A History of Italian Literature/Chapter XXV

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Literature, as a rule, must ever be on the side of liberty, for one conclusive reason among others—that liberty is the life of literature. Hence every man of letters is instinctively a partisan of freedom; and even should his political or religious opinions drive him to support a tyranny by which these are protected, or should he be willing to acquiesce in a despotism which maintains peace and encourages art, he must yet disapprove of restraint upon his own productiveness, and this inevitable concession implies all the rest. Poetry—and the remark may in its measure be extended to every department of intellectual labour implying creation or even construction—has been well said to represent the best and happiest moments of the best and happiest tninds, a virtue and felicity to be understood as referring solely to the intellectual sphere. That is, there is no activity so pleasurable as production, or, by consequence, anything so intolerable as restraint.

The history of European literature for the half-century following the fall of Napoleon is, therefore, in the main, that of a force enlisted to contend with the Governments and the various sinister interests which strove to ignore the Revolution and restore the state of affairs which had existed in the eighteenth century. Many illustrious authors, no doubt, especially in England, more or less favoured this tendency, but their literary practice was commonly inconsistent with their political principles. Scott, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Chateaubriand, might be reactionary as politicians, but in the literary sphere they were innovators and iconoclasts. The study of their writings could not but engender a habit of mind entirely inconsistent with the deference to authority required for the perpetuation of the ancient regime in State and Church. No man, for example, more sincerely deplored the tendencies of his times than Niebuhr, but he should have thought of them before he meddled with the history of Rome. By proving its legendary character, he had done more to unsettle allegiance to tradition than could have been accomplished by the wit and malice of a hundred Heines. We are thus justified in regarding the literature of the nineteenth century as in the main a great liberating force, and in the long-run favourable to sound conservatism also, since it aimed at procuring that liberty for the human spirit without which renovation was as impossible as demolition.

If there was any country in Europe where literature might be expected to be unequivocally on the side of Liberty, it was Italy; for Italy alone had to reckon with foreign as well as domestic oppressors. In fact, the general tendency of Italian literature during the period under review is more uniformly liberal than that of any other; but at the same time its expression is more restrained than that of any other, for the conclusive reason that an Italian writer could only obtain liberty of speech at the price of exile. Love of country is, nevertheless, the dominant thought, which colours it throughout as the soil colours the flower. The men of greatest genius and most prominent association with the national movement have been treated of in previous chapters, but the host of distinguished if less illustrious authors who must be briefly reviewed in this, was not less animated with patriotic feeling, and this pervading spirit imparts to the Italian literature of the period unity and dignity, and entitles it to a higher place in the general history of literature than could have been procured for it by the mere ability of its representatives.

One apparent exception to this generally liberal and patriotic tendency is not really an exception. The New Catholic reaction which was a necessary consequence of the Revolution, whatever it may have been among the priesthood and the less cultivated classes, was neither illiberal nor unpatriotic among men of letters. Many of the most eminent of these were fervent Catholics, and as such felt themselves in a strait between the claims of religion and of country. As the head of the Church, the Pope was entitled to the profoundest veneration, but as temporal prince, he was as much supported by Austrian bayonets as any of the rest. Could he be promoted from this undignified position to that of spiritual King of Italy by the union of all Italian states into a confederacy under his auspices? This project, if Utopian, was yet natural, generous, and in no respect inconsistent with true patriotic feeling. It broke down from the demonstration furnished by the course of events of the incompatibility of Italian confederacy with Italian unity, but, by the exertions of its opponents, no less than those of its supporters, it left deep traces upon literature.

