The Italian Journey, Goethe's great diary of his journey through the south, is considered not only a personal narrative of his life at the time, but also a great literary work of close observation and description. Goethe's ability to express his perceptions and experiences through language becomes the most important goal of his art in this work. But Goethe does not limit his style; he constantly tries through the book not only to recount his experiences, but, in the true literary sense, to push himself out of scientific observation with metaphors and allusions and to show how his journey impressed him and how it changed him.
The genesis of this great work goes back to Goethe's childhood. In 1740, Goethe's father made a trip through southern Europe, from which he brought back many mementos and antiques. These became for Goethe the institutions of his childhood. The father, of course, raved about his trip, which was also a big influence on young Goethe. At the age of nine, Goethe was already capable of speaking Italian, and later, under the influence of Herder, he read Plato and Homer. Then, after a long reflection, he decided to undertake one day a journey like the one of his father. Then, on 3. In September 1786 he stole away from the Karlovy Vary Society and began his journey. He made this journey not as the Weimar minister, whose position he then held, but incognito as "Filippo Miller, Tedesco, Pittore." His journey, which lasted fifteen months until its end, was rather fast at the beginning. From his departure from Carlsbad on 3. September, we first see him on the Brenner on 8. September. From there he goes via Trento (10.9.) to Verona, where it will be presented on 16.9. Arrives. On 19. September he is in Vicenza. Here the pace begins to slow; he spends a few days then, and only on 26. September he arrives in Padua, then two days later in Venice. He stays here for quite a long time: busy with his writing as well as with his visit to the buildings of ancient architecture, it lasts until 16. October until it appears in Ferarra. From there about Bologna (18.10.) he finally succeeds in Rome on 29. October. Here he stays until February, when he decides to travel further south. For much of the information in this section, I thank Professor Glück and his seminar on the Italian trip.
The letters that make up the book edition of the work were written mainly to Charlotte von Stein. In the later parts of the book, Goethe then adds some prose pieces as well as also letters to other friends. In these letters he shows himself not only as the traveling German who wants to learn the secrets of Italy, but also as the man who wants to expand his own horizons. As a young man he wrote: "I do not yet have the knowledge that I need, I still lack a lot. Paris shall be my school, Rome my university." (Afterword to the Hamburg edition, p. 560) In this sense, it fits the spirit of the times; many Europeans, especially Germans and Englishmen, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, had been in the midst of this conflict. In the middle of the nineteenth century, he made trips to Italy and Greece to learn about the works of antiquity, and then published books that only increased the flow of these travelers. Thus, for example, Winckelmann, who is considered the founder of the science of history and art in Germany, had made his journey to the classical countries, and then for the first time gave the Germans an idea of what kind of image antiquity should have: he coined the description of Greek works of art as being characterized by "quiet simplicity and noble grandeur" (11) brought to dignity. Goethe also read Winckelmann's works, and he then discusses how his experiences were shaped by Winckelmann's ideas:
Through Winckelmann we are urgently stimulated to recognize the epochs but, the different style, which the peoples used, which they formed in succession of the times little by little and finally re-formed. Hieviev convinced every true art lover. We all acknowledge the rightness. The weight of the demand. (28.1.1787)
Not only did Goethe make his observations in order to develop a better understanding of antiquity, but he also wanted to improve his own mind. He apparently felt tired of German society at the time of his departure; as he points out in some passages, Italy is much dearer to him than his fatherland. Even the language, he writes, puts him in a better mood:
Now for the first time I had a Stockwelsche postillon; the host does not speak German, and I must now try my language skills. How glad I am that now the beloved language becomes alive, the language of use! (11.9.1786)
Goethe also shows his feelings in a way that is perhaps surprising to us: especially after the first year, when he returns to Rome from the south, he begins to show expressions of his loneliness, which becomes quite visible in the letters to Charlotte von Stein; unfortunately, Goethe did not include many of these letters in the book edition. As the afterword to the Hamburg edition by Herbert von Einem suggests, Goethe's loneliness is often subdued by the struggle to expand his poetic spirit, which he strives to expand on his journey:
Also the relationship with Charlotte v. Stein, as much bliss as there was, was deeply overshadowed by this conflict. In the book publication of Italian journey nothing of this is written. But in the original letters to the beloved from Italy, love affirmation, courtship and lamentation flow in moving words, giving the effort for the valid, true, lawful, classical, which felt his Italian days, the darkly sorrowful sound of the most personal distress of life. Charlotte had been his guide on his way from freedom to commitment. Their alliance was based on the innermost agreement. (Afterword to the Hamburg edition, p. 562.)
