Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Italian Journey is a memorable picture of Italy at the end of the eighteenth century. Italian Journey portrays Goethe’s joy and struggle to satisfy his intellectual curiosity and commitment to understanding art. “With great objects [of art] around,” he said, the purpose of his trip was “to learn and to improve myself ere I am forty years old.” (He began the journey at 37.) Goethe traveled throughout Italy from 1786 to 1788. Upon arriving he declared his “delight that the language I always loved now becomes living—the language of common usage!” His peripatetic mind comments knowledgeably on the country’s geology, botany, architecture, sculpture and painting. Finding artistic beauty in statuary of a local cemetery, he says:
The tombs give touching evidences of a genuine feeling, and always bring life back to us. Here is a man by the side of his wife, who peeps out of a niche, as if it were a window. Here are father and mother, with their son between them, eyeing each other as naturally as possible. Here a couple are grasping each other’s hands. Here a father, resting on his couch, seems to be amused by his family. The immediate proximity of these stones was to me highly touching. They . . . are simple, natural, and generally pleasing. The artist has produced the mere simple presence of the persons, and has thus given a permanent continuation to their existence. They do not fold their hands, they do not look toward heaven; but they are here below just what they were and just what they are.
Italy’s classical tradition—still its raison d’être as a tourist destination—stimulates a deep chord:
It is in my nature to admire, willingly and joyfully, all that is great and beautiful; and the cultivation of this talent day after day, hour after hour, by the inspection of such beautiful objects, produces the happiest feelings.
Painting, sculpture and architecture are the highest form of art, for
say what [you] will in favour of a written and oral communication: it is only in a very few cases indeed that it is at all adequate; for it never can convey the true character of any object —no, not even of a purely intellectual one. But if one has already enjoyed a sure and steady view of the object, then one may profitably hear or read about it.
Though many say Italian Journey is a classic travelogue, it is a difficult text. Page after page of dry observations, artistic criticism and revelry about Italy’s gorgeous weather take a toll. And just when you’ve about had it, Goethe brings relief. Unexpectedly, up pops a powerful truth, one that travel activates:
In order to form an idea of the highest achievements of the human mind, the soul must first attain to perfect freedom from prejudice and prepossession.
— Tucker Cox, Zeteo Contributing Writer
Image: Johann Tischbein, Goethe in the Roman Compagna, c. 1786, Frankfurt, Städelshes Kunstinstitut (photo in public domain).
A dated (1986) and long, but interesting piece by James M. Markham of the New York Times discusses Goethe’s itinerary. Click here.
Next week – Goethe’s views on Raphael and Michael Angelo, Rome and Italians – still relevant today
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