Lately I have been rereading Goethe’s Italian Journey, the account of a year-long trip in the year 1786-87. It remains one of the classics of travel literature. This was an important journey, not only for Goethe, but for the self-identification of the Germans and other nations north of the Alps.
Europe had long divided itself into North and South. The North was cool, the South was warm – not only climatically, but culturally. The South was the cradle of European civilisation, but in the course of time the energy and dynamism had mostly shifted to the North. The difference had been reinforced by the Reformation, dividing a mostly Protestant North from a Catholic South.
Rome remained the symbolic centre of things, the place where all aspirations to culture converged. It was the capital of classical Antiquity as well as the holy city of Christendom by default – since Athens and Jerusalem were in the hands of the Turks.
Italy was the most accessible part of Southern Europe for the Germans, and it meant the South to them. As the German commentator Eberhard Schmidt has recently written of the Mediterranean world, “from Goethe to Nietzsche it became the surface onto which was projected a longing for liberation from the straitjacket of social conventions and Protestant-dominated discipline in the North of Europe.” Italy meant not just sun and sea, but the Bohemian life of the artist, relaxation and enjoyment, sensuality, even sexual freedom.
Rereading Goethe’s account of his travels in Italy, what strikes me is not how much has changed, but how little. Europe is still divided into two, despite the European Union. Talk about une Europe à deux vitesses, a “two-speed Europe” keeps resurfacing. The punishing discourse on Greece was another instance, where the hardworking North was contrasted with the lazy, feckless South. Yet the hardworking Northern European can still think of no better holiday destination than the sun and sea of the South, lazing in a shady taverna drinking wine and imitating the fecklessness of the charming locals. He longs to silence his punishing Northern, Protestant superego for a while and rediscover the lost warmth of the Latin South.