IV. GOETHE IN ITALY: 1786-88

He traveled under a pseudonym, “M. Jean-Philippe Möller,” for he wished to be freed from the inconveniences of fame. He was thirty-seven years old, but he came with even more than the bright expectancy of youth, and much better prepared, knowing something of Italy’s history and art. On September 18 he wrote to Herder, “I hope to return a newborn person,” and to Karl August, “I hope to bring back a thoroughly cleansed and far better equipped human being.” To these and other friends he sent “Letters from Italy” that still have in them the allegrezza of Italian life. He prefaced them with the old motto Auch in Arkadien—ht too was now in Arcady. We have seen elsewhere how grateful he was for the sunshine; “I believe in God again!” he cried out as he entered Italy.60But he loved the Italian people too, their open faces and hearts, the naturalness of their lives, the passion and jollity of their speech. Being a scientist as well as a poet, he made note of meteorological peculiarities, geological formations, mineral specimens, varieties of animals and plants; he liked even the lizards that darted over the rocks.

He was so eager to reach Rome that he passed hurriedly through Venezia, Lombardy, and Tuscany. But he stopped long enough in Vicenza to feel the classic simplicity and power of Palladio’s architecture. He strongly reaffirmed his antipathy to Gothic: “from all taste for those … tobacco-pipe shafts, our little steeple-crowned towers and foliated terminals, … I am now, thank God, set free forever! … Palladio has opened the road for me to every … art.”61 Through that road he went back to Vitruvius, whom he studied in an edition by Galiani, our witty friend from Naples and Paris. The classical style now became a passion with him, coloring his works and thought, re-forming some past productions, like Iphigenie and Tasso, into classic mold and line. In Venice the baroque palaces seemed immodestly garish, too femininely elegant; and even from the Renaissance façades he turned to the relics of classic architecture and statuary in the museums. But his warm blood responded to the color and pride of Veronese and Titian.

In Ferrara he sought in vain the palace where Tasso had been confined. After three days in Bologna and only three hours in Florence, he rushed on through Perugia and Terni and Città di Castello, and on October 29, 1786, he rode through the Porta del Popolo into Rome. Now he felt a passing moment of modesty. “All roads are open to me, because I walk in a spirit of humility.”62

Not yet master of spoken Italian, he sought out the German colony, and especially the artists, for he aspired to learn at least the elements of drawing, painting, and sculpture. Angelica Kauffmann admired his enthusiasm and good looks; she painted a portrait of him, stressing his black hair, lofty forehead, and clear eyes. He formed an intimate friendship with Johann Hein-rich Wilhelm Tischbein, who handed him down to us, in the famous Goethe in der Campagna,63 reclining at ease as if he had conquered Arcady. Long before coming to Italy Goethe had corresponded with this painter; they met for the first time on November 3, when they converged in the Piazza San Pietro; the poet recognized the artist, and introduced himself simply: “I am Goethe.”64 Tischbein described him in a letter to Lavater:

I found him to be quite what I had expected. The only thing that surprised me was the gravity and tranquillity of one of such vivid sensibility, and also that he is able to be at ease and at home in all circumstances. What pleases me still more is the simplicity of his life. All he asked me to provide for him was a little room where he could sleep and work without interruption; and the very simplest fare. … Now he sits in that little room and works at his Iphigenie from early in the morning till nine o’clock. Then he goes out to study the great works of art.65

Tischbein often guided him in these explorations, had drawings made for him, and secured for him copies of the more famous paintings; Goethe himself made sketches of what he especially wished to recall. He tried his hand at sculpture, and modeled a head of Hercules. He admitted that he had no talent for the plastic arts, but he felt that these experiments gave him a better sense of form, and helped him to visualize what he wished to describe.66 He pored over Winckelmann’s History of Ancient Art; “Here on the spot I find it highly valuable. … Now at last my mind can rise to the greatest and purest creations of art with calm consideration.”67 “The history of the whole world attaches itself to this spot, and I reckon a … true new birth since the day I entered Rome.... I think I am changed to the very marrow.”68 Meanwhile he seems to have enjoyed the living art provided by the “dainty” models who posed in the studios.69 His stay in Rome completed that de-romantification which had begun with the responsibilities of office. Now the lawlessness of Götz and the tears of Werther seemed to the maturing Goethe signs of an unbalanced mind; “romanticism is a disease,” he said; “classicism is health.”70 There was something romantic in his new enthusiasm for classic marbles, columns, capitals, and pediments, and the pure lines of Greek statuary. “If we really want a pattern, we must always return to the ancient Greeks, in whose works the beauty of mankind is constantly represented.”71 Like Winckelmann, Goethe saw only the “Apollonian” side of Greek civilization and art—the exaltation of form and restraint; he now almost ignored that “Dionysian” ecstasy which so warmly colored Greek character, religion, and life, and which, in Goethe himself, had spoken through his “daimon” and his loves.

It was in this classic rapture that he rewrote Iphigenie auf Tauris in verse (1787), resolved to rival Racine, even Euripides himself. Still cherishing the embers of the fire that Charlotte von Stein had ignited in him, he poured into the speeches of the Greek princess something of the tenderness and self-control of the German baroness. He told the old story well, with all its complications of mythology and genealogy; he intensified the drama by portraying the Scythian king favorably; and he dared to change the ending to accord with the idea—rare among the Greeks—that one has moral obligations even to “barbarians.” Only those who can read German fluently can appreciate Goethe’s performance; yet Hippolyte Taine, a Frenchman, a supreme critic, and presumably familiar with Racine’s dramas, said: “I place no modern work above Goethe’s Iphigenie auf Tauris”72

The memories of Charlotte in this play, and still more in Torquato Tasso, which he rewrote in Rome, revived his feeling for her. She had been deeply wounded by his sudden flight to Italy, and by his leaving her boy in charge of a servant; she at once took Fritz back, and demanded the return of all the letters she had written to Goethe. He wrote apologetically from Rome (December 8, 13, and 20, 1786); she sent him (December 18) a note of “bittersweet” reproof; he answered (December 23): “I cannot express to you how it pierces my heart that you are ill, and ill through my fault. Forgive me. I myself fought with death and life, and no tongue can speak the things that went on within me.” Finally she relented. “Now,” he wrote on February 1, 1787, “I can go to work in a happier mood, since I have a letter from you in which you say that you love and take delight in my letters.”

In that month he and Tischbein went to Naples. He ascended Vesuvius twice; on his second attempt a minor eruption covered his head and shoulders with ashes. He reveled in the classic ruins at Pompeii, and marveled at the simple majesty of the Greek temples at Paestum. Returning to Rome, he took ship to Palermo, went on to study the classic temples at Segeste and Girgenti (Agrigento), stood in the Greek theater at Taormina, and was back in Rome in June. More and more in love with “the most remarkable city in the whole world,”73 he persuaded Duke Karl August to continue his salary to the end of 1787. When that extension expired, he slowly reconciled himself to the North. He left Rome on April 25, 1788, traveled leisurely through Florence, Milan, and Como, and reached Weimar on June 18. Every day he wondered how the Duke, the court, and Charlotte would receive a Goethe who felt himself transformed.

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