Friday, 22 November 2013

"Strange and half-disagreeable"

Goethe in the Roman Campagna, J. Tischbein
from wikipedia
I want to start my hypothetical Guest Book with a very popular visitor: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Goethe visited Pompeii and Herculaneum quite at an early stage of the excavations, in March 1787. 
It is not easy to tell if he enjoyed the experience. If we look at the words Goethe used (and, being a poet, he probably picked them carefully and precisely) to describe Pompeii, we’ll find many terms with quite explicit negative connotations: «narrow», «cramped», «small». In the end, he and his companions received a “strange and half-disagreeable impression of this mummified town”. 

What disturbed Goethe so deeply? We cannot possibly say. Maybe just the mismatch between the «actual» Pompeii and the image of it that he had in his mind. In other words, Pompeii was not “Classical” or, even better, “Neoclassical” enough compared to Goethe expectations. It is also true that, as Leppmann remembers, when Goethe visited Pompeii many of the most iconic buildings, especially the big villas and temples, where still to be uncovered. The only major temple visible was, probably, the temple of Isis. I bet that its asymmetry and the slightly chaotic ensemble of architectonic features are among the things that quite bothered Goethe.

However, after a couple of years, Goethe writes in his journals that “he really does not know of anything more interesting” of Pompeii. What is particularly remarkable (and maybe slightly amusing) is that, as Fitzon says, the second entry in Goethe’s Journal is not connected to any new visit to Pompeii. It is more Goethe editing (not just aesthetically but also conceptually) his journal for the large audience. 

Goethe and his friends,
F. Bury
Did he see, after his visit, something new that made him reconsider his position? Or did he just feel that it was his duty as a member of the cultural intelighenzia to show enthusiasm for such an archaeological treasure, even though he didn’t actually enjoy the visit. In other words, was Goethe experiencing the same sort of schizophrenic reaction that is still quite common among contemporary tourists: a mix of disappointment, wonder and guilt?
Again, we do not know. 

According to his journal, the visit to the museum of Portici might have changed quite considerably his perception of the whole experience. After the visit to Portici, Goethe says he could finally populate, at least in his imagination, the empty houses and temples with objects. And I believe that putting eventually together buildings and artefacts could actually be an enormous added value. Much before his contemporaries, Goethe seems to be very impressed by everyday items such as lamps and candelabra. If I compare his words with the answers to the questionnaires my respondents gave me about the British Museum exhibition, it seems that Goethe understood much earlier than others how much Pompeii was going to change the way the public thinks of the Past, shifting the interest from the exceptional piece of art to the everyday lives of our ancestors.

Goethe enthusiasm for Pompeii was refreshed, many years later, by his encounter with the young painter Wilhelm Zahn. His account of the first meeting with Goethe is quite entertaining. But that’s another story...