Battles are the technical fireworks of the historic drama; behind them are the loves and hates of men and women, the toil and gambles of economic life, the defeats and triumphs of science, literature, and art, the desperate longings of religious faith.
The Italian may have been a hurried lover, but he attended lustily to the continuance of the species, and so littered the golden peninsula with his like that one function of the battles was to reduce the pullulating crowd. The Church discouraged childlessness more than adultery, for so she could disarm dissent with multiplication. She smiled on Eros, and laid no puritan pall upon Carnival ecstasies. Girls were almost always virginal, for marriage came early, and premarital surveillance was severe; but after marriage—since this was usually a union of properties—a woman might take a cavaliere servente, or even a lover, and still be respectable; if she employed two or three lovers she was accounted “a little wild.” This, however, is the testimony of Byron,21 who liked to believe every woman accessible. Perhaps he meant to speak only of Venice, where Venus seemed especially at home, but Stendhal gave a similar picture of Milan in his Chartreuse de Parme.
Despite such easy morals, the life of the Milanese in 1805 seemed dull to Mme. de Rémusat, who mourned “the absolute nonexistence of family life—the husbands strangers to their wives, leaving them to the care of a cavaliere servente”;22 and Mme. de Staël, who shone in bisexual discourse, was displeased with what she considered the superficiality of conversation dominated by males; “the Italians,” she thought, “shrink from the fatigue of thinking.”23 The Italians could have reminded her that the Church frowned upon audible thinking; and the great majority of them agreed with the Pope that a religion with a settled creed and transalpine revenues was a beneficent institution in Italy. Even so, there was much quiet free thought among the educated minority,24 and considerable political heresy. Alfieri could rhapsodize over the French Revolution until it confiscated his property, and hundreds of Italians applauded the news of the fallen Bastille. Italy had bisexual societies of polite learning like the Accademia dell’ Arcadia; and that once famous congregation of learned men and women, the Accademia della Crusca, was reconstituted in 1812. In 1800 a woman, Clotilda Tambroni, was teaching Greek in the University of Bologna.
There and in other Italian universities science and medicine were flourishing. In 1791, at the University of Bologna, Luigi Galvani (1737–98) showed that if the muscle of a frog’s leg is connected with a piece of iron, and its nerve is connected with a piece of copper, an electric current will be generated and will cause the muscle to contract. In 1795, at the University of Pavia, Alessandro Volta (1745–1827) invented the “Voltaic pile,” or storage battery, which so astonished Europe that he was called to Paris in 1801 to demonstrate it at the Institute; and on November 7, before an audience that included Napoleon, he read a paper “On the Identity of the Electric Fluid with the Galvanic Fluid.” In 1807 Luigi Rolando published his epochal researches in the anatomy of the brain. “Thoughtless” Italy was teaching Europe a revolution greater than the French.
The Italian theater languished because Italians found it so natural to transform speech into song, and drama into opera. The populace flocked to simple plays in the style of the commedia dell’ arte; the maturer spirits went to such dramas as those in which Vittorio Alfieri (1749–1803) had proclaimed his hatred of tyranny and his longing for the liberation of Italy from foreign rule. Nearly all his plays antedated the French Revolution;25 but his passionate treatise Della tirannide, written in 1777, published in Baden in 1787, and at last in Italy in 1800, became one of the classics of Italian philosophy and prose. Finally, in Misogallo (1799), nearing the end of his troubled life, he appealed to the Italian people to rise and throw off all alien rule and become a united nation. Here the Risorgimento of Mazzini and Garibaldi found its first clear voice.
The extroverted ardor, the melodious language, and the musical bent of the Italians lent themselves to poetry. This brief age—even after surrendering Alfieri to the past and Leopardi to the future—had a hundred poets climbing Parnassus. Happiest of them was Vincenzo Monti (1754–1828), who had a good word to say for every promising subject. La Bassevilliana (1793) defended religion against the French Revolution, and won him acceptance at the papal court; in Il bardo della Selva Nera (1806) he gloried in Napoleon’s liberation of Italy, and he was appointed by the conqueror to a professorship in the University of Pavia; after the fall of Napoleon he discovered and proclaimed the faults of the French and the virtues of the Austrians. Through all these leaps he continued to praise La bellezza dell’ universo. He surpassed these flights in his translation of the Iliad (1810); he knew no Greek, but merely versified a prose version, so that Foscolo called him gran traduttor dei traduttore d’Omero.
