The Lost Fort
My Travel and History Blog, Focussing mostly on Roman and Mediaeval Times
Sites of the Weimar Classicism – The Park at the Ilm
My hotel in Weimar was close to one of the entrances to the Park at the Ilm, so I decided for an afternoon walk upon my arrival. First, I went straight to Goethe's garden house in order not to miss the opening hours (it will get its own post), but afterwards I just strolled through the park without a list of things to see., But I came across some of the famous features like the Roman House and the artificial ruin nevertheless.
Come with me on a lovely walk.
Way at the Ilm river
The Park at the Ilm was mostly a wilderness when Goethe arrived in Weimar in 1775. The garden house or cottage he received from the duke was a former vintner house, though the vintage was long defunct; most of what grew on the slope were fruit trees in need of pruning, and some vegetables.
There had been another orchard on the meadows at the river, which was also used as pleasance. It dates back to an older castle in Weimar around 1370 (the predecessor of that one were even older, but no gardens are mentioned). The park and the outbuildings were destroyed by a great flood in May 1613 and never rebuilt; the area became a wilderness.
Park at the Ilm, trees in the sunshine
Closer to the castle was a formal garden in the Baroque style, the Star Garden (Sterngarten), also known as Welscher Garten (Italian Garden). It was developed by Duke Wilhelm after the Thirty Years War and included the so called Snail, a wooden viewing platform surrounded by linden trees (it was later dismantled due to decaying timber). Nearby were some fish ponds.
The Baroque garden flourished during the regency of Duke Ernst Wilhelm (1683-1728) and his successor Duke Johann Ernst (1728.1748); afterwards it fell into decline, and the trees and shrubs were allowed to grow wild.
At the Ilm river, view to the Nature Bridge
The park was cared for after the death of Duke Carl August, but the wooden areas grew out too much despite; the indigenous trees threatening to push the imported ones out of competition, so the park became more of a forest, and the visual axes – like from Goethe's cottage to the Roman House – almost disappeared. The park also suffered bomb damage at the end WW2; the Tempelherrenhaus (House of the Templers) was destroyed except for the ruins of its tower.
In the 1970ies, the park was finally restored to its original appearance as far as possible. The old trees are specially cared for, the wild growth has been cut and the sight lines brought to view again. Shrubs and flowers are planted according to old plans of the park which is now in the care of the Klassik Stiftung Weimar.
Example of a sight line: View to the Roman House
The park stretches for 1.6 km from the ducal palace to the suburb Oberweimar in the south. It is about 300 metres wide and covers and area of 48 hectares. It is part of a green girdle along the Ilm river that also includes the park of Tiefurt downriver and the palace garden of Belvedere upriver.
The Park at the Ilm proper is divided into two parts, the area between the palace and Goethe's garden house, the oldest part of the cooperation between Duke Carl August and Goethe, and the adjacent, slighly younger Dux Garden with its grand sweeps of meadows ansd forested areas. Both are connected by the Dux Bridge, though there are several more bridges across the Ilm river.
The Naturbrücke (Nature Bridge) in the oldest part of the park
Duke Carl August of Weimar and Goethe shared an interest in creating a nice park out of the remains of trees and meadows along the Ilm. Since Goethe actually lived in the park during his first summers in Weimar, he was even more keen on getting nice views from the windows of his garden house.
As Minister for Pretty much Everything (*grin*), Goethe was in the perfect position to oversee works on the park. His growing interest in geology and botany also helped. The duke and Goethe decided to go for a park in the English landscape garden style with winding paths, groups of trees allowed to grow naturally, meadows, shrubs and flower beds, but also grottos, artificial ruins and such. Model was the Wörlitz Park (Duke Carl August and Prince Franz of Anhalt-Dessau who owned the park were friends).
Meadow with trees
The first part to be altered was the area between the palace and Goethe's cottage. It is here most of the artificial features (see below) and sculptures can be found. The expansion of the park to the south culmitated in the building of the Roman House, an abode for the duke, in 1797. At that time, Goethe still was involved in the park, but it no longer was one of his main occupations. The final step was the construction of the House of the Templers in 1823 (the Snail had been removed in 1808 which further changed the aspect of this part of the park).
