Dionysius Lardner.

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mestic roof, but learning little or nothing ; accordingly,


he thought this a very had state of things, and insisted
that he should be placed at the public school at Turin,
where ignorance, rather than knowledge, was taught, but
where, as he would be neglected and enslaved, it was to
be supposed that his education would prosper better
than under the indulgent care of a fond mother. She
was obliged to consent, and parted from her son with
reluctance and tears. The boy's grief at the moment of
separation was vehement ; but it was quickly dissipated
by the delight of travelling post, and the pleasure he
took in bribing the postilions to go at their utmost
speed. He was accompanied by a servant only ; and,
while the old man slept, the little fellow sat proud and
gay in the carriage, as it whirled past village and town
in quick succession. When arrived at Turin, his uncle
received him kindly. He was at first depressed by the
change of scene, and missed the caresses of his loving
mother ; but soon he became so joyous, and even
riotous, that the cavaliere Pellegrino hastened to place
him at the academy : and here he was, at the age of
nine, torn from the domestic circle to which he w r as
accustomed, at a distance from all his friends, isolated
and abandoned. The only species of education, such as
it was, entered upon at the academy, regarded their
literary studies : the feelings were left to form them-
selves ; lessons of morality and the duties of life making
no part of the instruction afforded the pupils.

" The academy," Alrleri tells us, " w-as a large,
handsome quadrangular building, with a large court in
the middle ; two sides of the square were occupied by
the students, the other two by the king's theatre and
royal archives. The side occupied by us, who were
called of the second and third apartment, was opposite
the latter ; that occupied by the students of the first
apartment being opposite to the king's theatre. The
upper gallery on our side was called the third apart-
ment, and was devoted to the younger boys and
lower schools. The gallery on the ground floor was
called the second, and occupied by the pupils rather

ALF1ERI. 253

more advanced in age : a portion of these studied at
the university, another edifice adjoining to the academy ;
the rest received their education in the military college.
Every gallery contained at least four chambers, each occu-
pied by eleven youths, over which an assistant, or usher,,
presided^ a poor fellow, whose only payment consisted
in being boarded and lodged free of expense, while he
studied theology or law, at the university; or, if he were
not a poor student,, he was an old and ignorant priest.
A third portion of the side destined to the first apart-
ment was occupied by the king's pages, to the number
of twenty or twenty-five, who were totally separated
from us of the second, at the opposite angle of the
court, and close to the galleries of the archives. We, the
younger pupils, could not have been worse placed. On
one side, was a theatre which we were only permitted
to visit about five or six times during the carnival ; on
the other, the pages who attended on the court, and who,
continually hunting and riding, appeared to enjoy much
freer and happier lives than the poor imprisoned boys ;
besides these, we overlooked the proceedings of the first
class, which was composed almost entirely of foreign-
ers, Russian and German, with a large proportion of
English ; this class was restrained by no rule except
that of being in by midnight ; and their apartment
was a mere lodging house to them, instead of being a
place of education."

Alfieri was placed in the third apartment : he had the
luxury of a servant to attend on him; but the fellow,
unchecked by superior authority, became a sort of petty
tyrant over his young master : in all other respects, he
was on an equality with the rest of his comrades.

The basis of the system of education consisted in
strict imprisonment, little sleep, and unwholesome food.
To this was added a certain degree of parrot knowledge
of the Latin language : the boys were taught to con-
strue Cornelius Nepos ; but so little pains were taken,
or, rather, so little power was there in their instructors
to enlarge their stores of real knowledge, that Alfieri


tells us, that not one of them knew who the men were
whose lives they read; nor what the country, government,
or times were in which they lived, nor even what thing
government was. The boy made progress, however,
in what he \vas taught : his emulation was excited, and
his memory was cultivated ; hut, on the other hand, he
grew sickly and stunted in growth, the effects of bad
food and too little sleep. He had only his drunken,
his dissipated servant to attend on him w r hen he was ill;
who often, on such occasions, left him half the day
alone, which increased the constitutional melancholy of
his disposition. His pleasures were few; and the want of
all affectionate treatment blighted his life. It seems
strange to us that his mother did not visit him, and
that he never went home for a vacation : but such were
the customs of the country, and he was brought up in
conformity with them.

