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Going Goethe

Kalpana Sunder Nov 19 2017, 2:35 IST
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's home in Frankfurt, Germany.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's home in Frankfurt, Germany.

I first discovered Goethe in college, reading a selection from Faust. In Frankfurt, one of my first few visits is to the home of the famous German writer, poet and playwright, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was born in Frankfurt in 1749.

His house in Hirschgraben was destroyed in World War II in 1944, but was meticulously rebuilt from its original plans and opened in 1951 - furnished with original baroque pieces, porcelain and art belonging to the Goethe family, conveying the life of a prosperous, erudite family in those days.

The half-timbered Goethe House, made of red brick and stone, is actually two houses joined together, dating to about 1600, which was first bought in 1733 by Goethe's grandmother. As I enter the house through the back entrance, I see the wrought-iron staircase with the initials of Goethe's parents carved on it. "The first four sandstone steps are original," says my guide. "Goethe's father hired private tutors to give his son lessons in Latin, Greek, French, English, as well as dancing and fencing," she adds.

In the entrance hall are large wooden Frankfurt-style cupboards to salvage precious objects in case of fire. The Yellow Room, called the Weimar Parlour, is where all the mementoes collected by Goethe's mother are stored. There's a portrait of young Goethe and the marble bust of Goethe depicting him in the role of Orestes in his play Iphigenia.

The exquisite Blue Room was the dining room with handcrafted Rococo porcelain in glass cupboards and baroque mirrors on walls. "Blue was a very fashionable colour in those days," explains my guide. The bobbin lace cushion harks back to the days when Goethe's mother spent her afternoons making lace.

On the corner of the ground floor is also a vintage kitchen with a brick stove, recreating Goethe's childhood, with an original water pump linked to the well in the cellar, a luxury in those days. Sunlight streams in through the window, illuminating the wooden racks holding copper pots and moulds shaped like fruits (for making cakes and gelatin salads).

On the first floor are large baroque-style cabinets that once held family linen. The first room that I see on this floor is the luxurious red Peking Room with Chinese-inspired wallpaper holding images of animals and flowers, resembling silk fabric. This room was used for family celebrations, or to greet important visitors.

As situation demands

During the Seven Years War, it was billeted by a French lieutenant, much to Goethe's father's annoyance. On the other side of the landing is the Music Room. "Music was a very important part of Goethe's life," explains my guide. I look entranced at the ceiling of the room with stucco reliefs of musical instruments - the mother and sister would sing, and the father would play the lute. The room is dominated by a pianoforte and a beautiful painting of the Goethe family in shepherd's costumes.

As I ascend towards the second floor, I see on the landing a gargantuan astronomical clock built in 1746 - young Goethe admired this clock, which shows the phase of the moon and the position of the sun with zodiac signs. I see his Birth Room, a bare room where the author first saw the light of day. "It was on the 28th of August, 1749, at the stroke of twelve noon that I came to the world in Frankfurt on the Main," he writes in his autobiography.

The room has a portrait of him in his old age, and also the star and the lyre, the emblems of the poet. Next to it is his mother's room with a pastel portrait above her desk, and a table that displays delicate cups and saucers, and porcelain of those days from which she had her favourite, hot chocolate. The library room is lined with bookshelves with more than 2,000 ancient gilded tomes collected by Goethe's father, covering all spheres of knowledge. No wonder the author writes, "I had from childhood the singular habit of always learning by heart the beginnings of books." Goethe's father was also an art collector and collected paintings by Frankfurt painters of his times like Juncker, Hirt and Morgenstern - these framed pictures adorn the walls of the painting room.

Source of inspiration

I see an antique linen press with two wooden planks to flatfold clothes on the landing of the third floor. On the wall is a large painting of the Frankfurt coronation celebration that Goethe experienced in 1764. The show stopper is the Puppet Theatre room which has a weathered toy wooden puppet theatre that the author received as a gift when he was four years old, and cherished greatly. The puppet shows arranged at home were a great source of his imagination in writing plays at a young age.

Finally, I enter the genius's room that has his original ink-splattered desk where he wrote his early works including The Sorrows of Young Werther.

I feel his spirit and genius here, and am amazed to see that Goethe was also a talented artist. The walls are decorated with his drawings and sketches - I love the sketch of his room and the portrait of his sister Cornelia. There is also a silhouette of Charlotte Buff, his first love! My visit ends with an exhibition that showcases details of the Goethe family, the history of the house and how Frankfurt was in that time and era. By visiting his birthplace I get a window into the life of the genius who, in spite of his upper-class upbringing, became a rebel and a freethinker. Someone who believed, "Personality is everything in art and poetry."

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