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oil on canvas, 140 x 180 cm

“Images we never saw before we remembered them”

Walter Benjamin

In 1786 the 37-year-old Goethe began his great Italian journey. At Malcesine on the shore of Lake Garda he sketched the crumbling castle. He soon attracted curious bystanders, some of whom accused him of espionage:


‘I realised that my sketching was causing a sensation, but I refused to let this disturb me and calmly carried on. Finally, one man came close to me and asked me what I was doing. I replied that I was sketching the old tower, as a memento of Malcesine. He said that this was not allowed and that I had to stop at once. He then grabbed my page and tore it.’



What had begun as an innocent sketch almost resulted in Goethe’s arrest, because the inhabitants of Malcesine still regarded the Castello as a fortress and thought that anyone making such a detailed sketch must be a spy.


Goethe’s gift for words now came into play. He glowingly explained that the beauty of their mediaeval castle was every bit as worthy of attention as the ruins of Ancient Rome. His passionate enthusiasm made the inhabitants look at their town with different eyes. Their neglected fortress became picturesque overgrown heritage. The decay of beauty became the beauty of decay


*Italiaanse Reis, 14 sept 1786, J.W. Goethe, uitg. Boom / Kritak, 1999. Dutch language edition.

translation : Stephen Smith


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