Dionysius Lardner.

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

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is flourishing, and that I hope that yours is the same.
Constance and Giulio embrace you fondlv. Addio,
addio i"

The following letter does not concern personal topics;
but gives so lively a picture of Italian manners, that it
is well worthy to be extracted :

" Pesaro, January 12. 1822.

Cf You have reason to complain of the infrequency
of my letters, but I study and write continually j and
when I am buried among my books, with a pen in my
hand, you know how difficult it is to draw me away,
and ought to forgive me.

ff I am delighted to hear that, notwithstanding the
clouds and snow that infest Milan at this season, your
health had not yet suffered. I entreat you to take the
greatest care of it. Mine .is perfect. I never enjoyed
so benignant a winter. It is so mild, that I am dressed
now as I am accustomed to do at Milan in October.

<c For the sake of making a longer letter, I will
relate an anecdote which will make you laugh.

There is an ancient custom still existing at Fano,
ten miles from Pesaro, of celebrating a bull-fight at
this season ; to which a great concourse of people


resort from the surrounding towns. A few days ago
the first celebration took place. A truly ferocious bull
was turned into the arena. It is a law, that whoever
chooses to attack the animal may descend into the lists.
No one dared expose himself to this infuriated crea-
ture, and all the dogs who ventured to assail him were
tossed and killed. At length a peasant presented him-
self, and, to the wonder of all, approached the tre-
mendous animal. He boldly went close to him ; and the
bull became quite mild, allowing himself to be patted
and stroked, while he licked the hand that caressed him ;
every one was astonished, when, all of a sudden, a
fellow among the spectators starts up, and calls out,
' The man is a sorcerer !' f A sorcerer! a magician !'
exclaimed several others in a fury. ' Burn the ma-
gician ! burn the magician !' every one exclaims. The
president of the games is also persuaded that this
prodigy can only be the work of the devil; and he sends
four soldiers, who seize on the magician, drag him from
the lists, and throw him into prison. The poor fellow
asked the cause of this violence ; he was told, ' You
are a magician ; you will be hanged and burnt ! '
' What are you saying about a magician?' cried the
man ; ' does not his excellency and his reverence know
that the bull let me touch him because he knew me ?
I am his master/ This testimony, being confirmed by
several who knew the man to be the master of the
bull, and who took oaths to this effect, ought to have
cured the president of his folly ; but the poor magician
is still in prison, and they are still disputing what to
do with him."

At the same time that Monti writes thus to his wife,
his letters to his other friends are equally full of the
pleasure he enjoyed at this time. " You will like to
know," he writes to one, " how I am passing my life.
Most happily ; but not in idleness. Happily, because
I am with my children; and enjoy a season so mild and
serene, that winter resembles the opening of spring.

MONTI. 347

Not in idleness, because I pursue my studies, and mean
to give a last, short, critical treatise."

But a few months after, in the July of the same
year, 1822, Monti again visited Pesaro, in circum-
stances that form a painful contrast with the tranquil
and domestic happiness that occasioned him so much
pleasure during his former one. Perticari had died
suddenly, and Monti went to assist and console his
sorrowing daughter. He thus writes, on this occasion,
to his friend Mustoxidi, in a letter dated Pesaro, 30th
July, 1822 :-

<e You will have heard from my wife the pitiable
state in which I found my poor Constance. My
arrival has produced a happy change in this unfortunate
creature : my coming was like a sunbeam on a flower
beaten down by the tempest. But, again, her mind is
distracted, sleep flies from her eyes, and her health
suffers dreadfully. I must applaud the kind attentions
of her mother-in-law, who is an angel of goodness.
But I perceive that the only way to preserve her from
the most dangerous consequences of excessive grief, is
to take her from a place too full of shocking associations.
And I would not delay my journey, but for the new
regulation of the pontifical police, which does not per-
mit any one to leave these states without a passport
countersigned by the Austrian ambassador at Rome.
As soon as I obtain this I shall set out, and conduct
this dear object of my compassion to the arms of her

