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in the most singular manner, to the assistance of the
manager. He publicly promised sixteen new comedies
for the next season ; and the audience, wondering and
anxious, instantly engaged all the boxes. His enemies
ridiculed, his friends trembled for him ; but he felt secure
that he could fulfil his engagement, although at the
moment he had not conceived the plot or plan of one
of the promised sixteen.

This certainly was a great stretch of invention and
mental labour. Out of the sixteen, for he completed the
whole number, there were not more than three or four
mediocre ones, and some were among his best. The
"Donne Puntigliose," or Punctilious Ladies, is exceed-
ingly amusing. A Sicilian trader's wife from the coun-
try, desires to be received among the noble ladies of Pa-
lermo : she contrives to get herself invited to small
parties, where there are many men, and no lady except
the mistress of the house ; but finds it impossible to get
admitted to their ceremonious assemblies. At last, an
old countess, high-born, but poor, promises to give
a ball, to which she shall be invited, on certain con-
ditions, to which the low-born lady readily consents,
though they draw rather largely on her purse. But to
her consternation, as soon as she enters the ball-room,
every woman flies as if she brought infection with her,
and leaves her alone with her hostess. The punctilious
scruples of those who try to make use of her without
derogating from their own dignity, and who are ever
ready to receive, but never to confer favours, form a
very amusing picture of manners. fc Pamela" was among
the most successful of these pieces. Richardson's novel
of " Pamela" is a great favourite with the Italians; and
Goldoni was often asked to write a drama on the subject.
As the Venetian laws are severe against the children of a


mesalliance, he considers the catastrophe of the novel
as not inculcating a recommendable line of conduct. He,
therefore, transformed Gaffer Andrews into a Scottish
lord of the rebellion of '45, and gave Pamela good
blood to render her marriage with her lover a com-
mendable act on his part. This comedy had the great-
est success. " The Donna Prudente" was equally a
favourite. The story is founded on a jealous husband,
afraid of ridicule, who is tortured by the attentions of
the cavaliere servente of his wife, yet who dares not en-
counter the laughter that would ensue if he forbade the
service. The prudent lady exerts herself with success
to get rid of her cavaliere without its being supposed that
her conduct arises from her husband's jealousy. The
last of his sixteen was a purely Venetian subject, written
almost entirely in the Venetian dialect : it is called " I
Pettegollezzi," or The Gossipings, and turns on the mis.
fortunes brought on the heroine through the gossip of her
female acquaintances. It was brought on the last day
of carnival. " The concourse," Goldoni writes, " was
so immense, that the price of the boxes was tripled and
quadrupled ; and the applause was so tumultuous, that
those who passed near the theatre were uncertain whe-
ther the sound was that of mere plaudits, or of a
general revolt. I remained tranquil in my box, sur-
rounded by my friends, who cried for joy. When all
was over, a crowd of people came for me, forced me to
accompany them, and carried, or rather dragged, me to
the Ridotto, and overwhelmed me with compliments,
from which I would fain have escaped. I was too tired
to support all this ceremony; and, besides, not knowing
whence all this enthusiasm sprang, I was angry that
the piece just represented should be more extoUed than
many others which were of greater merit. By degrees
I discovered the true motive of the general acclamation :
it celebrated the triumph of my fulfilled engagement."

Goldoni was now forty-three years of age. His in-
vention had not yet fallen off, but he tried his strength
too much. An illness was the consequence of this ex-

