There were no Dantes in this age, but there was Parini in verse, Filangieri in prose, and Alfieri in drama, prose, and poetry.
Giuseppe Parini struggled up from penury, lived by copying manuscripts, and entered print (1752) with a small volume of ver si sciolti— blank verse. He took holy orders as a means of eating, and even then had to earn his bread by tutoring; there was a plethora of priests in Italy. His poverty sharpened his pen to satire. Contemplating the idleness and pomp of many Italian nobles, he conceived the idea of describing a typical day in such a blueblood’s life. In 1763 he issued the first part as Il mattino (Morning); two years later he added Il mezzogiorno (Noon); he completed, but never lived to publish, Il vespro (Evening) and La notte (Night) ; together they formed a substantial satire, which he called Il giorno (The Day). Count von Firmian showed real nobility by appointing the poet-priest editor of the Milan Gazzetta, and professor of belles-lettres in the Scuola Palatina. Parini welcomed the French Revolution, and was rewarded by Napoleon with a place on the municipal council of Milan. The odes that he composed between 1757 and 1795 are among the minor classics of Italian literature. We get a faint echo of him in translation, as in this sonnet, written as a lover rather than a priest:
Benignant Sleep, that, on soft pinion sped,
Dost wing through darkling night thy noiseless way,
And fleeting multitudes of dreams display
To weariness reposed on quiet bed:
Go where my Phillis doth her gentle head
And blooming cheek on peaceful pillow lay;
And, while the body sleeps, her soul affray
With dismal shape from thy enchantment bred;
So like unto mine own that form be made—
Pallor so dim disfiguring its face—
That she may waken by compassion swayed.
If this thou wilt accomplish of thy grace,
A double wreath of poppies I will braid,
And silently upon thine altar place.88
To this posy let us add, as a flower from the Italian Enlightenment, a passage from Gaetano Filangieri’s La scienza della legislazione (1780-85), inspired by Beccaria and Voltaire:
The philosopher should not be the inventor of systems but the apostle of truth.... So long as the evils that affect humanity are still uncured; so long as error and prejudice are allowed to perpetuate them; so long as the truth is limited to the few and the privileged, and concealed from the greater part of the human species and from the kings; so long will it remain the duty of the philosopher to preach the truth, to sustain it, to promote it, and to illuminate it. Even if the lights he scatters are not useful in his own century and people, they will surely be useful in another country and century. Citizen of every place and every age, the philosopher has the world for his country, the earth for his school, and posterity will be his disciples.89
The age was summed up in Alfieri: the revolt against superstition, the exaltation of pagan heroes, the denunciation of tyranny, the acclaim of the French Revolution, the revulsion from its excesses, and the cry for Italian freedom—all added to a romance of illicit love and noble fidelity. He recorded this passionate career in Vita di Vittorio Alfieri … scritta da esso —his life “written by himself,” and continued to within five months of his death. It is one of the great autobiographies, as revealing as Rousseau’s Confessions.It begins disarmingly: “Speaking—and, still more, writing—of oneself is beyond all doubt the offspring of the great love one has for oneself.” Thereafter there is no mask of modesty, and no sign of dishonesty.
I was born in the city of Asti in Piedmont January 17, 1749, of noble, opulent, and respectable parents. I notice these circumstances as fortunate ones for the following reasons. Noble birth was of great service to me, … for it enabled me, without incurring the imputation of base or invidious motives, to disparage nobility for its own sake, to unveil its follies, its abuses, and its crimes. … Opulence made me incorruptible, and free to serve only the truth.90
His father died when Vittorio was an infant; his mother married again. The boy retired into himself, brooded, meditated suicide at the age of eight, but could not hit upon any comfortable way. An uncle took charge of him, and sent him, aged nine, to be educated at the Academy of Turin. There he was served and bullied by a valet. His teachers tried to break his will as the first stage in making a man of him, but their tyranny inflamed his pride and his longing for liberty. “The class in philosophy … was something to send one to sleep standing upright.”91 The death of his uncle left him, aged fourteen, master of a large fortune.
Having secured the consent of the King of Sardinia as a prerequisite to foreign travel, he set out in 1766 on a three-year tour of Europe. He fell in love with sundry women, French literature, and the English constitution. The reading of Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau destroyed his inherited theology, and began his hatred of the Roman Church—though he had only recently kissed the foot of Clement XIII, “a fine old man of venerable majesty.”92 In The Hague he became desperately enamored of a married woman; she smiled and went away; again he contemplated suicide; this was the age of Werther, and suicide was in the air. Again finding the idea more attractive in prospect than in execution, he returned to Piedmont, but was so unhappy in an atmosphere of political and religious conformity that he resumed his travels (1769).