The spirit of emulation, caused him, in some degree,
to distinguish himself, and he advanced to higher
classes and attended lectures on philosophy, human-
ity, and mathematics ; but such was the style in which
they were taught, that, when he had gone through six
books of Euclid, he was unable to demonstrate the
fourth proposition ; and, though he studied a whole year
under the famous Beccaria, he did not comprehend a word
of what he was taught. This is the less extraordinary,
since, speaking the patois of Piedmont, Italian was as a
foreign language; and, though he contrived to obtain a
copy of Ariosto, he was unable to understand a word of it.
His teachers were, for the most part, equally ignorant; so
that while his time was devoted to Latin, his native lan-
guage was a sealed book to him. He had a few relations at
Turin, and w r hen he became really ill, they interfered
that he should have more sleep and better food ; but he
continued a puny and ailing boy.

Some few pleasures diversified his life. His uncle
found that the education of his sister Julia was entirely
neglected at Asti, and she was removed to a convent at
Turin. She was fifteen in love and divided from
the object of her affections. Her brother became her


confidant : he visited her twice a week, and tried to in-
spire her with constancy and resolution ; but youthful
spirits were of more avail than the lessons of romance,
and, in short time, she was consoled. Another pleasure
he enjoyed was, when a relation took him, on one occa-
sion, to the opera buffa, sung by the best comic singers
of Italy. The opera was the ' e Mercante di Mai man tile."
The spirit and vivacity of the music made a profound
impression on him, leaving, as it were, a trail of har-
mony in his ears and heart, so that for many weeks
after he remained immersed in an excessive, but not
painful, melancholy. During this time he abhorred and
nauseated his usual studies, while a world of fantastic
images crowded his mind ; and had he known how, he
would have composed verses, and have expressed the
most lively emotions, had not all language in which to
express them been denied to him, through the igno-
rance of his teachers. This was the first time that
music exercised so great an influence over him, and it
remained long impressed upon his memory. At all
times he was excessively susceptible to the impressions
made by harmony, and he found that vocal music, es-
pecially female voices, possessed a peculiar power to
disturb and agitate his mind. Nothing, he tells us, awak-
ened in him more violent or various emotions ; and al-
most all his tragedies were conceived while in the act
of listening to music, or a few hours after. One other
pleasure that he enjoyed during this period, was spend-
ing a fortnight with his uncle at Cuneo. This little
journey did his health good, and occasioned him infi-
nite delight. It was here that he wrote his first sonnet,
addressed to a lady admired by his uncle, and who
pleased him. As he knew nothing of Italian, or, as it
is called, Tuscan, this sonnet must have been very bad.
It pleased the lady ; but his uncle, who was a soldier,
and of an austere disposition, and who, though imbued
with sufficient knowledge of history and government,
despised poetry, ridiculed the boyish effusion, and put
all thought of writing another out of his head.


At the age of fourteen, the circumstances of his life
were considerably altered. His guardian uncle died.
By the Piedmontese laws, children of fourteen are con-
sidered, to a certain degree, of age, and are allowed the
entire disposal of their incomes ; while a trustee is ap-
pointed to prevent their alienating any part of the
principal or real property. Alfieri was thus raised at
once to independence ; and, to add to his comfort, his
servant, who had tyrannised over him, and who, un-
watched, and unchecked, had fallen into the worst
vices, was dismissed. Alfieri parted from him with
regret, despite his ill-treatment, and showed the kind-
liness of his heart by visiting him twice a week, and
giving him what money he could spare. He tells us
that he can ill account for his attachment to one who
had shown so little kindness to him: he could not attri-
bute it to generosity on his part; but partly to habit,
and partly to the talents of the man, who, besides being
singularly sagacious, was accustomed to tell him long
adventures and tales full of imagination and interest.

