A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Goethe On Naples

After the monochrome and muted tones of some more northerly European landscapes, the intense light and vibrant colours of southern Italy come as a wonderful shock to the senses. Goethe travelled to Italy between 1786 and 1788, and was highly enthusiastic about its charms. He was in Naples in March and May 1787, visiting Sicily during the intervening month ...

By the time we reached the outskirts of Naples the sky was completely cloudless, and now we are really in another country. The houses with their flat roofs indicate another climate, though I dare say they are not so comfortable inside. Everybody is out in the streets and sitting in the sun as long as it is willing to shine. The Neapolitan firmly believes that he lives in Paradise and takes a very dismal view of northern countries. Sempre neve, case di legno, gran ignoranza, ma denari assai - that is how he pictures our lives. For the edification of all northerners, this means: 'Snow all the year round, wooden houses, great ignorance, but lots of money.'

We spent today in ecstasies over the most astonishing sights. One may write or paint as much as one likes, but this place, the shore, the gulf, Vesuvius, the citadels, the villas, everything, defies description ... Now I can forgive anyone for going off his head about Naples, and think with great affection of my father, who received such lasting impressions from the very same objects I saw today. They say that someone who has once seen a ghost will never be happy again; vice versa, one might say of my father that he could never really be unhappy because his thoughts could always return to Naples. In my own way, I can now keep perfectly calm and it is only occasionally, when everything becomes too overwhelming, that my eyes pop out of my head.

Everything one sees and hears gives evidence that this is a happy country which amply satisfies all the basic needs and breeds a people who are happy by nature, people who can wait without concern for tomorrow to bring them what they had today and for that reason lead a happy-go-lucky existence, content with momentary satisfaction and moderate pleasures, and taking pain and sorrow as they come with cheerful resignation.

Naples is a Paradise: everyone lives in a state of intoxicated self-forgetfulness, myself included. I seem to be a completely different person whom I hardly recognize. Yesterday I thought to myself: Either you were mad before, or you are mad now ... Every time I wish to write words, visual images come up of the fruitful countryside, the open sea, the islands veiled in a haze, the smoking mountain, etc., and I lack the mental organ which could describe them.

(All quotes are taken from Goethe's Italian Journey.)


The Weaver of Grass said...

Do you think he romanticises Naples a bit Robert - or did you find it like this?

George said...

I'm always interested in Goethe's descriptions of anything, but the thing that most resonated with me about this posting is your reference to the "monochrome and muted tones" of the north European landscape. For the most part, that describes the American landscape as well, particularly the architecture. I always find the bold use of intense color, such as one finds in Portugal, Spain, and Italy, to be very liberating. In the poorest of villages and households, there is always some an effort to add charm, brightness, and color, without fear of being considered garish.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, he does romanticise, Pat - then again there are other passages of careful, realistic observation (such as the descriptions of his 'scientific' forays up Vesuvius.) Apt, and to be expected, really - considering Goethe is a colossus spanning the Age of Reason and the Romantic Era, and his work had its defined Classical and Sturm und Drang periods. I found his comments still resonate today, to some extent - give or take the odd crazy taxi driver or mad motor-biker compared with the horse-drawn carriage of Goethe's time!

Yes, George, I agree - same in Africa too. I find it liberating also. It's all bound up with the weather, isn't it, the Mediterranean climate, the sunshine, the light, the spontaneity, the joie-de-vivre.

ksam said...

Very interesting post, as are the comments. George's comment reminds me of a conversation with my younger brother, whilst driving thru some very poor areas of Miami and south Florida. We noticed exactly the same thing, bright colors, flowers and a sense of beauty inspite of having very little money. Is it all that sunshine that keeps them upbeat and optimistic and seemingly at ease?? Do the more "monochrome and muted tones" of the north simply take a different eye to be viewed. I can also find amazing beauty hiking in the woods up north in the winter. Just totally different, and somehow does that difference makes us appreciate something more? Perhaps northern visitors appreciate those bright sunny climes even more than their local residents???

The Solitary Walker said...

Karin, yes, I was generalising rather too much when I did my simple 'compare and contrast' - some of the northern lights and colours are equally stunning - of course.

George - and you - pinpointed it more exactly than I when talking of the architecture, and the homely splashes of colour, even in the poorest districts. I would also add to that: bright dress and costume, and colourful icons and images in religious processions etc (a kind of Catholic/Protestant thing, this).

Not to mention the luscious Italian ice-cream with its staggeringly various hues. Yum!

Roberta Rood said...

Hello, Solitary Walker; I was writing about the history of Naples when I came upon your wonderful blog. Reading your profile, I could not help thinking, Here is a kindred spirit. Thank you.