Goethehaus circa 1755

Exploring Frankfurt with Goethe

Saalhof in Frankfurt am Main
The Saalhof in Frankfurt, as seen from the Eiserner Steg (Iron Bridge) that crosses the Main River, with the spire of Saint Bartholomew Cathedral in the background, favorite haunts of Goethe. Image courtesy WikiMedia and Mylius.

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

A 1787 portrait of Goethe by Angelica Kauffman
A 1787 portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe by Angelica Kauffman.

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.”

Eiserner Steg Frankfurt am Main
Frankfurt on the Main: Eiserner Steg (Iron Bridge) as seen from the tower of Kaiserdom St. Bartholomaeus (Frankfurt Cathedral). Image courtesy WikiMedia and Mylius.

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.”

Römerberg Plaza looking toward the Old St. Nicholas church
Römerberg Plaza looking toward the Old St. Nicholas church in the historic section of Frankfurt. Image © Saxon Henry.

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 Cathedral of St. Bartholomew Frankfurt
The Cathedral of St. Bartholomew rising just beyond the Saalhof in the historic center of Frankfurt. Image courtesy WikiMedia and rupp.de.

“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

tomb of Günther XXI
Gothic headstone on the tomb of Günther XXI von Schwarzburg-Arnstadt in St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral in Frankfurt.

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.”


The front exterior of Goethehaus
The front exterior of Goethehaus today. Image © Saxon Henry.

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.

Goethehaus circa 1755
Goethehaus circa 1755 when Johann was a boy. Image courtesy of WikiMedia and Ernst Metz.

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.

broad staircase in Goethehaus
The broad staircase in Goethehaus, which the writer mentions in his autobiography. Image © Saxon Henry.

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.

Parlor in Goethehaus in Frankfurt
One of the “agreeable parlors” in Goethehaus. Image © Saxon Henry.

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.”

Books shelved around the walls of Goethe’s father’s study
Books shelved around the walls of Goethe’s father’s study at Goethehaus. Image © Saxon Henry.

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.

Goethe describes his father’s collection of books at length
Goethe describes his father’s collection of books at length in his autobiography. Image © Saxon Henry.

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.”

art at Goethehaus in Frankfurt
The art at Goethehaus as was rearranged after his father updated their Frankfurt residence, which is illustrated in the museum now. Image © Saxon Henry.

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.”

Drawings After Piranesi
Drawings hanging in Goethehaus to replicate drawings hung when Goethe was a boy. Image © Saxon Henry.

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.

Bust of Goethe Father
A bust of Goethe’s father, Johann Caspar Goethe, displayed at Goethehaus. Image © Saxon Henry.

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.”

Desk in Goethehaus
A desk ensconced in one of the well-lit spaces at Goethehaus. Image © Saxon Henry.

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.

Ink Stains Goethe Desk
Ink stains stipple the wood of the desk in a bedroom of Goethehaus. Image © Saxon Henry.

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.

Marie-Antoinette arrives Strasbourg
“L’Arrivée de Marie-Antoinette à Strasbourg,” a pen-and-ink drawing by Pierre Noire of the excitement surrounding Marie-Antoinette’s hand-off to the French.

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.

Pavilion for Marie-Antoinette Hand-Off
Sofia Coppola depicts the pavilion through which Marie-Antoinette transitioned to a French princess in her film “Marie Antoinette.”

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.”

The tapestry depicting “The Death of Creusa”
The tapestry “The Death of Creusa” displayed in Drapers’ Hall in London.

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.”

A Gobelins tapestry illuminating Jason and bulls of Mars.
A Gobelins tapestry illuminating Jason subduing the fire-breathing bulls of Mars.

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.”

Marie-Antoinette as she leaves the Strasbourg pavilion in an elegant coach
Sofia Coppola’s portrayal of Marie-Antoinette as she leaves the Strasbourg pavilion in an elegant coach, on her way at last to meet her future husband.

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

Goethe Handwriting
Goethe wrote about working on his handwriting in his autobiography, which was seen as a mark of the elite during his time. Image © Saxon Henry.

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.

Johan Heinrich Goethe
The oil-on-canvas Goethe in the Roman Campagna (1786) by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein.

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.”

Germaine de Staël by François Gérard.
Portrait of Germaine de Staël by François Gérard.

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.

Goethe in 1828
This 1828 portrait of Goethe was painted by Joseph Karl Stieler when the writer was 79 years old.

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…”

Gerbermühle Frankfurt
A snapshot of the room in the Gerbermühle restaurant facing the Main River. Image © Saxon Henry.

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.

Sorrows of Young Werther Gerbermühle
Reading “The Sorrows of Young Werther” at the Gerbermühle restaurant in January 2017. Image © Saxon Henry.

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!

Frankfurt’s central train station
Frankfurt’s beautiful central train station. Image © Saxon Henry.

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.

6 Replies to “Exploring Frankfurt with Goethe”

  1. While I’ve not read any of his works, I received a great sense of the man through your post. Remarkably, three different painters show him at three stages of his life. And yet, his visage is very similar throughout. They were great artists. Seeing the real transfer of Marie Antoinette, and all that happened, must have been surreal.

    Another engaging post, Saxon. Wish I could send my daughter along with you. She majored in German. Has taken it in school since 6th grade, yet has not been to Germany, and wants to experience speaking with native Germans, not to mention seeing it.

  2. Your daughter really must get to Germany somehow, Heather; it’s a wonderful country. How old is she now? I agree that seeing the transition Marie Antoinette made from Austria to France would have been surreal. I was just blown away when I came across the anecdote in his autobiography because I would have never thought their paths would have crossed. It just proves there’s so much more to history that we every realize. I appreciate your support and that you took the time to give me feedback. I’ve even been wondering lately if I should keep writing such long posts but I just have to get it out once the seed is planted! Your willingness to hang with it means a lot!

  3. Lovely post. I have’nt been to Frankfurt in years. The Römerplatz was a favorite spot. Thank you for the insight into Göethe.

  4. Oh never doubt that these long posts are read and savored – we are just a poor audience that doesn’t give you the feedback we should. Our bad! My daughter, now an L.A. actress, is also fluent in German after elementary, high school, and college study. When she was starting out she was a children’s entertainer and offered parties in German and Spanish as well as English.

  5. I’m glad you enjoyed reading about him, Kathleen. I was so surprised at this other side of him. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. It means so much to me!

  6. Reading the word “savored” is heartening to me, Lisa; thank you for that! I am glad to know the posts are valued and I just see the situation as that we’re all so darned busy. I am still trying to learn French and I wish I had been able to learn as your daughter did but Spanish was all that was offered in the public schools I attended. An actress: wow!

Comments are closed.