Thursday, January 13, 2011

Goethe in Italy, once again

I got a little more insight into Goethe's stay in Italy yesterday, specifically his avoidance of things contemporary while he was there. Again, the insight was provided by a seemingly unlikely source.
After having given two papers this past fall on the pre-Kantian sublime, I am trying to work up the material into a publishable essay. The pre-Kantian sublime in German letters has much to do with Johann Jacob Bodmer, for whom the sublime remained always linked to a discourse about art and was not, as would later be the case with Kant, a way of establishing the conditions for the possibility of thinking. Kant's interest in the sublime led him so far as to make it the foundation of our knowledge of the world.

Though perception is subjective, the fact that all of us can agree that we are seeing the same object -- a rose is Kant's example -- argues for a common cognitive apparatus. Because we feel, because of our ability to respond subjectively, we can think and make judgments about the world. Thus, though Kant started out writing a work on aesthetics, called "Critique of Taste," about our judgments of art, the final product went beyond the realm of art and extended aesthetics to the moral and philosophical spheres: "Critique of Judgment."

For Bodmer, as I said, the sublime always remained tied to art and our reaction to works of art. His greatest influence was on a painter, namely, Henry Fuseli, who was a student of Bodmer and Breitinger at the Collegium Carolinum in Zurich in the 1750s and was known as Johann Heinrich Füßli. I will not go into his entire story here, but in 1770 he arrived in Italy (where he made the final change of his name to "Fuseli," which was easier for the Italians to pronounce). While now more known for the somewhat macabre works like The Nightmare (1781; the Institute of Fine Arts, Detroit), he schooled himself on the works of antique and modern masters in Italy. According to his first biographer, John Knowles, however, he was not primarily concerned with measuring proportions or copying but in studying the principles upon which these masters had worked, "in order to infuse some of their power and spirit into his own productions." This drawing nicely combines the division of the Classical and the Romantic spirit that would soon be articulated by Schiller and Friedrich Schlegel.

I am finally getting to Goethe in Italy, for Knowles includes Fuseli's own evaluation of Italy in a letter to a friend in 1778, a decade before Goethe was there. Fuseli was then getting ready to leave Italy and head north. Though he would miss his friends in Italy, he was not, writes Knowles, partial to the modern Italians who, Fuseli said, "were lively and entertaining, but there was the slight drawback of nerve feeling one's life unsafe in their presence." Fuseli reported the following: "When I was one day preparing to draw from a woman selected by the artists for a model, on account of her fine figure, on altering the arrangement of her dress, I saw the hilt of a dagger in her bosom, and on inquiring, with astonishment, what it meant, she drew it, and quaintly answered, 'Contro gi'impertinenti.'" It may be that Goethe ignored informing people of these aspects of contemporary life because they existed, so to speak, in the contextual earshot of what he did include.

Picture credit: Randel Plowman

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