This idea was the especial property of Vincenzo Gioberti, already mentioned among the men to whom Italian regeneration owes most. Its very fallacy was a powerful aid to the popular cause, for it conciliated many who would have shrunk from openly assailing the Pope's secular authority, while at the same time it was not so obviously unsound as to be incapable of being maintained in good faith until refuted by the course of events. Although, nevertheless, Gioberti's essay on Italy's spiritual and intellectual primacy is the most important of his works, it almost disappears in the mass of the remainder, treating for the most part of rehgioir, or of moral or speculative philosophy. Among them was a violent attack on the writings of the most eminent Italian philosopher of the age, Antonio Rosmini-Serbati (1797–1855), who in turn accused Gioberti of pantheism. The great purpose of Rosmini's philosophy may be defined to be the perfecting of St. Thomas Aquinas's system by expelling the element it had derived from Aristotle, which in Rosmini's view led direct to pantheism and materialism. He laboured hard at this object all his life, but died before his work was done. It says much for his genius that one so encumbered with childish ultramontane notions should have won the acknowledged rank he holds among the first philosophical thinkers. He is equally well known as the founder of a religious Order, the constant antagonist of the Jesuits, and the author of the Five Wounds of the Church, an appeal for reform whose honest frankness was used by his enemies to deprive him of the cardinal's hat that had been promised him. His Order still flourishes, his system is still potent, and his memory, honoured everywhere, is almost adored in his native place, Roveredo in the Italian Tyrol.

Another philosopher influential on Italian thought was Giovanni Domenico Romagnosi (1761–1835), whose importance chiefly consists in his application of philosophy to legal and political science, and his clear prevision of the coming deliverance of Italy.

No Italian of his age, perhaps, was more thoroughly admirable in every respect than Terenzio Mamiani (1799–1885), an approved patriot, a wise statesman, a sound and sober thinker in religion and philosophy, an elegant poet, and a man excellent in every relation of life. With more angularity of character, he would, perhaps, have possessed more creative force, and impressed him self more powerfully on the imagination. The dignified eloquence of his meditative poetry, usually in blank verse, and of his discourses, political or academical, is often very impressive, but the form seems more remarkable than the substance. Like most of the best Italians of his day, he spent his youth in exile, his prime in office, and his old age in study and composition. A good selection from his voluminous writings has been published with a memoir by Giovanni Mestica, the editor of Petrarch.

A connecting link between the thinkers and the historians is formed by Giuseppe Ferrari (1812–1872). A disciple of Romagnosi, he imported abstract ideas into his survey of the revolutions of Italy since the downfall of the Roman Empire—a very readable if not always a very convincing book. Ferrari was also a distinguished publicist, and an indefatigable pamphleteer in the cause of his country.

History has been extensively cultivated in Italy during the nineteenth century; and although many histories were but popular compendiums, or magnified party pamphlets, or mere mémoires pour servir, others have gained for the writers honourable rank among first-class historians. The most extensive in scale and imposing in subject are histories by Carlo Botta (1766–1837) of the American War of Independence and of Italy from 1789 to 1814. The former is the best history of the subject out of the United States; the latter, though taxed with partiality, is a great and invaluable work. His continuation of Guicciardini is of less account. Botta's style is severe and dignified; too archaic in diction, and occasionally deficient in flexibility, but he always writes with the consciousness of his mission which becomes the historian. He was a determined enemy of the romantic school. A Piedmontese by birth, he had been concerned in the disturbances of the early revolutionary period, and had made several campaigns in the capacity of an army surgeon. Become temporarily a Frenchman by the annexation of Piedmont to France, he had held office under Napoleon, whom he displeased by his frankness. After Napoleon's fall he lived chiefly in France. Though always a patriot as regarded the independence of Italy, the melancholy deceptions of revolutionary times led him at last to deem his countrymen only fit for an enlightened despotism.

A stancher liberal was Pietro Colletta (1770–1831) and an even more eminent historian. A Neapolitan officer of engineers, he served under Murat, but was, nevertheless, maintained in his rank by the restored Bourbons. He was Minister of War under the Constitutional Government of 1820, and after its overthrow was for some time imprisoned at Brunn in Austria, where his health suffered greatly. Upon his release he settled at Florence, and devoted himself to writing the history of Naples from the accession of the Bourbon dynasty in 1734 up to 1825. He was wholly inexperienced as an author, but succeeded in imparting classic form to his work by dint of infinite labour and careful imitation of Tacitus, for which the imperious brevity natural to him, intensified by the habits of military life, admirably qualified him. His work is one of the most marrowy and sinewy of histories, and is especially valuable where he speaks as an eye-witness. It deals fully with financial and economical as well as political and military affairs.

