1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Alfieri, Vittorio
ALFIERI, VITTORIO, Count (1749–1803), Italian dramatist, was born on the 17th of January 1749 at Asti in Piedmont. He lost his father in early infancy; but he continued to reside with his mother, who married a second time, till his tenth year, when he was placed at the academy of Turin. After he had passed a twelvemonth at the academy, he went on a short visit to a relation who dwelt at Coni; and during his stay there he made his first poetical attempt in a sonnet chiefly borrowed from lines in Ariosto and Metastasio, the only poets he had at that time read. When thirteen years of age he was induced to begin the study of civil and canonical law; but the attempt only served to disgust him with every species of application and to increase his relish for the perusal of French romances. By the death of his uncle, who had hitherto taken some charge of his education and conduct, he was left, at the age of fourteen, to enjoy without control his vast paternal inheritance, augmented by the recent accession of his uncle’s fortune. He now began to attend the riding-school, where he acquired that rage for horses and equestrian exercise which continued to be one of his strongest passions till the close of his existence.
After some time spent in alternate fits of extravagant dissipation and ill-directed study, he was seized with a desire of travelling; and having obtained permission from the king, he departed in 1766, under the care of an English preceptor. Restless and unquiet, he posted with the utmost rapidity through the towns of Italy; and his improvement was such as was to be expected from his mode of travelling and his previous habits. Hoping to find in foreign countries some relief from the tedium and ennui with which he was oppressed, and being anxious to become acquainted with the French theatre, he proceeded to Paris. But he appears to have been completely dissatisfied with everything he witnessed in France and contracted a dislike to its people, which his intercourse in future years rather contributed to augment than diminish. In Holland he became deeply enamoured of a married lady, who returned his attachment, but who was soon obliged to accompany her husband to Switzerland. Alfieri, whose feelings were of the most impetuous description, was in despair at this separation, and returned to his own country in the utmost anguish and despondency of mind. While under this depression of spirits he was induced to seek alleviation from works of literature; and the perusal of Plutarch’s Lives, which he read with profound emotion, inspired him with an enthusiastic passion for freedom and independence. Under the influence of this rage for liberty he recommenced his travels; and his only gratification, in the absence of freedom among the continental states, appears to have been derived from contemplating the wild and sterile regions of the north of Sweden, where gloomy forests, lakes and precipices conspired to excite those sublime and melancholy ideas which were congenial to his disposition. Everywhere his soul felt as if confined by the bonds of society; he panted for something more free in government, more elevated in sentiment, more devoted in love and more perfect in friendship. In search of this ideal world he posted through various countries more with the rapidity of a courier than of one who travels for amusement or instruction. During a journey to London he engaged in an intrigue with a married lady of high rank; and having been detected, the publicity of a rencounter with the injured husband, and of a divorce which followed, rendered it expedient and desirable for him to quit England. He then visited Spain and Portugal, where he became acquainted with the Abbé Caluso, who remained through life the most attached and estimable friend he ever possessed. In 1772 Alfieri returned to Turin. This time he became enamoured of the Marchesa Turinetti di Prie, whom he loved with his usual ardour, and who seems to have been as undeserving of a sincere attachment as those he had hitherto adored. In the course of a long attendance on his mistress, during a malady with which she was afflicted, he one day wrote a dialogue or scene of a drama, which he left at her house. On a difference taking place between them the piece was returned to him, and being retouched and extended to five acts, it was performed at Turin in 1775, under the title of Cleopatra.
