History of the castle

On the original site of the present ruin there once stood a fortification surrounded by a moat, which, in the course of time, was continually modified and expanded. Following the Thirty Years War; the deteriorating condition of the structure, which no longer reflected the new taste for renaissance buildings; the growing need to express a receptions and representational function and the gradually improving economic situation all contributed to the decision to erect a new building on the site. Prince Carl Wilhelm (1652-1718) began the ambitious project, which was to take four generations to complete.
Engraving by Simonetti   The design of the new baroque three winged complex was the brainchild of the Dutch architect and engineer, Cornelis Ryckwaert, who was then employed in the service of the princes of Brandenburg. Dutch influence in all walks of life in Zerbst came in with him. The northern parts of the old structure were demolished and the material was used in the construction of the new castle.

The foundation stone of the Corps de Logis of the castle was laid by Carl Wilhelm on the 31st of May 1681. The main section was, in outline, completed in 1689. The interior decoration and building was carried out by the Italian architect and decorator, Giovanni Simonetti. He created rooms with sumptuous, ornamental ceilings and beautifully laid out fireplaces and mantelpieces. After the death of Ryckwaert, Simonetti was placed in over all charge of the building work and was promoted to the rank of architect to the prince. The Corps de Logis was completed in Easter 1696 and the official moving in and inauguration of the Corps de Logis took place in June of the same year, on the birthday of princess Sophie.

The court continued to use the St. Bartholomew court and collegiate church for services and other religious occasions. However the desire arose to have a chapel in the castle itself. Aided by taxation revenues from the region of Jever, which belonged to Zerbst since 1667, the annual income of the principality rose to more than 100,000 Thalers and this made it possible to commence with the new building. The court architect Giovanni Simonetti remained faithful to Ryckwaert's plan in the building of the west wing of the castle. The foundation stone of the new section was laid on the 16th of April 1703. The exterior of the west wing was completed in 1706 and nine years later the interior, with the exception of the chapel, was finished. The final touches were applied to the in 1717 and he consecration of the lavishly decorated chapel was celebrated on the 18th of October 1719.

During the third building phase from 1721 onwards, the southern middle Risalit of the Corps de Logis was turned into a tower. This work was commissioned by prince Johann August (1677-1742) and the plans for it were fashioned by Johann Christoph Schütze from Sachsen-Weißenfels, who was appointed court architect to Zerbst in 1722. The tower was completed in 1725 and from now on it dominated the castle structure.

Schütze expanded the west wing by adding a south facing pavilion.The external wing structure was finished in 1738 and five years later the interior. The prince's apartment was situated on the top floor but he died before it was made ready.

Green Cabinet   The contract to finish the castle layout was commissioned by prince Johann Ludwig (1688-1746) and prince Christian August (1690-1747). Already by 1743 the demolition work began on the remaining structure of the old fortress, which stood in the southern part of the grounds. The laying of the foundation stone of the east wing was celebrated on the 13th of June 1744. The Prussian Johann Friedrich Friedel, who was a colleague of the architect genius George Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff, took over the direction of the building work. The external wing structure was quickly finished in 1746 and work on the interior began soon after in the style of the Frederickian rococo. After the death of both regents, Johanna Elisabeth (1712-1760), the widow of the prince, supervised the building project on behalf of her son Friedrich August (1734-1793) the last prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, who took over the governance of the principality in 1752. Both, he and his mother, were compelled to flee in 1758 after becoming embroiled in diplomatic intrigues with Frederick the second of Prussia and the building projects came to a standstill.

The second floor of the east wing remained unfinished and was only completed when the castle museum was built. The outer visual aspect of the complete castle complex was heavily inspired by the baroque style. The inner aspect, however, was expressive of the Frederickian rococo with its filigree, its playful forms and rocaillen. The Berlin sculptor Johann Michael Hoppenhaupt, who also decorated the castles of Frederick the Great, created a significant part of the valuable interior decoration, amongst others, the magnificent Cedar room. The princes of Zerbst had created a miniature Versailles out of the baroque palace.

In 1793 the princely line of Zerbst had died out and the castle was transferred to the Anhalt-Dessau line by lot. After the abdication of the ducal house in 1918, the Joachim-Ernst Trust was founded. This Culture Trust took over Zerbst castle as well as other castles, without interior furnishings, for the purpose of building a regional museum. The palace museum was able to be opened in 1921. It contained not only the departments of Art and Culture History of Anhalt but also the scientific and prehistoric collections of same. Besides the museum with almost 80 display rooms, it contained also the Anhalt state archives; the Zerbst town archives; the tax office and other institutions of the town.   View from the air

Castle ruin   On the 16th of April 1945 the palace was badly damaged in a bombing raid and was completely gutted. The valuable contents of the Archive and the Exhibition objects, which were not by then evacuated, were almost completely lost due to the bombing and the subsequent looting and plundering. Despite the overwhelming devastation the castle still continued to impress due to it's forceful presence. In December 1947 the castle gardens and the castle ruin were handed over to the town of Zerbst.
Those in power in the town council proceeded immediately to the final obliteration of the remains of the baroque castle, although had they had made it safe it would have been possible to rebuild it later. To be sure the order to blow it up was a political decision and artistic and historical arguments counted for little. Thus a second wave of destruction fell upon Zerbst. As a result of the senseless demolition of the Corps de Logis and the west wing the nationally significant complex was destroyed. Only the continually disintegrating east wing gives us an inkling of the one time majesty of the palace of Zerbst.