Saturday, August 31, 2013


Adelheid Müller, Sehnsucht nach Wissen. Friederike Brun, Elisa von der Recke und die Altertumskunde um 1800. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 2012. Pp. xii, 615. ISBN 9783496014713. €99.00.

Reviewed by Constanze Güthenke, Princeton University (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This heavy book is the lightly revised version of a deservedly prize-winning doctoral dissertation. It is, on one level, a thoroughly contextualized biography of the lives and writings of two women who played an active role in the developing discourse of German antiquarian-archaeological research around 1800. In addition, it is an exhaustive yet subtle map of how the knowledge of antiquity was articulated in that period more generally, a real and cognitive map including actors, networks, their own material conditions and environments, the material objects and monuments of antiquity, and the ideas, conventions and premises that framed the expression of such knowledge, by men or by women.

Friederike Brun, a German-Danish writer of bürgerlich origins, and Elisa von der Recke, a German-Baltic aristocrat, both wrote on the basis of their experience of visiting Italy, especially Rome, and both participated in a scholarly discourse and a scholarly world that was changing. By around 1800, aesthetic individual perception and rational historical classification went hand in hand in defining what expert knowledge of antiquity was made of. Historicism, that is, the understanding and interpretation of culture as time-bound, and familiarity with a steadily increasing amount of ancient monuments and artefacts that challenged notions of the canon were parameters for approaching antiquity that were just as important as the awareness of an idealising classicism and the cognitive and intellectual function of sense perception and direct experience.

This was the period when autopsy, the seeing for oneself, could acquire maximum value in judging and in understanding the ancient world. This period (the German technical term used here is 'Sattelzeit') straddles an earlier, broader antiquarian attitude and a later, increasingly specialized and institutionalized discourse of professional scholarship. The travels and publications of Brun and von der Recke coincide with the rise of a scholarly and scientific discourse that could, in the case of Rome and in Rome, still be exercised in a non-institutional, semi-private network. Within such a social and intellectual network, they, as much as some of their male peers, could actively produce knowledge in a way that a few decades later already would be noticeably more restricted by disciplinary conventions.

Müller's book is organized into three large parts. Wissensgenese, 'Generation of Knowledge', begins with brief biographical sketches of the two women, whose parallel lives overlapped only once, in Switzerland, where their itineraries crossed. Against this brief meeting, however, stands an overwhelmingly intricate network, meticulously put together in the 600-plus pages of this book, of shared acquaintances, frequented social circles, correspondences, literature read and consulted, and places visited and studied that linked those two women, who were well aware of each other's existence. The first part continues to give an account of the classical education Brun and von der Recke did and at the same time did not receive: Müller gives evidence of their express desire to learn classical languages, the little of which they knew (as was typical) mostly through their brothers' tutors, the literature available in translation, as well as the status quo of writings on ancient history, mythology, art history, archaeology and travel literature that would have been accessible to them.

The second part, Spielräume des Wissens ('Places of Knowledge', though 'Spielraum' carries a sense of 'leeway' or 'room for manoeuvre', as well as hinting at 'play'), gives both a general and a specific account of the itineraries that brought both women eventually to Italy, an account that could in its detail and value stand almost as a short book in its own right. These include the steady development of the social and intellectual networks that prepared the way to Rome. Both von der Recke and Bruns spent time in centres of learning such as Göttingen, Berlin, Geneva, Leipzig, Weimar or St. Petersburg, often assisted by family connections, even though both women forged close relations quite independently with figures in scholarly, artistic and aristocratic circles who were invested in the study and collection of ancient artefacts. Müller offers a panorama, as always based on extremely detailed archival research of primary sources, of the scholarly sociability found in such locations of knowledge as urban centres, courts, spas, private libraries and collections of art works and casts such as those in Dresden, Potsdam, Dessau or Göttingen. These spaces added up to a rich propedeutic itinerary, and a contemporary practice of learning ways of seeing and classifying long before either of the two women reached Italy.

