Naples, in the footsteps of Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, perhaps the most famous German humanist, reaches Naples on February 25th 1787. A tireless traveller, Goethe tells of a lively city, full of contradictions but also of wonders, unique landscapes and places of authentic charm.


Let’s follow him on his itinerary in the Naples of the late 18th century, reached by the first ferment of the Italian Enlightenment.


“A Mediterranean Paris. Such is Naples”

Pozzuoli, between Paradise and Hell

Accompanied by the Prince of Waldeck, Goethe visits Pozzuoli, an ancient Puteoli that was once a Greek colony. Here you can admire the wonders of the Phlegraean Fields, where the dark water of small lakes and the fire of the underground magma create a unique environment.


Lake Averno, a great blue eye in the heart of an old crater, was considered by the Greeks and Romans to have access to the afterlife and has many archaeological remains nearby.


Then Goethe moves to the Solfatara where he admires the “breath of the stones” in the phenomenon of fumaroles, of volcanic origin. And of the Solfatara he will also make a watercolour, with soft and simple lines.


A few months after the first visit, Goethe will return to Pozzuoli to visit the Temple of Serapis and the beautiful Cuma, city of the Sibyl and ancient Greek colony.

Goethe, Die Solfatara von Pozzuoli, 1787 (Wikimedia)

Strolling around Naples with Goethe

Once in Naples, Goethe admires the many churches, testimonies of a popular faith that is always alive and bright. In our Goethian itinerary, we first visit the beautiful Church of the Gesu Nuovo, with the dark ashlar work of its elegant facade. Inside, the painting of the “Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple” astonished Goethe, who could also admire several paintings by Luca Giordano.

Francesco Solimena - Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple (Wikimedia)

Returning to the narrow “Spaccanapoli” we see Palazzo Diomede Carafa, which Goethe visited when it was still called Palazzo Colubrano. A beautiful 15th-century building, it has a magnificent inner courtyard with a statue of a horse’s head, a terracotta copy of a sculpture by Donatello.


A few minutes walk away and here we are in via Atri, where Palazzo Filangieri d ‘Arianello is located, an ancient monumental palace where a plaque commemorates the illustrious guest and the meeting with the jurist Gaetano Filangieri.


Leaving the historic centre we now take via Toledo, a vivacious street full of shops. After a pleasant walk, the course opens in the large Piazza del Plebiscito, between the most suggestive and unmistakable corners of Naples. The nearby Teatro San Carlo literally took the breath away from Goethe, for the magnificence and elegance of its interiors.


Our journey in the footsteps of Goethe leads us to Palazzo Sessa, where the German scholar stayed, and which today is the seat of the Goethe Institut. Magnificent historical building of the ‘500, it also houses the headquarters of the Jewish Community of Naples.


It is impossible to visit the area without admiring the splendid seafront, with the silhouette of Castel dell’Ovo and the unmistakable profile of Mt Vesuvius in the background.

Mt Vesuvius

In just over an hour, from Naples, you can reach the top of the mountain by car or bus.

After a half an hour walk, on lava ground, one can look into the impressive abyss of the Great Cone, a place that Goethe wanted to admire twice.

Alternatively, for a quieter walk, we stay in Naples to visit the splendid park of the Royal Palace of Capodimonte and its wonderful Pinacoteca, which houses the Flagellation of Christ by Caravaggio.

Caravaggio - La Flagellazione di Cristo (Wikimedia)

One Comment

  • Ron says:

    Thanh you ! Very interesting !

    Goethe wrote about Naples 1787:
    “Of the situation of the city, and of its glories, which have been so often described and commended, not a word from me. “Vedi Napoli e poi muori,” is the cry here. “See Naples, and die.”
    That no Neapolitian will allow the merits of his city to be questioned, that their poets should sing in extravagant hyperbole of the blessings of its site, are not matters to quarrel about, even though a pair of Vesuviuses stood in its neighbourhood. Here one almost casts aside all remembrances, even of Rome. As compared with this free, open situation, the capital of the world, in the basin of the Tiber, looks like a cloister built on a bad site.
    The sea, with its vessels and their destinations, presents wholly new matters for reflection. The frigate for Palermo started yesterday, with a strong, direct north wind. This time it certainly will not be more than six and thirty hours on the passage. With what longing I watched the full sails as the vessel passed between Capri and Cape Minerva, until at last it disappeared. Who could see one’s beloved thus sailing away and survive? The sirocco (south wind) is now blowing: if the wind becomes stronger, the breakers over the Mole will be glorious…”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.