From this moment Alfieri was seized with an insatiable thirst for theatrical fame, and the remainder of his life was devoted to its attainment. His first two tragedies, Filippo and Polinice were originally written in French prose; and when he came to versify them in Italian, he found that, from his Lombard origin and long intercourse with foreigners, he expressed himself with feebleness and inaccuracy. Accordingly, with the view of improving his Italian style, he went to Tuscany and, during an alternate residence at Florence and Siena, he completed his Filippo and Polinice, and conceived the plan of various other dramas. While thus employed he became acquainted with the countess of Albany, who then resided with her husband at Florence. For her he formed an attachment which, if less violent than his former loves, appears to have been more permanent. With this motive to remain at Florence, he could not endure the chains by which his vast possessions bound him to Piedmont. He therefore resigned his whole property to his sister, the countess Cumiana, reserving an annuity which scarcely amounted to a half of his original revenues. At this period the countess of Albany, urged by the ill-treatment she received from her husband, sought refuge in Rome, where she at length received permission from the pope to live apart from her tormentor. Alfieri followed the countess to that capital, where he completed fourteen tragedies, four of which were now for the first time printed at Sienna.
At length, however, it was thought proper that, by leaving Rome, he should remove the aspersions which had been thrown on the object of his affections. During the year 1783 he therefore travelled through different states of Italy, and published six additional tragedies. The interests of his love and literary glory had not diminished his rage for horses, which seems to have been at least the third passion of his soul. He came to England solely for the purpose of purchasing a number of these animals, which he carried with him to Italy. On his return he learned that the countess of Albany had gone to Colmar in Alsace, where he joined her, and resided with her under the same roof during the rest of his life. They chiefly passed their time between Alsace and Paris, but at length took up their abode entirely in that metropolis. While here, Alfieri made arrangements with Didot for an edition of his tragedies, but was soon after forced to quit Paris by the storms of the Revolution. He recrossed the Alps with the countess, and finally settled at Florence. The last ten years of his life, which he spent in that city, seem to have been the happiest of his existence. During that long period his tranquillity was only interrupted by the entrance of the Revolutionary armies into Florence in 1799. Though an enemy of kings, the aristocratic feeling of Alfieri rendered him also a decided foe to the principles and leaders of the French Revolution; and he rejected with the utmost contempt those advances which were made with a view to bring him over to their cause. The concluding years of his life were laudably employed in the study of the Greek literature and in perfecting a series of comedies. His assiduous labour on this subject, which he pursued with his characteristic impetuosity, exhausted his strength, and brought on a malady for which he would not adopt the prescriptions of his physicians, but obstinately persisted in employing remedies of his own. His disorder rapidly increased, and he died on the 8th of October 1803.
The character of Alfieri may be best appreciated from the portrait which he has drawn of himself in his own Memoirs of his Life. He was evidently of an irritable, impetuous and almost ungovernable temper. Pride, which seems to have been a ruling sentiment, may account for many apparent inconsistencies of his character. But his less amiable qualities were greatly softened by the cultivation of literature. His application to study gradually tranquillized his temper and softened his manners, leaving him at the same time in perfect possession of those good qualities which he had inherited from nature—a warm and disinterested attachment to his family and friends, united to a generosity, vigour and elevation of character, which rendered him not unworthy to embody in his dramas the actions and sentiments of Grecian heroes.