The main thing for Goethe on his journey seems to be that his observations and experiences should not only be made, but that they should also lead to something. Tired of the northern society, he intended this trip as an attempt to renew his feelings and ways of thinking. But he writes, when he arrives in Rome, that he now knows that he will finally succeed in appreciating the really important things in his life, and that this will be a direct consequence of his journey. He could think of nothing but Italy before, he writes:
Yes, the last years it became a kind of illness, from which only the sight and the presence could cure me. Now I may confess it; at last I was no longer allowed to look at a Latin book, or a drawing of an Italian region. The desire to see this country was overripe: now that it is satisfied, friends and fatherland become all the more dear to me and the return desirable, indeed all the more desirable, since I feel with certainty that I am not bringing so many treasures for my own possession and private use, but that they are to serve me and others throughout life for guidance and promotion. (1.11.1786)
The aim of his observations was then to renew and improve his spirit, and his "joie de vivre" again. He recognized this from the beginning, and almost from the beginning he succeeded in finding himself: "I am now only concerned with the sensual impressions that no book, no picture gives. The thing is that I am taking interest in the world again" he wrote on 11.9.1786.
What Goethe does not say so clearly, however, but which occurs quite clearly through his descriptions, is that his experiences, although they have to do with all sorts of things, are all somehow related to the people and to the people. He is mainly interested in people who have something to say or show him. Either the physical features of the human bodies, which he often tries to explain with scientific remarks, or the behavior and ways of thinking of the people, which are often compared to the architecture or art of antiquity, are for Goethe the core of his capture of Italy. He is sometimes aware of this; he writes, for example, when he thinks of his own way of looking at things: "The interest in the human form now cancels out everything else … Also everything is in vain what one wants to study about it except Rome." (10.1.1787)
This interest in the human form leads Goethe to always describe that which is somehow related to people. Although there are places in the book where the purely natural or artificial observations shine through, it is always true that in the most important places where a description reaches beyond itself and into the literary, it is through the concatenation of its perception with the comparison or connection to the human existence. It is so, for example, in the descriptions of the art of antiquity, which is almost always presented as an inseparable part of the people, and also in the cityscapes, where the people always play the most important role. Also, in the scientific observations, that is, in the perceptions about botany, meteorology, or geology that he makes during his trip, we always see the influence of people, and, conversely, how the natural world influences them. At these points then Goethe's diary rises from the realm of general description, and becomes no longer a simple guidebook or textbook about Italy, but a literary work full of metaphors, symbolism, and meaning.
The best example of this technique of Goethe, which makes his description almost alive, we see in his description of the architecture of antiquity, namely in the picture of the amphitheater in Verona. Here Goethe fills this empty theater with the people who own it, to have a yardstick by which to estimate its size. The place is probably best understood by itself:
So the amphitheater is the first important monument of the ancient times that I see, and so well preserved! When I stepped inside, but even more when I walked around on top of the rim, it seemed strange to me to see something big and yet actually nothing. Nor does it want to be seen empty, but completely full of people … But only in the earliest times it had its full effect, when the people were even more people than they are now. Because actually such an amphitheater is made right to impress the people with itself, to have the people with itself for the best.
When something spectacular is going on on flat ground and everything is going on, those behind try to rise above those in front in all possible ways: stepping on benches, rolling barrels, driving cars, putting boards over and over, occupying a neighboring hill, and a crater is formed at speed.
