“Another view” is an occasional series of posts presenting the sites and areas we see on our travels through the eyes of writers. From the great ancient sources via travellers of recent centuries to contemporary literature, it aims to reveal different perspectives across space and time.
Do you know the land where lemon blossom grows?
Amid dark leaves the golden orange glows.
A gentle breeze drifts down from the blue sky,
still stands the myrtle, and the laurel high.
Might you know it?
Would I with you, oh my beloved, go.
These lines are the first stanza of “Mignon’s Song” as performed by a mysterious tomboy-type girl in Goethe’s 1796 novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. The poem is extremely famous in Germany and counts among the increasingly few that many people there know by heart. Elsewhere, it is known from the many times it was set to music (over 30!), including by composers like Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Gounod and Tchaikovsky. In 1866, Ambroise Thomas devoted an entire opera to the Mignon character, naturally including another version of the song.
The poem is complex in meaning, but it is clear that through the character of Mignon, Goethe channelled his own love and longing for Italy, its landscapes and atmospheres, and perhaps more generally for the Mediterranean World and its heritage and the way it attracted him personally, intellectually and spiritually.
To give him his full name, Johann Wolfgang (von) Goethe remains the most famous poet, playwright, author and polymath in the German language, an exceptional character in an exceptional period and a writer of global significance, due to his broad vision, unique experience and extraordinary versatility in prose and verse. Born to a patrician family in Frankfurt (my home town) in 1749, he eschewed the commercial career awaiting him and became an intellectual instead.
By his mid-thirties, he had published several notable works, including numerous plays, many poems and songs, and a scandalous novel, and was already considered a leading intellectual, ensconced and salaried in the ducal administration of Weimar. That was not enough for him: following his long-standing desire to see the remains of ancient Rome and Greece that had fascinated him since childhood with his own eyes, he simply absconded in 1786 (causing another scandal), to embark on a two-year journey through Italy, his personal version of the “Grand Tour” that had become near-standard for the English nobility of that time.
Goethe was a proficient writer and diarist. His Italian adventures are most famously reflected by his Italian Journey and his Roman Elegies, but in reality the experience was a key influence on the entire rest of his immensely productive life in Weimar after his return and until his death in 1832. During a period when travel was much more complicated than today, he used his semi-illicit trip to fill his mind with vistas, impressions and ideas that fed his inspiration for the rest of his life – they keep cropping up in the immense body of his later work.
Sicily has a special role in this regard: along with Rome, he saw it as the key destination and the fulfilment of his trip, an island where he could experience both Roman and Greek heritage – mostly through the monuments they left behind – at first hand. In his own words:
Without Sicily, Italy creates no image in the soul: here is the key to everything.
He finally went to visit and explore the island from early April to mid-May of 1787. His diary is memorable throughout, even before arrival (he took a five-day boat trip from Naples to Palermo) :
If one has never seen oneself completely surrounded by the sea, one has no idea of the world and one’s own relationship with the world. As an artist drawing landscapes, that great simple line has given me completely new ideas.
His description of the arrival on the island is equally enthusiastic:
I don’t have words to express how she [Sicily] has welcomed us: with fresh green mulberry trees, evergreen oleanders, lemon hedgerows etc. In a public garden there are broad beds of buttercups and anemones. The air is mild, warm and aromatic, the wind balmy.
Goethe spent 40 days in Sicily, starting with a two-week sojourn in Palermo (interrupted by various excursions), followed by a voyage through the southwest, centre and northeast of the island, taking in many sites and cities found on our own tour itineraries, his eyes open not only to the the ancient heritage that was his primary objective, but also to the landscapes, to the character of the various guides and hosts that looked after him, and to the spirit of the place. The scope of his observations ranges from archaeology via architecture and art history to geology, botany and even ethnography, switching between scientific and objective views to deeply personal and aesthetic ones. And he liked the food:
I haven’t said anything about the food and drink here, and yet it’s worthy of a short article. The garden fruit are splendid, especially the salad greens are tender and taste like milk (…). The oil, the wine are all very good and could be even better if more care was taken during their production [that care is now being taken, we can vouch for that]. Fish is the best and most tender. We’ve also lately had some very good beef, which one rarely finds praiseworthy.
His descriptions of the places he visited are still worth reading, not so much for the archaeological content (Goethe was not what he would have called an “architect” – today we would say “archaeologist” – i.e. the kind of person to actually measure ancient ruins), but for their richly-expressed sense of local atmosphere, described for a European audience, and also for his keen observation of various details.
Goethe visited the extraordinary Greek temple at Segesta and described it first in a fairly scientific manner and then like this:
The location of the temple is strange: at the highest point of a broad and long valley, on an isolated hill, but not surrounded by steep cliffs, it overlooks the land into far distance, but only a tiny corner of the sea. The landscape rests in melancholy fertility, everything is cultivated but there are hardly any dwellings. Blossoming thistles are frequented by countless butterflies. Wild fennel stood to a height of eight or nine feet, all withered from the previous year, but in such quantity and seeming order that it looked like the arrangement in a plant nursery. The wind was whistling between the columns like in a forest and birds of prey were floating and screeching high above the architrave.
