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February 1997

The Spirit of Weimar:Where dukes and Romantics had something in common

The attractions of the cultural center of Weimer

On February 6, 1919, while Germany's social fabric was coming apart after the debacle of World War One, the newly elected National Assembly convened in Weimar to debate a new constitution for the country. Placing so august an institution in a small town lost in the hills of Thuringia might seem strange, but president Friedrich Ebert and the delegates were anxious to get away from the daily rabble-rousing in Berlin, and were concerned about choosing a spot that would be auspicious for maintaining Germany's sorely tested unity. "It will be well received the world round if the reconstruction of the German Reich were to take place in the spirit of Weimar," Ebert stated. Ask any German what Weimar means to them, and you will be bombarded by a Who's Who of Germany's cultural history: Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche, Klee, Gropius and many, many more. The intimate and prosperous town always seemed a place where poets and painters, musicians and architects could find inspiration. Maybe it has something to do with the weather, the fresh breezes that blow through the Ilm valley. Or even the saturnine quality of the people in this landlocked region. Wandering through the narrow cobblestoned streets or the pedestrian zone lined with gingkos - Weimar's hallmark tree - one is bound sooner or later to come across the museum or former residence of some great personality. To start with, there's Goethe's house on the Frauenplan, a convex baroque building in gentle yellow erected in 1709. The great Renaissance man moved there in 1794 after his cottage in the Park an der Ilm became too small for his collections of minerals, plant species, casts, etchings or whatever he fancied to collect at the time. It has been meticulously maintained. His furniture and personal items, painstakingly culled from far and wide, have been placed in such a way that should he return from the shades tomorrow, he would only need a new key to get in. Even his coach is in the stable, in mint condition, needless to say. Friedrich Schiller would also find his house (now on Schillerstrase) just as it was when he departed for the netherworld in 1803: a solid yellow edifice very much to his conservative Swabian taste. Only the furniture is no longer original. At his desk some unfinished writings wait to be attended to. His wallpaper has been authentically reconstructed, a significant detail since it was Goethe who advised him on which wallcoverings to use; and some nasty tongues wag that Goethe knew the green wallpaper in his study contained arsenic, which might have sped up Schiller's fatal pleuresy. Rivalries real and imagined aside, the two gentlemen now stand together, as statues, in front of the theater. Opposite the theater stands the new Bauhaus Museum, which opened in 1995 and documents the history of the Bauhaus school founded in 1918 by Walter Gropius and Henry van de Velde; the museum has earned Weimar a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The aim of the Bauhaus movement was to combine art and architecture with interior design, decoration and, even, publishing. Exhibits include van de Velde's splendid washstand (whose water pipes serve as decoration and towel racks all at once), an elegant cradle by Peter Keler, and dozens of prints, paintings and models. When Carl August, Duke - and later Archduke - of Sachsen-Weimar, took power in 1775 he decided that the town's ambience would be the ideal habitat for Germany's budding Romantics on the lookout for pristine nature and a traditional homeyness. He invited Goethe, Schiller and Gottfried Herder to Weimar. With Goethe as a consultant, the duke began rebuilding the Residenz that had burned down (not for the first time) in 1774. The tower of the castle is all that remains of the medieval building. When aristocratic rule ended in 1918, the residence and its collection of art treasures were turned over to the City of Weimar. An entire day can easily be spent roaming through the castle's old rooms and halls admiring the bounty of grandiose murals, the four "poets' rooms," or the majestic ballroom. The art gallery has grown since the days of the archdukes and now includes several noteworthy collections: paintings by Lucas Cranach and his disciples, Russian icons, works of the so-called "open-air" Weimar School and the German Romantics (including Caspar David Friedrich and Philipp Runge), and by German and other European impressionists (Monet's La Cathedrale de Rouen, for example, hangs there). The serene Park on the Ilm River, which begins at the residence, is another Goethe-Carl August joint venture. Great boulders were freed of moss and brush, fake ruins were built, and paths were laid out to edify the Romantic souls of the day. It is still a peaceful, inspirational piece of real estate used by all Weimaraner, from school children to starry-eyed couples. At the edge of the park stands Franz Liszt's house, a small square building of yellow ashlars housing his piano, his furniture and memorabilia from his many travels. A little further along is the Garden House, where Goethe lived for four years. Recent renovation has freed it of excess ornamentation. Most interesting perhaps is the room where he wrote, especially the trestle with a saddle he used as a chair. A few hundred yards on, standing on a promontory, is the Roman House, which is currently closed for restoration; it contains a miscellany illustrating the great age of classicism in Weimar painting, sculpture and interior decoration. And finally, at the end of the park, is a bee museum with a cozy restaurant attached. The menu still offers the heavy Ukrainian soljanka soup that was so popular in the former GDR. The 20th century was unkind to the town. The Nazis, who had a passionate hatred for the Weimar Republic, cynically opened the Buchenwald concentration camp on a nearby hill. The end of the war was followed by more than 40 years of neglect under communist rule. Since reunification, the local culture budget has been strained by the need to restore and maintain the town's 16 museums, four-tier-theater and other sights of special interest. The fact that the city was chosen as European Cultural Capital for 1999 has done nothing to relieve the pressure. But Weimar is more than just a gigantic museum, as a stroll around the traditional marketplace shows. Daily (except Sundays), a host of merchants supply the town with victuals, flowers, paraphenalia for house pets, fast food (including the famous Thuringian Bratwurst), bread and pastries, ceramics, household goods and more. Old-fashioned criers hawk anything from brushless shoe polish to glue. Barring the cars and the occasional punk hairdo, time here has stood still. Even the venerable Hotel Elephant is open for business, just as it was 300 years ago, though now the interior has been given a brand new art-deco look. In this setting, it's not hard to visualize the burgomaster or duke of Weimar-Gotha-Eisenach haranguing the crowd from the balcony of the beautiful Renaissance town hall, while Goethe and Schiller nod sagely below.

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