Another excellent historian has been almost lost to Italy by the circumstances attending the publication of his book, Giovanni Battista Testa, an exile in England, published in 1853 his history of the Lombard League, at Doncaster, a place better affected to the horse of Neptune than to the olive of Pallas, and, thus producing invita Minerva, has been almost ignored. In fact, he is an admirable historian, lucid and delightful in his narrative, and his style is so fashioned upon the purest models, that he might seem to have come straight out of the sixteenth century. This might be reprehended as affectation, but the objection, if in any respect well founded, has no application to the excellent English version (1877), a book which cannot be too strongly recommended to historians desirous of acquiring the pregnant brevity so essential in this age of multiplication of books to all who would catch and retain the ear of posterity.

The friend and biographer of Manzoni, and imitator of his style in a successful novel, Margherita Pusterla, Cesare Cantù was a long-lived and industrious, and consequently a voluminous author. His position is well marked as almost the only considerable writer of his time who favoured political and ecclesiastical reaction, and the resulting unpopularity has led him to be unjustly depreciated as a man of letters; he is always interesting, always individual, and his principal works, the History of Italy from 1750 to 1850 and his History of Italian Heretics, though disfigured by party spirit, are important books. The latter is still the standard authority on the subject, though it will hardly be allowed to continue so.

An unique position among Italian historians is occupied by Michele Amari (1805–89), the Orientalist and national historian of Sicily. Detesting the Neapolitan oppression of his native island, he took up the investigation of the Sicilian Vespers, and depicted this great event as not the consequence of a conspiracy subtly organised by John of Procida, but as a spontaneous uprising against intolerable oppression. The allusion did not escape the Neapolitan Government, and Amari found it expedient to withdraw to Paris, where he studied Arabic as a preparation for his yet more important History of Sicily under Moslem Dominion, published between 1854 and 1872. In the interim he had taken part in the Sicilian insurrection, and after the final expulsion of the Bourbons, was successively Minister of Public Instruction and professor of Arabic at Florence, continuing to write and edit books on his favourite subjects. No historian has a higher reputation for erudition and sagacity.

Giuseppe Micali (1780–1844) devoted himself to a subject even more difficult than Amari's, and one incapable of an authoritative solution of its numberless problems. His Storia degli Antichi Popoli Italiani is nevertheless a highly important work, which exploded much error, if it did not establish much truth.

A Neapolitan, Carlo Troya (1784–1858) was to have written the History of Italy in the Middle Ages from 476 to 1321; which by his method of working might have required forty volumes, but he only arrived at Charlemagne and only filled sixteen. The book is, as Settembrini remarks, a thesaurus rather than a history, but cannot be opened without encountering valuable information and judicious criticism. Troya loved the Middle Age without idolising it; his liberal opinions, much against his will, made the indefatigable bookworm a Minister under one of the ephemeral Neapolitan constitutions, and there was sense as well as wit in the reply of the restored Ferdinand when advised to arrest him: "No! leave him in the Middle Ages!"

Three distinguished statesmen of the nineteenth century, Cesare Balbo, Gino Capponi, and Luigi Carlo Farini, respectively wrote histories of much worth; Balbo an abridged history of Italy, and Capponi one of the Florentine republic, while Farini chronicled the transactions of the States of the Church from 1814 to 1850, Farini's is the most important and authoritative of these works, as he has made the field entirely his own. Balbo and Capponi, however, patricians and men of wealth, did even more for historical studies by their encouragement and pecuniary assistance than by their own writings. The great Ministers, Cavour, Ricasoli, and Minghetti claim a place in literary history as orators and pamphleteers.

For some reason difficult to understand, biography has not of late flourished in Italy. No country is so much overrun with little ephemeral memoirs of little ephemeral people, and there are many extremely valuable studies of particular episodes in the lives of celebrated men, of scientific rather than literary merit. The very important works of Villari, Pasolini, and Solerti belong to a later period than that now under review, which possesses only two biographies of decided literary pretensions, both autobiographic.

So important was the public career of Massimo d'Azeglio (1798–1866), a fervent patriot, but also a prudent statesman, for nobility of character second to no contemporary, that his memoirs might have been expected to have been very serious. On the contrary, they are eminently lively and gay, in part, perhaps, from their terminating at the beginning of 1846, before the author's heaviest cares had come upon him, Giuseppe Montanelli (1813–62), one of the triumvirs in the inauspicious Tuscan revolution of 1849, though equally honest, was entirely deficient in the ballast that steadied D'Azeglio. But his very levity and inconstancy lend vivacity to his memoirs of the Tuscan affairs of his time, and the paradoxes of his character, faithfully depicted by himself, make a striking and memorable portrait. His style is unequal, but excellent when at its best.

