From A Teacher of Dante and Other Studies in Italian Literature, by Nathan Haskell Dole, New York: Moffat, Yard & Company, 1908; pp. 299-341.
A Teacher of Dante and
Other Studies in Italian Literature,
Nathan Haskell Dole.
ALFIERI AND TRAGEDY
RANIERI DE’ CASALBIGI in a long letter criticising Alfieri’s first four printed tragedies, begins with the statement that the Italians had been hitherto shamefully poor in tragedy, vergognasamente poveri nella tragedia, and after making some very reasonable criticisms on the unnaturalness of the complications, the absurdity or puerility of the conceptions, the languidness of the verse, the inharmoniousness of the poetry of the Tragic Muse of Italy, he proceeds to suggest the reasons why there was such a dearth of masterpieces.
This letter was written more than a century ago, and from his standpoint is quite satisfactory: but we know now far more thoroughly and understand better the social and political conditions of the past two centuries. I need only hint at the reasons: the spread of humanism which made men contented with imitation of the models left by Seneca; the lack of theatres and consequently of adequate professional 300 actors; the division of Italy into a dozen little independent provinces, with no central capital as heart or head — no literary language universally understood; the jealousy of church and princes, many of whom were themselves engaged in tragedies of real life and would therefore not relish seeing their counterpart represented on the stage.
De’ Casalbigi looked forward to the time when there should be a continuous and permanent theatre in which the best actors should be engaged at liberal salaries, where women freed from the prejudices that attached to the profession, should have equal chances, and where original or translated dramas, comic and tragic, should be constantly on the stage, giving to the young poet practical lessons in the management of the passions and of character, in the treatment of plot and all the details so indispensable to an art so exacting.
We have seen how the influence of Plautus and Terence conditioned the Italian comedy down to the time when Goldoni brought about a revolution and replaced the comedy of masks by something approaching the comedy of character. In tragedy the Latin influence was still more stilted and unfortunate: the only Latin model of consequence was the semi-mythical 301 Seneca, whose dramas were rhetorical exercises meant to be declaimed and not acted. The revival of the study of Greek might have given a better stimulus but the idea generally prevalent was that Seneca was superior to any of the great Athenian triumvirate.
The one thing that occupied the Italian* dramatists from Trissino whose “Sofonisba” is generally regarded as the first tragedy, down to Goldoni, was the observance of unities.
The three unities are like the three Gray Sisters: two are mortal, one is immortal. The unity of action is in its broadest signification absolutely essential: episodes however beautiful and effective only detract from the onflowing of the current that brings the fatal climax. And undoubtedly unity of time and space also greatly concentrate the interest when it can be arranged naturally. But the power of the imagination is not regarded, and the efforts of the classic dramatists to accomplish impossibilities brought about most ridiculous absurdities.302
We have seen how Goldoni was born, and educated by nature for the work of reform which he succeeded in inaugurating, his observant genius and his nomad life which brought him into contact with every variety of character, enabling him to people his stage with a vast variety of natural personages.
The destined reformer of the tragic drama had a life scarcely less nomadic, and only in its individuality less amusing. Goldoni did not hesitate to represent himself in his own comedies; we learn to know the man thoroughly from such plays as “The Honoured Adventurer” or “The Last Evening.” Especially in his “Memoirs” his enthusiasm, his frankness, his gaiety, his shallowness, his lack of knowledge, his bonhomie, are all amply manifest. But in Alfieri’s nineteen tragedies and six comedies, and even in his Autobiography (which like Goldoni’s has been published with an introduction by Mr. Howells), can not be seen a trace of the fiery, moody, ill-disciplined, restless, proud nature of Count Vittorio Alfieri. He strips himself of all his characteristics: his plays are so classic in form as to be lacking in every poetic grace; he tells the extraordinary story of his life as if 303 he were a critical outsider who felt no interest in the matter except as it was not a bad idea to have a correct impression of his life.
“If I may perchance lack the courage or the indiscretion to tell the whole truth about myself,” he says, “I certainly shall not be cowardly enough to tell anything that is not true.”
He regarded the fact of his being the child of noble, opulent and honourable parents as trebly important in his development: he was enabled to attack the vices and foibles of the nobility without suspicion of envy, while the utile e sana influenza of high birth kept him from ever contaminating the nobility of the art which he professed; freedom from sordid cares left him libero e puro — independent and untempted to serve anything but the truth; while the uprightness, purity and generosity of his mother and stepfather made him glad that he also was born a noble.
