Goethe’s Italian Journey

May 14 2008

Hellenic holy ground

A modern tendency towards the secularization of a Western way of life which had previously been lived within a Christian religious chrysalis had its effect upon the originally religious institution of Pilgrimage. Since an early stage in the growth of this institution, pilgrimage-resorts had tended to become museums of the visual arts; for, in wholly or mainly illiterate societies, it was a commonplace that pictures and sculptures were the books of an unlettered majority. In another context we have quoted a passage in the Ion of Euripides in which a party of Athenian women pilgrims to Delphi are brought on to the stage as sightseers perambulating the precincts of the temple of Apollo. The interest that these visitors find in looking at the works of art with which the temenos [religious precinct] is adorned lies in identifying these portrayals of mythical characters and scenes that are part of the familiar furniture of the spectators’ own imaginations. This delight in the visual satisfactions that a pilgrimage-resort can provide was inherited from naïve and illiterate religious pilgrims to the holy places of Paganism and Higher Religion by sophisticated and erudite secular pilgrims to relics of the works of Hellenic art, and sites and scenes of events celebrated in surviving records of Hellenic history, when a fifteenth-century Italian renaissance of Hellenism had invested these visible and tangible “antiquities” with an aura of pseudo-religious sanctity in the sight of a cultivated ruling minority in a Modern Western World.

This secularized Modern Western version of an ancient religious institution took the form of a “grand tour” that, for the polite society of the Transalpine and Transmarine countries of a Modern Western World, found its earliest goal in a Roma Profana from whose long-obscured virgin countenance a pious Humanism had been gingerly stripping away Roma Sacra’s meretricious enamel mask. A classic example of the genre was Goethe’s Italienische Reise (peregrinabatur A.D. 1786-8).

“In Italy Goethe directed his attention above all to the artistic treasures. The works of art that captivated him were, however, almost exclusively confined to the relics of Antiquity and those modern works which, like Palladio’s buildings, have brought Ancient forms back to life. The concentration of his interest on this genre was carried by him to such extremes that at Venice he had no eye for Titian’s pictures, and at Assisi none for the celebrated Franciscan Church with its picture-covered walls and ceiling. The nearer Goethe approached to Rome, the more passionate and tempestuous became his yearning to set foot in the Capital of the World. After his arrival there on the 20th October [, 1786] [brackets in original], he lived through his Roman days in a state of high beatitude. Here he found himself renewing his youth. He felt himself regenerated and endowed with a new capacity for the enjoyment of Life, the enjoyment of History, Art and Antiquity.”

Yet, fruitful though this sojourn in Rome was to prove for all the future literary labours of a Bürger-höfling man of genius, Goethe’s comfortable journey to Rome from Karlsbad in A.D. 1786 was prosaic compared with the veritable pilgrimage to a now profanely holy city that had been made in A.D. 1755 in formâ pauperis by Goethe’s revered [Footnote: See Goethe’s appreciation of Winckelmann in Dichtung und Wahrheit, Book VIII (vol. iv, pp. 279-80, in Karl Alt’s Auswahl).] plebeian forerunner Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the shoemaker’s son.

Footnote after the quotation.

[Footnote: Karl Alt in Goethes Werke: Auswahl (Berlin, N.D., Bong, 4 vols.), vol. 1, pp. xxix-xxx. [Translation presumably by Toynbee.] While the paramount objective of the Modern Western “grand tour” was to venerate the relics, and set eyes upon the scenes, of an antecedent Hellenic culture whose legacy to an affiliated Western Civilization had at last come to be appreciated at its full value by latter-day Western Humanists, this was not, of course, the cultivated traveller’s sole concern. The typical Modern French, Dutch, English, German, Scandinavian, or American visitor to Italy was, unlike Goethe, eager also to acquaint himself at first hand with the Italian monuments of an earlier phase of his own Western culture, and also to improve his own mastery of this culture in its contemporary phase by sampling other contemporary local varieties of it besides the one in which he himself had been educated owing to the accident of his having been born in the particular province of the Western World of which he happened to be a native.

