Goethe: “All That Is Brooding in my Own Mind” – II of II

Part II of II – Goethe’s views on Raphael, Michael
Angelo, Italian society and being an artist

Click here to view Part I (03 July) – about Goethe’s
commitment to understanding art

Goethe statue leipzig phtoshopped

Statue of Goethe in Leipzig

In Italian Journey, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s survey of architecture, sculpture and painting is an itinerary today for aficionados of Renaissance art. The famous Palladio is his muse, an   “intrinsically great” architect “who has opened the road for me to…  art and life.”

There is, indeed, something divine about his [Palladio’s] designs, which may be exactly compared to the creations of the great poet, who out of truth and falsehood elaborates something between both, and charms us with its borrowed existence.

Goethe blissfully acknowledges “luminaries of the second and third magnitude in the starry sky…of the whole constellation” of Renaissance Italy’s painters; but sees no rival to Raphael’s imaginative talent:

The Cecilia of Raphael was exactly what I had been told of it, but now I saw it with my own eyes. Raphael set the last stone on the summit, above which, or even at which, no one else can ever stand,

not even Michael Angelo, who comes closer than any other star in the sky:

… we paid a second visit to the Sistine Chapel, and had the galleries opened, in order that we might obtain a nearer view of the ceiling. And at this moment I am so taken with Michael Angelo, that after him I have no taste even for nature herself

Might Italy’s galaxy of incomparable art be a tribute to the quintessentially Italian regional competitiveness that led the church and wealthy families to fund an unprecedented quantity of magnificent works over such a relatively short span of time? Speaking of regional pride that makes a trip to Italy today a visit to many countries, all of which share in common the comedy and drama of la dolce vita, Goethe said:

The Italians are in the strangest manner possible rivals and adversaries of each other. Every one is strongly enthusiastic in the praise of his own town and state. They cannot bear with one another: and, even in the same city, the different ranks nourish perpetual feuds, and all this with a profoundly vivacious and most obvious passionateness; so that, while they expose one another’s pretensions, they keep up an amusing comedy all day long.

Perhaps it is Goethe’s survey of Classical and Renaissance art, complemented by his erudite criticism and deeply personal reactions – W. H. Auden called Italian Journeys a “psychological document of the first importance” – that place his piece permanently in the canon of travel lit. Perhaps it is well-earned fame: he made the trip at age 37; but wrote the book (actually, edited his diaries) almost 30 years later, when anything he published gained attention and garnered praise, dusted off old journals included. I agree with Auden. Goethe’s honesty about creating art puts Italian Journeys in the same sky as, say, Innocents Abroad. On art and the artist, he said:

[One] ought never to think. Thinking makes one old. A man ought not to rivet his thoughts exclusively on any one thing: otherwise he is sure to go mad. Certainly the good man could not know that the very thing which made me so thoughtful was my having my head mazed by a regular confusion of things, old and new… it will not do to measure one’s self with artists: every one must go on in his own style. For nature has made provision for all her children: the meanest is not hindered in its existence, even by that of the most excellent… It is only by constant practice that we can hope to improve.

Tucker Cox – Zeteo Contributing Writer

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