Goethe in the Hall

When reading Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s autobiography, published in 1824, when the author was seventy-five, it soon becomes clear that a specific set of prints is important to him. Already on the third page Goethe, who remembers he was standing in the hall in his parents’ house, transports us to Rome:

I had constantly before my eyes, at home, a collection of views of Rome, with which my father had ornamented an antechamber. These engravings were made by one of the predecessors of Piranesi, a celebrated engraver, equally skillful in the representation of architectural subjects and the choice of fine perspectives. In these I daily contemplated the Piazza del Popolo, the Coliseum, the square and church of St. Peter, the exterior and interior of that grand monument, the castle of St. Angelo & c. These objects impressed themselves on my memory. (Goethe 1894: 4–5)

The prints, which remain unidentified, could have been executed by any 16th- or 17th-century master, such as, for example, Ambrogio Brambilla, Giacomo Lauro or Govanni Battista Falda (Fig. 1). Whoever the artist was, Goethe obviously retained a vivid memory of the reproductions. For in the Italian Journey, which was published five years later, he evokes the same series of prints, but here the description of them serves as a prelude to his encounter with real the Rome: ‘the first views I remember — my father hung views of Rome in the hall — I now see in reality’ (1 Nov. 1786).1

Figure 1 

Ambrogio Brambilla, Colosseum, 1582. Engraving after an original drawing by Domenico Giuntalodi, here shown in a later state published by Giovanni Giacomo di Rossi. This might well have been one of the prints young Goethe ‘contemplated’ in the hall of his father’s house. Reproduced with permission from the Istituto Centrale per la Grafica. Courtesy of the Ministerio dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo.

Both passages capture the importance prints had in Goethe’s youth, or, more correctly, the importance they acquired when he wrote about his youth as an old man. The distinction is crucial. Young Goethe may of course have looked at the prints in the hall but it is the aging Goethe who rhetorically turns that looking into an act that was both prophetic of the journey he would make when he grew up and emblematic of remembering that journey. For the truly striking formulation in the passage above indicates how prints have become a metaphor of remembering itself. In Goethe’s words, printing and remembering have a common basis, on the level of technique, when he observes that prints ‘impressed themselves on my memory’ — drücken, as if these Roman views in their second state were flickering mental images. Regardless of what the young boy might have seen, the architectural views are truly contemplated by the connoisseur, surrounded by his collection, who only late in life would know how important prints had become to be able to remember anything at all.

This article is about Goethe’s descriptions of Rome — descriptions that I shall argue were both hampered and facilitated by prints. The engravings that Goethe consulted, collected, remembered and re-consulted helped rekindle the celebrated author’s impression of the city as he was about to publish the memoirs of his grand tour. In Goethe’s case, however, the hermeneutics of prints was particularly complex. As much as they helped him recall the city he had seen they also generated descriptions of monuments he had never visited. Prints formatted his perception and shaped his recollections to the effect that Rome, even though he actually went there, remained for a large part a printed Rome.

The production and selling of engraved maps, views and representations of monuments was an industry already in the early 16th century, with Roman publishers profiting from travelers and collectors who flocked to the city. As early as 1542, the humanist Georg Fabricius from Chemnitz, the German town not far from Goethe’s Weimar, travelled to Rome and could report from the shops of the print publishers Antonio Salamanca and Francesco Tramezzino that ‘archaeologists and lovers of antiquity met’ there in lively discussions (Tinto 1968: xxv; Pagani 2000: 150). In the early 17th century, another German, Joseph Furttenbach relates that he decorated the walls of his private house in Ulm with Pirro Ligorio’s map of ancient Rome, entitled Antiquae Urbis Imago and first published in 1561, and a view of modern Rome designed by Antonio Tempesta and published in 1591 (see Bevilacqua and Fagiolo 2012: 169). The wide expansion of prints in books and folios made the Eternal City also boundless. For a second time, the Roman Empire extended across the continent, so to speak, but this time on the walls and bookshelves of the literati, conquered not by the sword but by the tip of a burin. Chemnitz, Ulm — and, as we shall see, Weimar — passed under the dominion of the new black-and-white paper realm of Rome in print.

Johann Wolfgang’s father, Johann Caspar Goethe, travelled to Rome in 1740 (and possibly picked up the views that would keep his son enthralled), but it would take many years before young Goethe himself journeyed to Italy. At the age of 37, finally, he famously escaped his friends and employer, the duke of Weimar, and headed south. After an initial leg through Switzerland and Northern Italy, which included stops in cities and towns along the way, he finally reached the ‘First City of the World’ in October 1786. He stayed in Rome for nearly four months, and then travelled on to Naples and Sicily only to return to Rome for a second visit that lasted from June to April the next year. After eighteen months, he reluctantly returned to Weimar.

I shall discuss a restricted range of prints and only those Goethe mentions in his account of the journey entitled, in the original German, Italienische Reise. The first two parts were published in 1816–17, thirty years after the journey itself, blending letters and notes in an apparent day-to-day account of his first stay in Rome and the trip to Sicily and Naples. A third part was published in 1829 in which the author recalls, or at least attempts to recall, his second ten-month stay in Rome. It is wise to question how accurately the three parts reflect the impressions he actually formed at the time; corresponding notes survive only for the route from Carlsbad to Rome (see Goethe 2013b). A partly reinvented diary accords somewhat with a past that for Goethe was partly forgotten. The last part of the Italian Journey in particular only simulates a day-to-day account, as Catalano (2007: 69–70) points out, with the daily log reduced to a veneer that brings unity to a material that otherwise is hard to classify, mixing reminiscences and theoretical reflections of various kinds. For although the text takes the form of a journal, the recollection of the visit is infused by a spirit of poetic afterthought and bolstered by information he knew only later.

