This is part I of II, contrasting
Dickens’ and Goethe’s images of Italy.
Part II discusses sightseeing
along Dickens’ itinerary – click here
A rousing contrast exists between Charles Dickens’ Pictures from Italy and Goethe’s Italian journey reviewed last week. Goethe says, “I am not here to enjoy myself… but to improve.” Dickens is on vacation. His travelogue is “a series of faint attractions – mere shadows in the water – of places to which the imaginations of most people are attracted.” Shadows indeed, if the vivid pictures – sentences of 300+ words organized, cogent and beautifully flowing – can be called “shadows.”
Both books illustrate why travel is an innate human activity. Goethe leaves home to introspectively discover more of himself and his potential as an artist. He finds the traveller’s solitude he has “longed for so ardently,” being alone in a crowd, “unknown to everyone, pushing [my] way forward.” Dickens goes to meet and greet and engage, sharing his joy of discovery, seeing famous sites for the first time. Of the Leaning Tower of Pisa:
The moon was shining when we approached Pisa, and for a long time we could see, behind the wall, the leaning Tower, all awry in the uncertain light; the shadowy original of the old pictures in school-books, setting forth ‘The Wonders of the World.’ Like most things connected in their first associations with school-books and school-times, it was too small… another of the many deceptions practised by Mr. Harris, Bookseller, at the corner of St. Paul’s Church yard, London.
Goethe shows us his Italy: artistic, refined, and accomplished, the Italy of Palladio (architecture), Raphael (painting) and Michael Angelo (painting and sculpture). Dickens acknowledges the old Masters with awe and with tongue in cheek (and a Dickensian sentence) and humor a la Mark Twain (who came later):
The wonderful gravity and repose of many of the ancient works in sculpture, both in the Capital and the Vatican, are beyond all reach of words. They are especially impressive and delightful, [while] the works of Bernini and his disciples, in the churches of Rome abound; and which are, I verily believe, the most detestable class of productions in the wide world. I would definitely rather (as mere works of art) look upon the three deities of the Past, the Present, and the Future, in the Chinese Collection [at the Vatican Museum], then upon the best of these breezy maniacs; whose every fold of drapery is blown inside and out; whose smallest vein, or artery, is as big as an ordinary forefinger; whose hair is like a nest of lively snakes; and whose attitudes put all other extravagance to shame. I do honestly believe there can be no place in the world where such intolerable abortions, begotten of the sculptor’s chisel, are to be found in such profusion, as in Rome.
There is more, much more to delight; but this space and time say no. Dickens and Goethe share a deep affinity for Italy. Goethe says “the Italians appear to me a right good people.” Dickens concludes:
And let us not remember Italy the less regardfully, because, in every fragment of her fallen Temples, and every stone of her deserted palaces and prisons, she helps to inculcate the lesson that the Wheel of Time is rolling for an end, and that the world is, in all great essentials, better, gentler, more forbearing, and more hopeful, as it rolls!
—Tucker Cox, Zeteo Contributing Writer