Dionysius Lardner.

Eminent literary and scientific men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal .. (Volume 2) online

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senses. Motive was absent; and his ardent feelings,
left to prey on themselves, produced tears and regret
but no power of finding a means of exercising them with
advantage and happiness. If his ignorance was ever
brought home to him, he was rendered uncomfortable,
but felt no wish to improve. He tells us that, at Rome,
lie was accustomed to visit each day the count of Rivera,
minister of Sardinia, a worthy old man, who showed
him every kindness, and gave him the best advice. One
morning he found the count occupied in reading the
sixth book of the JEneid; and when Alfieri entered, he
signed to him to approach, and began to recite the
beautiful lamentation for Marcellus. Six years before,
Alfieri had translated, and known by heart, the greater
part of Virgil; but he had now forgotten it, and felt
thoroughly ashamed, but with little courage to amend; so
thai the result of this scene was only that he sullenly rumi-
natedover his disgrace, and never wentnear the count again.
The desire of some sort of interest drove him into a fit
of avarice. He was slenderly provided with means for

s 4


his ultramontane journey; and he resolved to save all
he could in Italy, that he might not be restricted when
among foreigners. He followed up his system of par-
simony with his usual ardour, and carried it to an excess
which became its cure, since he got weary of the pri-
vations and annoyances he thus brought on himself.

From Rome he proceeded to Venice, passing through
Ferrara without a thought of Ariosto or Tasso; and
Padua, without visiting either living professors, or the
tomb of the illustrious dead in the neighbourhood.


What was Petrarch to him? he again asked himself;
he wrote in an unknown tongue, of which, after all, he
felt ashamed of being ignorant. He was pleased with
Venice, and was diverted by its amusements; yet the
spring season brought his usual annual fit of melancholy,
and he spent many days brooding over he knew not
what, and weeping he knew not why. Spurred on by
restlessness, he hurried away from Venice: he passed
solitarily and ennuied through the beautiful cities of
Lombardy, seldom presenting letters of recommendation,
and always keeping out of the way of acquaintances:
proud and shy, he hated new faces; and besides, his desire
of travelling made him avoid the ties of friendship and
even of love, though once or twice the smiles of beauty
almost softened his heart. All his desire was to hasten
to France, and to enjoy the delights he there promised
himself. He was destined to be disappointed ; for his
ill-regulated imagination always exaggerated the pains
and pleasures of the future, while it did not possess the
better power of exalting and adorning the objects which
in anticipation had appeared so desirable, and which in
possession grew contemptible and barren.

One of the singularities of Alfieri's character was
the extravagant hatred of France which he cherished
all his life. He attributed this, in the first place, to a
vehement childish dislike of his French dancing-master.
Still he read nothing but French books, French was
the language he commonly spoke, and he left Italy in
eager anticipation of the pleasures of Paris. But Alfieri


did not know his own nature; nor was lie aware that he
could find happiness through the medium of his pas-
sions and intellect only, while amusement and even
dissipation had the effect of wearying and disgusting
him. The circumstance of his first entrance into Paris
sufficed to cloud his stay; nay, the feelings of his whole
life were influenced by the painful impression then
made. It was the month of August, in Italy so sun-
shiny and festal ; a drizzling rain, accompanied by a
chilling temperature of air, impressed him most dis-
agreeably ; the streets, houses, and people were all mean,
dirty, and impertinent in his eyes ; his illusions va-
nished, and, but for a sense of shame, he would on the
instant have quitted the city he had come so far to visit.
The lapse of a quarter of a century did not erase the
profound traces of disgust and aversion that were then
trenched in his mind. At the time, the principal effect
of his disappointment was a little to diminish his passion
for travelling; and to find that, beyond the Alps, he
learned to appreciate the beauties of the divine country
he had been so eager to quit.

