The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives

Thorvaldsen's Spoken and Written Language

  • Kira Kofoed, arkivet.thorvaldsensmuseum.dk, 2009
  • Translation by David Possen
  • This article explores the myths and facts surrounding Thorvaldsen’s antipathy toward writing, his dyslexia, and the state of his language skills (both in his native Danish and in other languages), along with his linguistic idiosyncracies and epigrams. Passages of relevance are collated and analyzed throughout the article, and the most significant sources are presented in a table below the main text.

Thorvaldsen’s language skills: myths and facts

Thorvaldsen’s first biographer, Just Mathias Thiele, mentions the sculptor’s difficulties with writing only in passing. Thiele broaches the topic while discussing the diary that Thorvaldsen kept during his trip to Rome in January-February 1797, and again when describing how, in Rome during the late winter of 1804, Thorvaldsen did practice exercises in both Danish spelling and grammar; cf. Thiele I, p. 206f. Thiele limited himself to these few indirect references, for he had no wish to trumpet the fact that this brilliant, renowned sculptor, pride of his nation, was dyslexic—even though he must have gained a clear view of the matter while researching his Thorvaldsen biography. In the same vein, when reproducing sources written by Thorvaldsen himself, Thiele edited them thoroughly, correcting their spelling.

Here in the Archive, on the other hand, Thorvaldsen’s orthography and punctuation are reproduced precisely as they appear in the original documents, with all of their mistakes, omissions, additions, and quirks. It is thus appropriate to shed some light on the myths and facts that surround Thorvaldsen’s language skills, particularly since he left both his contemporaries and posterity with one or the other of two extreme impressions: either the tailored, rose-colored portrait offered by Thiele, or the robust rumor of the opposite—namely, that Thorvaldsen could neither read nor write.

Facts

In his article “Sproget i Thorvaldsens dagbog og tidlige breve” [Language in Thorvaldsen’s Diary and Early Letters], op. cit., Prof. Jørn Lund, a prominent Danish language expert, illuminates clearly the fact and consequences of Thorvaldsen’s dyslexia. After providing numerous examples of such consequences—for example, that Thorvaldsen was unable to develop a consistent handwriting—Lund summarizes the state of Thorvaldsen’s written language as follows, on p. 51: “There are anacolutions (sentence breaks), that can make it difficult to understand his meaning; there are incorrect declinations or conjugations; there are spelling mistakes; there are letter reversals; and the same word often appears in different ways.” And further, on p. 52: “In Thorvaldsen’s consciousness, many words—perhaps the majority—did not have fixed word-pictures. There is … greater uncertainty about the use of capital and lowercase letters than among his contemporaries; there are difficulties with compound word synthesis; there are mangled words and wholly primitive spellings, as with small children who do not understand, for example, that ‘Ellen’ is not spelled ‘LN’; and in his struggles with spelling, Thorvaldsen does not distinguish consistently between the name of a letter and its sound.”

Thorvaldsen’s difficulties in articulating himself quickly, fluently, and faultlessly are evident to anyone who spends time with the sculptor’s handwritten letters and draft letters. In what follows, this will be illuminated by a few telling examples (for a more detailed review of Thorvaldsen’s language difficulties, please see the aforementioned article by Lund).

First, from a letter dated 24.10.1800 from Thorvaldsen to the Academy of Fine Arts, here is an example of Thorvaldsen’s characteristic spelling mistakes:

...under Hindes føder liger Kris Reskaber som Hund seder den venstre Fod paa…

Spelled correctly, this line would read as follows:

...under hendes Fødder ligger Krigsredskaber, som hun sætter den venstre Fod paa…

Next, here is a checklist for personal use dated summer 1804, with the correct spellings given in brackets:

3 skiorter [skjorter, ‘shirts’]
2 tørklæder [‘scarves’]
1 halv skiorde [halvskjorte, ‘half-shirt’]
4 par stømber [strømper, ‘pair of socks’]
1 par stuvalluter [støvler/støvletter, ‘pair of boots’]

-4- skiorder _ 3 [skjorter, ‘shirts’]
1 Trøe [trøje, ‘sweater’]
3 par baxker [bukser, ‘pairs of pants’]
6/7 [with the 7 written on top of the 6] tørkleder [tørklæder, ‘scarves’]
2 pa Styvalette [par støvler/støvletter, ‘pairs of boots’]
2 weste [‘vests’]
3 par underBux [underbukser, ‘undergarments’]
4 [with the 4 written on top of another, illegible number] stømber [strømper, ‘pair of socks’]

Despite such extensive personal difficulties with writing, numerous handwritten letters and draft letters by Thorvaldsen are extant—in addition to all those that have been lost, or whose existence is unknown today. The Archive’s Letters Lost page lists the correspondence that we know was sent on the basis of documentary evidence. These letters were not necessarily all penned by Thorvaldsen himself, but a large number of them can be classified as such, as they stem from Thorvaldsen’s early years in Rome, during which he did most of his own handwriting. For a sense of how much Thorvaldsen wrote himself, see the examples in the Related Article on Thorvaldsen’s Letter Writing Process.

In other words, despite his aforementioned difficulties with penmanship, Thorvaldsen was in fact an assiduous writer. Despite the myth to the effect that he only reluctantly answered letters, or never at all, we have in fact numerous examples of Thorvaldsen receiving a letter and promptly sitting down to answer it: see, e.g., his draft letter to Herman Schubart, dated 7.12.1804.

Another fact that should be borne in mind in this context is that before 1888, no hard-and-fast Danish orthography existed. A quick survey of the other source texts in the Archive makes clear that Thorvaldsen was not nearly the orthographic outlier that he has traditionally been made out to be. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that he was dyslexic.

Myths

A myth to the effect that Thorvaldsen could neither read nor write—and indeed was partly or completely uneducated at the time of his departure from Denmark—arose already during the sculptor’s own lifetime, and has persisted tenaciously ever since. This myth can, moreover, be said to have been helped along by Thorvaldsen himself: he was known for a failure to write letters, and for gaps in his education.