But if the spectacle often occurs in the same place, light scaffolding is built for those who can pay, and the rest of the crowd helps itself as it pleases. To satisfy this general need is here the task of the architect. He prepares such a crater by art, as simple as possible, so that its ornament becomes the people itself. When it saw itself together in this way, it was amazed at itself; for otherwise it is only accustomed to see itself running about in confusion, to find itself in a hustle and bustle without order and special discipline, so the many-headed, many-minded, wavering, wandering to and fro animal sees itself united into a noble body, determined into a unity, joined and fastened into a mass, as a shape, from a Spirit enlivened. The simplicity of the oval is palpable to every eye in the most pleasant way, and every head serves as a measure of how monstrous the whole is. Now, when you see it empty, you have no measure, you don't know whether it is big or small. (16.9.1786)
Here Goethe fills the theater with people in order to get a more vivid picture, but also to have a scale for the mathematical estimation of the whole. He cannot understand it, he thinks, not have it right in his head, if he does not imagine it full of people. However, it is not only the theater that Goethe sees, but the theater in relation to its past, its people, and its purpose: the theater gives the people a reason, a leader, and a self-awareness, so that the people as such can function properly. Goethe sees that, in his first look at the theater. In fact, he sees even more: he sees how the people react to the theater, and how without the theater they behave almost senselessly. He may be a bit cynical here, towards the Italian people, when he calls the people "many-sensed, wavering" animal compares, as if inveighing, to describe the Italians as ridiculous but also, in part, dangerous.
But the people, especially when it existed before, is sacred to him; Goethe even seems to want to claim that the Italian people is more people than the German, and certainly that the ancient people is more than the present one. It is not the theater that actually impresses the spectator here, but the people, as they appear in the theater. But this people, according to Goethe, needs a regent who can lead and guide them, who can impress and sanctify them at the same time, and this regent is realized in the amphitheater. The people here become a disciplined, orderly mass just because they now possess a symbol of their existence.
The people are given an identity through the theater, but this also has disadvantages: it is also presupposed to them what exactly they are, and what they should do. Everything here is determined by the past and by the ancient artwork for the people; do they still have their self-determination? There are actually several sides to the question here, namely, as far as Goethe as a humanist is concerned, we can ask whether or not he shows a democratic perspective here. If so, which seems right here because of the descriptions of the people as imposing, why are the democratic elements of this observation only in the second place? It is not the people that Goethe describes first, but the construction of the theater itself, and how it is still in such a good condition "something great and yet nothing." Then in the second part, he describes how the people built themselves the theater that was first created only as a crater, then finally succeeded in full majesty. If Goethe had really wanted to try to portray democracy as something desirable, he would not have mentioned the majesty of the people in the first place?
Goethe is also quite self-confident in his descriptions of ancient art. He writes later, when he is in Rome for the second time, that his descriptions are quite dependent on his taste in art, which is also natural. What exactly this taste consists of is a much more difficult question, to which he replies as follows:
I find the Greek age particularly beautiful; that I miss something physical in the Roman, if I may so express myself, can perhaps be thought without my saying so. It is also natural. At present rests in my mind the mass of what the state was, in and of itself; to me it is, like fatherland, something exclusive. And you had to determine the value of this individual existence in relation to the immense world whole, where, of course, much shrank and went up in smoke. (27.10.1787)
The winckelmannian noble simplicity and silent grandeur of these antique works of art must have made a deep impression on Goethe. He sees in these works not only the art, although that certainly plays an important role, but also the people behind the art. The figures that make up the ancient statues and paintings are human beings for Goethe, and can be analyzed as such, and even from the scientific perspective that always characterizes him. Goethe also sees the artists themselves, who formed these works of art, not only as a part of Italy's history, but also as a part of its art. Goethe has great respect for these artists; nevertheless, he recognizes their faults, and does not hesitate to make known the worse sides of this art, as he writes:
… It goes with art as with life: the further one goes, the broader it becomes. In this sky again new stars appear that I can't calculate and that drive me crazy: the Carracci, Guido, Dominichin … It is as if the children of God intermarried with the daughters of men, and out of them arose many monsters. As the celestial sense of Guido, his brush that should have painted only the most perfect that can be seen, attracts you, you immediately want to turn your eyes away from the abominably stupid objects that cannot be humiliated enough with any scolding words in the world … (19.10.1786)
But it is not only in the sculpture and paintings, which have as their main motifs people, that Goethe recognizes the important influence of people. Goethe also sees in architecture, especially the temples and churches of antiquity, what an important element of art people are as objects. Based on his knowledge of the works of Andreas Palladio (1508-80), the great architect of the palaces and churches of northern Italy, who also wrote four books on Roman and Greek architecture, Goethe visits many old buildings, realizing once again that it is above all the people who are responsible for the effect of art. In the works of art of Palladio, Goethe confesses that the latter was a great architect as well as a great man:
