The appellation “the Great” tends to be awarded to prominent figures who exhibit an extraordinary degree of military prowess or achieve outstanding success in political or intellectual endeavors. Indeed, two legendary eighteenth-century monarchs, Frederick II of Prussia and Catherine II of Russia, earned this appellation precisely for such reasons.
But over time, the “greatness” of such achievements may be eclipsed by a different type of accomplishment. In fact, the high reputations of both of these monarchs persist in large part because of their involvement with, and support of, the fine arts.
Frederick II (who reigned 1740-1786) inherited a burgeoning army forged by his iron-fisted, cruel father, Frederick I, who built a modern kingdom in what was essentially a backwater eastern German territory. Despite drastic attempts to escape his father’s vision, the highly conflicted Frederick II continued his father’s work, surpassing it militarily and diplomatically.
Catherine II (who reigned 1762-1796), a lowly German princess born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, married as a sixteen-year-old into the tsarist Romanov dynasty in 1745. After overseeing the murder of her peculiar and incompetent husband Tsar Peter III in 1762, Catherine II positioned herself as the direct heir of Russia’s most extreme innovator—Peter the Great. Across a reign of thirty-four years (an accomplishment in a land where tsars fell regularly to coups or disease), she waged a series of Russian-Turkish wars (1768-1775) that made Russia the dominant power in southeastern Europe.
But Catherine II’s most significant territorial achievement took place off the battlefield when she joined forces with Joseph II of Austria and her mentor and fellow “great” Frederick II, accomplishing by diplomacy what military force would have found difficult: namely, wiping the Kingdom of Poland off the map by imposing three drastic partitions across a span of twenty-three years.
Still, looking back at both of these rulers, we cherish a different aspect of their “greatness” today: the work they did to foster the growth of the arts. Frederick II was one of his era’s finest musicians, a virtuoso flute player and composer in a time when the sound of the flute characterized wide swaths of European popular music. He embraced a new, still-experimental keyboard instrument called the fortepiano, helping it spread throughout aristocratic and bourgeois circles and laying the groundwork for the great industry of German piano manufacturing in the nineteenth century, including the firms of Steinweg (Steinway), Beckstein, and Bösendorfer.
Frederick II also engaged a stable of leading musicians, including a hot-shot keyboardist and composer named Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, whose best-known credential still is his status as one of J. S. Bach’s talented sons. In that era, though, C. P. E. Bach shone as a cutting-edge genius who lifted a stagnant Baroque style into what would ultimately become the musical language of the Romantic period.
Today, the name “Catherine the Great” evokes a monarch who boldly fostered Russia’s renowned passion for the arts and laid the foundation for one of the world’s greatest museums: The Hermitage. From 1764 on, she bought art extravagantly, beginning with a grand collection of Flemish and Dutch masters assembled by Frederick the Great himself. (Imagine a world where someone would decide to sell a treasure-trove of not-yet-priceless works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Raphael, van Dyck, Hals, Holbein, and Titian!)
Catherine’s collection first occupied galleries built onto her luxurious Winter Palace—an endless, ornamented blue and white façade designed by the Italian Baroque master Francesco Rastrelli along the banks of St. Petersburg’s Neva River. She called this new wing her hermitage (or “retreat”). Quickly her collection overflowed into nearly every available corridor of the palace.
Ultimately, Catherine amassed more than four thousand paintings and forty thousand books, plus tens of thousands of drawings, engravings, medals, coins, and precious items concerning natural history. She sent art scouts across the world and made bold acquisitions such as sculptures and artifacts from the ancient world that most collectors would not discover or desire until decades later.
Catherine’s tastes in literature were also refined. She authored historical dramas, and cultivated literary relationships with the principal figures of the French Enlightenment, particularly Voltaire and Diderot, whose good opinion she courted. In music, she supported what was expected of a monarch of her standing, namely a fine ensemble of singers for the Orthodox liturgies held in her Royal Chapel. She employed the best Italian Catholic composers to move to Russia and write Orthodox choral music and trendy Italian operas.
Today, Frederick’s reputation as patron of music stands off to the side. Instead, the word most often associated with him—”Prussian”—evokes lines of precision marching performed by an army equipped and ready to invade. Yet his greatest contribution to history lies in his musical vision. Without it, nineteenth-century musical life across Germany would have developed quite differently. More specifically, a flourishing Berlin artistic culture still attests to his influence, despite the devastation of two world wars and the forty-year isolation of East Berlin behind the Iron Curtain. In fact, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the very places where Frederick the Great displayed his virtuosity overflow with visitors, starting with Sanssouci, his Rococo palace devoted to music in Potsdam.
Catherine the Great’s legacy lives on in the continuous expansion of her collections. The Hermitage draws more than seven million visitors a year. It fills massive complexes of galleries, including the renovated General Staff Building of the Admiralty, replete with its golden, curved façade designed in 1829 by Neoclassical architect Carlo Rossi. Here, newly installed, hangs a priceless collection of French Impressionist paintings acquired by later Romanov tsars who carried forth the spirit of Catherine II’s artistic boldness.
What conclusions can be drawn from these two vignettes of “great” monarchs? The first lesson lies in history: Artistic legacies created by such rulers may resound longer and stronger than the din of victorious battles that easily become reversed in the course of history. A brilliant artistic environment attests to dynastic or institutional power in much the same way as a strong military.
A more important lesson resonates in culture. The tsars and kings have danced, sung, played, sketched, and valued the arts for solid and serious reasons. The “greats” recognized the power of the arts as a centripetal force that binds together history, language, literature, and the sciences. It is a lesson that should inform our educational policies and goals today.