Publiced in the catalogue of the exposition Classic Beauties, Museum Hermitage Amsterdam (2018)
Know'st thou the land where the lemon-trees bloom,
Where the gold orange glows in the deep thicket's gloom...1
What could more powerfully convey the beckoning warmth and allure of southern Europe? In these opening lines, Goethe expresses the most intense yearning for the fragrant, sunny south. And when he goes on to exclaim ''Tis there! 'Tis there!' you are ready to leap up and follow him. Today, thou¬sands of tourist suitcases rumble towards Italy every day. But at the time the 37-year-old German poet and statesman's longing for the south was reducing him to a state of near idiocy, a journey there was still a risky and time-con¬suming undertaking. Goethe had a high-ranking and well-paid position at court in Weimar but felt suffocated by the rigid formality of life there. More¬over, his long-term affair with a married woman, Frau von Stein, was start¬ing to seem claustrophobic. The beauty and freedom of Italy were enticing indeed! Afraid of obstacles that might prevent his departure, he set off in the early hours of the morning, unaccompanied and without bidding fare¬well. On 3 September 1786, he wrote in his travel journal 'I packed a single portmanteau and a valise [and] jumped into the mail-coach...'2 He remained firmly incommunicado until he was safely over the Alps. The poet opened his mind to all the new experiences of the journey, writing about landscapes and towns and making sketches and watercolours of what he saw. Consumed by his longing to reach Rome, he even passed up the opportunity to visit Venice. He could not rest until he reached the Tiber. Although he had read much about Rome and its artistic treasures, when he eventually opened his journal to record his initial, overwhelming, impressions, he wrote 'Only in Rome can one educate oneself for Rome.'3
Goethe moved in with German artist Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, who occupied an apartment on the Via del Corso. It was there that Tischbein sketched a portrait of Goethe (pp. 124–25) in the summer of 1787. The poet, resting his elbows on the windowsill, enjoying the view of Roman street life (see fig. on p. 137). Gone is the dignified, dutiful Goethe who had felt his literary gifts withering away in Germany. This was what tempted so many young people to leave the safety and security of their homes in the north: he had found himself.
Goethe was neither the first nor the last person to travel south. The celebrated Grand Tour became the height of fashion in the eighteenth century, but the vogue had taken off long before that. Countless journals, letters and chronicles report the experiences of young people who set off southwards to see the world.
Back in the sixteenth century, Dutch artist Jan van Scorel travelled to Rome, where a fellow native of Utrecht had just been elected to papal office. Pope Adrian VI appointed him keeper of the papal art collections in the Belvedere, allowing him daily contact with the sculpture of Classical Antiquity and the Italian Renaissance art of Michelangelo and Raphael. Returning to Utrecht, van Scorel passed on his knowledge and enthusiasm to his pupils Maarten van Heemskerck and Antonis Mor, who also undertook the long journey to Rome during their student years. Through such channels, knowledge of Classical and Renaissance art gradually spread throughout northern Europe.
Nearly a hundred years later, in 1620, the young Constantijn Huygens went to Italy as secretary to a diplomatic mission. His journal reveals the extent of the knowledge and experience he gained there. In Italy he studied the architecture of Palladio, whose ideas he would later apply in palaces built in and around The Hague for Prince Frederick Henry and his wife, Amalia of Solms-Braunfels (for example, in the Oranjezaal at Huis ten Bosch).
It was only in the second half of the eighteenth century, however, that the Grand Tour really came into vogue in aristocratic and royal circles. It became the fashion for those who could afford it to visit Rome, following in the foot¬steps of Goethe and – later – Lord Byron. In the nineteenth century, the brilliant English aristocrat and poet taught his readers to revel in the beauties of the south. Unimpeded by the facile convenience of the camera, Byron re¬corded his impressions in verse. Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812–18) made him an international celebrity ('I awoke one morning and found myself famous...'). In Rome, Byron/his hero mused on Antique sculptures such as the marble Laocoön Group, discovered in a Roman vineyard in the sixteenth century. Following a nocturnal ramble around the Colosseum, the hero found himself in front of the moving statue then known as The Dying Gladiator (nowadays called The Dying Gaul or Dying Galatian) and wrote:
'I see before me the Gladiator lie:
He leans upon his hand his manly brow
Consents to death, but conquers agony,
And his drooped head sinks gradually low–
And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow
From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one,
Like the first of a thunder-shower; and now
The arena swims around him – he is gone,
Ere ceased the inhuman shout which hailed the wretch who won...'
