In 2003, the German-Italian lawyer and author Ettore Ghibellino caused a minor sensation when he published the findings of his research into the lives of Goethe and the Dowager Duchess of Weimar, Anna Amalia. In his book he argues that Goethe and the Duchess were not merely partners in artistic and cultural projects, but also partners in love. Ghibellino assembles a rich and persuasive array of evidence to support his claim.
Ghibellino started his investigation after being intrigued by a famous portrait of the Duchess. After studying the painting, he concluded that that she must have been Goethe’s secret wife.
Increasingly fascinated by this idea, Ghibellino embarked on a long journey of biographical, literary and even criminological research. More and more, his hypothesis formed into a coherent whole and he decided to publish his findings in a book, entitled “Goethe und Anna Amalia. Eine verbotene Liebe”, in English, “Goethe and Anna Amalia. A forbidden Love.”)
The consensus view among historians and Goethe specialists about Goethe’s life after arriving in Weimar is that in 1775 he developed a platonic love for Charlotte von Stein, the former lady-in-waiting of the Duchess Anna Amalia. The relationship ended when Goethe went off to Italy for two years in 1786.
Ghibellino argues that this relationship was merely a cover for the real relationship between a woman of the highest aristocracy and a middle class man. In the 18th century such a relationship would have been impossible for political and dynastic reasons alone. Ghibellino’s book uncovers what is in fact a state and personal secret and tells its story.
It is the story of a cover-up that was devised by Goethe and Anna Amalia, using her former lady-in-waiting as a front woman. Ghibellino shows how deeply loyal Charlotte von Stein and her family were to the ducal family and how they co-operated in the deception. Goethe would pretend to entertain a relationship with Charlotte so that all the letters he wrote to Anna Amalia would be addressed to Charlotte and passed on to Anna Amalia. Ghibellino gathers evidence to support this argument, e.g. the fact that the letters contain references in Italian or to Italian translations. Italian was a language of which Anna Amalia had very good knowledge. However, Charlotte did not, so it would have made no sense writing of such matters to her.
Letters from Charlotte to Goethe are generally thought to have been destroyed by Charlotte herself, but they could just as well have been destroyed by Goethe. In any case, it is highly remarkable that no letters whatsoever have survived from Anna Amalia to Goethe or vice versa during the relevant period from 1775 to 1786. This is despite the fact that they co-operated closely in many fields and were both prolific letter writers. According to Ghibellino this is further evidence of a deliberate cover-up.
Ghibellino also finds evidence of Goethe’s infatuation with Anna Amalia in some of his drawings and sketches. There is, for example, a water colour by Goethe showing a bridge constructed on the letters “AMALIE”. Quite often in his drawings and watercolours one finds an ”A”, the meaning of which had hitherto puzzled researchers.
Ghibellino’s publications have caused quite a stir in recent years, not only in Germany. At the same time they have also divided the interested international academic and Goethe community.
Interestingly, even those among them who remain highly critical of Ghibellino’s thesis agree that it has not been possible to disprove it. Regardless of which view one may form on the matter, his book is exciting and rewarding reading. It imparts an in-depth and new perspective on the lives of Goethe and the Duchess Anna Amalia, and the court in Weimar during their time. The temporal and spatial contexts in which Ghibellino’s evidence is situated enable a good understanding of this highly complex historical period, so distant and different to our own age.
If you want to know more about this extraordinary relationship, its background and implications, the following publications may be of interest:
Ettore Ghibellino, Goethe and Anna Amalia. A Forbidden love? Transl. by Dan Farrelly. 342 pp. Dublin, Carysford 2007
Veröffentichungen der Anna Amalia und Goethe Akademie zu Weimar.
Tagungsbände der Anna Amalia und Goethe Akademie zu Weimar.
Wolfgang Sorge, Goethes erstes Weimarer Jahrzehnt. Hat er ... oder hat er nicht ...? Berlin, Pro Business 2013
Ilse Nagelschmidt, Alles um Liebe. Anna Amalia und Goethe. Interdisziplinäres Symposium 2008.
Press and Internet publications:
Current information regarding exhibitions and events concerning Goethe, Anna Amalia and Weimar Classicism may be obtained at the Hotel Fürstenhof am Bauhaus Weimar.
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