Dionysius Lardner.

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

. (page 31 of 34)
Online LibraryDionysius LardnerEminent literary and scientific men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal .. (Volume 2) → online text (page 31 of 34)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

we expect except indigence and indignity or, at the
best, that brief and sterile compassion which uncivilised
nations offer to the stranger exile ? And where shall I
seek an asylum in Italy? Unhappy land ! andean
I behold those who have robbed, scorned, and sold us,
and not weep with rage ? Oh ! if the tyrants were
one only, and if the slaves w r ere less abject, my hand
would suffice. But those who now blame me for
cowardice would theft accuse me of crime ; and the
prudent would lament over, not the heroism of one
resolved, but the frenzy of a desperate man. What
can be done between tw r o powerful nations, who, from
being sworn, ferocious, and eternal enemies, colleague
to enslave us ? and where force alone does not avail,
the one cajoles us with the name of liberty, the
other with that of religion ; and we, debased by an-
cient servitude and new-born licence, groan, betrayed,
enslaved, famished, and yet not roused, either by treason
or famine. Ah ! if I could, I would destroy my house
and all dear to me, and myself with them ; I would
leave nothing for the tyrants to triumph over. Were
there not people who, to escape the Romans, robbers of
the world, gave to the flames their dwellings, their
wives, their children, and themselves., burying their


sacred independence among the glorious ashes of their
country ? "

Tims passionately attached to liberty, Foscolo was
not to be deluded by the false halo that then surrounded
the name of Bonaparte,, or by the fallacious promises of
the French republican crusaders. " Another set of
lovers of their country." he writes, " lament loudly.
They exclaim that they are betrayed and sold ; but,, if
they had armed themselves, they might have been con-
quered, but never had been betrayed ; and if they had
defended themselves to the last drop of blood, the
conquerors could not have sold, nor would the conquered
have sought to buy, them. Many of our countrymen
imagine that freedom can be bought with money. They
fancy that foreign nations come from a disinterested
love of justice to slaughter each other mutually on our
fields, for the sake of liberating Italy. But will the
French, who have rendered the divine theory of public
liberty execrable, become Timoleons for our sakes ?
Many, meanwhile, confide in the young hero, sprung
from Italian blood, born where our language is spoken.
But I expect nothing useful or noble from a cruel and
base mind. What is it to me that he has the strength
and roar of the lion, if he have the soul of a fox
and glories in it ? Yes ! base and cruel ; nor are
these epithets exaggerated. Has he not sold Ven-
ice, with open and boasted barbarity ? Selim I., who
caused 30,000 Circassian warriors, who had sur-
rendered, confiding in his faith, to be massacred on
the shores of the Nile ; and Nadir Shah, who, in
our time, massacred 300,000 Indians, are more atro-
cious, but less contemptible, With these eyes I saw
a democratic constitution signed by the young hero ;
yes, it was subscribed by his own hand, and sent by
Passeriano to Venice for acceptance ; and at that very
time the treaty of Campo Formio was already con-
firmed and ratified : Venice was sold ; and the con-
fidence which the hero fostered in us all, has filled

A A 4


Italy with proscriptions and exiles. I do not blame the
reasons of state, through wliieh nations are sold like flocks
of sheep ; it was ever so, and so will it ever be : but I
grieve for my country, which I have lost. ' H<> wan
"born Itti/iini, mid iri/l one tiny riyritrrdtc /its <-<nnitry : '
others may believe this, I never can. I replied, and
shall always reply, ' Nature made him a tyrant, and a
tyrant cares not for his country, nor does he possess


Ruminating on all these violent and bitter feelings, the
offspring of patriotism and adversity, Foscolo took the
road to Tuscany. (C In this blessed land," he writes,
te poetry and letters first awoke from barbarism. Where-
ever I turn, I behold the houses where were born, and
the turf that covers, those renowned Tuscans ; and I
fear at every step to tread on their remains. Tus-
cany is a garden, its inhabitants are naturally cour-
teous, the sky serene, and the air full of life and
health ; but I am not happy here. I hope always for bet-
ter things on the morrow, when I shall reach another
town : but to-morrow arrives, and I pass from city to
city; and this state of exile and solitude grows each
day more unendurable. We Italians are foreigners and
exiles even in Italy ; and scarcely do we leave our
little native territory, than neither understanding, nor
fame, nor blameless habits can shelter us ; and we
are lost if we endeavour to distinguish ourselves. Our
very fellow-citizens look upon all Italians who are not
natives of their own town, and on whose limbs the same
chains do not hang, as strangers." Thus Tuscany
afforded no asylum to the fugitive. He desired to see
no one in Florence except Alfieri ; and the retired and
reserved habits of the count prevented his seeking his
acquaintance. He saw him, as he describes in one of
liis poems, " wandering silently along the most solitary
bank of the Arno, gazing anxiously on earth and heaven ;
but, finding nothing living that could warm his heart,
he took refuge in the aisles of Santa Croce, while
wished-for death overspread his countenance with pallid