Just how grandly memory transforms his youthful experience is illustrated in one of the memoir’s last entries. As the author looks back on his departure from Rome in April 1788, he restages his last solitary walk as an evocative tableau infused with the yearning and sublime feelings typical of the romantic movement of the 1820s. He describes his ascent up the stairs to Michelangelo’s Capitol where the statue of Marcus Aurelius reminded him of the intimidating Commandatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. It is highly unlikely that Goethe in April of 1788 had seen, or indeed even known of, this opera, which had premiered in Prague only six months earlier. It is not as if impressions fade, but Goethe colors them in a more intense hue and inscribes them in a dramatic plot. An ideal recollection, then, takes the form not as an exact replication of an event, but as a re-creation of it. As readers, we understand — we feel — Goethe’s departure more strongly with reference to the fateful opera.

A passage like this leads us to suspect that his impressions of art and architecture undergo a similar transformation. However, it is not simply a transition from Goethe the classicist of the 1780s to Goethe the romantic of the 1820s, as it also reflects Goethe the scientist, for whom metamorphosis as such becomes a principle governing nature as well as art. Gradually, Goethe came to cultivate the grandeur of antiquity not in its lost forms, but as perpetual erosion. Whether he contemplates a ruin in decay, a project on its way up, or a vista caught in the twilight of sunset, the image of the romantic looking back on youthful adventures has to give way to the relentless observer of the world, to whom all phenomena exist in a constant state of transformation.

Written thirty, even forty, years after the journey itself, the entries in the Italian Journey depended not so much on his memories, which anyway threatened to fail him, but on a material that he had amassed in the meantime. The paradox is simply that Goethe sets out to describe a journey he no longer remembers. For example, in 1829, he tries to recall a walk of Rome he and his friends made in December 1787 — forty-two years earlier (!). Goethe writes, ‘Unfortunately, I have little record of the many good things that were seen and said at this time. Letters, notes and sketches are completely lacking’ (Dec. 1787).2 In other words, he has no memory of what he saw and admits, moreover, that the journal depends on an arsenal of aids of which graphic reproductions, as I shall argue, formed an essential part. In that respect the collection of prints that he built up over the years overlapped, and partly replaced, the re-collection of the Rome he had visited.

Of course, the reliance on prints differs in character between the various parts of the Italian Journey, or, rather, it differs between the young traveler who prepares and compares and the seasoned author who reflects and memorizes. I shall categorize both these uses of prints in the text and suggest that the difference as such betrays a conception of prints that evolves, because it is an undeniable fact that Goethe’s estimation of graphic reproduction changes as the years pass. From being an art that he initially thinks serve to replicate an original painting or building, it becomes one that interprets them. In a sense, remembrance and reproduction end up being twin forms of expression for the Weimar resident. Both are based on an initial ‘impression’ and with the obligation to improve on the respective raw material.

A Grand Tour Trapped in Reproductions

The overwhelming encounter with Rome obliterated much of what Goethe had learned from printed reproductions. It was a tough call, however, to form an image of the city independently of engravings, and as he struggled to describe the city afresh, old prints were simply replaced by new ones, as we shall see. But before we get that far, though, the diary tells of a tourist who looked not only at Rome, but at buildings all across Italy, through the lenses of printed folios.

Travelling down through Italy, towards Rome, Goethe worked hard to cleanse his mind of images from books and prints so that he could take in art and architecture in their pure form. As Anne Hultzsch has shown, a constant worry for him when he faced new sights was that he should not be able to see what he actually saw (see Hultzsch 2014: 163–75). The self-conscious German seemed at first to have examined more closely his own ability to look at things than the things themselves. His diary notes tell of a rigorous training of his eye to perceive buildings independently of the images of them that were impressed on his mind: ‘what I am after now is the sense impressions that no book and no picture can give me’, he writes from Bolzano (von Goethe 2013b: 38).3 Nevertheless he is soon ensured by the print paradigm again. The images that he first recomposed from scratch, from pure seeing, he then wished to re-engrave — prägen — on the soul, as if the soul was an archive, or a wall on which he would ‘keep them as a source of private pleasure’ (von Goethe 2013b: 119). This obviously brings us back to the analogy I pointed out in the beginning. The wall of prints in his childhood home persists as a metaphor of the storage of memories.

Even while he was schooling his pure eye, however, he kept buying books and prints of buildings wherever he went. All the way down the Italian peninsula, he relies on reference literature. Johan Jacob Volkmann’s comprehensive Historisch-kritische Nachrichten von Italien, a three-volume description of Italy published in 1770–71, is a constant companion, and he also picks up individual pocket guides in Mantua, Vicenza, Venice and Rome. In Venice, he also bought a copy of Palladio’s Quattro libri dell’architettura, in its original edition of 1570, and in Rome he bought the newest Italian edition of Winckelmann, translated by Carlo Fea and retitled Storia delle arti del disegno presso gli antichi. These purchases point to the booklover Goethe and show that the land he travelled through was also littered by monumental publications, and to buy and (re)read books in their right ambience was as important as to go and look at landmarks. For example, a point Goethe explicitly makes about the Winckelmann acquisition was that it should be ‘read on the spot where it was written’ (3 Dec. 1786). Books throw light on buildings and buildings recharge books. Therefore, he continues to move through, and expand, an interior world of images even while he contemplates the actual solids, for his intention was never to suppress entirely previous knowledge but to marry it with his own observations. And in some happy instances he thinks he manages to look at buildings from deep within himself, so to speak, were the precarious inner image and outer appearance fuse: ‘I have now got to a rational grasp of the order of columns and can mostly say why they are so too. I can now keep the dimensions and relationships in my mind’ (von Goethe 2013b: 120). A true understanding of the ‘mechanical aspect of architecture’ — in short, its theory — was a hard fought compromise between the printed and the perceived, as it were.