The first fruit he reaped from the death of his uncle
was being permitted to attend the riding school, which had
been before denied. He w r as then of diminutive stature
and weak of frame, and little able to control his
horse ; but perseverance, and a great desire of success,
supplied every other defect. To this noble exercise he
owed the good health, robustness, and increase of sta-
ture, that he soon acquired. The next great event that
followed was, his being removed from the second to
the first apartment of his college. In the second, the
students were mere boys, and they were kept in strict
discipline ; in the first, entire freedom and idleness
was the order of the day. He made his entrance on
the 8th of May, 1763. His comrades were almost all
foreigners, many were French, a still greater number
were English. An excellent table was served in the
best style, and all breathed luxury, comfort, and free-
dom. Much amusement, a great deal of sleep and
of riding, gave Alfieri renewed health and spirits,


He spent his money on horses or dress. His trustee
quarrelled with him for his extravagance, but that did
not alter the state of things. With liberty and money
be acquired friends and companions in every amuse-
ment and enterprise. "Yet/' he says, "in the midst
of this busy vortex, being little more than fourteen, I
was not nearly so unreasonable as I might have been.
From time to time, I felt a silent impulse within me to
apply to study, and a good deal of shame for my igno-
rance, concerning the extent of which I never deceived
myself, nor others. But, grounded in no one study,
undirected by any, not really acquainted with a single
language, I knew not how nor to what to apply myself.
I read French romances, and conversed with foreigners,
and forgot the little Italian I had before contrived to
pick up from my Ariosto. At one time I took it into
my head to immerse myself in the thirty-six volumes
of Fleury's Ecclesiastical History, making extracts in
French; but soon I threw it aside, and took to romances
and the ' Arabian Nights.' "

Riding, and horses, and fine clothes were his passions.
He and his friends went out in troops, leaping over
every obstacle, fording rivers, and breaking down the
unfortunate animals they rode, till at last no one would
lett them any. But these active exercises invigorated
Alfieri's health, strengthened his frame, and filled him
with spirit and resolution; preparing his mind to sup-
port, and even to make good use of, the physical and
moral liberty he afterwards acquired.

The youth of the first apartment were perfectly free,
but they were all young men : Alfieri was as a boy
among them, being only fifteen ; and it was considered
right that his servant should attend him constantly, and
act as a check upon him. The man who had replaced
his former tyrant was a foolish, good-humoured fellow,
who easily yielded to bribery and persuasion, and let
his young master do as he pleased. But this did not
satisfy the youth's pride ; he resolved to be on an equality
with his comrades, and, without saying a word to his



valet, or to any one, went out alone. He was reproved
by the governor, but repeated his offence immediately.
On this he was put under arrest for a few days; but no
sooner was his prison door opened, than, in open defi-
ance, he went out again unaccompanied; and although,
on the renewal of his offence, the term of his imprison-
ment was prolonged, it was without avail. At length he
declared that his arrest must be perpetual, since as soon
as he was set at liberty he should exercise the same pri-
vilege, being resolved not in any way to be on a different
footing from his comrades ; that the governor might
remove him from the first, and replace him in the second
apartment, but that he insisted upon being put in pos-
session of all the rights of his companions. On this
he was kept confined for more than three months ; nor
would he make any request to be liberated, but, indig-
nant and stubborn, had died rather than have yielded.
"I slept nearly all day," he tells us; " towards evening
I got up from my bed, and, having a mattrass placed
near the fireplace, I stretched myself upon it on the
ground. Not choosing to receive the usual college
dinner, I caused food to be brought into my room,
and cooked pollenta and similar things at my fire.
I never dressed myself, nor allowed my hair to be
touched, and became an absolute savage. Though I
was not allowed to quit my room, my friends were per-
mitted to visit me ; but I was sullen and silent, and lay
like a lifeless body, not replying to any thing that was
said ; and thus I continued for hours, with my eyes
fixed on the ground, and full of tears, though I never
suffered one to escape from them."

