1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Guarini, Giovanni Battista

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GUARINI, GIOVANNI BATTISTA (1537–1612), Italian poet, author of the Pastor fido, was born at Ferrara on the 10th of December 1537, just seven years before the birth of Tasso. He was descended from Guarino da Verona. The young Battista studied both at Pisa and Padua, whence he was called, when not yet twenty, to profess moral philosophy in the schools of his native city. He inherited considerable wealth, and was able early in life to marry Taddea de’ Bendedei, a lady of good birth. In 1567 he entered the service of Alphonso II., duke of Ferrara, thus beginning the court career which was destined to prove a constant source of disappointment and annoyance to him. Though he cultivated poetry for pastime, Guarini aimed at state employment as the serious business of his life, and managed to be sent on various embassies and missions by his ducal master. There was, however, at the end of the 16th century no opportunity for a man of energy and intellectual ability to distinguish himself in the petty sphere of Italian diplomacy. The time too had passed when the profession of a courtier, painted in such glowing terms by Castiglione, could confer either profit or honour. It is true that the court of Alphonso presented a brilliant spectacle to Europe, with Tasso for titular poet, and an attractive circle of accomplished ladies. But the last duke of Ferrara was an illiberal patron, feeding his servants with promises, and ever ready to treat them with the brutality that condemned the author of the Gerusalemme liberata to a madhouse. Guarini spent his time and money to little purpose, suffered from the spite and ill-will of two successive secretaries,—Pigna and Montecatini,—quarrelled with his old friend Tasso, and at the end of fourteen years of service found himself half-ruined, with a large family and no prospects. When Tasso was condemned to S. Anna, the duke promoted Guarini to the vacant post of court poet. There is an interesting letter extant from the latter to his friend Cornelio Bentivoglio, describing the efforts he made to fill this place appropriately. “I strove to transform myself into another person, and, like a player, reassumed the character, costume and feelings of my youth. Advanced in manhood, I forced myself to look young; I turned my natural melancholy into artificial gaiety, affected loves I did not feel, exchanged wisdom for folly, and, in a word, passed from a philosopher into a poet.” How ill-adapted he felt himself to this masquerade life may be gathered from the following sentence: “I am already in my forty-fourth year, the father of eight children, two of whom are old enough to be my censors, while my daughters are of an age to marry.” Abandoning so uncongenial a strain upon his faculties, Guarini retired in 1582 to his ancestral farm, the Villa Guarina, in the lovely country that lies between the Adige and Po, where he gave himself up to the cares of his family, the nursing of his dilapidated fortunes and the composition of the Pastor fido. He was not happy in his domestic lot; for he had lost his wife young, and quarrelled with his elder sons about the division of his estate. Litigation seems to have been an inveterate vice with Guarini; nor was he ever free from legal troubles. After studying his biography, the conclusion is forced upon our minds that he was originally a man of robust and virile intellect, ambitious of greatness, confident in his own powers, and well qualified for serious affairs, whose energies found no proper scope for their exercise. Literary work offered but a poor sphere for such a character, while the enforced inactivity of court life soured a naturally capricious and choleric temper. Of poetry he spoke with a certain tone of condescension, professing to practise it only in his leisure moments; nor are his miscellaneous verses of a quality to secure for their author a very lasting reputation. It is therefore not a little remarkable that the fruit of his retirement—a disappointed courtier past the prime of early manhood—should have been a dramatic masterpiece worthy to be ranked with the classics of Italian literature. Deferring a further account of the Pastor fido for the present, the remaining incidents of Guarini’s restless life may be briefly told. In 1585 he was at Turin superintending the first public performance of his drama, whence Alphonso recalled him to Ferrara, and gave him the office of secretary of state. This reconciliation between the poet and his patron did not last long. Guarini moved to Florence, then to Rome, and back again to Florence, where he established himself as the courtier of Ferdinand de’ Medici. A dishonourable marriage, pressed upon his son Guarino by the grand-duke, roused the natural resentment of Guarini, always scrupulous upon the point of honour. He abandoned the Medicean court, and took refuge with Francesco Maria of Urbino, the last scion of the Montefeltro-della-Rovere house. Yet he found no satisfaction at Urbino. “The old court is a dead institution,” he writes to a friend; “one may see a shadow of it, but not the substance in Italy of to-day. Ours is an age of appearances, and one goes a-masquerading all the year.” This was true enough. Those dwindling deadly-lively little residence towns of Italian ducal families, whose day of glory was over, and who were waiting to be slowly absorbed by the capacious appetite of Austria, were no fit places for a man of energy and independence. Guarini finally took refuge in his native Ferrara, which, since the death of Alphonso, had now devolved to the papal see. Here, and at the Villa Guarina, his last years were passed in study, law-suits, and polemical disputes with his contemporary critics, until 1612, when he died at Venice in his seventy-fifth year.

