Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Italian
Journey 1786-1788. Translated by
W.H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer.
North Point Press, 508 pages, $16.50

"When I arrived in Italy I felt reborn; now I feel re-educated . . . When I get home you will judge for yourselves how well I have used my eyes. My old habit of sticking to the objective and concrete has given me an ability to read things at sight, so to speak . . . Angelica [Kaufmann] has paid me the compliment of saying that she knows very few people in Rome who see better in art than I do."

Goethe's letters from Italy, which make up the greater part of this compilation[1] (originally published in installments as Italienische Reise), were increasingly punctuated by these confident testimonials to himself as an Augenmensch, a seeing eye in the chapels and galleries of art, a daily improving connoisseur convinced that he was on the track of those "laws of Nature" which would enable him to explain the "laws of Art." A week after relaying Angelica Kaufmann's flattery to a friend in Germany, Goethe visited the Accademia di San Luca, where "the skull of Raphael" was preserved. "This relic seems to me to be authentic. An exquisite bone structure in which a beautiful soul could walk about in comfort . . . as I left I thought how all lovers of Nature and Art would value a cast of this skull, if it were in any way possible to get one made." Before leaving Rome he arranged to have a cast made for him and sent to Germany. In later years, he often "looked and reflected" upon it. The skull was not authentic.

On the same occasion, he was further delighted at the Accademia by "Raphael's picture of the Madonna appearing to St. Luke, so that he may paint her in all her divine grace and beauty. At some distance from the painting evangelist stands Raphael himself, still in his youth. It would be impossible to express more charmingly the way in which a man finds himself drawn to a particular vocation." The painting was not by Raphael.

So much for "sticking to the objective and the concrete"! The truth is that, when it came to art, the great Goethe, at the age of thirty-seven, thoroughly enslaved by the "Antique" ideal, couldn't tell chalk from cheese. Any graduate student of art history today knows more about the subject than Goethe and most of his contemporaries, not because he has been endowed with instinctively superior insight but because his taste and his knowledge has been conditioned by the researches of men most of whom weren't born when in 1786 Goethe set out for Italy with Nature, Reason, and Winckelmann as his principal guides. All of us today who know which paintings and buildings to look for, and where, and why, owe an everlasting debt to Ruskin and Burckhardt, to Wolfflin and Berenson, to Elie Faure and Spengler and Malraux, to Lionello Venturi and Sir Kenneth Clark.

Goethe was not unaware of how much he didn't know but he was in thrall to an insidious habit; he invariably separated his intellectual deductions from the euphoria he experienced when confronted by the category of art he had consented to admire on principle: the Classical, which, to judge by his rare superlatives, had prepared him only for such painters as Mantegna, Veronese, and Raphael. Yet he recognized, on viewing the "immense wealth" and the "scattered fragments" of Rome, the urgent need for distinguishing epochs and tracing the history of styles. "You must ask the right questions," he told himself. "Judgment is impossible without a knowledge of historical development." Whereupon, in the next breath, he asks himself the wrong question: "What was the process by which these incomparable artists [the ancient Greeks] evolved from the human body the circle of their godlike shapes, a perfect circle from which not one essential, incidental or transitional feature was lacking?"

No matter where he started from, Goethe always arrived at the Apollo Belvedere. He vitiated the possibility of ever distinguishing among epochs by assuming that perfection had already been achieved (in the sculpture of a single epoch and in the architecture of Palladio, who alone had recovered antique purity!). However much he had helped initiate the Romantic temper with The Sorrows of Werther, however far he was thereafter to extend his genius, in 1786 the man who was writing Faust was totally indifferent to Faustian art. At the conscious level he was impenitently an eighteenth-century mind, insisting that he "always looked at landscape with the eye of a geologist, suppressing [his] imagination and emotions in order to preserve [his] faculty for clear and unbiased observation." If this drab declaration accounts for the many inhibited moments when he falls back on the stock evasion "mere words cannot describe," it is not an unfailing formula. Certainly he had an eye for landscape, elemental or fruitful, that did not halt at the border of geology and he certainly had an eye, and car, for the people he observed in the palazzi or in the popular theater of Venice, in the salons of Rome and in the isolated villages of Sicily. But he learned slowly that circumstances, and scenery, alter cases, that his observations of the particular were forever giving the lie to the general conclusions he was anxiously striving to embrace. As in the arts, so in society. When he had been in Italy for a year, understandably changing his opinion about the generic Italian in every province, he settled for this conclusion, in Rome, where there had lately been a local epidemic of ferocious killing: "All I can say about the Italians is this: they are children of Nature, who for all the pomp and circumstance of their religion and art, are not a whit different from what they would be if they were still living in forests and caves." (Note how the meaning of "Nature" has here undergone a metamorphosis.)