There were several explanatory models in circulation at the time that purported to account for these facts. One model was based on the presumption of incapacity: i.e., that Thorvaldsen was simply unable to write. In particular, the historian H. F. J. Estrup, who composed a biography of the sculptor—reputedly at his own dictation—during a 1818 visit to Rome (though he did not complete it until 1826), wrote the following:

He could wield the chisel, but not the pen; he could not even read handwriting. The reading and writing of cursive was one of the most onerous tasks for him. He was a member of Borup’s Society, and was supposed to play a role at that private theater; but he skipped all the rehearsals, and no one could fathom why. Finally it emerged that he could not read his lines.

Others attributed Thorvaldsen’s educational gaps and failure to write to laziness. One sample description of the sculptor’s alleged laziness in letter-writing, and in language in general, has been preserved in Thiele I, p. 75, where he cites a now-unknown letter, dated 29.12.1796, from the captain of the Thetis, Lorens Henrich Fisker, to his wife in Copenhagen, Charlotte Amalie Fisker: “He [Thorvaldsen] is simply so lazy that he could not be bothered to write [to his parents], and he had no desire, while on board, to learn a word of the language.”

Thorvaldsen’s handwritten letters and draft letters demonstrate clearly that this myth is strongly exaggerated. There is no reason to doubt that Thorvaldsen was capable of reading both letters and books on his own. Nevertheless, because of his dyslexia, this may have been more difficult for him than it was for the majority of those in his circle. The memoirs of Baroness Christine Stampe also attest that Thorvaldsen was conversant in the writings of, among others, the Dano-Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754), and the Dano-Norwegian poet Johan Herman Wessel (1742-1785), inasmuch as he often cited lengthy passages from their works; cf. Stampe, op. cit., p. 36. On p. 38, Stampe reports that Thorvaldsen had a thorough familiarity with Italian poetry. That he at times—and increasingly often, as the volume of his correspondence rose through the years—preferred that others read or write on his behalf, is another matter. Such a disposition can have multiple explanations. For one thing, it does seem beyond doubt that Thorvaldsen found the practice of writing letters difficult, and the result embarrassing, despite all his efforts. For another, having others read aloud to him may have been preferable because it allowed him to work at the same time; cf. Stampe, op. cit., p. 38-40, where the Baroness reports that she read recent Danish literature aloud to Thorvaldsen while he worked.

Finally, the rumors of Thorvaldsen’s inability to read or write can perhaps be explained generally in terms of a wish to promote the Romantic myth of the wild, unlettered poorhouse boy who rose from the masses to the heights of renown and refined society by means of his unique artistic talent—or, put another way: the myth of the uneducated artist who, by dint of no qualifications other than his noble nature, rose from the depths of the common people to the peaks of Parnassus. A tendency to support this myth can be attributed to, among others, Thiele, Estrup (allegedly thanks to Thorvaldsen himself), op. cit., Friederike Brun, op. cit. (as well as, in the present day, Maria Helleberg).

That Thorvaldsen himself contributed to spreading this myth is entirely understandable. After all, it allowed him to transform a weakness into an asset, gaining practical help with letter-writing (when not of a private character), entertainment during his work (in a kind of luxury version of today’s audiobooks), and career-boosting mythologization. Indeed, it is possible that Thorvaldsen got the idea of fomenting such a myth straight from a letter dated 20.10.1805 from his own father, who wrote to reassure his son that his poor writing was compensation for his great artistic talent: “As far as your writing is concerned, you do write well enough to be read; it need not be shown to any college; if you wrote a bit more assiduously, it would come on its own; [and] there are no great artists that write well [anyway].”

Thus we find a range of interpretations of Thorvaldsen’s language skills. At one extreme, there are those who claim that he was (to varying degrees) lazy, unlettered, and unable to spell a single word correctly or master any languages other than Danish. At the other extreme, there are those who argue that he was as capable as anyone—but simply sought to optimize his resources by allowing others to handle his correspondence, etc., whenever possible.
The art historian Peter Johansen was an advocate of the latter approach. In his article “Hvordan kom Thorvaldsen til Rom? En Renvask” [How Did Thorvaldsen Come To Rome? A Whitewash], op. cit., Johansen portrays Thorvaldsen as a highly-educated artist who intuitively understood antiquity, by encountering its art, far better and more immediately than did such book-learned archaeologists as, for example, Georg Zoëga, by means of their “mythological and antiquarian explanations” (Johansen, op. cit., p. 535). According to Johansen, Thorvaldsen’s poor spelling would not have been unusual for someone of his background—i.e., as the son of a tradesman—and with a very deficient schooling (it is not certain, in fact, whether Thorvaldsen went to school at all, or whether he received his entire primary education from his parents); but it is clear that despite this fact, and the fact of his dyslexia, Thorvaldsen did exaggerate his plight, also with respect to language—particularly when one takes his many letters, and the labor he invested in their presentation, into account.

Thorvaldsen’s Danish

According to Jørn Lund, op. cit. p. 51, Thorvaldsen spoke the same Standard Danish dialect as did most Copenhageners at the end of the eighteenth century, and his pronunciation was hardly regarded as “flat”—even though there are indications that it bore certain marks of lower-class pronunciation. According to Lund, however, no unambiguous difference emerged between lower- and upper-class Danish pronunciation in Copenhagen until the latter half of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, in both Thorvaldsen’s letters and his diary from 1797, Lund finds numerous examples (cf. Lund, ibid., pp. 57-58) of words spelled in a manner that may suggest lower-class pronunciation. In the same vein, Oehlenschläger remarks in his memoirs that Thorvaldsen’s pronunciation never lost the sound of Christenbernikowstræde; but it is not clear whether this refers specifically to the less “refined” Danish spoken in the working-class neighborhood surrounding that street, or whether it simply means that Thorvaldsen’s pronunciation was generally typical for a Copenhagener.