Now he went through Germany, Denmark, and Sweden—where, he tells us, he liked the scenery, the people, and even the winter. Then to Russia, which he despised, seeing in Catherine the Great only a crowned criminal; he refused to be presented to her. He enjoyed Frederick’s Prussia no better; he hurried on to bravely republican Holland, and to an England that was trying to teach George III to keep out of the government. He cuckolded an Englishman, fought a duel, was wounded. He caught syphilis in Spain,93and returned to Turin (1772) to be cured.
In 1774 he was sufficiently recovered to undertake his second great romance, with a woman nine years his senior. They quarreled and parted, and he cleansed her from his dreams by writing a play, Cleopatra; what could be more dramatic than two triumvirs, a queen, a battle, and an asp? The piece was produced at Turin June 16, 1775, “amid applause, for two successive nights”; then he withdrew it for alterations. He itched now “with a very noble and elevated passion for fame.” He reread Plutarch and the Italian classics, and studied Latin again to delve into Seneca’s tragedies; in these readings he found themes and form for his dramas. He would restore ancient heroes and virtues as Winckelmann had restored ancient art.
Meanwhile (1777) he was writing his treatise Delia tirannide, but it contained such hot indictments of state and Church that he could not think of publishing it; it came to print only in 1787. An almost religious fervor animated it:
Not pressing poverty, … not the slavish idleness in which Italy lies prostrate, no, these were not the reasons which directed my mind to the true lofty honor of assailing false empires with my pen. A fierce god, a god unknown, has ever been at my back scourging me on since my earliest years. … My free spirit can never find peace or truce unless I pen harsh pages for the destruction of tyrants.94
He defined tyrants as
all those who by force or fraud—or even by the will of the people or the nobles—obtain the absolute reins of government, and believe themselves to be, or are, above the law. … Tyranny is the name that must be applied … to any government in which he who is charged with the execution of the laws may make, destroy, break, interpret, hinder, or suspend them with assurance of impunity.95
Alfieri considered tyrannical all European governments except the Dutch Republic and the constitutional monarchies of England and Sweden. Influenced by Machiavelli, he idealized the Roman Republic, and hoped that revolution would soon establish republics in Europe. He thought the best thing any minister of a tyrant could do would be to encourage him to such excesses of tyranny as would drive the people to revolt.96 In its first years a revolution is justified in using violence to prevent the revival of the tyranny:
As political, like religious, opinions can never be completely changed without the use of much violence, so every new government is at first unfortunately compelled to be cruelly stern, sometimes even unjust, so as to convince, or possibly coerce, those who neither desire, understand, love, nor consent to innovations.97
Though he himself was a noble as Conte di Cortemilia, Alfieri condemned hereditary aristocracy as a form or instrument of tyranny. He applied the same condemnation to all organized religions of authority. He admitted that “Christianity has contributed no little to softening universal customs,” but he noted “many acts of stupid and ignorant ferocity” in Christian rulers “from Constantine to Charles V.”98 In general,
the Christian religion is almost incompatible with freedom. … The pope, the Inquisition, purgatory, confession, indissoluble marriage, and the celibacy of priests—these are the six rings of the sacred chain which binds the profane one [the state] so much more tightly that it becomes ever heavier and more unbreakable.99
Alfieri so hated tyranny that he advised against having children, or ever marrying, in a despotic state. Instead of children, but with comparable Italian fertility, he produced fourteen tragedies between 1775 and 1783, all in blank verse, all classical in structure and form, all excoriating tyranny with declamatory passion, and enthroning liberty as nobler than life. So in La congiura dei Pazzi his sympathy was with the attempt of the conspirators to overthrow Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici; in Bruto primo and Bruto se-condohe gave short shrift to Tarquin and Caesar; in Filippo he was all for Carlos against the King of Spain; in Maria Stuarda, however, he found more tyranny in the Scottish chieftains than in the Catholic Queen. Criticized for bending history to his thesis, he defended himself:
More than one malicious tongue will be heard to say … that I never depict anything but tyrants, in too many pages devoid of sweetness; that my blood-red pen, dipped in venom, always strikes a single and monotonous note; and that my surly Muse rouses no man from evil servitude, but makes many laugh. These complaints will not divert my spirit from so sublime a purpose, nor deter my art, though weak and inadequate to so great a need. Nor will my words ever be scattered to the winds if true men are born after us who will hold liberty vital to life.100
Only next to his passion for freedom was his love for the Countess of Albany. Daughter of Gustavus Adolphus, Prince of Stolberg-Gedern, she married (1774) Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender, who now called himself the Count of Albany. Once so gallant as Bonnie Prince Charlie, he had taken to drink and mistresses to forget his defeats. The marriage, arranged by the French court, proved childless and unhappy. Apparently the Countess herself was not without fault. Alfieri met her in 1777, pitied her, loved her. To be near her, free to help her and follow her fortunes without the irksome necessity of securing royal permission for every move across the frontier, he gave up his citizenship in Piedmont, transferred most of his fortune and estate to his sister, and moved to Florence (1778). He was now twenty-nine years old.
