Dionysius Lardner.

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nied his friend, and wrote, while in that city, another
opera, called " Siroe."

This was the last appearance of Marianna on the
stage : she was no longer young, and retired from her


profession. She took up her residence at Rome, and
with some difficulty persuaded her friend to return to
his native city. The two families resided under the
same roof Marianna and her husband Metastasio
with his father, elder brother, and two sisters. The
relations of the poet were indigent ; but he possessed
some property, and his friend was comparatively rich.
The household was in common ; Marianna acting as
steward and housekeeper, while she still kept her station
beside the poet ; encouraging him in moments of de-
spondency ; suggesting subjects for his muse ; and dis-
playing, at all times, that active and generous affection
which so distinguished her.

Metastasio did not, however, meet with the en-
couragement at Rome which hailed his first exertions.
He wrote his drama of " Cato," which was acted in 1727:
but it was not attended with his accustomed success.
The austere character of the Roman hero the cold
loves and disastrous ending displeased the morbid
tastes of the spectators, who were unable to appreciate
the simplicity of the plot, or the grandeur of the sen-
timents. Metastasio had a true tragic bias for an un-


happy catastrophe ; but his audience did not relish it,
and, subsequently, he adapted himself better to their
tastes, and his operas have usually the happy ending,
then supposed more consonant to the inherent lightness
of musical dramas, or, probably, to the talents of the
singers : as, in our days, the sublime acting of Pasta has
induced composers to bring forward tragedies of the
deepest dye, " Medea" and " Otello," as the subjects
best fitted for their art.

Metastasio was discouraged : he was poor, and he
had many enemies at Rome, who prejudiced the pope
against him, and rendered his abode very disagreeable.
At this moment, fortune came to his aid, and his whole
future life became prosperous and stable. In November,
1729, he received a letter from prince Pio of Savoy,
director of the imperial theatricals, inviting him to be-
come the court poet of Vienna. Apostolo Zeno was at



that time poet laureate to the emperor Charles VI. ;
but he also, with praiseworthy liberality, seconded the
emperor in his wish to invite Metastasio to his court ;
and the way was opened to him by the absence of envy
in one, who might have looked on him as a rival, but
who generously preferred regarding him as a fellow-
labourer, or rather, successor, to his own exertions.
Metastasio at once accepted the offer with many ex-
pressions of gratitude. He was allowed to delay his
journey to Vienna till the spring of 1730, and to fulfil
his engagement of supplying the Roman theatre \vith
two pieces for the carnival. These were (C Alexander in
India," and " Artaxerxes." The latter was a favourite
from the first : the poet considered it the most for-
tunate of his productions, and was accustomed to say
that he owed it more obligations than any other of
his dramas ; since, even when set to indifferent music,
it never failed to meet with success.

Metastasio thus made his appearance at Vienna, sur-
rounded by the halo of a recent triumph. He left
Rome with pleasure ; but he quitted his family with
regret : more than all he must have lamented his se-
paration from his generous and affectionate friend,
Marianna, the encourager of his youthful timidity, the
chief promoter of his fortunate choice of a profession,
and his unwearied comforter during adverse circum-
stances. He went to new scenes and to a new people,
and adapted himself at once to the change. He was
kindly received by the emperor, and his heart over-
flowed with gratitude for his condescension and bene-

It is a strange fact, how little we are contented with
negative qualities in our fellow-creatures ; and, indeed,
how amiability, and even generosity, become slight in
our eyes, if unaccompanied by energy, independence,
and pride. Metastasio was the most amiable of men :
his disposition was affectionate and constant ; yet he
was derided in his own time for his courtier-like quali-
ties, and the gratitude he naturally evinced towards his


imperial benefactors ; and censured for a coldness of
heart of which we can find no trace in his writings or ac-
tions. There is one circumstance that renders posterity
more just, and, in particular, induces those w r ho write
his biography to regard him with a favourable eye :
this is the publication of his letters. We possess a
series from the age of thirty to that of eighty-four,
when he died, which let us into the secrets of his heart,
and display his good sense, his friendly disposition, his
justice, and the ready sympathy that he afforded to those
to whom he was attached, in a more undisguised manner
than could be known to his contemporaries. These
letters prepossess the reader in his favour ; and, while
the biographer finds few events to record, and little of
misfortune or error to mark his pages with high- wrought
interest, he may envy the tranquil career of the for-
tunate poet, and wish that fate had made him the friend
of such a man.