In Paestum, when he eventually got that far, fresh perception again had to compete with printed reproductions. The majestic Greek temples south of Naples were at first thwarted by the recollection Goethe had of these temples in some unidentified engravings. Within a matter of moments, however, he manages to separate the effect of the ‘crowded masses of stumpy conical columns’ from the ‘false impression’ reproductions give, which makes them seem more elegant. ‘It is only by walking through them and round them that one can attune one’s life to theirs and experience the emotional effect which the architect intended’ (23 March 1787). He was able to make this separation, I believe, because he in the meantime he had been to Rome and re-learned how to read ancient architecture, as we shall discuss shortly.

Goethe had studied Rome more diligently beforehand than any other city on the tour. However, it was the neo-classicist Rome from etchings, plaster casts and cork models that he had grown familiar with, and indeed expected to see. The shock was only all the more profound when he arrived and found the ancient city lost within the modern city’s cluster of structures and epochs. The sense of alienation was total: ‘Wherever I walk, I come upon familiar objects in an unfamiliar world’, he reports on his first day (1 Nov. 1786). The classical city he knew, and hunted for, was in fact the one he had left behind.

Yet what helped him navigate through real Rome was the ideally ordered and represented Rome in print. More than once did printed reproductions offer a corrective to the things he saw. He was extremely well prepared for the sights that awaited him, and, occasionally, the high-quality reproductions he had consulted outshone centuries-old masterpieces ravaged by time and bad maintenance. For example, he writes that he knew Raphael’s cycle of Psyche, in the Villa Farnesina, ‘almost by heart’, from colored reproductions (18 Nov. 1786 and 16 July 1787). These reproductions belonged to a famous series engraved by Nicolas Dorigny in 1693, which Goethe owned — ten prints in total — and eventually put up on the walls in the so-called Yellow Room in his Weimar-house (Fig. 2).4 Although he thought Raphael’s frescoed decorations were the most beautiful he had ever seen, they were also ‘ruined by being restored’, he adds, in a poignant early critique of the often heavy-handed preservation practice of the time.

Figure 2 

Nicolas Dorigny, Hermes from Amor and Psyche, 1693. Colored etching after Raphael, 388 × 670 mm. The copy represented here was Goethe’s own version of the print. Reproduced with kind permission from the Klassik Stiftung Weimar, Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek, Gr-2006/5447.

Euphoric about Michelangelo, he wrote, ‘I shall bring home as many engravings and drawings made after his works as I can get hold of’ (2 Dec. 1787). Few artists appealed to Goethe more than Michelangelo, whose works he admits became an obsession to a point where he almost could not bear to look at the works of any other, including Raphael. Repeatedly, he returned to the Sistine chapel and only wished there were some means to freeze an image of these marvelous works in his memory. And, indeed, few Italian artists are so well represented in Goethe’s print collection as Michelangelo, with 37 entries listed in his holdings at the time of his death. He seems to have preferred the most recent reproductions after his paintings, because not only would these tend to be in a better condition, but also because even reproductive prints belonged to an art that in Goethe’s views evolved. To Goethe, a graphic reproduction was an interpretative, not a mechanical art, which enhanced the building or painting it represented. Tellingly, in his essay on Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (which he saw in Milan on his way back to Weimar) he exalts the ‘life, motion, passion’ that characterized not the badly damaged and barely visible fresco itself, but the imaginative interpretation of it by the celebrated etcher and Goethe’s contemporary Raphael Morghen (Goethe 1821: 43).5 A good copy was not just a copy but also a deeply felt recreation of the conditions that produced it. Morghen’s emphatic partaking in the subject matter enlivened the replication from within, as it were, unfolding history as something felt, characteristic of the emerging historicism’s particular mix of morality and nostalgia.

Therefore, although Goethe picked up the occasional sixteenth-century reproduction after Michelangelo’s paintings, he normally chose prints executed in the 1770s and 1780s.6 Domenico Cunego’s 1772 representation of the Creation of Adam is a typical example of the motif and style preferred by the famous Weimar citizen (Fig. 3). The slightly ennobled features and enhanced piousness of Adam’s expression surely ‘add’ to Michelangelo’s original. In fact, the languid pose of Goethe himself in Wilhelm Tischbein’s famous painting of him, portrayed as he rests against a stone, leaning on his right elbow, brings Michelangelo’s — or Cunego’s — Adam to mind.

Figure 3 

Domenico Cunego, The Creation of Adam, 1772. Etching after Michelangelo, 252 × 461 mm. This was Goethe’s own copy of the print. Reproduced with kind permission from the Klassik Stiftung Weimar, Herzogin Anna Amalia Biblithek, GGr/Sch.I.015,0119.

Prints, then, formed a distinct stratum in Goethe’s experience of the Eternal City, and his knowledge of the art was profound. He was even able to point out parts of Rome that to his surprise had escaped reproduction: ‘In every corner here are magnificent things which are almost never mentioned and have not been disseminated over the world in etchings and reproductions. I shall bring some with me, done by excellent artists’ (18 Nov. 1786). He already knew Rome from the prints he had collected and consulted, and although he finally had arrived in the Eternal City, and kept trotting up and down the same cramped and filthy streets as everybody else, he retained before his inner eye an ideal Rome in print. Somehow, he had never left the hall in his father’s house.

