Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Goethe in Sicily

Christian Heinrich Kniep
"What are men to rocks and mountains?" This line from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice has some resonance in connection with Goethe's visit to Sicily in 1787.

I have been working my way through Goethe's Italian Journey and have taken to recording some of his observations, day by day, so to speak, on his Twitter site. I usually compare the Journey with letters written to Weimar as well as with the Diary. Now that we have reached Sicily, however, there are few entries about Sicily in the Diary, and there is also a breach in the letters from March 23, 1787 (to C.G. Voigt from Naples) until April 17 (to Friedrich von Stein from Palermo). Thus, there is no truly illuminating information about first impressions.  I have not done any research on this, but it would seem that the portions of the Journey devoted to Sicily are post facto, perhaps prepared from on-the-spot notes that were later destroyed. I am ready to stand corrected if anyone has any information on this.

Goethe was of course accompanied by the artist Christian Heinrich Kniep, who served, if not as a stenographer, as a recorder of sights,  for tangibles, which for Goethe was obviously important. An indication of this is the entry for April 5, 1787 -- today! -- concerning an excursion he and Kniep made in Palermo. This is the opening:

"In the afternoon we visited the pleasant, fertile valley that comes down past Palermo from the mountains to the south, with the Oreto river winding through it."

It appears that Palermo is situated in a basin formed by three rivers, one of which is the Oreto mentioned by Goethe. Today, the river divides the downtown part of the city from the industrial western sections. Clearly it was more picturesque on Goethe's outing and, as Goethe writes, Kniep was busy finding the most attracting vantage points.

The most notable aspect of this particular entry is Goethe's dressing down of their guide, who was eager to explain the "local history," in particular concerning the battle at this spot in which the Carthaginian general Hannibal was defeated in 251 B.C. (The notes to the English edition of the Journey, by the way, point out that the defeated general was Hasdrubal.) For Goethe, this was pure pedantry and, as he writes, he "crossly rebuked him for so wretchedly evoking these departed spirits." Goethe declared his desire not to be startled out of his peaceful reverie by such tales of tumult (Nachgetümmel), which naturally surprised the guide.

Er verwunderte sich sehr, daß ich das klassische Andenken an so einer Stelle verschmähte, und ich konnte ihm freilich nicht deutlich machen, wie mir bei einer solchen Vermischung des Vergangenen und des Gegewärtigen zumute sei.

Goethe's understanding of "classical" soon emerges. He begins foraging in the shallows of the river for stones, which likewise astonished the guide. As Goethe writes, here, too, he felt unable to explain to him that the best way to understand a mountainous region was "to use rubble in order to obtain an idea of those earthly antiquities, the eternally classical mountains." (As always, the English here is mostly from Robert R. Heitner's translation.)

 ... daß hier auch die Afugabe sei, durch Truümmer sich eine Vorstellung von jenen ewig klassischen Höhen des Erdalterums zu verschaffen.

His booty amounted to almost forty specimens, the mineral content of which he goes on to describe. Tangibles again.

Picture credits: Alchetron; Your Rock Store

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