In 1786, a 37 year-old Goethe left Carlsbad for a two-year journey through Italy. He was already a celebrity novelist, accomplished poet, minister of mines, roads and armies at Weimar, jurist, amateur geologist and anatomist; but Goethe had wanted to see the great ruins and monuments of Italy since childhood, and a glance at a translation of Juvenal's Satires had only inculcated this desire further. So he snuck out at dawn—or so he wrote in his diaries, which he kept and later reworked as the Italienische Reise (1817)—and wandered down through Italy to Rome and then Naples, before returning in 1788. He stayed with the artist Johann Tischbein at Rome, who painted him in 1787; you can see that rather odd canvas here. On his journey, Goethe took many notes on local people, climates, rocks, art and architecture. Most notably, he discovered a love of Vitruvius and Palladio. Among his jottings are observations on paintings he saw, many of which are named and admired. Below can be found these works, in the order seen, with his remarks and where he saw them; I have used Jim Reed's Oxford translation, the accuracy of which I have not bothered to check (sorry!). Only a couple of paintings mentioned were not found online. . . such is the wonder of the internet.
Titian, Gloria (1554): Verona Cathedral
The Titian is very blackened and apparently it's a picture taken from his least good period. I like the way he makes Mary, as she's taken up into heaven, look not upwards but downwards, in the direction of her friends.
Tintoretto, Paradise (1588): Verona, Casa Bevi l'Aqua
The coronation of the Virgin as Queen of Heaven in the presence of all the patriarchs, prophets, saints, angels etc., a senseless conception carried through with absolute genius. Such lightness of brush, spirit, and richness of expression that you would have to own the picture yourself to fully admire and enjoy it, for infinite artistry went into it. . . Eve is the handsomest woman in the whole picture and still in the old way a touch lascivious.
Tiepolo, Martyrdom of St. Agatha (1755): Padua, Observatorio
The face not sublime yet astoundingly true, physical pain and serenity in suffering beautifully expressed. If only martyrdoms didn't always have to drag with them a crew with those wretched hangdog expressions.
Paolo Veronese, Martyrdom of St. Justina (1573?): Padua, Observatorio
He has the flaw I already noticed in Vicenza of putting too many figures into the picture and making them too small. As they look down from such a high altar, they have no presence.
Jacopo Bassano, Descent from the Cross (mid 16th-century): Padua, Observatorio
Well done, and as nobly as it was possible to do such a subject.
Guercino, Cristo Risorto Appare alla Madre (1629): Cento, Chiesa dell SS. Nome di Dio
The risen Christ appearing to his mother. She kneels before him and looks at him with indescribable depth of feeling, she feels his body with her left hand, just beneath the miserable wound that ruins the whole picture. He's put his left hand around her neck and is bending his body back a little to see her close up. That gives the figure something, I won't say constrained, but at any rate alien. Nevertheless it's still infinitely pleasing. And the calm sad expression with which he looks at her, as if his noble mind were filled with the memory of his and her suffering, which isn't healed at once by resurrection. . . Of Guercino's brush I say nothing, it has a lightness and purity and perfection that are unbelievable. He chose particularly beautiful colours shading into brown for the garments.
Raphael, St. Cecilia (1501): Bologna
It is what I knew in advance but now saw with my own eyes. He simply did what others wanted to do. . . About the picture [let us talk] when we meet, for the only thing to say is that it's by him. A group of five saints, none of whom are of any concern to us, but whose existence is so perfect that one wishes the picture may last for ever, though content with one's own dissolution.
Are we to wonder that these tableaux inspired awe from the greatest polymath of his age? There are indeed some fine paintings here, and from masters I am normally indifferent to. I can even tolerate the Tiepolo, which is rare for me. Goethe's eye is immensely respectful, but never reverential, and his tone can bite with a gentle wit. He also notices details to which our internet-heavy eyes are perhaps insensible; and his commentaries are purely formal, never weighted with religious convictions—an atheism we expect. Together, these observations possess an elegant unity, I think, and one to which amateur critics might well aspire.