‘Italienische Reise’ (‘Italian Journey’) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Review)

goetheWe’re coming towards the end of our German Literature Month travels, and while it’s been an entertaining trip around some familiar (and some not so familiar) literary haunts, it’s certainly starting to take its toll on our trusty bus (and me too…).  However, when it comes to extended journeys of intellectual discovery, we’re lightweights compared to the author of today’s choice.  A month?  Pah.  If you’re going to do it, then you might as well do it properly…

It’s September 1786, and a figure moves stealthily through the darkness:

Früh drei Uhr stahl ich mich aus Karlsbad, weil man mich sonst nicht fortgelassen hätte.

At three o’clock in the morning, I crept out of Karlsbad, because otherwise I wouldn’t have been allowed to leave. *** (my translation)

The man secretly exiting the German town is none other than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of the greatest writers of all time, and the reason for this moonlit flight is his desire to fulfil a long-awaited voyage of discovery.  With the permission of his patron, off he goes on a trip through Italy to see the wonders of antiquity.  In an era without television or internet, the great man’s jealousy of those who have experienced the joys of the south has grown to such an extent that he can bear it no longer.  It’s his turn – and he’ll tell us all about it in his Italienische Reise (Italian Journey).

Not knowing how long he’ll be able to extend his trip, he’s determined to make the most of it.  He moves swiftly through the north, arriving within weeks for his first extended stay in Rome.  After four months in the capital, he then heads down to Naples and across to Sicily, before returning to Rome for a longer sojourn.  He eventually gets home almost two years after leaving, a truly life-changing experience:

Ob ich gleich noch immer derselbe bin, so mein’ ich, bis aufs innerste Knochenmark verändert zu sein.

Am I really still the same person, I feel I’ve been changed down to the very marrow. ***

Now, that’s some sabbatical…

The book is divided into three parts, with the first taking us up to Goethe’s initial departure from Rome.  The second then records his adventures in Naples and Sicily, before accompanying the writer back to the capital, leaving the second Roman holiday for the final section.  It takes the form of a series of extended letters to (mostly unnamed) friends back in the north, with the third section featuring a variety of letters, summaries and diary entries.  However, this is all fairly deceptive as the book was actually written between 1813 and 1817, an adapted version of the writer’s notes from decades earlier.

Tom, over at Wuthering Expectations, has already posted on the book here and here, in his usual excellent fashion, focusing on some of the background and the reasons for the journey.  By contrast, I preferred to approach the book with as little context as possible, treating it as a travel book like any other (Notes from a Sunny Country, A Year in Rome, Eat, Pray, Look for Rocks).  In fact, Goethe himself often alludes to the possibility of his work being used as a sort of nineteenth-century Lonely Planet by those wanting to follow in his footsteps (something I’m sure a later German writer was well aware of when he undertook his own Italian journey…).

One of the joys of reading Italienische Reise is the insights it provides into the world of glm2016Goethe the person.  Yes, he’s telling the story, and is more than clever enough to manipulate our perceptions, but the writer certainly comes across as an extremely likeable man.  Despite his professed desire to avoid company as much as possible, he’s always happy to chat to locals and ex-pats alike, crossing paths with pilgrims and plebs without batting an eyelid.  He’s a lot more active than you might expect, too.  He thinks nothing of spending several sleepless nights in a carriage in order to get to Rome faster, while he seems to positively thrive on a night’s rowing down Lake Garda or extended hikes around the Roman hinterland.  This is no weak intellectual.

Many of the more fascinating anecdotes mentioned involve incidents which were probably of serious concern at the time.  While sketching ruins near the start of his journey, the writer is surrounded by some suspicious locals, and when he attempts to clear the air in his usual good-humoured way, one of the officials present is less than convinced:

Der Aktuarius versetzte drauf, das lasse sich alles hören, aber Kaiser Joseph sei ein unruhiger Herr, der gewiß gegen die Republik Venedig noch manches Böse im Schilde führe, und ich möchte wohl sein Untertan, ein Abgeordneter sein, um die Grenzen auszuspähen.

The official continued, saying that while this might be true, Emperor Joseph was a restless ruler who almost certainly had evil plans in store for the Republic of Venice, and it was likely that I was his subject, a functionary sent to spy on the borders. ***

Eventually, our friend manages to sweet-talk his way out of trouble, but for a few moments it seemed as if he might have been thrown in prison to rot.  Later, he again causes locals to be on their guard when he and his companions go out of their way to examine some ancient buildings.  Unfortunately, sight-seeing in some areas in the eighteenth-century was more likely to attract the attention of armed men than souvenir sellers…

