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The Brazilian side of Goethe

German poet's writings were influenced by the works of naturalists who traveled Brazil in the 19th century

Tulips, primroses, and roses illustrate Goethe's study The Metamorphosis of Plants

Reproductions from the book Lebensfluten – Tatensturm | Reproduction from the book Bis an Die Sterne Weit Tulips, primroses, and roses illustrate Goethe’s study The Metamorphosis of PlantsReproductions from the book Lebensfluten – Tatensturm | Reproduction from the book Bis an Die Sterne Weit

In 1817, after archduchess Maria Leopoldina married crown prince Dom Pedro, the future emperor of Brazil, her native Austria began planning the scientific investigation that became known as the Austrian expedition, which brought researchers and artists to Brazil to study and portray species and landscapes unique to the country’s biodiversity. Among the members of the retinue that accompanied the archduchess on her marital voyage to Brazil were zoologist Johann Baptist von Spix and botanist Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius, who departed Rio de Janeiro for a long journey through the interior of the country. Their trip produced Flora Brasiliensis, a book that revealed features of Brazil to the Old World. This well-documented historical fact underpinned another, not as well known: through travel literature, Brazil entered the sphere of studies and interests embraced by German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who not only corresponded with Martius but also met with him on several occasions following the latter’s return to Germany.

On September 13, 1824, Goethe wrote in his diary that Martius had visited his home in Weimar, Germany. Among the details of this meeting, the poet mentions hanging a large map of Brazil in his office to greet the naturalist, who he referred to as “the Brazilian, Martius.” “We can interpret this gesture as a symbol of Goethe’s interest in Brazil, expressed at various moments in his lifetime,” says researcher Marcus Mazzari, of the Department of Literary Theory and Comparative Literature at the University of São Paulo (USP). Mazzari studied Goethe’s diaries and reviewed record slips to discover which books he had borrowed from the Weimar library; the poet had checked out a number of books on Brazil, including Travels in Brazil in the Years 1815, 1816, 1817, by Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, the first naturalist of renown to journey from Germany to study Brazil. In his book, published in 1820, Wied-Neuwied offers a record of the places he visited and descriptions of the country’s geology, flora, fauna, and its inhabitants and their customs. In another passage from his diary, Goethe mentions reading the book Travels in the Interior of Brazil, published in 1812 by British geologist John Mawe.

Goethe: steady scientific exchange with German naturalists

Wikipedia Goethe: steady scientific exchange with German naturalistsWikipedia

Mazzari spoke about this and other aspects of his research on Goethe’s relations with the scientists who traveled through South America in the 19th century at a conference held in March 2016 at the Mindlin Library of Brasiliana, at USP.  According to the researcher, the German poet began showing interest in Brazil in 1782, when he wrote two poems under the subtitle Brasilianisch, inspired by the essay “Of Cannibals,” by French philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). In the essay, Montaigne offers his interpretation of two songs that he had heard sung in the Tupi language by three Brazilian Indians in Rouen, France. Goethe’s ties to Brazil grew stronger forty years later, when he had personal contact with Martius and saw the first drafts of what would become Flora Brasiliensis – which the German poet read and re-read while composing the end of Faust II, the second part of his classic work. “There are a number of botanical metaphors in Faust II that might derive from Goethe’s intense scientific exchange with Martius,” explains Mazzari.

The naturalist in fact sent Goethe some samples of the material he had gathered during his expedition to Brazil, which may have influenced the poet’s views of plant shapes and their process of metamorphosis. In March 1831, Goethe once again borrowed the atlas that describes Spix and Martius’s journey through Brazil from the Weimar library, while he was studying the botanist’s research on Brazilian flora. In his studies of Brazil, the writer was interested in two topics: geology and botany, and especially Martius’s theory of the “spiral tendency of plant growth.” Mazzari believes that this reflects the breadth of interests held by Goethe, who explored various realms of knowledge and corresponded with the most influential scientists of his era until the end of his life.

Reproduction of a species from the book Flora Brasiliensis, by Martius, author of the theory of the “spiral tendency of plant growth”

Reproductions from the book Lebensfluten – Tatensturm Reproduction of a species from the book Flora Brasiliensis, by Martius, author of the theory of the “spiral tendency of plant growth”Reproductions from the book Lebensfluten – Tatensturm

Goethe’s literary works also helped Martius refine his own literary skills. During his years in Brazil, the young botanist carried with him the books Faust I and The Metamorphosis of Plants, the latter a study of botany first published by Goethe in 1790. “In his writings, Martius displayed fine literary skills, as evident in the report Travels in Brazil in the Years 1815, 1816, 1817,” says Mazzari. Indications are that Martius’s reading of Goethe, especially Faust I, was important to the botanist as a writer. During the Brazilian expedition, and above all during his passage through the Amazon, the naturalist wrote poems about the places he visited and sent them to Goethe. Another example of Martius’s literary interest is apparent in Frei Apolônio – Um romance do Brasil (Friar Apolônio: A novel of Brazil), written in 1831 and set in Brazil.