The following written forms are here adduced as examples of Thorvaldsen’s phonetic spelling, in order to illustrate both his sociolect and his Copenhagen dialect. That is, Thorvaldsen’s way of spelling these words reflects his way of pronouncing them. All of these examples are drawn from the sculptor’s 1797 diary, mentioned previously, since it is known with certainty that Thorvaldsen had no help in producing it. Here is the list:

“larsten” for lasten [‘the cargo,’ ‘the load’]
“hober” for håber [‘hopes’] (also a possible indication of lower-class speech)
“kerke” or “kerger” for kirke[r] [‘church[es]’]
“soggelade” for chokolade [‘chocolate’] (also a possible indication of lower-class speech)
“fesentere” for visitere [‘strip-search,’ ‘perform a bodily inspection’] (also a possible indication of lower-class speech)
“ellemenason” for illumination [‘illumination’] (also a possible indication of lower-class speech)
“entresand” for interessant [‘interesting’]
“daalige” for dårlige [‘of poor quality’]

On the other hand, in order to establish that Thorvaldsen may have had a limited mastery of language from childhood, Lund remarks that the sculptor’s father, Gotskalk Thorvaldsen, likely had a lesser grasp of foreign loan-words than did the educated upper classes, as he was a tradesman; cf. ibid., p. 57. Here Lund assumes that the elder Thorvaldsen had not had an intellectual education beyond what was typical among tradesmen of the day; see ibid., p. 51. This, however, is inaccurate. Gotskalk Thorvaldsen must have been significantly better educated than most tradesmen, inasmuch as his own father, Thorvaldur Gottskalksson, had been a priest and Church provost in Iceland, and so can be assumed to have passed on a great deal of education to his son. Gotskalk Thorvaldsen’s letters to his son, moreover, exhibit no significant linguistic poverty; they are poignant and well-written. In any case, Lund notes that children more commonly acquire their patterns of language use from their peer groups than from their parents; accordingly, he “exonerates” Gotskalk Thorvaldsen from this hypothetical charge. If the peer-group thesis holds, then Thiele’s report of Thorvaldsen pronouncing Danish in a manner typical of the Grønnegade of his youth makes sense—not on account of a lack of education on the part of his parents, but because of the language patterns typical of Thorvaldsen’s contemporaries.

Rejection of affected speech

The memoirs of Carsten Hauch, a Danish author, scientist, and friend of Thorvaldsen’s, contain the following description of the sculptor’s general way of expressing himself (op. cit.):

Thorvaldsen was fond of using straightforward words just as they are used in daily speech. For this reason, he was greatly displeased with the segment of his audience whose ears were so delicate that they did not want him to say that one “did” [gjorde] an artwork, but that one “made” [lavede] it. “One ‘makes’ a cake,” he said, “but one does not ‘make’ an artwork.” And he kept on using the words that he was used to using, without worrying about the reactions of fashion or the refined members of his audience.

It is unknown whether this disdain for affected words or fashionable phrases has anything to do with Thorvaldsen’s youthful association with contemporaries in the working-class Copenhagen neighborhood of his childhood. It is most likely, however, that this disdain was an entirely conscious choice on Thorvaldsen’s part. This is likely not only because of his father’s education as the son of a priest, which undoubtedly gave young Thorvaldsen acquaintance with a wider vocabulary than was common among tradesmen of the day, but also, and more specifically, because of Thorvaldsen’s early association with educated circles in Copenhagen, which must have given him further opportunities to widen his linguistic range, if he had so desired.

In summary, we can conclude that Thorvaldsen spoke the standard dialect of Danish common in Copenhagen at the time, though likely with marks of a sociolect typical of the lower classes; and that he further had a conscious preference for direct, unpretentious speech.

Thorvaldsen’s epistolary style

Thorvaldsen’s style in letter-writing should perhaps also be understood in light of the above citation from Hauch: namely, that in addition to his difficulties with spelling, Thorvaldsen was impeded by the epistolary norms of the day (on this see the Related Article On Letters and Writing). The art historian Julius Lange, op. cit., described Thorvaldsen’s letters as stiff and tedious—because the sculptor believed that one could not write the way one talked: “Most of his letters … consist largely of epistolary filler: banal verbiage of a sort that is thought ‘fitting.’” Typical examples of this are the letters Thorvaldsen sent home to his lover Anna Maria Uhden during his trips to Italy. See, for example, the letters dated 6.8.1804, [26].8.1805, presumably 30.8.1810, and 27.7.1813, where Thorvaldsen’s remarks about his journey, his arrival at his destination, and Uhden’s health and his own remain quite similar from letter to letter, despite the significant gaps in time between the letters. Such remarks can justifiably be called boilerplate, if not mere “verbiage” or “epistolary filler.”

Lange continues his takedown of Thorvaldsen’s epistolary style with the following scorcher: “What can otherwise make reading letters interesting—a certain immediate freshness; a personal life pulsing through the message and its expression—is entirely missing from Thorvaldsen’s; his epistolary style is no more personal than would be a phrasebook designed for the elementary instruction of children to prepare them for social life.” This can indeed be said to be true of the formal letters Thorvaldsen composed, such as those to the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen.

Nevertheless, when we consider the sculptor’s letters to his lover, it emerges clearly that, once he had gotten past the usual fixed phrases, Thorvaldsen felt much less bound by formal epistolary norms here than elsewhere. Boilerplate aside, in fact, he seems to have written to her more or less just as he would have spoken; compare the many instances of teasing in the letters, and his strict orders not to show the letters to others. The same seems to apply as well, for example, to his childhood friend C. F. F. Stanley; see, e.g., the draft letter dated late November 1804. Here, too, we find a style that seems much more direct and influenced by spoken language, offering a good glimpse of Thorvaldsen’s humor and his quite well-developed linguistic fluency.

Thorvaldsen—laconic or voluble?

Many have described Thorvaldsen as taciturn, while others have described him as an unfettered talker. These divergent reports may, however, simply be due to the nature of the reporter’s relation to Thorvaldsen, and to Thorvaldsen’s differentiation between those whom he thought it worthwhile to engage in conversation, and those whom he did not consider worthy of that gesture.

Hauch clearly experienced Thorvaldsen as direct and unprepossessing; cf. the citation above. Frederik Barfod, op. cit., describes how Thorvaldsen warmly gave a tour of his rooms, and chatted up a storm while at work. Christine Stampe described him as speaking with great precision (see, e.g., Stampe, op. cit., pp. 36-37), as garrulous when in good moods, and as silent when sad or bad-humored (ibid., p. 8, p. 225, p. 245). On the other hand, Ferdinand Florens Fleck, op. cit., for example, describes Thorvaldsen exclusively as curt and uncommunicative. In Thiele 1831, pp. 4-5, Thiele provides a similar portrait of Thorvaldsen’s diffidence, but elsewhere adds nuance—e.g., by recounting how Thorvaldsen gladly showed him around his home and studios; cf. Thiele 1832, p. 133.

