As I have written elsewhere, Italy has had a special place in the imagination of German artists and writers. Think, for instance, of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, which portrays the longing and repulsion. Albrecht Dürer first went there in 1494, two years after Columbus discovered the New World. The watercolor above, in the British Museum, was executed shortly after his return from Italy.
Goethe tried his hand at such landscapes as well. During his stay in Italy, from 1786 to 1788, most of his friends were artists. In the contemporary drawing below by Frederich Bury, Goeth is shown (third from right) with his German friends. Goethe even thought he might become an artist himself, but he soon gave up the notion.
He returned to Italy in 1790, to Venice, where he stayed for two months waiting for Anna Amalia, Carl August's mother, whom he was to accompany back to Weimar after her visit to Rome, which was no doubt inspired by Goethe's earlier journey. He seemed to have the same feeling about Venice as did Thomas Mann. He was enjoying domestic pleasures in Weimar with Christiane Vulpius, and his impressions of Venice, as recorded in the Venetian Epigrams (first published in 1796), are much more sharp and also lebensnah. Many of these poems are erotic, as per Goethe's model Martial, and they are also "snapshots" of daily life, culture, and politics in Venice. Goethe would seem to be prefiguring here the 19th-century flaneurs.
Here is an example, about a prostitute, in David Luke's translation:
"If I'd the husband I need, and if I kept house for him, I'd be
Happy and faithful and true, hug him and kiss him all day."
That was the song, among others more coarse, of a little Venetian
Whore; and so pious a prayer never I heard in my life.
Many of the epigrams suggest Goethe closely observed the habits of Venetian prostitutes. (See here for more translations of the epigrams, especially of the erotic ones.)
Goethe planned a third trip to Italy, in 1797, in order to make a comprehensive study of art. He got as far as Switzerland, before deciding to turn back. Napoleon's troops were all over the peninsula by now, and, like Hitler later, they were ransacking churches and private collections for art that would be transported back to Paris.
Though he didn't enter Italy, he sought to retrace the steps of his first trip to Switzerland, in 1774, during his Sturm und Drang period. Goethe was at that time engaged to Lili Schönemann in Frankfurt, but he was, as we would now say, "conflicted" about this engagement. He wrote a beautiful poem about his shifting moods, "On the Lake." The "high point" of this trip was his ascent with a travel companion to the Gotthard Pass, where they were welcomed at a Capuchin friary and served bread, cheese, and Italian wine.
In 1797, he repeated the ascent to the Gotthard Pass, as if to relive those earlier days. The pass is reached by several "bridges," which no doubt looked very much as in this painting of the pass by Turner, from 1803. Goethe wrote a lovely poem, which addresses the nearby summits whitened with snow. According to Goethe biographer Nicholas Boyle, Goethe was here acknowledging that this, his third Italian journey, "had become a journey into the 'autumn of life'":
Yesterday thy head was brown, as are the flowing locks of love,
In the bright blue sky, I watch'd thee towering, giant-like, above,
Now thy summit, white and hoary, glitters all with silver snow,
Which the stormy night hath shaken from its robes upon thy brow;
And I know that youth and age are bound with such mysterious meaning,
As the days are linked together, one short dream but intervening.
(This translation, by William Edmondstoune Aytoun, appeared in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine in 1845.)