This obstinacy must have annoyed his masters con-
siderably, and they were, no doubt, glad to make use of
the first fair occasion for restoring him to liberty. The
marriage of his sister gave them a pretext, of which
they availed themselves. Julia married count Giacinto
di Cumiano on the 1st of May, 176'4 : the wedding
tock place at the beautiful village of Cumiano, ten miles
from Turin. Alfieri enjoyed the spring season and his


newly recovered liberty with intense delight, and, on his
return to college, was admitted to all the privileges of
the class of students to which he belonged. The con-
trol over his income being now almost entirely in his
own hands, he launched out into a variety of expenses,
the first of which was the purchase of a horse, a fiery
but delicate animal, which he loved so passionately,
that he could never after call him to mind without
emotion : if it was ill, he could neither eat nor sleep.
The delicacy of this beloved horse was the occasion of
his buying another ; and after that he bought carriage
horses, and cab and saddle horses, till he had a stud
of eight, to the great dissatisfaction of his trustee; but,
as he could set his reprehensions at nought, he gave no
ear to them, but plunged into every kind of expense,
principally in dress, competing in extravagance with
the English members of the university. In the midst
of this vanity, the ingenuousness of his disposition
manifested itself. He made display among the rich
foreigners, who were his associates ; but, when he was
visited by his poorer friends and countrymen, who, though
of noble birth, were yet straitened in means, he was
accustomed to change his dress, to put on modest attire,
and even to hide his finery, that he might not appear
to possess any superiority over them : this delicacy of
feeling extended itself to other parts of his conduct,
and showed the genuine urbanity and benevolence of
his disposition.

In the autumn of 1?65, he made a short journey to
Genoa with his trustee : this was the first time that he had
left Piedmont ; and here, for the first time, he saw the
sea, the aspect of which transported him with admir-
ation, and so exalted his imagination, that he says, if
he had understood any language, or had had any poetry
before him, he should certainly have composed verses.
During this journey, to his infinite delight, he visited
his native town, and his mother, whom, strange to say,
he had not seen for seven years. There seems something
incomprehensible in a state of society that should admit

s 2


of the propriety, or, rather, enforce the necessity, of ahoy
of nine being separated from all maternal care, and left
to struggle as he might, during the precarious season of
childhood and of adolescence, without a parent's eye to
watch over his well-being, and administer to his health
and happiness. On his return to Turin, he was not a
little proud among his countrymen of his journey to
Genoa ; but among the English, German, Polish and
Russian students he felt the utmost rage and shame to
think that they had seen countries so much more distant.
This uneasy sense of inferiority inspired him with a
passion for travelling, and made him resolve to visit the
various lands of w r hich his comrades were natives.

In the first impulse of expectant manhood, he had
petitioned to be allowed to enter the army. As he grew
older he began to find that his liberty was dearer to him
than any military parade ; but, as he did not withdraw
his request, he found himself admitted, in 1766, as
ensign into the provincial regiment of Asti. He had
chosen this, as the duties attendant on it were slight, it
being only required to assemble for review for a few
days twice a year : however, this necessity annoyed
him, especially as it forced him to quit the university,
where he would have been well pleased to remain ; but
there was no help, and he left college, after an abode of
nearly eight years. He took a small apartment in the same
house with his sister, and spent all he could in horses
and all sorts of luxuries, as well as in dinners given to
his friends. A dislike of military discipline, and a love
of travelling, made him soon after ask a year s leave of
absence; and he set out for Rome and Naples under the
care of an English Catholic, who was about to make
that tour, as tutor to two young Flemish gentlemen.
It was with great difficulty that he obtained the neces-
sary permission ; the king was averse to the nobles
leaving the country, and it was only by a thousand petty
artifices and intrigues that at last he succeeded in his