Rome from Wall to Wall

On the walls in this house he had ‘daily contemplated’ the monuments of Rome. It was a visual learning that apparently was undone the moment he saw the buildings live, as I have briefly suggested. In Rome, we no longer meet a Goethe torn between seeing and recollecting but a Goethe for whom the conflict is resolved, and the reason lies with the particular nature of Rome’s structure. Here, epochs pile on top of each other and buildings encapsulate earlier ones, combining the visible with the vanished. ‘Rome is a place where the memory sees more than the eyes’, Horace Walpole had observed (Walpole in Edwards 1996: 9). Unlike the splendidly intact Renaissance cities that Goethe had encountered so far, the Rome he was prepared to exercise his judgment on instead had perished. He looked in vain for the city that matched the picture of it he had cultivated at home. ‘What I want to see is the Everlasting Rome, not the Rome which is replaced by another every decade’, he exclaims on 29 December 1786. As he would soon learn, the ‘complete’ city would materialize only by a tough negotiation between looking and imagining, between what one senses and what one knows.

At the start of his sojourn, a stupefied Goethe finds himself moving simultaneously through two different cities: classical Rome remains a mirage he keeps before his inner eye, built up of neat models and tidy representations, whereas the sprawling metropolis he inhabits is a hodgepodge of medieval, renaissance and baroque additions. The discrepancy is so total that his mental images never even get the chance to interfere with observation (nor is the architecturally imploding urbs able to contaminate his ideal realm). In short, the tension Goethe had felt inside, he now finds on display in the city that surrounds him.

Rome took Goethe by complete surprise, and prints and books had done little to prepare him for the city’s dense, unruly, layered character. A clearly defined and stylistically uniform architecture was nowhere to be seen, which is why Goethe’s descriptions of buildings in the Italian Journey are surprisingly scant. ‘Only in Rome can one educate oneself for Rome’, he declares five days after his arrival (5 Nov. 1786). Therefore, a far more urgent task than to analyze building parts was his resolve to understand the city as a whole and to come to terms with an ancient capital from which newer versions of the city had grown. ‘I find it a difficult and melancholy business, I must confess, separating the old Rome from the new, but it has to be done’, he writes, with the resigned determination of an archaeologist eyeing his inner landscape and about to shift the soil of his preconceptions — ‘and I can only hope that, in the end, my efforts will prove well worthwhile’. Initially, then, the city’s many pasts appear incompatible to Goethe. With two thousand years of drastic changes taking place on the same restricted area, time has had no space to parade monuments in displays that to the casual (and Northern European) observer would appear clear and chronological, ‘and this makes it difficult for him to follow the evolution of the city, to grasp not only how Modern Rome follows on Ancient, but also how, within both, one epoch follows upon another’.

‘Evolution’ is the framework within which he attempts to conceptualize Rome. It is more than a mere analogy when Roman monuments for the German traveler come to share in the same processes as plants and animals. ‘Architecture, sculpture and painting, dear old friend, is now to me the same as mineralogy, botany and zoology’, he writes to Herder from Rome on 29 December 1786.7 Goethe’s whole conception of art, as Johannes Grave (2006) has shown, entwines with his study of nature. It is a pairing that clearly also casts its spell on concrete examples as he tours Rome’s sights. For example, referring to the Sibyls that Raphael painted in the church of S. Maria della Pace, Goethe cannot agree with those who claim that the cramped space reduced the quality of the composition; on the contrary: ‘In art, as in natural organism, it is precisely within the narrowest limits that life manifests itself most completely’ (Dec. 1787). Architecture too compares with a limitless wild: ‘St. Peter’s has made me realize that Art, like Nature, can abolish all standards of measurements’ (9 Nov. 1786). Indeed, Rome itself falls prey to the comparison. ‘You know my old ways to treat nature, and so I treat Rome’, Goethe writes to Charlotte von Stein; ‘I proceed by looking and by studying from scratch’.8 With architecture verging on becoming nature, a ‘rational grasp’ of its ‘mechanical aspect’, which had helped him discern the vocabulary of renaissance classicism, is of no use. Rome offers no clear, principled exposition of buildings:

In other places one has to search for the important points of interest; here they crowd in on one in profusion. Wherever you turn your eyes, every kind of vista, near and distant, confronts you — palaces, ruins, gardens, wildernesses, small houses, stables, triumphal arches, columns — all of them often so close together that they could be sketched on a single sheet of paper. (5 Nov. 1786)

Dismissing textbook classifications of architecture according to types, styles and any such schemes, Goethe writes that ‘I do nothing except look, go away, and come back and look again’ in order to arrive at the structuring principle governing the Eternal City (5 Nov. 1786). An understanding of Rome matures in a matter of weeks, for on 29 December, in a revealing passage, he says of Rome: ‘It is history, above all, that one reads quite differently here from anywhere else in the world. Everywhere else one starts from the outside and works inward; here it seems to be the other way around.’ The overwhelming encounter with tangible history obliterates Goethe’s earlier distinctions and unlocks Rome’s progressive nature. History materializes not as a series of abstracted epochs but as a process of which he himself also forms part: ‘All history is encamped about us and all history sets forth again from us’, he adds. Subjected to the process of time — as if it was an organism — Rome becomes the ‘Everlasting Rome’ he had longed to see, although not in the fixed form he first had expected. An Ur-Rome is launched (although he does not use that word) that complements the Urphänomen — or archetypal phenomenon — which he observed in nature.