Lange, op. cit., p. 125, seems to have a point when he writes (rather grandly) that among friends Thorvaldsen was by no means laconic, and that his demeanor depended on the person he was addressing:

“In his friendly relations, Thorvaldsen was neither taciturn nor closed-off; indeed, he was quite ingenious in his use of words. Small epigrams dropped from his mouth in Laconian style, and spiced with Attic salt as well: utterances that united wisdom and naivety as from a pre-Homeric age.”

The same impression is given by the memoirs of Johanne Luise Heiberg (1812-1890), vol. II, op. cit., where in two passages—one on p. 30, and the other on p. 29—she describes both the taciturn Thorvaldsen and the relaxed, humorous, and garrulous Thorvaldsen:

“I had often spoken with Thorvaldsen, partly at my home, and partly in a third location, to the extent that one can converse with a close-mouthed, withdrawn man in the presence of many others. Today I was lucky enough not to have any other visitors; we were thus alone; Thorvaldsen entered a state of comfortable calm and spent a few hours with me, a few hours that for me are unforgettable. He told me about his youth, about his travels, about his stay in Rome, with such lively poignancy that even I, who had never wished to join in the blindness of the multitude in judging him, was struck by wonder … Thorvaldsen had to a great degree a sense of the comic—another proof of his intelligence. His soul had, at bottom, a certain easy-going humor, a teasing devilishness that he often used in a form that many thought naive, but whose sharp edges were not unknown to him. He knew perfectly well what he was saying, and could content himself silently with having gotten the truth out without provoking the other to anger.”

Thorvaldsen’s mastery of foreign languages

German

It is beyond doubt that Thorvaldsen had already mastered the German language before departing Copenhagen in 1796. In Thorvaldsen’s day, Copenhagen was marked by strong cultural and scholarly German-Danish interchange, and nearly one third of Copenhagen’s population was German-speaking, with German-language churches, schools, and presses; cf. Otto Christian Schepelern, op. cit. What is more, Thorvaldsen had numerous German-speaking friends—among others, the painters C. D. Fritzsch, Heinrich Grosch, and Carl Probsthayn. This assumption is further supported by the testimony of Thorvaldsen’s childhood friend Peder Horrebow Hastes, who wrote in his reminiscence of the sculptor: “He understood German, and could make himself understood, even if he by no means spoke it correctly” (Haste, op. cit.).
In his 1797 diary, Thorvaldsen remarked with satisfaction that on the boat from Palermo til Napoli, “there are some beautiful ladies, and the most beautiful one speaks German …”; one may assume that this refers to the coincidence that the most beautiful lady was also the one Thorvaldsen was able to speak to—by virtue of his knowledge of German. What is more, letters to Thorvaldsen in German, without apologies for the choice of language, are preserved from as early as 1797. Thorvaldsen was also praised for his elegant German; cf. Thiele I, p. 182 and Thiele III, p. 88. The philosopher August Wilhelm Schlegel described him as a Dane who spoke German like a native, and with the same level of culture; cf. Schlegel/Böcking, op. cit.

At the same time, and as mentioned previously, Fleck, op. cit., described Thorvaldsen as taciturn and with a limited grasp of German, while Friederike Brun, op. cit., p. 10, lamented the fact that he only spoke Danish, at least on his departure from Denmark—this despite the fact that Thiele cites a conversation in sophisticated German between Thorvaldsen and none other than Brun herself; cf. Thiele I, p. 182. The possibility cannot be excluded, however, that Thiele’s efforts to burnish Thorvaldsen’s image may have played a role here. Similarly, Brun’s reminiscence may have been colored by her mythological interpretation of the sculptor’s rise from the Copenhagen mire to the pinnacle of art.

That Schlegel describes Thorvaldsen’s German as practically perfect, while Fleck’s impression was the polar opposite, can perhaps be attributed to Thorvaldsen’s respective levels of interest in conversing with them. It is nonetheless certain that Thorvaldsen could understand German and was proficient enough in it to conduct complex conversations without significant difficulties (as presumably, for example, with Schlegel). He must also have been sufficiently at ease in German to be able to come up with German epigrams on the spot; cf. Thiele I, p. 182, og Thiele III, p. 88.

Italian

It seems that Thorvaldsen arrived in Palermo on 23.1.1797 with little to no knowledge of Italian. This is despite the fact that, in his 5.1.1795 application for an extension of his stipend from the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, Thorvaldsen cited the need to acquire further “language proficiencies”, “without which no progress would be possible,” as a partial reason for the proposed extension. Nevertheless, Thorvaldsen either did not find time to learn any Italian in advance, or he was unable to apply successfully whatever he had (or should have) learned by the time of his departure. Namely: the first letters of recommendation that Thorvaldsen received from otherwise well-meaning Italian contacts attest to the fact that he did not understand a word of Italian. Cf. the letter dated 27.1.1797 from Vincenzo Manno to Francesco Manno, and the letter dated 6.3.1797 from Ernst Morace to Giuseppe Carnesecca.

It seems, however, that Thorvaldsen quickly made up for his slow start. The first Italian fragments written in his own hand stem presumably from no later than March 20, 1797, the month of his arrival in Rome, and barely two months after his arrival in Italy, first in Palermo and then in Naples; cf. the draft letter dated presumably March 1797.
These fragments are laden with numerous errors, but because similar errors also appear in Thorvaldsen’s Italian correspondence in subsequent years, they cannot be attributed exclusively to his being a beginner. Dyslexia (cf. above) was no doubt also a factor. There are considerable indications that Thorvaldsen had help in composing at least parts of these fragments, and that some of these earliest (preserved) Italian fragments were dedicated to a woman.

One year later, Thorvaldsen received a letter in Italian from his Swedish-Italian friend Charles Bassi. Bassi explained his delay in writing as a result of ruminations on which language would be best to use for corresponding with Thorvaldsen. He decided on Italian, Bassi explained, because he thought it would be easiest for Thorvaldsen to understand—and if problems arose, their mutual friend Georg Zoëga could help with translation. This implies that, already at the start of 1798, Bassi’s sense of Thorvaldsen’s Italian was such that he believed Thorvaldsen understood a great deal, but still needed help decoding difficult passages or words.