His father was Count Antonio Alfieri: his mother Monica Maillard de Tournon, the widow of the Marchese di Cacherano. Vittorio was born on the 17th of January, 1749, at Asti in Piedmont; less than a year afterward his father died at the age of sixty. His mother 304 being still a young woman took for her third husband the Cavaliere Giacinto Alfieri di Maghano. This union proved to be beatissima ed esemplare. He especially eulogises his ottima madre stimabilissima, her ardentissima eroica pietà, her absolute consecration to the relief of the destitute, her strong and sublime character.
His early years he calls stupida vegetazione and among his earliest remembrances was his grief at being deprived of his only sister Giulia, who was put into the Convent at Asti where he could see her only once a week. He himself was confided to a good priest named Don Ivaldi whom he calls ignorantuccio: but is was not then considered necessary for a Signore to be as learned as a Dottore.
At the Chiesa del Carmine next his stepfather’s house he was in the habit of attending various ceremonials and the sight of the Carmelite novices in their white surplices and with their boyish faces which seemed to remind him of his sister, filled his tender, impressionable heart with a vague longing and melancholy. He did not then know that it was love thus early manifesting itself. Byron was equally 305 precocious in this flowering of the heart: but he had at least a definite object in his pretty cousin while Alfieri’s passion was exhaled in distant contemplation of what seemed to him angels with their serene faces, their censers and candles, their genuflections and their penetrating songs.
He neglected alike his studies and his friends, and under the burden of a morbid melancholy, tried to commit suicide, by devouring handfuls of weeds, hoping that among them might be that called hemlock. He only succeeded in making himself sick at the stomach and as his red and swollen eyes and lack of appetite betrayed him, he was finally compelled to confess the truth, whereupon his mother with strange lack of wisdom made his malady worse by confining him to his chamber for several days. A still more absurd attempt to regulate his moodiness was made when he was sent to mass with a netted nightcap on. Not heeding his shrieks and screams, his tutor, the priest, dragged him along by the arm, while a servant pushed him from behind and thus he was conducted to the distant church of San Martino and brought home again with death in his heart as he says, 306 and feeling himself forever dishonoured. His agony resulted in an illness and the nightcap punishment was never tried again.
Even more unwise was his preparation for his first spiritual confession. The good priest Don Ivaldi had this duty in charge and he suggested to the boy every imaginable sin, most of which he did not even know by name. And when he went to Padre Angelo, his mother’s confessor, he was absolved on condition that he should kneel down at his mother’s feet at the dinner-table and in presence of all ask her pardon for all his past failings. This had been arranged in concert with his mother and one may imagine the torment that it caused his sensitive nature when at dinner-time his mother looked sternly at him and demanded if he had done his whole duty and if he had a right to sit down with the rest. He was then less than eight years old.
Alfieri’s autobiography is divided into four epochs. The second entitled “Adolescenza” has a significant subtitle: — “Embraces eight years of uneducation” — abbraccia otto anni d’ ineducazione. A childhood so ill-regulated was followed by a training not less injudicious. Its dangers may be imagined when we 307 read that at nine years and a half of age he was at it were dumped into the Academy of Turin and left to his own guidance; his only safeguard being a domestic named Andrea or Alessandrino who was so far superior to his class that he knew how to read and write. Of the school itself he says “no moral maxim was ever given, no vital teaching, and who would have given it when the teachers themselves knew the world neither by theory nor by practice?”
His picture of the school is pathetic. While the boys had no supervision they were confronted constantly by the spectacle of the older students and the king’s pages, twenty or twenty-five of them, indulging in every kind of dissipation, being subject to no kind of restraint provided they were in by midnight. He expresses his disgust vigorously when he compares himself to an ass among asses kept by an ass, asino fra asini e sotto un asino.
In spite of all these drawbacks he made some advancement or at least was promoted at the end of the first year to the Umanità, where for still another year his habits he declares were innocenti e purissimi: his only dissipation being the perusal of four volumes of Ariosto which he 308 acquired volume by volume by exchanging his half of the chicken allowed each student every Sunday. Lack of food and sleep stunted his growth and debilitated his health, so that he compared himself to a thin pale wax candle — candelotto di cero sottilissimo e pallidissimo, and he broke out with sores so disgusting that his companions called him Carogna and Fradicia: rotten, carrion. His copy of Ariosto having been discovered it was taken away by the subprior but the loss was not so serious to him because he could not understand it. The following year he managed to abstract the volumes from the subprior’s library while the worthy father was watching a game of pallone from his window: this was all that he knew of Italian literature except a few of Metastasio’s opera librettos and some of Goldoni’s comedies.
