Dionysius Lardner.

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While thus employed, a more genial pursuit occu-
pied him for a short period, which he calls waste of time,
but which, by linking him in agreeable intercourse with
his fellow creatures, and wearing away the rust produced
by despondency and over-excited feelings, would have
made his latter years happier ; but Alfieri, ever bent on
fighting with difficulties, and thwarting his natural
tendencies, cast from him the medicine offered to his
diseased mind. Some friends of his, possessed of histri-
onic talent, got up his tragedy of "Saul :" Alfieri filled the
part of the unfortunate king. Others of his plays were
afterwards represented, in which he also acted ; but he
always preferred the part of Saul, which confirms our
opinion, that it is, of all the characters he has pour-
trayed, the best fitted for the stage, and the nearest ap-
proach to those unrivalled princes of the drama, the
heroes of Shakspeare.

After some months had been occupied by these repre-
sentations, Alfieri gave them up, and devoted himself
exclusively to study. He had many plans for compo-
sition : the chief of these were what he called trameloge-
die, or tragic melodramas, only one of which, " Abel,"
he found energy to write, and this is an entire failure.
He entered on a new field, to which his genius was not
adapted the mingling of human beings and spirits,
of the passions of the heart and the airy creations of our
fancy ; a species cf composition which is to be found in


perfection in Calderon, and which Goethe, Byron, and
Shelley have made familiar to us in modern times, and,
according to their various capacities, adorned with the
mystery, fire, and glowing imagery peculiar to each.
But of this creative power, that peoples our world with
beings not of it, though in it, Alfieri was wholly
destitute. We have already remarked how entirely his
writings are wanting in the more ideal attributes of ima-
ginative poetry.

At the age of forty-six he applied himself with des-
perate ardour to the study of the Greek language. Forty-
six is no advanced age : how many men are in their prime
at that epoch ! but it was not so with Alfieri ; his very
memory failed him, but he persevered with his accus-
tomed energy, battling with difficulties as if they had
been opponents, inspired with a sense of opposition.
Thus he read the most difficult authors, with the notes
tf the scholiasts, learning an infinite multitude of verses
by heart, and acquiring, in the end, by dint of unwearied
industry, a considerable knowledge of the language.

His health was infirm and his quiet disturbed by the
progress of the French armies. They came, they said,
to liberate Italy, and, under this pretence, destroyed its
native governments, introduced their own crude insti-
tutions, and then, on pretence of the opposition their
tyranny met, despoiling the Italians of their works of
art, endeavouring even to supplant their divine language,
and treating with contempt and insolence their peculiar
manners and customs ; so that any welcome given by
the Italians to these pretended friends only showed
more plainly their insulting pretensions and rapacity.
When the French first appeared in Florence, Alfieri and
the countess hurried away as if it had been visited by
the plague. They established themselves at a villa in
the environs, having removed all their property from
their house in the city ; and here they remained till the
French were temporarily driven from Tuscany. On
their second invasion, Alfieri had no time to retreat, and
he satisfied his feelings of scorn and hatred by never


speaking to a Frenchman, or admitting the visits of the
leaders of its armies.

His melancholy increased with the irritation caused
by political events, by unwearied study, and the physical
weakness produced by his systematic abstinence. He
was happy in the society of the countess of Albany,
and that of his dear friend, the abbate Caluso : but
many long hours he spent by himself in gloomy
reverie. The bitterness and asperity of his mind
was thus increased, and his dislike of society pre-
vented the beneficial action of sympathy and mutual
forbearance. He considered himself, to a great degree,
a disappointed man in his literary career, and was
ignorant of the universal applause bestowed upon his
tragedies. He divided his time with the most scru-
pulous exactitude, and his horses were still dear to
him. Many hours were spent in the aisles of Santa
Croce, or other churches of Florence, listening to the
music, and absorbed in reverie.