Metastasio entered on his employments at Vienna in
the year 1730, at the age of thirty-two. He took up
his abode in the house of Niccolo Martinetz, who held a
place in the court of the apostolic nuncio, and with whom
he remained to the end of his life. The dramas that he
brought out during the year succeeding to his arrival were
eminently successful. These were " Adriano," and " De-
metrio ; " and, during the three following, he wrote the
" Olimpiade," " Demoofonte," and " Issipile." Each, as
it appeared, excited still renewed admiration and applause.
After the representation of " Issipile," the emperor broke
through his habitual majestic reserve, and expressed his
satisfaction to the poet, who was enraptured by the unusual
condescension. His imperial master soon after testified
his approbation in a more solid manner, by bestowing
on him the place of treasurer to the province of Cosenza
in Naples, worth annually 350 sequins. Unfortunately,
the war of the Spanish succession deprived him of this
income, after he had enjoyed it but for a few years.

The poet's heart and soul were in his profession, and
his operas were written with that fervent and exalted

o 2


spirit which marks the compositions of genius; while his
modesty engendered doubts concerning their reception,
which were delightfully dissipated by the triumph of
their success. His feelings are all ingenuously expressed
in his letters to Marianna Bulgarelli, who,, together
with her husband, still remained at Rome with the
poet's family. " I did not believe," he writes, " that
I should "have been able to send you the good news I
now give I was so entirely prepared for the contrary.
My Demetrio was brought out last Sunday, and with so
great success, that the old people here assure me they
never witnessed such universal applause. The audience
wept at the Addio my august master was not un-
moved and, notwithstanding the respect paid to the
imperial presence, the public could not restrain them-
selves from giving marks of applause. My enemies
have become my applauders. I cannot express my sur-
prise, for this opera is so delicately touched, without any
of that strong colouring that strikes at once, that I feared
that it was not adapted to the national taste. I was mis-
taken every one seems to understand it, and passages are
recited in conversation, as if it were written in German."
While composing the " Olimpiade," he thus addresses his
friend : " Here is a moral sonnet which I wrote in the
midst of a pathetic scene, that moved me as I wrote
it : so that, smiling at myself, when I found my eyes
humid from pity at a fictitious disaster, invented by
myself, I expressed my feelings in the sonnet I send.
The idea does not displease me ; and I did not choose to
lose it, as it will serve as an incitement for my piety."
The thought of the sonnet is, that, while he smiles at
himself for weeping over dreams and fables of his own
invention, he may remember that every thing that he
fears and hopes is equally fictitious, that all is false,
his existence a delirium, and his whole life a dream ;
and it ends with a prayer that he may awaken and find
repose in the bosom of truth.

Again, he writes, " Will you suggest the subject of
an opera ? Yes or no ? I am in an abyss of doubt.


Oh ! do not laugh, and say that the disease is incurable ;
for indeed, the choice of a subject merits all this in-
quietude and scepticism. It is my lot to be forced to
make a choice, and I cannot avoid it, otherwise 1 should
continue to doubt until the day of judgment, and then
begin again. Read the third scene of the third act of
my ' Adrian ;' remark the character which the emperor
gives of himself, and you will see my own.* From
this you may conclude, that I know my faults, but not
that I can correct them. This pertinacity in a fault,
which torments me without the recompence of any
pleasure, and which I clearly perceive, without being
able to remedy, makes me often reflect on the tyranny
which the body exercises over the mind. If my under-
standing is convinced, when reasoning calmly, that this
excess of indecision is a troublesome, tormenting, and use-
less vice, and an obstacle to the execution of any design,
why do I not get rid of it? Why not abide by a resolution,
so often taken, to doubt no more ? The answer is clear ;
that the mechanical constitution of the soul's imperfect
habitation gives a false colouring to objects before they
reach it, as rays of the sun appear yellow or green or red,
according to the hue of the substance which they traverse
to meet our eyes. Hence it is clear, that men for the
most part do not act from reason, but from mechanical
impulse, subsequently adapting, by the force of their un-

* " Ah, tu non t,ai

Qual guerra di pensieri
Agita 1' alir.a mia.

