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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

und die glückseligen Inseln

Wilhelm Heinse

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To purchase Ardinghello

Title: Ardinghello
Author: Wilhelm Heinse
Genre: Novel
Written: 1787
Length: 718 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Ardinghello und die glückseligen Inseln - Deutschland
Ardinghello et les îles de la félicité - France
Ardinghello e le isole felici - Italia
Ardinghello y las islas afortunadas - España
  • Eine Italiänische Geschichte aus dem sechzehnten Jahrhundert
  • Ardinghello und die glückseligen Inseln has not yet been translated into English
  • The Reclam 'Kritische Studienausgabe' edition (1975; rev. 1998) was edited and comes with an Afterword by Max L. Baeumer
  • With 32 black and white plates

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Our Assessment:

B : Heinse's great ambitions a stumbling block as far as his story-telling goes, but a lot here that's of interest

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 23/2/1998 R.V.
Modern Lang. Rev. . (72:4) 10/1977 D.G.Little
El País . 2/7/2004 L.F.Moreno Claros

  From the Reviews:
  • "Vielleicht nicht in die Wirklichkeit, und was in ihr geht, aber in das, was die Sinne und Nerven wollen, war Heinse wirklich eingeweiht, und nur leicht versteckt zwischen den Zeilen (manchmal enthüllt er's entwaffnend in seinen Tagebuchnotizen) steht vieles, das einen Wieland damals empören mußte, das uns aber klar und schön vorkommt und klüger und genauer und erfrischender als das meiste sonst in den Seelen jener älteren Zeiten, die oft um die Grenzen der Freiheit und Lust besorgter waren als um die Freiheit und gar die Lust selbst." - R.V., Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "A most welcome result of the increased scholarly interest in Heinse during the past two decades is the plan for a historical-critical edition of his writings. While we await this edition Max L. Baeumer's 'kritische Studienausgabe' of Ardinghello is a splendid stopgap. (...) Variants, notes, and plates expand and clarify Heinse's obsessive Dionysian vision to such an extent that one must ask whether it is profitable, even possible to treat Ardinghello as a self-contained work of art. Certainly Baeumer's sixty pages of 'Dokumente zur Wirkungsgeschichte', which are interestingly discussed in the first part of his 'Nachwort', reveal an abiding fascination with Heinse's ideas but little praise for his formal craftsmanship. (...) It is perhaps necessary to insist on the seeming fragmentariness of Ardinghello in order to grasp the full scope of Heinse's ideas." - D.G.Little, Modern Language Review

  • "(E)sta obra tan desigual, entretenida e instructiva, de lenguaje apasionado y tan sintomática de toda una época: Sturm und Drang, Revolución Francesa, prerromanticismo... Heinse fue un provocador, un soñador empedernido y un entusiasta de los nuevos credos antiburgueses que inflamaban los corazones jóvenes y amenazaban la estabilidad social de la vieja Europa. (...) En suma, el Ardinghello, con su pasión y sus utopías, gustará con seguridad a quienes frecuentan la literatura del siglo XVIII, pero también a los cómplices actuales de aquellos personajes que, desde la Antigüedad, creyeron en la posibilidad de mejorar la existencia ganando espacio para la convivencia y el respeto a la libertad individual." - Luis Fernando Moreno Claros, El País

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[Note: Ardinghello und die glückseligen Inseln has not yet been translated into English, and this review is based on the German original; all translations are my own.]