Ugo Foscolo (1778–1827) was a greater poet and sadder man. Being a poet, he was sensuous passion rather than ordered thought; he indulged his desires, passed from one romance to another, from one country or gospel to another, and ended with a longing for old dreams. But through all his phases he was a patient craftsman, seeking perfect form for his verses, even when discarding, as specious ornaments, not only rhyme but rhythm, and seeking perfection in a language-music all his own.
He was born between two worlds—on the Ionian island of Zante between Greece and Italy, from an Italian seed in a Greek womb. After fifteen years in Zante he moved to Venice, sampled its frail beauties, fell in love with its decadent charm, and learned to hate the neighborly grasp of Austria. He rejoiced when Napoleon came like a torrent from Nice to Mantua; he hailed the hero of Arcole as Buonaparte liberatore; but when the unprincipled savior surrendered Venice to Austria he turned upon him in a romantic novel,Le ultime lettere di lacopo Ortis (1798)—the last letters of a Venetian Werther who recounts, in letters to a friend, the double loss of his inamorata to a rival, and of his beloved Venice to a Teutonic ogre.
When the Austrians set out to reconquer north Italy, Foscolo joined the French Army, fought bravely at Bologna, Florence, Milan, and served as a captain in the forces that Napoleon prepared for the invasion of England. When that dream faded, Foscolo abandoned the bayonet for the pen, returned to Italy, and published there his finest work, I sepolcri (1807). In these classically polished, romantically emotional three hundred pages he defended tomb inscriptions as the inspiring remembrance of great men; he honored the Church of Santa Croce in Florence for carefully preserving the remains of Machiavelli, Michelangelo, and Galileo; he asked how a people that had through many centuries produced so many heroes of thought and action, so many masterpieces of philosophy, poetry, and art, could rest content with alien masters; and he exalted the legacy of great men as their real immortality, and as the soul and spiritual life of the nation and the race.
When, in 1814–15, the Austrians again became masters of northern Italy, Foscolo exiled himself to Switzerland, and thence to England. He supported himself by giving lessons and writing articles, and died in great poverty in 1827. In 1871 his remains were brought from England to Florence, and were buried in Santa Croce, in an Italy at last free.
“In Italy,” said Byron (who loved it nonetheless), “a man must be a cicisbeo [a “serving cavalier”], or a singer in duets, or connoisseur of operas, or nothing.”26 Italian opera, generated especially in Venice and Naples, still dominated the sounding boards of Europe, after a brief challenge by Gluck and Mozart; soon (1815) Rossini’s engaging melodies and tempestuous arias would steal the stage, even in Vienna. Piccini, after his bout with Gluck in Paris, returned to Naples, and was placed in house arrest for sympathizing with the French Revolution; after Napoleon’s conquest of Italy he was again invited to France (1798), but died there two years later. Paisiello, as composer and conductor, triumphed in St. Petersburg, in Vienna, in Paris, and in Naples under Ferdinand IV, then under Joseph, then under Murat. Domenico Cimarosa succeeded Antonio Salieri as Kapellmeister in Vienna, and produced there the most famous of his operas, Il matrimonio segreto (1792). In 1793 he was called back to Naples as maestro di capella by Ferdinand; when the French took Naples he received them gladly; when Ferdinand was restored he sentenced the composer to death, but was induced to commute this to exile. Cimarosa set out for St. Petersburg, but died at Venice on the way (1801). Meanwhile Muzio Clementi was composing and performing piano music in various capitals, and was preparing the once famous Gradus ad Parnassum (1817) for the instruction of young pianists everywhere.
Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840) began at Geneva in 1797 his long career as a concert violinist. Loving his violin more passionately and faithfully than he loved any of the many women who throbbed to his music, he developed the possibilities of the instrument to unprecedented complexities of composition and performance. He composed twenty-four capricci, which astonished with the whimsicality of their developments. Elisa Bonaparte Bacciocchi appointed him music director at Piombino (1805), but that could not long keep him from the tours where his concerts were sure to bring him large audiences and pleasant wealth. In 1833 he settled in Paris. He gave twenty thousand francs to Berlioz, who was struggling with poverty, and encouraged him to compose Harold in Italy. Paganini’s strenuous working and playing brought him to exhaustion. He decided to leave the excitement of a capital that was frantic with genius and bubbling with revolution. He died at Nice in 1840, leaving—besides his capricci—eight concertos and numerous sonatas to challenge the violin virtuosi of the advancing century. The art of the violin is only now recovering from his antic pranks.