hues." The silence and the concentrated melancholy
of Alfieri made a deep impression on the mind of his
admirer ; and Foscolo sought afterwards to imitate it
in his own person, forgetful that his natural impetuosity
and vehemence were very dissimilar to the gloom and
pride of his model.

From Florence, Foscolo pursued his way to Milan,
which was then the capital of the Cisalpine republic,
and imparted its rights of citizenship to all the wander-
ing patriots of Italy The new republic afforded a
strange spectacle : formed upon notions of Greek and
Roman liberty, picked up from learned priests, mingled
with modern notions of freedom, it displayed the most
ridiculous anachronisms ; and its members, all Italians,
yet strangers to each other, and regarding with oblique
looks all those born in a different city, met without
amalgamating. The young found hope and life in the
new stage on which they were permitted to act a part ;
and though ridicule and blame might be attached to
many of their public actions, still the more sanguine
lovers of their country hoped that, when the first spring-
tide of enthusiasm should ebb, prudence, unanimity, and
strength would be the first born of national independ-
ence. Foscolo, however, was not among those. Irascible

* * \_*

and misanthropic,, and sensitively alive to the sufferings
of his fellow- creatures, he saw the evils around him,
and desponded.

One of the advantages derived from this new capital
was, that it served to draw together the most distin-
guished Italians within the walls of the same city.
Each town of the peninsula sent some man esteemed
for his talents ; and names, scattered before over the
surface of the country, now congregated together. Fos-
colo had thus an opportunity of becoming acquainted
with all his more illustrious countrymen. In his " Let-
ters of Jacopo Ortis," he mentions Parini especially
with reverence and affection ; and he became intimate
also with Monti, who then displayed fervour in the

* Dei Sepolcri di Ugo Foscolo.



cause of liberty, while his inward dislike- for the mem-
bers of the actual government must have accorded with
the sentiments of Foscolo. Two decrees, passed at that
time, served, indeed, to show that blame deservedly at-
tached itself to them : one was the law enacted to de-
prive of office all those who had formerly written
against liberty an act of despotism levelled expressly
against Monti ; the other was the sentence passed by
the great council against the Latin language : whether
it was because Latin was the language of their religion
and the priests, or from mere stupid barbarism, they
passed a decree to prohibit its being taught in the
public schools. Foscolo saw, in the languages of the
ancient world, not only the root of all our knowledge,
but also the most splendid monuments of human intel-
lect : he knew how fallacious and trivial all translations
are ; he was imbued to the heart with a love of classic
lore ; and he saw, in the suppression of the Latin, the
paramount influence of the French language. No won-
der that he, as well as every well-educated man, re-
garded such a law and its promulgators with mingled
scorn and disgust.

To make the resemblance between Foscolo and his
imaginary hero, Jacopo Ortis, the more exact, we are
told that, at this very time, he fell in love with a young
lady of Pisa : his passions, naturally vehement, were
inflamed to their utmost by the influence of the most
engrossing of them all. The object of his attachment
was singularly beautiful ; her large black eyes, rich
raven hair, her dignified stature and noble carriage, her
whole person, in short, cast in the very mould of ma-
jestic beauty, was formed to inspire admiration and love.
She possessed also all that natural talent which so
usually falls to the lot of Italian women : her voice was
harmonious, and her proficiency in music great. She
was known afterwards to several of the biographers of her
lover ; and, w r ith the simplicity and frankness usual to
the Italians, spoke openly of their mutual attachment.
One among them., after calling the lady <c the flower


of all loveliness/' adds, " We heard from her for she
yet lives that the few lines cited as being written by
Teresa., in a letter of Ortis, dated l?th September,
179&J were a part of a letter which she wrote to Fos-
colo."* Giuseppe Pecchio, in his Life of Foscolo,
speaks of her with great enthusiasm : " I saw her," he
writes, if several times after she was married, when, at
a private theatre, she took the part of Isabella in the
' Filippo' of Alfieri ; and I still remember, with plea-
sure, her dignified action and her expressive countenance,
which filled the audience with enthusiasm, and carried
their feelings along with her."

