A History of Italian Literature/Chapter XIX

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A History of Italian Literature  (1901)  by Richard Garnett
Chapter XIX. The Prose of the Seventeenth Century



The seventeenth century is for Italy a period of stagnation, relieved only by the endeavour to conceal decay by fantastic extravagance, by a fortunate reaction near its termination, and by some genuine progress in isolated directions, which would have been fruitful of important results in a better age. The false taste which disfigured the epoch was not peculiar to Italy; but while in other countries it appears a symptom of exuberant life, a disorder incident to infancy, in Italy it dominates literature, some departments of practical knowledge and study excepted. What elsewhere was boisterous youth, was in Italy premature old age. No other cause for this decadence can be assigned than the withering of national life under the blight of civil and ecclesiastical tyranny. The reform of the Church, the purification of morals, excellent things in themselves, had been bought from the counter-Reformation at far too high a price.

We have indicated 1564 as the year in which the North of Europe begins to gain steadily at the expense of the South. The date especially fatal to Italy may perhaps be carried five years back, to 1559, when the long contest between France and Spain for supremacy in the Peninsula was decided in favour of the latter by the treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis. Up to this time the Italians had been in some measure able to play their oppressors off against each other; and such from Alexander the Sixth's time had been the policy of the Popes, who all wished the expulsion of the barbarians, in so far as compatible with their own family interests. The accommodation between the foreign Herod and the foreign Pilate put an end to this system. The hope of the independence of Italy was definitively resigned, the minor princes submitted to be Spanish vassals, and the Popes indemnified themselves by enlisting the monarchs in support of their spiritual authority. Jesuits, seminary priests, and inquisitors darkened the land, and the ever-augmenting pressure culminated at last in the rules for censorship promulgated by Clement VIII. in 1595, which effectually stifled freedom of thought, and stopped the dissemination of knowledge, except by leave of those whose interest it was to prevent it. Not merely were heretical or licentious writings interdicted, but criticism on rulers and ecclesiastics, and praises of the freedom and virtue of antiquity.

Such satires as those in which, in the days of the Renaissance, Alamanni and other orthodox Catholics had scourged the sins of Church and State, could now be printed only in Protestant countries. Anything might be prohibited that shocked the prejudice or surpassed the comprehension of an ignorant and bigoted priest. Authors were discouraged from writing, booksellers from publishing, and readers from reading, while the frivolous pedantry and execrable taste of the Jesuits infected almost all the schools. Renaissance had become reaction; the new birth had passed into the second death. This iron despotism could not be perpetually maintained. It was impossible to shut Italians out from all knowledge of the intellectual progress of Protestant countries, nor in the universal flux of things could the stern inquisitorial type of ecclesiastical ruler be stereotyped for ever. In course of time the zelanti Popes gave way to affable and humane personages, but the nation had meanwhile sunk into a mental torpor, in which, with a few glorious exceptions, it remained plunged until the crash of the old order of things in the French Revolution. The exclusion of the vivifying spirit of the Reformation, the impossibility of so much as alluding, except in disparagement, to the chief transaction of contemporary history, indicate an emasculation, as well as a paralysis, beyond the power of language to express.

The extinction of the free spirit of the Renaissance was the more unfortunate for Italy, as it arrested the development of speculative and scientific research which seemed opening upon her. It has been frequently observed that the close of a brilliant literary epoch has coincided with the birth of an era of positive science. The early Greek philosophers follow Homer and the rhapsodists; Aristotle and Theophrastus, Epicurus and Zeno, succeed the dramatists and the orators; the decline of Latin literature is the age of the illustrious jurists. Even so, as the great authors and the great artists departed from Italy, she produced her greatest man of science, and a bold school of philosophers arose to challenge the authority to which Dante and Aquinas had bowed. "Philosophy," says Symonds, "took a new point of departure among the Italians, and all the fundamental ideas which have since formed the staple of modern European systems were anticipated by a few obscure thinkers."

The chief representative of physical science, however, was by no means obscure. Galileo Galilei was born in 1564, the year of the death of Michael Angelo. The scientific achievements of this mighty genius do not concern us as such. It must not be forgotten, however, that he was also an accomplished author in the vernacular. His immortal Dialogue (1632), the glory and the shame of his age, is written in Italian, and is enumerated by Italians among exemplars of diction, testi di lingua. What he might have accomplished if he had enjoyed the applause and sympathy which greeted a Newton is difficult to say; but the contrast between the lot of the Master of the Mint and the President of the Royal Society on the one hand, and that of the lonely captive on the other, is not greater than that between the condition of England and that of Italy. It is needless to relate the oft-told story of Galileo, which indeed rather regards the history of science than that of literature. We are only concerned with him as a typical figure, the most eminent victim of the spirit of persecution which deprived Italy of her supremacy among intellectual nations, and which, even before Galileo had excited its hatred, had claimed another victim, less illustrious, but not less interesting.