* * *

Trovo per tutto

Oualche scoglio a temer. Scelgo, mi pento ;
1'oi d' essermi pentito
Mi ritorno a pentir. Mi stance intanto
Nel lungo dubitar, tal che dal male
11 ben non distingue : alfin mi veggio
Stetto dal tempo, e mi risolvo al peggio."

" Ah, thou knowest not the war of struggling thoughts

That agitates my soul. I find in all

Some peril still to dread. I choose; and then,

My choice repent and then again regret

Having repented ; while protracted doubt

Wearies my mind, so that the ill from good

No longer I distinguish ; till at length

The flight of time impels me to the worst."

o 3


derstanding, their reason to their actions, so that the
cleverest frequently appear the most reasonable. Do not
get weary, because I play the philosopher with you ; I
have none else with whom to play it ; and doing it thus
bv letter, 1 call to mind conversations of this kind,


which made us spend so many happy hours together.

O, how much more matter for such has my experience

in the world given me ! We will again talk on these

July 4. subjects, if fortune does not, through some caprice, en-

173:3. tangle the thread of my honourable but laborious life."

A few months after fortune cut, rather than entangled,
the thread of these prospects ; Marianna died, and, true to
her feelings of friendship* to the end, she left the poet
heir to her possessions, to the amount of thirty thousand
crowns. Metastasio writes thus to his brother, on re-
ceiving this sad intelligence :

" In the agitation I feel from the unexpected death
of the poor and generous Marianna, I cannot long dilate.
I can only say, that my honour and my conscience have
both induced me to renounce her bequest in favour of her
husband. I owe it to the world to undeceive it from a
great mistake, that of fancying that my friendship was
founded on avarice and interested motives. I have no
right to take advantage of the partiality of my poor
friend to the injury of her husband, and God will by
some other means make up for what I now renounce.
I need nothing for myself; I possess sufficient at Rome
to maintain my family in decency, and if Providence
preserves to me my property in Naples, 1 will give my

* We have made no remark on the nature of this kind-hearted and
generous woman's attachment. In Italy it is customary to look on such
as formed by friendship only, and to consider that they are rendered re-
spectable by constancy. The' Italians lavish the greatest praise on Marianna
Bulgarelli for her perception of the poet's merits, her zeal in persuading
him to, and assisting him in, his arduous career; and the disinterested
affection which caused her at once to make a sacrifice of her own feelings,
and to advise his journey to Vienna. Her errors are those of her country.
Any one who has visited Italy must at once censure, and deeply deplore,
the social system there carried on a system which blights the affections,
degrade^ the moral feeling, and causes almost universal unhappiness. But
it is unjust to heap the censure of a system belonging to a whole country,
and carried on for centuries, on the head of an individual, whose virtues,
we may presume to say, redeemed an error, the very existence of which
is, after all, uncertain.


relations other marks of my affection, and think seriously
of you in particular. Communicate my resolution to
my father, as I have not time to write to him. Assure
him of my intention always to contribute as heretofore
to his comfort, and even to increase my assistance, if my
Neapolitan income does not fail me. In short, make
him enter into my feelings,, so that he shall not imbitter
them by disapproving of my honest and Christian de-

" You will continue to live with signor Bulgarelli,
who will, I hope, display towards you that friendly
kindness which my conduct with regard to him deserves.
All will go on as before ; only poor Marianna will never
return, nor can I hope for any consolation, and the rest
of my life will be insipid and painful."

" I feel," he wrote to another friend on this occasion,
" as if I were in the world as in an unpeopled solitude ;
desolate as a man would feel, if, transported in his
sleep among the Chinese or Tartars, he should, on
awakening, find himself among a people whose language,
manners, and customs are alike unknown to him. In
the midst of such fancies, so much reason remains, as
permits me to be aware how without foundation they
are, and how produced ; but reflection has not yet suf-
ficed to dissipate them. You will have heard that I
have renounced the bequest. I know riot whether this
renunciation will be approved of by all, but I know that
neither my honour nor my conscience permit me to take
advantage of the excessive partiality of a woman to the
injury of her relations, and that the want of the riches
which I refuse, is more tolerable than the shame which
they would produce in me."

