I am returning to Frankfurt am Main next week to attend Heimtextil for the second time, an experience I truly enjoyed last year for the breadth of textiles the show holds and the depth of the trend forecasting its organizers achieve. I look forward to seeing the new products that will debut, my favorites to be shared here soon so stay tuned! Today, I’m going to highlight a bit of last year’s trip, a glance at some of Frankfurt’s most historic buildings through the eyes of one of its famous former residents, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, when he was young.
Exploring Frankfurt with Goethe
His Autobiography: Truth and Fiction Relating to My Life*, which recounted his earliest memories up until his last years in law school, illuminated history as I toured the oldest part of the city, his descriptions of how it felt to explore the riverside town as a boy reverberating as I walked along. “What I liked more than anything was to promenade on the great bridge spanning the Main,” he wrote. “The gilt weathercock glittered in the sunshine, always giving me a pleasant feeling.”
The bridge that Goethe references was replaced with this slightly larger cantilever bridge in 1911, but a number of the buildings he explored still exist in this part of town. He spoke of strolling along the river at the Saalhof, feeling a sense of pride in the ancient history the buildings represented because they rose from the foundations of Charlemagne’s castle. He talked of slipping into Römer, Frankfurt’s city hall, with his friends—the medieval building situated just off Römerberg Plaza opposite Old Saint Nicholas church that has been the seat of the local government for over 600 years now. After walking through this section of town, I agree with Goethe’s declaration that “Roman Hill (Römerberg) was a most delightful place for walking.”
He and his friends reveled in hearing the legends attributed to Charlemagne and Rudolph of Hapsburg. To put the depth of his knowledge of history into context, Charlemagne lore dates back to the 8th and 9th centuries, while Rudolph I of Germany was King for much of the 13th century. Intending to celebrate Günther XXI, one of their 14th-century heroes, Goethe describes how they wrangled their way into the room holding his tomb in the Cathedral of Saint Bartholomew. He declared their visit to the isolated chamber of the massive Roman Catholic church holding the sepulcher a disappointment.
“The door leading into the conclave remained long shut against us until we at last managed, through the higher authorities, to gain access to this celebrated place,” he wrote. “But we should have done better had we continued as before to picture it merely in our imagination; for we found this room, which is so remarkable in German history, where the most powerful princes were accustomed to meet for an act so momentous, in no respect worthily adorned.” This is because the room was being used to store construction materials at the time
Precociousness oozed from the pages of his memoir, the intelligence and sensitivity of his psyche laid bare in quite an honest exploration of his hopes and dreams. He was a bit of a prankster, which often got him into trouble, and he was decidedly truthful about his fears and what he saw as his failings as a young man. I am grateful to know this side of the great thinker who uttered one of my favorite quotes when he said, “Deep minds are compelled to live in the past as well as in the future.”
My exploration also took me to the museum dedicated to the writer that day. The home that houses the museum is called Goethehaus; it stands on the spot where the original residence was located before it was destroyed by bombings during World War II. Between 1947 and 1951, it was restored as closely as possible to how it would have appeared in Goethe’s time. He described two versions of the house in his autobiography—the first the version where his earlier memories took place when the home was owned by his paternal grandmother, who also lived there until she died; and the second as the home looked after a renovation his father oversaw upon his mother’s passing.
The backdrop for his earliest memories had a winding staircase that led to the rooms on each level and an exterior space beloved by him and his sister, which he described as a large wooden lattice box that allowed them access to the street: “A bird-cage of this sort, with which many houses were provided, was called a frame (Geräms). The women sat in it to sew and knit; the cook picked her salad there; female neighbors chatted with each other.” You can see these jutting onto the sidewalks of several of the homes in the gouache rendering above. It includes the Goethe house and was painted when Johann was six years old.