This was a wound not easily healed, and never to
be forgotten. In the spring of the following year
Monti still alludes to his loss with the keenest grief.
" Your letter," he writes to a friend, " afforded me
infinite pleasure and consolation. For a long time I
have lived a wretched life under the rod of adversity ;
and it is only when I enjoy the society of some person
dear to me, or hear from them, that I become a little
cheerful, and my spirits revive. Such has been the
effect, dear friend, of your letter to your poor Monti


poor indeed in every way, and very unhappy. Un-
happy in the death of Giulio; unhappy in the ill health
of Constance, who is wasting away witli grief; un-
happy in myself, as I am deaf, old, and almost blind.
For my eyes, owing to my over-use of them in reading
and writing by candle-light, are fallen into their old

The last volume of the (C Proposta" was published in
July, 1823 ; and, this last prosaic labour finished, the
imagination of Monti awoke again, and he turned his
thoughts once more to the composition of poetry. He
restored the true reading to the " Convito" of Dante,
which he prized as the basis and authority of his own
theories concerning the Italian language. He wrote,
also, the idyl on the nuptials of Cadmus ; and then
contemplated the completion of his poem of the " Fero-
niade," which he had begun many, many years ago at
Rome. When he was secretary to don Luigi Braschi,
duke of Nemi, and nephew of Pius VI., he was ac-
customed to accompany his patron in his hunting ex-
peditions : the usual course of these excursions was
the Pontine marshes, near Terracina, a spot abundant
in game. There is a fountain in that neighbourhood,
supposed to be that anciently dedicated to the Diva
Ferronia, at which the hunters were accustomed to
drink to refresh themselves. The sight of that insalu-
brious marshy tract of land, the drainage of which had
just been undertaken by the pope, for the purpose of
restoring it to agriculture, awoke in Monti the idea of
paying his debt of gratitude to the house of Braschi, by
commemorating this munificent work ; he instantly
began his task, and named his poem from the guardian
genius of the place. The circumstances of the times
interrupted his design : it became more profitable to
celebrate the ambition of Napoleon than the piety of a
captive priest; and the work was neglected, thrown aside,
and almost forgotten. During the last years of the
poet's life, his friends solicited him to finish it. Perhaps,

MONTI. 34-9

when many years and many changes had made much
of his past life appear like an unconnected dream, the
memory of his early years came hefore him with all
that charm and vividness which youth often assumes
in the eyes of age ; and he was glad to recur to a forgot-
ten monument of bygone times. He yielded, therefore^,
to the request of those about him, and had almost
finished, when first disease, and afterwards death, put
an end to all his designs. It was early in the year
1826 that he had thus renewed his poetic existence,
resolving not again to abandon it while his imagination
remained vigorous ; but in the very opening of this
enthusiasm, while every fear was distant, and his active
mind gladly met, each morning, the series of duties and
labour which he imposed on himself, he was seized by
an illness, through which every scheme and every hope
was calamitously overthrown.

On the 9 tn of April, at about eleven o'clock, when
he had retired, rather to study than repose, a sudden
apoplexy attacked him ; and no medical aid, nor any
care, could restore him again to health. He lost the
use of his left side, and the vital powers appeared
mortally attacked. The news spread through Milan,,
and struck every one with grief; the population crowded
round his door, and this public demonstration of kind-
ness sensibly affected him. His mind remained clear
and strong throughout the attack, nor was he without
sanguine hopes of recovery. In the April succeeding
his first seizure, we find him writing to a friend : ' c I
burn with a desire to revisit Florence before I die; con-
sequently I have resolved, next June, to go to the mud
baths of Albano, near Padua, whence I hope to receive
a renewal of my strength sufficient for my journey."
These mud baths, however, were pronounced hurtful
instead of beneficial to his disorder, and he never
went. Still hope was alive, and he lingered on until
the autumn of 1828, his life being consumed in a
slow martyrdom : his death-bed was attended by his


wife and disconsolate daughter, whom, even .to' the last,
he sought to cheer by words of affection, and by smiles
when he could not speak. Me expired on the 13th of
October, 1828, at the age of seventy-four.