While Thorvaldsen’s written Italian remained full of errors, this was due more to his dyslexia than to any continuing difficulties in speaking or understanding the language. Fleck, op. cit., also describes Thorvaldsen’s spoken Italian as fully fluent. Thorvaldsen reportedly stated to Estrup that he did not speak any language correctly, but was an autodidact in every one of them; see Estrup, Thorvaldsen’s Biography 1818/1826. This source, however, does not refer specifically to Italian—which may mean that Thorvaldsen by that point regarded it as a mother tongue parallel to Danish, and so excluded it from consideration here. Support for this interpretation can be found in a letter dated 18.1.1808 from Herman Schubart to Thorvaldsen, in which Schubart wrote encouragingly: “If you would rather not write in Danish because you are out of practice in the mother tongue, then write in Italian.” In other words, Thorvaldsen’s Italian had already improved by this early point (1808) to such a degree that Schubart was of the impression that it would be easier for the sculptor to express himself in that language.

French

By his own account, Thorvaldsen spoke French poorly, and had learned to do so from Englishmen: he was not ashamed to speak French to them piecemeal, just as they did themselves. Nevertheless, Fleck, op. cit., calls Thorvaldsen’s grasp of French ”etwas mächtig” [rather powerful], i.e., reasonably good. There can be no doubt that he understood French well, at least; this is clear from Schubart’s remark, when referring to the French letters of his sister, Countess Charlotte Schimmelmann, that “I know that you understand the French language very well”; cf. the letter dated 2.11.1804 from Herman Schubart to Thorvaldsen.

The Archive has preserved several documents in French—a passport and letters of recommendation—from as early as 1796, the year of Thorvaldsen’s departure from Denmark, though this does not necessarily imply that he was capable of reading them. From 1801-03 we find a more extensive French correspondence between Thorvaldsen and J. C. Ulrich, the Danish consul in Leghorn (Livorno). It is likely that Thorvaldsen had help in composing his part of the exchange, given that he later hired amanuenses to write his French letters for him, such as the letter dated 7.11.1803 to Countess Charlotte Schimmelmann, or the letter dated 7.5.1804 to Irina Vorontsova. Because Thorvaldsen’s own letters to Ulrich have not been preserved, however, this hypothesis cannot be tested.

Other languages

There are no extant sources indicating that Thorvaldsen mastered any languages other than those mentioned above. Nevertheless, we can safely assume that he understood the other Scandinavian languages, certainly Swedish and Norwegian (which at the time was the same as Danish, apart from Norwegian dialects), and perhaps also a bit of Icelandic, on account of his father’s heritage.

Trendy language-switching?

A number of contemporaneous accounts indicate (as does the above evidence, along with the sources collected below) that Thorvaldsen was able to deal capably with a raucous commingling of languages. At the same time, one account of the frequent intermixing of Italian and French by Antonio Canova suggests that it may have been normal, or indeed quite “modern,” to switch language frequently. The language mixing that is reported in Thorvaldsen’s case—that among Italian, German, Danish, and French—need not necessarily (or exclusively) mean that he did not speak any of the languages fully, but simply that it was then somewhat in vogue to switch back and forth among multiple languages.

Overview of the most significant evidence of Thorvaldsen’s language skills

Statements by Thorvaldsen about his own [un]willingness to write and language abilities

Source Statement
Letter dated 2.[?]1794 from Thorvaldsen to Sophie Amalie Kurtzhals “[…] I can have the pleasure of conversation with you better than I can in writing, as you see […]”
Letter dated late 1797 from Thorvaldsen to Nicolai Abildgaard “I trust … that you will not find my letters unwelcome, no matter how meager they ultimately may turn out to be …”
Draft letter dated presumably in April 1802 from Thorvaldsen to Jørgen West “… I know full well that I deserve censure for not having written more often, but [the fact] that I have not even been answered the few times that I have written, that I do not understand …”
Letter dated ca. 1.2.1804 from Thorvaldsen to Herman Schubart “Your Excellency must forgive this jumble, that I, unused to writing, am burdening you with a letter that you [hardly] will be able to read.”
Draft letter dated presumably mid-July 1804 from Thorvaldsen to Anna Maria Uhden “… magio[r]mente per motivo che io no so scriver”
Lei Mi Scusera il mio trascurrasene che io l[e?] ho[ ]fatto[?][xx][a]spetato tanto di fare il mio dovere, ma lei sa che io non so [scrivere]”
“… ma lei sa bene che io no so scriver e per questo motive ho bavure che lei non polle lessene questo che io scrivo[.] non e sollamento trascurasene e molto meno che io posso scordarme di una Amica come lei dove ho avutto tanto finetsa ma il motivo e che ho bavure che non pottete leserne e che averette besiono da fare leger da qualch duno altro”
Draft letter dated 7.12.1804 from Thorvaldsen to Herman Schubart “From your kind letter of Nov[e]mber 26, I see that Your Excellency has not received my response, which I wrote on the next mail day[.] It is not possible for me to fulfill my obli[g]ation and duty to respond to you the same day, as I receive letters so late, even though I am such a great hero of writing.”
Letter dated 20.8.1808 from Thorvaldsen to Herman Schubart “… for I have so much to say to you that my feeble way of writing does not permit … Once again I ask you to pardon this jumble and not to allow any of our countrymen to see it[.]”
Draft letter dated no later than 22.7.1809 from Thorvaldsen to Herman Schubart “I blush as I take pen to paper to break my long silence[.] Your Excellency’s noble heart and kindness toward me, more than I deserve, will surely forgive my incurable weakness in writing …”
Letter dated 22.7.1809 from Thorvaldsen to Herman Schubart “As far as bless[ed] Zoëga’s affair[s], I am not a dawdler as I am in writing letters …”
Letter dated 8.12.1810 from Thorvaldsen to Hans West “The State Councillor knows me to be a hater of writing letters, and a lover of receiving them”
Letter dated 23.9.1813 from Thorvaldsen to Anna Maria Uhden P.S. legette questo meglio che potete ma non fatelo vedere a nesune.”
An autobiographical comment by Thorvaldsen, reported in H. F. J. Estrup, Thorvaldsen’s Biography 1818/1826 “He could wield the chisel, but not the pen; he could not even read handwriting. Reading and writing cursive was one of the most onerous tasks for him. He was a member of Borup’s Society, and was supposed to play a role at that private theater; but he skipped all of the rehearsals, and no one could fathom why. Finally it emerged that he could not read his lines.”

