Here’s a question: what does an eighteenth-century gentleman, with a fair amount of money, a comfortable desk job, and a passion for rocks and plants do when he finds himself suffering through the throngs of a mid-life crisis?
My natural answer, of course, would be this: he buys a racing carriage and starts wearing leather coat-tails.
If, however, that eighteenth-century gentleman happens to be Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and the desk job happens to be a post working for the Weimar government, and the passion for rocks and plants happens to be – well, a passion for rocks and plants – then he might very well drop everything he’s doing and run away to Italy. We’ve all been there, right gents? Your hair starts receding, you go to Italy. It’s been done so often it’s almost a cliché.
However, while most gentlemen in this position content themselves with new haircuts and a little harmless flirting with the girl who brings their coffee every morning, Goethe went one further. In 1786, he set out from Weimar in the dead of night, possibly elaborately disguised (at least I’d like to think so), and using a fake name.
But why Italy? Well, for one, it was a very fashionable place to visit on the Grand Tour. In the eighteenth century, most wealthy young men would take a long trip around Europe as a way of ‘improving their minds’ (in less refined circles this was known as ‘sowing their wild oats’, but none of the brochures will tell you that). The usual itinerary included France, Greece and Italy. These men would go and see ancient sites, meet new acquaintances, and enjoy the warm weather that southern climates boast. Essentially, it was an eighteenth-century gap year. The main difference was that you stayed in fancy hotels rather than campsites, and nobody had to wear flip-flops in the shower*. So why did the thirty-seven-year-old Goethe go on this belated Grand Tour?
My passionate desire to see these objects with my own eyes had grown to such a point that, if I had not taken the decision I am now acting upon, I should have gone completely to pieces…
Italian Journey, Part One – 12 October
Goethe had been enchanted with the idea of going to Italy ever since he was a boy. His father had been on his own Grand Tour and had never stopped talking about it. Young Goethe** grew up staring at pictures of St Peter’s and other famous Italian landmarks, dreaming of one day catching a real-life glimpse of them.
So he decided to steal away in the dead of night, and hop on a carriage to Italy. Which sounds easy, but actually took the better part of a month what with carriage travel and the state of the roads (some things never change). He ended up spending more than a year away from home, visiting ruined temples and methodically cataloguing Italian plants and rocks (I’m not kidding; every time Vesuvius erupts while he’s in Naples, Goethe seems to be first on the scene with a notebook and a set of tweezers). Many years later, he collected the letters and journal entries he wrote during his stay and complied them into a book.
There’s much that can be said about this book. Goethe’s fascination with the ancient world, his encounters with locals, his treatment of travel as a kind of early psychotherapy…. What stands out to me most of all, however, is how recognisable his experiences are. You’d think that between the bumpy carriage rides and the lack of proper toilet facilities the modern traveller wouldn’t find much to identify with. But I found there were many things that clearly haven’t changed much since 1786; the quintessential travel experiences, perhaps. In fact, I found the whole subject so fascinating that I compiled a little list of the Top Five Things Goethe Can Teach Us About Travel. You’d be surprised how much you can learn from a man who lived two hundred years ago.
It’s possible this has something to do with the fact that I was also travelling through Italy while I was reading this book (in case you were wondering, it was not coincidental); there’s something quite wild about sitting on the train to Pompeii and reading the description of a man who visited it more than two hundred years before. But despite the passage of so much time, you do end up feeling a strange connection with Goethe as he makes his way through Italy. His account is engaging and beautifully written. Even if you’ve never been to Italy, Goethe paints a fascinating picture of it. His enthusiastic responses to just about everything he sees are certainly infectious. As far as armchair travelling goes, Goethe makes an excellent companion.
Rating: 4.5 Stars
*I’m assuming here that I’m not the only person who has an aversion to showering barefoot in shared hostel bathrooms.
**Is it just me, or would Young Goethe make a great movie? Mel Brooks could write and direct it in the style of Young Frankenstein. Goethe could have a stripe in his hair and refuse to memorise twelve different types of rock for his exams. At the end of the film he puts on his famous hat and Tischbein takes a Polaroid of him on Eurail.
… Just a thought.