Metastasio was, with his accustomed modesty, disturbed
by the fear, lest his honourable conduct would be dis-
approved of by his friends and the world ; and he was
agreeably surprised when, on the contrary, it met with
the general approbation it deserved. " I should be
insincere," he writes to the same friend, " if, affecting
philosophy, I pretended to be annoyed by the kind ap-

o 4


proval which my country has universally yielded to my
renunciation of Marianna's bequest. It delights me in
the first place, and like a vow, confirms me in my
opinion of the justice of the act; and in the second, it
surprises me, as being the testimony of the affection of
so great a mother for the least of her sons."

This, during the space of ten years, from the time
of his first arrival in Vienna, was the only event that
disturbed Metastasio's life. These ten years are the
period during which his poetic powers flourished most
vigorously, and during which his best as \vell as the
greater number of his works were produced. The favour
they met confirmed his situation at court, while they
caused him to labour unintermittingly. It is difficult
to give one not versed in the Italian language a correct
idea of the peculiar merits of his poetry, and the excel-
lences of his dramas. They are not absolute tragedies:
their happy conclusions, the introduction of airs, and
their being compressed into three acts, give them a
lightness and a brevity unlike the heavier march of
tragedy. They are to a great degree ideal, and yet
possess the interest which passion and plot, described
and developed with masterly skill, necessarily impart.
His command of language is singularly great, and he
adapted poetic diction to dramatic dialogue with won-
derful felicity. A long and profound study of the genius
of his native tongue gave him such extreme facility,
that the perfection of art takes the guise of the most
unadorned nature ; and the flow and clearness of his
verses so excite our sympathy, as to make us feel as if
the thoughts and sentiments which we find in his pages
were the spontaneous growth of our own minds. The
magic of his style rentiers sensible and distinct the most
delicate and evanescent feelings, so that it has been re-
marked*, that many of the movements of the human
soul, which the ablest writers have scarcely been able
to indicate in prose, and which, from their subtlety, are
almost hidden from our consciousness, are brought home

* Baretti.


to us in his verses with a lucid felicity of expression,
that leaves no portion of them either obscure or vague.
He thus formed a language peculiarly his own. In his
airs the words flow in so unforced a manner and with
such extreme propriety, that they appear to place them-
selves: not one can be changed, not one omitted. There
is no pedantry, no affectation ; simplicity is his principal
charm ; it seems as if a child might utter them, they
are so unstudied; and yet no other poet possesses to an
equal degree the art of clothing his ideas with the same
easy grace.

When we reflect on the singular perfection of his
style, we are not surprised that he preserved it with the
most jealous watchfulness. He was careful not to ac-
custom his mind to the use of any language except
Italian, and never knew more of German than the few
words (( sufficient," as he forcibly expresses it, " to save
his life." Many nobles of Vienna paid him the com-
pliment of learning his language for the sake of con-
versing with him, and Italian being in common use
among the well-educated, he did not lose so much as
might be expected: yet he must have felt the privation.
He was right, however, in adhering to his resolution.
He was settled at Vienna for life, while at the same
time his present occupation and his future glory de-
pended on his preserving uninjured that delicacy of taste,
and felicity of expression in his native language, which
characterises his compositions. But to return to his

He himself has said, that if he were forced to select
one of his dramas to be preserved, while all the rest
were annihilated, he should fix upon " Attilio Regulo."
The principal action of this play, founded on the well-
known heroism of Regulus, in dissuading his countrymen
from an exchange of prisoners, and his consequent
return to servitude and a cruel death in Carthage, is
conducted with dignity and pathos. But the interest
of the piece is somewhat marred by an underplot, and
the airs interspersed are not among his best. Perhaps


