How Luise Dorothea became the grandmother of German Classicism

An exhibition in Gotha looks at her influence



Duchess Luise Dorothea of Saxony-Gotha-Altenburg (1710-1767) has been described as the "grandmother of German Classicism". Several decades before Weimar made its name only 50 kilometres away, Luise Dorothea transformed Gotha, with its stunning castle-palace Schloss Friedenstein, into one of the most important cultural centres of central Germany.

From the late 1720s, a new kind of cultural and intellectual engagement characterised the Gotha court, which served as a model to many others in the second half of the century. Indeed, Goethe travelled there frequently to consult the ducal library, enjoy the company of scholars, admire the English landscape park and appreciate the art collections. This was the legacy of Duchess Luise Dorothea, the subject of a fascinating exhibition at Schloss Friedenstein.

"Full of esprit and a thirst for knowledge" is the title chosen by the Stiftung Schloss Friedenstein curator Friedegund Freitag for the exhibition and accompanying catalogue. Its subject fully lives up to it. Born a princess of Saxony-Meiningen, Luise Dorothea married her cousin, the hereditary prince of Saxony-Gotha-Altenburg. Frederick III inherited his family’s aspirations to take the place of the dukes of Weimar at the head of the Ernestine dynasty and to regain the Saxon electoral title. But his means were relatively limited and his ability modest. As the exhibition makes clear, Luise Dorothea was the real driving force.

There were, of course, already important collections at Gotha. Duke Ernest the Pious had equipped his magnificent new residence, constructed just after the Thirty Years War, with books, scientific instruments and works of art. Although a younger son, he was ambitious to establish the principality he was given in 1640 as the repository and guardian of the Reformation tradition. He followed in the footsteps of his ancestors, the electors Frederick the Wise, John the Constant and John Frederick the Magnanimous, Luther’s early protectors and patrons, the last of whom had forfeited the Saxon electoral title in the defence of his religious principles against Charles V at the battle of Mühlberg in 1547. Collecting was normal for any German prince of the time but collecting works by artists like Cranach and amassing one of the largest archives of the Reformation served a clear political purpose: to help regain the electorate.

The survival of the small territory and adherence to the purest Lutheranism were such fundamental principles that they were written into the marriage contract that the 19 year-old Luise Dorothea signed in 1729. In the years that followed she served her husband’s dynasty loyally but also engaged in playful innovation.

Luise Dorothea was Frederick II’s most important adviser in political and governmental matters. Her role was informal, for no spouse could encroach on the prerogatives of a ruling prince. For much of the duke’s reign, however, her network of contacts proved vital. Related to Frederick the Great through her stepmother, she was, for example, able to avert the worst excesses of Prussian requisitioning during the Seven Years War. In fact, when the Prussian king stayed overnight at Schloss Friedenstein in December 1762, he insisted on wearing shoes and silk stockings at lunch rather than his usual military boots. The next morning, having slept on his own campaign bed, he played the flute for his "cousin," as he insisted on addressing her, before he departed. A flute owned by the king is one of the many fascinating items on display at the exhibition.

Much of the duchess’s extensive correspondence with leading figures of her time was devoted to sending or receiving news of Gotha in the twists and turns of political life in the Holy Roman Empire. Yet her letters to Ernst von Manteuffel, Voltaire and Melchior Grimm, her three most important correspondents alongside Frederick the Great, also reflected her intellectual and cultural interests and her insatiable desire for the latest books.

Luise Dorothea’s reading—she amassed a personal library of over 3,500 books—informed her cultural activities. She met regularly with a circle of court ladies to read out loud and discuss. At the summer residence Friedrichswerth she founded an Ordre des Hermites de Bonne Humeur, over which she and her husband presided as abbot and abbess. Both there and at Schloss Friedenstein dramas were regularly performed; a charming 1751 painting by Johann Friedrich Löber depicts the duke and duchess playing Zopire and Palmire in Voltaire’sMahomet. At an early stage the duchess established a "physical" or scientific cabinet, equipped with, among other costly machines, a vacuum pump purchased in Leipzig in 1742, a mechanised model Copernican planetarium, a globe by Johann Friedrich Endersch and an electricity machine.

Voltaire hailed Luise Dorothea as a "German Minerva" and a visit to Gotha in 1753 moved him to declare that Schloss Friedenstein was a "temple of the graces, of reason, of the intellect, of benevolence and of peace". His perceptions were no doubt partly skewed by the fact that he was fleeing from Berlin after his dispute with Frederick the Great. But many contemporaries held similar views. Two portraits in the exhibition are programmatic. The first, probably by Georg Andreas Wolfgang the Younger around 1742-5, shows her sitting at a table reading a book in her left hand, holding two others in the right hand. In 1754 Sigmund Hellmund portrayed the duchess in her writing cabinet, with an open door to her library in the background.

The exhibition demonstrates that the "enlightened princesses" currently being shown by Historic Royal Palaces and the Yale Center for British Art at Kensington Palace were but three examples of a new type of enlightened German aristocratic woman. The special quality of the Gotha exhibition lies in its authentic setting in Schloss Friedenstein, close to the rooms where Luise Dorothea actually lived. And the accompanying volume is more than just a list of items exhibited. It contains two excellent introductions essays (by Friedegund Freitag and Christoph Streckhardt) and a fully annotated inventory of Luise Dorothea’s possessions at her death. Many, such as the vacuum pump, her collection of tobacco boxes, her pictures and porcelain, and an extraordinary French parasol in near-perfect condition, have been unearthed or re-assembled for the first time since the 18th century.

Joachim Whaley is Professor of German History and Thought at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College. He is the author of Germany and the Holy Roman Empire 1493-1806, two volumes (2012).

Full of wit and a thirst for knowlegde: Duchess Luise Dorothea von Sachen-Gotha-Altenburg, Stiftung Schloss Friedenstein, Gotha, until 29 October