An Italian Notebook XIII
Bill Long 7/10/06
Discovering the Emotions in Travel--Continuing with Goethe
Goethe's Italian Journey is dominated by three themes: (1) the observation of nature and efforts to make a contribution to developing a law for the metamorphosis of plants; (2) his concern for an eight-volume edition of his collected works he had contracted to put out with a Berlin publisher and (3) his encounter with Renaissance art and the cultural monuments of antiquity in Italy.
His Italian journey was useful for another reason, however and that was that he used it to "discover" that he didn't have creative talents in the visual arts. That is, before his journey he saw himself as a genius on two fronts: as a man of letters and as a person with a yet-undeveloped talent in painting. By the end of his Italian journey he "rediscovered himself" primarily as a man of letters and observer of nature; his interest in art would be as an art lover and not a creative talent. Perhaps this discovery was not only useful for him to learn, but benefitted millions of subsesquent readers.
When he went to Italy at age 37, Goethe was already an internationally-known author, thanks to his melodramatic and widely popular Sorrows of the Young Werther, published in 1774 when Goethe was 25. Here is a pleasant essay that puts that piece into its historical context. Thus, he felt he had to go "incognito," adopting the name of "Filippo Miller, painter," and divesting himself of his German aristocratic trappings so that he could grow in whatever direction he could. It was a wise decision, one that let him, in Thoreau's terms, confront the facts of nature as they presented themselves to him directly and not through the interpretive "channels" that would have been available to him as a German diplomat. To use language from the 21st century, his decisions enabled him to discover his heart.
His Journey Through Umbria/Spoleto
I love Goethe's sprightly romantic prose, which sings even in English translation. He spent the night of October 27, 1786 in Terni, which is about 30 or so KM from Spoleto. The first thing he noticed were the natural surroundings:
"Here I sit in another 'cave,' one that was damaged in an earthquake a year ago. The little town lies in a delectable region, which I happily surveyed while making the circuit of the walls. It starts off with a lovely plain between mountains, which all still consist of limestone. Terni is located at the foot of the range on this side, like Bologna on the other side" (p. 100).
He then went on to talk about a guide/traveling companion he had, and his unforgettable impressions of the Italian people.
"The papal soldier (his first "guide") having left me, I now have a priest as my traveling companion. He seems much more content with his situation than the former, and is very willing to instruct me, whom of course he recognizes as a heretic, when I ask him about the rituals and other matters of that kind. Truly, I am achieving my goal by constantly associating with different persons; and what a vivid picture of the whole country can be gained from just hearing the people converse among themselves! In the most remarkable way they are all adversaries, they feel the strangest fanatical loayalty to their province and town, are all very intolerant of one another, the classes are enternally wat war, and all of this to the accompaniment of invariably lively, spontaneous emotion. All day long they perform a comedy for me and make fools of themselves; and yet at the same time they take the situation in and immediately notice when a foreigner is bewildered by their general behavior" (Ibid.).
Don't you just love the way he observes his surroundings and paints a picture with words that still endures after nearly 200 years? I will only comment on one thing he mentiones--the benefit of associating with different people.
Goethe's Memories/My Memories
One of the memories which will endure longest with me of my Italian journey are the three detailed conversations I had with my Italian hosts. The first was in the van on the way from Fiumicino Airport to downtown Rome after flying 16 or so hours from Portland, OR. We were tired but tried to engage the van driver in simple Italian conversation. Finally, I hit upon the idea of speaking about "la coppa mundial" (the World Cup), which was still in its preliminary rounds. The driver nearly became unglued with positive emotion. After avoiding numerous accidents because he was trying to point out the sports page to us as he drove, we settled into a pleasant exchange.
Second was a conversation on the train from Rome to La Spezia with our cabin mates--a young couple who had just been married. He was from Genoa and she from Rome, and they were traveling to Genoa to stay with his family. We cautiously began talking about rock music (she had the word "KISS" in spangles on her blue jeans); then we launched into other topics, finishing with a discussion on whether people without health insurance would be left to die in our respective countries if they became seriously ill.
Finally, I had a long conversation at the rental car agency after we returned our rental car on July 3. I wanted to get a discount on the rate because I felt that the company hadn't complied with the contract; the agent was a simple Italian bureaucrat who was working in an un-air conditioned office and giving child care to his toddler. Finally he relented and saved us the grand total of about 15 Euros.
Goethe's description, thus, triggered in me memories that also are vivid. We are now ready to see and hear how he discusses the town of Spoleto, where he spent some time, probably on October 28. The next essay further connects Goethe's journey to my journey.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long