Statements by others about Thorvaldsen’s [un]willingness to write og abilities

Source Statement
Letter dated 29.12.1796 from Lorens Henrich Fiskers to Charlotte Amalie Fisker, jf. Thiele I, p. 75 “He [Thorvaldsen] is simply so lazy that he could not be bothered to write [to his parents] ...”
Letter dated 26.11.1804 from Herman Schubart to Thorvaldsen “Write to me in pencil [...]”
Letter dated 16.8.1805 from C. F. F. Stanley to Thorvaldsen “… and parenthetically let me be permitted to say [that] I did not expect any writing, as unter uns Gesagt [between us] I know the good sir’s dispatch in matters of writing, and the gladness and soul’s delight with which you hold the pen.”
Letter dated 30.9.1805 from Herman Schubart to C. F. F. Stanley “I long greatly for a letter from him [Thorvaldsen]; but I assign you the task, my good Stanley, of taking pen to paper if our Phidias does not have time, particularly because I know that he would rather model two groups than write one letter.”
Letter dated 20.10.1805 from Gotskalk Thorvaldsen to his son “As far as your writing is concerned, you do write well enough to be read; it need not be shown to any college; if you wrote a bit more assiduously, it would come on its own; [and] there are no great artists that write well [anyway].”
Letter dated 22.11.1808 from Herman Schubart to Thorvaldsen “I read your letter with the tenderest of feelings, and this proof of your friendship, my good Thorwaldsen, was all the more dear to our hearts because we know that you do not like to write; therefore we acknowledge it doubly.”
Letter dated 11.7.1820 from Peder Horrebow Haste to Thorvaldsen “Never in the past, good Thorvaldsen, have I attributed a single line to you. That is because I remembered perfectly well that you were no lover of writing, and so I could not expect any answer [from you]; and thus [our correspondence] had become a writing of letters, but not an exchange of them.”
Thiele I, p. XIV “Once all of this diary’s easily recognizable fragments had been assembled with burning avidity, the study remained of deciphering these unclear and often lost letters [of the alphabet], which often represented words merely phonetically, words that one had to guess, and could do so only once one had discovered a bit of the context.”
Thiele I, pp. 206-207 “He was already capable, with some strain, of reasonably good handwriting; this he must have learned from his father, to judge by comparing their scripts. But now that he was surrounded by men and women of a higher education, this was no longer enough for him; all too often he had to feel that, beside his artistic talent, there was one thing or another that he unfortunately had not learned, but which would be good and convenient if he yet could learn it. So it is that, presumably on the encouragement and instructions of Zoëga, he made the acquaintance, with the help of translations, of Homer and a few other classics; something he was to become still more interested in, as he was soon to discover that his livelihood as an artist required these exertions. But that it was in Italy, where he nonetheless planned to remain for the duration—that it was in Italy that he practiced writing in Danish, that would seem to have been more alien to him than most other things! Nevertheless, despite the antipathy to learning such things that he had consistently expressed previously, Thorvaldsen during this period, less inclined to spend his time in the studio, now used the Danish Grammar he had with him to learn by heart the most important spelling rules, hoping thereby to be able to avoid asking others for help whenever he needed, from time to time, to have a letter written.
As proof of this view, we have no more or less then this: scattered among Thorvaldsen’s papers and letters from that period, we find almost entire folders handwritten by himself full of grammatical rules, e.g., on the use of articles, the formation of the genitive, etc., studded with examples and transcripts copied from one or another Danish novel—perhaps from “Ildegerte[, Queen of Norway, by Augustus von Kotzebue],” which he had also had with him—and whose purpose can only have been language training.”
Julius Lange, op. cit., pp. 125-126 “But when he had a pen in hand, nothing was left of that great, rare man; it simply did not occur to him that one could write just as one talked. This was undoubtedly connected to the caution and suspicion about all manner of worldly affairs that emerged early in him. He was as careful with the written word as with a commoner who hesitates to put anything on paper that he could later be harmed by. His friend Ludvig Bødtcher’s droll verse, In ink there is a power so queer / It makes even Lucifer shudder in fear, can also be said to apply to him. His wise and bright spirit acknowledged full well, that on this point he was so technically incorrigible, that he could be bested by a schoolboy; and so he found it better simply to take a pass—to the extent that he could do so in an age that made letter-writing into a monstrous luxury.”

Statements by Thorvaldsen about his own foreign language abilities

Source Statement
Letter dated 5.1.1795 from Thorvaldsen to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts “[I request] to be allowed to retain for the present year the stipend that was granted to me in the preceding years, because this would help me significantly to be able to continue my training, and also because, with the same help, I could acquire the language proficiencies without which no progress would be possible.”
Thorvaldsen’s diary 1797 (entry dated January 30, 1797) “there are some beautiful ladies, and the most beautiful one speaks German ...”
An autobiographical remark recorded in H. F. J. Estrup, Thorvaldsen’s Biography 1818/1826 “There were so many holes to fill in his knowledge; he understood only his mother tongue; ... German he learned from keeping company with Germans; French he learned by speaking with Englishmen, and felt no shame with them when learning it, as they spoke French just about as poorly as he did. He is an autodidact in every language, but also speaks all of them equally imperfectly.”