He delayed his departure from Paris till January,
and then hurried to London, which delighted as
much as Paris had disgusted him; and he thus gives
evidence of a fact of which many English, who have
travelled, must be aware - - that there is something in
Italy and the Italians, in the rural beauty of the coun-
try, and in the unpretending but highly gifted natives,
more congenial to our taste, than in the peculiar habits
and manners of the French. Industry does here, in
beautifying the landscape, what nature does beyond the
Alps; while in France, there is a discomfort and a deso-
lation apparent in the midst of its civilisation and
plenty, which is singularly disagreeable. In this country,
the roads, the inns, the horses, the women, all charmed
Alfieri ; the appearance of general competence, the
activity of life, and the cleanliness and comfort of the
houses, diminutive as they struck him to be, made an
agreeable impression, which each successive visit re-


newed. Yet he led a strange life avoiding society,
although in the midst of it. He had heen accompanied
from Paris by a friend; and he amused himself, each
morning, by driving him about town, and acting the
coachman for him at night, sitting on the box for hours,
and taking pride in his dexterity in extricating his car-
riage amidst the difficulties and confusion attendant on
the vast multitude of equipages that throng round places
of amusement during the London season. This did for
a little while; then, in obedience to his wandering pro-
pensity, he made a tour to Portsmouth, Bristol, and
Oxford. He was pleased with all he saw; and began
to entertain a wish to settle in a country whose aspect
was so agreeable, where the manners were simple,
the women modest and beautiful, the laws equitable,
and the men free. The enthusiasm he felt, made him
disregard the melancholy generated by the gloomy cli-
mate, and the ruinous expense of living. He observes,
and Avith justice, that Italy and England are the only
countries in which it is desirable to live : the former,
because there nature vindicates her rights, and rises
triumphant over the evils produced by the governments ;
the latter, because art conquers nature, and transforms
a rude ungenial land into a paradise of comfort and
laughing abundance.

In June, he left England for Holland ; and at the
Hague for the first time became really in love, and at
the same time his heart opened itself to friendship.
The lady whom he admired, and who returned his af-
fection, was unfortunately a married woman, but an
Italian education and habits prevented any scruples of
conscience from interrupting the felicity he enjoyed.
His friend was Don Jose d'Alcunha, Portuguese mi-
nister in Holland. Alfieri describes him as clever and
original, with a cultivated understanding and firm un-
bending character: with tact and efficacy the Portuguese
awoke in his new friend shame for his idle, aimless life.
It was a curious circumstance, he tells us, that he never
felt a strong desire for mental improvement, except at


such periods as when he was passionately in love, and
his time so employed that he could bestow none of it on
literature. In process of time, when he became worthily
attached , he may have perceived in this, the beneficent
action of the passions in our nature, when their objects
are what they ought to be ennobling and permanent.

After a period of great happiness, he was forced to
separate from the lady to whom he was attached, she
being obliged to join her husband, who had gone to
Switzerland ; and Alfieri suffered the mildest of the
punishments that result from loving one to whom you
cannot consecrate your life. But though a separation,
attended neither by disastrous incident nor infidelity, is
the gentlest penance for such an error, it visited the
young Italian in no gentle manner. It was a natural
wish, as any one will acknowledge who has attended to
his own sensations, on first being subjected to passionate
sorrow, that which he formed for being bled : prevented
by his friend and a faithful servant from allowing this
bleeding to be fatal, his grief became gloomy and taci-
turn; Holland grew hateful to him; and he returned to
Italy with the utmost speed never resting till he found
himself at Cumiano, in his sister's villa^ after a three
weeks' journey, during which time he saw nothing and
said nothing, communicating only by signs with his
faithful servant, Elia, who never lost sight of him, and
bore with exemplary patience his caprices and heedless

This state of melancholy regret augmented his love
of solitude, and engendered, moreover, a desire to study :
he passed the winter at Turin, in his sister's house, seeing
absolutely no society, and spending his time in reading.
He turned over the pages of Voltaire, Rousseau, Hel-
vetius, and Montesquieu ; but his chief delight was
derived from the perusal of Plutarch's lives. His mind
was strongly excited by the heroic virtues of the great
men of whom he read, and tears of mingled admiration
and indignation gushed from his eyes. He felt the
misfortune it was to be a native of Piedmont ; and to


have been born in a country, and at a time, when no
scope was afforded for word or action, scarcely any
for thought and feeling.