This attachment was not fortunate; and Foscolo suf-
fered all the throes of disappointment and grief. Vio-
lent in all his feelings, love possessed his heart like a
burning fire ; he grew sullen and gloomy, only breaking
silence by muttering a few sentences indicative of his
ardent desire for self-destruction. He did not openly
speak of his passion ; but his feelings overflowed on
paper, and he wrote and published " The Letters of
Two Lovers," a sort of novel, which afterwards served
as a foundation to the " Letters of Ortis." While thus
occupied by literature and love, he added the duties of a
more laborious profession. Bonaparte, having created
the Cisalpine republic, strove to raise an Italian army
for its defence. The Lombard legion formed the
nucleus of these troops, arid the sons of the noblest
families in Italy accepted commissions : among others,
Foscolo became an officer.

The absence, however, of Bonaparte in Egypt, and 1800.
the invasion of the Austrio-Russian army, put a sudden ^ tat -
end to the existence of the new republic. At the same
time that Monti fled across the Alps, and wandered, a
famished exile, among the ravines and woods of Savoy,
Foscolo, forced also to provide for his ow r n safety, took
refuge in Genoa, and joined the French garrison com-
manded by Massena. It was here that the French

* See the biographical notice of Foscolo, prefixed to the " Ultime Let-
tere di Jacopo Ortis. Londra, 1829."



made a last stand, endeavouring to stop the progress of
tlu- invading army. The siege of Genoa was funned ;
and FoscolOj serving under the French banners, had an
opportunity of studying at once the military art and
the science of government during the various chances
of a long and arduous struggle. While day lasted, there
were perpetual combats along the whole line of moun-
tains which surround Genoa to the north; and the night
was spent in popular assemblies, in which the leaders
strove to inspire the citizens with resolution to endure
the evils of the siege. These soon grew intolerable ;
and famine, and consequent disease, made frightful ra-
vages. Foscolo sometimes collected the people together
in a spot of the city made famous by the act of an Aus-
trian corporal, who (1748) struck with his cane a Ge-
noese, who was striving in vain to move a cannon : he
endeavoured to animate his audience to heroic deeds,
by describing the magnanimous vengeance with which
their ancestors had vindicated the insult. Nor was he
less forward in the performance of his military duties ;
and his name occurs in the lists of those who were most
distinguished for their bravery.

During the siege, on occasion of Napoleon's return
from Egypt, and being named consul, Foscolo ad-
dressed a letter to him from Genoa, which prophesied
the height to which he would hereafter rise, and be-
sought him to rest content with his present exaltation,
nor to taint his well-merited renown by schemes of un-
measured ambition. This letter, which is of two pages
only, is written with the freedom of a patriot and the
dignity of a disinterested and noble mind. He incurred
no danger by this address, but he displeased the ear of
power ; and the truth and frankness of his represent-
ations form .an honourable contrast with the general
adulation, and the barefaced flatteries, which other
writers addressed to the victor.

The energetic mind of Foscolo was not satisfied by
the arduous duties of his profession, to which were
added the not less exciting task of guiding and ani-



mating the minds of the citizens of Genoa, when they
flagged under the visitation of the most frightful cala-
mities. It was at this period that he wrote an ode to
Luigia Pallavicini, on her falling from her horse,
which betrays no signs of the sufferings which he was
enduring, except its motto, taken from Horace : " Sol-
licitae oblivia vitse." This poem is all grace., elegance,
and classic allusion ; hut there is no originality nor
poetic fire. The machinery is mythological, the ima-
gery drawn from the same source ; and it is rather the
work of one imbued with the poetry of the ancients,
and translating remembered ideas into his native lan-
guage, than the outpourings of a mind inspired by passion
and nature. It is strange that Foscolo should have found
time to compose verses at a period when the town he
inhabited was being bombarded by the English fleet,
when the Austrians were making daily assaults, and the
streets were filled by a famished and dying multitude.
But while Foscolo shared the labours and dangers of
the garrison, he did not partake their amusements; and
while they were immersed in the grosser pleasures of
the bottle, of cards, and smoking, he took refuge in his
imagination, and found relief in the soothing and re-
fined feelings generated by study and poetry.

