, agriculture, culture and politics. The ‘natural style’ of gardening fashionable in England at this time inspired the prince to create an English-style landscape garden at his home estate of Wörlitz. For the Prince of Dessau, concerned by the threat posed to his small state by Prussian expansionism, committed to the free thought and liberty of the Enlightenment, and opposed to despotism and tyranny, the English garden was as much a political as an aesthetic statement.

The garden realm of Wörlitz was laid out between 1764 and around 1800 in the natural style of planting that characterized the English garden. There is an eclectic range of buildings and other features within the garden: numerous bridges and statues, a house in the Gothick architectural style, a pedimented Temple of Flora, the classical Wörlitz Synagogue – and an artificial volcano.

Woerlitz Stein Hamilton
The Worlitz volcano on the left with the Villa Hamilton on the right. [source]

The volcano stands in an area of the garden called the Stein, created between 1788 and 1794, which actually features two re-created volcanic features. One is a crater used as an amphitheatre, while the other is a model volcanic peak which was designed to be used for artificial eruptions. Elaborate firework displays would be set off from the volcano’s ‘crater’; the flanks of the volcano featured panels of red-tinted glass over which water would flow, creating the effect of glowing red streams of lava descending from the summit. This is the spectacle illustrated in Carl Kuntz’s etching, reproduced at the top of this post.

The prince was inspired to create his ‘model Vesuvius’ by the volcanological researches of Sir William Hamilton, British envoy to the Court of Naples, whom he had met while travelling in Italy in 1766. He had stayed with the Hamiltons at their villa at Posillipo, Villa Emma, where Sir William carried out his observations and studies of Vesuvius. When the prince re-created that villa, along with his own miniature Vesuvius, on his own estate at Wörlitz he was paying a tribute both to a particular Englishman he had met and admired, and to the advance of science and knowledge which he associated with the English values of liberty he sought to embody in his garden.

Further reading

  • The Vesuvius of Wörlitz – at Volcanism in the Arts
  • Lady Hamilton’s Attitudes – as performed at Wörlitz in 2005
  • Maiken Umbach, ‘Visual culture, scientific images and German small-state politics in the late Enlightenment’, Past and Present, no. 158 (Feb. 1998), pp. 110-145.
  • Maiken Umbach, Federalism and Enlightenment in Germany, 1740-1806 (London: Hambledon Press, 2000). [Google Books]

This week’s Saturday Volcano Art was delayed, and is being published on a Tuesday. For all ‘Saturday volcano art’ articles: Saturday volcano art « The Volcanism Blog.

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