KASSEL is the largest city in northern Hesse. Internationally, it’s renowned for the documenta contemporary art exhibition, which rolls in every five years, taking over the city and leaving a legacy of public sculpture unique in Germany. Between times Kassel falls off the radar. True, the centre is dull – as single-mindedly devoted to shopping as any in Germany – but the city’s interesting museums include one devoted to the Brothers Grimm, the parks are among the most extraordinary eighteenth-century garden landscapes in Europe, and the setting, fringed by wooded hills, is lovely. And for those who don’t relish hanging out in shopping centres, the leafy, attractive Vordere Westen quarter – between the city centre and Wilhelmshöhe – has all the elegant Jugendstil architectural details and relaxed café life you could wish for.
For visitors, Kassel is a linear city, with most of the sights at either end of Wilhelmshöher Allee – in the east are the city centre’s museums and a beautiful park, Karlsaue; in the west there’s the exceptional landscape and art collection of Wilhelmshöhe. Hotels and places to eat and drink are scattered between the two.Read More
The exuberance of the palace and parks of Wilhelmshöhe is visible even from the city centre, for the flamboyant Baroque Bergpark climbs the hill in front of you along arrow-straight Wilhelmshöher Allee, which is aligned with the park. The steepness of the incline foreshortens the view, and it’s only once inside it that you realize Wilhelmshöhe is as vast as it is spectacular. Pick up a map from the Besucherzentrum Bergpark at the foot of the park, as the one at the Herkules charges for maps.
Created on the whim of Landgrave Karl in the first decade of the eighteenth century by the Italian Francesco Guerniero, Wilhelmshöhe is dominated by the Herkules-Oktagon, an enormous fantasy castle topped by a pyramid on which stands an 8.25m-tall figure of Hercules, the work of the Augsburg coppersmith Jacob Anthoni. The choice of subject reflected Karl’s not-so-modest view of his own qualities.
From the foot of the Oktagon, the stepped Kaskaden (cascades) descend for 400m; from May to early October, this is the scene of the best free show in Hesse, the Wasserkünste, as water is released at the top and slowly flows downhill. It takes around ten minutes to descend the Kaskaden, then disappears, reappearing over the Steinhöfer waterfall and under the picturesque Teufelsbrücke before finally re-emerging in front of Schloss Wilhelmshöhe to power a spectacular 52-metre-high water jet. The entire performance takes an hour, so that you can comfortably follow its progress downhill. From June to September, there’s an illuminated evening performance on the first Saturday of the month.
The lower reaches of the park are dominated by Schloss Wilhelmshöhe, a massive Neoclassical pile built between 1786 and 1801 to plans by Simon du Roy for Landgrave Wilhelm IX. The central Corps de Logis houses the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, a heavyweight collection of old masters originally amassed by the Landgrave Wilhelm VIII of Hesse-Kassel and ranking with the best in Germany. Laid out over three floors, it is particularly strong in Flemish and Dutch works. The third floor of the museum is a treasure-trove of works by Rubens, Van Dyck, Jacob Jordaens and Rembrandt, with highlights including Rembrandt’s tender Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Manasseh from 1656 and Rubens’ Flight into Egypt, a delicate and modest-sized panel painting that lacks the theatrical swagger of his altarpieces.
The second floor displays Dutch painting of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, while German works on the first floor include a small Cranach portrait of a rather stout Martin Luther, dated 1543, Dürer’s 1499 Portrait of Elsbeth Tucher and a number of works by Johann Heinrich Tischbein the Elder, court painter to the Hesse-Kassels, including a portrait of Wilhelm VIII himself. The first floor also displays Italian, Spanish and French art, including canvasses by Titian and Tintoretto. The ground floor and basement of the Corps de Logis are occupied by the Antikensammlung of Classical antiquities, as well as a series of cork models of the monuments of ancient Rome created at the end of the eighteenth century by Antonio Chichi.
Weissensteinflügel and Löwenburg
The only part of Schloss Wilhelmshöhe that preserves its original Neoclassical interiors is the Weissensteinflügel in the palace’s south wing. At the end of the eighteenth century the Louis XVI and English styles were influential at the Kassel court, but the wing also displays the influence of the French Empire style dating from the time of Jérôme Bonaparte, youngest brother of the Emperor Napoleon, who ruled the short-lived Kingdom of Westphalia from Kassel between 1807 and 1813. During this period, Wilhelmshöhe was renamed Napoléonshöhe.
In a secluded setting southwest of Schloss Wilhelmshöhe is the Löwenburg, a picturesque mock-medieval castle containing the Hesse-Kassel armoury, a chapel and a number of rooms furnished in mock-antiquarian styles.
One of the world’s most important exhibitions of contemporary art and often known as the “one hundred days museum”, documenta (documenta.de) was founded in 1955 by the artist and art educator Arnold Bode to reconcile the German public to international Modernism after the Nazi years, when the official artistic policy had been reactionary and anti-Modern. It became an unparalleled success, and takes place every five years under a new director, with the most recent one attracting 750,000 visitors. documenta 13 runs from 9 June to 16 September 2012.