[The interest in the tourist’s own civilization’s past which was one of the attractions exercised by Italy on a Transalpine or Transmarine Modern Western secular pilgrim was a manifestation, not of the renaissance of an antecedent culture, but of a different vein of nostalgia which we have labelled “Archaism” […]. This Modern Western transposition of an archaistic yearning from the Time-dimension into the Space-dimension by giving vent to it by way of a secular pilgrimage had had its counterpart in Hellenic history in the grand tours that had been in the fashion for cultivated Romans from the second century B.C. until the onset of the paroxysm with which an elderly Hellenic Society was afflicted in the third century of the Christian Era. After the Hellenic World had recovered from this stroke – in so far as it ever did recover from it – the secular Hesperian pilgrim to Greece, in the wake of a Titus Flamininus, a Cicero, a Nero, a Hadrian, and an Aulus Gellius, gave way to the religious Hesperian pilgrim to Palestine on a new course set by an Aetheria and a Jerome. In a Western World in the modern chapter of its history, a Gibbon and a Goethe and a Byron and a Leake reverted, under the auspices of a fifteenth-century Italian renaissance of Hellenism, from Aetheria’s and Jerome’s religious pilgrimage to Hadrian’s and Gellius’s cultural tour.]

Others. The Goethe quotations seem to be from Alt’s selections.

Already-troubling German talk of noble concepts:

[Footnote: “Palladio was penetrated (durchdrungen), through and through, by the essence of the Ancients, and was conscious of the pettiness and narrowness of his own age – in the spirit of a great man who is resolved not to resign himself but to re-mould the rest of Creation (das Uebrige) as far as possible in accordance with his own noble concepts.” – Goethe: Italienische Reise, ed. by Schuchardt, Chr. (Stuttgart 1862, Cotta, 2 vols.), vol. i, p. 117.]

[Footnote: “The monstrous substructures of the churches – piled one on top of another, Babylonian fashion – in which Saint Francis rests, did not detain me. I gave them a wide berth to my left, with a feeling of aversion. … Then I asked a handsome youngster the way to the Maria della Minerva [the ci-devant pagan Hellenic temple in the heart of the city] [Toynbee’s square brackets]. … The growth in spiritual stature that I owe to the contemplation of this work of art is something ineffable. It will bear everlasting fruit. … [As I made my way down again,] [Toynbee’s square brackets] the dear Minerva gave me one more last glimpse of her benign and consoling countenance, and then I took a side glance to my left at the melancholy cathedral of Saint Francis” (ibid., pp. 159-61).]

[Footnote: “My yearning (Begierde) to reach Rome was so great, and was increasing by such leaps and bounds from moment to moment, that it would brook no further delay, so I made no more than a three-hours’ stop in Florence. … I hurried through the place post-haste – the cathedral, the baptistery and all that. Here, once again, an entirely new and unknown world confronts me – and it is a world on which I have no inclination to linger (verweilen). The lay-out of the Boboli Gardens is exquisite. At Florence my exit was as rapid as my entry” (ibid., pp. 168 and 156).

[Students of Goethe’s outlook and êthos will be reminded of a more famous passage in which the same verb verweilen is employed apropos of the same temptation to linger on the course of a journey – heading, in this case, not towards a physical Rome, but towards a spiritual goal of human endeavours. In agreeing the terms of his fateful wager with Mephistopheles, Faust makes the following commitment:

Werd’ ich zum Augenblicke sagen:
“Verweile doch! Du bist so schön!”
Dann magst du mich in Fesseln schlagen,
Dann will ich gern zugrunde gehen!

Goethe: Faust, ll. 1699-1702 […].]

Toynbee may have shared Goethe’s indifference, or aversion, to a post-classical Italy, but in a post on the ninth-century Mahayana Buddhist complex of Borobudur in Java, I quoted his description of the Sacro Speco in Subiaco as “a holy of holies for me”.

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

3 Responses to “Goethe’s Italian Journey”

  1. How should one understand Goethe’s search for an “Urpflanze” in Italy….is this a kind of “first flower” that somehow begat all others?



  2. […] Goethe’s Italian Journey. […]

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