Byron also roamed his beloved Greece and in Childe Harold he reflected on the tragic beauty of the Parthenon. The Scottish aristocrat Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, had only recently shipped sculptures from the edifice's frieze and metopes to London, where they have remained ever since.
In St Petersburg too, people were reading the accounts of contemporary trav¬ellers and being lured to the towns and cities of southern Europe. In 1781–82, during the reign of Catherine the Great (1762–96), the future Tsar Paul I and his wife Maria Fyodorovna undertook their Grand Tour of Europe, described in detail by Sergej Androsov and Bernard Woelderink in this book (pp. 94–119).
In 1816, their youngest daughter, Anna Pavlovna (for her portrait see cat. 53), married the heir to the Dutch throne and moved to the Netherlands. Later in life, when she already had four adult children, she too wished to see Rome. Her husband, by then King William II (r. 1840–49), felt unable to spare the time for the trip, so she ordered her son Alexander and her daughter Sophie to accompany her. The royal party left The Hague in September 1846. In the family archives of the House of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach in Weimar (where Sophie went to live following her marriage), I discovered a travel journal kept by Princess Sophie in her few spare moments. The trip was made in the company of about ten noble companions and their servants, and further encumbered by the extensive luggage that Anna Pavlovna felt her royal status required. Travelling by boat, steam-train, horse-drawn coach and on foot or – in the case of Queen Anna – in a litter, they moved south, sailing down the Rhine to Germany and then continuing via Switzerland into Italy. On the way, they learned some Italian from a tutor engaged for the purpose.
A good deal of Princess Sophie's account is devoted to Queen Anna's temper tantrums, which repeatedly cast a shadow over the whole company. Following their arrival in Geneva, the princess wrote '... fit of bad temper and idiocy. The queen declared her intention of spending the whole day in bed on 3 Sept., which she did most conscientiously...'4 With her enquiring mind, Sophie was determined to make the most of the journey. Following in Byron's foot¬steps, she took a small boat to the island setting of The Prisoner of Chillon (1816), climbed mountains with the help of a guide, admired the islands in Lake Maggiore with their beautiful gardens and went to Monza to see the Iron Crown of Lombardy, its interior ring said to be made from nails used in the crucifixion of Christ.
On 16 September 1846, the royal cortège entered Milan. At the hotel they were greeted by a letter from Sophie's youngest brother, Prince Henry (some¬times called The Navigator). He invited the party to attend a naval review in Genoa, where his frigate Zr. Ms. Prins van Oranje was moored. But before they set off on this adventure, the princess wanted to climb to the roof of the cathedral to enjoy the view of the city. Queen Anna went too; despite the heat, she insisted on being carried up the stairs in a litter borne by two sweating lackeys. 'The cathedral is superb,' reported the jubilant princess in her journal. She was starting to number her mother's tantrums in the mar¬gin and noted 'Third idiotic scene. Queen unwell during night.'5 The attacks usually lasted a few days but in Genoa Anna Pavlovna enjoyed Prince Henry's entertainment so much that she cheered up and attended the supper served on board his ship. There was music and the guests all toasted the scion of the illustrious House of Romanov. As darkness fell, they gathered on deck to watch the Dutch fleet commanded by Prince Henry sail by in battle order, every ship illuminated by hundreds of lanterns. By nine o'clock it was com¬pletely dark and Anna and her three royal progeny were treated to a still grander spectacle as flares were set off from the palazzi lining the Genoese harbour front, bathing their façades and elegant loggias in multicoloured light. The tremendous evening concluded with salvos of cannon fire.