The genius of Monti would, in times of less public
excitement, have adorned his name with the high-
est praise ; and his faults would never have been
called into view. The studious and imaginative bent
of his mind would have led him to cultivate letters and
poetry; and we should glory in the exalted fancy of a
creative poet, without any shame for the man. His
domestic character was amiable ; he w r as zealous for his
friends, grateful for benefits ; generous, kind, and true
in all the ordinary intercourse of life : but neither re-
verence for genius, nor attachment to the man, ought to
blind us to his political tergiversation, or to suppose that
there is virtue in that inborn slavishness of spirit that
could see no degradation in praising those whom he
reprobated in his heart, and in commemorating with
applause acts the most injurious to the common cause
of humanity. There is retribution in our own con-
sciences for all our faults, and Monti felt this : his
love of glory was great, and he was often pained by
being reminded of his political apostacies ; but too often,
when irritated by censure, he was willing to cast the
blame upon others, instead of admitting his own want
of rigid public integrity.

But take away this error, and, as a private character,
Monti merited the affection and esteem of all. The
only fault of his disposition was irritability and an in-
clination to anger ; but he redeemed it by the candour
of his acknowledgments, and the uprightness of his
conduct. Warmth of heart and warmth of temper are
too apt to be united in the same disposition ; but the
kindness of his nature was rendered even more apparent
by this defect of temperament. He was sensitive to
injury, and his indignation was proportionate to his
quick sense of injustice ; but, though his anger took the

MONTI. 351

appearance of sternness and severity, it never led him to
injure another, but evaporated in words, and might be
said to agitate the surface, but never penetrated into the
depths, of his mind. He was never guilty of an act of
revenge, on the contrary, he often benefited those
[who injured him. His mind was, in short, of a
uniform texture ; and what it wanted in dignity and
grandeur was compensated for by gentleness, tenderness,
and ready sympathy with the sufferings of others. He
was beyond measure charitable to those in distress ; and
infinite and unwearied compassion, we are told by one
who knew him well, was his prominent characteristic.
The poor gladly celebrated the charities he strove to
conceal. This virtue sprung, doubtless, from early
habits acquired under the roof of his benevolent parents.
He was simple as a child in the midst of worldliness,
and the good faith and sincerity of his friendships were
without a flaw.

(C In person," the same friend informs us who has
furnished the public with the principal documents on
which this memoir is founded, " he was tall and hand-
some : his forehead ample ; the shape of his face
regular ; and his eyes, gleaming from beneath his arched
and full brows, shone at once with a vivacious and soft
light, which commanded both affection and respect. An
air of melancholy was diffused over his countenance, to
which the habits of reflection would have given a severe
and even disdainful expression, had not the sweetest
smile illuminated it with the gracious light of love.
His carriage was dignified, his mien serious, and his
whole aspect was that of a man of talent, and of one
warmed and softened by the benevolence and affection-
ateness of his disposition."

We may conclude with this description of the out-
ward man, emanating from one who revered and loved
him as a preceptor and a friend. The world, in the
days succeeding to those of revolution and preceding
those of reform, was much divided between those who
despaired and those who hoped. The latter now


triumph ; but Monti died before the milder light
dawned on the world, and while change appeared in-
evitably accompanied by bloodshed and misery. His
compassionate heart preferred the peace of submission,
both for himself and others, to the suffering attendant
on defeated struggles ; and errors springing from so
humane a source may be forgiven, even by those whose
ardent natures lead them to overlook the toil and dan-
ger of the journey, in the hope of attaining the accom-
plishment of their desires.




THE most necessary quality of an author is, that he
should impress us with the conviction that he has some-
thing to say. In reading his pages, we ought to feel
that he puts down the overflowing of his mind ideas
and notions which., springing up spontaneously, force a
birth for themselves from the womb of silence, and
acquire an existence through their own native energy
and vitality. An author, therefore, is a human being
whose thoughts do not satisfy his mind, ruminated on
merely in his own isolated bosom : he requires sym
pathy, a world to listen, and the echo of assent from
his fellow- creatures. But this is not all. Few men
can be excited by a mere abstraction, by the images of
their own mind, and the desire of communicating them
for the benefit of their fellow- creatures. Pride or
vanity mingle essentially in the fabric of a writer's
mind: the pride which leads him to desire to build
up an enduring monument for his name, formed from
his own compositions ; or the vanity that leads him to
introduce himself to the reader, and to court the noto-
riety which usually attends those who let the public into
the secret of their individual passions or peculiarities.