Niccolo Tommaseo, a Dalmatian (1802–74) forms a connecting link between history and belles-lettres. With marvellous versatility he essayed history, politics, moral and speculative philosophy, biography, philology, criticism and poetry, distinguishing himself in all without producing great or enduring work in any. His greatest distinction, perhaps, was attained as an Italian grammarian and lexicographer; but as a critic he wielded great authority, and powerfully contributed to the development of literature. He was essentially the man of his own times, and seemed to resume their various aspects in himself, a sound Catholic and an ardent liberal; a classicist and a romanticist; a conservative and an innovator; impetuous yet moderate in his aims; frequently inconsistent with himself, yet ever controlled by an austere sense of duty; a fine and even brilliant writer, who yet could achieve no durable work. His account of his exile at Corfu, nevertheless, deserves to live for its style, although the theme is insufficient. Tommaseo was a man of marked character, disinterested, independent and impracticable; rejecting the public honours which he had well earned by his share in the defence of Venice, he spent his later years at Florence, where, although totally blind, he worked indomitably to the last. He should be endeared to England as the author of the fine inscription placed upon the house of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

The history of Italian poetry during the post-Napoleonic era, after deducting the great names of Leopardi and Giusti, is in the main the history of the romantic school. It has been remarked that this school is not congenial to the Italian genius, and that its temporary prevalence could only occur through the decay of the classical tradition and the inevitable reaction from the excesses of the Revolution. It was further prejudiced in Italian eyes by the ecclesiastical colouring which it could not help assuming. Most of the literary youth of Italy, though they might not be bad Catholics, were still better patriots, and although their compositions might be influenced by Scott and Goethe, were utterly averse to the mediaeval development which the romantic idea was receiving in France and Germany. This was particularly the case with the first poet of eminence who imbibed romantic feeling from Manzoni and broke entirely with the already attenuated classicism of Monti and Foscolo. Giovanni Berchet (1783–1851), although of French descent, was a devoted Italian patriot, whose first works of importance were published in London, where he had been obliged to seek refuge. He began by denouncing the conduct of the English Government towards the people of Parga, and followed this up by a succession of stirring ballads, mostly of patriotic tendency, and a longer poem, Fantasie, a vision of the past glories of the Lombard League. In style these poems resemble the romantic poetry of Germany and England, without a vestige of classical influence, but also with no trace of the worship of the past, except as an example to the present, or anything of the mystic spirit of genuine romanticism. Well timed as they were, their effect was extraordinary; but whether antique of contemporary in subject, they were essentially poems of the day, and such poetry cannot continue to be read unless it attains the level of Manzoni's ode on the death of Napoleon and Tennyson's on the death of Wellington. This Berchet knew. "My aim was not," he said on one occasion, "to write a fine poem, but to perform a fine action." His style is consequently defective; his poetry was not written to be criticised, but to inspire and inflame, and fully answered its purpose. "He has found," says Settembrini, "all the maledictions that can possibly be hurled against the foreigner." Upon Charles Albert's conversion to the national cause, Berchet returned to Italy, and died a member of the Sardinian Parliament, universally honoured and beloved, nor will his countrymen forget him.

"Accursed," adds Settembrini, "be the Italian who forgets Gabriele Rossetti." Rossetti (1785–1854) assuredly will not be forgotten by England, for which he has done what no other inhabitant of these isles ever did in begetting two great poets. His claims to the gratitude of his countrymen are of quite another sort, resting chiefly upon the spirit and fluency of his political poems, which helped to keep the flame of patriotism alive at home, while the exiled author was teaching Italian at King's College. His life is well known as an appendage to the biography of his more celebrated son. It is one of the most interesting speculations imaginable what kind of poetry Dante Gabriel Rossetti would have written if he had been born and brought up in Italy; certain it is that no prefigurement of his singular alliance of purity and transparency of feeling with intricacy of thought and opulence of illustration, or of his objectivity and marvellous pictorial gift, is to be found in his father's simple, natural, rather overfluent verse. The elder Rossetti may, nevertheless, be ranked among the poets of the romantic school; and a similar place belongs to the amiable Luigi Carrer (1801–53) on account of his ballads, the most successful of his works. Francesco dall' Ongaro, a good lyric poet in other departments, applied the popular stornello to the purposes of patriotic poetry with eminent success.

