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Denmark Celebrates Christian IV, a Builder King

July 24, 1988|CHRISTOPHER KENNEALLY | Kenneally is a free-lance writer living in Allston, Mass

ELSINORE, Denmark — Anyone even passingly familiar with Shakespeare's "Hamlet" can hardly resist daydreaming for a few moments while walking on the gravel pathway to Kronborg Castle.

A swan paddling in the moat seems to shiver and become the heartbroken Ophelia intent on drowning herself.

And the dark shape ahead, a young man dressed in black, could be the mournful, melancholic prince hesitantly pondering which way to act.

Elsinore is the seat of the Danish court in Shakespeare's famous tragedy, and accordingly the Danes call Kronborg "Hamlet's Castle," though no prince by that name ever lived there.

Kronborg (Danish for castle) was completed in 1585; Hamlet--and some doubt if he ever lived at all--was first written about in the 12th Century.

Builder King's Year

This year through September, Kronborg is a highlighted stop in an elaborate series of exhibitions honoring Christian IV (1577-1648), the "builder-king" whose way with stone and mortar gave Denmark some of its most important pieces of Renaissance architecture.

Sponsored by the Council of Europe, "Christian IV and Europe" falls on the 400th anniversary of the king's accession to the throne. Exhibits at Kronborg and in Copenhagen will detail the arts, science and military might of Christian's day.

Even if one misses these special exhibitions, tracking down Christian IV's building projects provides a fascinating glimpse into Danish culture and history.

No better glimpse of Copenhagen, the Danish capital, can be found than on the viewing deck on the Round Tower in downtown.

Below you the old city stretches out as flat as a carpet except for the occasional church spire. A jumbled pattern of rooftops follows the crooked lines of Copenhagen's old streets, many of them closed to all but pedestrian traffic in the surrounding central shopping district.

Inspired by the Stars

Christian IV built the Round Tower in 1642 as an astronomical observatory. More than 100 feet high, the tower is attached to the later Church of the Trinity, whose interior was recently restored.

One reaches the top along a moderately inclined corkscrew pathway of cobblestones wide enough for a car to drive up (in fact, one did in the 1920s).

I made the five-minute climb on an afternoon when the church organist was practicing a few fugues next door.

For the Christian IV exhibition this summer the Round Tower and the Church of the Holy Trinity will host "Things on Heaven and Earth," a display of scientific instruments from the Danish Renaissance.

In the thick-walled treasure room at Rosenborg Castle, a short walk from the Round Tower through a tree-filled park, a museum volunteer said that Christian IV is one of Denmark's most beloved kings, although "he did lose a lot of wars."

Crafts and a Crown

Rather than conquered territory, what Christian gave his people went beyond his architectural legacy and encompassed support for the arts and encouragement of native crafts.

The contents of the Rosenborg treasure room attest to that. Silverware, jewelry and gold-plated royal knickknacks, elaborately carved and intricately wrought, fill several cases.

All these treasures, however, pale beside the grandiosity of Christian IV's crown, which was made for his coronation in 1597 (before that the kingdom was ruled by a regency council until the boy-king came of age). Countless diamonds, emeralds and pearls, many as large as birds' eggs, adorn the bright gold frame.

Christian IV commissioned Rosenborg Castle, where he died, in 1606. For the celebration of his reign the palace will host an exhibition of the king's jewelry and crafts collections, as well as a set of silverware on loan from the Kremlin, which Christian pawned to the Russian Czar.

Taking Care of the Navy

Not all of Christian IV's buildings are grand works. A few blocks north of Rosenborg lie the Nyboder (New Booths), a group of two-story mustard-colored row houses that have been home to Danish navy personnel and their families since Christian's time.

Many of the streets here were named for ships in Christian's fleet, while others bear the names of animals--Delfingade (Dolphin Street) and Krokodillegade (Crocodile Street).

A tradition in the Nyboder is for navy spouses to place porcelain statuettes of dogs in the front windows of their homes. If the dogs face out, the sailing spouse is away on duty; if looking in, he or she is home on leave.

A statue of Christian IV stands at the edge of the Nyboder district. The mustachioed monarch, in plumed hat and cape, watches over the families of his fleet, once among the most powerful in Europe, though Christian's failed campaigns in the Thirty Years' War did much to diminish that reputation.

Religion and Trade

In the Nyhavn section of Copenhagen, a waterfront district once the haunt of sailors, are the Holmens Kirke (church) and the Danish stock exchange building, both impressive buildings that show the king's concern for the religious and temporal aspects of life.

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