In his own cottage garden, fenced off from the rest of the park, Goethe grew not only flowers, but vegetables for his household, and he included an orchard among the trees. Later, his mistress Christiane Vulpius would also keep chicken. The meadows of the park were mowed for hay and sometimes even used a grazing – the border between recreational and agricultural uses were blurred in the past when you could not buy your celery at Costco's.
View from the Nature Bridge to the river
It was only after the death of both Duke Carl August and Goethe that the view axis between the Garden House and the Roman House was elevated by the replacement of some trees; the work of the court gardener Eduard Petzold. Much of what was planted in the years between 1778 and the 1820ies took time to grow into full splendour, among them non-native species like Hemlock, Sitka spruce, Tulip trees, Ginkgo, Caucasian Wingnut and Crimean Tillia. There is also a bunch of horse chestnuts which were ripe when I visited. Yes, I gathered some; I can never withstand those shiny brown conkers. *grin* Gave them to some kids when I left the park.
The Nadelöhr (Bottleneck) staircase
The first feature Goethe added to the park was a rock staircase near the Powder Tower which connected the Park at the Ilm with the Italian Garden (also known as The Star, der Stern) at the back of the ducal palace – which at the time was a ruin as result of a fire. The passage is called the Nadelöhr (Bottleneck).
The reason for this monument was a sad one: The suicide of Christiane Henriette of Laßberg who had drowned herself in the Ilm at the Nature Bridge in January 1778 due to an unhappy liaison with a married man. The suicide must have shocked the Weimarian upper classes to whom Christiane belonged, and the Bottleneck, so close to the river and her place of death, served as memorial.
Remains of the Powder Tower
A happier incident were the birthday celebrations of Duchess Luise of Weimar July 9th, 1778, which led to further additions in this part of the park in preparation of the festivities. With the palace in ruins (the duke and his court had moved to a representative building in the town) and the increasing interest of the nobility in being out in the nature, some of the events were held here, among others a play written by Goethe himself and staged in what was called the 'Luisenkloster', a hermitage consisting of an old wall, a little belfry on top of the remains of the Powder Tower, and the Borkenhäuschen, a straw thatched timber hut which would become a favourite abode of Duke Carl August when he wanted to escape the court life for a few hours.
Entrance to the grotto behind the boulder
Near the tower, hidden behind a boulder, is one of the entrances to the Park Grotto (the other is near the Liszt House). The grotto can only be visited by guided tours, so I missed out on it. It consists of a system of cellars and passages, some of them natural. The duke had those enlarged in order to establish a brewery in the grotto (1794-97) which never came to pass. But the rooms were used for storage, and the travertine – a sedimentary rock frequent it karst landscapes – quarried during the creation of the grotto system was used in road constructions. The rock included a good amount of fossils in which Goethe took an interest; several of them ended up in his collection.
The artificial ruin
Artificial ruins were a typical feature of landscape gardens in the English style. The one in the Park at the Ilm had been the backstop for the marksmen's club house and simultaneously the southern border to the Italian garden. The wall was altered into a ruin in 1784, with additional bits from the remains of the destroyed ducal palace. The artificial ruin should remind the viewer of the decline of the world, in good Sentimentalist tradition.
Tower of the former House of the Templers
Another ruin in this part of the park once had been an intact building which was destroyed at the end of WW2; the Tempelherrenhaus ('House of the Templers', a successor organisation of the Knights Templar). Today, only the tower remains.
Remains of the House of the Templers, different angle
The House of the Templers was a former orangery that had been changed into a 'Romantic Salon' in 1787. The building was used for cultural events of the court, concerts, exhibitions and such. The name originates in the four sculptures of famous Templers that graced the roof corners. The timber sculptures were replaced by such of sandstone in 1818.
The salon was altered into a neo-Gothic building by Christian Steiner in 1823. Already before, Goethe himself had designed a 'Gothic' tower to be added to the salon in 1816; it fortunately survived the bombs. The statues that gave the house its name were moved inside the new hall. Three of them survived the bombardement in the cellar of the Roman House.
