Vittorio Alfieri.

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This series of the best autobiographies is prepared especially
for general reading. Each life is prefaced with a critical and
biographical essay by Mr. Howells, in which the sequel of the
author's history is given, together with collateral matter from
other sources, illustrative of his period and career. In some
cases the autobiographies are reduced in bulk by the rejection
of uninteresting and objectionable matter. It is designed to
include in the series the famous autobiographies of all lan-
guages, and to offer in a compact and desirable edition all that
is best in this most charming of all literature.

JAMES B, OSGOOD & CO,, Publishers, Boston,








Late Ticknor & Fields, and Fields, Osgood, & Co.




University Press : Welch, Bigelow, & Co.,


, the Italian poet whom
his countrymen would undoubtedly name
next after Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, and
Tasso, and who, in spite of his limitations,
was a man of signal and distinct dramatic genius, not
surpassed if equalled since, is scarcely more than a
name to most English readers. He was born in the
year 1749, at Asti, a little city of that Piedmont
where there has always been a greater regard for
feudal traditions than in any other part of Italy ; and
he belonged by birth to a nobility which is still the
proudest in Europe. " What a singular country is
ours ! " said the Chevalier Nigra, one of the first diplo-
mats of our time, who for many years managed the
dolicate and difficult relations of Italy with France,
but who was the son of an apothecary. "In Paris
they admit me everywhere; I am asked to court and
petted as few Frenchmen are; but here, in my own
city of Turin, it would not be possible for me to be
received by the Marchioness Doria." And if this was
true in the afternoon of the nineteenth century, one
easily fancies what society must have been at Turin in
the forenoon of the eighteenth.



It was in the order of the things of that day and
country that Alfieri should Iravr home while a child
and go to school at the Academy of Turin. Here, as
he tells m that most characteristic and amusing auto-
biography of his, he spent several years in acquiring
a profound ignorance of whatever he was meant to
learn ; and he came away a stranger not only to the
humanities, but to any one language, speaking a bar-
barous mixture of French and Piedmontese, and read-
ing little or nothing. Doubtless he does not spare
color in this statement, but almost anything you like
could be true of the education of a gentleman as a
gentleman got it from the Italian priests of the last
century. " We translated," he says, "the Lives of
Cornelius Nepos ; but none of us, perhaps not even
the masters, knew who these men were whose lives
we translated, nor where was their country, nor in what
times they lived, nor under what governments, nor what
any government was." He learned Latin enough to
turn Virgil's Georgics into his sort of Italian ; but
when he read Ariosto by stealth, he atoned for his
transgression by failing to understand him. Yet Al-
fieri was one of the first scholars of that admirable
academy, and he really had some impulses even then
towards literature; for he liked reading Goldoni and
Metastasio, though he had never heard of the name
of Tasso. This was whilst he was still in the pri-
mary classes, under strict priestly control; when he
passed to a more advanced grade, and found himself
free to do w T hat he liked in the manner that pleased
him best, in common with the young Russians, Ger-
mans, and Englishmen then enjoying the advantages
of the Academy of Turin, he says that being grounded
in no study, directed by. no one, and not understanding


any lanirnaire well, he did not know what study to
take up, nor how to study. " The reading of many
French romances," In- goes on, "the constant associa-
tion with foreigners, and the want of all occasion to
spi-uk Italian, or to hear it spoken, drove from my
head that small amount of wretched Tuscan which I
had contrived to put there in those two or three years
of burlesque study of the humanities and asinine rhet-
oric. In place of it," he says, "the French entered
into my empty brain"; but he is careful to disclaim
any literary merit for the French lie knew, and he
afterwards came to hate it, with everything else that
was French, very bitterly.