It is probably owing to the considerable infusion of Greek blood into Naples and Sicily that the inhabitants of these regions, so backward in many respects in comparison with the rest of Italy, have displayed a peculiar genius for philosophical research. Aquinas was a Neapolitan, and in our own day the subtleties of German metaphysics have found a more sympathetic reception and a more ready comprehension in the South than elsewhere in Italy. The four chief Italian thinkers of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries belonged to the kingdom of Naples. Bernardo Telesio (1509–85) has missed the posthumous celebrity of the others by escaping their tragic fate; but his reputation in his own day was greater than theirs. Campanella wept at his tomb, and Bacon calls him the first experimental observer of nature. He led the way in the revolt against the authority of Aristotle which became general in the seventeenth century, and his sensationalism helped to mould the thought of Hobbes and Gassendi.

A fiery martyrdom, a sublimely poetical mind, and an intuition of modern views and discoveries have made Giordano Bruno a more celebrated and interesting figure than Telesio, although too far in advance of his contemporaries and too late recognised by posterity to be influential with either. "The most faithful and pithily condensed abstract of Bruno's philosophy," says Symonds, "is contained in Goethe's poem, Prôömium zu Gott und Welt. Yet this poem expresses Goethe's thought, and it is doubtful whether Goethe had studied Bruno except in the work of his disciple, Spinoza." "Disciple," it may be added, is much too strong a word to express the Hebrew thinker's relation to the Neapolitan. It would be difficult to conceive two men more dissimilar, except in intellectual intrepidity and in love of truth. Spinoza is the closest of reasoners, without a particle of poetry in his composition. Bruno has magnificent divinations, with little reasoning power. If Spinoza did read him, he must have been greatly annoyed by him. On the other hand, the celebrated definition, "A God-intoxicated man," which seems so inappropriate to the intellectual geometer of Amsterdam, absolutely fits the rapt Neapolitan prophet of the essential unity of all things. The same vehemence which we have remarked in Neapolitan men of letters—Pontano, Tansillo, Basile—combines in Bruno with the metaphysical instinct of the race to form a poet-philosopher, as incoherent as if he had just emerged from the Sibyl's cave, but full of the most surprising intuitions, instinct with the germs of modern thought and discovery. His very incoherence seems a claim to reverence; it does not convey the impression of intellectual inadequacy, but rather of an inspired message transcending mortal powers of speech. A chastened taste cannot but be offended by the drollery and burlesque which, like a true Neapolitan, Bruno blends with daring speculation and serious reflection, as well as by his gaudy rhetoric and exaggerated euphuism; yet Symonds is right in observing that "when the real divine œstrum descends upon him the thought is simple, the diction direct; the attitude of mind and the turn of expression are singularly living, surprisingly modern."

Like Galileo, Bruno chose the dialogue as the most convenient form of propagating his opinions, and unlike most contemporary philosophers, claims a place among vernacular writers. In his Spaccio della Bestia Trionfante and his comedy Il Candelaio he is satirical; metaphysically speculative in the Cena delle Ceneri, Delia Causa, and Dell' Infinito Unzverso; but perhaps the most interesting of his works is Gli Eroici Furori, dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney, a dithyramb in prose and verse on the progress of the soul to union with the Divinity. It may be too much to say with the English translator that in this remarkable book the author "lays down the basis for the religion of thought and science"; but it is true that the ordinary ecclesiastical ideals are thrust aside, and progress in truth, knowledge, and justice declared to be the end of man. If many had thought so, none had said it so openly. Bruno, however, never learned to observe, and remained all his life the metaphysician and the poet. Chief among his intuitions, after his perception of the unity of all existence, must be placed his instinctive recognition of the immense evolution which the acceptance of the Copernican theory must effect in religious belief. It is probable that he thus alarmed the priesthood ere he could arouse the laity, and that to him must be ascribed the persecution of Galileo, nearly a century after Copernicus had been permitted to dedicate his treatise to the Pope.