Statements by others about Thorvaldsen’s foreign language abilities

Source Statement
Letter dated 29.12.1796 from Lorens Henrich Fiskers to Charlotte Amalie Fisker; cf. Thiele I, p. 75 “He [Thorvaldsen] is simply so lazy … he had no desire, while on board, to learn a word of the language.”
Letter dated 27.1.1797 from Vincenzo Manno topFrancesco Manno “Di bocca, a bocca non gli potrete parlare perché non capisce l’italiano, senon che sua lingua Alemarchese. ”
Letter dated 6.3.1797 from Ernst Morace to Giuseppe Carnesecca “… per la lingua Italiana non la capisce affatto, mà spero che l’imparera presto …”
Letter dated 26.3.1798 from Charles Bassi to Thorvaldsen “[Ritardo m]olto in scrivervi, essendo molto imbaraz[ato con] lingua vi parlerei, Ho scelto infine [xxxxxxxxxxx]erard[x]o che la capirete meglio; ed in ogni [xxxxxxxxxxx citt]adino Zoegart [x]e la spieghera;”
Letter dated 2.11.1804 from Herman Schubart to Thorvaldsen “This morning I received a letter from Copenhagen in which my sister speaks of you, my good friend, and I will here transcribe the entire thing, as I know that you understand the French language very well.”
Letter dated 18.1.1808 from Herman Schubart to Thorvaldsen “If you would rather not write in Danish because you are out of practice in the mother tongue, then write in Italian.”
August Wilhelm Schlegel cf. Schlegel/Böcking, op. cit. “Ich freue mich, einen jungen Künstler nenen zu können, der, mit den herrlichsten Anlagen begabt, diese Laufbahn betritt; und den wir uns gewissermassen zueignen dürfen, da er, wiewohl ein Däne von Geburt, wie ein Deutscher unsere Sprache redet, und ganz deutsche Bildung besitzt. Es ist Thorvaldsen.”
Henriette Herz, op. cit., p. 221, also published in the Archives Nur war mit beiden [i.e. Koch & Thorvaldsen] nicht allzuviel zu sprechen…; mit Thorwaldsen nicht, weil er eigentlich gar keine Sprache spricht, denn seine Muttersprache hat er fast vergessen, und doch keine andere Sprache gut genug gelernt, um sich mit Leichtigkeit in derselben auszudrücken. Oft betrachtete ich den herrlichen Kopf, das wunderbar strahlende blaue Auge des großen Künstlers, und dachte: wie trefflich müßte der Mann sprechen wenn er überhaupt sprechen könnte! – Was er aber auszudrücken wußte, zeugte von Gesundheit und Tüchtigkeit. –
Friederike Brun, op. cit., p. 10 “… our young one [i.e., young Thorvaldsen], wholly unacquainted with the world, a stranger to every language other than Danish …”
Ferdinand Florens Fleck, op. cit. “Er spricht wenig und hat selbst die deutsche Sprache nicht hinlänglich in der Gewalt. Das Dänische ist sein vaterländisches Idiom. Von fremden Sprachen ist er nur des Italiänischen vollkommen und des Französischen etwas mächtig.”
Peder Horrebow Haste, op. cit. “… He understood German, and could make himself understood, even if he by no means spoke it correctly.”
Thiele III, p. 88 [Thorvaldsen is cited as having responded to the news that his studio in Rome had partially collapsed with the following remark in German:]
“Wenn nur menschliche Verworfenheit nicht im Spiele ist; – mit den Elementen und den leblosen Stoffen lässt sich nicht kämpfen!”
Wolfgang Menzel, op. cit. “His speech is halting from time to time, as he has not fully mastered the German language; but he speaks no useless words, and everything he does say is pithy and poignant. In this he is very reminiscent of our Uhland, who does not speak fluently either, but always solidly.”
Adam Oehlenschläger, op. cit. “He [Thorvaldsen] had learned Italian and German in daily use, but always spoke them with an accent from Christenbernikowstræde.”
Friedrich Noack, op. cit. “… der Däne Thorwaldsen, der sich ganz zur deutschen Künstlerschaft hielt, obschon er das Deutsche ebenso mangelhaft sprach wie das Italienische und wie seine Muttersprache, die er in Rom verlernt hatte …”
Th. v. Liebenau, op. cit., p. 23 “Die Unterhandlung mit dem Phidias des Nordens war auch desshalb um so schwieriger, weil dieser fast nur der dänischen Sprache mächtig war, mühesam italienisch und französisch sprach und alle einlaufenden Briefe uneröffnet in den Rumpf einer Statue steckte. Von Zeit zu Zeit erbrachen Thorwaldsens Freunde diese Briefe, theilten den Inhalt derselben dem Künstler mit und fragten, ob und was sie zu anworten hätten.”

Statements by Thorvaldsen about the reasons for his own level of language ability

Source Statement
An autobiographical comment by Thorvaldsen recorded in H. F. J. Estrup, Thorvaldsen’s Biography 1818/1826 “The time when he was not at the Academy belonged to his father, and it is conceivable that his further studies and education would have had to suffer.”
An autobiographical comment by Thorvaldsen recorded by Christine Stampe cf. Stampe, op. cit., p. 37 “He often complained that he had never learned [writing], ‘for as a boy I [Thorvaldsen] was full of pranks and had no time for it, and later I was ashamed.’”

Statements by others about the reasons for Thorvaldsen’s level of language ability

Source Statement
Letter dated 29.12.1796 from Lorens Henrich Fiskers to Charlotte Amalie Fisker; cf. Thiele I, p. 75 “He [Thorvaldsen] is simply so lazy that he could not be bothered to write [to his parents], and he had no desire, while on board, to learn a word of the language.”

Examples of Thorvaldsen’s epigrammatic style and linguistic fluency

Source Statement
Thiele I, p. 182 [During a tour of Thorvaldsen’s studio many years after Jason, A52, was cast in plaster, apparently at the expense of the author Friederike Brun, she declared upon seeing the statue:] “‘Da steht mein Sohn! Nicht wahr, Thorvaldsen?’—Somewhat sheepish at this expression of maternal joy, our artist drily replied: ‘Er hat Ihnen nur wenig Geburtsschmerzen gekostet!’”
H. F. J. Estrup’s Biography of Thorvaldsen 1818/1826 “While he was occupied with [work in King Christian VIII’s Amalienborg Palace, 1794] the famous sculptor Soergel [i.e., Johan Tobias Sergel] is said to have come to him and asked how he had managed to create such beautiful figures. Thorvaldsen pointed to his scraper and replied, in his laconic way: ‘With this.’”
Christine Stampe cf. Stampe, op. cit., pp. 36-37 “Just as he could draw incomparably fitting caricatures that one could recognize immediately, so too could he make fitting observations. Thus he called one young girl, who had something in her demeanor that should have been noble, ‘The failed Madonna,’ and all of us found this so fitting that we went on to call her that privately.”