The comparison is not entirely unfounded. Apart from architecture, he also studied plants during the Italian journey, which would result in a highly original book on the subject, The Metamorphosis of Plants, published in 1790. This discussion leaves room only for the briefest resume of his argument: By observing how leaves grew, Goethe detected a lawfulness at work. He understood this lawfulness not as a realization of an external principle, but as the unfolding of an intrinsic design — a modulation by which the ‘theme’ of each plant developed in a harmonic sequence. It represented a formative principle that Goethe believed was at work across a variety of fields and governed the formation of different classes of things (see Seamon and Zajonc 1998).9 Metamorphosis amounted to an all-embracing idea that for Goethe possibly also held Rome captive. A metamorphosis of monuments, to put it thus, concretizes the evolution he perceived in the city’s architectural history and ties his encounter with Rome to a theory that filled his mind at the time. Goethe’s study of botany and buildings entwined when he journeyed Italy, of course, but arguably even more when he wrote about the journey — when his wish for unity had deepened.

On 16 February 1787, if we are to trust the Italian Journey, the picture of Rome, finally, becomes clearer:

For two weeks now I have been on the go from morning to night, seeing the things I had not seen before and giving the best a second or third look. Everything is beginning to make a pattern; the major works fall into their proper places and there is room between them for many minor ones. My preferences are becoming clearer and my emotional response to what is greatest and most authentic is now freer and more relaxed.

Even though he sees Rome afresh, the ‘pattern’ he sees, or more precisely the manner in which things fall into place for him — ‘ordnet sich’ — has precedents in Roman cartography. Already Leon Battista Alberti’s short Descriptio urbis Romae, written in the 1440s, had advised surveyors of Rome first to plot the position of the city’s key monuments and then to fill in the general urban fabric (see Alberti 2007). It was a principle widely adopted by Roman mapmakers and manifested in an impressive series of printed maps produced from the sixteenth century onwards. By the time Goethe edited and published the two first parts of Italian Journey, he owned several of these maps himself.10 The question is therefore, what it really was that made Rome seem to ‘fall into place’ — the impressions he formed at the time, or the maps he studied thirty to forty years later?

As he wrote the third part in 1829, he readily admitted, as we saw, that he relied on material he had at hand, which included prints. Two extraordinary panoramas merit particular attention because I think they offered visual templates for the conception of Rome that emerged, not as he toured the city but when he revisited it in a carefully arranged Weimar setting. In the summer of that year, the nearly eighty-year-old Goethe moved to his small garden house — a few hundred meters from his town residence — precisely in order to find the seclusion and concentration necessary to write the part of the Italian Journey that described his last months in Rome. From the garden house, he wrote to the composer Carl Friedrich Zelter on 19 July:

Here in my small earthly hall, I have hung and put in front of my eyes the old and new Rome, as well as the old Italy and Latium in manifold pictures; I have gathered many books of this content and meaning around me for in this way to try to revive the memories of my second visit to Rome, as I recommend also to your kind attention the volume that will contain these in writing.11

As we saw in the example of Furttenbach, ‘the old and new Rome’ had been a visual topos in the house of learned Germans (and others) for centuries, and in Goethe’s case, they refer to two printed maps that he had brought out and pinned to the wall in the dining room of the pavilion. At one end hung Giuseppe Vasi’s breathtaking view of modern Rome, as seen from the Janiculum Hill, published in 1765, and entitled Prospetto dell’alma città (Fig. 4). The city cascading across the low hills and topped by thousands of tiled roofs, which the technique of etching made quiver like fur on a gigantic animal, made Rome come alive for the aging author. On the wall opposite was Pirro Ligorio’s staggering bird’s-eye view of Rome, originally published in 1561 with the title Antiquae urbis imago, but owned by Goethe in a later edition (Fig. 5).

Figure 4 

The hall in Goethe’s Garden House in Weimar in which he had two printed maps of Rome put up in the summer of 1829. To one side hung Giuseppe Vasi’s Prospetto dell’alma città (pictured) and on the wall opposite hung Pirro Ligorio’s Anteiquae Urbis Imago. Photo by the author.

Figure 5 

Pirro Ligorio/Michele and Francesco Tramezzino, Antiquae Urbis Imago (1561), republished in 1773. Engraving, 1280 x 1490 mm. Goethe’s copy of the map. It decorated his Garden House while he wrote the third part of the Italian Journey. Reproduced with kind permission from the Klassik Stiftung Weimar, Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek, inv. no. GGr/KS 154a.

In his effort to ‘revive his memories of his visit to Rome’, as he wrote to Zelter, Goethe now incidentally consulted the same map, although in a later state, as the one Furttenbach had put on his walls in Ulm two centuries earlier. Ligorio’s map reconstructed the ancient metropolis as it might have looked in its imperial heydays, displayed in mesmerizing detail. It combined the antiquarian and architect Ligorio’s extensive study of antique coins and marble reliefs with a method Ligorio admitted was pure conjecture (see Burns 1988: 31–37). It meant that in the space between well-known monuments, like the Pantheon and the Coliseum, he inserted hundreds of non-descript buildings to create the effect of a metropolis (Fig. 6).

Figure 6 

Detail from Ligorio’s Antiquae Urbis Imago showing the area between the Pantheon and the Colosseum as Ligorio imagined it looked in ancient times. Where archaeological data was missing, Ligorio ‘invented’ houses to create the effect of a metropolis.

Goethe’s perception of Rome coincides on some deep level with Ligorio’s reconstruction of the city. In 1787, Goethe might of course have felt that Rome ‘ordnet sich,’ like bits in a puzzle, but when he edited the feeling decades later, we should also take into account that he had a grand blueprint of that ‘puzzle’ right over his shoulder.