It is to his dramas that Alfieri is chiefly indebted for the high reputation he has attained. Before his time the Italian language, so harmonious in the Sonnets of Petrarch and so energetic in the Commedia of Dante, had been invariably languid and prosaic in dramatic dialogue. The pedantic and inanimate tragedies of the 16th century were followed, during the iron age of Italian literature, by dramas of which extravagance in the sentiments and improbability in the action were the chief characteristics. The prodigious success of the Merope of Maffei, which appeared in the commencement of the 18th century, may be attributed more to a comparison with such productions than to intrinsic merit. In this degradation of tragic taste the appearance of the tragedies of Alfieri was perhaps the most important literary event that had occurred in Italy during the 18th century. On these tragedies it is difficult to pronounce a judgment, as the taste and system of the author underwent considerable change and modification during the intervals which elapsed between the three periods of their publication. An excessive harshness of style, an asperity of sentiment and total want of poetical ornament are the characteristics of his first four tragedies, Filippo, Polinice, Antigone and Virginia. These faults were in some measure corrected in the six tragedies which he gave to the world some years after, and in those which he published along with Saul, the drama which enjoyed the greatest success of all his productions—a popularity which may be partly attributed to the severe and unadorned manner of Alfieri being well adapted to the patriarchal simplicity of the age in which the scene of the tragedy is placed. But though there be a considerable difference in his dramas, there are certain observations applicable to them all. None of the plots are of his own invention. They are founded either on mythological fable or history; most of them had been previously treated by the Greek dramatists or by Seneca. Rosmunda, the only one which could be supposed of his own contrivance, and which is certainly the least happy effusion of his genius, is partly founded on the eighteenth novel of the third part of Bandello and partly on Prevost’s Mémoires d’un homme de qualité. But whatever subject he chooses, his dramas are always formed on the Grecian model and breathe a freedom and independence worthy of an Athenian poet. Indeed, his Agide and Bruto may rather be considered oratorical declamations and dialogues on liberty than tragedies. The unities of time and place are not so scrupulously observed in his as in the ancient dramas; but he has rigidly adhered to a unity of action and interest. He occupies his scene with one great action and one ruling passion, and removes from it every accessory event or feeling. In this excessive zeal for the observance of unity he seems to have forgotten that its charm consists in producing a common relation between multiplied feelings, and not in the bare exhibition of one, divested of those various accompaniments which give harmony to the whole. Consistently with that austere and simple manner which he considered the chief excellence of dramatic composition, he excluded from his scene all coups de théâtre, all philosophical reflexions, and that highly ornamented versification which had been so assiduously cultivated by his predecessors. In his anxiety, however, to avoid all superfluous ornament, he has stripped his dramas of the embellishments of imagination; and for the harmony and flow of poetical language he has substituted, even in his best performances, a style which, though correct and pure, is generally harsh, elaborate and abrupt; often strained into unnatural energy or condensed into factitious conciseness. The chief excellence of Alfieri consists in powerful delineation of dramatic character. In his Filippo he has represented, almost with the masterly touches of Tacitus, the sombre character, the dark mysterious counsels, the suspensa semper et obscura verba, of the modern Tiberius. In Polinice, the characters of the rival brothers are beautifully contrasted; in Maria Stuarda, that unfortunate queen is represented unsuspicious, impatient of contradiction and violent in her attachments. In Mirra, the character of Ciniro is perfect as a father and king, and Cecri is a model of a wife and mother. In the representation of that species of mental alienation where the judgment has perished but traces of character still remain, he is peculiarly happy. The insanity of Saul is skilfully managed; and the horrid joy of Orestes in killing Aegisthus rises finely and naturally to madness in finding that, at the same time, he had inadvertently slain his mother.
Whatever may be the merits or defects of Alfieri, he may be considered as the founder of a new school in the Italian drama. His country hailed him as her sole tragic poet; and his successors in the same path of literature have regarded his bold, austere and rapid manner as the genuine model of tragic composition.
Besides his tragedies, Alfieri published during his life many sonnets, five odes on American independence and the poem of Etruria, founded on the assassination of Alexander I., duke of Florence. Of his prose works the most distinguished for animation and eloquence is the Panegyric on Trajan, composed in a transport of indignation at the supposed feebleness of Pliny’s eulogium. The two books entitled La Tirannide and the Essays on Literature and Government are remarkable for elegance and vigour of style, but are too evidently imitations of the manner of Machiavel. His Antigallican, which was written at the same time with his Defence of Louis XVI., comprehends an historical and satirical view of the French Revolution. The posthumous works of Alfieri consist of satires, six political comedies and the Memoirs of his Life—a work which will always be read with interest, in spite of the cold and languid gravity with which he delineates the most interesting adventures and the strongest passions of his agitated life.
See Mem. di Vit. Alfieri; Sismondi, De la lit. du midi de l’Europe; Walker’s Memoir on Italian Tragedy; Giorn. de Pisa, tom lviii.: Life of Alfieri, by Centofanti (Florence, 1842); Vita, Giornuli, Lettere di Alfieri, by Teza (Florence, 1861); Vittorio Alfieri, by Antonini and Cognetti (Turin, 1898).