During the last years of his life, he was visited
each spring by a fit of the gout, and each summer by
a desire to employ himself upon original composition,
to which he devoted himself with an ardour which
brought on, each autumn, a dangerous illness. His six
unlucky comedies were the principal objects of these
ill-fated labours ; and his life was at last their sacrifice.
A theorist in all things, he imagined that, as the gout
proceeded from inflammation, it could be starved out of
his frame ; and he commenced a system of abstinence
that deprived him of the nutriment necessary to sup-
port life. The countess in vain implored him not to
adhere to so senseless a plan ; it has often happened that,
by resisting the prescriptions of physicians, and the aid
of medicine, a man has conquered inherent disease, and
lived to an old age ; but as soon as he begins to admi-
nister remedies to himself, and to act from theories,
instead of from that long and arduous practice necessary
to give the smallest insight into the delicate structure of
our physical nature, he must become the victim : thus


it was with Alfieri ; hard study and abstinence reduced
his life to a mere flickering spark ; he became a skeleton
in appearance ; each day he took less nourishment, and
the weaker he grew, the more resolutely did he apply
himself to study, as the sole solace of his worn-out and
burthensome existence. In the month of October, 1 803,
he was attacked by gout in the stomach. The phy-
sicians wished, by means of blisters and sinapisms, to
draw it to the extremities ; but a childish dislike to the
inconvenience which would ensue, and the impossibility
of taking his daily walk, if these remedies were ap-
plied to his legs, caused him to refuse them. Opium
was given instead, and his pain was moderated ;
but still he sat up ; and his mind was rather excited
than calmed by the narcotics administered : he remem-
bered as in dreams, but with the utmost vividness,
various incidents of his past life, or passages from his
own writings and those of others ; and these he re-
peated to the countess, who sat by him watching.
No idea of approaching death seems to have entered
his mind ; and the priest, who came to offer the usual
offices of the catholic religion to the dying, was sent
away with an invitation to return on the morrow ;
whether because he believed that by that time he
should be beyond such interference, or as a mere ex-
cuse for delay, cannot be told. As he grew weaker,
he sent for the countess, and when she came he
stretched out his hand, saying " Stringetemi la mano.
cara arnica; mi sento morire." " Press my hand, dear
friend; I am dying." These were his last words. He
died on the 8th of October, 1803, at the age of

He was buried in Santa Croce, and the countess of
Albany erected a tomb to his memory, sculptured by
Canova. It is not one of his happiest efforts; but the
inscription, which has been called pretending, appears
to me simple and affectionate. " Louisa de Stolberg,
countess of Albany, to Vittorio Alfieri,' ? is surely no
impertinent obtrusion of the name of his dearest friend ;


and it may be remarked, that, while the countess has
been censured for recording her name so prominently,
Altieri, in the epitaph he himself composed for her,
makes it her chief praise that she was " quam unice
dilexit/' the only love of the poet.

This account of the life of a man who was endowed
with the chief attribute of genius, that of spontaneously
forming and manifesting itself, despite every obstacle
or adverse circumstance, may be concluded by the
quotation of the sonnet in which he describes his
own person ; a faithful translation of which, which
we also append, appeared, some years ago, in " The
Liberal." It may be quoted with the more propriety at
the end of his life, since it was written when time had
robbed him of the graces of youth ; giving instead
those characteristic marks stamped by the action of his
disposition and pursuits.

" Sublime specchio di veraci detti

Mostrami in corpo e in anima qual sono.
Capelli or radi in fronte, e rossi pretti ;
Lunga statura e capo a terra prono ;
Sottil persona su due stinchi schietti ;
Bianca pelle, occhi azzurri, aspetto buono,
Giusto naso, bel labbro, e denti eletti,
Pallido in volto piu che un re sul trono.

" Or duro, acerbo, ora pieghevol mite,
Irato sempre e non maligno mai,
La mente e il cor meco in perpetua lite,
Per lo piu mesto, e talor lieto assai,
Or stimandomi Achille, ed or Tersite ;
Uom, se' tu grande o vil ? Muori, e il saprai." *

* " Thou lofty mirror, Truth, let me be shown
Such as I am, in body and in mind.
Hair plainly red, retreating now behind ;
A stature tall, a stooping head and prone ;
A meagre body on two stilts of bone ;
Fair skin, blue eyes, good look, nose well design'd ;
A handsome mouth, teeth that are rare to find,
And pale in face, more than a king on throne.

" Now harsh and crabbed, mild and pleasant soon;
Always irascible, no malignant foe ;
My head and heart and I never in tune ;
Sad for the most part, then in such a flow
Of spirits, I feel now hero, now buffoon ;
Man, art thou great or vile ? die, and thou 'It know."