Bruno's own martyrdom had preceded Galileo's; he suffered death in February 1600, after a life of constant flight and exile, which at one time brought him to England, where he lectured at Oxford and became Sidney's friend, and latterly of imprisonment. His fate is a striking illustration of the dismal though inevitable change that had come over the spirit of the ecclesiastical rulers: a Renaissance Pope would probably have protected him. His name long seemed forgotten, and his writings obliterated. Early in the eighteenth century interest in him revived, as is shown by the collection of his works in Lord Sunderland's library. Brucker gave an intelligible digest of his opinions; Schelling avowedly sought inspiration from him; Coleridge names him with Dante and Ariosto as one of the three most representative Italians; and at present, even though he be chiefly efficient through his influence on more disciplined geniuses and more systematic thinkers, the world has hardly a more striking example of the truth, "The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner."

As Bruno is the personification of martyrdom in the cause of philosophical speculation, another Neapolitan philosopher of the age, the Dominican Tommaso Campanella (1568–1639) represents martyrdom for the sake of country. Campanella is not only a less important figure than Bruno, but less sane and practical. With all his extravagance, Bruno is no visionary; if he sometimes appears obscure and confused, the defect is not in the brain, but in the tongue. Campanella, though endowed with profound ideas, was a visionary who based his hopes of delivering his country from the Spanish yoke on predictions of the millennium, to be fulfilled by the advent of the Turks, and was sufficiently paradoxical to dream of a perfect republic in the kingdom of Naples. But this alliance of mental unsoundness with extraordinary intelligence renders him deeply interesting; unlike the frank and candid Bruno, he is one of the problematische Naturen who, as Goethe justly says, perpetually attract mankind. The flower of his life (1599–1625) was spent in prison, and some of it in torture, on account of a conspiracy which, after all the investigations of Signor Amabile, remains in many respects obscure, but which was undoubtedly designed to free Naples from the yoke, not only of Spain, but of Rome.

Released at length, Campanella successively found an asylum at Rome and at Paris, where he died in 1639. As his captivity became milder, he had been permitted to write, and to receive visits from friends, through whom his works found their way to the public. They are mostly of a political character. The chief, De Sensu et Magia Naturali, is a curious blending of philosophy and occultism; another, a defence of Galileo, does him honour, even though he afterwards changed his view; but another, De Monarchia Universalis seeks to revive the mediæval idea of the universal Church and the universal Empire, substituting Spain for Germany. Until the rediscovery of his poems, his literary reputation principally rested upon one of his slightest productions, his City of the Sun, an Utopian picture of a perfect community. It contains a remarkable anticipation of the steamboat: "They possess rafts and triremes which go over the waters without rowers or the force of the wind, but by a marvellous contrivance. And other vessels they have which are moved by the winds."

Campanella's claims as a vernacular writer rest entirely upon his poems, of which there are said to have been seven books. With the exception of some extracted from the documents of his trial by the diligence of Signor Amabile, all that remain are the sonnets printed in Germany by his disciple, Tobias Adami, in 1622, and forgotten until their republication by Orelli, in 1834. But for these pieces we should not know the real Campanella, whom they exhibit in a more favourable light, even as a thinker, than does the brilliant intuition, chequered with gross credulity, of his professedly philosophical writings. Like Michael Angelo's, they are rather hewn than written—the utterances of a powerful intellect and a passionate heart seeking to express themselves through a medium but imperfectly mastered, hence vehement, abrupt, contorted even to the verge of absurdity, but full of substance, and as remote as possible from the polished inanity which is so frequently a reproach to the Italian sonnet. Addington Symonds, wrestling with Campanella as Campanella wrestled with his own language, has produced excellent translations, accompanied by a careful commentary. "That this sonnet," he says of the following, "should have been written by a Dominican monk, in a Neapolitan prison, in the first half of the seventeenth century, is truly noteworthy:"

"The people is a beast of muddy brain
That knows not its own force, and therefore stands
Loaded with wood and stone; the powerless hands
Of a mere child guide it with bit and rein.
One kick would be enough to break the chain;
But the beast fears, and what the child demands
It does; nor its own terror understands,
Confused and stupefied by bugbears vain.
Most wonderful! with its own hand it ties
And gags itself—gives itself death and war
For pence doled out by kings from its own store.
Its own are all things between earth and heaven;
But this it knows not, and if one arise
To tell this truth, it kills him unforgiven."

