Anna Amalia, Part 2

Portrait of Anna Amalia in Italy by Angelika Kaufmann, 1789

Let’s begin with a very quick recap – not that most of you need it, as I am sure you will have read my first post on Anna Amalia and found it so engrossing that the details are still fresh in your mind, even over a year later. Ho ho. But for those whose memories are just a little hazy, I’ll bring you up to speed: Anna Amalia, born in 1739 at the court of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, had married…come on guys, who did she marry? yes, that’s right, all together now: Duke Ernst August II. Constantin of Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach! Following her husband’s early death in 1758, she was appointed regent of the duchy on behalf of her son Carl August, then only a baby. She applied herself diligently to the role, implementing a number of socially progressive policies, modernising the town of Weimar and managing to stabilise the duchy’s financial situation during her time in power.

Arriving in Weimar on a sunny December day last year

By the mid-1770s, Anna Amalia’s oldest son Carl August was of age and it was time for her to step down as regent of Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach, after nearly 15 years at the helm. She was apparently reluctant to give up her position, but when she finally announced her retirement in 1773, she did so claiming that she was “tired of the life that had been forced upon her”. Maybe this was true, or maybe she just wanted to appear to be leaving on her own terms – either way, giving up all of the responsibilities and activities that went with being regent must have been a huge adjustment, and would have left her with a lot of time on her hands. Were there moments in the days that followed where, seated on a rococo chair in a silent room, surrounded by portraits in gilded frames, she stared listlessly into space and wondered, what now? Or perhaps, elated at the prospect of finally having some time for herself, she went running out into the palace gardens with a cry of “Freiheit!” and proceeded to skip about gaily amongst the rose bushes. She was presumably still reasonably sprightly at just 36 years of age, still energetic and enthusiastic, with many years stretching ahead of her. She was now embarking on a new phase of her life, in which she was to find new ways to channel her energies, talents and passion for the arts.

Portrait of Christoph Martin Wieland by Ferdinand Jagemann

This was the period later referred to as Weimar’s “golden age”,  during which the modestly sized provincial capital came to be home to a number of influential writers and thinkers, including those two behemoths of German literature, Goethe and Schiller. Anna Amalia sowed the seeds for this development during her regency by choosing to appoint Christoph Martin Wieland as a tutor to her sons. She had been particularly impressed with his political novel The Golden Mirror, which presented the idea of the enlightened absolutist monarch as the principle servant of his state, ruling his subjects according to rational principles. Dubbed the “Father of German Poesie”, Wieland’s presence in Weimar drew other writers and thinkers, and he himself predicted that in a few years, people would travel “from the ends of the Earth” to behold the wonder of the Weimar court. With the arrival of Goethe in 1775 on the invitation of the new young Duke, the stage was set for Wieland’s prophecy to become reality: Weimar was soon regarded as one of Europe’s important cultural centres.

Portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe by Georg Melchior Kraus

Anna Amalia was a central figure in the city’s burgeoning cultural life. Already during her time as regent, she had been committed to fostering learning within the duchy – whether by supporting the state university, revising the school curriculum or moving the ducal book collection to its own premises. Now known as the Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek, this library is probably the duchess’s best-known legacy today and is a popular attraction for visitors to Weimar – so much so that on my first visit to the town, I didn’t manage to snap up one of the 70 tickets issued daily. This didn’t stop me from having a thoroughly jolly weekend there – I have particularly happy memories of rambling about in the sunny, tranquil Park an der Ilm, which was partly designed by Goethe. (By the way, a book published in the early 2000s caused a sensation by arguing that Anna Amalia and Goethe had been passionately in love, but somewhat disappointingly, this juicy theory has been rejected by the majority of academics.)