VOL. If. B


traordinary exertion, and he felt the effects of it all his
life after ; yet during the ensuing season he brought
out scarcely a smaller number, and., as he proceeded,
attained a yet purer style of comedy ; and he became the
censor of the manners, and satirist of the follies, of his
country. The peculiar system of what is called service,
paid by gentlemen to the ladies of their choice, all over
Italy, would have presented an ample field both for ri-
dicule and reprehension, could he have ventured on it
openly ; but he was obliged to treat it with the same
reserve, when bringing it on the stage, as is used when
it is spoken of in society ; and he could attack only the
ridicule, not the real evils of the system. This comedy,
called the l( Villeggiatura," which turns on this subject, is
particularly amusing ; but it can scarcely be called an
attack upon it. An Italian gentleman, returned lately
from Paris, offers to serve a lady in the French manner :
he is not to perform those thousand services required
of the cavaliere servente, nor to attend on her, nor to be
of any use or amusement to her : they are to be friends
secretly ; and, to preserve their friendship more sacredly,
they must abstain from nearly all intercourse w r ith each
other. The lady, accustomed to be constantly waited
upon, and to find in her cavaliere a resource against the
ennui of solitude, is at a loss to understand the good
that is to result from a negative of all the ordinary uses
of friendship. The " Smanie della Villeggiatura" attacks
another of the foibles of the Venetians. It is their cus-
tom, each autumn, to spend several weeks at their country
seats; but, instead of this being a period of economy and
retirement, it was the fashion to invite their friends, and
to transport with them the dissipation of the city,,
Besides this, it being necessary, as a mark of fashion, to
retire to a villa, those who were poor, and did not possess
one, fancied themselves obliged to hire a house, and to
go beyond their wealthier neighbours in the number of
their guests and the splendour of their entertainments :
nor can any idea be formed out of the country pf the
sort of fanaticism with which this custom was pursued ;


even to the bringing ruin on those who imagined them-
selves forced to so unnecessary an expense. Goldoni
wrote three comedies on this subject : the first consisted
in describing the preparations for the villeggiatura, or visit
to the country. It has for its subject the difficulties of a
a poor proud family, who were bent on following the
general example ; the thousand obstacles that rendered
it almost impracticable ; and the envy with which they
view and vie with the preparations of their wealthier
acquaintance. At length they depart triumphant,, resolv-
ing to forget their debts and difficulties until their re-
turn. The second comedy consists of the adventures
in the country ; where, in the midst of gambling, plea-
sure, and apparent enjoyment, a thousand annoyances
distract, and jealousy and envy prevent, all real happi-
ness. The third comedy, of the return from the country,
shows the unfortunate lovers of rural pleasures over-
whelmed by debt ; surrounded by a thousand difficul-
ties, sprung up while there ; and saved only, when on
the verge of ruin, by a kind and prudent friend who
assists them, on their promise never to undertake a vil-
leggiatura again. These plays are without the masks,
and give a perfect representation of Italian conversation
and manners. As he wished to criticise the Venetians,
he did not venture to place the scene at Venice ; but the
audience easily brought home to themselves the faults
and follies of the Tuscans or Neapolitans. In thus
making a detail of some of the best of his plays, it is
impossible to do more than to indicate those which appear
the best worth reading. The e ( Vedova Scaltra," or The
Gay Widow, was a great favourite in Italy. A rich
widow, with four lovers from four different nations, seeks
from each a proof of love, and gives her hand to the
Italian, who, by his jealousy, evinces, she imagines, the
sincerest testimony of the tender passion. The " Feu-
datario" has in it more of farce than he usually admits,
and is peculiarly amusing ; as well as the " Donna del
Maneggio," or Managing Lady, whose avaricious husband,
after incurring a thousand ridiculous disasters, ends by

B 2


placing the disposal of his property in his wife's hands.
It would be too long and uninteresting to enter on even
this brief notice of more; but we may mention the titles
of some of his best, to guide any one who wishes to
read only a portion of the vast quantity he wrote : among
these may be named " II Cavaliere e la Dam a/' " 11 vero
Amico," "LaMoglie Saggia," "L'AvanturiereOnorato,"
" Moliere e Terenzio," which he names himself as the
favourite offspring of his pen.

He spent many years thus respectably and happily.
He loved his wife and his domestic circle. The ap-
plause of a theatre perpetually ringing in his ears, he
w r as gratified by the consciousness that he w r as reforming
the national taste. Sometimes he was attacked for what
he considered the chief merit of his dramas. The ad-
vocates of the old comedy condemned his new style as
puerile and tame. He defended himself, and was satisfied
that he obtained the victory. During the summer, when
the theatres at Venice \vere closed^ he visited the various
cities of Italy ; and his life was diversified^ and his in-
vention refreshed, by these occasional tours. He had
reason to be dissatisfied with the manager, Mendebac,
who had allured him from Pisa, as he not only was
illiberal enough not to add to his salary on these extra-
ordinary efforts, but appropriated the profits arising
from the publication of his works. Goldoni was un-
willing to enter into a lawsuit with him ; he contented
himself, therefore, by bringing out an edition of his play
at Florence; and as soon as his five years' engagement
with Mendebac w r as over, he transferred himself to the
theatre of San Luca, on terms at once more advantageous
and honourable.