When you see these works now, you realize the great value of them; for they are meant to fill the eye with their real size and physicality, and to satisfy the mind with the beautiful harmony of their dimensions, not only in abstract elevations, but with the whole perspective advance and retreat; and so I say of Palladio: he was quite an inwardly and from within great man. (19.9.1786)
Goethe's scientific observations are also strongly influenced by his strong belief that man must play the central role in trying to understand the world. Goethe did not behave entirely like a poet on this trip, but neither did he behave like a normal human being; he traveled under disguise, but he was still the learned and talented man he had always been. That's why he saw the world not only as the origin of the literary spirit, but also as the natural, healthy origin of life as a whole. Goethe was also learned as a natural scientist; he had studied anatomy, botany, and geology, and, under the influence of his friends (such as, for example, Herder), he knew a fair amount about the natural world. So it is, then, that we see him here not only as a poet. His observations of the areas through which he travels almost always contain remarks about the plant life, the weather, or the landscape, which certainly made a great impression on him and to which he was always attentive. At the very beginning, this interest in the world of nature is demonstrated to us: although he travels quickly in a stagecoach through the area south of Karlsbad, Goethe is still aware of the changes in plants and other things in nature. How he does it when he keeps such a pace is inexplicable, but he does it anyway. Also, we already see his reflections here as being influenced by people; the remarks he makes here take place in the company of a young girl traveling with him in the carriage, and who, incidentally, bears very many of the characteristics of the Mignon character who appears in Goethe's later novel William Master will appear. It is interesting here that both Goethe and the girl consider contemplations about nature as something important, almost necessary; although they never really touch the landscape, they become aware of the changes in the environment:
I talked through a great deal with her, she was at home everywhere and noted objects well. So she once asked me what kind of tree this was. It was a beautiful large maple, the first that came to my sight on the whole trip. She had noticed this one right away and was pleased, since several appeared one after the other, that she could also distinguish this tree. (7.9.1786)
On his journey, Goethe notices several differences between the plants and objects known to him, and those that now appeared to him. In almost all these considerations, however, he involves the human: it is never the pure natural that interests him, but it is the effect of this natural on the human. His perceptions of the differences in maize species are, for example, quite closely related to the effect then on man; yet he notices these differences, one might argue, only because he sees the effect first, and then seeks the cause. As he states:
As soon as I got up from the burner, I noticed a decided change in the shape, I especially disliked the brownish color of the women. Their facial features indicate misery, children were equally miserable to look at, men a little better, basic education by the way quite regular and good. I believe the cause of this morbid condition is to be found in the frequent use of Turkish and heather corns. That which they also call yellow aperture, and this, called black aperture, are ground, the flour boiled in water to a thick paste, and so eaten … Necessarily, this must glue and clog the first ways, especially among the children and women, and the kachetic color indicates such spoilage. (14.9.1786)
If only in a stylistic sense, we can see at least here that Goethe is constantly thinking of people, even during his descriptions of the plant world. In the next excerpt he talks about the landscape on his journey from Bolzano to Trento; he first describes the river that makes everything alive with its water, and then he also talks about the many different kinds of plants he sees here. Suddenly, however, in this description of the plant world appears a parable with the human being, which actually does not belong in the landscape, but in the city. Certainly, it is clear here that Goethe's way of thinking depends entirely on people; even when he thinks of the purely natural landscape, the artificially made braids of women and the jackets of men suddenly appear. This swift transition can be seen clearly:
Ivy grows in strong trunks up the rocks and spreads far over them; the lizard slips through the interstices, also everything that wanders back and forth reminds one of the dearest art pictures. The women's untied braids, the men's bare chests and light jackets, the apt oxen driving them home from the market, the loaded little donkeys, all form a vivid, moving Heinrich Roos. (11.9.1786)
Meteorology is also an important theme in Goethe's perceptions. The weather, so to speak, makes the journey, and in this case, the weather makes the person. Goethe himself often reacts almost childishly to the weather; it is as if he had never experienced good weather in Germany. He complains a lot about the bad weather he experienced before his trip, and expresses that he will hopefully have better weather to expect in Italy. "In Italy they are said to have had fine weather, even too dry" he writes during heavy rains. (8.9.1786)
The frequency of his comments about the weather actually seem to embarrass him quite a bit. He writes to Charlotte von Stein that he only writes so much about these external events because they are so important to him as a traveler, and because they make such a great impression on him.