       With its main character, the eponymous Ardinghello, an artist, Ardinghello is an early and influential German example of the Künstlerroman -- the 'artist-novel'. Set in the Renaissance -- the subtitle presents it as: 'An Italian story of the sixteenth century' --, it is a curious mixture of adventure novel, romance, and expository fiction; inspired by Heinse's own travels through Italy, it offers a close look at many works of art of the time, and includes lengthy debates about fundamental questions of aesthetics (in the broadest sense).
       A brief (then-)present-day introduction describes the novel as a (two-hundred-year-old) manuscript that the author has found, and which he presents here in his own 'faithful translation'. The introduction also includes a short fable that the original author appended to his work, its lesson: "daß auch das Nützlichste unschuldigerweise schädlich sein kann" ('that even what is most useful can innocently be harmful') -- presumably a warning that the wrong lessons might be taken from this account of these lives and times.
       The novel begins dramatically in its opening scene in sixteenth century Venice, with narrator Benedikt describing how he lost his balance in a gondola as it passed a Turkish ship firing its cannons and tumbled and sank in the sea. He is fished out and saved by a young man -- Ardinghello -- who sees to it that he makes it home safely. Benedikt is very taken by his savior, and Ardinghello takes to him enthusiastically as well ('you are the darling of my soul', he enthuses); there's a not very subtle homoerotic undertone to their immediate intimacy (e.g.: "So fiel er mir um den Hals. Uns verging auf lange die Sprache, und wir waren zusammengeschmolzen durch Kuß und Blick und Umarmung" ('So he fell around my neck. We were at a loss for words at length, and we were molten together by kiss and gaze and embrace')).
       Ardinghello is an artist -- a painter --, originally from Florence but drawn to the art-scene here in Venice, and especially master Titian. Benedikt is off to summer at Lake Garda with his mother and invites Ardinghello to join them, getting his mother to commission a Madonna from Ardinghello. They frolic about happily there -- Ardinghello teaches him to swim and fence, and they indulge in their shared passion for classical Greek, while also improving their command of the modern version. They also become blood-brothers -- dramatic Ardinghello not satisfied with a simple finger-prick to seal that, either ....
       The apparently still rather innocent Benedikt recounts his limited amorous experiences for Ardinghello (but not the reader; there's apparently very little to them), and confesses: "daß ich noch nicht alles fände, was ich verlangte" (that I hadn't yet found everything I longed for'). He hopes for some tips from the more experienced Ardinghello -- who then admits that he is in love with a Cäcilia, who lives conveniently nearby but is soon to be married to the wealthy Mark Anton. (At one point Mark Anton is nicely described as: "eine kalte Staatsperücke von widrigem Gesichte" -- 'a cold official-state-wig with an off-putting visage'.) Ardinghello is after more than just Cäcilia -- but he does win her over along the way -- and it comes to a very dramatic wedding day, Mark Anton killed, Cäcilia impregnated, and Ardinghello laying low so that no one suspects his involvement in what happened.
       So closes, more or less, the first part of the first volume of the novel -- a bit less than a quarter of the novel -- and there's been quite a lot of action and the set-up looks quite promising, with Ardinghello not under any real threat or suspicion, but nevertheless making his way away, just to be sure. Benedikt figures he's eager to reünite with Cäcilia (and to claim her newborn son ...), but Ardinghello gets sidetracked elsewhere. There is some more action -- pirates, even ! -- but the novel is really only rather limitedly an adventure-story.
       Already in the early parts of the novel, Benedikt presented Ardinghello's tales as he told them; once the two are separated, the novel shifts to largely epistolary form, with Benedikt mentioning how the back and forth is going, and including his responses to Ardinghello's letters. After a while, however, Heinse completely sidelines Benedikt, and the epistolary presentation becomes entirely one-sided: it is Ardinghello recounting his experiences, and nothing else; only late in the day does Benedikt return to the story, wresting back some control over the narrative. (At one point in Ardinghello's account, in one of his letters, he switches over to dialogue form, presenting a debate he was involved in; the novel really is quite a mess of approaches, all just thrown together.)
       Already early on there were some aesthetic debates, but this too comes much more to the fore as the story progresses. Ardinghello travels around Italy, and sees a great deal of art -- and discusses it, at length, often individual pieces. (The Reclam volume helpfully includes 32 plates, photographs of the pieces that Ardinghello discusses in depth.) At times -- and for long stretches -- Ardinghello then become more essayistic, discussing the nature of art and the qualities of a wide range and variety of it, especially painting and sculpture, but also literature, architecture, and music.
       Heinse here offers a particular view of art, popular in the Germany of his times, with the Greeks considered the unmatched ideal. So, for example, Ardinghello finds:

Das eigentliche Kernleben der Kunst dauert vom Perikles bis zum Tod Alexanders; das übrige sind Nachahmungen und Treib- und Gewächshäuser. Wenn man bedenkt, was die Griechen binnen dieser kurzen Zeit getan haben, so sind wir ganz tot dagegen; welch eine Menge von Statuen und Gemälden und Gedichten nur für so ein kleines Volk ! Welch eine Menge von Helden, Philosophen und Rednern ! So etwas kann nur in der heitersten Gegend der Welt bei der besten Regierung vor sich gehen.

