Saturday, March 22, 2008

More From Goethe In Italy

In my last post, I quoted Goethe at length, from his Letters From Italy. I found a number of passages in the collection as I read that must feel very familiar to anyone who has spent a good deal of time traveling. It is amazing — it seems like things don't really change that much in 250 years after all. Things like these are still quite resonant for a traveler today:

At present, I am preoccupied with sense-impressions to which no book or picture can do justice. The truth is that, in putting my powers of observation to the test, I have found a new interest in life.

But only in ancient times, when a people were more of a people than today, can [this amphitheatre] have made its full effect. Such an amphitheatre, in fact, is properly designed to impress people with itself, to make them feel at their best.

My purpose in making this wonderful journey is not to delude myself but to discover myself in the objects I see.

When one lives far away, one hears only of the major artists in the galaxy and is often satisfied with merely knowing their names; but when one draws closer, the twinkle of stars of the second and third magnitude becomes visible until, finally, one sees the whole constellation — the world is wider and richer than one had hitherto supposed.

There is something diving about [Pallidio's] talent, something comparable to the power of a great poet who, out of the worlds of truth and falsehood, creates a third whose borrowed existence enchants us.

So now, thank God, Venice is no longer a mere word to me, an empty name, a state of mind which has so often alarmed me who am the mortal enemy of mere words.

At last I can really enjoy the solitude I have been longing for, because nowhere can one be more alone than in a large crowd through which one pushes one's way, a complete stranger.

The lagoons may be gradually silting up and unhealthy miasmas hovering over their marshes, their trade may be declining, their political power dwindling, but this republic will never become a whit less venerable in the eyes of one observer. Venice, like everything else which has a phenomenal existence, is subject to time.

The art of the mosaic, which gave the Ancients their paved floors and the Christians the vaulted Heaven of their churches, has now been degraded to snuffboxes and bracelets. Our times are worse than we think.

All that intelligence and hard work created in times past, intelligence and hard work have now to preserve.

There is much in this record, I know, which I could have described more accurately, amplified and improved, but I shall leave everything as it stands because first impressions, even if they are not always correct, are valuable and precious to us.

I have only just realized how bold I was to travel unprepared and alone through this country. The different currencies, the vetturini, the prices, the wretched inns are a daily nuisance, and anyone who travels alone for the first time, hoping for uninterrupted pleasures, is bound to be often disappointed and have much to put up with. But, after all, my one wish has been to see this country at any cost and, were I to be dragged to Rome on Ixion's wheel, I should not utter a single word of complaint.

[A]s soon as one sees with one's own eyes the whole which one had hitherto only known in fragments and chaotically, a new life begins.

So let me seize things one by one as they come; they will sort themselves out later.

Nothing, above all, is comparable to the new life that a reflective person experiences when he observes a new country. Though I am still always myself, I believe that I have been changed to the very marrow of my bones.

The above quotations are from Goethe's Italian Journey, 1786-1788, as translated by W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer and published in 1962.

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