He tells a funny story about his father’s cunning in renovating the house after his grandmother died, gutting the interiors of each floor while the family lived there. They’d hopscotch from floor to floor as walls were removed and reconfigured, and windows were ripped out and replaced with ones holding larger panes of glass. This went on until very late in the construction when dust and danger got the best of them, a tactic that kept the elder Goethe from having to give up the bit of space gained by the slight extensions of each floor as the building ascended on the front façade. This architectural treatment had been outlawed on any new construction because the protrusions were thought by authorities to darken the streets over which the buildings rose.
Because the building had not been raised, Goethe explained, “While comparatively none of the old structure remained, the new one merely passed for a repair.” He described the updated home as light and cheerful throughout with broad staircases, agreeable parlors and larger windows through which gardens could be enjoyed. The first thing brought into order after the construction was completed was his father’s collection of books, “the best of which, in calf and half-calf binding, were to ornament the walls of his office and study.” Goethe admired his father’s curatorial prowess that brought together “the beautiful Dutch editions of the Latin classics, which, for the sake of outward uniformity, he had endeavored to procure all in quarto; and many other works relating to Roman antiquities and the more elegant jurisprudence. The most eminent Italian poets were not wanting, and for Tasso he showed a great predilection.”
The titles also included travel literature and dictionaries of various languages, as well as encyclopedias of science and art. At least half of his collection, in neat parchment bindings with very beautifully written titles, was placed in an attic area. “The acquisition of new books, as well as their binding and arrangement, he pursued with great composure and love of order,” his son explained.
Because his father didn’t believe in paying premium prices for old paintings, he employed a battalion of local painters to create likenesses of the classics, telling the nay-sayers who pointed out they should look aged to be fashionable that they would certainly turn brown over time! Goethe describes how the art was arranged in the new interiors once the books were in order (which you can see in my photo of the room below): “Next, the pictures, which in the old house had hung about promiscuously, were now collected, and symmetrically hung on the walls of a cheerful room near the study, all in black frames set off with gilt moldings.”
One artistic display piqued his imagination as powerfully as the books shelved behind the panes of glass in his father’s study. This was a series of etchings depicting Roman views. “They were engravings by some of the accomplished predecessors of Piranesi, who well understood perspective and architecture, and whose touches were clear and excellent,” he explains. “There I saw every day the Piazza del Popolo, the Colosseum, the Piazza of St. Peter’s, and St. Peter’s Church, within and without, the castle of St. Angelo, and many other places. These images impressed themselves deeply upon me, and my otherwise very laconic father was often so kind as to furnish descriptions of the objects.”
Goethe didn’t shy away from writing about how he and his sister had serious issues with their strict father, the taciturn man causing each of them a great deal of grief when they were growing up. Johann’s torments included an education in law he was forced into when his preference would have been focused around belles lettres, and a serious lack of empathy from his father when he was gravely ill with a tumor on his neck. Between college in Leipzig and university in Strasbourg, he found himself back in Frankfurt, convalescing in his childhood home. Though he was in serious pain for much of the time, this didn’t stop his lively mind from continuing to explore creative and intellectual pursuits.
About his father’s disappointment in him, he wrote, “He concealed as well he could his vexation at finding, instead of a vigorous, active son, who ought now to take his degree and run through the prescribed course of life, an invalid who seemed to suffer still more in soul than in body. He did not conceal his wish that they would be expeditious with my cure.” His father’s strictness cut so deep it made him question whether he had become a hypochondriac: “One was forced to be specially on one’s guard in his presence against hypochondriacal expressions, because he could then become passionate and bitter.”
Goethe was a voracious reader, and his responses to the volumes of literature, religious manuscripts and science he consumed as a young man prove he squarely earned his place as one of history’s great thinkers. He left a remarkable literary legacy in the novels, plays, poetry and criticism he wrote. When I drew close to a desk in a bedroom on the top floor of the house, I noticed how splotched the wood had become from ink drippings deposited by those who had written on its surface. I wondered how many words Goethe had dashed across the pages he’d filled in this very spot as his arm angled across those boards.