Meanwhile Genoa, reduced by famine, surrendered
on the 4-th of June, 1800, with the condition that the
garrison should be conveyed to France by the English
fleet. Foscolo accompanied his fellow, soldiers, but he
endured only a brief exile from his country. The battle
of Marengo drove the Austrians from Italy ; the Cisal-
pine republic was restored ; and Foscolo, together with
the rest of the Italian fugitives, returned to Milan.

Already known as an author and a man of letters, he
increased his fame at this period by the publication of
the " Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis," a romance which
at once acquired great popularity, and, as being the first
that had been written in the Italian language, demanded
the praise of some sort of originality. Yet its chief
fault is, that it is an imitation. Foscolo could not in-


vent incidents, nor wrave the artful texture of a well-
told story. The plot of " Ortis" is similar to that of
(loi'-the's more celebrated romance of " \\Yrkr." A youth
of disappointed expectations, and devoured by a morbid
melancholy, falls in love with a girl who is already be-
trothed to another. He resolves to die as soon as the
marriage shall take place; but, meanwhile, fosters his
passion by frequenting the society of the young lady.
She had never been attached to her intended husband, and
is the victim of obedience to her father's will, who, besides
that his honour is engaged, would have found an insuper-
able obstacle to the pretensions of Ortis in his plebeian
birth. His sorrowing daughter, while she obeys, re-
turns the affection of her passionate, adoring lover ; her
destined husband become jealous, her father uneasy ;
and Ortis, called upon by duty and friendship, absents
himself from her society : he travels to Florence, to
Milan, to Genoa; and then, hearing of Teresa's marriage,
retraces his steps to the Euganean hills, the abode of
his mistress, and fulfils his long-nurtured intention of
putting an end to his existence. The slight differences
between this story and <c Werter " are founded on Fos-
colo's own attachment, before alluded to.

There is, indeed, this main difference between the
work of Goethe and that of Foscolo, that the former
is, so to speak, a dramatic, and the latter a didactic,
author. Goethe founded his story on the feelings of
another. He delineated the sentiments and passions of
his unfortunate young friend Jerusalem ; and, putting
himself in his place, filled put, from his own experience
and imagination, the various portions of a picture, the
most highly wrought, refined, and true that, perhaps,
exists in the world of fictitious portraits. Foscolo
painted a beau ideal of himself. So full was his mind
of his own idea, that he prefixed a portrait of Ortis,
which was only a favoured likeness of himself. Like
the author, Ortis fled from Venice when it was made
over to the Austrians. Like the author, his heart was
tortured by patriotic sufferings, and his soul was in


arms against the oppressor. Ortis, like Foscolo, saw
misery and evil rife around him : compassion rose with
him into a passion ; and his heart bled and burnt alter-
nately^ as he pitied the victim, and abhorred the tyrant.
Ortis, like Foscolo, meditated suicide as the cure for all
evils,, and regarded death as a harbour whence to retreat
from the tempests of life. Yet Foscolo did not, like
Ortis, destroy himself; because, we are apt to say, he is
in this greater than his prototype, since he felt powers
and capacities within him that led him to continue to
endu-re the evils of life, to raise for himself a name
among his fellow-creatures, to benefit and to exhort
them ; while Ortis, like a weak plant that wants all
self-erecting power, fell prostrate, and was trampled on
by the iron heels of destiny. Egotists, perhaps, are, of
all peeple, the least likely to put an end to themselves ;
yet they like to dwell on their own deaths, and, feeling
that the drama of their lives is incomplete without a
striking catastrophe, they ponder on it, and, if led to
bring themselves forward, are pretty sure to adorn their
lives by describing its disastrous conclusion.

