Italian Lakes – Goethe On Lake Garda

IN the autumn of the year 1786 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe made his first trip to Italy. He drove over the Brenner Pass, bound for Verona, but instead of continuing all the way down the valley of the Adige, he branched off at Rovereto and drove over to Lake Garda by way of the Loppio Pass. Thus he set the fashion for subsequent tourists, who nowadays make this crossing by thousands every season, generally using the convenient narrow-gauge railroad from Mori to Arco and Riva for this purpose.

Goethe apparently did not visit Riva, but lodged at the inn in Torbole. In 1899 a delegate from the Goethe Society of Vienna, accompanied by an official of the district of Riva, visited Torbole for the purpose of determining the house in which the great poet must actually have lodged. Following the indications furnished by a pencil sketch made by Goethe himself, the investigators decided that the house in question could have been none other than that of the brothers Alberti, standing on the small harbour-square of Tor-bole, for in Goethe’s day this house was the only inn of the place and was called the ” Inn to the Rose.” The Goethe Society has since affixed a tablet to the house in commemoration of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the poet’s birth. It bears the following inscription: “In questa casa dimoro Goethe il 12 Settembre, 1786. H’eute hab ich an der Iphigenie gearbeitet, es ist im Angesichte des Sees gut von statten gegangen.” (” In this house lodged Goethe on the 12th of September, 1786. To-day I have worked on the Iphigenie, it has progressed finely in sight of the lake.”) The latter sentence is taken from Goethe’s diary (Tagebücher). In a letter from Rome dated the 6th of January, 1787, he likewise states : ” I drew the first lines of the new work on Lake Garda, as the powerful midday wind was driving the waves to the shore, where I was at least as solitary as my heroine on the coast of Tauris.” In his ” Italian Journey ” there are some interesting letters descriptive of his impressions and experiences on Lake Garda. It must be remembered in this connection that on this trip he was making his first personal acquaintance with Italian life and scenery.

In a letter, dated “Torbole, the 12th of September, after dinner,” we read :

” How much I wished to have my friends for a moment near me in order that they might rejoice over the view which lies before me.

” Tonight I might have been in Verona, but there was still a glorious work of nature at my side, a precious spectacle, the Lake of Garda; I did not wish to miss it, and am gloriously rewarded for my détour. It was after five when I drove away from Roveredo [Rovereto], up a side valley which sends its waters into the Etsch [Adige]. When one reaches the top an enormous rock formation lies in front, over which it is necessary to go down to the lake. Here the most beautiful of limestone rocks exhibited them-selves for artistic studies. When one reaches the bottom, there lies a little place at the northern end of the lake, with a small harbour, or, rather, a landing-place; it is called Torbole. Fig-trees had already frequently’ accompanied me on the way up, and as I descended into the amphitheatre of rock, I found the first olive-trees full of olives. Here also for the first time I found the small pale figs as a common fruit which the Countess Lanthieri had promised.

” Out of the room in which I am sitting, a door leads into the court below; I have moved my table in front of it and sketched the view in a few lines. One overlooks the lake almost for its entire extent; only at the end on the left does it escape the eye. The shore, enclosed on both sides by hills and mountains, shines with countless villages. After midnight the wind blows from north to south; whoever wishes to go down the lake must start at this time; for already a few hours before sunrise the wind changes and blows toward the north. Now in the afternoon it is blowing strongly against me and cooling the warm sun very pleasantly. At the same time Volkmann teaches me that this lake was formerly called Benacus, and invites attention to a verse of Virgil in which it is mentioned: Fluctibus et fremitu resonans Benace marino. The first Latin verse of which the subject actually stands before me! At this moment, when the wind is constantly growing stronger and the lake is dashing ever higher waves against the landing-place, this verse is to-day still as true as it was many centuries ago. Much has changed, but the wind still storms over the lake, and its sight is still ennobled by a line of Virgil.”

Goethe spent the night of the 12th of September at Torbole, and next morning early started down the lake by boat. The description of this trip is contained in a letter dated “Malcesine, the 13th of September, in the evening: ”

” This morning early, at three o’clock, I left Torbole with the rowers. At first the wind was favourable, so that they could use the sails. The morning was glorious, though cloudy, and quiet at sunrise. We rowed past Limone, whose hill gardens, laid out in ter-races and planted with lemon-trees, presented a rich and neat appearance. The whole gar-den consists of rows of square white pillars, which stand at regular distances from each other and rise up the mountain slope in steps. Over these pillars strong beams are laid in order during the winter to cover the trees which are planted between. The observation and examination of these pleasant objects was favoured by a slow trip, and so we had already passed Malcesine when the wind turned completely around, took its ordinary direction by day and blew toward the north. Rowing was of little use against the overwhelming power, and so we had to make a landing in the harbour of Malcesine. It is the first Venetian place on the eastern side of the lake. When one has to do with water, one cannot say: ` To-day I shall be here or there.’ This sojourn I shall employ as best I may, especially in making a drawing of the castle which lies near the water and is a beautiful object. To-day in passing by I made a sketch of it.”

The desire to sketch the castle of Malcesine led Goethe into an amusing adventure, which he relates at some length in a letter dated from Verona on the 14th of September.

It appears that he was quietly sketching the ruined castle the next morning when the people of the place began to crowd around him suspiciously, and a man among them suddenly seized the sketch and tore it in two. It must be remembered that at this time the Republic of Venice was still in existence, and that Malcesine was a frontier post against Austria on the north. The Podesta, the chief magistrate of the place, with his secretary, were both summoned by the people. An amusing interrogatory forthwith took place, Goethe explaining that he was sketching the tower because it was a ruin. But, objected the Podesta, if it was a ruin, what was remarkable about it. Goethe set forth with much good humour the value which foreigners set upon ruins as objects of artistic interest. There was further discussion to and fro. Goethe was suspected of being a spy in the service of the Austrian emperor, sent to make drawings of the frontier defences of the Republic of Venice. Finally Goethe was led to declare himself a citizen of Frankfurt am Main. At the mention of this name a young woman ex-claimed that the Podesta should call a certain Gregorio, who, it appeared, had been in employment in Frankfurt. Goethe soon satisfied the authorities of Malcesine that he spoke the truth, both by his first-hand knowledge of Frankfurt itself and also by describing to Gregorio certain people in Frankfurt, notably some mutual acquaintances among the Italian families settled there. As a result Goethe was given permission to go about at will over the whole place and visit its surroundings under Gregorio’s guidance.

Goethe left Malcesine that night by boat, taking with him a basket of fine fruit from Gregorio’s garden. He landed at Bardolino, a place on the eastern shore near the southern end of the lake, at 5 A. M., crossed over the mountains to Verona, and reached that city about one o’clock of the same day.

Thus Goethe’s acquaintance with Lake Garda, though brief and hardly worthy of the name of sojourn, was yet full of zest, and is of special interest because it gave him his first introduction into the ways and means of Italy.