Some of Campanella's other sonnets are very striking, especially his impassioned remonstrance with the free Swiss for hiring themselves out to Italian despots. His religious pieces are characterised by a devout tone, and an unshakeable reliance upon Providence. His creed, like Bruno's, is pantheistic. The same is the case with another Neapolitan thinker of less importance, Giulio Cesare Vanini (1585–1626), whose misunderstood pantheism caused him to be burned at Toulouse, the most intolerant city in France. His writings are in Latin, but so characteristically Italian in spirit as to deserve the attention of Italian students. Out of many which he composed, only two were printed. The Amphitheatre is, in the opinion of Mr. Owen (Sceptics of the Italian Renaissance), decidedly orthodox, the Dialogues are as decidedly free-thinking, but it is not always quite clear how far the author is speaking in his own person.

While these adventurous speculators were infusing a ferment into the quiescent thought of their day, the edifice of modern jurisprudence was receiving important additions from Alberico Gentili, a Protestant exile, happily in safety at Oxford, whose works, nevertheless, belong rather to moral science than to literature. Much at the same time prose literature was enriched by the ethical prolusions of the most distinguished poet of the age. Though suffering from delusions sometimes amounting to frenzy, Tasso's brain was clear on all subjects to which these delusions did not extend. He could reason powerfully and gracefully on any question of taste or morals, arrange his ideas with symmetry, and support his views with appropriate quotations. The form which he adopted was the dialogue, requiring not only judgment and memory, but an accurate discrimination between the interlocutors, which he always maintains. Even the discourse with his familiar spirit, although composed in the hospital for lunatics, and containing many fantastic notions, is consecutive and rational. It is perhaps the most interesting of any, from its close relation to the writer; although almost as much may be said for the Gonzaga, in which Tasso celebrates the noble conduct of his father in preferring public duty to private interest; and the Paterfamilias, in which he describes a personal adventure. His other dialogues, all models of elegance and urbanity, usually treat of those virtues which enter most especially into the character of a gentleman, and his own bad success at courts does not discourage him from tendering advice to courtiers.

A more powerful intellect if a less accomplished pen than Tasso's forms a connecting link between the science, alike moral and physical, and the historical erudition of the age. Pietro Sarpi (1552–1623) would in our day have been a great natural philosopher; and in fact, notwithstanding his profound knowledge both of theology and canon law, his reputation long principally rested upon his experiments and researches in optics, anatomy, and other natural sciences. Paul the Fifth's aggression upon Sarpi's native Venice in a matter of ecclesiastical jurisdiction summoned the modest friar to public life, and after the triumphant issue of the controversy in which he had borne the chief part, he turned to write the history of the momentous assembly which had so deeply affected the character of the Church of Rome for good and ill—the Council of Trent. As a liberal thinker, whose creed approached without quite attaining the Protestant standpoint, he was naturally hostile to a convocation which had stereotyped so many corruptions; while as an ecclesiastical statesman he was well able to penetrate the worldly motives which had actuated its conveners from first to last. The substantial truth of his view of it is generally admitted; it remains a question how far he has dealt conscientiously with his materials. The equitable Ranke subjects both him and the antagonistic historian, Cardinal Sforza Pallavicino, to a close scrutiny, and finds himself unable to entirely acquit or condemn either of them. Both have frequently displayed a praiseworthy fairness under strong temptation to garble the documents before them, but neither has always resisted the inducement to magnify or minimise evidence in accordance with his prepossessions. Sarpi's main fault is a disposition to interpret every document in the light of his own times, when the pretensions of the Papacy had greatly risen, and its spirit had become more inflexible and despotic. This, however it may detract from the value of his history, was pardonable in one who had taken a leading part in resisting the most arrogant of the Popes, and had been left for dead by assassins, suborned, as generally believed, by the Papal court. As an advocate, Sarpi is far superior to his verbose though often ingenious antagonist; as an historian, Ranke places, him immediately after Machiavelli. As a man, he appears sublimed by study and suffering into an incarnation of pure intellect; passionless except in his zeal for truth and freedom and his devotion to the Republic. "Let us," he nobly said when the Pope hurled his interdict at Venice—"let us be Venetians first and Christians afterwards."