A Thread Runs Through It
Each time I explore a notable personality from the past, I realize that if you ramble through history long enough, a thread will inextricably begin to weave its characters and places into a tapestry. Suddenly two individuals, towns or eras connect. Some associations are more surprising than others and it’s always exciting when the warp and weft of the fabric tighten as more parallels are drawn together. Goethe gave me a gift in the following anecdote, as it relates his reaction to the displaying of a set of some of the most historically significant textiles that exist today, which I believe is the perfect way to pay homage to him and to both trips to Heimtextil.
The narrative he shared also illustrates what a seriously sensitive man he was, a facet of his personality that makes me truly happy I took the time to read his perceptions of his young life, though they were written when he was 56. The story involves Marie-Antoinette when she was still the future queen of France. It unfolded after Goethe had endured the months of treatment for the tumor that has plagued him and was finally well enough to make his way to Strasbourg to finish his education. Because the French town is situated on the border between Germany and France, and the Rhine River forms the dividing line between the two countries, it had been chosen as the spot the future Dauphine would be handed off to the Bourbon monarchy as the future wife of Louis XVI.
Goethe describes the pavilion that was set up to serve as the backdrop for her transition from the Holy Roman Empire to France: “Especially remarkable to me was the building which stood on an island in the Rhine between the two bridges, erected for her reception and for surrendering her into the hands of her husband’s ambassadors. It was but slightly raised above the ground; had in the center a grand saloon, on each side smaller ones; then followed other chambers, which extended somewhat backward. In short, had it been more durably built, it might have answered very well as a pleasure-house for persons of rank.”
He became enthralled with a series of embroidered tapestries that had been hung within the pavilion, and not just because they were so aesthetically vibrant but because he felt the subject matter was inappropriate for the occasion: “I went and came, and came and went, and could not satiate myself with looking, but the larger, more brilliant and richer hangings in the main saloon troubled me.” Though he found the artistry of these (then) modern French interpretations of mythological themes stunning, “the subject was excessively revolting to me.”
They were repugnant to him because they were depictions of the love triangle that had ensnared Jason, Medea, and Creusa in Ovid’s Metamorphosis—an example of a most unhappy marriage to greet a young bride. “To the left of the throne was seen the bride struggling with the most horrible death, surrounded by persons full of sympathizing woe; to the right was the father, horrified at the murdered babes before his feet; whilst the Fury, in her dragon-car, drove along into the air. And, that the horrible and atrocious should not lack something absurd, the white tail of that magic bull flourished out on the right hand from behind the red velvet of the gold-embroidered back of the throne; while the fire-spitting beast himself, and Jason who was fighting with him, were completely covered by the sumptuous drapery.”
He went on to say, “A blunder like that in the grand saloon put me altogether out of my self-possession, and with animation and vehemence I called on my comrades to witness such a crime against taste and feeling. ‘What!’ cried I, without regarding the by-standers, ‘is it permitted so thoughtlessly to place before the eyes of a young queen, at her first setting foot in her dominions, the representation of the most horrible marriage that perhaps ever was consummated? Is there among the French architects, decorators, upholsterers, not a single man who understands that pictures represent something, that pictures work upon the mind and feelings, that they make impressions, that they excite forebodings? It is just the same as if they had sent the most ghastly specter to meet this beauteous and pleasure-loving lady at the very frontiers!’”
The staff readying the pavilion for Marie-Antoinette’s hand-off tried to silence him, edging him out of the room to keep him from disturbing everyone else visiting the venue. This, I believe, is where the thinker and the non-thinker diverge: “They then assured me that it was not everybody’s concern to look for significance in pictures; that the whole population of Strasburg and the vicinity, which was to throng thither, would no more take such crotchets into their heads than the queen herself and her court.”
I find it highly ironic that in the end the same horrible death, and equally atrocious and absurd mythic ends, would be the young woman’s fate. Adding insult to injury is the fact the savagery would follow the humiliation spanning the early years of her lackluster marriage. Her discontent is captured brilliantly in the video below, a montage of two films nearly 70 years apart. It juxtaposes movies made in 1938 and 2006 (Coppola’s, each of which has woven into its plotline the Queen’s frustration with her marriage.
