”Goethe’s writings are among the most unabashedly autobiographical in world literature. They are so frank and utterly open as to carry well beyond the reality of objective events into the much more intimately real imaginative world. That may be why Goethe chose a word with mystical, religious overtones when he called all his writings “fragments of a great confession”–this from an autobiography thoughtfully entitled Poetry and Truth. Virtually everything he wrote, all of his poems and novels and dramas, are fairly conscious self-revelation, a mysterious blend of external and imaginative reality. What wonder if several generations of readers have been tempted to separate the two?
But with the so-called Roman Elegies it is probably impossible to discover just where they may render people or places with accuracy, or how far the fantasies are removed from events. The question can be stated in a much cruder way, and it usually is: During Goethe’s stay in Rome (1786-88), an unmarried man in his late thirties, did he take a mistress, or do the Roman Elegies merely throw out a pleasant fiction of what might have been? Scholars (being scholars) have generally looked at the problem exactly that way and argued on one side or the other of an imponderable question.”
Rome has always attracted writers. There has been a steady literary trail. They have mourned its fall, and complained about the decadence, but have never stopped coming. It has left few indifferent. When Goethe came to Rome for the first time in October, 1786, he realized a lifelong dream. Throughout his youth he had heard his father describe the glories of Italy, for the elder Goethe’s had been the high spot of a rather uneventful life. He had little to say that could be of interest to his brilliant and enigmatic son; but he could catch the young man’s attention with descriptions of Italian art, so superior to its German counterpart, and of Italian women, who might be no more liberal in offering their favors than German girls, but who were far more liberated when they did.
By the time Goethe arrived in Italy, at the age of thirty-seven, he was already famous as the author of ”The Sorrows of Young Werther”, a sentimental novel of love, and of ”Gotz”, a wildly popular play that glorified the German virtues of force and national pride. He had also made a reputation as a Geheimrat, roughly equivalent to a prime minister, of the minor duchy of Weimar. He had been appointed to the post by a princeling afire with the ideals of the Enlightenment, roughly the great impulses that had inspired greater sovereigns, Catherine the Great of Russia and Frederick the Great of Prussia, to consult Voltaire on how to rule. But fame and high position had failed to make Goethe happy. Indeed, in his old age he complained that he had been happy for only four weeks in his entire life, and he lived to be eighty-three. Those weeks were probably spent in Rome.
Goethe left Weimar one day, supposedly for a brief visit to a spa in Bohemia. When his employer, the Duke, next heard from him, he was in Italy requesting a leave of absence in order to study art. His request was granted. Goethe took up residence in Rome under a pseudonym , Filippo Moller, and pretended to be a painter. But his disguise fooled no one. To the authorities he was still Geheimrat Goethe, and they watched him closely, presuming with baroque logic that no prime minister would ever pose as a painter just for the sake of painting; there had to be a more artful reason. The papal police,in the pay of the Austrian emperor, searched his rooms and read for correspondence, looking for information about political intrigues in Weimar. They discovered nothing that was incriminating, for which his journey to Rome, Goethe had abandoned his interest in the government of Weimar.
”The present cannot be understood without the past, and comparison of the two requires more time and leisure. The very location of this capital of the world leads us back to the building of it. We soon see that it was not a large, competently led, nomadic tribe which settled here and wisely established the hub of a realm; no powerful prince chose this as the appropriate place for a colony to dwell. No, shepherds and riffraff were the first to take up their abode here, and a pair of robust youths laid the foundation for the palaces of the rulers of the world on a hill at whose foot they had once been deposited, between swamps and reeds, by the caprice of an obedient servant.” ( Goethe Diaries )
He had always wanted to be an artist; in Rome he lived the Bohemian artist’s life as best he could, affecting the wide brimmed ”Rembrandt” hat that the painters of the time loved to wear. He spent his days with other artists and visited the picture galleries. He drew everything, from standard views of St. Peter’s to sketches of the hieroglyphs on an Egyptian obelisk that had just been unearthed. He frequented the artist’s taverns and talked endlessly about painting; and, as a proper Bohemian should, he made love.
His mistress was a young Roman girl whom he supported; an arrangement that was characteristic of all levels of society in eighteenth-century Rome. ”Everything in Rome has a price”, the ancient satirist Juvenal had writte, and for century after century, in letter after letter, writers had echoed him, complaining about the city’s decadence. Crotchety as he was about almost everything else, Goethe did not agree. He was delighted to live ”among a sensual people” . His book, ”The Sorrows of Young Werther” had been about love that had ended with suicide. This kind of love was quite different. ”Still do I mark the churches, palaces, ruins, and columns,/As a wise traveler should…” Goethe wrote later in one of his Roman Elegies. ”Soon all this will be past; and then there will be but one temple,/Amor’s temple alone…”
”The uncertain boundary between “poetry and truth” had made the reception of the Roman Elegies difficult for Goethe’s contemporaries, too. Entirely apart from their friend’s actual carryings-on in Rome (or elsewhere), the good people of Weimar just could not reconcile themselves to such a display of sensual experience, be it real or imagined, in this open, pagan and positive tone. The best example of such dissonance came out in Goethe’s old pal and liege lord, Carl August Duke of Saxe-Weimar. Himself a notorious philanderer who often urged Goethe to indulge in casual liaisons, the Duke was just scandalized when Goethe allowed a part of his manuscript “Erotica Romana” to be published simply as “Elegien” in Friedrich Schiller’s Die Horen, 1795.”
The poet gave his mistress a classical name, because he saw in her limbs, the beauty of classical antiquity. The name was Faustina. It was an odd choice; Goethe had already written, although he had not yet published, the first version of ”Faust”. The girl sold herself to Goethe as Faust sold himself to the devil; and it is with Mephistopheles that Goethe more and more identified himself while he was writing the book. But it is impossible to learn the exact connection. It is enough to know that Goethe, unlike so many other writers, did not feel cheated by Rome. His liason with Faustina lasted for much of the year he spent in the city.
But eventually he left the ”sensual” Romans to return to Germany. Back in Weimar, he refused to resume his career as a government official. Mining reports and committee meetings to discuss the state of the public highways were abandoned for good. His contemporaries found this puzzling; but to the modern mind it is easy to understand why a writer, after having seen Rome fallen into decay, would refuse to pose as a prime minister.
”Although cultivation of erotic poetry goes back to the Ancients, the Moderns had become considerably less explicit (seldom, for example, depicting the sex act itself) and had developed well understood harmless topoi and conventions. As a boy, Goethe had written many such highly stylized pieces; they were a sign of good breeding. In his “Erotica Romana,” however, he is reviving the more uninhibited art of the Ancients themselves. Propertius, Catullus, Tibullus–these are his fellows, almost every one of the elegies alluding to or further developing motifs from those erotic measures of imperial Rome. I do not wish to discount the possible importance of Goethe’s personal experiences for the subject matter. He does have a right to expect, however, that his work be received by some at least as recapitulation and further exploration of a fine old poetic tradition.”
”Before coming to Rome, no one has a notion of how he will be schooled here. He must be, so to speak, reborn, and will look back on his former ideas as though they were children’s shoes. The most ordinary person becomes something here, at least he gets an idea of the extraordinary, even if it cannot become a part of his nature.” ( Goethe Diaries )