Friday, January 13, 2012

Goethe in Venice

I mentioned earlier that friends had vacationed in Venice before New Year's and sent me the reminder in the photo at the left (click to enlarge and see the sign indicating "viale Goethe") that Goethe had left his mark on the city. Today I will write a bit about the city's mark on him, which is one of the lesser fields of Goethe scholarship.

Travel accounts of the past two centuries are often records of desire, particularly the attempts of travelers to discern the past in the milieu of the present. Thus, 17th- and 18th-century travelers to Italy sought to resurrect the vanished classical past from the ancient ruins. For northern European travelers, especially Germans, Rome in particular occupied an outsized role in the imagination.

Goethe had longed since his youth to visit Italy, which he finally did in 1786, spending two years there. As Nicholas Boyle writes in his biography of Goethe, however, the real Italy itself was merely confirmation that "the object of his desires had a place and habitation on this earth." Those two years in Italy were not really spent on the ground, but "in Arcadia, in a creation of his mind and heart." Goethe devoted little attention to the actual Italy (unless it was geological or plant in nature), exploring few of the customs of the land, the very thing that most of us look forward to experiencing in foreign countries. The difference can be seen by comparing Goethe's Italian Journey with the diaries and memoirs of Friederike Brun, who spent considerable time in Rome and southern Italy exploring both the past and documenting the present. Her writings of these years were published before Goethe's Italian Journey, and I suspect he studied them closely. (My account of Frederike Brun as a traveler can be found in this publication.)

Goethe had passed through Venice on his first Italian journey, but it was in 1790 that he returned, on a quasi-official Weimar mission: the Duke's mother had been in Rome for the past two years, and Goethe was to accompany her on this stage of her return trip to Weimar. Her delay in leaving Rome, however, meant that Goethe stayed longer than expected. By now, Goethe had settled in Weimar with Christiane and had a small son, a domestic situation that was clearly satisfactory. Thus, the epigrams record disappointment at what is not in Venice: the snowy mountains of the north and the German Faustina left behind in Weimar. The erotic vein of the Roman Elegies is abandoned. In contrast, Italy on this second journey was more clearly observed than on the first, "imaginative," visit. It was now, writes Boyle, "a place of dusty roads and dishonest hotel keepers."The literary product that emerged is the Venezianische Epigramme, a "cycle" of 100 or so short poems that drew their formal inspiration from such ancient precedents as Martial.

This collection occupies a secondary place in Goethe scholarship, probably because of the seemingly unmediated character of the reflections in the poems. Boyle writes of this being a "distempered time" for Goethe. What is unprecedented about this work is that they are "full of Goethe's opinions. ... Never before in his writing have views been expressed in so undramatized a form, so unattached to any persona other than of Goethe at a particular time and in a particular place." Boyle also adds that "the image of the traveler, of the man who is not at home, is fundamental to the collection." Thus, Goethe would seem to exemplify the flâneur (see also here), before being a flâneur became a literary and artistic subject.

Though the subjects are wide-ranging and, unlike in the Roman Elegies, contain quick sketches of Venetian daily life, Boyle identifies three thematic areas: political, cultural, and sexual. The effects of the French Revolution was in its early stages, and Goethe's references to street-corner revolutionaries contain some interesting observations, including, I was interested to see, the following two lines on the nature of freedom of speech. (The epigram itself, however, went unpublished in his lifetime.)

Leider läßt sich noch kaum was rechtes denken und sagen
Das nicht grimmig den Staat, Götter and Sitten verlezt.

(Unfortunately it is hardly possible to think or say anything right that is not savagely wounding to the state, the gods, and morals.)

Sex seemed to preoccupy Goethe at this time. For instance, he devotes some lines to Venetian prostitutes, whom he had seen in his wanderings in the labyrinth of Venice streets. Of these epigrams Boyle writes that their character was so explicit -- nudity, erections, masturbation, sodomy, venereal disease -- that they were not published for over a century.

The third theme shows Goethe, as Boyle writes, at his most "explicitly and violently" anti-Christian. "Christianity is presented as a series of illusions," while the epigrams consistently focus instead on "Epicurean materialism," which offers "the unadulterated truth" about God, man, and the world.

According to the Goethe-Handbuch, Goethe failed to mention ("with a single word") the grand palaces on the Canal (seen above in the gorgeous photo above by Todd Landry), and the Byzantine and Gothic influences on the architecture simply passed him by. He had the following to say about St. Mark's: "The architectural style is commensurate with every manner of nonsense that was taught or perpetrated there." Goethe did not, however, neglect the paintings to be found in Venice, and he and his companions, Friedrich Bury and Johann Heinrich Meyer, made a systematic tour of practically every church and public collection in the lagoon city and, in this way was Goethe's understanding of the history of Venetian painting enriched.

This post is becoming very long. Thus, I hope to devote the following post to a continuation of Goethe in Venice, in particular to his impressions of the paintings he saw there, reflected in an essay from 1825, Ältere Gemälde. Venedig 1790.

Picture credit: Visual Culture; Todd Landry (as above)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very, very interesting. One wants to return to Venice; one wants to learn more about this great man Goethe!