c. 1786 | Rome

Finding New Wine in Old Bottles

Goethe’s Roman holiday.

November 1

Now I see all my childhood dreams come to life; I see now in reality the first engravings that I remember (my father had hung the prospects of Rome in a corridor); and everything long familiar to me in paintings and drawings, copperplates and woodcuts, in plaster and cork, now stands together before me. Wherever I go I find something in this new world I am acquainted with; it is all as I imagined—and yet new. And the same can be said of my observations, my thoughts. I have had no entirely new thought, have found nothing entirely unfamiliar, but the old thoughts have become so precise, so alive, so coherent that they can pass for new.

November 7

I have been here seven days now, and a general concept of this city is gradually forming in my mind. We walk diligently here and there, I acquaint myself with the street plans of ancient and modern Rome, view the ruins, the buildings, visit this and that villa, and deal quite unhurriedly with the main objects of interest. I just keep my eyes open, look, and go, and come again, for only in Rome can one prepare oneself for Rome.

Let us admit, nevertheless, that it is hard, sad work to sort out the old Rome from the new, but one has to do it and hope for inestimable satisfaction at the end. We encounter traces of a magnificence and a destruction that are both beyond our comprehension. What the barbarians left standing, the builders of new Rome have ravaged.

When one looks at something that has existed for more than two thousand years and has been altered so diversely and thoroughly by the changing times, yet is still the same soil, the same hill, indeed often the same column and wall, and in the people still some vestiges of their ancient character, one becomes a participant in the great decisions of fate. And such conditions make it difficult from the outset for the observer to decipher how Rome follows on Rome, and not only the new on the old, but also the various epochs within the old and new Rome on one another. First I am just trying by myself to get the feel of the half-buried places, as only then can one make full use of the fine preliminary studies. For since the fifteenth century and up to the present day, excellent artists and scholars have spent their whole lives working on these objects.

And the immensity of all this affects us very quietly as we hurry back and forth in Rome to get to the most outstanding sights. In other places one has to search for what is significant, here we are overwhelmed and surfeited with it. Go where we will, there is always a scene of some kind to look at, palaces and ruins, gardens and wilderness, vistas and confined areas, little houses, stables, triumphal arches, and columns—often so close together that they could be drawn on one sheet of paper. A pen is useless here, one needs to write with a thousand slate pencils! And then in the evening I am tired out and exhausted from looking and marveling.

December 3

The Roman antiquities are also beginning to delight me. History, inscriptions, coins, which I formerly neglected, all are thronging up to me. What I experienced in natural history is happening to me again, for the whole history of the world is linked with this city, and I count the day when I entered Rome as my second natal day, a true rebirth.

December 13

Before coming to Rome, no one has a notion of how he will be schooled here. He must be, so to speak, reborn, and will look back on his former ideas as though they were children’s shoes. The most ordinary person becomes something here, at least he gets an idea of the extraordinary, even if it cannot become a part of his nature.

December 20

The rebirth, which is remolding me from within, is still in progress. I certainly expected to learn something worthwhile here, but I did not imagine that I would have to go so far back in school and unlearn—indeed relearn—so much in a thoroughly different way. Now, however, I am truly convinced and have submitted totally; and the more of myself I must renounce, the happier it makes me. I am like an architect who wants to raise a tower but has laid a poor foundation for it; he perceives that just in time, and gladly pulls down what he has already erected, tries to expand and ennoble his plan to become surer of his base—and rejoices beforehand in the more reliable solidity of the future edifice. May God grant that when I return, the moral consequences of having lived in a wider world will also be manifest in me. Yes, along with my artistic sense my moral one is undergoing a great renovation.

December 29

I want to see the enduring Rome, not the one that passes away every ten years. Even if I had the time, I would want to make better use of it. From this vantage point, history especially is read differently from anywhere else in the world. In other places one reads from the outside in; here we imagine we are reading from the inside out—everything lies spread around us and also extends out from us. And that holds true not only of Roman history, but also of all world history.

January 22

Even in Rome too little provision is made for someone who seriously wants to study his way into the total concept. He must piece it all together from innumerable, although extremely valuable ruins. Admittedly, few foreign visitors are truly serious about seeing and learning anything worthwhile. They follow their own whims, their own notions, and of course that fact is not lost on those who have to do with them. Every guide has particular ends in view, each one tries to recommend some tradesman or promote some artist, and why not? Does not the inexperienced visitor spurn the most superb things that are offered him?

It would have been a tremendous advantage to study—indeed a special museum would have come into being—if the government, which has to grant permission before any ancient relic can be exported, had firmly demanded that a plaster cast of the item always be furnished. But even if a pope had had such an idea, there would have been general opposition, for in a few years people would have been appalled at the value and importance of the things that had been exported, since the permissions to do so in individual cases can be obtained secretly and by various means.

January 25

Now it is constantly getting harder for me to give an account of my Roman sojourn; for just as the sea is found to be ever deeper, the farther one goes into it, so it is with me in my inspection of the city.

The present cannot be understood without the past, and comparison of the two requires more time and leisure. The very location of this capital of the world leads us back to the building of it. We soon see that it was not a large, competently led, nomadic tribe which settled here and wisely established the hub of a realm; no powerful prince chose this as the appropriate place for a colony to dwell. No, shepherds and riffraff were the first to take up their abode here, and a pair of robust youths laid the foundation for the palaces of the rulers of the world on a hill at whose foot they had once been deposited, between swamps and reeds, by the caprice of an obedient servant. Accordingly, the seven hills of Rome do not rise toward the land lying behind them, but toward the Tiber and the primeval bed of the Tiber, which became the Campus Martius. If further excursions are possible for me in the spring, I shall describe the unfortunate location more extensively. I already feel a cordial sympathy with the sorrows of the Alban women, wailing and lamenting as they saw their town destroyed. They had to forsake a place selected by a clever leader in order to live among the fogs of the Tiber and dwell on the miserable hill Coelius, from which they could look back at their lost paradise. As yet, I know little of the region, but I am convinced that no other town of the ancient world is situated as poorly as Rome. And when the Romans had at last used up all their land, they had to move outside with their country villas, back to the sites of the ruined towns, in order to live and enjoy life.

From Italian Journey. Poet, playwright, and statesman, Goethe left Carlsbad for Rome at the age of thirty-six on September 3, 1786, traveling through the Alps and Venice before arriving on October 29. He explored the ruins of Pompeii and climbed Mount Vesuvius, locating what he called the “idea” of the ancient world in the temples of Paestum. He returned to Weimar reluctantly in June of 1788.