Whether the experience for Goethe took on more import given he was writing it 12 years after her execution or whether he was this insightful as a 21-year-old, I’m not sure, but the fact that he did seem so convinced the tapestries created an emotional context impresses me greatly. He describes the 15-year-old bride-to-be’s demeanor as she rode by him in her coach: “I yet remember well the beauteous and lofty mien, as cheerful as it was imposing, of this youthful lady. Perfectly visible to us all in her glass carriage, she seemed to be jesting with her female attendants, in familiar conversation, about the throng that poured forth to meet her train.”
Goethe – A Man of Great Genius
I thoroughly enjoyed having access to Goethe’s internal world as a young man, one that I wouldn’t have pursued were it not for my opportunity to visit his former home town, and for this I thank Messe Frankfurt. I celebrate knowing a view of him now that is far less one-dimensional than the intellectual I knew him to be before. Though he still is an important figure in the Sturm und Drang movement and a main player in German Romanticism in my mind, I now see other facets—the powerful poet, the bright aesthete and the eloquent travel writer to name a few. The painting of him below was created during travels in Italy when he was 37 years old. It graces the cover of his essays written on the tour that are gathered under the title Italian Journey.
The book is a feast of aesthetic nuances, and, in my mind, a triumph given how Goethe’s father denied his son his desire to become a successful essayist and critic rather than an uninspired attorney. I’m saving the book for a future trip to Italy and I’ll be interested to see if the influence of his father emerges in the narrative. The elder Goethe urged his son to visit great cities like Vienna and Paris before traveling around Italy because “after coming out of Italy nothing else could be pleasing.” He soaked in his father’s tales “of future youthful travels” and felt the “passionate wish [that] awoke in [him] to participate in the paradise he described.”
So many lauded writers and thinkers have praised this man, but most of them remarking upon his intellect rather than his inner emotional life. I came across the impressions of one of France’s great salonières while reading Henry Dwight Sedgwick’s The Biography of a Flirt, which I delved into for my last post featuring Madame Récamier. Germaine de Staël, whose time in the court of the First Empire followed on the heels of Marie-Antoinette’s ousting, visited Goethe in Weimar during a tour of Germany she took when she was exiled from Paris, a ban imposed by Emperor Napoléon.
She wrote of the German philosopher, “He might well represent all of German literature, not that there are no writers superior to him in some respects; but only he combines all that distinguishes the German spirit.” She calls him a man of great genius in conversation, adding, “When one knows how to induce Goethe to talk, he is admirable. His eloquence is rich in ideas. His humor is at once full of grace and philosophy. His imagination is impressed by external things, as was that of the ancient artists…”
One of my most enjoyable evenings during last year’s trip was dining in a restaurant called Gerbermühle. The dinner was planned by Messe Frankfurt’s Thimo Schwenzfeier because he knew I was delving into Goethe’s world during my visit. The experience was significant because the locale is the former summer residence of Goethe’s friend Johann von Willemer, a Frankfurt banker. Goethe first visited the home, which is located on the Main River, in 1814. He developed a fondness for Willemer’s foster daughter Marianne, and would spend nearly a year there in 1815, celebrating his 66th birthday nestled within the picturesque landscape.
I had taken my self-directed Goethe tour that day, picking up a copy of Goethe’s most famous novel The Sorrows of Young Werther in the Goethehaus museum gift shop. To honor my explorations of his literary legacy, I read the first sentence of the novel that night. It opens with this exclamation: “How glad I am to be away!” It’s a sentiment I am sure I will be repeating as I delve a bit more into the writer’s hometown during my next trip. From there, I will take the train to Paris to do some literary adventuring and to attend Paris Deco-Off and Maison & Objet. I look forward to sharing my experiences with you as 2018 gets underway. Happy New Year, everyone!
The Modern Salonnière and Exploring Frankfurt with Johann Goethe © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.
*Footnote: the only English version of Goethe’s autobiography that I could find is written in a clunky, old-world style so I am only linking to the Kindle version here, which is free.by