They still had some way to go to reach Rome. Sophie could hardly wait, but before they could leave her mother was off again: 'Fourth Temper Tantrum. Absurd state of complete madness'.6 On board the ship bearing them south, the queen had an attack of seasickness. By the time her ladies-in-waiting carried her ashore, she was a physical wreck. Even so, they made it to Pisa, where they visited the cathedral with its Baptistery and leaning tower and the Campo Santo. Returning to the hotel, Sophie was overcome by the desire to shop. She visited a workshop where she bought an alabaster vase and lamp and other trinkets made of the same translucent material. She tried on an English dress with bright red motifs and bought it for the exorbitant sum of 4,000 florins. After some further purchases of Persian carpets she was satisfied and boarded the steamer for Civitavecchia. On the way there, she presented her delighted ladies-in-waiting with mementos of the journey adorned with paintings of Italian landscapes.
The royal party landed at the port of Città Castellana for the last leg of the journey. 'Well then, tomorrow evening Rome!' Goethe had written in October1786, 'Even now I can hardly believe it. When this wish has been fulfilled, what shall I wish for next?'7 His words echoed in Sophie's mind from the moment she saw the mighty outline of the city with its many domes. Once the queen was settled in her lodgings, Sophie grabbed the opportunity for 'an evening walk by full moon'.8 After all, Goethe and Byron had both felt that Rome was at its most magically beautiful at night. The next day, accompanied by her brother and chaperones, the princess took her first stroll in the Piazza del Popolo and walked up Monte Pincio in the shade of the aromatic parasol pines to enjoy the panoramic view of Rome. Her gaze strayed to the Via del Corso, where Goethe had lived with Tischbein.
The presence in Rome of a daughter of a Russian tsar did not go unnoticed. Queen Anna granted audiences and the entire government of the Papal State came to pay its respects. Cardinal Gizzi, State Secretary of the Holy See, and a certain Signor Visconti invited them for an initial visit to the sacred heart of the Vatican: St Peter's Basilica. Deeply impressed by the vast size of the church, Sophie and her mother approached the high altar and the baldachin supported by four twisting helical columns, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini to surmount the tomb of St Peter. On the baldachin was a gilded cross that filled the queen with nostalgia; she told her daughter that it reminded her of the cross on the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, although it was bigger.
On 12 October there was an event worthy of even more detailed description: the party was invited for an audience with the pope. Having had a strict Orthodox upbringing in Russia, where the Roman Catholic Church was de¬tested, Anna Pavlovna felt a strong aversion to the head of the institution. Accordingly, she decided to treat him as the secular ruler of the Papal State and in no way as the earthly representative of Christ.
It was with curiosity rather than with deference, therefore, that the queen and her daughter entered the Palazzo del Quirinale. They were conducted to the audience chamber, but Prince Alexander and the remainder of their entourage were obliged to wait in an anteroom. That evening's entry in Sophie's travel journal reads 'Visit to Pope Pius IX at the Quirinale at midday'.9 Pope Pius IX was a member of a noble Tuscan family, had studied philosophy, and had been a papal envoy and missionary in Chile following his ordination. When he greeted his Russian guest, his expression of nobility was such that Anna Pavlovna instantly forgot all her prejudices and completely changed her attitude. Sophie described him as 'Very friendly, speaks fairly good French,' adding: 'Mama extraordinarily amiable. Stayed three-quarters of an hour.'10
Queen Anna and Princess Sophie would return several times to dine with the charming pope. Sophie and Alexander toured all the sights and could not get enough of the city's sculptures, mosaics, paintings, frescoes, buildings and gardens. During one of Sophie's visits to the Vatican Museums, where they viewed the famous collection of Classical sculptures, she had an altercation with one of her ladies-in-waiting, Mademoiselle Ottilie van Tuyll. Confronted by the nude statuary, Ottilie turned white. She was horrified by the sight of Apollo's muscular body, veiled only by a scanty shoulder cape, disgusted by the torso of Hercules, and unable to bear the sight of the Laocoön, in which a naked Trojan priest and his sons fight for their lives with venomous serpents. Sophie noted 'Miss Othaline in black low spirits. Afterwards changed.'11
