Back in the late 1700s, literary legend Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote an influential travelogue about his two years journeying through Italy that helped cement a long German romance with the southern European country. “O, how happy I feel in Rome!” Goethe wrote in a poem inspired by his travels. In the post-war years, well-travelled German citizens holidayed across Italy in the millions from Sicily to the Amalfi Coast, enjoying ocean, sun, regional cuisine — and, of course, gelato.
The German infatuation with Italy is, however, widely shared among the 65 million from across the planet who visit each year. And this fascination has been ably captured by the Netflix series “Summertime,” which enters its third and final season this month.
Set in a resort on the Romagna Riviera on the Adriatic coast amid a sparkling summer, “Summertime” evokes a tourist’s Italian fantasy, with a modern twist.
The series follows Summer (Coco Rebecca Edogamhe), a young woman who says she hates summer and is forced to support her mother with a job in a hotel in this coastal holiday idyll. But then she meets Ale (Ludovico Tersigni), a handsome young motorcycle racer from Rome. The two find love and come of age on the beach amid their own personal struggles, trials and tribulations.
‘Do you know the land where the lemons blossom?’
Also centre stage is an Italian tourist paradise, one of many alluring locations that has maintained the nation’s place among the top travel destinations for Germans. But why Italy?
Goethe fulfilled a lifelong dream when he took his trip to Italy between 1786 and 1788, and his recollections from his travels likely laid the foundation for the German longing for Italy.
The poet had escaped his official duties with the Weimar court when he travelled south under the moniker of Johann Philipp Möller. He pretended to be a painter as he explored Venice, Rome, Naples and Sicily, and spiced the trip with some erotic adventures.
In the novel, “Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre” (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship), Goethe famously referenced Italy when he asked: “Do you know the land where the lemons blossom?”
The sentiment was the basis for “Where the Lemons Blossom,” a waltz by Johann Strauss II written in 1874 that had originally been titled “Bella Italia” (Beautiful Italy).
Italy inspired pioneering souvenirs
Tourists with less of a literary bent learned about Bella Italia via picture postcards from the 1870s onward.
The Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main has an entire exhibition devoted to early photographs of Italy, which, from the mid-19th century, even before the picture postcard, were a popular souvenir.
In the age of the selfie, iconic Italian scenes portrayed 150 years ago are not so different today.
Bursting the bubble
But a deeper and darker reality often lies under this fabled view of a southern paradise.
Italy suffered terribly during the COVID pandemic, as reflected in the haunting images of an army convoy in the northern city of Bergamo moving coffins of coronavirus victims because the city’s cemeteries were full.
Other Italy fans are put off by the persistent appeal of the political far right there, most recently incorporated by Giorgia Meloni, and by the unbridled machismo of the likes of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Then there is the taint of organized crime, recurring political instability and Italy’s various economic crises.
But in the wake of the pandemic, the tourists have returned for sun, sand and limoncello — and a mythical vision of romance on the Italian coast is coming alive again on the small screen in the third season of “Summertime.”