MONTI is, without question, the greatest Italian poet
that has appeared since the golden days of its poetry :
he alone emulates his predecessors in the higher flights
of the imagination. It has been pronounced of Dryden,
that if each of the princes of poetry surpassed him in their
peculiar vein, yet his fire and originality give him a near
place beside them. Thus Monti has not the sublimity
of Dante, nor the tenderness of Petrarch ; neither the in-
ventive flow of Ariosto, nor Tasso's epic conception
and voluptuous grace: but he has a fervour, a power
of imagery, an overflowing and redundance of ideal
thought, that mark the genuine poet.

He came to revive the languid and unnatural style
that flourished under the reign of the Arcadians. Some
few real poets had sprung up in Italy in the interval
between Ariosto and Monti : they are recorded in this
volume. Chiabrera and Filicaja are the chief. These
men found in the inspiration of their own minds the
power that led them to adopt a style of their own, and
to bestow originality which, in one shape or another, is
the vivifying soul of composition, on their productions.
Metastasio carried clearness and grace of expression to
a great perfection, but he wanted strength and daring :
Alfieri had not a trace of that sunshiny and rainbow-like
(so to speak) colour-giving power of fancy, without
which there is no real poetry. For the rest, the poets
of those days were Arcadians ; the very word seems to
express volumes of inane affectation, and turgid, yet
soul-less, language. It is thus that a clever Italian critic
of the present day speaks of them : tf To the hyper-
boles and conceits of the seicentisti, succeeded the
follies and pastorals of the Arcadians. The subject


treated by these poets were restrained in narrow limits ;
they were all futile, trite, vulgar, or silly, adulatory,
or false. A new-married pair, a nun, the new-born
babe of some sovereign or noble, the election of a
cardinal, or a bishop, or even of an abbe a funeral
or a feigned love ; such were the favourite themes of
the Arcadians. Was a marriage in question, Hymen
was adjured to bring its chains to link two hearts ; and
a new Hercules or Achilles was prognosticated as the
future result of the union. If a girl shut herself up in
the cloister, the poets expatiated on her happiness;
they described the heavenly bridegroom as descending
and stretching out his hand to her, while the mischiev-
ous Cupid angrily threw away his golden quiver ; a cen-
surable mixture of sacred and profane imagery was thus
introduced, and their ideas were steeped in two foun-
tains, in contradiction one to the other, the Bible and
mythology. The most shameless flattery blotted their
pages, as they praised one another, and depicted them-
selves on the heights of Parnassus, beside the waters of
Hypocrene, in the company of Apollo and the Muses ;
and the wonders of Orpheus and Amphion were re-
newed, to express the charms of each other's verses.
No Arcadian dared imagine himself enamoured of a
human being : she was no mortal woman, but a god-
dess, a Venus sprung on the instant from the foam of
the sea : lips, and eyes, and hair, had all their appro -
priate, still-repeated epithets : did their lady sigh, or
did one word escape the paling of her ivory teeth, tem-
pests fled, the winds were stilled, and Jove was again
tempted to transform himself into a bull for her sake."*
Men can do strange things when they associate in
companies, and keep each other in countenance by a
wide- spread folly, that bars out the wholesome fear of
ridicule. Thus, the Arcadians had colonies all over
Italy. They gave feigned names to each other ; they
lauded, and celebrated, and crowned each other. Good
sense and good taste were sacrificed in the emulation

* Mafiei ; Storia della Litteratura Italiana.


each felt, to transcend his rivals in a sonorous and turgid
system of words, in which neither passion nor thought
appeared.* A new genius was wanted to trample on
this overgrowth of vanity or folly, and to gift the
tamed and chained language of Dante and Bojardo with
wings and liberty. Such was the poet, the incidents of
whose life we now proceed to detail.

