A History of Italian Literature/Chapter XXI

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The eighteenth century was a period of recovery for Italy. The ancient lustre of literature, indeed, was but feebly rekindled; and fine art, with the exception of music, which rose to unexampled heights, sank lower and lower. But an invigorating breath pervaded the nation; men wrote and thought in comparative freedom; and if pedantry and frivolity still reigned in many quarters, the sway of outrageous bad taste had departed. Political and spiritual tyranny were still enthroned, and religion and politics could only be handled with great caution; yet reform was more hardy and oppression less assured than of yore. Italy rose slowly from her abasement, like a trodden flower resuming ils erect attitude, bruised but not crushed, feeble but not inanimate, obeying a natural impulse by which she could not fail to right herself in time.

The chief cause of Italian regeneratiojj so far as peculiar to the country, and unconnected with that general movement towards liberty and toleration which, originating in England, was gradually transforming Europe, was the disappearance of the Spanish dominion, which had for two centuries inflicted every political and spiritual evil upon Italy without conferring a single benefit in return. A Spanish dynasty did, indeed, in 1734 re-establish itself in the Two Sicilies, but no longer a dynasty of viceroys; it regarded itselL as Italian, and was served by Italian administrators. Lombardy slumbered under the comparatively benign sway of Austria. There was as yet little patriotic resentment against foreign domination as such; Austria was inert and unaggressive, and Italy's princes and people felt conscious of a great deliverance. It was no time for violent intellectual exercise, but for quiet and gradual revival. The convalescing country could not be expected to vie with the intellectual development of England and France, but her progress was in the same direction. Within the Alps, as beyond them, the age, save in music, was unimaginative. It created little, but brought much to light. Its most potent intellects, the Kants, Lessings, Diderots, Butlers, Humes, were turned towards criticism or moral science. So it was in Italy, where the current of the most powerful thought ran strongly in the direction of history and jurisprudence, state reform and public economy. Vico, Giannone, Beccaria, Filangieri, Genovesi, Galiani are its representatives. Closely allied to these, but devoid of their originality, are the investigators of the past and the critical lawgivers of their own day, the Muratoris, Crescimbenis, Maffeis, Mazzuchellis, and Tiraboschis. Nor must the academical movement be left out of sight, which, if impotent to create good literature, at all events kept its traditions alive. Lastly, the development of music reacted on the lyrical drama, which kindled the other branches of the dramatic art into activity, and for a time made the Italian drama, tragic, comic, and operatic, the most interesting in Europe.

Among the philosophical writers who conferred so much distinction upon Italy in the eighteenth century, the first, both in order of time and of importance, was Giovanni Battista Vico, a Neapolitan (1668–1744). Vico's life was uneventful. He devoted his youth to the study of metaphysics and Roman law, spent some happy years in a tutorship in the country, and, returning to Naples, passed the remainder of his life in a conflict with poverty, deriving most of his income from adulating the great in complimentary verses. A small professorship of rhetoric eked out this precarious means of subsistence, and when the Spanish dynasty supplanted the Austrian in 1734, Charles III. conferred a pension upon him, but the aged philosopher was already sinking into a condition of imbecility. It seems surprising that he should have been able to publish so many important and far from remunerative books.

Vico's fame rests less upon any particular achievement than upon the general impression which he produces as a man greatly in advance of his age. His superiority in almost every branch of investigation except physical science, of which he knew little, arises from his unflinching application of a principle which he was almost the first of moderns to recognise, that man is to be viewed collectively. All individuals, all societies, all sciences, are thus concatenated and regarded as diverse aspects of a single all-comprehending unity. As a metaphysician and a jurist, Vico's claims to attention are very high, but do not properly fall within our scope. They are fully set forth by Professor Flint in his volume on Vico in Blackwood's Philosophical Classics. We can only treat of Vico where he comes into contact with history and literary criticism, as he does very remarkably in his criticisms upon Roman history and upon Homer. His investigations into Roman jurisprudence showed him the untruth of the traditions of the Twelve Tables, and starting from this point, he anticipated almost everything subsequently brought forward by Niebuhr, although from his deficiency in exact philological knowledge his arguments were less conclusive. His scepticism respecting Homer was also the result of speculation; before the ballads of the mediæval period had been compared with the Homeric poems, he pronounced on the internal evidence of the latter, that they must be the work, not of a man, but of a nation. In both departments he may have gone too far, but his views are the divinations of an extraordinary genius. They are intimately connected with his speculations on history which anticipate the general drift of modern thought by tending to put nations into the place of individuals and to represent history as the product of an inevitable sequence of development. These views greatly influenced Herder and Turgot, and, through them, Europe Vico's doctrine of the three stages through which human society passes was used, if it was not plagiarised, by Comte and Schelling.