Pardon my paying so much attention to wind and weather: the traveler on land, almost as much as the mariner, depends on both, and it would be a pity if my autumn in foreign lands should be as little favored as the summer at home. (3.9.1786)
The effect of the weather on Goethe is strikingly strong throughout the book; he reacts to the weather as if he were a child himself, with exultation when the sun shines beautifully, or with the deepest depression when the weather does not please him. When it rains, he always notices it as something bad or undesirable; but when it becomes sunny or warm, he notes how everything looks fresh and alive again. In his second daybook entry, Goethe writes about the good weather that follows him for the first time, and how the coachman reacts to it: he says "with an amused exclamation that it is the first of the whole summer"." (7.9.1786)
Additionally Goethe connects the weather not only with himself, but also with the other people and with the general people. With his knowledge of natural science, he knows what a consequence the weather has on the human form; however, he is not satisfied to notice this, but he also expresses it clearly to the readers. After describing the weather of the day, he then talks about the people he sees on his journey:
The figures remain quite the same, brown, well-opened eyes and very well-drawn black eyebrows in the women; on the other hand, blond and broad eyebrows in the men. (8.9.1786)
Weather is not only the cause of these physical characteristics, but also the cause of human behavior and life. Venice, as Goethe and many others have noted, is quite a dirty city: even then there were outbreaks of cholera and other epidemics, because of the unclean water in the canals (cf. Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, where the uncleanliness of the water is also a possible reason for Aschenbach's death). But it is not only the uncleanliness of the water that is the origin of the city's unhealthy situation, Goethe asserts. The inhabitants of the city are themselves guilty because they do not take care of their personal hygiene. That they do not is again a consequence of the weather:
When a rainy day arrives, there is an unpleasant excrement, everything curses and curses, when going up and down the bridges, one sullies the coats, the tabarros, with which one drags oneself the whole year, and since everything walks in shoes and stockings, one splashes oneself and curses, because one has not sullied oneself with common but with staining excrement. The weather is getting nice again, and no one thinks about cleanliness. (9.10.1786)
Even in geological observations, Goethe's thoughts are always connected with the people. Quite often he describes the surrounding landscape in geographical terminology as he takes note of the rocks, their colors and textures, and the effect of these on the mountains or earth nearby. Again, you can see that the thought of the people is always present in Goethe's way of thinking, and that he really can't separate those thoughts from the descriptions. He writes, for example, about the limestone Alps and rocks near the Brenner for over a page; then suddenly he interrupts his own thoughts with the sentences: "Of the appearance of the human race, I have understood so much. The nation is valiant and just ahead of itself." He continues in this style, discussing the clothing of the people, and then returns to geology: "To these [the men's] features the green hats among the gray rocks give a cheerful appearance" he writes on 8.9.1786.
It is interesting to note here, however, that in the very descriptions where one would expect thoughts about the people to be strongest, these expressions appear almost only in connection with a naturalistic perspective. We have already seen the description of the amphitheater in Verona, in which Goethe fills the amphitheater with the people in order to have a mathematical scale by which he can estimate the size of the theater. But here are other signs of his scientific education. Not only does he want to calculate the theater mathematically, but his whole description revolves around the creation of the structure, how the people gave the theater its beginning, and how it was later made into a complete structure. Here his contemplation is built not only from a popular, nor from an art-loving point of view, but from a combination of these elements: Architecture, human contemplation, and science lead together to his stylistic art. True literature, so to say, consists then only of many different elements, as here.