In the spring of 17^9 he set out on another and a
longer tour. He had been disappointed in a matri-
monial project, proposed to him by his brother-in-law.
The young kdy was rich and beautiful, but she pre-
ferred a handsome young courtier to a man already re-
markable for the eccentricity of his conduct and the
sombreness of his disposition : for Alfieri, withdrawn
from the common routine of society by his passionate
and earnest nature, could but awkwardly and reluctantly
fulfil the thousand minute duties which an Italian is
accustomed to pay to his lady ; nor, on this occasion,
did love inspire him with that devotion of heart which
might have proved acceptable in lieu of petty attentions.
He was now twenty, and, according to the laws of
his country, of age so that his entire fortune was at
his disposal : this consisted of an income of 2500
sequins, or about 12 007. a year, and a large sum of
ready money ; and, to augment the value of his posses-
sions, he had acquired the habits of rational economy,
which sprang from the scantiness of the allowance
which his prudent trustee had made him. Thus he
set out with " money in his purse," and no love in his
heart, except the tender recollection of his half-ex-
tinguished Flemish flame ; and if with a head not much
fuller of ideas, yet with a thousand sentiments awakened,
which afforded matter for thought. As he drove along,
he read Montaigne, or reflected on what he read a
little galled by finding that he could not construe the
Latin quotations, and still more so by being obliged to
skip the Italian ones. Vienna and Berlin were hastily
visited, and seen without pleasure : he had beheld the
results of liberty in England, and he had read of them
in Plutarch, and his natural sense of independence
made him revolt from the military despotisms of the
north. Instinctive good sense served him better than
the philosophy of Voltaire, and he recognised the


cloven foot of arbitrary power in the barrack capital cf
the philosopher of Sans Souci. He hurried away from
these mockeries of liberalism, and found more pleasure
in the simplicity of the Swedes : the contrast which
barren nature afforded, in these frozen regions, to the
luxuriance and glory of Italy interested and pleased
him ; the velocity of his sledge, as he proceeded through
the silent pine forests, and over the ice-covered lakes,
fostered an agreeable melancholy ; and he describes his
spring journey from Sweden to St. Petersburgh with a
vividness and beauty which it would spoil to abridge.
Embarking at the first breaking up of the frost on the
Gulf of Bothnia, his boat had to struggle through
the floating ice ; and the novelty of his situation was a
source of amusement. " This is the country o
Europe," he says, " most agreeable to me, from its
savage rudeness; fantastic, gloomy, and even sublime,
ideas are created in the mind by the vast, undefinable
silence that reigns there, making you feel as if trans-
ported away from the globe." St. Petersburgh disap-
pointed him ; nor would he see the empress Catherine,
whom he regarded as the murderess of her husband,
and whose conduct having failed in her promise
of bestowing a constitution on her subjects was unre-
deemed, in his eyes, by any mitigating circumstances.

From Russia he traversed Germany to Holland, and
again visited England. His time, during his second
visit to this country, was engrossed by an attachment
for a lady of rank, who proved herself not only un-
worthy of the affection of the husband whom she
betrayed, but the lover to whom she was false. The
more violent passions of Alfieri were all roused to their
utmost vehemence by the various chances of this ad-
venture, which was attended by all those hairbreadth
escapes, menacing dangers, and final ruin and misery,
which usually wait upon intrigue in England. First
it was love, accompanied by the ' ' sin and fear " which
attends on mystery and deceit ; then separation came
to drive him to despair. The London season over, the