[The actual core-life of art dates from Pericles to the death of Alexander; the rest is imitations and hot- and green-houses. If you consider what the Greeks have done in this short time, we are completely dead by comparison; what a multitude of statues and paintings and poems for such a small nation ! What a multitude of heroes, philosophers, and orators ! Such a thing is only possible in the most cheerful part of the world, under the best government.]
       While politics is not discussed much, it is clearly also part of Heinse's program -- as then becomes obvious in the novel's conclusion, in which the characters set up a utopian island-state, in clear imitation of how they conceive of the ancient Greek state(s), hoping to recreate the conditions of yore.
       Though the novel's central character is a painter, and most of the discussion of art-works concerns paintings and sculptures, Heinse repeatedly suggests these are limited forms of art -- and that the literary form is a superior one:
Die ganze bildende Kunst ist ein vages unbestimmtes Wesen, das seinen Hauptwert eigentlich von der Schönheit der Formen und Umrisse enthält; und dann außerwesentlich ist sie eine große Zierde der Poesie und Geschichte, die aber ganz natürlich ohne sie bestehen können. Poesie ist das innre Leben selbst: Bild von Farbe oder Stein bloß das Zeichen; wer jenes nicht schon in sich hat, kann bei diesem wenig fühlen und erkennen.

[All of the fine arts are a vague, indefinite being, whose main value is found in the beauty of forms and outlines; and then, incidentally, it is a great adornment to poetry and history, which, however, can quite readily exist without it. Poetry is inner life itself: an image of color or stone merely the sign; if you don't already have that in you, you can feel and recognize little in it.]
       The many reflections on art are interesting (if often certainly also debatable), with Heinse speaking both in the abstract as well as using examples (so also with a whole series of works by Raphael). As he suggests, in words and deed: "Die Kunst bleibt ein sonderbares Ding; sie scheint ganz ihren Weg für sich zu gehn" ('Art remains a peculiar thing; it seems to go entirely its own way')
       The novel is rather quickly tied up in the end, an idyll put together, relying heavily on classical Greek (and some Roman) examples (though they also study up on their Machiavelli ...); they're certain they have it figured out: "Hier wird kein Nero gedeihen !" ('No Nero will thrive here !'). The utopian vision is the sum of what's been learnt along the way, in a way -- but it's very hurriedly put together; as in much of the novel, Heinse is more interested in describing the abstract -- what's behind the utopia, the theoretical foundations -- than showing it in actual practice. Still, the final fantasy is a tantalizing close to a very uneven novel.
       The Reclam edition appears to still be the standard popular-critical edition and is certainly everything one could ask for short of an entirely scholarly edition, with the generous supporting material here making up about half of the fat volume The photographic supplements are obviously helpful -- though readers nowadays likely will seek out the larger color images now readily available on the internet --, but the volume is also thoroughly annotated (with endnotes), and includes a sizable chunk of variant texts. Particularly useful is the large section of 'Dokumente zur Wirkungsgeschichte' -- a chronological collection of reviews of and comments on the text, from Heinse's times to the (near-)present. (The Reclam edition was originally published in 1975 and the bibliography revised for the 1998 reprint, but it has not been further updated for recent reprintings.)

       Ardinghello is a bit of a mess of a novel, not least in its peculiar presentation and narrator Benedikt figuring awkwardly in the whole thing (though, yes, it is of course a novel about Ardinghello ...). Heinse has a lot to say about art, but was apparently determined to frame it in a fiction -- but his impatience shows too often, when he just can't be bothered to keep much actual action and story going -- only then to go for the spectacular when he remembers it. And there is some good action, from the opening near-drowning to the murder of Mark Anton. Poor Cäcilia gets very short shrift, just one of Ardinghello's romances that Heinse has trouble seeing through; he's good in fits and starts, but falters in most of his follow-through.
       Ardinghello is an odd work but does remain of interest. There's a lot here that is very good, both the abstract discussion as well as parts of the action. It's a shame Heinse didn't shape the whole thing more carefully, but even as is it's a fascinating piece of work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 May 2023

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Ardinghello: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       German author Johann Jakob Wilhelm Heinse lived 1746 to 1803.

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© 2023 the complete review

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