In Goethe's descriptions of the society of Italy, we also see how the connectedness of his thoughts with the people shines through. Although he tells about the company he sees, he does it in such a way that we have to believe that a scientist has written it. One of the main elements of his descriptions is that he tries to categorize almost everything he sees. The dress, the classes of society, the procedure of the Italians – everything is described by him and divided into different groups. In a remarkable observation on the inhabitants of the southern region, we have a definite picture of this technique of Goethe's. He describes here how people look, but he does not do it as a normal poet, only with nice words and good form, but he tries to distribute the groups of society from a naturalistic perspective, according to their genders as well as their faces.
[The hats of the men are adorned with ribbons or wide sashes of taffeta with fringes, which are attached daintily with pins. Also everyone has a flower or a feather on his hat. On the other hand, the women dress up in white, cotton, shaggy, very wide caps, as if they were shapeless men's nightcaps.
To the behavior and physical characteristics of the people Goethe describes, he also tries to give a reason to convince his readers, as well as to make it clear to himself. In this sense, he behaves almost like a scientist: he sees a thing that he wants to explain, then, through his knowledge of people as well as through further observation, he tries to find out the causes and bases of these things. Of course, he does not want to explain everything, and he freely admits that he is not always right and that he does not know everything.
But it is actually worthwhile here to carry out an investigation into some scientific errors that Goethe makes. Because he was, of course, an educated man, Goethe had a good knowledge of scientific study, at least proportionally to the time well. He does, however, indicate many uncertainties and misinformation to have, which may be typical during the 18. At the beginning of the twentieth century were. In the first place is then his belief about the weather. Here he shows a scientific naiveté typical of the eighteenth century by expressing the belief that the weather in the mountains is somehow "made" will, or that it will at least emerge there.
So, too, the weather for all of the north this summer seems to have been determined by the great alpine range on which I write this. It has been raining here for the last few months, and the southwest and southeast have brought the rain northward. (8.9.1786)
Also, Goethe's scientific style, which always tries to classify, is quite visible in his descriptions of people and their behavior. He not only tries to present their faces and external features scientifically, but he also has the task of giving reasons for them; moreover, what occurs here in particular, he wants to lay them out as subjects of a scientific investigation, side by side, in order to compare them with each other. Like the scientist who puts two species of the same animal side by side in order to see the differences, Goethe puts the objects that he perceives on his journey side by side and describes what comes out of this comparison. He is quite the scientist when he describes here how the people in the city can be compared to the people in the countryside.
What confirms my opinion about the food is that the city dwellers always look more comfortable. Pretty, full girls' faces, the body a little too small for their strength and for the size of the heads, but sometimes quite friendly approaching faces. We know the men through the wandering Tyroleans. In the country they look less fresh, probably because these have more physical work, more movement, while the men sit as shopkeepers and craftsmen. (14.9.1786)
When Goethe tries to give an accurate account of the behavior of people themselves, it is always the case that his descriptions are informed by his scientific as well as his literary training. So, for example, in his remarks, which are always beautifully and symbolically expressed, we also see elements of scientific and technical perception, which has as its goal the study and resolution of discrepancies. He perceives these discrepancies because he always keeps one eye on the landscape and the environment on his journey.
As we have already seen, Goethe brings together many causes of human behavior to afford a perfect picture of Italian society. What he sees on his journey isn't all there is to see, of course, but it's still quite a lot. He travels, as said, in a carriage; that is, he undertakes the whole journey with not so much personal effort and expenditure of time and energy as if he had made the journey on foot. Nevertheless, as we can see, he gets a good picture of the Italian landscape. The situation is almost the same with regard to Italian society and the people. Goethe did not make this journey as a minister, but also not as a normal part of the common people: he travels as a trained painter, who undertakes a long journey through Europe with decent fortune. In this context, he then usually does not come into contact with the ordinary Italian citizen. He travels as a rich man, stays in a hotel or boarding house, and has enough money to do what he wants to do. As he realizes himself, he is then often an outsider to the Italian or even to the traveling society; he says at one point that he tried in part to adapt to society, because the Italian people quickly noticed that he is not considered their equal:
Although the people go about their business and needs very carelessly, they keep a sharp eye on everything foreign. So for the first few days I could notice that everyone was looking at my boots, since they are not even used in winter as an expensive costume. Now that I wear shoes and stockings, no one looks at me anymore. (17.9.1786)
Sometimes, however, it seems in Goethe's descriptions that he is judging rather cynically about the people. He sees the people as something quite good and worthy, but there are elements of his style and tone by which one could judge that he views popular actions quite negatively. Interestingly, for Goethe, the people are almost always a large uneducated mass that does not know how to behave or what the consequences of its actions may be. As in the description of the amphitheater at Verona, we often see the people as the "many-headed, many-souled, wavering, wandering beast" that needs a leader to do something reasonable. This is then a typical perception of Italian society on a market day in Verona:
By the way, they scream, joke and sing all day long, throw and tussle, whoop and laugh incessantly. The mild air, the fine food makes them live easily. Everything that can is in the open air.
