I’ve Got Sunshine on a Goethe Day

In The Art of Travel Fall 2017, 10. Books (2), Florence, Places by sabeena1 Comment

Expectations are high when you commit to studying abroad in a place like Florence, and expectations only get higher when you realize you’ll be living near Dante and the like. The passages I found most interesting from Goethe, although he discusses the far, wide, beautiful country this is, are the passages on Venice, our experiences and expectations quite different. Having just been there this weekend, a place full of tourists doing touristy things, (nothing new to Italy’s largest cities), it was interesting to read about it in a different context, in a different time. I know a bit a bit Venice’s history, having been there twice and nearly walking the entire edge of the city.

Goethe describes Venice, the book published in 1885, but he was traveling from 1786-1788. Even now, though, the language is relatable, the account realistic and honest. I’ve found most travel writing from this era easy to read, and I wish we were exposed academically to these accounts as opposed to the formal documents used to show us what this time period was like.

Goethe describes gondoliers as “in the habit of singing them to a melody of their own” (548). But my gondola ride was quite different, instead our gondolier spoke to his partner on the phone and scrolled through what could have only been Instagram. A few times he cut me and my family off to unenthusiastically point out monuments that we all knew. It was a sunless, cold day, but like Goethe, “the still canals, high buildings … ghost-like appearance of the few black gondolas gliding up and down added to the peculiar character of the scene” (601). I wish my gondolier was singing, although the singing described was “harsh and screeching” (549). Even that would have been more of an interaction other than his presence in my dad’s chin selfies.

Goethe, throughout his chapters on Venice and Rome, focuses on “Ritornelli,” which is a particular way of singing. This method of singing doesn’t require understandable expressions, but instead “words which happen to them” (651). Funny, that’s how I feel when I speak Italian.

Goethe goes to describe the weather as I would, and his connection made with how wonderful and beautiful something is with whether the sun was shining or not. I feel this way often, as when the sun shines I find myself significantly happier than when it rains. Goethe is lucky, as I was reading his November 15 (about two weeks after I was in Rome … but a few hundred years earlier), it was raining in Rome. But his Rome was different, “two beautiful days without rain, warm and genial sunshine, so that summer is scarcely missed” (622). Oh, summer was missed greatly in the 56 Fahrenheit gray rain. But Rome took on a different aura, and cities can be seen in literal different lights. I think there is a lot to be said about a place when the weather is undesirable. Who goes out? Where do they go? How do people become more or less social, more or less active when they are not able to comfortably wear flip flops and stroll down the street? I find myself questioning this in bigger cities, having spent a morning in Washington Square Park alone in February. Only those with dogs walked through.

Goethe is not the kind of person who ventures out, taking initiative when accounting his final days in Rome, they were the ones to “spend the fine days in the open air, the bad in our room” (610). Call me hypercritical, but I think they had umbrellas or some kind of rain protection in 1786. And, even if the weather was pouring, Goethe could have sat in a coffee shop or a restaurant. Sorry, man, I guess not everyone is as insane as a traveler as myself.


  1. Sabeena,

    This is a very interesting post, as I definitely sympathize with your opinion how cities can ultimately give off different vibes depending on the particular weather as well as time of year. When I visited Venice back during my freshmen year of high school, I was completely let down because of how drab and dirty it was when I was there. However, my experience likely would have been completely different (maybe not regarding the smell and garbage) had the weather been exceptionally well when I visited. I think expectations also play a role into how we view cities upon our first time visiting; Venice was hyped up by everyone I knew that had been there, so when I arrived to dismal skies and garbage littered in the canals, I was thoroughly disappointed.

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