Last week I looked at some of the English Romantics who chose to call Rome their home. I’ve already discussed one of my favourite museums in the world, the Keats-Shelley House, but Rome also appealed to writers from the other side of the Channel. So while in Rome I decided to visit the Casa di Goethe and see where the famous German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe lived, wrote, and painted. It was also a place of particular interest because at the time I was knee-deep in Goethe’s book Italian Journey, about his time in Italy (though not literally knee-deep, of course. That would have been embarrassing while trying to read on the train to Pompeii).
So what was this famous German writer doing in Rome? Well, it’s a funny story, and it goes something like this:
In 1786, suffering through what may very well be the first thoroughly-documented midlife crisis in Western history, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe slipped out of Germany and ran away to Italy. He spent the next two years doing typical midlife crisis things: driving in fast carriages, hanging out with a younger crowd (in this case a bunch of ex-pat German painters and writers, the eighteenth-century equivalents of twentysomething hipsters these days), and flirting with younger women. Eventually he was forced to return to Germany, but not before he’d been all the way to Sicily and back, writing letters and journal entries all the while.
He lived in an apartment on the Via del Corso with the German painter Tischbein, who eventually painted that famous portrait of Goethe in the Roman Campagna. It’s this apartment that is now a museum, the Casa di Goethe, containing a permanent exhibition on Goethe’s stay in Rome. The museum has none of the warmth or cosiness of the Keats-Shelley House. The walls in the Casa di Goethe are plain white, the red floor tiles apparently very similar to the kind of flooring that would have been present during Goethe’s stay. The rooms feel large and empty as you walk through them; the display cabinets are modern, no-nonsense affairs with little drawers that open to reveal text in several languages. You don’t really get a feel for what the place would have looked like during Goethe’s time. But the matter-of-fact approach recounts Goethe’s story simply and accessibly, even if it does occasionally feel a little like walking through the changing room at a public swimming pool.
One of the things that stands out is the artwork. Goethe, as everyone knows, is not famous for being a painter. But in Italy he became obsessed with drawing and sketching, taking lessons and making practice sketching trips all over the country (carrying a sketchpad and charcoal in those days was rather like carrying your Nikon and a tripod everywhere these days). Apart from Tischbein he was also friendly with Angelica Kauffman, the female artist. While Tischbein was painting his famous portrait, Goethe says,
Angelica is also painting me, but to no purpose; it sorely vexes her that it will not be a likeness, and a
success; her picture is a pretty fellow, to be sure, but not a trace of me.
Italian Journey, Part Three, Rome, 27th June
Goethe also apparently said that she had something remarkable ‘for a woman – talent’. Which is just what every woman wants to hear, obviously.
The walls are covered with Goethe’s attempts at drawing, most of which are half-finished, and his experiments with colour wheels and other artistic theories (because what else would you want to do while on holiday?). There is also a large copy of Tischbein’s painting and even a print Andy Warhol made of it. Altogether, it makes for an informative visit. The museum is impeccably organised and you leave feeling that you have almost followed Goethe step-by-step on his Italian Journey.
A little bit down the road is the Piazza del Popolo, the place most visitors to Rome would pass through as they made their way to the city. Goethe himself wrote about entering the city through the Porta del Popolo and finally feeling like he was really in Rome. I’m guessing that it would have looked slightly different in Goethe’s day; fewer tourists snapping photos on their phones and more gentlemen in excellent hats. But some things never change; the feeling that one has finally arrived in Rome, and in Italy.
At last I can speak out, and greet my friends with good humour. May they pardon my secrecy … For scarcely to myself did I venture to say whither I was hurrying— even on the road I often had my fears, and it was only as I passed under the Porta del Popolo that I felt certain of reaching Rome.
Italian Journey, Part One, Rome, 1 November 1786