Another great Neapolitan writer of the age, though working on a much smaller scale than Vico, attracted more notice from contemporaries, inasmuch as Vico seemed to deal merely with abstract things, while Pietro Giannone came into rough contact with vested interests. Giannone, born at Ischitella, in Apulia, May 1676, went to the Neapolitan bar, and made the legal and ecclesiastical history of the kingdom his especial study. In his Civil History of the Kingdom of Naples (1723), the work of twenty years, he demonstrated the illegitimacy of the Papal claims to jurisdiction over Naples, with a learning and research which, now that these claims are no longer heard of, maintain his works in request as one of the highest authorities upon mediæval law. The more ordinary qualities of a historian are not manifested in the same measure, but Giannone's place is something quite apart. The book was received with gratitude and delight by the educated part of the public; but the monks, secretly prompted by the court of Rome, raised an outcry against Giannone as an unbeliever in St. Januarius, and he was compelled to fly the country. He found refuge successively in Vienna, Venice, and Geneva; but having been tempted into Savoy for the purpose of attending the Roman Catholic service, was seized and most iniquitously imprisoned by the King of Sardinia, the King Charles of Browning's drama, until his death in 1748, though he maintained all the time an amicable correspondence with the King and his minister D'Ormea. Notwithstanding the wrongs which he suffered from the house of Savoy, he foresaw and foretold its greatness and service to the nation. He imitated Machiavelli by exhorting the Italians to military discipline, and his principal work is epoch-making as a precursor of the great movement which tended to subject the Church to the civil power in the latter half of the eighteenth century. He also composed the Triregno, a review of the temporal power of the Church in general, which was so effectually sequestrated as to have remained unpublished until 1895. It is not quite complete. Giannone's autobiography, which comes down to a late period of his captivity, was published for the first time in 1891.

Giannone is rather a jurist than an historian, and the writers whose affinity to him is closest are not historians like Denina, but the legists and economists, Beccarai, Filangieri, Genovesi, Galiani. Three of these distinguished men were Neapolitans, a circumstance significant alike of the lively genius of the people, and of the liberality of the government under Charles the Third and his enlightened minister Tanucci. The spirit of the Renaissance seemed to have returned in some measure; but the drift was not now to the classical art and the literature that had effected the spiritual emancipation of the former age, but to new theories of human rights and duties, and to the removal of restrictions from civic action and social intercourse. There probably never was a time since the age of Marcus Aurelius when philosophers attained nearer to royalty than in the age of Frederick and Catherine, and, were not vaster issues at stake than the improvement of human institutions, the same kind of regret might be felt at the French Revolution which some have expressed for the Reformation as a premature movement, destructive of safe and moderate reform.

In truth, however, the human spirit at both epochs needed regeneration; to have perpetuated the eighteenth-century type, admirable as this is in many respects, would have denoted consent to dwell in decencies for ever. Cesare Beccaria (1738–94) and Gaetano Filangieri (175–287) were nevertheless great reformers, who, the former in his Dei Delitti e delle Pene (1763), the latter in his Scienza della Legislazione (1783), contributed greatly to overthrow mediæval notions of justice, and to infuse a humane spirit into legislation, not merely by the abolition of revolting and atrocious penalties, but by proposing the reformation of the criminal as a chief object of the lawgiver. This was the especial mission of Beccaria, who also introduced a very important principle by his clear separation of the legislative and the judicial functions. Filangieri combats in particular the excessive interference of governments, while he foreshadows the logic and simplicity of a universal code in the future, realised in some measure by the Code Napoleon. Antonio Genovesi (1712–69), the first. to show the necessity of Italian unity, besides making important contributions to ethics and metaphysics, expounded freedom of trade and the laws that govern prices, in his Lezioni di Commercio, o sia d'Economia Civile. Free trade in corn had also a powerful champion in the witty Abate Ferdinando Galiani (1728–87), whose most important works, however, were written in French. Galiani adorned the circles of the encyclopaedist philosophers at Paris, whose views on many points he soundly refuted, and who avenged themselves by comparing the explosive little Neapolitan to a pantomime incarnate. His discourse upon trade in corn was speedily translated into Italian, and gave him rank as an Italian classic; the best known of his vernacular writings is probably his humorous account of the alarm created by an eruption of Vesuvius.