With some few reverses, attendant on an entire change
of actors, and his ignorance of the peculiar abilities of
the company, to which he was not accustomed, his career
on this new stage was equally successful. He wrote
several comedies in verse, which became peculiar fa-
vourites. This success was the occasion of his being
invited to Rome during the carnival : but his dramas


did not succeed so well there. The actors, unaccustomed
to his style., were unable to give them with any effect,
and the Roman audience called out for Puncinello.

In 1750, he received an offer from the French court
of an engagement for two years, on very advantageous
terms. Goldoni hesitated a little ahout accepting it. A
few years before, his brother had returned to Venice,
a widower, with two children. Goldoni gave up to him
all his property in Modena, and adopted the children,
having none of his own. He made a good income in
Italy ; but he had no provision for old age : still he was
unwilling to leave his native country whose climate
and people were dear to him where he was honoured,
loved, and applauded. He made some enquiries with
regard to the possibility of getting a pension from the
Venetian government ; but this appearing a vain hope,
he considered it right to close with the offer of the
king of France. He hesitated the more before taking
this step, as, although the engagement in question was
but for two years, he felt that, once in Paris, and
acquiring an honourable maintenance^ it was probable
that he should never see Italy again.

During the carnival of 176*1, the last pieces he wrote
for the Venetian theatre were represented : one, the last
acted, was a sort of allegorical leave-taking, which was
so understood by the audience; and the acclamations and
adieus of the public moved him to tears. He left
Venice in April 17^1, accompanied by his wife. His
mother was dead ; his niece he placed in a convent,
under the superintendence of a respectable family at
Venice ; his nephew was soon to follow him. As he
passed through Italy, on his way to France, he was re-
ceived at the various towns with distinction and kind-
ness. He spent some little time at Genoa, with his wife's
relations, and then they proceeded by slow stages to

Goldoni's debut as an author in the French capital
was not a happy one. The Italian comedians there were
not accustomed to regular comedies, which they were to

B 3



learn by heart, but to the old style of their native farce,
where the plot and arrangement of the scenes were all
that was written, and they filled up the dialogue them-
selves. Goldoni wrote two or three pieces for them on
this plan without success. His stay in Paris was, how-
ever, decided by the post of Italian master to the
daughters of Louis XV. being bestowed on him. He
knew so little of French, that he gained as much know-
ledge from the princesses as he imparted to them. His
salary was very slender, but it was increased in the
sequel ; and his nephew also was provided for by the
post of Italian teacher in the military school.

Goldoni was charmed by the French actors ; and his
ambition was excited to write a comedy to be re-
presented by the excellent comedians who then flou-
rished. His desire was fulfilled to the utmost. He
brought out " Le Bourru Bienfaisant," into which he
endeavoured to instil the spirit of French dialogue and
plot with great success ; so that Voltaire praises it as the
best French comedy written since Moliere. He wrote
another on the same plan; but it fell to the ground, and
he at last desisted from adding to the immense number
of pieces of which he is the author.

He lived tranquilly and content with his moderate
means. His niece was married at Venice ; his nephew
settled happily at Paris. The revolution did not, for-
tunately, disturb the repose of his last years. The
National Convention confirmed his pension to him, and
continued it to his widow after his death. Goldoni died
in the year 1792., at the age of eighty-five. No man
was ever more born for the career which he pursued. His
heart was excellent, and his disposition gay. He never
allowed himself to be cast down by adversity, and met
the attacks of his enemies with good humour, or such
replies as caused the laugh to be on his side. He is
numbered by his countrymen as among the best of their
authors, an opinion confirmed by all those sufficiently
cognisant with the Italian language and manners to
enter into the spirit of his compositions.