Agitated by an inexplicable disquietude of mind, ig-


norant of all with regard to literature and the arts, that
could make travelling interesting, Alfieri had at this
time but one pleasure in a journey, which was, going
along the high road with the greatest possible speed.
His companions were as little awake to rational inquiry
as himself; and the only one among them, he tells us,
who had common sense, was his valet, who also acted as
courier, a man named Elia, who served him for many
years with the greatest fidelity. The first city at which
the party stopped was Milan. They went to see the
curiosities, and visited the Ambrosian library. The trea-
sures of the collection were wasted upon Alfieri: when
an autograph of Petrarch was shown him (perhaps the
Virgil on whose cover the poet has recorded his pas-
sionate sorrow on the death of Laura), he, barbarian like,
pushed it away, saying, it was nothing to him. This act
did not arise from mere indifference; but partly from
a grudge he felt against Petrarch, arising from his not
being able to understand his poetry ; and shame for his
own ignorance took the guise of contempt of another's
genius. On visiting Florence, the only object that called
forth any emotion was the sight of Michael Angelo's
tomb; when the recollection of the fame which had been
acquired by this master of his art filled him with ideas
that he could not define ; and the thought rose in his
mind, that those men only were truly great, who left some
enduring monument of genius behind them. But these
notions were vague and transitory ; he lived only for the
present hour, even while that afforded no one object
to occupy or please him.

On leaving Florence, he hurried through Pisa and
Siena; but such is the magic of the name, that the ap-
proach to Rome made his heart palpitate, and his torpid
soul warmed into something like enthusiasm. He was
charmed by the magnificent aspect which the eternal city
presents as it is entered by the Porta del Popolo ; and
scarcely had he alighted at the hotel in the Piazza di
Spagna, than he hurried off to behold the wonders of the
place. Ignorance narrows the intellect, and takes the

s 3


living colours from the imagination. Alfieri, after all,
regarded coldly those objects which render Rome a city
of absolute enchantment. He was best pleased with St.
Peter's. At each successive visit, the solemn vastness
of the mighty aisles of the cathedral made a deeper
impression ; the splendour of the architecture, the sub-
lime stillness of its incense-breathing atmosphere, and
the soft twilight that reigns beneath its dome, kindled
his soul to something like poetic inspiration. But even
these feelings could only for a few moments appease
the restlessness that pursued him, and he hurried away
from Rome with all the impatience of one ill at ease in
himself. At Naples he grew still more disturbed and
melancholy : music, which he loved, only tended to in-
crease his gloom ; and his reserve prevented him from
forming any intimacies. All day he drove from place
to place, in those droll little Neapolitan calesine, which
go at such a prodigious rate under the guidance of their
Lazaroni drivers, " Not.," he says, " that I wished
to visit remarkable objects, for I had no curiosity nor
knowledge about them, but merely for the sake of being
on the road : I was never satiated of rapid motion, but
a moment's quiescence filled me with annoyance." ....
( ' And thus I lived, a riddle to myself, believing that I had
capacity for nothing; feeling no decided impulse or
emotion, except a continual melancholy; never finding
peace nor quiet, yet not knowing what I desired ;
blindly obeying my nature, although I neither studied
nor comprehended it. Many years afterwards I per-
ceived that my unhappiness proceeded from the want,
nay the necessity, which I have, to have at once my
heart occupied by some worthy object, and my mind
by some ennobling pursuit; for, whenever either of these
two fail me, I remain incapable of the other, satiated
and weary, and beyond all things miserable."

In the midst of this disturbed and unprofitable state,
he nourished the ardent desire to travel on and on, be-
yond the mountainous boundaries of his country, uncon-
trolled and alone For this purpose he applied to the



Sardinian minister; and, representing how correct his
conduct was, and how capable he showed himself of
managing his own affairs, he besought him to obtain
leave from their sovereign, that he might detach him-
self from the tutor, and proceed alone. To his great
joy, his request was complied with; and, with infinite
delight, he left Naples for Rome, eager to make use
of his entire independence, and to find himself solitary
and lord of himself, on the high road, more than three
hundred miles distant from his native Piedmont.

How little does mere freedom of will satisfy the
mind, when not ministered to and filled by thoughts
that go beyond the present moment. The aimless
uneasiness of Alfieri was not to be dissipated by the
mere ability of satisfying his craving for locomotion.
He obtained leave of absence for another year, and per-
mission to visit France and England: but the same
spirit accompanied him of melancholy and ennui ; and
all objects were stale and unprofitable to his languid

Online LibraryDionysius LardnerEminent literary and scientific men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal .. (Volume 2) → online text (page 22 of 34)