After this group of economists—to whom the historian Pietro Verri may be added—should be recorded another of literary historians, eminently useful though not brilliant writers, and consummate men of letters. Of Giovanni Mario Crescimbeni, the historian of Italian poetry, we shall have to speak in mentioning the Arcadian Academy, which he so largely contributed to found and maintain. He may be justly termed a pedant, but neither his book nor himself can be spared from Italian literary history. A much greater name is Lodovico Antonio Muratori (1672–1745), but his imperishable monument was raised not as author but as editor. The publication of twenty-seven folio volumes of mediæval Italian historians displays a man singly equal to many learned societies. No one has stamped his name more deeply on the historical literature of his country than he has done by this publication, by his Antiquitates Italicæ Medii Ævi, and by his Annali from the Christian era to 1749. One of his original writings has an abiding place in literaure, the Della perfetta Poesia, which indicates the high-water mark of good taste at the time of its publication. The affected style of the preceding century was then entirely out of fashion. On the negative side Muratori's taste is almost faultless, and he often manifests great discrimination in the appreciation of exquisite beauties. Unfortunately he is all for the delicate and graceful, and has little feeling for the really great, of which the Italy of the eighteenth century saw hardly so much as the counterfeit until, late in the secular period, Cesarotti produced his version of Ossian. Muratori venerates Dante rather than admired him; like Confucius, he respects the gods, but keeps them at a distance.

The learning and industry of Muratori were almost rivalled by Marquis Scipione Maffei (1675–1755), the sovereign of contemporary Italian, almost of European archæologists, author of the famous tragedy of Merope and of the equally famed Verona Illustrata; and by Count Giovanni Maria Mazzuchelli (1707–65), who should have been the biographer-general of Italian men of letters, but who began his work on too large a scale for completion. Girolamo Tiraboschi (1731–94), librarian of the Duke of Modena, is the standard Italian literary historian. His great work has immortalised his name: it will nevertheless disappoint those who resort to it in the expectation of encountering a history on the modern plan. It is not, strictly speaking, so much a history of literature as a history of learning. The fortunes of schools and universities, the rise and decay of particular branches of study, are narrated very fully, while there is little literary criticism, and the lives of great men are recounted with astonishing brevity, except when some personal or intellectual circumstance regarding them has become the theme of erudite controversy, when the incident overshadows the life. One of the most potent literary influences of the age was the Giornale de' Letterati, founded early in the century by Apostolo Zeno, which long served as a rallying-point for Italian literary men.

The number of historical works published in Italy during the eighteenth century was considerable, but they are chiefly monographs on local history, and, unless Verri's history of Lombardy be an exception, none gained the author the character of a philosophical historian save Carlo Denina's Rivoluzioni d' Italia (1768–72), a work so superior to the writer's other performances that it has been doubted whether he really wrote it. A valuable history of another description was produced by the ex-Jesuit Luigi Lanzi (1732–1811), also celebrated as an Etruscan scholar, in his Storia Pittorica dell' Italia, long ago superseded by more accurate research, but excellent for the time. Art criticism was promoted by Francesco Algarotti (1712–1764), chamberlain and friend of Frederick the Great, Carlyle's "young Venetian gentleman of elegance in dusky skin and very white linen," a most voluminous writer, "who," says the unmusical Carlyle, "took up the opera in earnest manner as capable of being a school of virtue and the moral sublime," but whose chief title to fame is rather his popular exposition of the physics of Newton, a modest but meritorious service. Two miscellaneous writers deserve considerable attention. One is Giuseppe Baretti (1719–86), "a wonderful, wild, coarse, tender, angry creature," says Vernon Lee; endeared to Englishmen as the friend of Johnson and of Reynolds, and the imitator of the Spectator in his Frusta Litteraria, although an Ishmael whose hand was against every contemporary, and who carried personality to lengths which Addison would have highly disapproved. The most entertaining of his writings are his lively letters from Spain and Portugal. The other is Gaspare Gozzi (1715–86), brother of the famous dramatist, who also imitated the Spectator in a periodical, wrote excellent stories in prose and verse, and rendered a durable service to literature by his defence of Dante against the aspersions of Bettinelli, preluding the Dantesque revival of the next century.

