1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Foscolo, Ugo
FOSCOLO, UGO (1778–1827), Italian writer, was born at Zante in the Ionian Isles on the 26th of January 1778. On the death of his father, a physician at Spalatro, in Dalmatia, the family removed to Venice, and in the University of Padua Foscolo prosecuted the studies begun in the Dalmatian grammar school. The fact that amongst his Paduan masters was the abbé Cesarotti, whose version of Ossian had made that work highly popular in Italy, was not without influence on Foscolo’s literary tastes, and his early knowledge of modern facilitated his studies in ancient Greek. His literary ambition revealed itself by the appearance in 1797 of his tragedy Tieste—a production which obtained a certain degree of success. Foscolo, who, from causes not clearly explained, had changed his Christian name Niccolo to that of Ugo, now began to take an active part in the stormy political discussions which the fall of the republic of Venice had provoked. He was a prominent member of the national committees, and addressed an ode to Napoleon the liberator, expecting from the military successes of the French general, not merely the overthrow of the effete Venetian oligarchy, but the establishment of a free republican government.
The treaty of Campo Formio (17th Oct. 1797), by which Napoleon handed Venice over to the Austrians, gave a rude shock to Foscolo, but did not quite destroy his hopes. The state of mind produced by that shock is reflected in the Letters of Jacopo Ortis (1798), a species of political Werther,—for the hero of Foscolo embodies the mental sufferings and suicide of an undeceived Italian patriot just as the hero of Goethe places before us the too delicate sensitiveness embittering and at last cutting short the life of a private German scholar. The story of Foscolo, like that of Goethe, had a groundwork of melancholy fact. Jacopo Ortis had been a real personage; he was a young student of Padua, and committed suicide there under circumstances akin to those described by Foscolo. At this period Foscolo’s mind appears to have been only too familiar with the thought of suicide. Cato and the many classical examples of self-destruction scattered through the pages of Plutarch appealed to the imaginations of young Italian patriots as they had done in France to those of the heroes and heroines of the Gironde. In the case of Foscolo, as in that of Goethe, the effect produced on the writer’s mind by the composition of the work seems to have been beneficial. He had seen the ideal of a great national future rudely shattered; but he did not despair of his country, and sought relief in now turning to gaze on the ideal of a great national poet. At Milan, whither he repaired after the fall of Venice, he was engaged in other literary pursuits besides the composition of Ortis. The friendship formed there with the great poet Parini was ever afterwards remembered with pride and gratitude. The friendship formed with another celebrated Milanese poet soon gave place to a feeling of bitter enmity. Still hoping that his country would be freed by Napoleon, he served as a volunteer in the French army, took part in the battle of the Trebbia and the siege of Genoa, was wounded and made prisoner. When released he returned to Milan, and there gave the last touches to his Ortis, published a translation of and commentary upon Callimachus, commenced a version of the Iliad, and began his translation of Sterne’s Sentimental Journey. The result of a memorandum prepared for Lyons, where, along with other Italian delegates, he was to have laid before Napoleon the state of Italy, only proved that the views cherished by him for his country were too bold to be even submitted to the dictator of France. The year 1807 witnessed the appearance of his Carme sui sepolcri, of which the entire spirit and language may be described as a sublime effort to seek refuge in the past from the misery of the present and the darkness of the future. The mighty dead are summoned from their tombs, as ages before they had been in the masterpieces of Greek oratory, to fight again the battles of their country. The inaugural lecture on the origin and duty of literature, delivered by Foscolo in January 1809 when appointed to the chair of Italian eloquence at Pavia, was conceived in the same spirit. In this lecture Foscolo urged his young countrymen to study letters, not in obedience to academic traditions, but in their relation to individual and national life and growth. The sensation produced by this lecture had no slight share in provoking the decree of Napoleon by which the chair of national eloquence was abolished in all the Italian universities. Soon afterwards Foscolo’s tragedy of Ajax was represented but with little success at Milan, and its supposed allusions to Napoleon rendering the author an object of suspicion, he was forced to remove from Milan to Tuscany. The chief fruits of his stay in Florence are the tragedy of Ricciarda, the Ode to the Graces, left unfinished, and the completion of his version of the Sentimental Journey (1813). His version of Sterne is an important feature in his personal history. When serving with the French he had been at the Boulogne camp, and had traversed much of the ground gone over by Yorick; and in his memoir of Didimo Cherico, to whom the version is ascribed, he throws much curious light on his own character. He returned to Milan in 1813, until the entry of the Austrians; thence he passed into Switzerland, where he wrote a fierce satire in Latin on his political and literary opponents; and finally he sought the shores of England at the close of 1816.
During the eleven years passed by Foscolo in London, until his death there, he enjoyed all the social distinction which the most brilliant circles of the English capital confer on foreigners of political and literary renown, and experienced all the misery which follows on a disregard of the first conditions of domestic economy. His contributions to the Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews, his dissertations in Italian on the text of Dante and Boccaccio, and still more his English essays on Petrarch, of which the value was enhanced by Lady Dacre’s admirable translations of some of Petrarch’s finest sonnets, heightened his previous fame as a man of letters. But his want of care and forethought in pecuniary matters involved him in much embarrassment, and at last consigned him to a prison; and when released he felt bitterly the change in his social position, and the coldness now shown to him by many whom he had been accustomed to regard as friends. His general bearing in society—if we may accept on this point the testimony of so keen an observer and so tolerant a man as Sir Walter Scott—had unhappily not been such as to gain and retain lasting friendships. He died at Turnham Green on the 10th of October 1827. Forty-four years after his death, in 1871, his remains were brought to Florence, and with all the pride, pomp and circumstance of a great national mourning, found their final resting-place beside the monuments ofand Alfieri, of Michelangelo and Galileo, in Italy’s Westminster Abbey, the church of Santa Croce. To that solemn national tribute Foscolo was fully entitled. For the originality of his thoughts and the splendour of his diction his country honours him as a great classic author. He had assigned to the literature of his nation higher aims than any which it previously recognized. With all his defects of character, and through all his vicissitudes of fortune, he was always a sincere and courageous patriot.
Ample materials for the study of Foscolo’s character and career may be found in the complete series of his works published in Florence by Le Monnier. The series consists of Prose letterarie, (4 vols., 1850); Epistolario (3 vols., 1854); Prose politiche (1 vol., 1850); Poesie (1 vol., 1856); Lettere di Ortis (1 vol., 1858); Saggi di critica storico-letteraria (1st vol., 1859; 2nd vol., 1862). To this series must be added the very interesting work published at Leghorn in 1876, Lettere inedite del Foscolo, del Giordani, e della Signora di Staël, a Vincenzo Monti. The work published at Florence in the summer of 1878, Vita di Ugo Foscolo, di Pellegrino Artusi, throws much doubt on the genuineness of the text in Foscolo’s writings as given in the complete Florence edition, whilst it furnishes some curious and original illustrations of Foscolo’s familiarity with the English language. (J. M. S.)