This morbid shrinking from the woes of existence,
this total want of fortitude, added to a lively sensibility^
presents a picture which, a few years ago, was the model
by which the youth of Europe delighted to dress their
minds. Men need a career an hope, an aim : the
French revolution first gave new life to these natural
instincts, and then, aided by Napoleon's despotism,
blighted and tore them up. Since then, a better day
has dawned, and men are glad to live for the morrow,
since each day is full of spirit-stirring expectation.
The influence of a book like f( Ortis" is null now : it was
pernicious at the time when it was written. And yet,
in representing his hero as a self-destroyer, Foscolo was
not without moral aim. The Italians fear death to the
extent of the most contemptible cowardice ; they con-
sider any one insane who engages in any actions that
even remotely endanger his life j and Foscolo was ear-
nest to prf.-vi that death was not the worst of evils, but


that it might be sought voluntarily as a refuge from
slavery or woe. We find, therefore, conjoined to in-
tolerance of personal suffering, the most ardent pa-
triotism, integrity, and independence of spirit; lively
compassion for the physical evils of the poor, which
are too often disregarded ; and observations on life and
our natural feelings, full of delicacy and profound truth.
What more true than the remark, " that we are too
proud to give our compassion, when we feel that we
can give nothing else ?" What can come more home
to a man of sensibility than the exclamation of Ortis,
" I am always in perfect harmony with the unhappy,
for indeed I always find something wicked in the pros-
perous?" And, again, when he says, " Let us gather
up a treasure of dear and soothing feelings, which,
during the course of years, destined, perhaps, to be sad
and persecuted, may awaken the memory that we have
not always been unhappy." Another merit which these
letters have may be mentioned, which an Italian author
has also discovered : they display a love for, and an
observation of, nature, seldom found among their
greatest writers. The Italians, generally speaking, are
not lovers of nature : full of passion and talent, yet
they do not ally themselves to the mighty mother, nor do
their pulses beat responsive to her varied and living
phenomena. Dante alone, perhaps, displays a true
feeling for external objects, describing them as they
are, and as they may be supposed to feel ; while the
others dilate rather on their beauty, as if they presented
a scenic exhibition, than were in themselves animated
beinors to feel and have existence. The rambles of Ortis


amidst the Euganean hills ; the sentiments with which he
contemplates a tempest and the succeeding calm ; the
glories of summer, or tyranny of winter ; resemble those
so often to be found in English authors, and give the
work a charm peculiar to itself. The style, also, of these
letters (and the Italians make style a chief merit) is
pure, elegant, and forcible. It created a language hi-
thert o unknown to his countrymen, uniting the familiar


and colloquial with the tasteful and the expressive. It
is too rhetorical, even thus, for our ears; but the Italians
easily pardon inflation.

The success of " Ortis" was immediate and striking.
The Italians usually love to he amused and made laugh;
but they were caught by the charm, and content to
weep over the misfortunes of the victim of love. The
author had artfully contrived to mingle himself inex-
tricably with the image of his hero ; and the ladies of
Italy were interested by his appearance, uncouth as it
was, and his manners, dissimilar to the inanity of their
usual companions. He became what we call (C a lion,"
and he himself fell in love with one of his fair admirers;
but, as is too often the case where the author is more
thought of than the man., this lady's love was more of
the head than the heart, and Foscolo, after a short pe-
riod, was dismissed. We are told that this lady was the
daughter of the courteous Marchesa F., mentioned by
Sterne in his " Sentimental Journey." True passion
often enforces sympathy; otherwise, we cannot wonder
that Foscolo did not create a sentiment in another as
strong as that which he himself felt. In personal
appearance he was not formed to excite tender ad-
miration. Pecchio, \vho knew him at this time,
describes him in vivid but no attractive colours. Ac-
cording to him, Foscolo was of middle stature, rather
strong and muscular of frame ; he had thick, reddish,
rough hair, which added to his expression of wild vehe-
mence, and rendered his fits of gloomy silence, or trans-
ports of rage, more horrible. His eyes were of a blueish
grey, small, deep set, and intensely sparkling. His
complexion was ruddy ; his features well formed, ex-
cept that his lips, though thin, protruded, having that
animal-look about the jaw which is the opposite of the
beau ideal of the human countenance : he wore his
chin thickly covered with hair, which gave him a sort
of resemblance to an oran-outang. There is a story told
of him that a Frenchman said to him one day, " Vous
etes bien laid, monsieur ;" to which Foscolo wittily re-

Online LibraryDionysius LardnerEminent literary and scientific men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal .. (Volume 2) → online text (page 31 of 34)