Sunday, April 6, 2014

Goethe in the Veneto

Villa "La Rotonda"in Vicenza
I spent the past two days at a conference organized by Al Coppola, who now chairs the Seminar on Eighteenth-Century European Culture at Columbia University. (I was chair of the Seminar for several years, until 2007.) Though it took a bit of time to get off the ground, the conference commemorated the founding of the seminar 50 years ago, in 1962. Here is a link to website of the Seminar; scrolling down will bring you to the conference and a link to the program.

Among the Seminar's eminent founders were Peter Gay, Rudolf Wittkower, and James Clifford, all Columbia professors. For a talk I gave on the history of the 18th-century Seminar on February 5, I did a little research in the Seminar's archives. The early presentations centered around the concept of "Enlightenment." In going through the minutes of early meetings, I discovered that one trend of the Seminar has been a move from "big ideas" to "culture studies," with the latter focusing on very narrow aspects of material life in the 18th century. This trend represents a larger trend in 18th-century studies generally. In the opening roundtable the historian Isser Woloch described the transition in Norton anthologies from a concentration on "Kings and Philosophers" in the 1960s, to more recent presentations of the 18th century as "dynamic." Thus, a focus on population studies, religious life, the slave trade, private lives, including the role of women, and so on.

Architectural rendering
Thus, in the past half-century of the Seminar, topics of the meetings have focused on ever narrower micro-aspects of the 18th-century. In the U.S., and some extent at the Seminar, there has also been a strong bias toward the English 18th century, especially literature. Not having done a count, I can't say whether the recent ASECS conference, held in Williamsburg, was oriented in that direction, but the "micro" direction is evident from a cursory glance at the program.

The "rotonda"
Both Al and I have tried to keep the picture wide, and the recent conference did offer such a wider view of the 18th century. The paper by Sally Grant (recent Ph.D. from the University of Sydney, Australia) concerned the country house decoration of the Villa Vendramin Calergi at Noventa in the Veneto. I spoke with Sally afterward and brought up Goethe's visit to the Veneto. Goethe's renown travels far and wide, and she immediately mentioned the Villa "La Rotonda" (proper name: Villa Almerico Capra) as the villa Goethe had visited and described in Italian Journey. I include here some views of the villa, including the cupola interior (click to enlarge) that Goethe apparently saw. This site is of interest for its very detailed, critical discussion (in German) by Hubertus G├╝nther of Goethe's architectural "insights" regarding Palladian architecture.

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