Goethe’s Grand Tour of Venice

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who is universally recognised as the greatest poet in the German language, wouldn’t ordinarily be anyone’s go-to person for travel advice for Venice had he not also written his Italian Journey. It is a diary-like account of his almost two years of travelling through Italy. As a son of an upper middle class family, a law graduate and a senior civil servant at the court of a duke, Goethe fits the profile of an intrepid 18th-century Grand Tourist. For northern European travellers of his time and background, Italy occupied an outsized role in the imagination. With Goethe’s stature in German culture, his Italian Journey also lays the foundations for Germans’ love of all things Italian.

During his long sabbatical in Italy, Goethe made his way through Verona, Venice, Bologna, Florence, Rome, Naples and Sicily. He wrote letters to friends in Germany which, with his diary, he later used as the basis for Italian Journey. As expected, the ethos is observant and inquisitive. The mission, as was the case with 17th- and 18th-century travellers to Italy, is to resurrect the classical past from its ancient ruins. What illustrates this mindset is Goethe in the Roman Campagna, a painting by German artist JHW Tischbein whom Goethe met in Rome and with whom he shared his travel experiences. It shows Goethe against a backdrop of ancient ruins and rolling hills – the classic German image of Italy.

Goethe’s fascination with Venice is infectious. His 16-day visit to the city took place during the last years of Venetian independence but Goethe clearly senses the resilience and exceptionalism of the local people that had once made this independence possible. By remarking that the old Venetians did not seek refuge in the inhospitable lagoon for fun but out of necessity, Goethe pays tribute to the ingenuity that had overcome all challenges of existence and construction in this amphibious environment. Venetians, in his estimation, have not only survived but prospered and created a city like no other. As a result of their efforts, Goethe concludes that “Venice can only be compared to itself”.

Gazing across the lagoon from the top of St Mark’s Campanile into the vast expanse of water beyond Lido, Goethe sees the sea for the first time in his life. He takes up lodgings in a hotel that no longer exists – the Queen of England, not far from the Piazza San Marco, where now a plaque in German notes his stay. He also frets constantly about the “disgusting sludge” and “vile-smelling muck” created by the garbage floating in the canals. “As I walked,” he writes, “I found myself devising sanitary regulations and drawing up a preliminary plan for an imaginary police inspector who was seriously interested in the problem.” Goethe would be pleased to know that today barges regularly pick up Venice’s garbage.

As a Grand Tourist, Goethe is indefatigable. He tours Venice thoroughly but, interestingly, his assessment of what he sees (and doesn’t see) reveals a mindset that is, as yet, uncluttered by Ruskin. He makes no qualms about his love for Palladio – whom Ruskin would detest – and clearly fails to appreciate the city’s Byzantine and Gothic heritage – as Ruskin would do. Goethe is taken in by Palladio’s genius as he surveys the ingenious designs of the Redentore and the Santa Maria della Carità. He is also unimpressed by San Marco’s Basilica and glosses over entire rows of Gothic palazzi along the Grand Canal. In all of this, Goethe’s Italian Journey shows how much Venice has changed even as it has remained the same.