Prof. Dr. Martin Eberle: The Baroque Universe of Gotha – The collections of the Schloss Friedenstein Gotha Foundation

The dukes of the house of Saxony-Gotha-Altenburg and Saxony Coburg Gotha were passionate collectors of works of art and patrons of the sciences. Schloss Friedenstein has preserved this cultural heritage to the present day, enabling its visitors to gain a moving insight into the thinking of the baroque period and the Enlightenment.

Considerable investment by the Federal Republic of Ger­many, the Free State of Thuringia and the City of Gotha in this architectural ensemble at Friedenstein Castle in Gotha has given rise to constant changes which are having a wide range of economic side-effects on the region. This support benefits not only the region’s commercial enterprises, it also increasingly stabilises Gotha as a key tourist destination in Thuringia. In the last few years alone, the Castle Friedenstein Gotha Foundation has doubled its visitor numbers. After extensive renovations, the Ducal Museum, which exhibits Gotha’s art collections to their best effect, was re-opened in 2013.

The Foundation has also been available to the Perthes Forum since 2015, a building complex which was once the home of the world famous Perthes publishing company. The company used to publish not only “Der Gotha” (the Genealogical Cal­endar of the Court of Gotha), the “Hand-Atlas” by Adolf Stieler meant that the company has concentrated especially on cartographical publications since the early 19th century. Today the complex is used equally by the Research Library of the University of Erfurt, the Thuringian State Archives in Gotha and the Castle Friedenstein Gotha Foundation as a depository, warehouse, for workshops and for various other re­­search projects by these organisations. In general, the Free State of Thuringia also increasingly supports Gotha as a research location, while the city, with its collections which have increased in size in the course of time, conceals enormous potential which has hardly been recognised for decades. The term “Baroque Universe” illustrates the complexity of this potential, which extends not only to the art collections and natural history exhibits but also to building complexes, the contents of the archive and one of the first English gardens on the continent. However, the focal point of all these organisations is Friedenstein Castle, which will also be renovated over the next few years, thanks to the joint efforts of the German government and the government of the Free State of Thuringia.

The house of Saxony-Gotha-Altenburg, a branch of the Wettiners, originated from the distribution of an estate in 1640. The first duke of this dynasty, Ernst I., known as “the Pious”, chose Gotha, the second-largest city in Thuringia as his new residence. There, starting in 1643, he built a mighty palace on the ruins of the castle Grimmenstein in only eleven years, which has essentially remained unchanged to the present day. During the Thirty Years’ War, he gave his residence the symbolic name “Friedenstein”. Among other things, the Duke, whose reforms throughout his duchy were considered models in Eu­­rope, also built an art chamber in the castle where not only works of art but also strange natural phenomena could be admired. Not only princely visitors and scholars had access to the art chamber but also – and this was new – pupils from the Grammar School in Gotha.

The successors of this particularly peace-loving dynasty added considerably to the collections over the course of the following generations, and so the Castle Friedenstein Gotha Foundation  still features today not only the world-famous “Gotha Lovers” from the 15th century but also works by Lucas Cranach, Peter Paul Rubens and Caspar David Friedrich. However, the most important works of art include not only portraits but also treasury art – including some made by the Saxon goldsmith Johann Melchior Dinglinger; Meissen and Chinese porcelain and Japanese lacquer work complete this collection of valuable exhibits. Today, the Foundation has the largest collection of Egyptian and antique art in Thuringia, a highly significant coin collection and a collection of print works by Albrecht Dürer and Martin Schongauer, which captivate enthusiastic visitors in special exhibitions again and again. And the collection of sculptures, with works by Jean­­Antoine Houdon, is also of international significance.

In the second half of the 18th century, Friedenstein Castle was the intellectual and cultural centre of central Germany. The reigning Duchess of the day, Luise Dorothea, corresponded with all the intellectual giants of Europe, and so even Voltaire stayed at the Court in Gotha for a while. His works were performed on the oldest Baroque stage in Europe with the original stage equipment, which is still used today during summer festivals year after year. Her son, Duke Ernst II, was more inclined to the sciences and organised events such as the world’s first astronomical congress in Gotha.

In 1825 the male line of the dynasty died out and according to the rules of the house of the Ernestines, the duchy was redivided. This gave rise to the double duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. The princely family, which among other things, distinguished itself through excellent marriage policies in the 19th century and of whose son – Prince Albert – married Queen Victoria of England, continued to foster the arts and the sciences. Between 1864 and 1879, the Ducal Museum was built at the foot of the Castle in order to make the collections known to an even wider public, and they promptly became world famous.

However, after 1945, the fame of these collections tragically led to their fate, when they were all transported to the former Soviet Union as compensation for the works of art that had been stolen and destroyed by the German Wehrmacht. Although most of them were returned to Gotha from 1956, this was a blow from which Gotha was not to recover for several decades.

Over the last few decades, Friedenstein Castle and its collections have achieved public attention again, which is demonstrated not only by extensive sponsorships but also by a large number of German and international exhibitions. There is still much to discover in Gotha … but this is best discovered for oneself.

autorenbild_eberleProf. Dr. Martin Eberle
The author studied art history, history and historical auxiliary science and obtained his doctorate in 1995. He worked as an intern at the Museum of Applied Arts, the Grassi Museum, Leipzig, and later headed the Museum’s public affairs/educational department there. From 1999 and 2003 he headed up the Gohlis Palace in Leipzig and the City Museum in Dresden until 2007. He was appointed Director of the Friedenstein Castle Gotha Foundation in 2007.