we are inclined to give the preference among them to
" Themistocles:" the dignity of the subject raises it to this
pre-eminence; but in pathos, tenderness, and impassioned
dialogue, the "Olimpiade" is unequalled. Devoted friend-
ship forms the action ; the personages are placed in
the most interesting situations, and the language is
sustained to the height of those emotions which the
clash of heroic feelings would inspire. There are scenes
in " Demofoonte" as fine as any to be found in Metastasio,
but there is a reduplication of plot which mars the
unity of the action ; as, after deeply sympathising with
the hero in his fears concerning his wife's fate, through
nearly four acts, we are somewhat exhausted, and cannot
well reawaken other sentiments, to mourn over the
relationship that he imagines that he has discovered to
exist between them. Voltaire and others have praised
the scene between Titus and Sestus in the ' ' Clemenza di
Tito," as surpassing the representation of any similar
struggle of feeling in any other dramatic poet ; and the
airs in that piece are among his happiest compositions.
It was the poet's aim and pleasure, in all his writings_,
to make virtue attractive, and to paint patriotism, self-
sacrifice and the best affections of the soul, in glowing
and alluring colours. This gives a great charm to his
dramas. We live among a better race,, and yet the
sorrows and passions and errors of the personages are
represented in a manner to call forth our liveliest sym-
pathy. A heartfelt pathos reigns throughout, and if
passages of sublimity are rare (though there are several
which merit that name), the elevated moral feeling acts
on our minds to prevent the enervating influence of
mere tenderness and grief.*

* There is a curious instance in Metastasio of a poet using the same
image adopted by a preceding writer, which yet, it is probable, that the
later one had not read. The explanation may be, that both drew it from
an ancient writer ; but we have been unable to rind it. The passages are
subjoined as, if both are unborrowed, it forms a curious though natural
coincidence of thought.

And as goodly cedars,
Rent from Oeta by a sweeping tempest,
Jointed again, and made tall masts, defy


Besides his dramas, Metastasio composed at this
period two canzonecti, which are among the best of his
productions. The " Grazie agli inganni tuoi," or
thanks of a lover to his lady for having disenchanted
him by her caprices, is written at once with feeling and
spirit. The " Partenza" is yet more beautiful. It was
founded on the unfortunate attachment of a Viennese
nobleman for a public singer, who at last yielded to the
entreaties of his friends, in detaching himself from her,
on condition that Metastasio should write some verses
of adieu. The lover must have been satisfied, and the
lady charmed, despite regret, by the passion, tenderness,
and beauty of the poem which celebrates their separa-

Metastasio's tranquil and prosperous life was broken
in upon in 1740, by the death of the emperor Charles
VI., who fell a victim to either poison or indigestion,
after eating mushrooms. The poet was unfeignedly
attached to his imperial master, whose moral and reli-
gious character was congenial to his own ; and the
disturbed state of Europe, immediately after, added to
his regret. This prince had no son, and his daughter,
Maria Teresa, succeeded to him as queen of Bohemia
and Hungary. Her husband aspired to the imperial
crown ; but the influence of France caused the duke of
Bavaria to be elected, under the title of Charles VII.
This disappointment was not the only misfortune of the
queen ; the king of Prussia invaded Silesia almost
immediately after her father's death, and Vienna being
threatened with a siege, she was obliged to quit it, and to

Those angry winds that split 'em, so will I

New pieced again.

And made more perfect far,

Stand and defy bad fortunes.

FLETCHER, Tragedy of " Valentinia'H.''

Spezza il furor del vento

Robusta quercia, avezza

Di cento verni, e cento

L' ingurie a tollerar.

E se pur cade al suolo

Spiega per 1' onde il volo,

E con quel vento istesso

Va contrastando il mar Adrfano.


take refuge in Presburg. After a reign of four years,
Charles VII. died, and the husband of Maria Teresa,
then grand duke of Tuscany, was elected emperor in
the year 1745, under the name of Francis I. : but the
war still continued, and its various success, and the
disasters, with which it was attended, gave the court
little leisure or inclination for amusement, until the
peace of Aix-la-Chapelle.

On the death of Charles VI., several of the European
sovereigns invited Metastasio to their courts, and made
him advantageous and honourable offers ; but, as Maria
Teresa still continued him in the place he held under

Online LibraryDionysius LardnerEminent literary and scientific men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal .. (Volume 2) → online text (page 17 of 34)