It was before this, a little, that Alfieri contrived his
first sonnet, which, when he read it to the uncle with
whom he lived, made that old soldier laugh unmerci-
fully, so that until his twenty-fifth year the poet made
no further attempts in verse. When he left school he
spent three years in travel, after the fashion of those
grand-tour'nii: days when you had to be a gentleman
of birth and fortune in order to travel, and when you
journeyed by your own conveyance from capital to
capital, with letters to your sovereign's ambassadors
everywhere, and spent your money handsomely upon
the pleasant dissipations of the countries through which
y< m passed. Alfieri is constantly at the tr< mble t< > have
us know that he was a very morose and ill-conditioned
young animal, and the figure he makes as a traveller
is no more amiable than edifying. He had a ruling
passion for horses, and then several smaller passions
quite as wasteful and idle. He was driven from place
to place by a demon of unrest, and was mainly con-
cerned, after reaching a city, in getting away from it
as soon as he could. He gives anecdotes enough in


proof of this, and he forgets nothing that can enhance
the surprise of his future literary greatness. At the
Amhrosian Lihrary in Milan they showed him a man-
uscript of Petrarch's, which, " like a true barbarian,"
as he says, he flung aside, declaring that he knew
nothing about it, having a rancor against this Petrarch,
whom he had once tried to read, and had altogether
failed to understand. At Rome the Sardinian minister
innocently affronted him by repeating some verses of
Marcellus, which the sulky young noble could not
comprehend. In Ferrara he did not remember that it
was the city of that divine Ariosto whose poem was
the first that came into his hands, and which he had
now read in part with infinite pleasure. " But my
poor intellect," he says, " was then sleeping a most
sordid sleep, and every day^ as far as regards letters,
rusted more and more. It is true, however, that with
respect to knowledge of the world and of men, I con-
stantly learned not a little, without taking note of it,
so many and diverse were the phases of life and man-
ners that I daily beheld." At Florence he visited the
galleries and churches, with much disgust and no feel-
ing for the beautiful, especially in painting^ his eyes
being very dull to color. u If I liked anything better,
it was sculpture a little, and architecture yet a little
more " ; and it is interesting to note how all his trage-
dies reflect these preferences, in their total lack of color
and in their sculpturesque strength and sharpness of

From Italy he passed as restlessly into France, yet
with something of a more definite intention, for he
meant to frequent the French theatre. He had seen
a company of French players at Turin, and had ac-
quainted himself with the most famous French trage-


dies and comedies, but with no thought of writing
tragedies of his own. He felt no creative impulse,
and he liked the comedies best; though, as he says,
he was by nature more inclined to tears than to laugh-
ter. But he does not seem to have enjoyed the thea-
tre much in Paris, a city for which he conceived at
once the greatest dislike, he says, "on account of the
squalor and barbarity of the buildings, the absurd and
pitiful pomp of the few hquses that affected to be pal-
aces, the filthiness and gothicism of the churches, the
vandalic structure of the theatres of that time, and the
many and many and many disagreeable objects that
all day fell under my notice, and worst of all the un-
speakably misshapen and beplastered faces of those
ugliest of women."

He had at this time already conceived that hatred of
kings which breathes, or, I may better say, bellows,
from his tragedies ; and he was enraged even beyond
his habitual fury by his reception at court, where it
was etiquette for Louis XV. to stare at him from head
to foot and give no sign of having received any im-
pression whatever.

In Holland he fell in love, for the first time, and as
was de rigueur in the polite society of that day, the
object of his passion was another man's wife. In
England he fell in love the second time, and as fash-
ionably as before. The intrigue lasted for months;
in the end it came to a duel with the lady's husband
and a great scandal in the newspapers ; but in spite of
these displeasures, Alfieri liked everything in England.
u The streets, the taverns, the horses, the women,
the universal prosperity, the life and activity of that
island, the cleanliness and convenience of the houses,
though extremely little," as they still strike every


one coming from Italy, these and other charms of
"that fortunate and free country" made an impression
upon him that never was effaced. He did not at that
time, he says, u study profoundly the constitution,
mother of so much prosperity," but he " knew enough
to observe and value its sublime effects."