lady went to her country house near Windsor; and Alfieri
could only visit her clandestinely, on such nights when her
husband was absent in London. His impatience and
agony during the periods of separation were only appeased
by excessive exercise : he rode about all day, performing
such feats of horsemanship as endangered his life. Leap-
ing a five-barred gate, with his thoughts wandering to
his lady, instead of being fixed on his bridle-hand, his
horse fell on him, and dislocated his shoulder ; but that
did not prevent a visit to Windsor on the following
evening, the last that he was destined to make. The
servants observed and watched him, and the hus-
band of the lady had intelligence of her infidelity ;
" and here," he writes, cc it is impossible not to laugh
at the contrast between English and Italian jealousy, so
different are the passions in different characters, in
another climate, and, above all, under other laws. Even 7
Italian would now expect to hear of blows, poison,
stabs, or, at least, of the imprisonment of the lady,
under such violent provocation : nothing of all this
happened, though the English husband adored his wife
after his manner." It was much according to the pre-
sent customs, tha-t the English husband, besides in-
stituting legal proceedings against his wife and her
lover, called out the latter. The duel was, however, a
very harmless proceeding : Alfieri could not fence, and
his adversary was satisfied by merely drawing blood by
a scratch in the arm, carefully abstaining from in-
flicting the wound or death which he had it in his
power to bestow. A far deeper and more painful
wound was reserved for the Italian, when he learned
how grossly the lady had deceived him. A groom of
her husband had formerly been her lover: he still
lived in the house ; and, fearing that his lord would
risk his life in an encounter with Alfieri, he hastened to
inform him that the lady was totally unworthy such a
chivalrous encounter. All these disgraceful circum-
stances came out on the trial. Alfieri, maddened and
enraged, was yet unable, at first, to separate from his


treacherous mistress. They travelled together in Eng-
land, he furious at his own weakness, and perpetually
struggling to vanquish it; till, seizing on a moment when
shame and indignation were stronger than love, he left
her at Rochester, on her way to France with a relative,
and returned to London. In after times, the chief im-
pression left on his mind from this adventure was, a
feeling of mixed respect and gratitude towards her
hushand, who spared both his life and his purse, neither
killing him, nor demanding damages : the first the
English noble, apparently, had at his mercy ; but it is
unlikely, under all the circumstances, that the latter
should have been awarded him, to any great extent.

After tempests like these, it was long before the im-
petuous and sensitive soul of Alfieri settled into any
thing like calm : paroxysms of rage, love, grief, and
despair succeeded one to the other, and his only relief was
derived from locomotion. He left London, and after
visiting his friend Alcunha at the Hague, he hurried on
to Paris ; he traversed France, and entered Spain,
struggling with the passion that warred within him, and
devoured by the gloomiest melancholy. At Barcelona
he bought two Spanish horses, and with these resolved
to proceed on his journey to Madrid. His carriage went
on first, under the care of the servants and muleteers;
and he followed, chiefly on foot, his beautiful Andalusian
trotting beside him with the docility of a dog. This
mixture of idleness and change of solitude and inde-
pendence soothed his disturbed mind. He was given
up to endless reverie, now engrossed by melancholy
and moral trains of thought ; now possessed by images
wild, terrible, or gay. He knew no language, and could
express nothing that he felt all was confused and
vague, and mingled with violent transports of grief and
despair. He spoke to no one ; and his taciturn, self-
devouring misery irritated him almost to madness. His
faithful servant, Elia, who followed him during all his
journeys, had nearly become the victim to an explosion
of the pent-up volcano. In combing the count's long


tresses, which it was the fashion then to wear, he
accidentally pulled one hair ; and Alfieri, starting up like
lightning, hurled a candlestick at his head, which struck
him on the temple and inflicted a wound. Elia's Italian
nature was roused, and he flew on his master. Other
people interfered, and no more harm was done. Alfieri
told his servant that he might kill him if he chose: he
deserved it, and would take no precautions against his
vengeance ; and he praises his own courage in thus ex-
posing himself, and the magnanimity of the man for
not rising in the night and murdering him as he slept.
The whole scene is inexplicable to our northern ima-
ginations, and borders on the excesses of savage nature.
ec It would be difficult for any one," says Alfieri, " to
understand the mixture of ferociousness and generosity
on both sides, \vho has not had experience of the man-
ners and hot blood of the Piedmontese."

After a journey through Spain and Portugal more sa-
vage, wild, and solitary than was even his wont, Alfieri
17 - 2 returned to Turin ; and here he seemed to be in greater
-3^ tat. danger than he had ever been of losing all the exaltation
23. of character and feeling that clung to him despite his
excesses, his ignorance, and the total absence of all mental
culture. He took a magnificent house, and fitted it up
with luxury and taste. He had a circle of friends, who
formed themselves into a society, with laws and regu-
lations. One of their amusements was a sort of literary
budget, to which the various members contributed writ-
ings for the recreation of the general society. Alfieri
wrote several papers, which obtained a good deal of ap-
plause : he had a turn for satire, and that is always a
popular style of writing in a coterie. These composi-
tions were all in French.