THE Italian poets of the early ages were eminently dis-
tinguished for their patriotism. The haughty spirit of
Dante burst forth into indignant denunciations against
the oppressors of his country ; the gentler, hut not less
fervent, Petrarch was never weary of adjuring its rulers
to bestow upon it the blessings of justice and peace ;
and the latter years of Boccaccio's life were ennobled by
his public services, and his earnest endeavours to im-
plant a love and reverence for literature in the minds of
his countrymen. The pages of Roman history and the
writings of Roman poets made them proud of the country
which had given them birth, and which added to its
moral grandeur, of having been once the sovereign and
civiliser of the world, the natural affection inspired by
its being, from its fertility, the diversity of its woods,
lakes, and mountains, and surrounding sea, the most
beautiful country upon earth.

The national spirit died away in after times. The
devastating wars carried on in the Peninsula by France
and the emperor, the rise of minor principalities, and
the struggles of rival states, so excited the passions
and absorbed the interests of the Italians, that they
became incapable of enlarged views for the good of their
country. The depressing influence of courtly servitude
checked the free spirit of the writers ; Ariosto and
Tasso were both conspicuous for personal independence
of character; but they did not extend their love of
liberty to any exertions for the redemption of Italy. A
darker day was at hand. The Peninsula, divided and
weakened, became a mere province. A Spanish viceroy

R 4


reigned over Naples, and the northern portion was con.
trolled by France and Austria. The Italians were taught
to take pride in the virtues of slaves ; in submission,
patience, and repose. The prosperity of the country
was gone, its trade destroyed, its armies annihilated. No
scope was given to generous ambition ; no career offered,
by entering on which a man might exercise the peculiar
privilege of the free that of instructing their fellow
countrymen : to be inoffensive to the ruling powers was
the aim of all. The love of money not the love of gain,
for to gain was impossible, but mere parsimony, arising
from the necessity of regarding the domestic expenditure
as the only business of life engrossed the fathers of
families ; the women were uneducated and degraded,
and though they preserved, as is often the case in
a depraved state of society, a nature more generous,
artless, and kindly than the other sex, yet these
virtuous feelings found no scope for their developement,
except in the passion of love. While the law of pri-
mogeniture interested not only the large class of younger
sons, but even the heads of families, who wished to
prevent their children from marrying, to establish a
system of society, which, beginning by subverting the
best principles of morality, ended by destroying all
social happiness. While the higher orders were thus
occupied by money-saving and intrigue, the lower orders
were tamed by hard labour, and rendered submissive by
the priests. The writers were the servants of princes :
they administered to the pleasures of their countrymen,
without uttering one word that could call them from
their state of debasement, or inspire a love of the active
and disinterested virtues.

Full of talent as the Italians are, and formed by
nature for the noblest scenes of action, doubtless " many a
village Hampden" was born and died in obscurity and
inaction ; and yet this expression gives rise to a false
notion. The peasants of Italy have no education, and,
although infinitely superior in talent, perhaps, to any
other peasantry in the world, are incapable of that


generalisation of ideas which produces patriotism. But,
among the better sort of gentry, men of simple habits
and strong good sense, among the men of science and
the professors at the universities, there were indi-
viduals who mourned over the ruin of Italy. These
men did not so much dwell on the ancient greatness of
Rome, as on the achievements of their countrymen
during the middle ages. Literature had been revived
by them ; the arts had flourished among them : they
were proud of the past, but they despaired of the

The voice of liberty was silent. The Italians hated
and despised their masters, but never dreamed of re-
belling against them. Tuscany was slothful under a
mild sway, whose tyranny was never felt, except by the
few who believed that they were not merely fruges con-
sumere nati, and were bitten with a noble mania for
benefiting their race. Piedmont was ruled by a prince,
who, by cultivating in his subjects, not a martial, but a
military spirit (a very different thing), gave his idle
nobles something to do. Lombardy was crushed by
foreign bayonets. The voice of liberty was silent, when
the French revolution awoke the world, and the hope of
freedom spoke audibly in the hearts of all ; and, after-
wards, when the victories of Napoleon crushed this
hope, they could not impose a silence for ever broken.
Its language is now felt and understood from one end
of the country to the other, and the day must come
when the oppressors will be unable to oppose the veto
of mere physical force to the overpowering influence of
moral courage.

