The first of the great travellers of the Palladian period was Montaigne (1580); twenty-three years later, the English architect Inigo Jones arrived in the town and, still in the seventeenth century, another worthy Briton, Skippon, wrote his precise wry observations about the town. In September 1728 another exceptional tourist arrived in Vicenza, namely Montesquieu, followed just a few years later by his fellow- countryman De Brosses who gave a clear and vivid portrait of the town.
But the traveller par excellence, the man who had studied
the texts of antiquity and made his Journey to Italy in
full awareness of all that it meant, was W.J. Goethe.
Vicenza and Palladio were obligatory stops on the Grand Tour of all eighteenth-century intellectuals, the original "tourists".
Goethe stayed there for seven days, from 19 to 26 September 1786, having taken lodgings in incognito at the inn of the "Red Hat" (which until 1815 stood in Corso Palladio in the buildings now occupied by the Max Mara shop).
In his "Introduction to Goethe's visit to Italy", Bonaventura Tecchi remarks: "The importance given to the visit to Vicenza, indeed his liking for Vicenza, are impressions that cannot fail to strike anyone who reads the "Journey" and that have been pointed out by many scholars; with Rome, Vicenza is the Italian town that Goethe found most interesting as far as art was concerned".
On the date September 19, both in the "Journey" and in the
"Tagebucher", the following words are recorded: "I only
arrived a few hours ago, but I have already had a quick look
at the town and seen the Olympic Theatre and Palladio's
buildings" and he goes on, "Just by having these monuments
before your eyes, you can understand their great value.
With their great bulk and impressiveness they must, in a sense, fill your eyes, while with the fine harmony of their dimensions, not only in the abstract design but in the whole prospective view, in all that recedes and all that projects, they satisfy the spirit. I believe this is so of Palladio: an extraordinary man, both in what he has written and in what he has expressed . There is something really divine in his designs: just as form is for a great poet, who from truth and fiction creates something else whose imaginary existence enraptures us".
Of the Olympic Theatre Goethe says that "it is a theatre based on the old model but with small proportions and indescribably beautiful" while "it is not possible to express the impression aroused by Palladio's Basilica next to an old building rather like a castle with irregular windows placed here and there".
In the evening of September 20, Goethe attended, albeit not very enthusiastically, two performances in the Opera House. This was the old Teatro Eretenio, built just two years previously, where in the evening intelligent strangers and monarchs visiting the town never failed to meet to look, listen and talk. The theatre, which stood in Viale Eretenio next to Palazzo Civena-Trissino in the space now occupied by a car park, was unfortunately destroyed by allied bombing in April 1944.
On September 21 Goethe visited two illustrious sons of Vicenza: the botanist and naturalist Domenico Turra, who lived in Piazza Duomo, in the Palazzetto Roma (1599), now the headquarters of the Tourist Promotion Board, and the architect Ottavio Bertotti Scamozzi. In the Tagebucher he notes "If I could follow my talent, I would stay here (in Vicenza) for a month and follow a course of lessons on architecture with old Scamozzi".
Also on September 21, according to the dates in the "Journey", he visited Palladio's House for which Goethe admits he had "always had a special preference", adding that "looking at it close up is quite different from seeing a reproduction of it".
In the evening the travelling poet encountered the Rotonda which he defines "a splendid villa".
"Perhaps the art of architecture has never reached such a degree of magnificence," he writes in the "Journey". And he goes on, "This Rotonda appears stupendously on all sides and from all over the plain... You can see the course of the Bacchiglione carrying the boats that go down from Vicenza to the Brenta...".
In the evening of September 22 Goethe took part in a meeting of the Olympic Academy in "a large room (Odeo) next to the Olympic Theatre, well lit" and gives a witty and rather ironic description of the session.
On September 23 Goethe went to Thiene and in the "Journey" he refers to the Castle "situated in the midst of a large plain in an excellent position, against the background of the Alps without any other mountains in between".
Bonaventura Tecchi writes in his Introduction, "In the "Tagebucher" he continues to speak of Vicenza on the dates 23, 24 and 25 September, whereas in the "Journey" the last date in Vicenza is 23 after which he skips to 26 September when he was already in Padua. In the dates and pages later omitted from the Tagebucher he recalled the Villa Valmarana, the "splendid monument" of the Basilica, the columns of the Palazzo del Capitaniato, the bust of the famous jurist Bertolo in the Library; and also the work, carried out assiduously in Vicenza, on the remaking of "Ifigenia in Tauride", and a "pleasant encounter" with a lady in the church of the Madonna di Monte Berico. And as a final sign of his liking for Vicenza, let us not forget that it is only from Vicenza that he sends his nostalgic invitation to Charlotte von Stein, wishing that they could spend some time together in this Veneto town".