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Painted portrait of a man. © GWLB

Portrait: Gottfried Wihlem Leibniz.

a portrait of his life

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

A portrait of his life: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz – the last polymath – died almost 300 years ago.

A few months before his death in November 1716, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz received a high-ranking visitor in Hannover: the Russian Czar Peter the Great was taking the waters in Bad Pyrmont and spent two days visiting the great mathematician and philosopher at Herrenhausen Palace. They chatted about astronomy, shipping and Leibniz’ calculator for the four basic arithmetical operations. Shortly afterwards, George I, Elector of Hannover and simultaneously King of England, paid a brief visit to his home town and was equally fascinated by Leibniz. As Leibniz believed that resting was the inevitable route to stupidity, he conducted research and correspondence throughout the 70 years of his life. To commemorate the 300th anniversary of his death in 2016, his home town of Hannover will be staging many different events and celebrations in memory of Leibniz.

He was the last universal genius, as no other person since Leibniz has been so erudite in so many different fields of knowledge. However, that can also be attributed to the fact that he lived before the “knowledge explosion” that erupted in the 20th century. So what made Leibniz, born in Leipzig as the son of a professor of philosophy, decide to come to Hannover of all places?

Perfect Latin at the age of eight

His talent for quickly absorbing complicated subject matter became apparent at a very early stage in his life. He could already read at the age of four and enjoyed browsing through his father’s Greek and Latin library. By the time he was eight, he had already taught himself Latin. He was also fascinated by mathematics, physics and religion. He already had a doctorate in both the secular and ecclesiastical systems by the time he was 20. He was particularly attracted to the sciences and soon invented the first calculator for the four basic arithmetical operations. He developed the binary system of the digits 0 and 1, which paved the way for modern computer technology. He also expounded the theory of monads, the ultimate elements of the universe. Aged just 15, he had already posited the theory that everything might ultimately be connected to everything else.

From submarine to wall plugs

Leibniz designed not only windmills in the Harz Mountain region, but also Europe’s largest fountain in Herrenhausen Gardens. He was a firm believer in utility and his drawing board consequently featured items such as chain-mail shirts, plans for a submarine or nails with saw edges – a kind of wall plug. Iron-clad wheels that ran on rollers facilitated transport in rough terrain. The only book he published during his lifetime was the “Theodicy”, which attempted to justify God’s imperfections and the principle of free will. He believed that people lived in the “best of all possible worlds”. Leibniz, who was well educated in all fields of knowledge, held peace to be a prime objective and realized the importance of endeavoring to learn from other nations rather than wage war against them. He is regarded as the pioneer of the Age of Enlightenment, which used reason to combat prejudice and superstition.

Strolling the gardens with Sophia

He usually wrote in Latin – the most common language in the 17th century – or in French. However, he was also fluent in English, Italian, Dutch and Hebrew and even had a smattering of Russian and Chinese. He enjoyed conversing with Electress Sophia, who lived in Hannover with her husband Ernest Augustus and was responsible for developing the magnificent Herrenhausen Gardens. The baroque garden was a favorite haunt of Leibniz and the Electress. However, there were few others in Hannover who could match his intellect. When Leibniz arrived in Hannover with the mail coach in December 1676, the settlement around the ford over the River Leine was not exactly a metropolis: the Old Town had a population of around 6500, whilst some 2000 people lived in the New Town on the opposite bank of the Leine.

Councillor to the Duke of Guelph

Duke John Frederick had already endeavored for some time to entice Leibniz to his court as a legal advisor and councillor. Leibniz’ patrons at the electoral court in Mainz had died and he actually wished to move to London or Paris, but there was no one there who would fund him. That is why he finally accepted the offer to go to Hannover. The Duke of Guelph, who belonged to the oldest dynasty in Europe, urgently needed a legal advisor and man of learning to help him defend his position in the many quarrels with hostile princes. He also wanted Leibniz to conduct research into the Guelph family tree and the family assets. Leibniz spent 40 years in Hannover working more or less seriously on that assignment, but never completed it. The Duke soon appointed him to the office of librarian at Leineschloss Palace, but Leibniz found it painful to bear only the lowly title of librarian. As Privy Councillor and later Legal Councillor, he was a ducal civil servant and the Duke’s closest advisor on all questions of life, justice and war. He drew a monthly salary. In 1691, he was also appointed librarian of the Herzog August library in Wolfenbüttel.