Thanks to this ‘second Rome’, re-founded in Weimar and built up of prints and maps, Goethe was able to revisit the city of his youth; but somehow he was back to where he had started out, namely contemplating prints on a wall. For Goethe, Rome’s true origin was not to be found on the Forum Romanum, nor in a mythical past, but in his father’s hallway.

Writing on Monuments Forgotten

‘If there only were some means of fixing the images of Rome firmly in one’s memory!’ Goethe exclaims a month into his Roman stay (2 Dec. 1786). The Italian Journey suggests that prints provided that means. One gets the impression that even as he investigates the actual city, he continues to add to an ideal ‘Rome’ to be erected on walls and put on shelves back in Weimar, and for which he unstoppably collects material.

At the time of his death, the collection counted more than nine thousand etchings and engravings, which made it one of Germany’s largest (on the content of the print collection, see Schuchardt 1848). Apart from single folios, Goethe also owned several compendia of architectural prints, such as those by Giuseppe Galli Bibiena, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Karl Friedrich Schinkel and Leo von Klenze. A highlight in the collection no doubt was Pietro Santo Bartoli’s fabulous volume on the Column of Trajan, first published in 1673, containing 127 folio engravings of the scenes carved on the antique spiral frieze. Apart from the prints themselves, Goethe’s library also held books on the history and theory of print. The titles ranged from Giuseppe Longhi’s introduction to the technique of copper engraving, published in 1830, to Adam Bartsch’s comprehensive history of the graphic art in several volumes (on the content of the library, see Ruppert 1958).

The print collection obviously emerges as a key factor, which allows for another main point to be made: As the recollection of his visit to Rome slipped with the years passing, his reliance on prints increased correspondingly — so much so that in the end prints no longer merely helped him remember what he had seen but became themselves what he remembered.

The split between actual events and his memories of them only widens as he grows into old age. The rupture is evident in the passage in the Italian Journey where he writes of a concert that took place in February 1788 in the Senator’s palace on the Capitol. During the concert, Goethe only has to turn his head slightly, he recalls, in order to enjoy the unequalled vista extending from the Arch of Septimus Severus and ‘along the Campo Vaccino to the Temple of Minerva and the Temple of Peace’. Goethe continues: ‘In the background stood the Coliseum, and I let my glance wander beyond it past the arch of Titus, until it was lost in the labyrinth of the ruins on the Palatine’ (Feb. 1788). The observations are surprisingly poignant for a man who elsewhere in his memoirs cannot even remember where he went touring. Our astonishment wanes, however, already in the next sentence where we learn that the Capitol vista comes with an illustration, so to speak. Obviously wanting to enliven the tableau he has described he writes: ‘I would recommend to my readers very highly a panorama of the north-western part of Rome as seen from the tower of the Capitol, which was drawn and engraved in 1824 by Fries and Thürmer’ (Fig. 7).

Figure 7 

Ernst Fries and Joseph Thürmer, View from Capitol, 1824. Etching, 550 × 714 mm. Goethe’s copy of the print. Reproduced with kind permission from the Klassik Stiftung Weimar, Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek, inv. no. GGr/Sch.I.142,0368.

Not surprisingly, Goethe himself owned a copy of this print, which he must have acquired shortly before he wrote the Italian Journey’s third part. Accordingly, he had ample time to contemplate it in the comfort of his home.12 The reason he was able to name the monuments on the Forum Romanum so precisely is that an outline of the same view was glued onto the back of the copy he owned in which the names of the buildings were printed in Italian (Fig. 8).13 It is not fair to say that Goethe cheated, of course, but the detailed cataloging of sites reflects a reality at best suspended between an actual memory and the approximate representation of it he had at hand.

Figure 8 

Identifications of the sites in Fries and Thürmer’s View from Capitol, glued onto the back of Goethe’s copy of the print and prompting the detailed ‘memory’ of the view described in the Italian Journey. Reproduced with kind permission from the Klassik Stiftung Weimar, Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek, inv. no. GGr/Sch.I.142,0368.

For old Goethe looking back, the city disappears from view under the cloak of its countless reproductions. Or rather, flickering inner visions are reconfigured as compositions available in print. Goethe is one short step away from describing a situation where the things he saw, as he recollects them, take the form of prints. This is not to say that Goethe never looked out of the window during the Capitol concert, but it is also likely that the ‘wandering glance’ followed a trajectory (literally) drawn up by Fries and Thürmer. Importantly, the entries in the journal are substantiated by the prints he has acquired as much by the events that once conditioned them.

Especially in the third part of the Italian Journey, written when the author approached eighty, the retrospective excursions he does to Rome (in his mind) tend to stop long before he has reached all the way back in time, or, for that matter, back to Rome. In one memorable passage, he recalls that his friend Philipp Christoph Kayser once showed him a series of Roman monuments in a compendium Goethe identifies as Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae. This was a famous collection of engravings issued from ca. 1575 onwards by the ambitious and clever Roman publisher Antonio Lafréry. No single copy of the Speculum is alike; they consist of a varying number of prints of Rome selected and bound by tourists and collectors at the time and brought back home as exclusive souvenir picture books. We do not know which copy Kayser and Goethe consulted. Christian Huelsen, in all events, has counted more than twenty copies of the Speculum kept in various German collections from Munich and Berlin to Dresden and Leipzig — towns that were close to Weimar (Huelsen 1921: 141, Parshall 2006: 24–28). In other words, the monuments Goethe looks back at with his mind’s eye, and tries to recall, are no longer located in Rome, but in one or several German libraries. The memory of Rome, then, is retained not only in prints, but also in prints that themselves have become memories — in a palimpsest of ‘impressions’. To Goethe the city continues to exist independently of its real sites, as if he never needed to have gone there, grounded in a black-and-white realm of graphic reproduction.

