Goethe’s ‘Italian Journey’: A Guide to Beating Burnout

Goethes Italienische Reise. Mit den Zeichnungen Goethes, seiner Freunde und Kunstgenossen. Neu herausgegeben vom Goethe-Nationalmuseum.

Printed in Leipzig in 1925 by the Insel Verlag publishing house.


In 1925, the Goethe-Nationalmuseum published a splendid new large-size edition of Goethe’s ‘Italienische Reise’ (‘Italian Journey’) at the Leipzig-based publishing house Insel Verlag – and it chose a very good time to do so. Every member of the educated middle classes had to love Goethe – the Prince of Poets was the undisputed pinnacle of the German intellectual scene. After the First World War, when the Weimar Republic was seeking new values and role models that moved away from the militarism of the Wilhelmine Period and towards a non-chauvinist nationalism, Goethe’s journey through Italy simply offered itself up. Sales guaranteed – from a marketing standpoint, it wouldn’t have needed much advertising at all. There were probably very few highly educated people who travelled to Italy without a copy of ‘Italian Journey’ in their suitcase. Even if they were only going to use it as a fig leaf to feign an interest in culture on the beach of Rimini…

The ‘Italian Journey’ is regarded as the work that first sparked Germany’s love for Italy. There had been avid travellers before, but it wasn’t until Goethe’s work came along that the Teutonic pedants discovered the ‘land where the lemon trees bloom’ as the real-life manifestation of everything they ever wanted to be, but didn’t dare when it was time for their official weekly cleaning duties (‘Kehrwoche’) again. But read with caution: Goethe’s work is anything but a travel guide and it serves as a good example of how misleading literature can be once its writer has been pigeonholed as a ‘classic’.

Relaxing on a paid sabbatical, with his eye on the big picture: Goethe in the Roman Campagna by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1787.

Suffering From Burnout? Head to Bali. Or Rome?

It’s just like one of those stories you always see cropping up in the panorama section of the newspaper: a young genius publishes a masterpiece, gets passed around all the shows, follows it up with something big, enjoys shiny sales figures. Then things go quiet; the genius decides to build a secure existence for themselves, but still wants to be productive on the side. But that doesn’t work out. Suddenly, our genius realises that they are wiped out from their secure and well-paid day job, their creativity is falling by the wayside and their love life is at a dead end. Panic, anxiety, despair. We read about burnout, a break from everything, a social media detox, a trip to Bali with yoga and mindfulness courses, lots of rest and self-discovery. And then they return a reborn artist, healthy as can be and full of ideas – they quit their job and become more productive than ever.

That’s more or less how it went for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, of ‘Young Werther’ fame, who was in his late 30s when his publisher asked for an edition of his complete works. It had been almost a decade since Goethe’s last work was published! At the time, he was rotting away at the Weimar court as a Secret Legation Councillor and stuck in a complicated relationship with Charlotte von Stein.

Goethe’s response: in September 1786, in a famous cloak-and-dagger operation, he took off from his spa holiday in Karlsbad, leaving all his courtly duties behind – but he wasn’t so rash as to leave without securing some paid leave, which he did by writing a nice letter to Karl August, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach.

Off he went across the Alps, under a false name (Johann Philipp Möller) to keep the groupies at bay. And as his journey started up, so did the myths – or should we say the misunderstandings? Even today, you can follow in Goethe’s footsteps and travel comfortably across Italy by train or car, exploring and enjoying the country and meeting its people. Goethe makes it sound rather different: he practically ‘flies’ through Northern Italy, which doesn’t interest him at all. He is drawn to Rome, where his artist friends help him with his drawing, where Tischbein paints the legendary painting ‘Goethe in the Roman Campagna’ and where the poet writes elegies celebrating a fresh new love affair, while at the same time sending regular letters back to his beloved at home to assure her of his eternal love.

An Educational Trip or a Journey of Self-Discovery?

Of course, we can follow Goethe’s journey, and we can learn a lot from it too – he also described buildings and customs. But Goethe was no Baedeker or Burckhardt. Goethe marvelled at the ancient world and classical art, but he wanted his own art to come from himself. While the purpose of the Grand Tour was to teach young nobles about art and culture, Goethe was insistent that his creativity would flow from within himself. Quite the Romantic.

During his two sabbatical years, Goethe not only devoted himself to drawing and creative writing. He was also on a quest to find the ‘Urpflanze’ (the Primal Plant), the source of all life. And above all, he was searching for himself. His interest in his surroundings mainly served as a way to gain a clearer understanding of himself; Goethe wanted to rediscover the source of his creative energy. And he was successful, as shortly before his return to Weimar, he sent the Duke a letter, assuring him: ‘In this year and a half of solitude, I have found myself again: but as what? – as an artist!’

This process lasted two years, which this Insel edition illustrates with drawings by Goethe and other artists. One trip across the whole of Italy, all the way to Sicily and back again.

How Should We Read Goethe’s ‘Italian Journey’ Today?

During his trip, but also after his return, Goethe finally finished various works he had started and agreed with his employer only to take on prestigious work. He had more important things to do, which only he and nobody else could accomplish.

At first, these things did not include writing the ‘Italian Journey’. He didn’t do that until around 30 years later. In the interim, he experienced the French Revolution, a change in his relationship with the Duke, the breakup with Charlotte von Stein – half a lifetime, in fact. Goethe had reached the end of his life and had just overcome another creative dry spell, inspired by the work of the Persian poet Hafis, which led to his collection of poems ‘West-Östlicher Divan’ (‘West-Eastern Diwan’). Right after that, in 1816/17, he published his autobiography ‘Aus meinem Leben. Zweiter Abteilung Erster und zweiter Teil’ (‘From My Life: Second Part, Book One and Two’). Our ‘Italienische Reise’. This book was simply an excerpt from the aged poet’s autobiography, based on his diaries and letters.

And nowadays? Well, you shouldn’t use it to plan your next trip to Italy – you’ll find out more about your holiday destination elsewhere. So, how should you read the ‘Italian Journey’ nowadays? However we like! But why not treat it as a guide to living a good life? What we call ‘burnout’ today is something that people have been experiencing for centuries: mental fatigue, perhaps combined with some kind of stagnation in life. Forging ahead and breaking out of a rut takes a lot of courage, but it can open a door to a new phase of life, indeed, to a new approach to life. Nobody has accomplished this more impressively in literature than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, with his guide to finding your own roots and living a self-determined life. Nowadays, the book would probably be better placed with the self-help books. That is, if the writer hasn’t already been shoved in the dusty ‘Classics’ section…


Other things you might be interested in:

This wonderful edition from 1925 is not available in a digital format. But you can read the ‘Italian Journey’ online on Projekt Gutenberg.

Goethe’s letters are extremely informative. It would be like, nowadays, having the complete email and social media correspondence at once. Well, at least Goethe’s half of it. Most recently, Goethe’s correspondence with his collaborator Friedrich Wilhelm Riemer has provided insights into Goethe’s workshop.

If you don’t want to head to Italy right away, Weimar is always worth a visit too. Especially in summer, when the Classical Foundation Weimar holds its ‘Weimar Gartenlust’ festival.

And as a more manageable read for the summer holidays, we highly recommend The Last Supper: An Italian Summer by Rachel Cusk. This author writes a wonderful account of a modern trip to Italy, in which she muses just as much on Renaissance artwork as on the country’s culinary idiosyncrasies.