In search of... Faust in Frankfurt
A child murder in the city where Goethe was born inspired his most famous work. Ian McCurrach hunts for other devilish connections
Sunday 26 October 2003
I thought Frankfurt was a cutting-edge city all full of space-age towers. What's it got to do with pacts with the devil?
Well, dumbo, like me, you might be surprised to find out that Goethe, aka the Prince of German Poets and author, of course, of Faust, was born here in 1749 and spent his young adult life in the city.
Oh really? Goethe was more than just a poet, though, wasn't he?
Yes. He was also a noted lawyer, scholar, philosopher, playwright and natural scientist. Most Frankfurters pride themselves on being able to come up with a couple of quotes from the master, such as "On the 28th August 1749, as the midday bell struck twelve, I was born into Frankfurt by the Main", which is how he described his birth in Poetry and Truth.
Did the city provide much inspiration for Faust then?
You bet. As a young man he experienced the court case of the infant murderer Susanna Brandt, whose fate moved him deeply. Years later he paid tribute to Brandt with the figure of Gretchen in Faust (Marguerite in the operatic version), in which a disillusioned academic sells his soul to the devil in return for love. In fact, Goethe's memory lives long here, as the city is littered with statues and buildings associated with him.
So where should I start?
Prime destination is the poet's birthplace, The Goethe House, Grosser Hirschgraben 23-25 (00 49 69 13 88 00; www.goethehaus-frankfurt.de), which is a wonderful example of how the well-to-do lived in the 18th century. See where little Goethe got to be such a brainbox. Goethe senior wanted the best-educated children in town and there are rooms dedicated to each of the arts. The library was dubbed the torture room by young Goethe, because it was here that he and his sister Cornelia were made to read and write in five languages. Goethe's study on the third floor is where he wrote the works that were first claim to fame: Goetz of Berlichingen and The Sorrows of Young Werther.
Any more devilishly clever connections?
Right next door, in fact, to The Goethe Museum, which has a fascinating collection of art and artefacts connected to Goethe, along with a vast library of his works. For example, in the Arcadian Room is a painting of Maddalena Riggi, from Milan, the girl to whom Goethe is thought to have lost his virginity when he was 35 years old. The master was terrified of contracting syphilis, which might explain why he left it quite late in life to begin sexual relationships. What this does indicate is that his early love poems may have been the manifestation of his unconsummated physical desires.
I'm getting quite interested - where can I find out more?
Just a hop, skip and a jump away. Cross the road to the excellent local bookshop. At Büchergilde, Grosser Hirschgraben 20-26, you can stock up on loads of works by Goethe, translated into English.
Anything else I should see?
No visit is complete without taking in the Gerbermühle, Deutschherrnufer 105. This former mill on the banks of the Main was once the summer residence of the banker, Johann Jakob von Willemer, whom Goethe visited for a month in 1815. It was here that the poet, aged 65, met young Marianne von Willemer and fell in love with her. Their love letters were immortalised in Goethe's West-Eastern Divan. Today, it houses a small hotel with large gardens overlooking the river where you can contemplate the master's work.
I'm getting hungry?
There's nowhere finer than the terrace of the Alte Oper, Am Opernplatz, which comes complete with a statue of Goethe. Tuck into a delicious salad and a refreshing glass of apple wine in this beautifully renovated space in the old opera house.
Where else should I visit?
Goethe frequently sailed to the nearby town of Hochst, which is now a suburb of Frankfurt. The old town hasn't changed much, so expect tradition-steeped inns around the main square, a 16th-century castle and the famous porcelain factory. Goethe was a great admirer of the Hochst work, and was so close to Melchior, the modelling master, that he became the godfather of Melchior's son. You can tour the factory, which still produces the Goethe portrait first made by Melchior. Höchster Porzellan-Manufaktur, Bolongarostrasse 186 (00 49 69 30 09 02 0).
At the risk of sounding a bit shallow , are there any Goethe connections that are a little less worthy?
Sure. After such heady stuff, why not indulge in retail therapy. Goethestrasse is the city's most exclusive shopping street where you will find names like Prada, Hermès, Armani and Jil Sander.
OK, I'm convinced. How do I get there?
There really is only one way to go. BA (0870 850 9 850, www.ba.com) flies from London City to Frankfurt with return fares from £81. The best place to stay is The Hotel Hessischer Hof (00 49-69 7540-0, 00800 2888 8882; www.lhw.com), from £229 per night. A one-day Frankfurt Card from tourist information offices costs €7.50 (£5.20) and covers travel on S-Bahn and U-Bahn train, trams and night buses, along gives half-price admission to 17 museums. German National Tourist Office (020-7317 0908; www.germany-tourism.co.uk).
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