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"To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything."
Born in 1749, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a giant of German literature. His travels
in Italy were undertaken from 1786 until 1788, while the author was still
fairly young. He married in 1806 and died in 1832. Faust, perhaps
his best-known work, was completed only shortly before his death. Goethe
travelled through much of Italy, spending March, April and May 1787 in Sicily,
and his memoir was published (in German) in 1817 as Italian Journey.
Goethe was viewed as a complicated man, a quality reflected in his work.
Italian Journey is more than a mere travel book; it is an autobiographical
account of an intellectual's experiences. In the case of southern Italy,
it reflects conditions then existent in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
(The portrait shown here represents Goethe during the time of his Italian
trip, as rendered by Wilhelm Tischbein, who was with him in Naples.) The
focus of Goethe's Italian stay was the south, with much time spent in and
around Naples and Rome, though he did visit Venice and other northern cities.
This was logical, as Naples was then the largest, wealthiest and most populous
of the Italian cities.
It has been suggested that Goethe chose this point in his life --though not
yet married he was nearing forty and apparently without active romantic interests-- to
make a long-desired trip to Italy because, following early success in his career, he
required new inspiration for future works. He looked to the Classical (ancient) and the
Renaissance as a form of "therapy" for a slow stage in his development. It is a tribute to his intellectual curiosity and psychological awareness that he considered this important and useful. He first sought the expatriate German communities of Rome and Naples, artistic and intellectual contemporaries slightly younger than himself. From there, he ventured into the deep south.
Goethe arrived in Sicily in late March 1787 with his friend C.H. Kniep,
leaving to return to Naples on 13 May of the same year. His insights and
observations are interesting --and astutely accurate. He describes Palermo
as being quite similar to Naples architecturally, though dirtier. The fountain
in Piazza Pretoria is described, as are other landmarks,
such as Mount Pellegrino, the Botanical Gardens
and various churches. He celebrates Easter in Palermo and dines with the
viceroy. Visiting Bagheria, he marvels at the fantastic figures in the garden
of the Prince of Palagonia. He visits Monreale and the nearby monastery
of San Martino. Even the colorful "Count" Cagliostro figures in Goethe's book.
He ventures across Sicily, from Ustica and Marsala to Catania and Taormina,
stopping at Alcamo, Segesta, Castelvetrano, Caltanissetta, Agrigento, Messina
and Enna. He also climbs Mount Etna. Except for visits to some less important
towns, the itinerary is remarkably similar to what one would follow today.
Goethe admired classical history, art and literature, perhaps believing
these to be directly connected to the arts of his day. What is certain is
that he appreciated Sicily as an essential element of "Italy"
(a nation state established only in the 1860s).
His travels brought him into contact with common people as well as aristocrats,
allowing him to observe the eccentricities of both classes. Goethe's writings
regarding landscapes, flora and fauna, cuisine and mineralogy, though not
exhaustive, are interesting. Even his description of a mid-April downpour
in Palermo s not without a certain charm. It is important, however, to remember
that Goethe himself spoke little Italian. In that sense, he was not much
different from many other non-Italian visitors to Sicily, though he was
hardly a "tourist" as that word is commonly understood today.
This trip was not precisely the "grand tour" of continental Europe
undertaken by English gentlemen; it was rather more specialised and perhaps
Goethe's work is one of the earliest modern Italian travelogues, and
his subtle comparisons of various Italian cities are unique. The book as
it exists today consists of his diary and various accounts and correspondence
added later. The 1962 English translation by Auden and Mayer remains the
most faithful to the original German.
About the Author: Freelance journalist
Daniela Paglia formerly taught history and Italian studies in a high
school in Catania. She has previously written about Joan of England.