The seeming finality of this verdict did not prevent him, some months later, from reverting to the illusion of the period that the contemplation of beauty infallibly makes men virtuous. To live in Rome (he is convinced on the eve of leaving it), where antique statues face you every day with man in his most human form, is to be "permeated with their presence until it becomes impossible ever again to relapse into barbarism." (It follows that if you have Raphael's genius your skull will have an exquisite bone structure to complement your soul—and God help a Caravaggio!). The sorry thing is that he more often suppressed his imagination and his emotions—and oddly enough his otherwise driving curiosity—when he was within reach of the "immense wealth" of art that he glimpsed in Rome but that was by no means confined to that city. Having visited Padua, Venice, and Assisi, where he had contrived to ignore the presences of Giotto, Donatello, and Tintoretto (to name only his outstanding blank pages), he was so eager to get to Rome that only with fretful patience did he waste a day by entering Florence. Of the city in Europe perhaps most densely crammed with monuments of Western painting and sculpture, he had this—nothing further—to say.

I took a quick walk through the city to see the Duomo and the Bartistero. Once more, a completely new world opened up before me but I did nor wish to stay long. The location of the Boboli Gardens is marvellous. I hurried out of the city as quickly as I entered it.

If at this juncture we are not to abandon Goethe in a fit of exasperation we need to remind ourselves that his shocking rejection was probably a commonplace. We are reading a bland chapter in the history of taste. If Angelica Kaufrnann's compliment was sincere it indicates what the climate of opinion must have been among the cognoscenti of Italy in the 1780s, dominated as they were by the Classical prejudice of a century.

Paradoxically, the French Revolution and the ascendancy of Napoleon renewed the obsession, if in modified forms, by evoking the spirit of Republican Rome, which in turn inspired the Philhellenic movement, animated by Lord Byron's propaganda for the liberation of Greece. Thirty years after Goethe's willed indifference to Florence, Byron echoed it, confessing to a correspondent, before leaving Venice for Rome, that he had not the least curiosity about Florence but supposed he "must see it for the sake of the Venus, etc. etc." He was as good as his word, reporting that in April of 1817 he had remained in the city "but a day . . . I went to the two galleries [presumably the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace ] from which one returns drunk with beauty. The Venus is more for admiration than love," This is scarcely less begrudging than Goethe's whirlwind excursion, although Byron did perfunctorily mention Michelangelo's Night in the Medici chapel. Of paintings he said little more than Goethe. Conceivably he was too drunk with beauty to recall the source of his intoxication.

If the author of Don Juan, notorious for the audacities he provoked from an uninhibited empiricism, could be intimidated by political bias into visiting Florence only for "the Venus, etc. etc.," we can imagine how few loving and disinterested students of early Renaissance art there must have been in any Italian city before the end of the century, how few spectators in Florence alone there probably were who might have sensed with a thrill of discovery what they were looking at in, let us say, the art of Fra Angelico, Lorenzetti, Masaccio, Ghiberti, Donatello—to go no farther.

And we can perhaps begin to understand how Goethe, with earnest intentions, deprived himself of more art than he ever assimilated while he juggled those confounding dualities—Reason and Emotion, Observation and Instinct, Imagination and Science—and engaged himself in unreal problems, such as having to reconcile the serenity of Raphael with the Vesuvian power of Michelangelo. An amusing contretemps of his divisive method of scrutiny was his discovery of a leaning tower in Bologna. I presume that it leaned for the same reason as the one that has survived in Pisa. It was insecurely based and the foundations shifted. But Goethe's "clear and unbiased observation" led him to examine the tower close up and, after confirming that the layers of brick ran horizontally, he proposed an explanation that has stronger magic. During the time of civil feuds, every powerful family built its own tower as a point of honor and a symbol of prestige. Since in due time, so runs his argument, perpendicular towers became commonplace, someone yawned—and deliberately built a leaning one!

There are reasons for visiting Italy other than seeing works of art. (There are none better.) If Italian Journey were wholly a record of Goethe's solecisms on art and architecture it would scarcely be worth a Mass. But the sum is more engrossing than the parts. Goethe as traveler is much more reliable than Goethe as aesthete. He conveys with tireless (sometimes tiresome) attention to person, place, and weather, the sheerly physical experience of traversing the peninsula from the Alps to Sicily. Better than any contemporary travelogue I can remember, his day-to-day record reminds us that to have made one's way from Verona to Vesuvius (which he ascended in between eruptions) was to have observed a radically different country from the one we visit now; as anywhere in 1786, the tyranny of space prolonged the hours and magnified the innumerable encounters with personality that in our century, for better or worse, are eliminated. Today you can hop to Taormina or Syracuse with no distinct impression that you have left Italy. In Goethe's day, you sailed to Palermo (from Naples, flying a white flag against pirates) and in the wilds of Sicily you were submitted to discomforts that surpassed the worst of those endemic to the mainland, and from these there was no rapid escape.