The three great authors of modern Italy form a
singular contrast to each other, as to their apparent
motives for authorship. Alfieri, proud, independent,
and gloomy, sought at once to honour his own name, to
exalt and refine his countrymen, and to produce such
works as would benefit his species; while the vehement
passions of his own soul were their primal source and
inspiration. Monti was a poet of the imagination.



He wrote because the imagery, the melody, the aerial
fabric of poesy were a part of his essence. The
subjects of his poems were of less consequence, in
his eyes, than the well treating them, or the variety,
grandeur, and fantastic ideality displayed in his verses.
Thus, at the word of command, he could celebrate the
usurper, taint the struggles of a noble and free nation,
and adorn the naked form of despotism with gar-
ments of beauty. Foscolo, on the contrary, was im-
pelled to produce and reproduce himself: and yet to
this assertion we must put some limit, for Foscolo was
a man of learning and taste, and he was capable of
giving light to compositions formed by the rules of art,
and adorned by the graces culled from an intimate
knowledge of the finest of human works. But vanity
was still the mainspring, a vanity accompanied by
honesty of principle and independence of soul, and
yet which was vanity the worship of self the
making his own individuality the mirror in which the
world was reflected.

Ugo Foscolo was born in the island of Zante, about
the year 1778. The Ionian isles had long been under
the dominion of Venice. The family of Foscolo was of
Venetian origin ; and his father was a surgeon in the
navy of the republic. Little is known of his early
vears. He seldom mentioned them in conversation,


though his imagination sometimes delighted to recur to
the sunny land of his birth, and to regret it. In one
of his sonnets he exclaims,

Ne piu mai tocchero le sacre sponde
Ove il mio corpo fanciulletto giacque
Zacinto mia, che te speech! nell' onde
Del Greco mar.

Tu non altro che il canto avrai del figlio,
O materna mia terra ; a noi prescrisse
II fato illacrimata sepoltura.

C ! never more shall I thy sacred shores .

Approach, where my young limbs first sprung to life,
Beloved Zante! who look'st upon the waves
Of the Greek sea; and thou the song alone
May'st claim of thy lost son, maternal land!
For fate to him decrees an unwept tomb.

too FOSCOLO. 355

The Ionian islands were at that time held as colonies
of the Venetian government, and tyrannised over hy
the most odious and oppressive laws. Among others,
no schools nor colleges were allowed to exist, and
the youth of the islands were sent to Venice for the
purposes of education. At an early age, therefore, Fos-
colo repaired to the parent city. His father, it would
seem, was at this time dead, for we hear only of his
mother, to whom he was always tenderly attached ; and
it appears that she, also, transferred herself to Venice
at the same period. Foscolo seldom mentioned his
family, with the exception of his mother. He had two
brothers, one who died, it is reported by his own hand,
about the year 1797 ; the other enlisted as a soldier,
and rose, from his good conduct and valour, to the rank
of captain of dragoons.

When boyhood was passed, Foscolo was sent to the
university of Padua, and studied under Cesarotti. There
was great dissimilarity in the tastes and literary opinions
of the master and pupil ; and thus Foscolo soon dis-
displayed his original and independent turn of mind.
Cesarotti" explained and commented upon Homer, and
undertook at the same time to emend and improve the
verses of the father of poetry. He preferred Voltaire
to Euripides, and Ossian to Homer. While a great
portion of ridicule attaches itself to such paradoxes, the
real learning and extensive reading of the professor
benefited his scholars ; and by liberating them from the
narrow system of instruction which had subsisted for
many years, he introduced them, as it were, from the
paled and guarded park of classical literature, to the
wilds, the moors, the incult mountains, in short, to all
the vast variety of unfettered nature.

Foscolo, though taught by the advocate of Ossian,
was all his life a worshipper of Homer. Studious, as
well as ardent in his literary pursuits, he became a
critical scholar ; and, admiring not only Greek poetry,
but the fabric and machinery which constitute its struc-
ture., he modelled his own poetic productions on them,

A A 2


and made ancient mythology, and allusions to classical
history, the props as well as the ornaments of Iiis
verses. At the same time he admitted Cesarotti's rules
with regard to the Italian language, and ahandoned the
dialect of the Trecentisti, so long held up as a model,
and yet which had become a dead tongue, - to form an
animated, simple, living language, introducing into it
phrases and words of modern use ; expressions for ever
on the lips of the Italians, though heretofore banished
from their pens.