At night, the singing and noise is now quite on … They practice imitating all the birds with whistles. The most whimsical sounds burst forth everywhere. Such an over-feeling of existence lends a mild climate even to poverty, and the shadow of the people itself still seems venerable. (17.9.1786)
Here we see not only that Goethe focuses on the people as a living being, but also we see exactly how he describes and judges the behavior of the people. He then tries to explain the reasons why the people look so cheerful and lively, and he finds the weather and "the mild air" as the cause." It is clear that Goethe does not want to participate in this society; he sees the behavior of the people almost as frivolous or silly, but also as something honorable in the end, because it simply says so much about the nature of Italian society. It is also important to recognize here that Goethe perceives only a specific part of the society in this scene. He sees only the social classes that are in the market, not the whole people. Later, he even notes the differences between the common people and the higher classes of society, at least that which concerns their types of housing:
The uncleanliness and the few comforts of the houses, so striking to us, also come from this: they are always outside, and in their carelessness, they think of nothing. Everything is fine for the people, the middle man also lives from one day to the next, the rich and distinguished shut themselves up in their apartment, which is not as homely as in the north.
The great influence of the thoughts about the people becomes visible once again in the cityscapes that Goethe perceives from Venice and Rome. Here Goethe is again not a normal traveler or tourist. He does see what the typical tourist sees, or at least what was usually considered worth seeing at the time, but he also sees much more. It is above all in the accuracy of Goethe's perceptive powers that we must marvel here. He gives us a picture not only of what he considers particularly beautiful or worthy of contemplation, but also of what he considers purely important for a good understanding of Italy. In the picture of Venice that Goethe presents to us, we see how big a role the people actually play in his thoughts. In the first words he says about the city itself, he says: "But what impresses itself on me above all others is once again the people, a great mass, a necessary, involuntary existence." (29.9.1786)
The people obviously play the most important role for Goethe in the city and in the life of the people. Also visible is Goethe's perception of society from a scientific perspective: he sees here not only the city as it consists of people, buildings, streets and so on, but also as it was formed and built. The further description of Venice is as follows:
This sex has not fled to these islands for fun … Hardship taught them to seek their safety in the most disadvantageous situation, which afterwards became so advantageous to them and made them wise, when the whole northern world still lay imprisoned in gloom; their multiplication, their wealth was a necessary consequence. Now the dwellings crowded closer and closer, sand and marsh were replaced by rocks, the houses sought the air, like trees standing closed, they had to seek to gain in height what they lacked in width … By the way, the water was to them instead of street, square and walk. The Venetian had to become a new kind of creature, just as Venice can only be compared to itself. (29.9.1786)
Here the people are somehow portrayed as a symbiosis of water and land, which seems quite correct in relation to Venice. But he sees not only the people in this city as the spark of civic life, but also as the founders and builders of the city. He also mentions the history of this city when he thinks of it, and how it practically sprang from the sea. The first glimpse of this city that Goethe has comes as he glides in through the city's canals. As he later added to the work:
So it was written in the book of fate on my page that in 1786, the twenty-eighth of September, in the evening, after our clock at five o'clock, I should see Venice for the first time, entering the lagoons from the Brenta, and soon thereafter enter and visit this wonderful island city, this beaver republic. (28.9.1786)
In Goethe's later descriptions of the city of Venice, too, water stands as the constant background to his contemplations. Because there is not so much land in the city itself, Goethe cannot always tell us much about the landscape; instead, here he makes his remarks about the waters and about the effect on the people of the water that can be seen everywhere. Perhaps because of Venice's canals, Goethe often loses his sense of direction in this city; the city becomes confusing to him and like a labyrinth. As he writes:
Towards evening I got lost again without a guide in the most distant quarters of the city. The local bridges are all equipped with stairs, so that gondolas and even larger ships can pass comfortably under the arches. I tried to find my way in and out of this labyrinth without asking anyone, once again only looking to the sky. (30.9.1786)