Close contact to the dignitaries of Europe

Leibniz satisfied his thirst for knowledge in two different ways: firstly, he travelled frequently to other capital cities, covering a total of around 20,000 kilometers by horse-drawn carriage. In those days, it took several weeks to travel from Hannover to Paris and back again. On his travels, he met other scientists and politicians, heard about new inventions, conducted his research into the House of Guelph and cultivated diplomatic connections. While taking the waters in Karlsbad, for example, he arranged a meeting with Russian Czar Peter the Great. He persuaded Elector Frederick III of Brandenburg to found an Academy of Science in Berlin. This was done in 1700 and Leibniz was its first president. However, he continued to live in Hannover, where he had moved into the building known as “Leibnizhaus” in the Old Town two years earlier. The building was destroyed in World War II, but has been rebuilt as a replica between the Museum of History and Leineschloss Palace (now the state parliament of Lower Saxony).

Evaluation of Leibniz’ correspondence by 2048

The second way in which Leibniz exchanged his ideas and opinions with others was in letters. To date, 1100 correspondents from 16 different countries have been counted. The greater part of his approx. 15,000 letters is kept in Hannover and his correspondence has been inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. The letters are still being studied and repeatedly bring new findings to light. This correspondence is the greatest legacy any scholar has ever left for posterity. After Leibniz’ death, George I, Elector of Hannover and King of England, had the 200,000 pages of correspondence and books confiscated from the private library, as he feared that they might reveal secrets. It is thanks to these fears that this treasure has been preserved until the present day. There are plans to publish a complete edition of Leibniz’ correspondence in 2048.

Long wig and personal fragrance

Leibniz was an imposing figure, especially in Hannover. He normally wore a long black wig, as was usual at court. He attached great importance to personal hygiene. He visited spas to take the waters and obviously had a pleasant body odor. This was very rare at the time and is evident from letters sent to him by female admirers. He wore embroidered jackets, a cravat, knee-length hose with long stockings and shoes with buckles. He had his carriage lined with velvet and frequently used it to travel to his garden, near what is now Aegidientorplatz, where he planted tobacco and grew mulberry trees in order to breed silkworms.

A cupboard full of slips of paper

He obviously never took a wife or had a partner, allegedly because he never had the time. He is said to have complained that he never found the right woman. The permanently restless scholar was always busy scribbling all over pieces of paper, jotting down his ideas or recording the essence of conversations he had had. He threw all these notes into a large cupboard, to be fished out again at a later date – exactly as one would expect of a genius.

Encounters with Leibniz in the city:

  • Herrenhausen Palace Museum portrays Leibniz’ life (Herrenhäuser Str. 4)
  • Bronze bust of Leibniz with binary digits 0 and 1 at Operndreieck, a small triangular park at the Opera House (corner of Georgstrasse/An der Börse)
  • Leibniz’ house (Holzmarkt 4-6, Old Town)
  • Leibniz Temple (Georgengarten)
  • Leibniz University (Welfengarten 1) features his contributions to science on plaques with texts and illustrations and a replica of his “step reckoner” in the atrium         
  • Leibniz receiving a laurel wreath from Electress Sophia (frieze on the main façade to the right of the entrance to the New Town Hall, Trammplatz 2)
  • Leibniz cookie (figure on the façade of Bahlsen headquarters in Lister Platz, Podbielskistr. 11)
  • Leibniz’ grave, with a sandstone headstone bearing the inscription: OSSA LEIBNITII – the bones of Leibniz (Neustädter Kirche, Rote Reihe 8, Calenberger Neustadt)
  • Leibniz sculpture (façade of Künstlerhaus, Sophienstr. 2, on a corbel under a canopy on the outer left wing)
  • Leibnizufer (flea market in the Old Town)
  • Leibniz quotation (light installation by Joseph Kosuth on the outer wall of the Museum of History, facing the River Leine)
  • Leibniz quotation on the VGH building (Schiffgraben 4, near Aegidientorplatz. This is where Leibniz came up with the idea of fire insurance and also planned his garden)
  • Leibniz library with quotation in a granite slab and bust of Leibniz in the foyer (Waterloostr. 8): “I am not accustomed to subjugating myself to certain political whims of a few great masters.”
  • Leibniz head on Leibniz library’s Volkswagen van (portrait designed by the artist Tobias Schreiber)
  • Portrait of Leibniz (1711, unknown artist, Museum of History, Old Town)