Two poets of more importance enjoyed for a time great renown, but their reputation, without becoming extinct, has considerably declined. Giovanni Prati (1815–54), a native of the Italian Tyrol, gained great reputation in 1841 by a narrative poem in blank verse, Edmenegarda, founded upon a tragic event in the family of the great Venetian patriot Daniele Manin. It is a poor apology for adultery, but in sentimentality, though not in morality, belongs to the school of Lamartine, whose Jocelyn was then at the meridian of its celebrity. In consequence, notwithstanding much real poetical merit, it bears that fatal impress of the boudoir which disfigures so much of the best pictorial as well as poetical work of the time. Its success encouraged Prati to produce several volumes of lyrics, spirited, melodious, but too fluent. His facility, like Monti's, approached the faculty of improvisation, but Monti's tawny torrent has shrunk in Prati into a silver rill, equally swift but by no means equally majestic. He is nevertheless a poet, and in a particular manner the poet of the brief interval of hope and joy which accompanied the uprising of 1848. The national feeling of the time remains embodied in these verses, the most permanently valuable of his writings; for the more imaginative and ambitious productions of his later years, such as Satana e le Grazie or Armando, though interesting, belong to the fundamentally unsound genre of adaptation from Faust.

Another poet once in the enjoyment of a popularity which he has failed to retain is Aleardo Aleardi (1812–78). He has too much elegance and feeling to be forgotten, but wants force; his general attitude seems not inaccurately indicated in his own description of his heroine Arnalda da Roca as she appeared in the act of blowing up a shipload of Turks:

"Placidamente fulminò la palla."

The expression is rarely at the height of the sentiment to be expressed. If this can be overlooked, the reader who does not wish his emotions to run away with him may find much to admire in the languid grace of the poems, generally descriptive, didactic or idyllic, which form the most important part of Aleardi's work. It is rather a reproach than an honour to his patriotic lyrics that their strong point should be not eloquence but description, which is always excellent.

The reputation of the good priest and good patriot, Giacomo Zanella (1820–89), has, on the contrary, gone on increasing, and with justice, for his verse is usually at the level of his thought, and his thought, if more frequently graceful than striking, sometimes attains a commanding elevation, as in his odes to Dante and on the opening of the Suez Canal. His Psyche and Egoism and Charity are clearly and exquisitely cut as Greek gems. Zanella's speciality, however, is his effort to ally science with poetry, and though he cannot always prevail upon them to shake hands, one of his lyrics of this character, The Vigil, a meditation upon Evolution from a theologian's point of view, is perhaps his masterpiece. Another very striking poem is the colloquy between Milton and Galileo, in which Galileo's dread of the sceptical tendency of the science to which he has imparted such an impulse is represented as determining Milton "to justify the ways of God to man." Zanella, a native of the Vicenzan district, was a gentle, tender, melancholy man, not unlike Cowper, and his reason, under the stress of domestic affliction, at one time seemed in danger of suffering the same eclipse. Recovering, he forsook the career of college professor for a cottage near Vicenza, where:

"Dopo sparsi al vento
Tanti sogni superbi e tanto foco
Di poesia dagl' anni inerti spento,
Voluntario romito in questo loco,
Trapochi arbori e fior vivo contento."

This retirement, nevertheless, produced some of Zanella's most delicate poetry, comprised in his dainty little volume Astichello ed altre Poesie, not yet included in his works. One of the most beautiful of his poems, The Redbreast (Il Pettirostro), marvellously resembles the idylls of Coleridge, with whose works Zanella betrays his acquaintance. Charming, also, are the sonnets celebrating the various aspects of the local river, the little Astichello, such as this upon the sympathy between man and Nature in time of drought, a "pathetic fallacy," perhaps, but none the worse for that:—

"Shrunk to a thread, the dwindling waters stray
Where Astichello 'neath the poplar flows
With languid tide that scarce avails to sway
The moss that nigh the midmost channel grows,

Sirius the while, ablaze with fiery ray,
Above the unsheltered meadow throbs and glows;
And all the blithe fecundity of May
One withering waste of dismal yellow shows.
The peasant groans despair, and shakes his head;
The friendly stream, munificent no more,
Barred from the brink it lately overran,
Like rustic met with rustic to deplore
The common ill, wails feebly from its bed,
Mingling its music with the plaint of man."

