Non-Roman poets associated with Rome are many. Keats died and is buried here at Rome’s Protestant Cemetery, yet was too ill to ever write about the city. Byron‘s statue stands in Villa Borghese – but, his famous lines on the Colosseum notwithstanding, the man himself stayed only a few days. Then, sharing the same graveyard as Keats, there is Shelley whose ‘The Cenci’, albeit set in Rome, comes down to us across considerable historical distance.
For sheer immediacy, ‘caput mundi’ experienced on the pulses, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe‘s ‘Roman Elegies’ remain unsurpassed. Elegy, refers to the classical verse form – the same used by Propertius and Catullus – not to the mood, about as celebratory as one can get. A spontaneous, hands on heart account of Rome to which he had done something of a runner – ‘At 3 in the morning, the now 37 year old Goethe jumped into a coach and with no servant and hardly any luggage, left Carlsbad, traveling under the name of Jean Philippe Muller’ – to paraphrase Auden’s introduction to ‘Italian Journey’ – the poems recount a love affair twice over. This is first with the city, whose pictures adorned his father’s study-walls and which, in a sort of imprinting, Goethe as a boy adopted as part of his mental landscape. Second, they track the poet’s love for ‘l’innamorata romana,’ one Faustina. The affair begins in a tavern. Goethe is quaffing with his generally younger German friends when some wine is split. The waitress, using it as a form of ink, finger-writes on the wooden table the hour (IV) and place for the couple’s first appointment. To translate via Pirandello’s Italian version of Goethe’s original: ‘Churches, villas, ruins, pillars, I study them all, take notes,/ attempt to do all that a Grand Tourist should./ It soon wears thin, however. Visit temple after temple./ In only one of them does an initiate feel at home -/ Yes, Love’s. A world you may be Rome, and yet without love,/ The world would not be the world, Rome would not be Rome.’
Or, in humdrum prose, sightseeing only goes so far. Descriptions of the city are soon not so much abandoned as merged into an almost minute by minute account of his affair with Faustina, the same, perhaps, whose fretful note would be found among the poet’s papers back in Germany following his death: ‘I’d like to know why yesterday you went away like that without telling me,’ goes the barely legible handwriting, the odd spelling mistake to increase its authenticity. ‘I think you were angry with me, but I hope not…I love you so much…I hope to have a reply from you…’
The fragment also refutes ‘the humourless idolisation of German professors and critics’ (Auden’s phrase) who from some blinkered admixture of prudery and German patriotism insist that the woman celebrated in the Elegies was not Roman at all, but one Christiane Vulpius whom, at the time, Goethe had not even met! Under the glass case in Casa Goethe, Via del Corso 18, where the great man stayed with younger painter friend Johann Tischbein, Faustina’s scrap of paper is there to prove otherwise. It is one of the now museum’s most touching exhibits.
Comparing Goethe’s portraits, pre-and post- Italy, Auden comments how the latter are of a ‘man who has known sexual satisfaction.’ This is in happy contradistinction to Goethe’s previous strictly platonic arrangement back in Weimar with the married but by all accounts rather strait-laced and considerably older Baroness von Stein. So Casa Goethe’s pride of place goes to Tischbein’s portrait of Goethe grandly surveying the Campagna romana. Hat, cloak and profile proclaim the Grandest of Tourists, Herr Muller’s anti-type, while the tomb of Cecelia Metulla – ‘that stern round tower of other days’ – nestles dutifully in the background. More intimately biographical is Tischbein’s sketch of his friend at the window, before or maybe after a conscientious day’s work finishing off Faust or some other work which life back in Weimar had subjected to writer’s block. As well as would any face, the poet’s back, shoulder and tailed wig conjugate sunlit ease. One slippered foot is planted on the tiled floor ground as its tiptoed twin spells sheer delight. Were there a prize for such things, one could call it the happiest heel in Western Art. (Another drawing on view, more reminiscent of Edward Lear, has the great man upended on the sofa.) To quote Goethe himself: ‘Since my arrival in Italy I count myself a man reborn.’ Goethe is observing some scene in the Corso below – perhaps its carnival which later he was to describe in such detail. Or might he have just spied his lover – Faustina Di Giovanni, to ascribe her, rightly or wrongly, a name found in San Nicola in Carcere’s parish register , the same being recorded as widow in her twenties with a young son?
Whatever, after a decade cooped up at the court of Weimar as a tutor and administrative factotum administering the region’s tin-pot army, road-works and mines, Goethe found in Italy somewhere to catch up on lost pleasures, to seize the time. From the very first line, ‘Speak o stones, say your piece,‘ the poems display the gusto of man reborn, an emotional Renaissance.. So begins, more or less, Elegy VII: ‘Here in Rome delight seems the norm! What a difference from / Up north, its daily grey pressing down like a lid…’ In contrast to Goethe’s affair in all but deed with Baroness Von Stein, we have, like a thunderbolt, in elegy III: ‘Don’t fret my dear about having given yourself up to me/ so soon…Love works at different speeds:/ Type one strikes, then takes years to infuse its poison./ Type two explodes on impact, the effect as deep as its immediate, /Piercing the marrow, turning blood to raging fire…’ With Faustina it is definitely type two. In justification, the poem then as a mock heroic precedent cites Mars’s lightning dalliance with Rhea Silvia, without which Romulus and Remus (nor, of course, Rome) would have been conceived.
In Elegy V the poet’s fingers count off perfect hexameters against her sleeping form, while for spontaneous expectation Elegy XIV starts: ‘Noggins, a light! – ‘But, sir, it’s not yet dark. Why waste good oil…’ To which the poet snaps back at the servant: ‘Grrrr, do as you’re told. When I wait for her, minutes turn to hours;/ Little lamp, night’s dear herald, in the meanwhile console me.’ Goethe wrote in ‘Italian Journey’, ‘I shall never rest until I know that all my ideas are derived, not from hearsay or tradition, but from my real living contact with the things themselves.’ And the same, in the Roman Elegies, goes for people. In another poem Goethe, awaiting his love in a field, has to flee from the vigilant and possessive uncle, only for Faustina to reveal that the killjoy was in fact a scarecrow. So much for those stuffy German professors who, ‘treating every word Goethe utters as holy writ’, insist that Goethe’s affair was just a literary construct.
Mix in some classical gods, even when least expected – a sort of celestial, frequently humorous correlative to events on the ground – and we have a collection that, once read, is never forgotten. Eolus calls out, ‘Silly-billy!’ or German equivalent; Zeus turns voyeur; Morpheus riffles his poppies; Daphne coos sweet nothings, after scratching the poet’s cheek while the Muses weave in and out at will.
Or, to put it another way, Roma spells Amor: In the Elegies, eliding place and passion, the two are entwined; Goethe’s genius and that chance meeting in a local tavern change the city’s name into the perfect palindrome .