Before his memorable sojourn in England, he spent
half a year at Turin reading Rousseau, among other
philosophers, and Voltaire, whose prose delighted and
whose verse wearied him. "But the book of books
for me," he says, "and the one which that winter
caused me to pass hours of bliss and rapture, was Plu-
tarch, hisJLives of the truly great ; and some of these, as
Timoleon, Caesar, Brutus, Pelopidas, Cato, and others,
I read and read again, with such a transport of cries,
tears, and fury, that if any one had heard me in the
next room he would surely have thought me mad. In
meditating certain grand traits of these supreme men,
I often leaped to my feet, agitated and out of my senses,
and tears of grief and rage escaped me to think that I
was born in Piedmont, and in a time and under a gov-
ernment where no high thing could be done or said ;
and it was almost useless to think or feel it."

These characters had a life-long fascination for Al-
fieri, and his admiration of such types deeply influenced
his tragedies. So great was his scorn of kings at the
time he writes of, that he despised even those who liked
them, and poor little Metastasio, who lived by the
bounty of Maria Theresa, fell under Alfieri's bitterest
contempt when in Vienna he saw his brother-poet be-
fore the empress in the imperial gardens at Schon-
brunn, " performing the customary genuflexions with
a servilely contented and adulatory face." This loath-
ing of royalty was naturally intensified beyond utter-


ance in Prussia. " On entering the states of Frederick,
I felt redoubled and triplicated my hate for that infa-
mous military trade, most infamous and sole base
of arbitrary power." lie told his minister that he
would be presented only in civil dress, because there
were uniforms enough at that court, and he declares
that on beholding Frederick he felt "no emotion of
wonder or of respect, but rather of indignation and

rage The king addressed me the three or four

customary words; I fixed my eyes respectfully upon
his, and inwardly blessed Heaven that I had not been
born his slave ; and I issued from that universal Prus-
sian barracks .... abhorring it as it deserved."

In Paris Alfieri bought the principal Italian authors,
which he afterwards carried everywhere with him on
his travels ; but he says that he made very little use of
them, having neither the will nor the power to apply his
mind to anything. In fact, he knew very little Italian,
most of the authors in his collection were strange to
him, and at the age of twenty-two he had read nothing
whatever of Dante, Petrarch, Tasso, Boccaccio, or

He made a journey into Spain, among other coun-
tries, where he admired the Andalusian horses, and
bored himself as usual with what interests educated
people: and he signalized his stay at Madrid by a
murderous outburst of one of the worst tempers in the
world. One night his servant Elia, in dressing his
hair, had the misfortune to twitch one of his locks in
such a way as to give him a slight pain ; on which
Alfieri leaped to his feet, seized a heavy candlestick,
and without a word struck the valet such a blow upon
his temple that the blood gushed out over his face, and
over the person of a young Spaniard who had been


supping with Alfieri. Elia sprang upon his master,
who drew his sword, but the Spaniard after great
ado quieted them both; " and so ended this horrible
encounter," says Alfieri, " for which I remained deeply

afflicted and ashamed I told Elia that he would

have done well to kill me j and he was the man to
have done it, being a palm taller than myself, who am
very tall, and of a strength and courage not inferior to
his height. .... Two hours later, his wound being
dressed and everything put in order, I went to bed,
leaving the door from my room into Elia's open as
usual, without listening to the Spaniard, who warned
me not thus to invite a provoked and outraged man to
vengeance : I called to Elia, who had already gone to
bed, that he could, if he liked and thought proper, kill
me that night, for I deserved it. But he was no less
heroic than I, and would take no other revenge than to
keep two handkerchiefs, which had been drenched in
his blood, and which from time to time he showed me
in the course of many years. This reciprocal mixture
of fierceness and generosity on both our parts will not
be easily understood by those who have had no expe-
rience of the customs and of the temper of us Pied-
montese " ; though here, perhaps, Alfieri does his coun-
try too much honor in making his ferocity a national

When at last he went back to Turin, he fell once
more into his old life of mere vacancy, varied before
long by an unworthy amour, of which he tells us that
he finally cured himself by causing his servant to tie
him in his chair, and so keep him a prisoner in his
own house. A violent distemper followed this treat-
ment, which the light-moraled gossip of tbe town said
Alfieri had invented exclusively for his own use ; many


days he lay in bed tormented by this anguish; but
when he rose he was no longer a slave to his passion.
Shortly after, he wrote a tragedy, or a tragic dialogue
rather, in Italian blank verse, called Cleopatra, which
was played in a Turinese theatre with a success of
which he tells us he was at once and always ashamed.