Zanella might have applied to himself the proud humility of Musset, Mon verre n'est pas grand, mais je bois dans mon verre. His modest strain was independent of traditional or contemporary influence. The other poets of the time are more historically significant as representing the decadence of the romantic school. A new development was urgently required to make good its exhausted vitality. The problem was solved much in the same way as that of the renovation of the operatic stage, left void by the once brilliant but now moribund school of Rossini, save that in that instance the evening star of the old dispensation was also the morning star of the new. No such Janus-Verdi arose upon poetry, but the man for the occasion was found in the principal figure of our next chapter, Giosuè Carducci.

The drama of the period has only one eminent representative, Pietro Cossa (1830–80), and his works, strictly speaking, fall somewhat later. Cossa, though fine both in versification and rhetoric, is essentially more of a playwright than of a poet, but half redeems his deficiencies by a quality not too common on the tragic stage of our day, masculine strength. Almost every scene is powerful, the action rarely halts or lingers, there is never any room for doubt as to the author's intention, and the language is energetic without bombast. Cossa's shortcomings are mainly in the higher region of art. He has little creative power, and although he is occasionally felicitous in the invention of a minor character, he rarely ventures to travel beyond the record in the delineation of the historical personages who form the most important portion of his dramatic flock. There is no penetration, no subtlety, nothing to manifest endowment with any insight beyond the ordinary. As conventional representations, however, Cossa's characters are brilliant, and he may even be accused of excess in the accumulation of historical traits, as though he could not bear to part with an anecdote. Nero, Messalina, Cola di Rienzo, The Borgias, Cleopatra, Julian the Apostate are among the most remarkable of his numerous historical tragedies; if not great plays or dramatic poems, they are, at all events, very splendid historical masquerades. There is more originality in his one comedy, Plautus and his Age, a lively picture of Roman society in Plautus's time.

The period immediately preceding the establishment of Italian unity brought forth many novels, mostly of the Manzonian school. The most important of these have been already mentioned, Francesco Domenico Guerazzi (1804–73), of infelicitous memory as a politician, had sufficient force as an historical novelist to deviate from the Manzonian model, and to obtain for a while an European reputation with his Battle of Benevento, Siege of Florence, and Pasquale Paoli. He was a man of powerful but unregulated character, and the inequality extends to his writings; his diction is extolled, his style condemned. Italian fiction had a serious loss in Ippolito Nievo, drowned on his return from Garibaldi's expedition to Sicily. "Perhaps," says Vernon Lee, "no better picture could be given of Italy in the last years of the eighteenth century than that contained in Nievo's Confessioni di un Ottuagenario."

The literary period which we have been traversing in the last two chapters may be approximately described as that extending from the fall of Napoleon the First (1814) to the intervention of Napoleon the Third in Italian politics (1859). It saw the later works of Monti and Foscolo, all the chief productions of Manzoni, and everything of Leopardi's. Apart from these, it produced no great genius, but a number of highly distinguished writers who did honour to their own literature without producing any marked effect upon the literatures of foreign nations. The main reason of this circumscription of Italian influence was the legitimate preoccupation of Italy with her own affairs. The main aspiration of every Italian breast was the expulsion of the foreigner and the constitution of the national unity, whether as monarchy, federation, or republic. This common thought gave a noble unity to the authorship of the period, but could not materially affect contemporary literatures, although Mazzini's English writings, Mr. Gladstone's Neapolitan pamphlets, Sydney Dobell's Roman, Mrs. Browning's Casa Guidi Windows and Poems before Congress, and divers poems of Robert Browning, and Algernon Swinburne, and Dante Rossetti, show that England was not uninfluenced by it. In the next generation, Italian letters, though, except for the poets Carducci and D'Annunzio, rather retrograding than advancing in merit, became more influential by becoming more cosmopolitan.

This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.