Still, none of this would have fazed Goethe as he doesn’t seem to have been a particularly delicate soul.  In addition to his brushes with the law, he had an unhealthy fascination with volcanoes, getting a little too close for comfort on more than one occasion (including a memorable scene where he makes a dash for the top of Vesuvius between mini eruptions…).  Then there are his treks through the Sicilian hinterland on a donkey, with one eye on the monotony of the fields and the other watching out for bandits.  And even when he does make it safely to the next town, he has to convince people to give him a bed for the night.  Outside the cities, hotels and inns are few and far between, and he often finds himself sleeping with the horses in the stables…

goethe-mapWith this kind of itinerary, I suspect that most of my readers would simply collapse in an exhausted heap at the end of the day (I definitely would).  Not Johann G., though – he just got on with his writing.  Each leg of the journey produces more work, with the writer creating new operas or polishing drafts of plays (e.g. Tasso, Egmont), and every month seems to see another package dispatched back to the Teutonic north, with reports of critical acclaim following by return post.  Well, even Shakespeare wrote for money, and let’s face it – holidays aren’t cheap.  I suspect that two years in Italy sharpened Goethe’s need for a steady income stream.

There’s a lot to like about Italienische Reise, and I certainly enjoyed it in parts, but the casual reader should take heed as it can be dull in places.  Goethe was a polymath of the highest order, and while I shared his enthusiasm in many areas, he often failed to pull me along on his outings.  I’m not a huge fan of the intricacies of sculpture, and botany leaves me rather cold.  However, the most infuriating part of his endless passion for absolutely everything in the universe was his deep interest in geology and the constant search for bloody rocks.  Seriously, he was obsessed.  Apologies to anyone that way inclined, but after a few weeks (which seemed like two years) in Goethe’s company, I never want to hear anyone talk about rocks ever again…

For the average reader, I suspect Italienische Reise hits its high points in the great man’s visit to Naples and Sicily, and with some exceptions (e.g. the lengthy description of the Roman carnevale), the third part doesn’t really work.  Still, overall it’s a fun journey with an affable guide, a man with an infectious enthusiasm for all he encounters, and I’m glad I stuck it out to the end (even if it felt like I was occasionally moving along in real time…).  Goethe obviously realised that he was losing momentum with these diaries too.  The third part finishes well before the end of his journey, leaving the reader to wonder what happened on the way back to Germany.  It’s a shame we didn’t get the whole trip, but I guess we’ll never know what eventually made him head back home…

Elizabeth Mayer’s English-language version (Italian Journey) is available from Penguin Classics 🙂

Images are taken from the book’s German Wikipedia page.

7 thoughts on “‘Italienische Reise’ (‘Italian Journey’) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Review)

  1. Auden on the last third of the book, from his introduction to the translation:

    “As for Part Three, one can only conclude that Goethe handed the material over to his secretary without rereading it and that the secretary was too overawed by the great man to suggest any corrections.”


    The amount of work, including the immense amount of time spent studying painting and drawing, Goethe got done on the trip is amazing, but that is just his normal behavior.

    For anyone who wants to know what made Goethe head home, and what came of it, you cannot do better than Nicholas Boyle’s gigantic biography, Goethe: The Poet and the Age, volume 1.


    1. Tom – Well, I could read what an expert in the field has to say, or I could just make it up myself.

      I think you know by now which route I’ve taken…


  2. Yes, Goethe was the typical German romantic poet, but he also famously imagined himself as an ancient Roman. Rome was his caput mundi, where he studied the classics and looked for romantic love. Some think that with his Italian roman guy feelings he has gone too far… Famous is his roman elegy VII

    “Happily now on classical soil I feel inspiration.
    Voices from present and past speak here evocatively.
    Heeding ancient advice, I leaf through the works of the Ancients
    With an assiduous hand. Daily the pleasure’s renewed.
    Throughout the night, in a different way, I’m kept busy by Cupid—
    If erudition is halved, rapture is doubled that way.
    Do then I not become wise when I trace with my eye her sweet bosom’s
    Form, and the line of her hips stroke with my hand? I acquire,
    As I reflect and compare, my first understanding of marble,
    See with an eye that feels, feel with a hand that sees.
    While my beloved, I grant it, deprives me of moments of daylight,
    She in the nighttime hours gives compensation in full.
    And we do more than just kiss; we prosecute reasoned discussions
    (Should she succumb to sleep, that gives me time for my thoughts).
    In her embrace—it’s by no means unusual—I’ve composed poems
    And the hexameter’s beat gently tapped out on her back,
    Fingertips counting in time with the sweet rhythmic breath of her slumber.
    Air from deep in her breast penetrates mine and there burns.
    Cupid, while stirring the flame in our lamp, no doubt thinks of those days when
    For the triumvirs he similar service performed.”


    1. Ron – Agreed, but if you check out my satirical sequel to his journeys, you’ll see that love is all around in his Italian travels 😉


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