A palace fit for the people

I pass some American stereotypes with flying red, white, and blue colors; one is that I’m unfamiliar with much to do about European history outside of the World Wars. I don’t think I really knew before coming to Copenhagen that Denmark has a long legacy of being an absolute monarchy, although the country is a constitutional monarchy today and has been since 1848. As an absolute monarch, the reigning king or queen at the time possessed absolute power and would not be limited in that by any means. This precedent sounds emphatically dissonant compared to current syntheses people have made of Danish culture as well as urban design practices I’ve been exposed to during my time here, like hearing crickets and the waking melodies of birds at the same nameless time of day.

Castle, gardens, and me, ever so slightly out of focus

Over the weekend, I decided to take a day trip to visit the largest Renaissance building in Scandinavia: the Frederiksborg Slot! This famous castle was built in the 17th century for King Christian IV of Denmark and today — in conjunction with the Museum of National History —houses the preservation of over 500 years of royal portraits, furniture, and interiors. I took a 45-minute train out of Copenhagen to Hillerød, a quaint town located in Northern Denmark. The grounds are situated on three islets on Castle Lake, which is an approximately 20-minute walk from the station. I took a route that followed the water’s edge and passed residents walking their dogs, children feeding the ducks, and people enjoying their lunches at a series of café and restaurant patios overlooking the building. Closer to the castle gate, a live band was playing a song I can only describe as Frank Sinatra-adjacent. The smooth brass tones of the instruments and the singer’s crooner voice echoed slightly off nearby walls, as if the group were playing for an audience in an impossibly high-ceilinged room. It seemed everything was fashioned to be larger than life here.

Room 67 decorated in the Baroque style

Frederiksborg is richly adorned with elements that give the castle its ornamental aesthetic. Much of the decoration is in the dramatic baroque style, characterized by tapestries, sculpted paneling, painted ceilings, chandeliers, and gilded furniture and mirrors. Baroque art and architecture also often carries symbolic meaning that goes beyond its shiny superficial appeal.

The Neptune Fountain

On the walk through the inner courtyard up to the entrance, you are greeted with the Neptune Fountain, a water feature depicting the Roman god of the sea, his hand outstretched. Deities of rivers and springs, water nymphs, mermen blowing conch shells, and other such references to Greek and Roman mythology stand surrounding the bronze figure stood tall at the peak. The monument intends to demonstrate King Christian IV’s command over Scandinavian waters and the force of the Danish navy. In the audience chamber — one of the rooms spared in the fire that destroyed much of the slot, although it was faithfully recreated in the following years — paintings on the walls and ceiling occupy any space left by the windows, with only a few table and chair sets filling in the floor area. The subjects of this art are mainly King Christian V and his ancestors — for example, one portrait depicts him dressed as a Roman emperor with his three young sons — as well as incidences of the monarchy’s success in war. Additionally, there are four paintings of female presenting figures in each corner of the room that symbolize the four corners of the world that Denmark’s empire at one point spanned: Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas.

Elaborate chapel interior

The attached chapel may be the densest in terms of layered gold decor as well as inherent symbolism because in the 17th century, the interests of the church and the crown were tied to one another with iron links. On the self-guided audio tour I followed, I learned of a particular king in Denmark’s history that committed adultery while married to his chosen queen. Standard treatment in response to this sin was punishment by death, but the absolute monarch was absolved from even the most stringent laws. The king therefore faced no consequences. As I mentioned earlier, it is difficult to resolve this past as well as the wars Denmark began in order to colonize the world with my view of the country today. In 1849, the Danish Constitution was established, introducing democratic principles such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly to society. Parliament and other committees were given legislative power and the duties of monarchs were rendered ceremonial in nature.

Garden parterres and fountain

Being able to walk through the expanse of rooms with other tourists and watch residents go on their afternoon run alongside the lines of garden parterres felt like a tangible realization of this land finally being gifted to the public. Royal or not, I can’t conceive of any single family living in a residence so grand, but as a museum and park, Frederiksborg doesn’t feel too big for long. It fits anyone who makes the trip.

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