In Verona, however, we see that Goethe previously wanted to forgo this loss of sense of direction by trying to learn his way around the city well from the start. Here again he plays the usual role of the scientist: not only does he buy a map, like most tourists, to hopefully avoid his experience in Venice; but also he takes the matter directly on himself. He climbs up into a tower above the city, trying to understand the city a little better this way. In this scene, where he then looks down on the city from above, we see exactly that which is important in Goethe's descriptions. He describes here, not as one would expect from a normal person, for example, the course of the streets or the whole picture of the city itself, but he sees exclusively here the people as they go about their daily business:
I was all alone, and down on the wide stones of the Brà walked crowds of people: Men of all classes, women of the middle class were walking. These last ones even look mummy-like in their black overdresses from this bird's eye view. (16.9.1786)
Also, in the description of the amphitheater at Verona, we see an example of Goethe's technique in his perceptions of the cities he visits on his journey. Here he sees, as in the city of Verona itself, that the life of the people is conceived in the theater; it is artificially made, but also artful. The people have not only in the theater a sign of their majesty, but also a proof that they themselves can do something great. The life of the people then revolves around the theater: it is the center of the city, literally as well as metaphorically, because it is in the center of the city as well as in the center of civic life.
As a conclusion to this investigation into Goethe's perceptual fields, we will quote his description of an experience he had in the vicinity of Malcesine. He, disguised as a painter, went to the old castle one morning to see it and, as it turned out, to draw it because it looked so appropriate in that respect. He had, he said, "found a very comfortable place to draw" and he continues with his drawing. However, he very soon had a surprise:
I wasn't sitting for long, so various people came in the courtyard, looked at me and went back and forth. The crowd increased, finally stopped, so that it finally surrounded me … Finally a man, not of the best reputation, pushed his way to me and asked what I was doing. I replied that I was drawing the old tower in order to keep a souvenir of Malcesine. He then said that this was not allowed and that I should refrain from doing it. (14.9.1786)
After a long discussion about the dialect and the accent with which this man spoke, Goethe tells how he resisted this order, but how he actually did not succeed; he tries to convince the man that he could not understand his words, but then the man makes his opinion clear to him: "He then seized my sheet with true Italian composure, tore it up, but left it on the cardboard." As it turns out, the people gathered there believe that Goethe could possibly be a spy or enemy of Italy seeking information to give it to his masters. But when Goethe replied that he was from Frankfurt am Main, a man who had stayed there for a while asked him specific information about that city.
Now, when I gave him the most accurate information about almost everything he asked me about, mirth and seriousness alternated in the man's features. He was happy and touched, the people became more and more amused and could not get tired of listening to our conversation, part of which he had to translate into their dialect.
Goethe is then finally not allowed to sign off the tower, but as compensation he gets an attendant to show him around the city and the area. But what clearly appears in this story is the method in which Goethe focuses on the descriptions of the people. Although the whole plot revolves around the conversations between Goethe and this man, Goethe constantly interjects into his description remarks about the people and what they are currently doing. His whole concentration seems to revolve, as through the whole diary, around the people.
We can then say without much hesitation that Goethe's perceptive powers in this work are completely connected with his image of the people. Throughout the diary, his observations and remarks always seem to be directed to the behavior and to the whole essence of the people; even in his artistic and naturalistic reflections, man always plays the most important role. The ideas that this journey formed for him are inescapably dependent on the people, and it then comes as no surprise that Goethe later regarded this journey as the formative experience of his adolescence. Readers of his experiences would do well to consider the work in this way as well, for it offers much more than one would expect with time and effort.
Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1992 during a semester at the Philipps-Universität Marburg.
If needed, cite using something like the following: Thuleen, Nancy. "Observation and perception in the Italian trip." Website Article.