Goethe was the least neurotic of travelers and his Sicilian narrative is a triumph of euphemism over misgiving. Enthralled by such diversities as mulberry trees, shell-limestone formations, a flank of Etna looming in the sky (its summit and base obscured by clouds), the Temple of Segesta, and landscapes under a full moon or flooded with sunsets unrivaled in his memory, he managed to rise above the manifold miseries we infer from a few mordant passages, in which he makes no attempt to modify the desolation. Often he struggled on muleback in sopping weather through a daytime hell of uninhabited and roadless country only to arrive at a village where there was no inn, as at Castrogiovanni, where he and his devoted guide were confined to "a room with plastered stone floor and shutters but no window, so that either we had to sit in the dark or put up with the drizzling rain from which we had just escaped." In Messina (destroyed by an earthquake three years before) he was treated to a "terrifying picture of a devastated city . . . We rode our mules through ruin after ruin till we came to our inn . . . the only house which had been rebuilt and from its upper floor we looked out over a wasteland . . . Outside the premises of this sort of farmstead, there was no sign of man or beast. The silence during the night was uncanny. The doors could neither be locked or barred and there was as little provision for human guests as in any stable."

We might well regret that he was preoccupied with so many personal projects and with so many demands on his attention that he only touched in passing the subject for which he had a predilection quite unusual in his Apollonian century: the significance of ritual, especially when it involved sublimated rehearsals of death.[2] This is the only subject where his perception can be described as psychological; it is certainly the only one with which, as unlikely as it sounds, he can be said to intersect the Italian territory of D. H. Lawrence. It is illustrated with eloquent detail (so eloquent that I am moved to believe he composed the greater pan of it at the time he published the final section of this journal, forty years later) in his synopsis of the Roman Carnival, which takes place before Lent and which was then virtually confined to a single street, the Corso. Like all pre-Lenten carnivals, the Roman occasion was one of complete license: the abolition of social distinctions, the donning of masks, the performance of derisive theatricals, and at its climax the defusing of latent aggressions in a mass crescendo of—candle-snuffing.

It becomes everyone's duty to earn a lighted candle and the favorite imprecation of the Romans, Sia ammazzato, is heard repeatedly on all sides. Sia ammazzato chi non parta moccolo!: "Death to anyone not carrying a candle." This is what you say to others, while at the same time you try to blow out their candles. No matter who it belongs to, friend or stranger, you try to blow out the nearest candle, or light your own from it first and then blow it out . . . All ages and classes contend furiously. Carriage steps are climbed; no chandelier and scarcely a paper lantern is safe. A boy blows out his father's candle, shouting Sia ammazzato il Signore Padre! In vain the old man scolds him . . . the boy claims the freedom of the evening and curses his father all the more vehemently.

As everyone gathers at the center of the Corso, the crush and heat of the heedless roaring mob and the smoke from a multitude of candles being blown out and relit make for a Saturnalia of nightmare proportions. Meditating on this exuberant if suffocating revelry (on Ash Wednesday, he claimed), Goethe astutely read the Carnival as a consummate version of la strada:

. . . a vulgar Pulcinella recalls to us the pleasures of love to which we owe our existence; a Baubo [bawdy nurse] profanes in a public place the mysteries of birth and motherhood, and the many lighted candles remind us of the ultimate ceremony. The long narrow Corso, packed with people, recalls to us no less the road of our earthly life. There, too, a man is both actor and spectator; there loo, in disguise or out of it, he has too little room to himself and whether in a carriage or on foot can only advance by inches . . . life, taken as a whole, is like the Roman Carnival, unpredictable, unsatisfactory and problematic.

Perhaps, after all, Goethe's reflections on "the skull of Raphael" had led him to a more authentic conclusion than any he might have reached in the domain of the fine arts.


  1. This English edition was first published by Pantheon in 1962. W.H. Auden's translation, while lucid, is unresourceful and surprisingly redundant. Redundancy is the characteristic of Goethe we can most readily spare. Go back to the text.
  2. During his Italian interlude, Goethe was rewriting Iphigenie and working on Tasso (begun nine years before), on Egmont, (begun eleven years before), and on Faust (begun eighteen years before. Go back to the text.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 1 Number 8 , on page 76
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