“The genius for things dramatic, the germ of which was possibly implanted in me, was likely soon to be hidden or extinguished for lack of sustenance, of encouragement, and everything else. And in very fact my ignorance and that of those who were educating me and the negligence of all in everything could not have been more complete.”309
One bright spot in his life was the transfer of his sister to a convent in Turin where he was enabled to see her two or three times a week. His uncle who had been absent from the city as governor of Cuneo, discovered his wretched condition and brought about some alleviation; and another relative, his father’s cousin — semi-zio — Count Benedetto Alfieri, first architect to the king, began to take some notice of him though the fact that he spoke pure Tuscan — suo benedetto parlar Toscano — which was contraband in that amphibious city — was a drawback to their intercourse. After he had, like a parrot, mastered the pedantic and insipid philosophy and the even more useless mathematics of the Academy and had been passed on to the University he was treated a little more like a human being: one night he was allowed to stay at the house of his relative, the architect, and it was an occasion to be marked with a white stone, for he was taken to the theatre of Carignano where he saw an opera bouffe, “Il Mercato di Malmantile,” sung by the best comic singers of Italy.
The verve and variety of the divine music made a very deep impression on him — to use 310 his own phrase, “left a furrow of harmony in his ears and in his imagination”; so that for a week he was immersed in an extraordinary but not unpleasing melancholy which disgusted him more than ever with his ordinary pursuits, and filled his mind with a most singular ebullition of ideas which would have expressed itself in verse if he had only known how. From that time forth he always found music — and especially the voices of women — the most powerful and indomitable stimulant of his mind, heart and intellect: nothing, he says, ever caused such varied and terrible effects. And he adds: “almost all of my tragedies have been conceived either while hearing music or shortly after.”
In August 1762, his uncle Pellegrino allowed him to visit him in Cuneo and the journey in the open air through the beautiful plains of Piedmont was very beneficial to his health but the slow rate of travel — quella ignobile e gelida tardezza del pazzo d’ asino — mortified him so that he shut his eyes so as not to see; nor till his dying day could he decide whether his passion for swift motion was the product of a generous and lofty spirit or of one light and vainglorious.
At Cuneo he wrote his first sonnet, which he 311 confesses was a hodgepodge made up of Metastasio and Ariosto but without correctness of rhyme or meter for though he had been taught Latin hexameters and pentameters, he knew nothing about the rules of Italian verse. It was in homage of a lady whom his uncle was courting. The lady praised it and the lad felt that he was a poet, but his uncle, a severe military martinet, cared nothing about the nine Muses and made all manner of sport of what he calls his sonnettaccio primogenito, wretched little first born sonnet, and so dried up his poetic vein that he did not again desire to versify till he was five and twenty. During the year 1763 — he being then fourteen — his afternoons were devoted to the lessons in ethics, and his mornings to physics under the famous Padre Beccaria. He always regretted that his wretched preparation in mathematics prevented him from appreciating the lectures on electricity, so rich in fascinating discoveries. This year his uncle was made Viceroy of Sardinia and on his departure entrusted Alfieri’s property to a gentleman who was wise enough to give him a small monthly allowance. His uncle had always refused to do so.
Shortly after, the troublesome eruptive dissease 312 of his scalp returned, and he was obliged to sacrifice his long red hair and wear a wig. The wig was a source of immense amusement to Alfieri’s companions, but he quickly discovered that the way to avoid such persecution was to participate in making a football of the wig: you must always seem to give spontaneously what you can not prevent being taken from you!
He had lessons in geography and enjoyed them, especially as his tutor taught him in French and lent him many French books — “Gil Blas” — and such novels as “Les Mémoires d’un Homme de Qualité” which he read through at least ten times. He had piano lessons but in spite of a quick ear and a natural gift, he made little progress. He attributed this to the lesson coming immediately after dinner when his mind was unfitted for any exercise. For fencing he was quite too feeble and he detested dancing, largely because the dancing-master was a Frenchman newly arrived from Paris with a politely impertinent air and an eternal caricature in his actions and words. He attributed to this puppet his life-long dislike of the French and their affairs which, says he, “are nothing but a perpetual minuet badly danced!”313
He had other reasons for his dislike, however, and one was that when a very small boy he had seen the Duchess of Parma and her French suite, all painted and powdered. Another still more deeply seated was that the French had once been masters of his native town and had been captured six or seven thousand strong and were therefore in his idea cowards.
His uncle, six months after going to Sardinia, died, leaving his property to him, and by the laws of Piedmont he was his own master, having now reached the age of fourteen. His curatore or guardian had authority only to keep him from alienating his real estate.