The Countess returned his love with a discreet delicacy that observed all public decorum. In 1780, when her husband’s drunken violence endangered her life, she retired to a convent, and later to the home of her brother-in-law in Rome. “I remained in Florence like an abandoned orphan,” wrote Alfieri, “and it was then that I became fully convinced … that without her I did not so much as half exist; for I found myself almost completely incapable of doing any good work.”101 Soon he went to Rome, where he was allowed to see his inamorata now and then; but the brother-in-law, under priestly guidance, opposed his efforts to secure an annulment of her marriage. (Hence his Miltonic plea for divorce in Delia tirannide.102) Finally the brother-in-law forbade him any further visit to the Countess. He left Rome, and tried to distract himself with travel and with horses—which were his “third love,” next to the Muses and “my lady.” In 1784 she won a legal separation. She moved to Colmar in Alsace; there Alfieri joined her, and thenceforth they lived in unwedded union until the death of the husband allowed them to marry. Alfieri wrote of his love with an ecstasy that recalled Dante’s Vita nuova:
This, my fourth and last fever of love, was … quite different from those of my first three liaisons. In those I had not found myself agitated by any passion of intellect counterbalancing, and commingled with, the passion of the heart. This had indeed less impetuosity and fervor, but proved more lasting and more deeply felt. The strength of my passion was such that it … dominated my every emotion and thought, and it will never henceforth be extinguished in me but with life itself. It was clear to me … that in her I had found a true woman, for instead of her proving, like all ordinary women, an obstacle to attainment of literary fame—one who set up occupations of utility and cheapened … one’s thoughts—I found in her, for every good action, both encouragement and comfort and good example. Recognizing and appreciating a treasure so unique, I gave myself to her with utter abandon. Certainly I was not wrong, for now, more than twelve years later, … my passion for her increases in proportion as those transitory charms (which are not her enduring self) by time’s decree fade away. But concentrated upon her, my mind is elevated, softened, and with every day made better; and as regards hers I am bold to say that the same is true, and that from me she may draw support and strength.103
So spurred on, he wrote more tragedies, some comedies, and occasional poetry. He had already composed five odes entitled “America libera.” In 1788 the lovers moved to Paris, where Alfieri supervised the publication of his works by Beaumarchais’ press at Kehl on the Rhine. When the Bastille fell Alfieri, all fiery for freedom, hailed the Revolution as the dawn of a happier age for the world. But soon the excesses of the Revolution disgusted a soul whose conception of liberty was aristocratic, demanding freedom from mobs and majorities as well as from popes and kings. On August 18, 1792, he and the Countess left Paris with such possessions as they could take in two carriages. They were stopped at the city gates by a crowd that questioned their right to leave. Alfieri “jumped out of the coach amongst the mob, brandishing all my seven passports, and started in shouting and making a row, … which is always the way to get the better of Frenchmen.”104 They drove on to Calais and Brussels; there they learned that the Revolutionary authorities in Paris had ordered the arrest of the Countess. They hurried on to Italy, and settled in Florence. Now Alfieri composed his Misogallo, hot with hatred of France and its “crowd of ill-begotten slaves.”105
In 1799 the French Revolutionary army captured Florence. Alfieri and the Countess took refuge in a suburban villa until the invaders departed. The excitement of these years weakened and aged him; ending his autobiography in 1802, aged fifty-three, he spoke of himself as already old. After bequeathing all his goods to the Countess, he died at Florence on October 7, 1803, and was buried in the Church of Santa Croce. There in 1810 the Countess raised to him a massive monument by Canova; she posed for the figure of Italy mourning over the tomb. She joined her lover there in 1824.
Italy honors Alfieri as Il Vate d’Italia, prophet of the Risorgimento that freed her from alien and ecclesiastical rule. His dramas, though strident and monotone, were an invigorating advance upon the sentimental tragedies that had been offered to the Italian stage before him. From his Filippo, his Saul, his Mirra the soul of Italy prepared for Mazzini and Garibaldi. His Delia tirannide was not confined to foreign publication at Kehl (1787) and Paris (1800); it was printed in Milan (1800) and other Italian cities in 1802, 1803, 1805, 1809, 1848, 1849, 1860; it became for Italy what Paine’s Rights of Man (1791) had been for France, England, and America. Alfieri was the beginning of the Romantic movement in Italy, a Byron before Byron, preaching the emancipation of minds and states. After him Italy had to be free.