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Italian Landscape with the Tomb of Theodor Körner. Black chalk on wove paper. 48.4 x 33.3 cm. Dated in lower margin: Napoli: ao182..., and inscribed at bottom left by an unknown hand as: G. Gigante.
In the early morning hours of 26 August 1813 Major von Lützow’s adjutant, the poet Theodor Körner, was shot and killed during an attack on a French baggage train near Gadebusch, north of Schwerin. The most famous German poet of the Wars of Liberation died a hero’s death, which soon turned him into a legend. The very next day Körner’s body was buried in the Mecklenburg village of Wöbbelin near the scene of his death. The grave with its tombstone under a huge double oak soon became a place of pilgrimage for those with national and liberal sentiments.
In our drawing Christoph Heinrich Kniep shows the grave in a wooded Mediterranean landscape, whose horizon is formed by a high, jagged mountain crest. It is certain that Kniep, who had lived without interruption in Italy since 1781, had not seen the grave himself and was only familiar with it from descriptions or graphic reproductions. He may have based his drawing on an engraving by Johann Adolf Darnstedt which, while somewhat idealizing the landscape, still provides a realistic rendering of the basic features of the tomb (fig. 1). In keeping with his model Kniep shows the monument in the shadow of an old oak tree with its crowning elements of lyre and sword, an allusion to the title of the posthumously published volume of Körner’s collected works (Theodor Körner: Leyer und Schwerdt. Einzige rechtmäßige, von dem Vater des Dichters veranstaltete Ausgabe, Berlin, Nicolaische Buchhandlung, 1814). In Kniep’s hands, however, the tomb undergoes a Classicist transformation, being formed entirely of cubic blocks with a decorative garland on the plinth, like the sarcophagi of Ancient Roman times. Seated at the foot of the tomb in pensive pose are Hebe and Jupiter in the shape of an eagle. As the Goddess of Eternal Youth, Hebe mourns the death of the young poet and hero.
This drawing from the artist’s late period was executed between 1820 and 1825, i.e. some ten years after Körner’s tragic death. During these years the premature death of the poet and staunch fighter for German liberty had become the stuff of legend and a symbol of the German people’s steadfastness and love of freedom. Körner’s elevation to the status of national hero was widely reflected in various writings and prints. Kniep, who had accompanied Goethe on the latter’s journey to Sicily in 1787, had already heard from him of Körner’s parental home, which had been a meeting place for Dresden’s intellectual and artistic elite. Goethe had in fact received his first instruction in drawing and etching from Theodor Körner’s grandfather, Michael Stock. The author of our drawing will thus certainly have continued to be informed about the family’s subsequent fortunes and especially about the fate of Theodor Körner.
While in his depiction of the tomb Kniep sticks closely to the actual situation, he transports the grave of the poet from the flat Mecklenburg landscape to a rugged, heroic mountain landscape of the kind found in southern Italy near Naples. The artist’s bold and deliberate change of location is crucial to the message conveyed by the drawing. In parallel to the political developments in Prussia, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies – of which Naples was the capital – had also fought against Napoleonic occupation. After its liberation from the French in 1814 and the Congress of Vienna the following year, the movements in favour of national independence and unification received a powerful impetus all over Europe, as exemplified in Italy by the idea of the Risorgimento. Kniep, who spent most of his life in Italy and had celebrated so many of its facets in his vedute, identified spiritually with his adopted country of residence. In this drawing Kniep seems keen to transfer Körner’s freedom-loving ideas and his desire for national unification to Italy’s situation as well. In this respect the present wonderfully composed landscape drawing goes beyond Kniep’s idyllic but purely aesthetic vedute. A close friend of Johann Heinrich Tischbein and Philipp Hackert, Kniep reveals himself here as a typical representative of the enlightened middle-class attitudes of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.