The Pastor fido (first published in 1590) is a pastoral drama composed not without reminiscences of Tasso’s Aminta. The scene is laid in Arcadia, where Guarini supposes it to have been the custom to sacrifice a maiden yearly to Diana. But an oracle has declared that when two scions of divine lineage are united in marriage, and a faithful shepherd has atoned for the ancient error of a faithless woman, this inhuman rite shall cease. The plot turns upon the unexpected fulfilment of this prophecy, contrary to all the schemes which had been devised for bringing it to accomplishment, and in despite of apparent improbabilities of divers kinds. It is extremely elaborate, and, regarded as a piece of cunning mechanism, leaves nothing to be desired. Each motive has been carefully prepared, each situation amply developed. Yet, considered as a play, the Pastor fido disappoints a reader trained in the school of Sophocles or Shakespeare. The action itself seems to take place off the stage, and only the results of action, stationary tableaux representing the movement of the drama, are put before us in the scenes. The art is lyrical, not merely in form but in spirit, and in adaptation to the requirements of music which demands stationary expressions of emotion for development. The characters have been well considered, and are exhibited with great truth and vividness; the cold and eager hunter Silvio contrasting with the tender and romantic Mirtillo, and Corisca’s meretricious arts enhancing the pure affection of Amarilli. Dorinda presents another type of love so impulsive that it prevails over a maiden’s sense of shame, while the courtier Carino brings the corruption of towns into comparison with the innocence of the country. In Carino the poet painted his own experience, and here his satire upon the court of Ferrara is none the less biting because it is gravely measured. In Corisca he delineated a woman vitiated by the same town life, and a very hideous portrait has he drawn. Though a satirical element was thus introduced into the Pastor fido in order to relieve its ideal picture of Arcadia, the whole play is but a study of contemporary feeling in Italian society. There is no true rusticity whatever in the drama. This correspondence with the spirit of the age secured its success during Guarini’s lifetime; this made it so dangerously seductive that Cardinal Bellarmine told the poet he had done more harm to Christendom by his blandishments than Luther by his heresy. Without anywhere transgressing the limits of decorum, the Pastor fido is steeped in sensuousness; and the immodesty of its pictures is enhanced by rhetorical concealments more provocative than nudity. Moreover, the love described is effeminate and wanton, felt less as passion than as lust enveloped in a veil of sentiment. We divine the coming age of cicisbei and castrati. Of Guarini’s style it would be difficult to speak in terms of too high praise. The thought and experience of a lifetime have been condensed in these five acts, and have found expression in language brilliant, classical, chiselled to perfection. Here and there the taste of the 17th century makes itself felt in frigid conceits and forced antitheses; nor does Guarini abstain from sententious maxims which reveal the moralist rather than the poet. Yet these are but minor blemishes in a masterpiece of diction, glittering and faultless like a polished bas-relief of hard Corinthian bronze. That a single pastoral should occupy so prominent a place in the history of literature seems astonishing, until we reflect that Italy, upon the close of the 16th century, expressed itself in the Pastor fido, and that the influence of this drama was felt through all the art of Europe till the epoch of the Revolution. It is not a mere play. The sensual refinement proper to an age of social decadence found in it the most exact embodiment, and made it the code of gallantry for the next two centuries.

The best edition of the Pastor fido is the 20th, published at Venice (Ciotti) in 1602. The most convenient is that of Barbéra (Florence, 1866). For Guarini’s miscellaneous Rime, the Ferrara edition, in 4 vols., 1737, may be consulted. His polemical writings, Verato primo and secondo, and his prose comedy called Idropica, were published at Venice, Florence and Rome, between 1588 and 1614.  (J. A. S.)