The royal party visited the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo's Last Judgment. Sophie (who always had an English hunting knife about her) adds in her journal the hair-raising remark that: 'The queen and I scratched our names in it in memory of our visit to St Peter's. Nice frescoes.'12 One evening they went to the Vatican to join a host of Dutch, Russian and other foreign nationals invited to view illuminations of the Classical sculptures: 'Bel effet', Sophie comments, before going on to de¬scribe, on 19 October, the fifth and worst scene created by the queen: 'Idio¬cies and state of intense lunacy.'13 This time, Sophie lost her own temper and told her mother exactly what she thought of her, whereupon the queen went off into a terrifying rage. The atmosphere remained tense for days afterwards. The Romanovs had an inherited tendency to suffer from fits of rage and Anna did her very best to regain control of her emotions.14
Her son and daughter continued their exploration of the city and its environs, examining Ancient vases and visiting Etruscan tombs. They drove to Tivoli, stamping ground not only of great poets like Horace and Catullus, but also of Emperor Hadrian and the assassins of Julius Caesar, and there they listened to the music of splashing fountains and cascades at the Villa d'Este and admired the row of caryatids at Hadrian's Villa. Goethe had tired himself out sketch¬ing there, writing: 'This is yet another pinnacle of all Earth has to offer.'15
In the final days before her departure, Sophie continued to store up memories: she walked the Via Appia, visited Nero's Golden House (Domus Aurea) and spent time in the Vatican Library and the Egyptian Museum. She accompa¬nied her mother to the Villa Borghese, where they admired Canova's famous statue of the seductive Pauline Borghese as Venus Victrix. Following the death of Josephine de Beauharnais, former empress of France, Anna's brother, Tsar Alexander I, had acquired a large part of her collection of Canova marbles for the Hermitage in St Petersburg (see cats 39–41).
Anna Pavlovna missed her husband, King William II, and bought presents for him during the journey. Sophie describes their visit to the Rome studio of Dutch artist Cornelis Kruseman, where Anna bought '... a fine painting of St John the Baptist for the king'.16 When the weather deteriorated, their homesickness for Holland increased. They took their leave of Italy and during the homeward journey Sophie made no further entries in her journal.
Years later, she would return once more to her beloved Rome, this time with her husband and first cousin, Carl Alexander van Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, son of Anna's elder sister Maria Pavlovna. Visiting the studio of celebrated German artist Emil Wolff, they spotted some beautiful marble portrait busts and Carl Alexander decided to commission one of his wife. Sophie posed in all simplicity, without necklace or even earrings. Her simple hairstyle was adorned with a circlet of fresh flowers. The bust was later taken to Weimar, where it can still be seen in the Stadtschloss.
Carl Alexander particularly admired one piece of Classical sculpture that he saw in Rome. He wrote 'The seated figure of Nero's mother is a splendid and noble depiction of supreme womanly dignity, which is everywhere expressed, even in the simplest folds of her attire.'17 It was this statue that Canova had chosen as his model when he was commissioned to produce a portrait of Napoleon's mother, Letizia Buonaparte. He carved it from the purest, whit¬est marble he could find in the Italian stone quarries. Goethe wrote in his Italienische Reise: 'Marble is an extraordinary material. Because of it, the Apollo Belvedere gives such unbounded pleasure. The bloom of eternal youth which the original statue possesses is lost even in the best plaster cast.'18
In 1885, the lives of Goethe and Sophie were to become forever entwined in a most unexpected way. On the death of Goethe's last surviving grandson, the art world waited with bated breath: who would inherit the poet's precious literary estate? The manuscripts had lain untouched for half a century in the house on the Frauenplan, the grandsons never daring to sell them. Finally, the notary read out the name of the heir: Grand Duchess Sophie! Faced with a public outcry – after all, Sophie was not only a woman but a foreigner! – the grand duchess summoned up all her dignity and made the immortal procla¬mation 'I have inherited, and Germany and the whole world should inherit with me.'19
She kept her word. The very next day she went to Goethe's study with her ladies-in-waiting, pulled on white gloves, and began to sort through the ex¬tensive collection of manuscripts. Prose, poetry, travel writing, plays, letters and medical treatises were all categorised and transported to the palace in laundry baskets. Determined that no product of Goethe's genius should be lost to posterity, she would eventually publish Goethe's complete works in 143 volumes (known as the Sophienausgabe). On one fateful day, however, she was horrified to discover a file marked Erotica Romana. The priapic poems it contained brought a blush to her cheeks. Never had she laid eyes on such a thing and, worse still was the idea that they could have been written by her revered Goethe! She hid the poems away and decided not to include them in the collected works.