Contemporaneously with this development of moral and economical science, another active movement went on which created far more agitation among Italian literati, and which, if it scarcely enriched the national literature with a single work of merit, at all events kept up the tradition of poetry. This was the universal itch for rhyming which seized upon the nation about the beginning of the eighteenth century, and dates from the foundation of the Arcadian Academy in 1692. This epoch-making event is related with unsurpassable verve in the brilliant pages of Vernon Lee, who rekindles for us the chief lights of the institution and the time: the frigid and sardonic, but really illustrious jurist Gravina, instructor of Montesquieu and of the Academy; the uncouth pedant but excellent administrator Crescimbeni, whose history of Italian poetry is a more valuable book than Vernon Lee allows; the fluent versifiers, not without gleams of a genuine poetical vein, Rolli and Frugoni; the marvellous improvisatore Perfetti, a sounding brass, but no tinkling cymbal, who actually received in the Capitol the crown awarded to Petrarch and designed for Tasso,

The seriousness with which these Alfesibeo Caries and Opico Erimanteos took themselves, their crooks and their wigs, is astonishing. But they got accepted at their own valuation, and none disputed their claims as the sovereign arbiters of elegant literature until, about 1760, Giuseppe Baretti arose to demonstrate that, as shepherds, they must be the representatives of the ancient Scythians. Settembrini in our own day rather opines that they were created by the Jesuits, just as the Cobbett of the Rejected Addresses denounces "the gewgaw fetters of rhyme, invented by the monks in the Middle Ages to enslave the people." Every city in Italy had its offshoot of the Arcadia; every member did something to approve his literary taste, were it but one of the hundred and fifty elegies, in all manner of languages, on the decease of Signor Balestrieri's cat (1741). The result was a deluge of insipid verse, preferable at any rate to the extravagance of the preceding century.

Two Arcadians alone evinced real poetical talent, the two Zappis of Imola. Felice Zappi wrought on a small scale, but with exquisite perfection. His sonnets, madrigals, and lyrical trifles generally are among the very choicest examples of Italian minor poetry for elegance, esprity and melody. It is true that he exposed himself to the merciless ridicule of Baretti by dreaming that he stood upon his hind legs and barked madrigals in the character of his lady's lap-dog, but this lapse ought not to count against his genuine merits. His wife, Faustina, formerly Maratti, is more ambitious but less consummate. Her writings are nevertheless always estimable, and one sonnet is remarkable for an energy and vehemence sped straight from the heart:

"Lady, on whom my Lord was wont to gaze
Complacent so, that oft unto mine ear
Of thy abundant tress and aspect clear
And silvery speech he yet resounds the praise;
Tell me, when thou to him discourse didst raisen
Seemed he, immersed in musing, not to hear?
Or, as to me may chance, did look austere,
And moody frown his countenance deface?
Time was, I know, when passionate and weak
Thy fair eyes found him, and I know that, till—
But ah! what blushes mantle on thy cheek!
Thy glance declines to earth, thy eyelids thrill!
Answer, I pray thee—no! hush! never speak
If thou wouldst tell me that he loves thee still!"

All the minor Italian versifiers were speedily eclipsed by the genius of Metastasio, whose place, however, is with dramatic poets. But for him, the eighteenth century wore away without producing a poet of great mark, until, in 1763, Italy was startled by the appearance of the Mattina, the first part of the Giorno of Giuseppe Parini. Parini is particularly interesting as the first eminent Italian poet who shows decided traces of English influence. The plan of his poem is taken from Thomson, the spirit is the spirit of Pope; the net result is much such a poem as Cowper might have written had he been an Italian. Just as Thomson in his Seasons depicts the entire course of Nature from four points of view, so Parini in his Giorno delineates the useless life of a frivolous young Italian of quality by exhibiting the occupations of his morning, afternoon, evening, and night. The spirit is that of Pope's satires, but Parini, composing in blank verse, has been led into a style more nearly resembling that of Young, although he has little of the sententious abruptness of the Night Thoughts or of their fatiguing glitter: the four poems are perfect wholes, gliding from theme to theme by the most ingenious and delicate transitions, and replete with charming episodes; the diction is exquisite, and the blank verse the best that Italy had then seen. The work is invaluable as a picture of manners, and a masterpiece of delicate polished satire; the jeunesse dorée of Milan is or ought to be made thoroughly ashamed of the vapidity of its existence, but every phrase is urbane, and all the ridicule dainty and ironical. The subject is hardly susceptible of high poetry, but Parini has adorned it as only a poet could. The composition of the remaining three parts occupied him for many years, and the last two are not quite complete. His minor pieces reveal the same remarkable power as the Giorno of elevating trifling circumstances into the region of poetry. One sonnet especially is worthy of the Greek Anthology in finish and charm of invention:

"Benignant Sleep, that on soft pinion sped
Dost wing through darkling night thy noiseless way,
And fleeting multitudes of dreams display
To weariness reposed on quiet bed:

Go where my Phillis doth her gentle head
And blooming cheek on peaceful pillow lay,
And while the body sleeps, the soul affray
With dismal shape from thy enchantment bred.
So like unto mine own that form be made,
Pallor so dim disfiguring its face,
That she may waken by compassion swayed
If this thou wilt accomplish of thy grace,
A double wreath of poppies I will braid,
And silently upon thine altar place."