In the Speculum Goethe admires, or remembers to have admired, prints of the two Colossi (the so-called Horse Tamers), the ruin of the vanished Septizonium of Severus, the façade of St. Peter’s before it was rebuilt and a view of a tournament taking place in the Vatican Court (Nov. 1787). In fact, his descriptions are sufficiently precise for us to be able to identify the four prints he saw in Lafréry’s Speculum, all of them executed in the mid-sixteenth century.14 One of the four engravings showed the ‘half ruined Septizonium of Severus’, in Goethe’s words (Fig. 9). Emperor Septimus Severus had built this monument by the Palatine Hill in the second century CE. The construction was unusual and consisted of superimposed porticoes rising in tiers. However, in the late 1580s Pope Sixtus V pulled down the last remains of the Septizonium and reused the marble elsewhere in an act that most of all was symbolic of the Roman Catholic Church subjecting all pagan cultures to its might. Already in 1546 — his first known original commission — Lafréry published a beautifully evocative representation of the remains before they were demolished, engraved by an anonymous artist who delineated the cracks and weeds with obvious relish.15 The manipulation of scale achieved by diminishing the human figures heralds Piranesi’s perspective tricks and sets an early standard in an aesthetics of ruins enhancing the lone relic’s towering grandeur. Not only was the antique building gone, as Goethe points out, but also the remains, deepening the sense of past for the aging man who reads into his memory of an engraving of a ruin both yearning and awe of an encounter with Rome that he in retrospect claims was aroused in his ‘agitated soul’, a mood he calls ‘heroic-elegiac’ (April 1788).

Figure 9 

The ruins of the Septizonium of Severus, 1546. Engraving published by Antonio Lafréry in Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae. Goethe remembers he consulted this print with his friend Philipp Christoph Kayser. Cicognara XII.3886, fol. 10 ©2012 Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana.

What is striking is that the monuments and sculptures he remembers to have seen with Kayser were themselves transformed and lost: they evoked St. Peter’s before it was rebuilt, the Horse Tamers before they were moved, and the Septizonium before it was demolished. Of course, Goethe might have used prints to make his memories ‘official’, inviting his reading public to share in recollections, which, even while he was still alive, had become European heritage. In any case, it is safe to say that to Goethe prints did not exclusively tell of a personal past, but of time passing, and of the nature of history. Engravings, which he initially collected in order to be able to remember monuments, tell of monuments that themselves have become memories, at least with the Speculum examples in mind. They bring him back to a time he in fact had never known and to buildings he had never seen, making Rome seem doubly lost, as it were — in an analogy of remembrance itself.

References to prints proliferate in Goethe’s Italian Journey, but they reveal too that prints mean different things, or, rather that they have a meaning on different levels. As he increasingly came to depend on printed reproductions, the idea of reproduction as such was gradually refined and attained a new significance. More and more he appreciated motifs that themselves told of change and metamorphosis. It was not reconstructed monuments, but ruins, not the completed building, but the process to erect it, that arrested the attention of the elderly author.

The metamorphosis Goethe read into the processes of nature probably refined his sensibility to prints too. The superior graphic re-rendering — like his own re-writing — compliments the model, adds to it and exhibits a dimension that the existing building might have lost or never even have possessed. However, this insight was slow to mature and one that I think Goethe the author imposed on his own youthful self. The suspicion we might have that the half-remembered voyage to Italy in reality unfolded within the holdings of his collection of printed material, assembled over the years, is confirmed by the role he gives the Venetian etcher Piranesi.

Goethe and Piranesi

No wonder Goethe took a special interest in his near contemporary Giovanni Battista Piranesi. In hundreds of etchings the Italian had revelled in the subtle stages of architectural deterioration. With his particular mastery of the technique of etching, Piranesi captured Rome’s ruins in spider webs of quivering lines, to the effect that he made the structures almost seem to come alive. Robert Harbison says poetically of Piranesi’s technique that ‘Stone, in the course of decay, comes to look like something else, softer, more organic, as if the world was or will be a creature’ (Harbison 1991: 101–102).

In Goethe’s observations, as well, Roman monuments verged on something living: ‘Just as a happy mind will invest even crumbling walls and scattered masonry with new life, like a fresh, perennial vegetation, so a melancholy mind robs a living creature of its most beautiful adornment and reduces it, in our eyes, to a bare skeleton’ (Dec. 1787). The passage holds a fascinatingly amorphous analogy of Rome’s ruins. It also brings the onlooker’s own state of mind into the equation, suggesting a symbiosis between the observer and the observed. Goethe feels architecture, and not merely sees it, refashioning the impression of a monument on emotional response alone, like Piranesi had done with his exaggerated dimensions and dark visions that early on gave rise to the popular myth that some of the prints had been conceived ‘during the delirium of a fever’.16 The state in which a monument exists — whether it is on its way up or down — depends on psychology, not archaeology.

Foreshadowing Goethe, Piranesi viewed Roman architectural history as a constant transmutation of forms and Rome as an ever-changing structure. With what amounts to a well-founded theoretical stance, the Italian fought against the reduction of architecture to principles, targeting in particular Marc-Antoine Laugier’s L’Essai sur l’architecture from 1753. Piranesi held that architecture never boils down to rules, but evolves through a continuous reassembly of forms, a fragmentation in reverse, where heaps and piles combine in an aesthetic wholeness that is distinctly Roman, but with a genealogy of motifs accumulated from the Etruscans, and before that from the Egyptians. Anyone who studies the monuments of Roman antiquity ‘will find that the ancients transgressed the strict rules of architecture just as much as the moderns’, Piranesi claims in the series Campo Marzio published in 1762 (Piranesi in Wilton-Ely 1978: 42).