Yet apparently it encouraged him to persevere in
literature, his qualifications for tragical authorship
being " a resolute spirit, very obstinate and untamed,
a heart running over with passions of every kind,
among which predominated a bizarre mixture of love
and all its furies, and a profound and most ferocious
rage and abhorrence against all tyranny whatsoever ;
.... a very dim and uncertain remembrance of vari-
ous French tragedies seen in the theatres many years
before ; .... an almost total ignorance of all the
rules of tragic art, and an unskilfulness almost total in
the divine and most necessary art of writing and man-
aging his own language. " With this stock in trade,
he set about turning his Filippo and his Polinice,
which he wrote first in French prose, into Italian
verse ; making at the same time a careful study of the
Italian poets. It was at this period that the poet
Ossian was introduced to mankind by the ingenious
and self-sacrificing Mr. McPherson, and Cesarotti's
translation of him came into Alfieri's hands. These
blank verses were the first that really pleased him ;
with a little modification he thought they would be an
excellent model for the verse of dialogue.

He had now refused himself the pleasure of reading
French, and he had nowhere to turn for tragic litera-
ture but to the classics, which he read in literal ver-
sions while he renewed his faded Latin with the help of
a teacher. But he believed that his originality as a


tragic author suffered from his reading, and he deter-
mined to read no more tragedies till he had made his
own. For this reason he already had given up Shake-
speare. " The more that author accorded with my
humor (though I very well perceived all his defects),
the more I was resolved to abstain'," he tells us.

This was during a literary sojourn in Tuscany,
whither he had gone to accustom himself " to speak,
hear, think, and dream in Tuscan, and not otherwise,
evermore." Here he versified his first two tragedies,
and sketched others, and here, he says, u I deluged my
brain with the verses of Petrarch, of Dante, of Tasso,
and of Ariosto, convinced that the day would infallibly
come, in which all these forms, phrases, and words of
others would return from its cells, blended and identi-
fied with my own ideas and emotions."

He had now indeed entered with all the fury of his
nature into the business of making tragedies, which he
did very much as if he had been making love. He
abandoned everything else for it, country, home,
money, friends ; for having decided to live henceforth
only in Tuscany, and hating to ask and ask that royal
permission to remain abroad without which, annually
renewed, the Piedmontese noble of that day could not
reside out of his own country, he gave up his estates at
Asti to his sister, keeping for himself a pension that
came to only about half his former income. The King
of Piedmont was very well, as kings went in that day ;
and he did nothing to hinder the poet's expatriation.
The long period of study and production which followed,
Alfieri spent chiefly at Florence, but partly also at Rome
and Naples.

It was during this time that he wrote and printed
the greater number of his tragedies; and it was at
this time also that he formed that relation with the


Countess of Albany which continued as long as he
lived. The countess's husband was the Pretender
Charles Edward, the last of the English Stuarts, who,
like all his house, abetted his own evil destiny, and was
then drinking himself to death ; there were difficulties
in the way of her union with Alfieri which would not
perhaps have beset a less exalted lady. When her
husband was dead, she and Alfieri were privately mar-
ried. Their house became a centre of fashionable and
intellectual society in Florence, and to be received in it
was the best that could happen to any one. The rela-
tion seems to have been a sufficiently happy one.
if not always the perfect devotion the poet describes ;
and after Alfieri's death the countess gave to the painter
Fabre " a heart which," says Massimo d'Azeglio in his
Memoirs, " according to the usage of the time, and
especially of high society, felt the invincible necessity
of keeping itself in continual exercise."