He later went to the town now known as Agrigento (then known as Girgenti), ancient Akragas, and was awe-struck by her monuments, first viewing them from his quarters in town:
Such a splendid springtime view as today’s at sunrise we’ve never had in our whole lives. On the site of the old and ancient citadel lies modern Girgenti, of a size large enough to hold a considerable population. From our windows we viewed the long and broad, mild slope of the ancient city, entirely covered in gardens and vineyards, so that one would hardly expect to find the traces of formerly large and populated city quarters underneath the greenery. Only towards the southern end of this green and blossoming terrain does one spot the Temple of Concordia rising above it, as well as to the east the scant remains of the Temple of Juno. From above, the eye does not spot the other remains of sacred buildings, lying in a straight line with those just mentioned, instead, the gaze hurries on southwards to the beach…
His visit to the monuments impressed him very much, especially the so-called Temple of Concordia:
The Temple of Concordia has resisted so many centuries; its slender architecture is approaching our own scales of what is beautiful and pleasant, it compares with those [the temples] at Paestum like a statue of a god with that of a giant.
Interestingly enough, he also found the time to criticise the aesthetic effects of the restorations that had been implemented not long before his visit – while expressing understanding for their practical necessity in preserving the monument. That is an issue alive and well in the minds and consciences of archaeologists and guides today! Having visited the entire row of monuments on that famous ridge, the group completed the visit by looking at another well-known and well-preserved structure:
Now we descended to the Grave of Theron and enjoyed the presence of this often-copied monument, especially since it served as the foreground of a wonderful sight; as one was looking from west to east along the rocky cliff, upon which the fragmentary city walls were visible, and through and above them the temples. Under Hackert’s gifted hand this has become a pleasant image; Kniep [the artist travelling with Goethe at the time] will not fail to provide his own outline here as well.
It is evident that the experience especially of Segesta and Agrigento (and Paestum in mainland Italy) is what inspired the second stanza of “Mignon’s Song”:
Do you know the house, on columns rest its beams?
The great hall glistens and the chamber gleams,
and marble statues stand and stare at me:
“What have they done, oh wretched child, to thee?”
Might you know it?
Would I with you, oh my protector, go.
Charmingly, Goethe’s account of Agrigento also includes this, more on the lines of ethnographic observation, but very personal at the same time:
Since there are no inns here, a friendly family has found room for us and offered us a raised alcove in a large room. A green curtain sepearates us and our baggage from the members of the household. They were producing pasta in that large room, namely of the longest and thinnest type which will fetch the highest price; having been shaped first as arm-long sticks, they are finally twisted by gifted girls’ hands to wind around themselves like a snailshell. We sat down with the pretty children and had them explain the process, so we learned that these noodles are made from the best and heaviest wheat, which is called grano forte. The process involves much more work by hand than use of machines or moulds. So they produced a perfect pasta dish, but lamented the fact that of very finest sort, which is not produced outside Girgenti, and there not outside their very house, they did not have sufficient supply to produce even a single dish. They [the pasta] seem unsurpassed in whiteness and softness.
Goethe also visited Catania and Taormina, where he was struck by the ancient theatre:
Thank God that all we saw today has already been carefully described, and also that Kniep intends to spend all of tomorrow drawing up there. Having climbed the rocky cliffs that rise not far from the beach, one finds two summits linked by a semicircular space. Whatever the natural shape of the terrain may have been, human skill has assisted and fashioned it into the amphitheatre-like semicircle of the auditorium; walls and other structures of brick were added to supply the needed corridors and halls. At the bottom of the stepped semicircle they built the stage at right angles, thus linking the two rocks and completing the most astonishing work of both nature and art.
If one now sits down where once the uppermost ranks of the audience sat, one has to admit that probably no other audience in a theatre ever had such a vista. On tall rocks to the right rise fortifications, further down lies the city, and although both are of more recent date, similar things will have stood in those spots in antiquity. The view follows the long mountainous flank of Mount Etna, on the left lies the seashore, visible all the way to Catania, even Syracuse; and then the broad and panoramic picture is completed by the enormous smoking fire-mountain, it is, however, not a frightful sight, as the softening atmosphere makes it look more distant and milder than it really is.
Turning one’s gaze from this vista towards the passageways at the back of the auditorium, one sees all the cliffs to the left, and the road to Messina winding along between them and the sea: rock formations and outcrops even in the sea, and the coast of Calabria in the furthest distance, so that only with great attention can it be distinguished from the light clouds rising above the sea.
Goethe spent a final few days in Messina, which had been ravaged by a huge earthquake only three years earlier, making his description an important historical document. He set out for Naples on May 13th, never to return to Sicily.
The truth is that what Goethe, as a classically educated and reasonably open-minded Central European, found in Italy was not just the physical heritage of Greek and Roman antiquity, but an alternative culture, an alternative landscape and an alternative attitude to life that was immensely attractive to him and to those who followed him then or later, often travelling much further afield. He also found a wellspring of inspiration that transformed him from a local talent to a writer of major influence and of lasting international standing. Without Italy, he would not have become the author and scholar he was to be – and the visit to Sicily was, in his own mind, a culmination of his life, travels and experience. Already in 1787, on leaving Sicily, he wrote this in a letter to a friend:
The voyage through Sicily is now happily completed and will for me be an indestructible treasure for my whole life.
That highly productive life was to last for another 45 years. Goethe’s last words, uttered on the 22nd of March 1832, as he was sitting in an armchair in very damp and very Central European Weimar, surrounded by mementos of his travels and interests, were “mehr Licht!” (“more light!”). It is easy to imagine that he was referring to his hours and days under the Mediterranean sun, so formative to his view of the world and so enjoyable a memory for so many reasons.
Even if you don’t intend to become a major literary figure, Sicily is a uniquely inspiring and memorable place to visit and to discover, to make it your own “indestructible treasure”. One of the best ways to do so is to join us on our Exploring Sicily tour – or on our very special Gastronomic tour of Sicily!
(All translations quoted in this post are by its author).