Though modest in size, WEIMAR is the spiritual capital of German culture. A young Robert Schumann noted in his diary, “Germans are powerfully drawn to Weimar”, and like those to Stratford in England they are not idle tourists so much as aesthete pilgrims come to revere a pantheon of intellectual and artistic saints. Saxe-Weimar dukes were patrons of Lucas Cranach and Johann Sebastian Bach as an overture to the town’s finest hour in the late eighteenth century. During the rule of aesthete duke Carl August (1757–1828), the court capital was an intellectual hothouse of rare talents such as dramatist Friedrich Schiller, poet Christoph-Martin Wieland, theologian Johann Gottfried Herder and, more than anyone else, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The city flowered as the home of the German Enlightenment whose beauty and ideas astounded Europe. Later names in the roll call of honour include Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, Friedrich Nietzsche and Bauhaus founders Walter Gropius, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. The town’s name is also synonymous with the ill-fated Weimar Republic of post-imperial Germany.
Weimar is the museum city par excellence whose every street is steeped in a revered past. Thankfully it is charming, too, thanks to frantic efforts to buff up its looks as European City of Culture in 1999. Definitively small-scale, notwithstanding the handsome Park an der Ilm south and the odd gallery, almost everything worth seeing lies within a ten-minute radius of the Markt in the lattice of streets bound to the north by Graben, track of a medieval moat, and to the south by Steubenstrasse. Here you’ll find first-rate art in the ducal Schloss, a gorgeous Rococo library, the Herzogin-Anna-Amalia-Bibliothek, and Goethe’s house. Erudite stuff and proof that Weimar most rewards those who apply their minds – others may find it rather provincial.Read More
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
No figure commands German culture like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1748–1832). A lazy comparison is often made to Shakespeare, which underplays the achievements of the last great Renaissance man of European culture. Not content with producing some of the most insightful drama in the German language, Goethe penned poetry, novels, travelogues and short stories, as well as philosophical essays and treatises on theology, humanism and science. His influence on German philosophy is incalculable. Indeed, he didn’t see himself as a writer and proposed near his death that he would be remembered for his Theory of Colours treatise. “As to what I have done as a poet … I take no pride in it,” he said, “but that in my century I am the only person who knows the truth in the difficult science of colours – of that I am not a little proud.” Misguidedly so as it turned out: the hypothesis suggested that darkness is not an absence of light but a polar opposite that interacts with it, with colour arising where the two flow together. Modern science has rebuffed his theory, but the idea was popular with artists such as Turner and Kandinsky.
The Frankfurt-born son of a wealthy family, Goethe trained as a lawyer but found fame in 1774 as the 26-year-old novelist of The Sorrows of Young Werther. Its semi-autobiographical tale of obsessive love not only became the best seller of the proto-Romantic Sturm und Drang movement, it so wowed 18-year-old Carl August that the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach took on Goethe as a court adviser in 1775. Goethe would remain there until his death, though paradoxically he was so wrapped up in official duties and science that literature went onto the back burner for that first decade. It was an Italian holiday from 1786 that rekindled his creative spark (and also sent countless young Germans who read his Italian Journey mooning around Italy). On his return two years later he teamed up with Schiller to continue his major prose achievement, Wilhelm Meister, a six-novel cycle. He also began the work on the two-part lyric drama, Faust, which he would tinker with until his death. Ostensibly a narrative of the classic legend, his dramatic masterpiece strives to lay bare the soul of Western society. Small wonder that when Berlin erected its “Walk of Ideas”, a 12m-high stack of books on Bebelplatz in 2006, all the illustrious names of German literature rested on a single giant tome of Goethe’s.