There are very few people indeed who do not enjoy taking strolls in parks. The ancient Greeks were among the first to recognize this basic desire to spend a leisurely hour in the natural surroundings, manicured by the artistic horticulturist. The ancient Romans and ancient Chinese, independently of each other, brought the art of park-laying to a new height. Centuries later, the French and the English perfected the park in accordance with their well-orgnized (French) and deceptively wild (English) natures. So, now there are thousands of big and small parks, neglected and well-taken care of, to be found in many parts of the world, but there are a very few parks in the entire world like the one situated in the town of Uman’, Ukraine.
Stanislav Potocki with his elder children;
to the left - teenage Yuri (George).
The park in Uman’ is called Sofiyivka, named so after a woman (the woman’s name was Sophia, or more correctly Zofja, and her romantic story, will be told in due course), and it is exactly two hundred years ago that the work of laying out this park was begun. The park has happily survived the ravages of wars, revolutions and neglect. Now the park spreads over a vast territory of about 400 acres along the valley of the Kamyanka River. In the year 1796, the dashing aristocrat Count Stanislav Potocki had a whim to have a park laid out and to be «presented» to his bride Zofja. Potocki hired Ludwig Metzel, a military engineer and man of apparently refined artistic tastes, to supervise the work of creating a marvel of a park. Entire hills were moved around, ponds and beds for new streams dug, thousands of trees and bushes planted, miles of paths laid. It took more than half a century to complete all the work in the park; a local legend has it that about a thousand serfs were brought daily to the would-be-park not to enjoy its emerging beauty but to toil in the copious sweat of their brows.
Today every few steps, taken along any of the innumerable paths criss-crossing the park, open new breathtaking vistas and sights. The main alley (one wants to say «lovers’ lane») that traverses the park, seems to take the visitor back to the times of classicism and early romanticism. One is forced (if one is not accompanied by a guide) to dig into one’s scanty knowledge of the Greco-Roman antiquity as one gazes at the marble gods and goddesses exhibiting their perfect shapes among the greenery, hiding in grottoes and niches, condescendingly smiling at the timid visitor. Here is Flora, a Roman goddess of flowering plants, glimpsed through the verdure of bushes in blossom, and over there one sees a lake throwing thousands of reflections from its surface slightly rippled by a gentle breeze, and there, on a huge rock, lies a monstrous dragon, wrought out of pig iron, basking complacently in the sun and spewing water from its mouth, high up into the air. The visitor can walk through the Elysian fields, inhaling the natural scents, pass through the Cretan maze (not to worry — there is no Minotaur lurking in the dark, ready to pounce upon the unwary visitor). One can even descend to the nether world to the river Styx but hopefully one will not be disappointed to find no Charon there, ferrying souls across the domain of Hades, though a regular rowing boat can take one on a voyage to the Dead Lake. For amorous
Central part of the park. Waterfall.
inspiration one can walk into the Grotto of Venus or get across the water to the Island of Love. For a quiet meditation one can find a lovelygazebo in a secluded place surrounded by exotic and not so exotic plants. Those with botanical inclinations may wander around the park, recognizing hundreds of familiar, and wondering at the unfamiliar plants as the park, in fact, is a worthy rival of any botanical gardens of high status. Innumerable are the wonders of the park which is filled with the Romantic air and strolling through it one cannot help wondering who was the woman who had inspired all this majestic natural elegance and who was so honoured by having the park named after her.
ZOFJA, A GREEK BEAUTY
She was the wife of Stanislav Szczesny Potocki (1752–1805), one of the most polished European nobles of his time, enormously rich, we should add, and with political aspirations, aimed very high indeed. Zofya, of Greek descent, was known for exceptional beauty and wit. The Potocki are worth having a romantic novel written about them but we‘ll just look into the dry facts of history, enlivened by the vivid personages involved.
