Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Goethe and Vesuvius

In late February of 1787, after four months in Rome, Goethe and his friend Tischbein headed south to Naples, where they arrived on February 25. The road passed "through and over volcanic hills," and it was "with quiet delight" that he saw Vesuvius to his left, "violently emitting smoke," as they made their way to the city. The above image, plate XXV in the wonderful volume Campi Phlegraei, is how I imagine Goethe's first ascent of Vesuvius, on March 2, 1787. Here is his description in Italian Journey (in the translation by Robert R. Heitner):

"I ascended Vesuvius, although the weather was gloomy ... Two thirds of the summit was covered with clouds. At last we reached the ancient crater, which is now filled up, and found the new lavas from two months and fourteen days ago, also even a meager one five days old, already cooled. We climbed over them and up a newly created volcanic hill, which was smoking on all sides. The smoke was moving away from us, and I wanted to go toward the crater. We were approximately fifty paces into the smoke when it grew so thick that I could scarcely see my shoes. Holding up a handkerchief did not help. I also lost sight of the guide, and my steps were unsure on the little fragments of lava that had been cast up. I thought it best to turn back and save the desired sight for a sunny day with less smoke. Meanwhile I have also learned how difficult it is to breathe in such an atmosphere.

"Except for that, the mountain was altogether quiet. Neither flames, nor roaring, nor showers of stones, as has always been the case since our arrival. Now that I have reconnoitered it, I can, so to speak, besiege it as soon as the weather consents to improve."
Thoughts of Goethe and Vesuvius were on my mind this past weekend in Washington, D.C., where I had traveled to visit friends and to see the special exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples. The region of Campania (as in the Tischbein painting of Goethe) around the bay was a resort for wealthy Romans during the Empire and even before, who built villas along the coast from Cuma to Sorrento, somewhat like the Hamptons today. The eruption of Vesuvius, in A.D. 79, covered the towns in layers of ash as much as 60 feet deep. With the discovery of Herculaneum in 1738 and of Pompeii in 1748, excavations began to uncover the luxury of the affluent Romans as well as the life of ordinary people, as in Pompeii.
On March 11, Goethe visited Pompeii, where he was taken with the small, cramped space of the town, with even the official buildings reminding him of doll houses. The paintings still to be seen on the walls pleased him, showing as they did "that a whole nation had a delight in art and pictures." He then speculated on the eruption:

"Considering the distance of this town from Veusvius, the volcanic mass that buried it can neither have been hurled here nor driven over by a blast of wind; rather, we must imagine that the stones and ash hovered in the air for a while like a cloud until they finally settled down over this unfortunate place.

"To form a still clearer picture of this event, one might possibly think of a mountain village buried by snow."

On leaving the town he made an interesting observation: "On the outskirts of the city I was struck again by the little houses, which look like perfect imitations of those in Pompeii. We asked permission to enter one of them and found it very neatly furnished. Nicely woven cane chairs, a chest of drawers gilded all over, decorated with colorful flowers, and varnished -- evidence that this region, after so many centuries and innumerable changes, still invests its inhabitants with similar manners and customs, inclinations and fancies."

While in Naples Goethe spent a lot of time studying rocks produced by Vesuvius. He may have seen samples like these, also from Campi
Phlegraei (pl. LIV), collected by Sir William Hamilton. Hamilton, who arrived in Naples in 1764 as British envoy to the royal court, had a country house near the foot of the volcano from which he could observe the frequent eruptions. As Ralph Harrington has written, the volcano went into "an eruptive phase" in 1767, and Hamilton's reports on its activities were published in the volumes known as Campi Phlegraie (meaning "flaming fields"), illustrated with lavish drawings by Pietro Fabris (who specialized in paintings of the Pompeiian excavations). Like many a European visitor to Naples, Goethe spent time at Hamilton's apartments overlooking the Bay of Naples, but in Italian Journey he wrote only of Hamilton's art collection and of Hamilton's muse, Emma, later mistress of the hero of Trafalgar. The omission in Italian Journey of any mention of Hamilton's writings on volcanism was probably due to Goethe's continuing insistence that volcanos were (again, according to Ralph Harrington) "the superficial result of localized combustion, having no geological significance." Hamilton, on the other hand, was a "Plutonist" (see my earlier post on "Goethe and Bohemia"): "Hamilton's observations of Vesuvius, and his reading of the surrounding landscape in terms of the volcanism of the past, led him to the conclusion that volcanoes were a central geological phenomenon, based on a deep-seated heat source."