Parini, "a poor sickly priest," led an uneventful life in Milan until the overthrow of Austrian rule by the French invasion, when he came forward prominently in public affairs, and earned credit by his good sense and moderation. He died in 1799, aged seventy. He was a high-minded man of austere morality.

Another poet of the eighteenth century deserves no less fame than Parini, but has remained comparatively unknown from having written in dialect. It is his compensation to be as decidedly at the head of the Sicilian lyrists as Petrarch is at the head of the Tuscan; nor is Sicilian in any degree a rude or barbarous idiom. Schools of Sicilian poetry existed in the thirteenth, and again in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but all previous celebrities were eclipsed by the brilliant achievements of Giovanni Meli (1740–1815). Meli can hardly be paralleled either with Burns or with our English Theocritus, William Barnes, for he possesses neither Burns's tragic pathos and withering satire, nor Barnes's power of realistic description. But he rivals Burns in simplicity and melody, and is capable of much loftier lyric flights than Barnes; and if his satire does not brand or scathe, it smiles and sparkles with genial humour. The lightness, ease, and grace of his songs cannot be exceeded; his pastorals are worthy of a countryman of Theocritus; and his mock-heroics, Don Quixote, and the Origin of the World, though evincing less of poetical inspiration, are effluences of genuine humour. His employment of the Sicilian dialect was highly favourable to his genius by exempting him from all obligation to write with academical constraint. It is most interesting to find Wordsworth's plea for a return to nature anticipated by a Sicilian of the generally stiff and affected eighteenth century. One of the most marked features of his poetry is its lively and dramatic character, arising from the close observation of national types, apparently just as they were observed by the ancient writers of Sicilian mimes, Sophron and Epicharmus. "As in antiquity," says Paul Heyse, "so at this day, idyll, song, and mime are the species of poetical composition allotted as the Sicilian heritage." Meli represented the national genius to perfection. His life was uneventful. He is represented as an amiable, sensible, unassuming man, as much of a Bacchus as consistent with sobriety, and as much of an Anacreon as comported with an utter ignorance of Greek, an abate of the old school, attached, but not in a perverse or bigoted manner, to the ancient social order, which, by the aid of British ships and troops, maintained itself better in Sicily than elsewhere in Italy.

The licentious poems of the Abate Giovanni Battista Casti (1721–1803) deserve attention from their influence on Byron's Don Juan, and also from the veiled political character of many of them. Casti, an accomplished traveller and acquainted with many distinguished men, belongs, like Talleyrand, both to the old time and to the new. Attached by habit and taste to the polished and frivolous society of the ancient regime, his sympathies were nevertheless liberal. He satirised Catherine the Second, and when exiled from Vienna on that account, had the spirit to resign his Austrian pension. The Animali Parlanti, a satire upon the rule of the stronger in political life, and thus an interesting revival of the old conception of Reynard the Fox, is his best work.

It is remarkable that the age of Richardson and Fielding in England, and Marivaux and Prevost d'Exiles in France, should have produced no novelist of reputation in Italy. The imitation of even such world-famed books as the Nouvelle Héloise and Werther was reserved for a later generation. One romancer acquired some celebrity—Count Alessandro Verri (1741–1816), who hit upon, or borrowed from Wieland, the idea of resorting for his themes to antiquity. His Notti Romane, Saffo, and Erostrato are all works of merit, and the first-named was probably not without influence upon Landor.

On the whole, the history of the Italy of the eighteenth century is in most departments, intellectual and political, that of a patient recovering from a formidable malady by slow but certain stages. Much is lost, never to return. The relation of Italy to the rest of Europe is no longer that of Athens to Sparta or Bœotia, as in the sixteenth century; but neither, as in the seventeenth, is she estranged from the general current of European thought. Her intellectual position may be read in the very portraits of her eminent men, who in general display the placid eighteenth-century type, and might as well have been Frenchmen or Englishmen as Italians. They were writers of signal merit and utility, but, Vico excepted, not men of creative genius, and the national mind might easily have degenerated into mediocrity but for the tremendous convulsions of the end of the century. In one province, however, she stood apart and supreme during nearly the whole of the age—the drama, with or without musical accompaniment, which must form the subject of our next chapter.

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