The Rococo Hall of the Herzogin Anna Amalia Biblothek
NoRud [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

For my second visit to Weimar, I booked in advance to make sure I wouldn’t miss out on a look at the gorgeous pale-blue-and-gold Rococo Hall lined with venerable volumes, including those from Anna Amalia’s personal collection. It is a beautiful space, albeit a modestly sized one that did not really seem to justify the 8-euro entrance fee. More satisfying turned out to be my visit to the Wittumspalais, where the dowager duchess lived from 1774 until her death in 1807. Here, I stood in the very room where Anna Amalia’s famous salon, the Tafelrunde, took place from 1775 onwards. This was where Goethe, Wieland and other notable men, and indeed some women, once gathered to debate the burning cultural questions of the day, as well as to read unpublished literary texts, play music together or draw. With her intelligence, dynamism and wit, Anna Amalia drew these poets and intellectuals into her orbit. Her position at the centre of things, both for people at the time and in the eyes of later generations, is nicely represented in one of the rooms of the Wittumspalais, where her portrait is flanked by images of Goethe, Wieland, Schiller and the theologian Herder. These four men have long been regarded as the four greats of classical Weimar – but a woman, our Anna Amalia, presides over them, just as she presided over the salons at which they once met and exchanged ideas. They were hung here by Anna Amalia’s great grandson, Grand Duke Carl Alexander, who restored the Wittumspalais in the 1870s and made it into a sort of museum dedicated to his illustrious great-grandmother and her celebrated companions. However, it should be noted that such initiatives were part of a process of idealising and mythologising Weimar’s “golden age” and its protagonists during the 19th century, which led to certain misconceptions that have persisted until quite recently. This was something I wasn’t aware of until a very late stage in writing this article, and it threw a massive spanner in the works, as Anna Amalia’s Musenhof (court of the muses) that I had been referring to turned out to be essentially a construction of the 19th century. Cue time-consuming revisions. Damn those contemporary historians with their objectivity, their rigorous approach and their insistence on dismantling perfectly good myths…

Entrance to the Wittumspalais where Anna Amalia lived from 1774 to 1807 

Anyway, the idea of salon culture is intriguing, not least because women played such a pivotal role within it as hostesses and moderators of discussion: the Wikipedia page on the subject lists scores of salonnières in the German-speaking world, Maries and Luises and Sophies, and then there is Rahel Varnhagen, whose name was familiar to me from a little book I own called “Between the Soup Kitchen and the Salon: 22 Berlinerinnen”. Varnhagen, who was Jewish, hosted one of the most famous German salons at her home in Berlin in the late 18th and early 19th century. It took place in a simple attic room, where visitors were apparently offered refreshments of tea, biscuits and roasted chestnuts. These visitors were a diverse lot: actors rubbed shoulders with aristocrats; poets made the acquaintance of politicians; Jews and non-Jews interacted with one another on an equal footing, at a time when Jews were still not fully recognized as citizens by the law. Thus salons were in a sense extraterritorial spaces, providing a unique opportunity for people from different walks of life to meet and exchange ideas. Anna Amalia’s Tafelrunde was far more conservative in this respect, since it was dominated by members of court, but it did include middle-class guests too, and spirited women like her clever, quick-witted lady-in-waiting Luise von Göchhausen.  And whilst the rooms of the Wittumspalais were rather more plush than the simple room where Varnhagen held her salon, Anna Amalia also held soirees at her summer residences which were notably no-frills.
Anna Amalia's Tafelrunde. The chairs depicted in this painting can still be seen today at the Wittumspalais

I would love to have attended one of these salons – to have experienced what I imagine would have been the lively, stimulating atmosphere created by a heterogeneous mix of sharp minds, all eager to engage with ideas and theories, to have productive discussions, to bond over their appreciation of art, literature and music. But I have my doubts as to whether the participants managed to maintain the lofty tenor of the conversation throughout; I’m sure there must have been lapses into more trivial topics – local gossip, health complaints, maybe even the weather if those brilliant minds were having an off day and conversation had fizzled out, leaving an awkward silence? “Sooooo….bit nippy out today isn’t it?” On the other hand, I can imagine that the women in charge were dynamic figures who commanded attention and respect; who were adept at moving the conversation along when necessary, intervening when debates got a little too feisty, and – I like to think – tactfully but firmly putting mansplainers in their place.