After Sophie's death she was laid to rest in the ducal vault – the Fürstengruft – amidst huge public interest. Her casket was placed immediately beside those of the divine poets Goethe and Friedrich Schiller.
Goethe had found absolute intellectual and physical freedom in Rome; when he returned to Weimar, he took with him one word that still greets the many thousands of visitors to his home on the city's Frauenplan: SALVE. It appears on the wooden floor at the entrance to his home, as a lasting tribute to the country that had revealed its unforgettable beauty to him.
1 – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 'Mignon', in: Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, 1796. Quoted from Thomas Carlyle's translation, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship: A Novel, 3 vols, London, 1824, I, p. 229.
2 – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Reise-Tagebuch 1786. Tagebuch der Italienischen Reise für Frau von Stein, 1819. Available online at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2404. The translation is from the Penguin Classics edition: Italian Journey, translated by W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer, London, 1970, p. 23.
3 – Ibid., p. 133.
4 – '... grande ane de mauvaise humeur et de absurdité; la Reine déclara rester dans son lit toute la journée du 3 Sept. Ce qu'elle fut consciencieusement.' From Princess Sophie's unpublished journals, archive of the House of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, Weimar, with marginal notes; p. 3, in the margin.
5 – 'vue de la cathedrale qui est superbe...
[in the margin] troisieme scene d'absurdites. Indisposition de la Reine pendant la nuit.'
Ibid., p. 12.
6 – 'IV Grande Mauvaise Humeur absurde état de folie complète.' Ibid., p. 20.
7 – 'Morgen Abend also in Rom. Ich glaube es noch jetzt kaum, und wenn dieser Wunsch erfüllt ist, was soll ich mir nachher wünschen?' Goethe 1819, p. 127.
8 – '... le soir promenade en clair de lune.' Princess Sophie journals, p. 23.
9 – 'Visite au Pape Pie IX au Cuirinal à midi.' Ibid., p. 25.
10 – 'fort aimable parle assez bien Le Francais, amabilité extraordinaire de Maman. resté trois quartes d'heure.' Ibid.
11 – Ibid., p. 26, in the margin, this was written by the princess in English.
12 – 'nous vimes les noms de la Reine et le mien gravé... en Mémoire de notre visite a
St. Pierre Magnifiques fresques.' Ibid., p. 28, in the margin.
13 – 'd'absurdités et d'état de folie... la manière ferme.' Ibid., p. 31, in the margin.
14 – Tsar Paul I (Anna's father and Sophie's grandfather) seems to have suffered from attacks of insanity. The tendency to have fits of temper was inherited by his descendants in the House of Orange-Nassau. For instance, King William III (Sophie's eldest brother) suffered from attacks of rage and was apt to become violent during them. When he was a boy, Anna wrote 'Il y a de Paul dedans' ('There is something of Paul in him'). His daughter Wilhelmina was given a strict upbringing by Queen Emma in order to suppress the tendency.
15 – 'Das ist wieder ein Gipfel irdischer Dinge.' Goethe 1819, p. 381.
16 – 'beau tableau de St. jean Baptiste pour
le Roi.' Princess Sophie journals, p. 26.
17 – Quotation taken from: Rudolph Köhler, Groszherzog Carl Alexander und Fanny Lewald-Stahr in ihren Briefen 1848–1889, vol. 2, Berlin 1932.
18 – 'Der Marmor ist ein seltsames Material, deswegen ist Apoll von Belvedere im Urbilde so grenzenlos erfreulich, denn der höchste Hauch des lebendigen, jünglingsfreien, ewig jungen Wesens verschwindet gleich im besten Gipsabguß.' Goethe 1819, p. 152.
19 – 'Ich habe geerbt, und Deutschland und die Welt sollen mit mir erben.' Many believe this to be a true quotation by the grand duchess.
Thera Coppens is the author of Sophie in Weimar Een prinses van Oranje in Duitsland (Sophie in Weimar A princess of the Royal House of Orange in Germany).