The third and last part, Wissen schaffen auf klassischem Boden ('Creating knowledge on classical ground'), charts the actual experiences of both women in Rome and its environs, the precise ways in which they saw, studied and conversed about the topography, ancient monuments and new material finds, and again the close network of antiquarian scholars as guides on site with whom they connected, particularly Aloys Hirt and the Danish scholar Georg Zoëga. Figures like Hirt and Zoëga were themselves marginal in a way: each had had to rely on patronage, recommendation and the slow creation of his own persona as an expert, rather than on institutional certainties. Rome around 1800, poised between the earlier conventions of the Grand Tour and looking ahead to the developing framework of specialised research, was in Müller's terminology a universitas that was non-institutional, yet still linked to a specific sociability in which the modes of knowledge exchange could transcend gender. It was a place where women were travelling (often in the entourage of husbands, brothers or patrons) and present in conversation more than we normally assume, a 'women's paradise', as Brun put it; at the same time, this world of relative liberty was also one of a specific microcosm with its own rules and strictures.

Müller presents several detailed cases of how Brun and von der Recke acquired, contextualised, and contributed to the debates over classical knowledge: Brun's interest in mythological and historical relief sculpture, for example, which she shared with Zoëga, or von der Recke's topographical and architectural explorations. Müller's exposition is always in close dialogue with the changing realities of a city in which new finds and archaeological projects happened at an exponential pace, yet in which models of seeing and describing, such as Winckelmann's ekphrastic art history, created strong templates.

What distinguished both Brun and von der Recke is that they published their work, thus literally inscribing themselves within a developing archaeological-antiquarian discourse in which professed emotional responsiveness to art works co-existed easily with extensive cross-referencing and footnoting, technical drawing and measuring, and appeals to shared bibliography and debate. Even so, the written version of scholarly performance, such as it arrived in the public sphere, had gender markers attached to it. Brun's archaeological and thematic interests were also reflected in her volumes of personal poetry (something Müller only hints at), while her Roman diaries and descriptions were deliberately addressing a learned audience. Von der Recke's Roman writings, initially published as short contributions in periodicals, were published under her own name, yet in an edition authorized by the Weimar archaeologist and director of antiquities Karl August Böttiger, who added independent footnotes and commentary. Müller rightly points out the ambivalences: women's scholarly writing was not easily integrated into scholarly debate, especially as it made the jump from private, or semi-private, to public. At the same time, engagement with it happened, and both Brun and von der Recke showed considerable self-confidence and independence in being active participants in the performance and creation of classical knowledge.

It is important to Müller that her study not be read as unearthing the gender-specific side of a canonical discourse, simply "adding" the women's voice. Instead, she very carefully outlines a moment in time in which consciousness of a subjective, "own", individual perspective expressed vis-à-vis ancient, historically past sources, played an important epistemological part in the creation and communicability of knowledge. In this way, while bringing the participation of female scholars and writers more strongly into the foreground, she draws important conclusions for the structuring and the growing institutionalisation of academic and scholarly discourse around 1800 and afterwards much more generally.

It is for this reason that Müller's book would deserve a much wider international readership than the current book will likely have. (Beautifully and flawlessly produced in large format, with six hundred pages of extremely rich and far- reaching documentation and high-quality reproductions of images, it is compendious as much as important, though it is not always made easy to keep the focus of its argumentation. The wealth and quality of information can bury the lead, despite the relentless German thesis convention of subsections into third decimal points.) The conventions of German classical scholarship were and are lasting in the field. By way of drawing attention to the gendered and the gender-transcending aspects of encountering antiquity around 1800, Müller's book does not only elucidate the performative voice of the scholar, but just as importantly she emphasizes just how fundamental social, national and international networks and the articulation of scholarly knowledge within them and through them were to the constitution of what we do say and can say about antiquity.

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