If Goethe could not be convinced about the centrality of volcanos in earth formation, he was nonetheless taken with the romance of Vesuvius. He made three attempts to ascend it, the second time (on March 6) with Tischbein, who was less intrigued: "As a visual artist, [Tischbein] always deals only with the most beautiful human and animal forms ... This fearsome, shapeless heap of things, which keeps consuming itself and declares war on every feeling for beauty, cannot fail to seem quite hideous to him." They reached the surface above the active cone, at Mount Somma on the north, from which they could hear the "violent thunder resounding out of the deepest abyss" and see stones, large and small, being hurled into the air, all occurring, as he notes, with regular pauses, which they timed by pulse beats. Tischbein found the scene too dangerous for him, while Goethe thought "it must be possible, in the interval between two eruptions, to reach the abyss and return from it in that same space of time." After padding their hats with silk and linen, he and a guide proceeded closer.

"While the little stones were still clattering around us, the ash still trickling, the robust youth was already pulling me over the glowing rubble. Here we stood at the enormous yawning abyss .. Rock walls, burst asunder, could be glimpsed here and there through a gap in the smoke. ... Failing to count calmly, we stood on a sharp edge of the immense chasm. Suddenly the thunder resounded, the terrible charge flew past us, we instinctively ducked down, as if that would have saved us from the falling lumps."

The final ascent, on March 20, is less impressionistic and instead filled with more detail. Goethe describes the canals formed as the lava flows down the mountain, with the molten material stiffening, "while the dross floating on the surface is thrown down equally to the right and left. By this means a dam is gradually raised, on which the glowing river flows along as calmly as a mill stream. We walked beside the dam, which was raised to a considerable height, the dross regularly rolling down its sides as far as our feet. We could see the glowing stream from below through several holes in the canal, and from above as it flowed on down."

This three-part narrative leads me to suspect a conscious literary strategy on Goethe's part, a way of framing his time in Naples. On March 29 he traveled to Sicily and did not return to Naples until mid-May. His last report on Vesuvius in Italian Journey occurs on June 2, as he prepares to return to Rome. He learns on June 1 from a servant that "a considerable flow of lava had erupted from Vesuvius and was making its way to the sea. It was already almost down the steeper slopes of the mountain and in a few days could easily reach the shore." Unfortunately, though the lava has captured his imagination, he must spend the next day making farewell calls. On the final evening, however, at the palace of the German-born Duchess of Giovane, he is rewarded for his good manners.

"We walked up and down in the room, and she, approaching a side with shuttered windows, opened one of the shutters, and the sight was something one sees only once in a lifetime. ... Vesuvius [was] directly in front of us. The sun had set long ago, and so the flames from the descending lava glowed distinctly and were beginning to gild the attendant smoke. The mountain roared violently, above it was an enormous stationary cloud of smoke whose various masses, at every eruption, were illuminated in separate sections as though by lightning. Down from there, towards the sea, a strip of fire and glowing vapors; otherwise sea and earth, rock and vegetation distinct in the evening twilight. ... To survey all this at one glance, and to see this most wonderful picture completed by the full moon, as it rose behind the mountain ridge, could hardly fail to cause astonishment."
Goethe's description here resembles the scene rendered in numerous paintings, including this image of Vesuvius (by Pierre Jacques Voltaire, 1729-92). When Goethe went to Italy in 1786, he was still undecided whether he would be a writer or a visual artist. It was during this period that he made his commitment to being a writer, but his account of Vesuvius in Italian Journey is evidence that he would continue to compete with painters. 

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