In 1787 the poet, went to France to oversee the print-
ing of a complete edition of his works, and five years
later he found himself in Paris when the Revolution
was at its height. The countess was with him, and
after great trouble he got passports for both, and hur-
ried to the city barrier. The National Guards stationed
there would have let them pass, but a party of drunken
patriots coming up had their worst fears aroused by
the sight of two carriages with sober and decent people
in them, and heavily laden with baggage. While they
parleyed whether they had better stone the equipages, or
set fire to them, Alfieri leaped out, and a scene ensued
which placed him in a very characteristic light, and
which enables us to see him as it were in person.
When the patriots had read the passports, he seized
them, and, as he says, " full of disgust and rage, and


not knowing at the moment, or in my passion despising
the immense peril that attended us, I thrice shook my
passport in my hand, and shouted at the top of my
voice, ' Look ! Listen ! Alfieri is my name ; Italian
and not French ; tall, lean, pale, red hair ; I am he ;
look at me : I have my passport, and I have had it
legitimately from those who could give it ; we wish to
pass, and, hy Heaven, we will pass ! ; 3

They passed, and two days later the authorities that
had approved their passports confiscated the horses,
furniture, and books that Alfieri had left behind him
in Paris, and declared him and the countess both
foreigners to be refugee aristocrats !

He established himself again in Florence, where, in
his forty-sixth year, he took up the study of Greek,
and made himself master of that literature, though, till
then, he had scarcely known the Greek alphabet. The
chief fruit of this study was a tragedy in the manner of
Euripides, which he wrote in secret, and which he read
to a company so polite that they thought it really was
Euripides during the whole of the first tw r o acts.

Alfierfs remaining years were spent in study and the
revision of his works, to the number of which he added
six comedies in 1800. The presence and domination
of the detested French in Florence imbittered his life
somewhat ; but if they had not been there he could
never have had the pleasure of refusing to see the
French commandant, who had a taste for literary
people if not for literature, and would fain have paid
his respects to the poet. He must also have found con-
solation in the thought that if the French had become
masters of Europe, many kings had been dethroned,
and every tyrant who wore a crown was in a very
pitiable state of terror or disaster.


Nothing in Alfieri's life was more like him than his
death, of which the Ahbate di Caluso gives a full ac-
count in his conclusion of the poet's biography. His
malady was gout, and amidst its tortures he still
labored at his comedies. He was impatient at being
kept in-doors, and when they added plasters on the
feet to the irksomeness of his confinement, he tore
away the bandages that prevented him from walking
about his room. He would not go to bed, and they
gave him opiates to ease his anguish ; under their in-
Huence his mind was molested by many memories of
things long past. " The studies and labors of thirty
years/- says the abbate, " recurred to him, and what
was yet more wonderful, he repeated in order from
memory a good number of Greek verses from the be-
ginning of Hesiod, which he had read but once.
These he said over to the Signora Contessa, who sat
by his side, but it does not appear, for all this, that
there ever came to him the thought that death, which
he had been for a long time used to imagine near, was
then imminent. It is certain at least that he made no
sign to the contessa, though she did not leave him till
morning. About six o'clock he took oil and magnesia
without the physician's advice, and near eight he was
observed to be in great danger, and the Signora Con-
tessa, being called, found him in agonies that took
away his breath. Nevertheless he rose from his chair,
and, going to the bed, leaned upon it, and presently the
day w r as darkened to him, his eyes closed, and he ex-
pired. The duties and consolations of religion were
not forgotten, but the evil was not thought so near,
nor haste necessary, and so the confessor who was
called did not come in time." D'Azeglio relates that
the confessor arrived at the supreme moment, and saw


the poet bow his head : " He thought it was a saluta-
tion, but it was the death of Vitturio Alfieri."

I once fancied that a very close parallel between
Alfieri and Byron might be drawn, but their disparities
are greater than their resemblances, on the whole.
Alfieri seems the vastly sincerer man of the two, and
though their lives were alike in some lamentable par-
ticulars, Alfieri's life strikes me as unmoral, and Byron's
^is immoral. There is an antique simplicity in Alfieri ;
Byron is the essence of conscious romanticism, and
modern in the worst sense. But both were born noble,

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