Vincenzo Monti was born in Romagna, on the 19th
of February, 1754. His father's simple, and even
humble, but pretty and agreeable, house was situated
among the vineyards and agricultural country which
lies between Fusignano and the Alfonsine, in the Ra-
vennese territory. The air is healthy and serene, the
country fertile and diversified, and the style of life of
his parents such as at once cultivated simplicity of taste
and kindness of heart. Nothing can be more primitive
and patriarchal than the mode of life of the smaller
landholders in Italy ; and to this class Monti's father
belonged. The farm-house or villa, as it is called, if
a little better than a cottage is situated amidst the
ground they cultivate. The name of podere is given to
these small farms, enclosed by hedges, within whose
limits grapes, corn, vegetables, and fruits are all culti-
vated in a sort of picturesque confusion. The vines,
trained on trellises, form covered walks; and the sound
of the water-wheel is continually heard, and of the
water trickling through the conduits that lead it to the
various parts of the grounds. The Italian farmer works
very hard, and the cottager still harder. He divides
the produce of the land with his landlord, entertains
few servants, and his habits are at once laborious
and frugal. The parents of Monti were an excellent
specimen of the virtues of this unpretending race.
They are still remembered in the country by num-
bers of the poor whom they assisted and comforted.
Their children were brought up to consider it a valu-
able privilege to bestow help upon those in want of the

* Bonetti.


necessaries of life, and Viiuvn/o in particular inherited
from them a warm heart and a tenderness of feeling that

caused him to he idolised in his doim-xtie circ'l.'.

Monti passed his early hoyhood in this rural retire-
ment. To the end of his life he rememhuvd with
fondness the days of his childhood,, which were spent
gaily amidst a large family of three brothers, older than
himself, and five sisters. The reward for good be-
haviour among them w r as a permission to distribute
charity among the indigent, a sacred, soul-saving duty
with catholics. The well-known benevolence of his
parents drew numbers to their house, where portions of
food were distributed to them. His mother never felt
so happy as w r hen thus engaged ; and it is related of her
that, \vhen, a few years after, the family removed to
Majano, where their charitable habits were at first un-
known, she complained in a sort of alarm that they
were no longer visited by the poor. The same bio-
grapher relates a story of Vincenzo. On one occasion
he was permitted to distribute the portions of food to
mendicants, who entered at one door and went out at
the other-: some among them fancied that they could
deceive the child, and returned twice ; and he, with in-
genuous shame, turned away, and gave to them twice
without looking, that he might not be obliged to accuse
them of their trick. "An anecdote," continues his
biographer," perhaps scarcely w r orth relating, only that
it describes the character, or rather, it may be said, the
whole life of Monti, who, even in old age, frequently
suffered himself voluntarily to be imposed upon." Were
a philosophical analysis of Monti's disposition to be at-
tempted, it might be discovered how this sensitiveness
to the shame of others, this sparing of their feelings in
preference to the assertion of truth and honesty, makes
a part of the same weakness that led him always to regard
as a secondary consideration moral truths and political
integrity, when put in competition with the happiness
and welfare of his domestic circle. We call this sort of

MONTI. 307

sensibility weakness,, because, though usually united to
great private rectitude of character, it is incompatible
with the heroism of the patriot and the martyr.

For several years Monti had no instructors except his
kind parents ; hut,, soon after their removal to Majano,
he was sent to the seminary of Faenza, which enjoyed
a good reputation for the solidity of its instruction ;
there he learnt early and well the Latin language. His
first attempts in Latin verse were, however, so singularly
infelicitous, that his master thought it necessary to put
him into a lower class than that in which he had first
been placed. The boy, roused to indignation, made no
complaints, but secretly learned by heart the whole of
the JEneid; and persevered so earnestly in conquering
the difficulties, that his Latin verses soon became dis-
tinguished for a style and harmony that announced his
poetic talent. His second trial was so different from
the first, that his masters began to regard him as a sort
of prodigy ; and he himself entered with delight and
ardour on the study of the Roman poets. The full
force of his impetuous and fertile imagination was early
awakened by them, and he began to exercise the art
peculiar to his country of extemporising verses ; but his
master had the judgment to withdraw him from an ex-
ercise so pernicious to the strength and critical delicacy
of poetry, and induced him to write with care and me-
ditation. He was yet a boy when, under this tutelage,
he composed a volume of elegies, several of which have
been printed.