Statements by others about Thorvaldsen’s linguistic fluency, or lack thereof

Source Statement
Rasmus Emil Bruun, in a letter to Frederik Barfoed, July 1817; cf. Bruun, op. cit., p. 543 “Thorvaldsen is not rich in words, but his speech is weighty and bold; truth dwells on his lips, and all dissimulation is alien to him.”
Thiele 1831, pp. 4-5 “He spoke very little, with answers that were short and to the point. Much as his answers today are not infrequently epigrammatically sharpened, then too they were often, in their direct naturalness, humorously on the mark. When he stood at his easel, he was so silent, so taciturn, that he seldom answered ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ if it sufficed to nod or shake his head. If asked for advice or help about a drawing, he would respond, after a quick but gently perceptive look at the matter, merely by pointing a finger.”
Fr. Barfod, op. cit, p. 83 “I visit him gladly every Sunday morning. How warmly he welcomes every countryman! He gives us a tour of his rooms, and with tireless good humor shows us all of his artistic treasures; then he sets himself to work, and while his expert hand conjures up incomparably beautiful bas-reliefs in clay, which will forever be objects of the world’s admiration, he speaks with indescribable heartiness and uprightness about art, politics, the news of the day—those in Rome but also, and most of all, those we have had from home.”
Ferdinand Florens Fleck, op. cit. “He speaks little [...]”
Wolfgang Menzel, op. cit. “On festive occasions, he sits cheerfully among the youngest and least distinguished of the artists, drinking and singing with them, without letting them give him dominance, but also without forgetting his age. With the exception of Ludvig Tieck, I have never met an older man so gracious as Thorvaldsen. Nor does he speak much, except when it comes to interesting objects of art, on which he could indeed wax warmly … he speaks no useless words, and everything he does say is pithy and poignant.”
P. Johansen, op. cit. p. 535 “Because he was a gracious and taciturn man, who did not disagree or provide long explanations, the others did not perceive how superior his understanding [e.g., of classical antiquity] was to theirs, and so they pegged him as spiritually undistinguished.”
Julius Lange, op. cit., p. 125 “In his friendly relations, Thorvaldsen was neither taciturn nor closed-off; indeed, he was quite ingenious in his use of words. Small epigrams dropped from his mouth in Laconian style, and spiced with Attic salt as well: utterances that united wisdom and naivety as from a pre-Homeric age.”

References

  • Fr. Barfod: Thorvaldsensk Album, Copenhagen [1844].
  • Friederike Brun, née Münter: “Noget om den danske Billedhugger i Rom: Albert Thorvaldsen,” in: Athene, January 1815. Originally printed in Morgenblatt für gebildete Stände, nos. 191-193 and 197-198, 10.-12.8 and 17.-18.8.1812.
  • Rasmus Emil Bruun: “Noget fra Rom og om Thorvaldsen,” in: Athene, IX, 1817.
  • H. F. J. Estrup’s biography of Thorvaldsen 1818/1826.
  • Ferdinand Florens Fleck: Wissenschaftliche Reise durch das südliche Deutschland, Italien Sicilien und Frankreich, Leipzig 1837, vol. 1, p. 238.
  • Peder Horrebow Haste: “Bidrag til Thorwaldsens Levnet og Characteristik,” in: Archiv for Historie og Geographi XVI, 1824, p. 369-370.
  • Carsten Hauch: Minder fra min første Udenlandsreise, Copenhagen 1871, p. 244-245.
  • J. L. Heiberg: Et Liv gjenoplevet i Erindringen, vol. II, p. 19-32, Copenhagen 1944.
  • Henriette Herz: Ihr Leben und ihre Erinnerungen, Berlin 1850.
  • P. Johansen: “Hvordan kom Thorvaldsen til Rom? En Renvask,” in: Gads danske Magasin, vol. 18 (October 1924), p. 531-536.
  • Julius Lange: “Tre utrykte Breve fra Thorvaldsen,” in: Georg Brandes and P. Købke (eds.): Udvalgte Skrifter af Julius Lange, vol. I, Copenhagen 1900, originally published in Tilskueren 1890.
  • Th. v. Liebenau: Oberst Carl Pfyffer von Altishofen und das Löwendenkmal in Luzern. Erinnerungsblätter zur Feier des siebenzigjährigen Bestandes der Kunstgesellschaft der Stadt Luzern, Lucerne 1889, p. 23.
  • Jørn Lund: “Sproget i Thorvaldsens dagbog og tidlige breve,” in: Meddelelser fra Thorvaldsens Museum 2008, Copenhagen 2008.
  • Wolfgang Menzel: “Om Thorvaldsen og hans Værker,” in: A.P. Liunge: Kjöbenhavnsposten, vol. 10, no. 93 (March 29, 1836), p. 1 (allegedly from a “journey to Italy in Spring 1835”).
  • Friedrich Noack: Deutsches Leben in Rom 1700 bis 1900, Stuttgart and Berlin 1907, p. 191.
  • Adam Oehlenschläger: Erindringer, vol. IV, Copenhagen 1851, p. 187.
  • Otto Christian Schepelern: “P. O. Brøndsted as Royal Danish court agent in Rome,” p. 98, in: Bodil Bundgaard Rasmussen et al. (eds.): Peter Oluf Brøndsted (1780-1842): A Danish Classist in his European Context, Historisk-filosofiske Skrifter 31, Det Kongelige Videnskabernes Selskab, [Copenhagen] 2008.
  • August Wilhelm Schlegel: “Schreiben an Goethe über einige Arbeiten in Rom lebender Künstler im Sommer 1805,” in: Intelligenzblatt der Jenaischen allgemeinen Literatur-Zeitung, 23.-28.10.1805; reprinted in Eduard Böcking (ed.): August Wilhelm von Schlegel’s sämmtliche Werke, vol. IX, Leipzig 1846, p. 239-241.
  • Rigmor Stampe (ed.): Baronesse Stampes Erindringer om Thorvaldsen, Copenhagen 1912.
  • Thiele’s biography of Thorvaldsen, vols. I-IV, 1851-56.

Last updated 18.09.2015