Rahel Varnhagen

Alas though, the age of the salon has long since passed. Or has it? In a world where the internet, with its countless forums, blogs and social media outlets, facilitates the exchange of ideas on a gigantic scale, it would seem that the concept of the salon is now obsolete. Unless of course you view the online sphere as a kind of digital salon, but there is something a bit dispiriting about this. I mean, not that there aren’t some top-notch blogs out there (wink wink), but reading something on your phone – even if it is a fascinating article on German history – is hardly an adequate substitute for the salons of the past, with their real human interactions, their elegant refinement or bohemian flare. However, whilst pondering these questions, I came across an article arguing that the overwhelming vastness and multiplicity of the digital sphere has prompted a revived interest in physical gatherings where thinkers from various disciplines can exchange ideas face to face. Conferences such as the American TED Conference, the article claims, are “the new crucibles in the history of ideas” showing “the way in which the salon of the 21st century can evolve”. This is quite inspiring.

Silhouette of Anna Amalia (right) and Luise von Göchhausen (left)

Returning to Anna Amalia: not only was she dedicated to supporting the arts, she also practised them with great gusto – note the “them” plural, because she appears to have had the sort of enthusiasm for creative pursuits that cannot reign itself in and limit itself to just one or two disciplines. As someone of a similar disposition, that endears her to me greatly. She was passionate about music and the theatre; together with Goethe, she set up an amateur theatre group, the Liebhaber Theater, which became the Weimar court’s foremost attraction. She often trod the boards herself, as well as composing music, including the score for one of Goethe’s theatrical works. She was the initiator of the Tiefurter Journal, a magazine to which Goethe and co. contributed; she learned new languages in order to be able to read works of literature in the original, and tried her hand at translation; she began taking drawing lessons. In 1788, she travelled to Italy, accompanied by Luise von Göchhausen among others, and spent two years in Rome and Naples. This was an unusual undertaking for a 50-year-old royal widow, and her subjects were apparently rather concerned about her well-being. But they needn’t have worried, as she was having a thoroughly jolly time: admiring the art and architecture, delighting in the landscapes, going to the theatre and opera, and meeting various people of note. These included the painter Angelika Kauffmann, who painted the portrait you can see at the top of the article, in which Anna Amalia is depicted 
against a backdrop of Roman ruins, surrounded by objects that denote her love of the arts.

My copy of a portrait of Anna Amalia by J. G. Ziesenis 

With regard to her artistic endeavours, she was endearingly aware of her limitations: she writes that her camera obscura was of great help to her, since she “had taken up drawing rather too late in life”. As for her musical compositions, although they are enjoyable enough, their artistic merit should not be overestimated, according to the experts. Goethe was later to look unfavourably on such amateur artistic pursuits, as he began to advocate a professionalisation of the arts – a shift in attitude which served to create distance between himself and Anna Amalia. She was entitled to feel miffed in my opinion – and yet I have my own niggling doubts about dilettantism. Having the sort of wide-ranging enthusiasm that encompasses many different activities and disciplines has an obvious downside, in that it can prevent you from pursuing any one thing to the extent that would be necessary to achieve true excellence. Thus your progress in each area is modest, and the results of your labours are not validated by any sort of financial reward or formal qualification, which can make them seem difficult to justify. But perhaps it is OK to be a Jack (or Jill) of all trades? Looking at Anna Amalia’s life post-regency, it appears rich and multifaceted, and presumably it provided her with much enjoyment, inspiration and fulfilment. She certainly looks in good spirits in the portrait of her that I copied: with her lively eyes, relaxed pose and almost mischievously upturned mouth, Anna Amalia seems ready to engage you in conversation, to tell you all about her latest creative venture and to listen attentively when you tell her about your own.

Sources: to be added soon