Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey (1786-1788),
translated by W.H. Auden & Elizabeth Mayer
Schocken Books, New York, 1968
November 9, 1786
Sometimes I stand still for a moment and survey, as it were, the high peaks
of my experiences so far. I look back with special joy to Venice, that great
being who sprang from the sea like Pallas from the head of Jupiter. In Rome
the Pantheon, so great within and without, has overwhelmed me with admiration.
St. Peter's has made me realize that Art, like Nature, can abolish all standards
of measurement. The Apollo Belvedere has also swept me off my feet. Just as
the most accurate drawings fail to give an adequate idea of these buildings, so
plaster casts, good as some I have seen are, can be no subsitute for their marble originals. (p. 123)
December 3, 1786
Till now the weather has followed a six-day cycle two cloudless days,
one overcast day, two or three wet days and then again fine weather. I try to make best
use I can of each one of them.
The noble objects with which I am surrounded never lose their freshness
for me. I did not grow up with them. I have not wrung from each its peculiar secret.
Some attract me so powerfully that, for a while, I become indifferent, even unjust,
to fully that, for a while, I become indifferent, even unjust, to others. For example,
the Pantheon, the Apollo Belvedere, one or two colossal heads and, recently,
the Sistine Chapel have so obsessed me that I see almost nothing else. But how can
we, petty as we are and accustomed to pettiness, ever become equal to such noble
perfection? Even when one has adjusted oneself to some degree, a tremendous mass
of new things crowd in on one, facing one at every step, each demanding the tribute
of one's attention. How is one to find one's way through? Only by patiently allowing
it all to grow slowly inside one, and by industriously studying what others have
written for one's benefit.
I immediately bought the new edition of Winckelmann's History of the Art
of Antiquity, translated by Fea. Read on the spot where it was written and with an
able and learned company to consult, I find it a great help.
Roman antiquity is beginning to give me about as much pleasure as Greek.
History, inscriptions, coins, in which hitherto I took no interest, are forcing
themselves on my attention. My experience with natural history is repeating itself
here, for the entire history of the world is linked up with this city, and I reckon
my second life, a very rebirth, from the day when I entered Rome. (p. 135)
December 25, 1786
I am now starting to look at the best things for the second time.
As my initial amazement changes to a feeling of familiarity, acquire a clearer
sense of their value. For a profound understanding of what man has created,
the soul must firs have won its complete freedom.
Marble is an extraordinary material. Because of it, the Apollo Belvedere
gives such unbounded pleasure. The bloom of eternal youth which the original statue
possesses is lost in even the best plaster cast.
In the Palazzo Rondanini opposite, there is an over-lifesize mask of
a Medusa in which the fearful rigidity of death is admirably portrayed. I own a good
cast of it, but nothing is left of the magic of the original. The yellowish stone,
which is almost the colour of flesh has a noble, translucent quality. By comparison,
plaster always looks chalky and dead. And yet, what a joy it is to enter a caster's
workshop and watch the exquisite limbs of the statues coming out of the moulds one
after the other. It gives one a completely fresh view of the figures. All the statues
which are scattered over Rome can here be seen set side by side. This is invaluable
for purposes of comparison. I could not resist buying the cast of a colossal head of
Jupiter. It now stands in a good light facing my bed, so that I can say prayers to him
the first thing in the morning. However, for all his majesty and dignity, he has been
the cause of a comic incident.
When our old landlady comes in to make our beds, she is usually
accompanied by her favourite cat. I was sitting outside in the hall and heard her
busying herself in my room. Suddenly she flung the door open to hurry is not
like her and called to me to come quickly and witness a miracle. When I asked
her what had happened, she replied that her cat was worshipping God the Father.
She had noticed for some time that the creature had the intelligence of
a Christian, but, even so, this was a miracle. I ran into the room to see for myself,
and it really was miraculous. The bust stands on a high pedestal, and the body is cut
off far below the chest, so that the head is near the ceiling. The cat had jumped up
on a high pedestal, placed its paws on the chest of the God and stretched itself up
until its muzzle could just reach the sacred beard, which it was now gracefully licking,
oblivious of the exclamations of the landlady or my entrance.
I did not spoil the enthusiasm of the good woman by telling her my own
explanation for this strange feline devotion. Cats have keen sense of smell and
probably it had scented the grease from the mould, some of which still remained
sunk in the grooves of the beard. (pp. 139-14)
Correspondence: Rome, July 20, 1787
I have had plenty of time here to discover two of my capital faults,
which have pursued and tormented me all my life. One is that I could never be
bothered to learn the mechanical part of anything I wanted to work on or should
have worked on. That is why, though I have plenty of natural ability, I have
accomplished so little. Either I tried to master it by sheer force of intellect,
in which case my success or failure was a matter of chance, or, if I wanted to do
something really well and with proper deliberation, I had misgivings and could not
finish it. My other fault, which is closely related to the first, is that I have
never been prepared to devote as much time to any piece of work as it required.
I possess the fortunate gift of being able to think of many things and see their
connections in a short time, but, in consequence, the detailed execution of a
work, step by step, irritates and bores me. Now it is high time for me to mend my
ways. I am in the land of the Arts; let me study them really thoroughly, so that
I may find peace and joy for the rest of my life and be able to go on to something else.
Rome is a marvelous place. One finds here not only objects of every
kind, but also people of every kind who take their work seriously and know exactly
what they are doing, and one makes rapid and easy progress in their company. I am
beginning, thank God, to be able to learn from others and profit from their experience.
And so, I feel better than ever in body and soul. I hope you will remark
this in my productions and approve of my absence. I am united with you by what I write
and think; otherwise I am very much alone, and in company keep my thoughts to myself;
but this is easier here than anywhere else because there are always enough interesting
topics for conversation.
Mengs say somewhere, in reference to the Apollo Belvedere, that
a statue which combined the grand style with a more realistic rendering of the flesh
would be the greatest work humanly conceivable. The torso of Apollo (it may be
Bacchus) which I mentioned earlier seems to me to meet his demands and fulfill his
prophecy. Though my eye is not yet sufficiently trained to entitle me to judge in
such a delicate matter, I am inclined to believe that this fragment is the most
beautiful work I have ever seen. Unfortunately, besides being only a torso, the
epidermis has been washed off in several places, probably from standing under
the eaves of a roof. (pp. 359-360)
Rome, September 1787 In Retrospect
One evening the Apollo Belvedere, that inexhaustible topic of
artistic conversation, cropped up in our discussions. Somebody remarked that his
ears were not really very well done, and this led us naturally to talk about the
dignity and beauty of this organ, the difficulty of finding a beautiful one in
Nature and of reproducing it adequately in Art.
Hofrat Reiffenstein started reciting the lecture he was never
tired of repeating, namely, that one should not begin by looking at the best;
one should start with the Carracci in the Farnese Gallery, then move on to Raphael
and only after that draw the Apollo Belvedere and go on drawing him till
one knew him by heart, as the ultimate beauty beyond which there was nothing
to desire or hope for.
Energetic, ambitious spirits cannot be satisfied by pleasure;
they demand knowledge. This demand drives them to original activity, and
whatever the results may be, such a person comes to feel that, in the end,
he can judge nothing justly except what he has produced himself. But it is
difficult for a human being to be clear about this, and one can easily be
led into making misguided efforts which become alol the more alarming the
more sincere one's intention is. At that time, pleasant as the conditions
of my life were, I was beset by doubts and suspicions that I would find
it very difficult to fulfil my real desires and the true purpose for my
being in Rome. (pp. 393-394)