We are told that, on leaving college, Foscolo hesitated
whether to enter the clerical profession, which held out
the prospect of competency to its followers ; but he was
fortunately turned aside from a profession whose narrow
rules and arbitrary laws were in direct opposition to
his impetuous and independent disposition. Instead of
assuming the tonsure, Foscolo resolved to follow in the
steps of Alfieri, and to acquire fame as a tragedian.
1797. He produced his drama of " Thyestes" at the early age
oEtat. of nineteen; and it may be said to be a creditable pro-
9< duction for a youth. It is from his after works that
we judge that it was not inexperience, but an absolute
defect of a certain species of talent, that made this boy's
tragedy a mere bald imitation of those of his illustri-
ous predecessor. Alfieri was not a fanciful poet; his
talent lay in developing plot, animating dialogue, and
interesting the reader by the clash of passion, or the
concentrated feelings of a sin<jde person. Foscolo pos-
sessed far more of the peculiar spirit of poetry; but it
was of didactic poetry. He could not invent incident,
nor describe any feelings but such as originated in his
own heart. " Thyestes," founded on one of the domestic
crimes of the unfortunate house of Pelops, possesses all
the faults of Alfieri's tragedies. He imitated him in
producing only a few personages on the scene; so that,
as a critic observes, it seems as if it were written just
after the deluge, when the human race congregated by
threes and fours : obscurity of plot is added to this
simplicity of action, and the purpose and aim of the


poet is never clearly discerned. One scene follows an-
other, not because produced by the antecedent one, but
because it is necessary that something should be said
and done, or all would be at a full stop. The language
is clear and energetic ; but, as we are uninterested by
the ideas which it conveys, this must appear a very
secondary merit.

ff Thyestes," however, succeeded in the theatre ; and,
as success in representation is certainly the test of dra-
matic merit, we might suppose some latent energy in its
concoction, unapparent to the reader, but that its success
appears to have arisen from political feeling. It was
acted for the first time on January 4. 1797, in the
theatre of St. Angelo at Venice, to a vast concourse of
spectators, and was repeated with applause for nine
consecutive nights. The extreme youth of the author
filled the audience with admiration, and he was called
for after the representation. We cannot well discern
the political allusions that gave it its chief interest,
except that the name of king and tyrant are made
synonymous ; a style, it might be imagined, neither
distasteful nor injurious to a republican government,
however aristocratic. It would appear, however, that
this avidity for liberal sentiments was the cause of its
temporary success ; for it was never again acted on any
stage in Italy.

Adversity meanwhile was hanging over the head of
the poet. The fall of Venice, which occurred in the
autumn of the same year, deprived him of the very
name of country. Hatred of the Austrian is a senti-
ment profoundly engraved in every Italian heart j and
when Venice was made over by treaty to the German
despot, Foscolo became a voluntary exile. Whether he
was in danger of being marked out in any of the lists
of proscription does not appear ; but as it is evident
that he is the hero of his ee Letters of Jacopo Ortis," we
gather from that book, that his friends feared for his
personal liberty if he remained, and besought him to

A A 3


shelter himself, while there was yet time, from the
enmity of the new government. " I have left Venice,"
Ortis writes, (( to avoid the first and most violent per-
secutions. How many victims remain ! We Italians
ourselves hathe our hands in Italian blood. I,<-t what
will happen to me ! Since I despair of good, either for
myself or my country, I can await in tranquillity a
prison or death."

All these letters are full of the indignant struggles,
and the sorrow, as well as of the opinions which ruled
the heart of Foscolo, as he found himself driven a
wanderer from his home, sometimes lamenting his own
misfortunes, sometimes those of his country.

<f How many of our fellow-citizens repent their flight
from home," he writes, " and mourn ! for what can

Online LibraryDionysius LardnerEminent literary and scientific men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal .. (Volume 2) → online text (page 30 of 34)