THROUGH THE MISTS OF HISTORY
The end of
the 18th century in Europe and elsewhere was packed tight
with exciting events that would have a tremendous impact
upon the later destiny of mankind. The Age of
Enlightenment was coming to an end, the Age of the
Machine was beginning to be ushered in. Revolutions swept
through the Old World, and in the New World a number of
former British colonies proclaimed themselves an
independent Union of states. Philosophy was developed by
Kant, music by Mozart, art by David, literature by Goete,
science by Lavoisier... the choice of names is almost
arbitrary, as there were so many of them to choose from,
in every field of human endeavour.
Poland acquired a constitution in 1791, but there immediately emerged a powerful opposition to it on the part of those who felt that their vital political interests might be threatened. Among the mightiest and richest opponents were Count Stanislav Szczesny («Szczesny» in Polish means «a happy one») Potocki who owned more than 300 towns and villages together with thousands of serf peasants; the lands of this feudal landlord stretched for miles and miles in Ukraine and Poland proper. He married young (one of the most eligible bridegrooms in all of Europe!) but his wife died and her much lamented tragic death that came to him as a terrible shock,had turned a jovial, happy man, enjoying life to the full, into a silent, brooding melancholic. But this melancholic disposition did not prevent him frompursuing a brilliant military career. He was favourably received at the court of the Russian EmpressCatherine II; also, Catherine’s all-powerful
favoritePrince Potyomkin looked upon Potocki as at a political force worthy of special attention. Count Potocki figured that in the political turmoil Poland was going through at the end of the 18th century, he could make an attempt to get himself installed on the Polish throne. The Polish king Stanislav-Augustus, the guarantor of the constitution, was under heavy pressure on all sides, and when Russia invaded Poland with the intent of settling matters there the way Catherine II desired them to be settled, the Empress saw fit to send Count Potocki to Poland with an army. Potoicki’s second wife, Josepha, was a lady-in-waiting of Catherine’s, and she had probably put in a word with the Empress for her handsome husband. Count Potocki definitely planned to seize the opportunity and ascend the Polish throne, but Catherine II had somewhat different plans for Poland — she had decided to do away with Poland as an independent state altogether. Potocki was used as a pawn in a political game and in 1795, largely thanks to Potocki’s efforts, Poland ceased to be — it was divided among the three powers: Austria, Prussia and Russia. Paradoxically, it was then that all these political manoeuvrings started a process that would eventually lead to Ukraine’s independence two centuries later.
FAILED AMBITIONS AND GREAT LOVE
Count Potocki, having
failed to realize his pretensions to the Polish throne,
gave himself to amorous pursuits instead. He fell in love
with Zofja Witt, the charming wife of General Witte. She
was said to have been a scion of the Greek royal family
but her charms and wit by themselves could turn any
man’s head. But it seems that the infatuation was
mutual. Count Potocki, using his fabulous wealth and
power of persuasion, did not find it difficult to
persuade the aged general to let his much younger wife
go. But it turned out it was not so easy to obtain a
divorce from the enraged and jealous Josepha. She managed
to win Empress Catherine to her side (though it was
widely known that out of Josepha’s eleven (!) children,
only three had been fathered by Potocki), and Catherine,
who quite unexpectedly, at her advanced age, became a
staunch supporter of marital fidelity, threatened to put
Zofja into a convent.
INSCRUTABLE WAYS OF LOVE
Had he lived, Potocki’s melancholy would have become even blacker, as his son Alexander had a statue erected in the park to Thaddeus Kosciusko (1746-1817, Polish patriot, exercised great efforts to gain freedom for Poland but failed and died in immigration), the leader of the Polish national uprising of 1794, and thus the very person against whom Count Potocki had fought in Poland. No matter what kind of a politician Count Potocki was but his ardent love for a woman gave rise to the creation of a magnificent park, so let us not judge too severely his political views, his failures, and his wife’s infidelity. Many a poet have been inspired by the park, among them Taras Shevchenko, and many still will be in the future. Verily, insrutable are the ways of Providence, of history, of culture and of Love.
Historical facts supplied by Pavlo USENKO
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