In 1756, a 17-year old named Anna Amalia came to Weimar, Germany to marry Ernst August II, Duke of Saxony-Weimar-Eisenach. When her husband died two years later, she became the regent of the small German state until her eldest son, Carl August, came of age.
In the years that followed, Anna Amalia made Weimar an intellectual center. Her love of theater, music and literature led her to invite poets, painters and musicians to join her for readings from the latest literary works, scientific discussions, musical performances and plays. In 1761, she transformed a Renaissance palace called Grüne Schöbchen (Little Green Castle) into a library.By 1797, Carl August had come of age and appointed his friend, the German writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, to be its librarian. Goethe reorganized the library and increased its collection from 50,000 to 132,000 volumes of history, art, and literature. His handwritten notices to borrowers who returned books late can still be seen today.
Over time, the library’s collection came to emphasize Thuringian history and German classical literature. Today, it is a specialized research library for German studies, with an emphasis on German literature from the Enlightenment until Late Romanticism. The collection also includes medieval books, incunabula, flyers from the Reformation, historical maps, globes and the world’s largest collection about the historical figure, Faust. It holds musical scores from Mozart, Haydn and Gluck, and part of the personal libraries of Friedrich Schiller, Franz Liszt and Friedrich Nietzsche.
The library’s three-story Rococo hall rivals the magnificence of its collection.
An oval in the middle of the room is marked by 12 columns, with simple pine bookshelves painted light blue and decorated with gold leaf between them. A hallway around the outside of the columns provides access to the books from all sides of the middle and outside shelves. More books are housed in other galleries.
Above an elegant parquet floor hovers the ceiling, which is decorated with a painting titled Genius of Fame, stucco shells and the initials of Anna Amalia and her sons, Carl August and Ferdinand Constantin.A bust of Anna Amalia stands in front of a portrait of Duke Carl August that he commissioned in 1805.
In 1826, Duke Carl August purchased this bust of Friedrich Schiller, the German poet and playwright, that was sculpted in 1805.
A well-known oil painting depicts Goethe in the study of his Weimar home, dictating to his secretary, Johann August Friedrich John. This painting from 1834 has been displayed in the Rococo Hall since 1840. Some of the objects depicted in the painting are still visible in the study, which can be seen on a tour of Goethe’s home.
The library and its historic collection were severely threatened on September 2, 2004, when smoldering, defective electrical wiring in the second gallery of the Rococo Hall ignited a massive fire. It was brought under control in less than two hours, but it took another 67 hours before the last hot spots in books and wooden elements were extinguished. The fire destroyed the upper two stories of the building, 37 works of art, and 50,000 volumes, most of which dated from the 17th and 18th centuries. An additional 62,000 volumes were severely damaged.
The damaged books were sorted into three categories: 37,000 books had covers damaged by fire and extinguishing water; 25,000 book remnants were recovered from containers of fire debris; and 56,000 books and graphics were contaminated by soot, smoke, wood protection agents and pesticides.
The items were cared for by cleaning, freezing, vacuum freeze-drying and reconditioning them in Weimar and at the Center for Book Maintenance in Leipzig.
The project presented all sorts of restoration challenges. Using a facing method to secure fragile book spines that a Swedish book conservator developed, fleece was temporarily adhered to and subsequently removed from the surface. Some damaged parchment book spines were restored in a three-part inlay mending technique using Japanese tissues. Missing pieces on the paper covers of over 10,000 books were replaced with hand-made, long-term stable papers in various shades of brown and grey. Supplemental paper was mounted underneath the damaged paper cover on the book’s spine, joints and corners. Glazed calico covers that became brittle as a result of the fire’s extreme temperatures, so they were reinforced from below with supplemental fabric.
After the fire, 85 percent of the building was restored and 15 percent of it was replaced. The library reopened on October 24, 2007 for the 200th anniversary of Anna Amalia’s death, but conservation of its damaged books and manuscripts continues. By 2015, all restorative and conservation measures for all damaged covers and contaminated books are expected to be complete.
Restoration After the Fire: Rescuing the Books of the Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek is an exhibition at the library that offers insights into the planning and implementation of dealing with the consequences of the fire and the technical methods of conserving the books. To read more, see the accompanying German-language catalogue, Restaurieren nach dem Brand: Die Rettung der Bücher der Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek, by Jürgen Weber and Ulrike Hähner.
Hilfe! für Anna Amalia is a 2004 compact disc that was produced to benefit the reconstruction of the library. It includes performances of works by Franz Schubert, Joseph Haydn, Johann Sebastian Bach, Johann Ludwig Krebs and Mauro Giuliani. On the cover, you can see the extent of the fire damage in the Rococo Hall.
Find a chapter on the Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek in The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World, with photographs by Guillaume de Laubier, text by Jacques Bosser and a foreword by James H. Billington, translated from the French by Laurel Hirsch. For more on the library, click here.