Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Travel: Weimar ~ Of Goethe and the gingko leaf

A bronze of Goethe and Schiller in Weimar

Weimar wouldn't be Weimar without Goethe and the gingko. Both its citizens and visitors agree on that. For it was the noble 19th-century German poet and writer who first introduced the exotic gingko tree to the East German `city of the classics'. Theirs is a tale inextricably knotted together. For today, if Goethe is the scenic city's favourite son, the gingko leaf is its all-pervasive symbol, imprinted on every tourist's souvenir.

Weimar is situated 278 km southwest of Berlin on the Ilm river. It was in 1999 as the European City of Culture for the year, that Weimar and its 63,000-strong population celebrated the 250th birth anniversary of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Simultaneously , millions of visitors from around the globe marked the 80th anniversary of the National Assembly which convened in Weimar in 1919 to stamp its approval on Germany's first democratic constitution.

Walking through the historic streets of this celebrated town last October, I glimpsed major portals of European cultural history. Weimar, first referred to as a `city' in a 1254 document, played host to Martin Luther in 1518 and the 80-year-old painter, Lucas Cranach the Elder, in 1552. Johann Sebastian Bach was its court organist during 1708-1717 before he became musical director of its court orchestra.

As for the composer and piano virtuoso, Franz Liszt, he spent the years 1848-61 as the chapel master at the court theatre. In Goethe's footsteps, the dramatist, Friedrich Schiller followed the elder statesman to Weimar where he wrote his famed Wallestein Trilogy. Into this receptive milieu for great minds came the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, in the winter of his life, to pass away in 1900.

Weimar is not merely defined by its classical context, though. For it was here that one of the definitive art-design architecture movements of the 20th century began -- the Bauhaus, nurtured by the vision of the architect Walter Gropius, who brought to t he site creative minds like Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Johannes Itten. The school was based in Weimar from 1919 to 1925 before it moved on to Dessau because the conservative mindset of Weimar's local populace could not adapt to such a non-conformist venture.

And yet, the classical is at the core of Weimar as captured by the Goethe-Schiller bronze monument in the heart of the city, which depicts the two figures hand-in-hand sharing the laurel wreath of fame. But Goethe's presence in Weimar predates it by years. His arrival was shaped by two key figures. One was the widowed Duchess Anna Amalia -- Frederich the Great's niece -- who sensitively nurtured the arts during her reign. She invited the philosopher Wieland to Weimar in 1772 to tutor her two sons. And i t was her elder son, the liberal Duke Carl August, who invited Goethe to his cultured city -- and appointed him a member of his Privy Council in 1775, besides making him a gift of a modest garden house in the Ilm Park.

The picturesque house, his dwelling for six years, is set amidst a park built for lyricism. It was in 1778 that Goethe began to remodel the Ilm Park according to the `sentimental landscapes' stemming from Worlitz's `sequence of aesthetic images'. Within the evergreen estate, which today resembles and English garden, the poet had a colonnaded Roman House built as a summer residence for the duke, probably influenced by his own extensive travels through Italy. And just the throw of a voice away stands the Shakespeare monument built in 1904, an artificial ruin in its shadows.

An exquisite gingko leaf

Goethe's park echoes the heartbeat of the Weimar experience. In autumn, I wandered through cathedrals of natural colour, dazzling in their muted glow; with the russet leaves rustling against the magentas and olives, the orange foliage teasing the tanned breeze-tossed sprays while a lilting chorus of birds enhanced a verdant world defining itself through a dazzling palette.

The dazzling palette extends into the quaint interiors of the Garden House where Goethe spent his early days with Christiane Vulpius, whom he later married. But the essential Goethe, the mosaic of the man, comes to life best in his baroque-style home at Frauenplan, where the poet lived for almost 50 years with his personality imprinted on every nook.

Escorted through the orderly rooms, it is easy to imagine the poet at work. Up the wooden staircase that leads to Goethe's private study, my eyes come to rest upon high rostrum desks with workaday chairs, adjacent to a writing stand, complete with a quil l and inkwell. It was here, I guess, that he completed Faust II, whose manuscript was revised with his daughter-in-law Ottilie in 1831, before it was sealed up again in a poplar cabinet.

Every artefact in the nearly authentic study -- which was inventoried and locked up after his death in March 1832, at the age of 85 -- was selected by Goethe, including an opal glass flacon with a bust of Napoleon as a stopper.

In the elegant rooms overlooking a herb garden, it is easy to conjure up a picture of Goethe and his associates, Eckermann and Riemer, preparing the final edition of his literary, autobiographical and scientific works. Adjacent to it is his library of ov er 6,000 volumes, a room for pilgrims to worship in at the altar of Goethe.

The prismatic personality of Goethe gains another dimension as an art collector, whose treasury of 26,511 pieces of mainly antique and Renaissance art, are partially displayed in the reception rooms, even alongside the Renaissance-style staircase. Marble busts and oil paintings adorn room after room. A different facet to the poet surfaces in his mineral and rock collection of 18,000 specimens, displayed in wooden cabinets scattered through the house. As Goethe once noted, he chose `not by whim or whimsy , but always with a clear plan and intention in the consistent pursuit of my own education'.

Goethe's house, first opened to the public in 1885, is a true memorial to the man. Perhaps his ever-inquiring mind and the essential wanderer in him is best captured by the perfectly restored family carriage in wood and leather that stands in the coach h ouse downstairs.

The house on Frauenplan is just an instance of what makes a trip to Weimar rewarding -- the meticulous restoration of authentic sites at a total cost of over 70 million DM in the build-up to 1999.

Schiller House, the Albert Schweitzer Centre, the market square, and the ancient castle, are among key stops on a visitor's itinerary; and so is the Buchenwald Memorial. The Buchenwald concentration camp in nearby Ettersberg where the Nazi regime claimed over 56,000 lives, will forever personify the negative face of Weimar, its doomsday chimneys looming large against azure skies.

As I wandered the streets of Weimar in search of the perfect gingko souvenir, sifting through jewellery, porcelain mementoes and finely embroidered linen, I thought of the legacy that Goethe had left behind to Germany and the world. And as I viewed these symbols of pacifism against the pretty `bouquets' of onions on sale in the cobbled market place, on `pedestrians only' Schillerstrasse, I hoped that neo-Nazi trends would never rear their head again in Weimar.

What to see:
~ Duchess Anna Amalia library
~ the baroque Wilhelmsburg Castle Complex
~ Goethe National Museum
~ Schiller Museum
~ German National Theatre
~ Weimarhalle
~ Cranach triptych in the church of St. Peter and St. Paul
~ Bauhaus college of architecture
~ Nietzsche archive
~ the historical graveyard
~ Belvedere Castle.

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