Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
Created by Reinhold Begas for the Berlin City Council (Magistrat), the magnificent Italian-style fountain known as Neptunbrunnen was unveiled on November 1, 1891 at Berlin´s Schloßplatz south of the Royal Palace. Today, it stands, almost unchanged, just a fork´s throw away from its old location, next to one of Berlin´s oldest churches, Marienkirche.
Half-forgotten fact today is that Begas´s artwork was a gift from the grateful city authorities to Kaiser Wilhelm II: one they presented him with on this day, October 27, 1888, while still under construction. Had Wilhelm known, however, he would have refuse it there and then.
Initially, all seemed well: Kaiser Wilhelm II was famous for his affinity for all things maritime. What gift could have been better then than a water-spouting feature topped with God of the Sea with Barbarossa´s face (according to some experts)?
The fountain was quite imperial and overwhelming, too. At its centre, the giant figure of Neptune with a trident leaned on his shoulder and the massive body enthroned 10 m above the ground in a giant shell placed in the middle of a large marble basin.
The basin, literally bursting with turtles, fish, snakes, crocodiles as well as frolicking children, was guarded by four 2.3-metre females sat on its edge. They each symbolised one of Germany´s four main rivers: the Rhein bore a fishing net and vine leaves; the Vistula (today known again as Polish Wisła) held lumbers or the wood traditionally floated down the river to the Baltic Sea; the Oder (now partly Polish and marking the border between the two countries) was presented with goats and with furs; and the Elbe sat surrounded by fruit and ripe ears of wheat.
What could go wrong? Then, to almost everybody´s surprise, the otherwise water-loving Wilhelm appeared to loath the fountain. The main problem seemed to be its very location. The giant Neptunbrunnen – one of the largest features of its kind worldwide – was installed right in front of the imperial bedroom. Begas´s gargantuan Poseidon (Neptune´s Greek name) towering behind his curtains made the Kaiser uneasy and gave him a feeling of being watched. The monarch complained and demanded “improvements”. It was the beginning of one of the most bizarre squabbles in Berlin´s history.
Eventually, Wilhelm II, who never seemed to miss an opportunity for a bickering fight (Bismarck often described him as someone “with no sense of proportion”) openly attacked Berlin´s city council. Speaking from his imperial stool he demanded that the Magistrat turn Neptune to the right so that instead of the Kaiser´s bedroom, it would be looking at their own windows: at the Rotes Rathaus. The answer was prompt: let us turn it but if it is not the Schloß it is facing, it should be facing the Stechbahn (a small street west of the Schloßplatz) and the Schleusenbrücke.
Wilhelm II, who did not own the Schloßplatz (it belonged to the city) but was the owner of the latter street, refused. Then he went on to dress down Berlin´s Mayor, Max von Forckenbeck, and ordered the council to do as told. Here is where the story took, both literally and figuratively speaking, an amusing turn. Berliner Magistrat had the Neptune fountain turned as required. However, they made sure that the offending God of the Sea now faced Breite Straße, a street stretching south from the Hohenzollern castle and the imperial bedroom. Which meant that Wilhelm II was forced to look at Neptune´s… backside. From that day on the curtains of the imperial bedroom remained forever closed.
But why was Neptunbrunnen placed at the old Neuer Markt after 1945? The fountain survived the Second World War in mint condition: it was covered with a brick “shell”, a shed-like construction that protected it from the elements and the wrath of war. When the brickwork was removed in 1946, the main elements were removed to be stored at the Alte Nationalgalerie but, unfortunately, the massive marble basins were destroyed in the process (whether intentionally or not remains to be cleared).
In the 1960s the fountain was re-erected on the newly built square between the old Marienkirche, the Fernsehturm and the Rotes Rathaus. The missing elements were re-created by the Berlin iron welders of Lauchhammer. A brand-new granite basin replaced the missing old one – red stone used for its construction, as well as grey granite turned into new steps, arrived in Berlin from Siberia.
This story will be featured in Kreuzberged´s next book, follow-up to Notmsparker´s Berlin Companion , to be published as e-book in December.