It was while Italy yet reposed submissive and mute,
that a poet was born, who dedicated all the powers of
his mind to the awakening his countrymen from their
lethargy to strengthening their enervated minds, and
spreading such knowledge and such sentiments abroad
among them, as would at once reveal their degraded
state, and give them energy to aspire to a better.

Vittorio Alfieri was born at Asti, in Piedmont, on


the l?th of January, 1749- His parents were noble,
wealthy, and respected. To these three circumstances
Alfieri attributes many of the prosperous circumstances
that attended his literary career. " Since I was born
noble/' he says, " I could attack the nobility without
being accused of envy ; since I was rich, I was in-
dependent and incorruptible ; and the respectability of
my parents prevented my ever being ashamed of my

His father was named Antonio Alfieri, and his
mother was Monica Maillard de Tournori, whose family,
originally from Savoy, had long been established at
Turin. His father was a man of blameless life : he
had never entered on any public office, and was with-
out a spark of that ambition which might have led him
to seek distinction at court. He was fifty- five when he
married, and his wife, though very young, was already
a widow. Their eldest child was a daughter. Two
years after, to the infinite joy of his father, Vittorio
was born. He was put out to nurse, at a village called
Rovigliasco, two miles from Asti ; but such was the
tenderness of his father, that he w r ent on foot each
day to see the child. This was a strong mark of affec-
tion, and testified also his simple and unostentatious
disposition : for the Italian nobility usually love repose
beyond all things, and their greatest pride is never to go
on foot. This solicitude unfortunately cost him his
life : he caught cold on occasion of one of his visits,
and died after a few days' illness, leaving his wife about
to give birth to another son, who, how r ever, died in his
infancy. She was an amiable and excellent woman,
and still young when her second husband died ; so that
she was induced to marry a third time. Her husband
was a cadet, of another branch of the Alfieri family ;
but, by the death of his elder brother, he in process of
time inherited the wealth of his family, and became very
rich. This marriage proved a very fortunate one. The
cavaliere Giacinto was handsome and amiable ; the
couple grew old together in happiness; and the lady, as


she advanced in years, gained the love and respect of
all by her piety and works of charity and kindness.

On the marriage of his mother, Vittorio and his sister
went to live in their father-in-law's house, who proved
himself a kind parent to the orphans. Although his
health was not robust, Alfieri's childhood was little in-
terrupted by sickness; and his first grief was experienced
at the age of seven, when his sister Julia was sent to a
convent for her education. Although he was, at first,
permitted to see her every day, yet he felt, on her
removal from the parental roof, that violence of emotion
and boiling of the blood which was apt to seize on him,
in after life, when forced to separate from any one to
whom he was warmly attached. Thus his sensibility
developed itself early; and sensibility and pride, both
exalted into passions rather than feelings, were always
the prominent traits of his disposition, and which at
last, from the excessive influence they exercised over
him, generated that gloomy melancholy to which he
was a victim.

Alfieri remained at home, under the tutelage of a
worthy priest, named Don Ivaldi, with whose assistance
he began to learn the rudiments of Latin. His dis-
position was, for the most part, taciturn and placid :
now and then he became loquacious and gay in the ex-
treme, and, at other times, the melancholy already
nascent in his heart, filled him with strange and pas-
sionate thoughts. He was obstinate when treated un-
kindly, but readily yielded to affection ; and, above all,
he was susceptible, to a painful degree, of the sense of
shame. When, as a punishment for childish faults,
any sort of public penance was imposed on him, he en-
dured such transports of agony as affected his health
for weeks.

At the age of nine, his uncle, the cavaliere Pellegrino
Alfieri, who was his guardian, returned from a tour in
France and England, and visited Asti, on his way
to Turin. He found his nephew happy under the do-

Online LibraryDionysius LardnerEminent literary and scientific men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal .. (Volume 2) → online text (page 21 of 34)