The secular historians of the period are very numerous, but, with the exception of the Latinist Strada, only two have attained a durable celebrity. Enrico Caterino Davila (1576–1631), who had become well acquainted with French affairs by military service in the wars of religion, wrote the history of these contests from 1558 to 1598 "with Venetian sagacity and soldierly brevity." He wants few of the qualifications of an excellent historian, and his history is placed not far below that of Guicciardini, to which, indeed, it is preferred by Macaulay. He is accused, however, of affecting more penetration than he possessed into the secret counsels of princes. Cardinal Guido Bentivoglio's history of the revolt of the Low Countries against the Spaniards (1558–1609) is necessarily defective as coming from the wrong side. Such a history could not be adequately written without sympathy with its heroes and comprehension of the principles involved, neither of which could be expected from a Papal nuncio. Bentivoglio nevertheless writes with reasonable impartiality, and is well informed on the exterior of the transactions he records, though utterly blind to their real significance. His style is most agreeable. His relation of his mission as nuncio, with speculations on the possibility of suppressing the Reformation in England and elsewhere, is perhaps more intrinsically valuable than his history; and his memoirs of his own career at the Papal court, though necessarily worded with great reserve and caution, are both entertaining and instructive. He was born in 1577, and died in conclave in 1644, just as he seemed about to be elected Pope; done to death, Nicius Erythræus affirms, by the snoring of the Cardinal in the next cell, which deprived him of sleep for eleven successive nights.

All the authors we have mentioned, though for the most part writing in the seventeenth century, were born in the sixteenth. The seventeenth century was far advanced towards its close ere it had produced a single prose-writer of literary importance, although some of its numerous penmen were interesting for their characters or the circumstances of their lives. Bartoli's History of the Society of Jesus is badly executed, but important from its subject. Gregorio Leti was the most representative figure, personifying the spirit of revolt against tyranny spiritual and political. Born at Milan in 1630, he emigrated to Geneva, became a Protestant, and, after a roving life, eventually settled at Amsterdam, where he died historiographer of the city in 1701. He had already constituted himself a historiographer and biographer general, writing the lives of kings, princes, and governors, and depicting the rise and fall of states, as fast as bookseller could commission, or printer put into type. Yet he is not a hack writer, but has an individuality of his own, and although his works are devoid of scientific worth, they served a useful purpose in their day by asserting freedom of speech. Their value is in proportion to the degree in which they subserve this purpose; the most important, therefore, are his lives of Sixtus V. and of Innocent the Tenth's rapacious and imperious niece, Olimpia Maldachini. Ranke has clearly shown that the former, which has done more than any other book to determine popular opinion regarding Sixtus, is mainly derived from MS. authorities of little value; which proves that Leti did not invent, but also that he did not discriminate.

Several other writers approached Leti's type, of whom Tomasi, the author of a very uncritical life of Cæsar Borgia, may be taken as a specimen. Two emigrant Italians, Siri and Marana, ministered successfully to the growing appetite for news and political criticism, soon to engender regular journalism; the former by his Mercurio, published irregularly from 1644 to 1682; the latter by his ingenious Turkish Spy. Ferrante Pallavicino enlivened the general dulness by his Divorzio Celeste, a conception worthy of Lucian, though not worked out as Lucian would have wrought it, and other satires which eventually cost him his life. Trajano Boccalini, nearer the commencement of the century, had treated political as well as literary affairs with freedom in his News from Parnassus, in which he professed to impart information respecting transactions in the kingdom of Apollo. The fiction was greatly admired in its day, translated into most European languages, and probably exerted considerable influence upon Quevedo, Swift, and Addison. Boccalini also distinguished himself as a commentator on Tacitus, a writer much studied at this epoch of general gloom and discouragement, and as the author of an exposure of the weakness of the Spanish monarchy, which is said to have occasioned his assassination.

The one writer, however, whom it is possible to admire without qualification, and who has preserved his freshness to our own day, is a traveller, Pietro della Valle, who between 1614 and 1626 explored Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Persia, and part of India. Apart from the prejudices inevitable in his age and country, Della Valle is the model of an observant and sagacious voyager, and the letters in which his observations are recorded form most delightful reading. Later in the century excellent letters on scientific subjects were written by Magalotti and Redi. The illustrious naturalists who in some measure redeemed the intellectual barrenness of the epoch, do not fall within the domain of literary history, which, except for some poets, is one of ever-augmenting inanity and insipidity, culminating in absolute sterility. A second Greece had been enslaved, but this time the fierce conqueror refused to be himself led into captivity. Spain and the Papacy and their victim were equally useless to culture, which would have perished from the earth had it still been confined to the fair land

"Begirt by wall of Alp and azure sea,
And cloven by the ridges Apennine."

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.