The brass band on the market square is playing God Save The Queen. It’s Gotha on a Saturday night, a sleepy little German town in the former East. Overlooking the town, just up the hill from the market, is Friedenstein Castle. Built during the Thirty Years’ War by Ernest the Pious (1601- 1675), the Lutheran Duke of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, it is a symbol of peace arising amidst the carnage and bloodshed of the mid- seventeenth century and home to the dynasty that would also produce Prince Albert (1819-1861) of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, later Prince consort to Queen Victoria (1819-1901). Most of the locals don’t seem to care that much about the traditions of the dynasty as they drink their beer in the little pubs around the market. They live on the tourists. That’s enough. The castle, meanwhile, plain and decrepit as it might look on the outside, on the inside holds one of the most amazing collections I’ve ever seen.
First there’s the Castle Museum, based on the collection of Ernest the Pious, and steadily expanding as the centuries progress. The Museum is home to Reformation art by Lucas Cranach the Elder and Albrecht Dürer, craftsmanship from the baroque, such as the astronomical clock with ten faces made of heavy bronze, tiny red stone figures from the Commedia dell’Arte dating from the early eighteenth century, bronze and marble busts of Enlightenment thinkers, paintings of Schiller and Goethe, beautiful furniture, China, antiquities, and curiosities from all over the world, including a collection of Egyptian art. The items that get me each time I visit the living quarters of past generations, meanwhile, are the dining tables, writing desks, and the beds. Real people once lived and worked and died within these walls.
There is also the Museum for Regional History and Anthropology, which I must leave for another day, and then there’s the Ekhof Theatre, dating back to 1681-1687 and considered the oldest fully preserved theatre with wooden moveable scenes. The auditorium looks tiny with its fragile white wooden chairs and balconies. But theatre here was not for the masses. It was only members of the court who would come here to enjoy a baroque play, or a French or Italian opera. And finally, there’s the research library in the castle’s east tower, home to medieval manuscripts as well as oriental texts and holding one of the most important collections on the cultural history of pre-Enlightenment Protestantism, making the library particularly interesting to early modernists.
The collections are worth checking out, and so are the Herzog-Ernst Scholarships for doctoral and post-doctoral fellows funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation. The fellows are based at the neighbouring Gotha Research Center for Social and Cultural Studies, affiliated to Erfurt University.