A worse degradation than this sort of vegetative dis-
sipation awaited the count : he became a cavaliere ser-
vente. The lady was of rank, a good deal older than
himself, but of extraordinary beauty. She was noted
for her gallantries ; and Alfieri, who was not in love, her
style of beauty even not being exactly to his taste, was


drawn in, at first, by mere idleness, and a belief in the
excessive attachment she bore him. Soon a most vehe-
ment passion engrossed him. Friends, diversions, even
horses, were neglected ; from eight in the morning till
twelve at night he was continually with her discon-
tented with his servitude, but unable to stay away.

It is difficult to understand, and impossible to sym-
pathise with, the sort of frensy he describes. He did not
esteem the lady, and he despised himself for the humi-
liating state to which he was reduced. The situation
of a cavaliere servente is, we are told by high English
authority in such matters, (C no sinecure." To be con-
stantly in attendance is its chief duty. A cavaliere sits
with his lady, drives with her, walks with her, goes to
assemblies and the opera with her : he follows her like
her shadow, and no matrimonial exigence can equal the
total abnegation of all independent occupation to which
the cavaliere must submit. The lady, indeed, may equally
become weary ; but an Italian woman is used to this ex-
cess of indolence. Her life is monotonous, her passage
from one amusement to the other invariable, sameness
forming the essence of her existence: nothing animates it
except love, scandal, or quarrelling : these, and the natural
vivacity of southern blood, which can diversify the in-
dolence which would otherwise mantle over and incrust
every faculty. But all this was torture to the fiery spirit
of the count, who, born for better things, struggled with
his fetters, and roared like a lion in the toils. His slavery
lasted for two years. At one time, the nervous irri-
tation produced a violent and inexplicable malady, which
the wits of Turin declared he had invented exclusively
for himself. He was unable for several days to swallow
aliment in any shape ; and the convulsions brought on
by any attempt to force it on him almost deprived him
of life. At another time, he acquired resolution enough
to scheme a journey to Milan, and actually set out ; but
scarcely had he passed the gates of Turin than his heart
faikd him, and he returned, burning with indignation
against himself, to resume his chains. His friends saw



and pitied his miserable state, and their compassion
aggravated his sufferings, while it did not enable him to
rise above the enthralment. Day after day, month after
month, he formed new resolves to extricate himself, and
for a long time in vain.

At length, in the February of 1775, being now twenty-
six years of age, he, in desperation, came to a determin-
ation to break off the disgraceful intercourse. His eld
remedy of change of place had proved of no avail, so he
resolved to remain on the same spot ; to shut himself
up in his own house, which was opposite that of the
lady, but to receive no letters, hear no messages, and
to be induced by no failing of the heart ever to be-
hold her more. In token of his fixed purpose, he cut
off his long hair, and sent it to a friend, as a proof thai
he could not present himself in society so shorn and

And now a better day dawned on the tempest of
passion that darkened his soul. In Lisbon he had
been acquainted with the abate Caluso, a man of learn-
ing and talent, who had, in some degree, awakened in him
a desire for knowledge, while, w r ith the utmost forbear-
ance and kindness, he tried to lighten the shame in-
spired by every glimmering light that displayed his ex-
cessive ignorance. They had passed many long evenings
together, and Alfieri preferred his instructive but un-
pretending conversation to the gaieties of society ; and
here he felt an awakening of that dormant power of
composition which aftenvards was to expand into worthy
and perennial fruit. In Turin, also, he was acquainted
with several literati ; and now, a voluntary prisoner, and
passing many long hours in entire solitude, unaware and
almost unsought, a true, strong, and enduring love of
knowledge sprang up within him, never after to be
weakened or destroyed. The first token of the spirit
of composition, w r as a sonnet in commemoration of the
freedom he had acquired. Some years before, in Paris,
he had bought a collection of Italian poets, and by
reading them had gained a slight knowledge of versi-


fication, and of his native language; yet so ludi-

Online LibraryDionysius LardnerEminent literary and scientific men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal .. (Volume 2) → online text (page 23 of 34)