It is the usual custom among the smaller land-
holders of Romagna to destine their youngest sons to
the agricultural labours of their farms ; and this w r as
fixed as the career of Monti. He yielded to his father's
commands, but with reluctance. His mind was opened
to the necessity of cultivation, and mere manual labour
and low-thoughted cares were infinitely distasteful to
him. His heart was with the Latin poets, from whom
he could not separate himself; and his dislike to every
occupation that was not intellectual grew to be insur-

x 2


inountable. His father thought it necessary to reprove
him ; and a scene ensued similar to one recorded as
having taken place, several centuries In-fore, hetween Pe-
trarch and his father. Vincenzo, moved by his parent's
reproof to a belief that his literary predilections were
reprehensible; made a resolution to renounce them. He
led his father into his chamber, and there, before him,
threw his favourite authors into a large fire. The good
mail; touched by this act of docility, gave him twelve
sequins ; and the youth, unable to resist the temptation
thus held out, hastened to the neighbouring fair of
Luga, and spent the whole sum in buying over again
the authors whose works he had left at home, still
warm in the ashes of the fire into which he had thrown
them. His father, seeing the inutility of combating
with his inclinations, sent him to the university of Fer-
rara, wishing him to enter on the legal or medical pro-
fession. But, after a few vain attempts to apply himself
to these studies, Monti gave up every other pursuit, and
dedicated himself wholly to the cultivation of literature
and poetry. He still continued to write in Latin, and
always retained a predilection for this language, and
later in life translated some of his own works into it.
His first Italian poem was " The Prophecy of Jacob."
It was, of course, inexact in versification, and unequal ;
but when Jacob prophesies the future glory of the Lion
of Judah, the style rises into vigour, and even sublimity.
At this time the " Visions" of Varino and the sonnets of
Minzoni, two Ferrarese poets, fell into his hands. They
rose above the inanities of the Arcadians, and indicated
to him the path he should pursue. Through reading
them he was brought to the perusal of Dante, and his
soul opened at once to the conception of all that Italian
poetry contains of grand and beautiful. Henceforth
Alighieri was his model and master, and he regarded at
once with admiration and a sort of worship the elevated
and godlike powers of this most inspired of poets. He
wrote the " Vision of Ezekiel" in a sort of imitation of
his favourite, in which he displayed that grandeur of

MONTI. 309

imagery and command of language which distinguish
his compositions.

Cardinal Borghese was at that time legate at Ferrara.
Admiring the youth's genius, he took him under his
protection. On his return from his legation, he obtained
the elder Monti's consent to his son's accompanying him
to Rome. He was now eighteen. The first intimacy that
he formed in the capital was with Ennio Quirino Vis-
conti, a man of vast erudition ; and under his direction
Monti extended his classical knowledge. It happened,
while he was at Rome, that the Erme of Pericles and
Aspasia were discovered, one in excavations made in
the villa of Cassius at Tivoli, the other atCivita Vecchia.
Visconti wrote a treatise on these marbles, and invited
his friend to celebrate them in a poem ; and he wrote
the " Prosopopea di Pericle," which is preserved in the
Vatican museum, written with great simplicity of style,
and his usual easy flow, yet fervour, of language. This
was the first time that he appeared in the character of
a poet at Rome ; and it was followed by several other
attempts. He thus attracted attention ; but, having no
fixed situation, after remaining some years in the capital,
he was on the point of complying with his father's fre-
quent requests that he would return home, when a cir-
cumstance happened to change his plans. The Arcadians
of the Bosco Parrasio celebrated the Quinquenalli of
Pius VI. (1780, aetat. 26'.) ; when Monti recited some
of his compositions, which attracted so much applause
that the duke of Braschi, the pope's nephew, sent for
him the next day, and offered him the place of his
secretary, which was at once accepted. Monti remained
at Rome in the house of the prince, who treated him
with all the kindness of friendship, and he enjoyed full
leisure to pursue his literary studies.

Yet it is, perhaps, matter of regret that Monti should
have been thus employed. It is very difficult to make
rules for the education of genius, when, on the one hand,
care and want may fetter, and even crush, its loftiest as-

x 3

310 MTKHAHY AM) Sri i:.VI ; TIC

pirations; or too much ease and leisure wean it from
habits of industry, and foster the dissipation of thought
and feeling which too frequently accompanies the poetic
temperament. Monti's muse had surely not been silent
if he had remained in his father's farm, surrounded by
the luxuriant beauty of nature, and supported by con-

Online LibraryDionysius LardnerEminent literary and scientific men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal .. (Volume 2) → online text (page 26 of 34)