It is precisely a map from the Campo Marzio that Goethe had acquired for his collection (Fig. 10). It represented the topography of this particular area of the city, and, like the other etchings in the series, it demonstrates Piranesi’s quite particular view of history. In contradiction to the established visual practice of reconstructing monuments to their former completeness, he projects the ruins onto the ancient past. This ‘simultaneous negation and affirmation of the value of history’, as Stanley Allen observes (Allen 1989: 75), is another way to say that tangible traces of wear is an ancient monument’s foremost quality. In this way both Piranesi and Goethe redefined Rome’s eternity. Or rather, they made Rome eternal not by cultivating it as restored, but as still lasting — inscribing architecture in the cycle of nature. Both had that particular feel for the historical — the very ‘pastness’ of the past — where erosion itself becomes monumental, so to speak.

Figure 10 

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Plan of the Fields of Mars in Rome, 1762. Etching from the series Campo Marzio, 1342 × 807 mm. Goethe’s copy of the print. Reproduced with kind permission from the Klassik Stiftung Weimar, Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek (without inv. no.).

Goethe’s knowledge of Piranesi’s work was extensive. Besides the map from Campo Marzio, his collection contained the first volume of Antichità Romane of 1756, consisting of 63 plates of ancient Roman monuments depicted in their forms as ruins. In the Italian Journey he betrays a knowledge also of other works when he admits in passing that not even Piranesi’s etchings of the so-called Cloaca Maxima had prepared him for the imposing sight of the Roman sewage system (April 1788), which the Italian artist had published in the Della Magnificenza ed Architettura de’ Romani of 1761. In addition, Goethe also mentions the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, which he probably knew from yet another volume, namely the Vedute di Roma (Fig. 11). His overview of Piranesi’s oeuvre is impressive, but the striking fact is that all the references occur in the third part of the Italian Journey, the one completed in the summer of 1829. Again, suspicion is raised as to when really these prints came to play such an important part and in what form truly he consulted Roman architecture.

Figure 11 

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Ruins of the Antonine Baths (Baths of Caracalla), mid-18th century. Etching from the series Vedute di Roma, 420 × 690 mm. This is probably the image Goethe refers to in the Italian Journey. Photo by Volker-H. Schneider (© 2015). Photo Scala, Florence/bpk, Bildagentur für Kunst, Kultur and Geschichte, Berlin.

An especially revealing passage concerns the observation he makes when he revisited two Roman structures east of the city center.

This time, the Pyramid of Cestius was welcomed by the eyes from the outside, and the remains of the Antonian or Caracallian baths, which Piranesi has fabled up with so much effect, could hardly give any satisfaction to the painterly accustomed eye of the present. (Dec. 1787)17

The passage is admittedly enigmatic. It is nevertheless obvious that he thinks ‘the painterly accustomed eye’ —the ‘malerisch gewöhnten Auge’ — dictates his vision. It transforms what he sees, at the very moment of seeing, into art. More specifically, he seems to be saying that he cannot discard the mental images he has formed of an edifice even while he looks at it — or is that really what he says? A nuance here should not be overlooked. On the one hand, the passage above leads us back to the point I made in the beginning about Goethe worrying that his recollection of prints intersects with actual perception, but on the other hand, it could well be that we are misled by the ambiguous temporal reference in the passage. For where on the timeline is the ‘present’ that he speaks of? In other words, when is it that he thinks the eye has become ‘painterly accustomed’? Is it in the 1780s, when he studied the actual buildings, or in the summer of 1829, when he saw them retrospectively? A definitive answer is left pending, but I think one can conclude that by the time he wrote the third part of the Italian Journey his vast collection of prints allowed him to roam freely around a Rome not visited by himself, but engraved by Piranesi.

Arguably, Piranesi’s oeuvre became truly significant for Goethe only after he returned home. The Italian artist formulated an ‘organic’ history of architecture and left powerful images through which the German’s own half-forgotten journey reemerged, dramatically intensified. It is a notable fact that no single reference to Piranesi occurs in the two first parts of the Italian Journey; they all occur in the third — the part that Goethe wrote when his dependence on, and appreciation of, prints peaked. As we return to the passage from Goethe’s autobiography quoted at the beginning of this article, it is safe to conclude that a solid knowledge of print history lies behind the apparent juvenile observation. It was only when Goethe became an old, expert connoisseur of prints that he was able to create a boyhood version of himself who could ascertain, knowingly, that the series of Roman views in his father’s house was ‘made by one of the predecessors of Piranesi’.

In this article I have argued that Goethe’s encounter with Rome prompted a re-reading of the history of classical architecture as organic inspired by his ideas of the metamorphosis in nature. Importantly, however, the life of the buildings he observed in Rome was extended through his study of them in illustrations. It is with the expert printmakers’ slight retouching that monuments to Goethe become a ‘science’, their inner qualities sensitively brought out, enhancing his own impressions and mirroring the mechanism of remembrance itself. To the Weimar scholar immersed in his private collection, the subtle tonal effects achieved by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century etchers, like Morghen and Piranesi, re-animated buildings and paintings, inviting Goethe to observe and appreciate processes of re-manifestation that to him seemed ongoing and edifying. As he revisits the various sights of Rome while rewriting the Italian Journey, not only do the printed reproductions offer a new ancient city, but the renewal represents an evolution that Goethe readily embraces — and that embraces him. It casts Rome in the guise as ‘eternal’ in terms that are both deeply personal and distinctly nineteenth century.

Competing Interests

The author declares that they have no competing interests.