Entering Italy from France by Mont-Cenis, we descend the Alps into “foot-of-the-mountain” Piedmont, and pass through vineyards, fields of grain, and orchards of olive or chestnut trees to two-thousand-year-old Turin, ancient citadel of the house of Savoy. This is one of the oldest royal families in existence, founded in 1003 by Umberto Biancamano—Humbert of the White Hand. Its head in this period was among the ablest rulers of the time. Victor Amadeus II inherited the ducal throne of Savoy at the age of nine (1675), took charge at eighteen, fought now for, now against, the French in the wars of Louis XIV, shared with Eugene of Savoy in driving the French from Turin and Italy, and emerged from the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) with Sicily added to his crown. In 1718 he exchanged Sicily for Sardinia; he took the title of King of Sardinia (1720), but kept Turin as his capital. He governed with brusque competence, improved public education, raised the general prosperity, and, after fifty-five years of rule, abdicated in favor of his son Charles Emmanuel I (r. 1730-73).
During these two reigns, covering almost a century, Turin was a leading center of Italian civilization. Montesquieu, seeing it in 1728, called it “the most beautiful city in the world”25—though he loved Paris. Chesterfield, in 1749, praised the court of Savoy as the best in Europe for forming “wellbred and agreeable people.”26 Part of Turin’s splendor was due to Filippo Iuvara, an architect who still breathed the afflatus of the Renaissance. On the proud hill of Superga, towering 2,300 feet above the city, he built (1717-31) for Victor Amadeus II, to commemorate the liberation of Turin from the French, a handsome basilica in classic style of portico and dome, which for a century served as a tomb for Savoyard royalty. To the old Palazzo Madama he added (1718) a lordly staircase and massive façade; and in 1729 he designed (Benedetto Alfieri completed) the immense Castello Stupinigi, whose main hall displayed all the ornate splendor of baroque. Turin remained the capital of the Savoy dukes until, in their final triumph (1860 f.), they moved to Rome to become kings of united Italy.
Milan, long stifled by Spanish domination, revived under the milder Austrian rule. In 1703 Franz Tieffen, in 1746 and 1755 Felice and Rho Clerici, aided by the government, established textile factories that extended the replacement of handicrafts and guilds with large-scale production under capitalistic financing and management.—In the cultural history of Milan the great name was now Giovanni Battista Sammartini, whom we can still hear occasionally over the affluent air. In his symphonies and sonatas the contrapuntalsolemnity of the German masters was replaced by a dynamic interplay of contrasted themes and moods. The young Gluck, coming to Milan (1737) as chamber musician to Prince Francesco Melzi, became the pupil and friend of Sammartini, and adopted his method of constructing an opera. In 1770 the Bohemian composer Josef Myslivecek, listening with the youthful Mozart to some of Sammartini’s symphonies in Milan, exclaimed, “I have found the father of Haydn’s style!”27—and therefore one of the fathers of the modern symphony.
Genoa had a bad eighteenth century. Its commerce had declined through the competition of the oceans with the Mediterranean, but its strategic location on a defensive hill overlooking a well-equipped port attracted the dangerous attention of neighboring powers. Placed between enemies without and an uneducated but passionate populace within, the government fell into the hands of old commercial families ruling through a closed council and an obedient doge. This self-perpetuating oligarchy taxed the people into a sullen and impatient poverty, and was in turn dominated and fleeced by the Banco di San Giorgio. When the allied forces of Savoy and Austria besieged Genoa in 1746 the government did not dare arm the people to resist, for fear they would kill the rulers; it preferred to open the gates to the besiegers, who exacted indemnities and ransoms that broke the bank. The commonalty, preferring indigenous exploiters, rose against the Austrian garrison, bombarded it with tiles and stones torn from roofs and streets, and drove it ignominiously out. The old tyranny was resumed.
The Genoese patriciate built new mansions like the Palazzo Deferrari, and shared with Milan in supporting a painter who has come to a second fame in our time. Almost every extant picture by Alessandro Magnasco strikes us with the dark originality of its style.Punchinello Playing the Guitar28—an elongated figure in careless patches of black and brown; the graceful Girl and Musician before the Fire;29 The Barber, 30 apparently eager to cut his client’s throat; the massive Refectory of the Monks31 attesting the culinary prosperity of the Church: all these are masterpieces, recalling El Greco in their gaunt forms and tricks of light, anticipating Goya in macabre exposure of life’s cruelties, and almost modernistic in rough disdain of prim detail.
Florence in this age saw the end of one of history’s most famous families. The prolonged reign of Cosimo III (1670-172 3) as Grand Duke of Tuscany was a misfortune for a people still proud with memories of Florentine grandeur under the earlier Medici. Obsessed with theology, Cosimo allowed the clergy to govern him and draw from his ailing revenues rich endowments for the Church. Despotic rule, incompetent administration, and exorbitant taxation forfeited the popular support that the dynasty had enjoyed for 250 years.
Cosimo’s eldest son, Ferdinand, preferred courtesans to courtiers, ruined his health with excesses, and died childless in 1713. Another son, “Gian” (John) Gastone, took to books, studied history and botany, and lived a quiet life. In 1697 his father forced him to marry Anne of Saxe-Lauenburg, a widow of unfurnished mind. Gian went to live with her in a remote Bohemian village, bore boredom for a year, then consoled himself with adulteries in Prague. When Ferdinand’s health failed, Cosimo called Gian back to Florence; when Ferdinand died Gian was named heir to the grand-ducal crown. Gian’s wife refused to live in Italy. Cosimo, fearing extinction of the Medici line, persuaded the Florentine Senate to decree that on the death of the childless Gian Gastone, Gian’s sister Anna Maria Ludovica should succeed to the throne.
The European powers fluttered eagerly around the dying dynasty. In 1718 Austria, France, England, and Holland refused to recognize Cosimo’s arrangement, and declared that on Gian’s death Tuscany and Parma should be given to Don Carlos, eldest son of Elizabeth Farnese, Queen of Spain. Cosimo protested, and belatedly reorganized the military defenses of Leghorn and Florence. His death left to his son an impoverished state and a precarious throne.
Gian Gastone was now (1732) fifty-two years old. He labored to remedy abuses in the administration and the economy, dismissed the spies and sycophants who had fattened under his father, reduced taxes, recalled exiles, released political prisoners, assisted the revival of industry and commerce, and restored the social life of Florence to security and gaiety. The enrichment of the Uffizi Gallery by Cosimo II and Gian Gastone, the flourishing of music under the lead of Francesco Veracini’s violin, the masked balls, the parades of decorated carriages, the popular battles of confetti and flowers, made Florence rival Venice and Rome in attracting foreign visitors; here, for example, about 1740, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Horace Walpole, and Thomas Gray gathered around Lady Henrietta Pomfret in the Palazzo Ridolfo. There is something wistfully attractive in a society in decay.
Exhausted by his efforts, Gian Gastone in 1731 turned the government over to his ministers, and slipped into sensual degradation. Spain sent an army of thirty thousand men to ensure Don Carlos’ succession; Charles VI of Austria sent fifty thousand troops to escort his daughter Maria Theresa to the grand-ducal throne. War was averted by an agreement (1736) among Austria, France, England, and Holland that Carlos should have Naples, and that Tuscany should go to Maria Theresa and her husband, Francis of Lorraine. On July 9, 1737, the last of the Medici rulers died, Tuscany became a dependency of Austria, and Florence flowered again.