Ernst, Curtius 1814-1896.

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Ernst, Curtius 1814-1896.

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Ernst, Curtius 1814-1896.


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German archeologist. He and his grandson, the philologist and literary scholar Ernst Robert Curtius (1886-1956), were prominent members of the German conservative and cosmopolitan Bildungsbürgertum (educated elite).

Ernst Curtius (1814-1896) was an eminent philologist and archeologist. From 1844-50 he served as tutor ("Zivilgouverneur") to Prince Friedrich von Hohenzollern, afterwards Emperor Friedrich III. He was also professor of classical philology, archeology, and eloquence at the Universities of Göttingen and Berlin. In 1874 Curtius concluded an agreement with the Greek authorities by which the excavations in Olympia were entrusted exclusively to the Germans. What he found there ultimately led to the re-institution of the Olympic Games by Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1894.

His grandson Ernst Robert Curtius (1886-1956) was a foremost literary scholar of the 20th century. The son of high-ranking civil servant, he grew up in Alsace, a French province annexed by the Reich between 1871 and 1918, and was thus bilingual in German and French -- and also fluent in English, Italian, and Spanish. Under the aegis of Strasbourg Professor Gustav Gröber, he devoted his doctoral dissertation to editing an Old French epic, but his "Habilitationsschrift" in Bonn was on the contemporary French critique Ferdinand Brunetière: thus emerged the two paths, i.e. the study of “medieval literature” and the critical appraisal of recent works, that he was to follow throughout his life. Curtius rejected Brunetière’s “scientific” method, instead favoring intuition, attention to nuances, and "elected affinities" as the most meaningful avenues toward literary knowledge. After being mobilized and wounded in Poland during World War I, he obtained a tenured position at the University of Bonn in 1916. His scholarship often supported a political, pan-European agenda: “Der Europagedanke, he would say, mußte geistig gebaut werden. Dazu wollten meine Bücher helfen.” Curtius took part in international symposiums in Pontigny (Burgundy) and Colpach (Luxemburg); wrote in "La Revue Européenne" launched by the Austrian prince Karl Anton Rohan in 1925; and corresponded with Parisian intellectuals of all stripes, despite the divisions generated by two wars (1870-71, 1914-18). The exchange slowed down considerably after 1933 however, and not only because of the passing of one of his beloved Catherine Pozzi (1882-1934), a poetess and former lover of Paul Valéry who wrote scientific articles and translated the poetry of Stefan George. Curtius dedicated to her his essay, "James Joyce’s Ulysses" (1929) and also corresponded with Pozzi's son, Claude Bourdet, a young engineer who would become a major figure of the Resistance and create the weekly "L'Observateur" (after 1964 "Le Nouvel Observateur.") In 1931, Catherine Pozzi wrote to Curtius: "In Frankreich scheint das Geistige noch in keiner Gefahr zu stehn, wie bei Ihnen." Indeed, with Hitler leading the new Reich, life became almost impossible for German intellectuals. A fervent patriot and a Stoic, Curtius responded to Nazism with “internal emigration,” choosing to focus on medieval and Renaissance literature. Despite his commitment to “European unity” he would strongly reject collaboration after 1940 -- to the disappointment of his admirer Jacques Benoist-Méchin (1901-1983), a military historian and Proust scholar who occupied a number of high positions in the Vichy regime. In 1950, back from the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, Curtius wrote to Anne Heurgon-Desjardins: “Les querelles franco-allemandes m’ennuient. Je considère ces deux peuples comme des collégiens mal élevés qui se chamaillent. J’ai fait métier de rapprocheur pendant vingt ans. J’ai maintenant droit à la retraite.”

From the guide to the Letters to Ernst Curtius and Ernst Robert Curtius, 1841-1956., (Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library)



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Vence (France).

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