The 'Gothic House' was used as summer house for the ducal family. Later it was used as concert hall, among others by Franz Liszt who lived in Weimar 1843 - 1862, and as studio of the Bauhaus movement.
Roman House, seen from below
The most important building in the newer part of the park, the ducal part, is the Roman House which one can see upslope among the trees on the opposite side of Goethe's cottage. It was alreday closed for the evening, but since the rooms are no longer furnished, I didn't mind.
The Roman House
The Roman House was erected between 1791 – 1797 as garden house for Duke Carl August who wanted to escape court for times (and his wife as well; he used to have mistresses). Goethe designed the building, together with Johann August Arens, an architect from Hamburg, the interior designer Christian Friedrich Schuricht, and the Weimarian painter Johann Heinrich Meyer, a friend of Goethe. The house is one of the earliest examples of the Classicist style, imitating a Roman temple.
The duke trusted Goethe completely, stating that their tastes and needs were similar and he would give Goethe free reign. The house is also a memory of Goethe's time in Italy.
The Doric colmuns of the well house, visible from across the park, are an iconic feature of the house. The well hall also offers grand vistas across the park and the opposite slope.
Roman house, the well hall with the Doric columns
After the death of Duke Carl August, the house was rarely used, though kept in reasonable repair. After the abdication of the great duke Wilhelm Ernst in 1922 – a result of WW1 and the loss of privileges of the nobility – the house came into the care of the County of Thuringia. Today it is part of the Klassik Stiftung Weimar (Classical Foundation Weimar)
Roman House, view from the well hall
Goethe's attitude towards landscape gardening changed over time. Like others of the Sturm und Drang and Sentimentalism movements, he adored the English gardens; he had visited the Wörlitz Park as student in Leipzig. The idealised nature of those parks became landscape poetry, an ideal of Arcadia, a synthesis between art and nature.
Small wonder that Goethe went into landscaping during his first years in Weimar. He also was a not unskilled painter (he took lessons for many years) and sketched several vistas of the park, like the Ilm river in the moonlight, and wrote nature poetry.
Hill landscape in the southern park
But his attitude towards arts and poetry changed (see also the introductory post about the Weimar Classicism linked above) and moreover, he experienced the true sublimity of nature during his visits to the Harz, Switzerland and Italy. He now considered fake ruins and artificially created vistas as a bad reproduction of the real nature that would never inspire awe.
After his return from Italy, Goethe prefered landscape gardening that would but enhance nature itself without unnecessary additions. The Roman House he developed was already something of a favour for his friend and lord, though he seemed to have enjoyed playing with the Italian architecture. I suppose the same goes for the tower at the Templer House. There are fewer man made structure in the younger, southern part of the park, the Dux Garden.
View from the Dux Bridge to the Ilm
Goethe's garden around his cottage is more a kitchen garden with flowers to add colour, intersperced with some trees, though it also has several features from Goethe's early landscaping time, like a stone seating area. His garden at the house Am Frauenplan also mirrors his interest in botany; he planted flowers according to system. This is the ordered garden of a scientist.
In contrast, nature is infinite and cannot be contained within the borders of a park. Therefore nature cannot be perfectly represented as an idea, but can only ever be approximated to this idea.
Goethe's concept of nature was reflected in his aesthetic thinking. All art must proceed from nature. Where art, on the other hand, presumes to change nature in order to present it to the viewer as the true one, this had to end in aporia (see also this essay).
Way in the park in the evening
(There are several monuments / memorial stones f.e for the Prince of Anhalt-Dessau, and writers like Shakespeare, Pushkin etc; some of them were set up after the time of Goethe and Duke Carl August. But I didn not specifially hunt those.)
I hope you liked the little afternoon and evening walk in this charming place, if only in virtual form.
The Lost Fort is a travel and history blog based on my journeys in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, the Baltic Countries, and central Europe. It includes virtual town and castle tours with a focus on history, museum visits, hiking tours, and essays on Roman and Mediaeval history, illustrated with my own photos.
This blog is non-commercial.
All texts and photos (if no other copyright is noted) are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.
- Name: Gabriele Campbell
- Location: Goettingen, Germany
I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History, interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who still hasn't got an Instagram account.
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