He was at the same time delivered from the tyranny of his valet Andre who when drunk beat him, and when sober locked him in his room for hours at a time. In spite of this atrocious treatment Alfieri was exceedingly fond of the fellow and for weeks after his dismissal went to visit him and from time to time gave him all the pocket money he had.
The prior of the Academy knowing how anxious he was to enter the riding-school, gave him permission, providing he would obtain from the University the first grade of the doctorate 314 called il Magistero. He went through a regular system of cramming and in less than a month he had passed the necessary examination: and soon was possessor of a horse. To the exercise of horsemanship which he calls piacevole e nobilissimo, he considered that he owed all the health and robustness to which he rapidly attained and which made a new man of him.
Under his new sense of freedom he declares it was incredible how his crest was elevated. He informed the prior and his curatore that the study of the law bored him to death and was a waste of time. So he was transferred to the first apartment where he says he had a splendid table regally served, much dissipation, very little study, much sleeping, riding horseback every day, and almost absolute liberty of action.
Most of his companions were foreigners and as he conversed with them in French or Latin and spent no small part of his time reading French romances, he actually forgot what he calls quel poco di triste Toscano he had managed to pick up during three years of burlesque studies of the humanities and asinine rhetorical branches.315
How ill-directed his efforts were may be judged from that fact that he read the thirty-six volumes of Fleury’s “Histoire Ecclesiastique” and made abstracts of eighteen volumes of it. The sole value of this enormous labour was that he was wakened to a distrust of priests and their doings — le loro cose. Remember he was only a boy of less than fifteen!
His servitor was required to go with him wherever he went but though a good natured fellow and easily bribed, Alfieri objected to even this semblance of restriction, as he was the only one in the first apartment burdened with a monitor. So he began to go out alone without him. But when he was detected several times after admonition, he was put under house arrest and finally kept in his room more than three months. The coldness and self restraint of his autobiography may be seen in the few lines which he devotes to this barbarous treatment.
I persisted in my unwillingness to ask to be released: and thus in my fury and obstinacy I believe that I would have rotted but never have yielded. I used to sleep almost all day, then toward night get up and, dragging a mattress close to the grate, stretch myself on the floor and, as I was unwilling to receive the ordinary dinner of the Academy which they brought to my room, I used to cook 316 polenta and such things by the fire. My hair was not combed, nor did I put on my clothes and I grew to be a savage. I was forbidden to leave my room but my outside friends, the faithful companions of our heroic escapades, were allowed to visit me. But I would lie deaf and dumb and like an inanimate corpse, making no reply to anything that was said to me. And thus I continued whole hours with my eyes, full of unshed tears, fastened on the ground.
Not a comment! Not a complaint! Not a flourish! Not an extra word!
He goes on to tell how the marriage of his sister to Count Giacinto di Cumiana released him from this life of a truly brute beast — questa vita di vero bruto bestia. He was put on an equality with the other young men and his guardian was compelled to give him a larger allowance. He spent it on horses, acquiring eight in a single year, and in magnificent clothing, out of rivalry with some young Englishmen who were in the University. He tells how after dining with his comrades in the Academy he would change his splendid clothes for much simpler ones so as not to hurt the feelings of his poorer friends in the city, and this he did, he says, out of a natural and invincible repugnance to seeming to outshine anyone whom he 317 knew or felt to be inferior to him in physical powers, talent, generosity, disposition or purse. He also had an elegant carriage built for him, though he confessed that it was a most useless absurdity for un ragazzaccio of sixteen in a city so microscopic as Turin, but he never rode out in it or the same laudable reasons, but always went a sante gambe — which may mean on horseback or on foot.
He ends the chapter in which he gives these details with the observation that amid the many perversities of a tumultuous, idle, untrained and ill-regulated life, he could discern in himself a natural inclination toward justice, equality and generosity of spirit. A ten days’ trip to Genoa where he first saw the sea had a great effect on his imagination. And again he was tempted to write verses, but how could he when for almost two years he had scarcely opened a book except some of Voltaire’s prose works and a few French novels? Neither did his first real passion for the sister-in-law of two of his comrades elicit a single sonnet though he felt all the symptoms “so learnedly and pathetically imaged by our divine maser of that divine passion, il Petrarca.” 318
His journey to Genoa awoke in him an immense desire to travel.
After a farcical service in the army, he succeeded in extorting from his guardian and from the jealous king permission to be gone for a year. He left Turin in October 1766.
And here begins the third epoch of his life, comprising eight years of travels and dissolutezze.
In the Ambrosian Library at Milan an autograph MS. of Petrarca was shown him, but it did not interest him! His sole idea of travel was to fly from place to place with all conceivable swiftness, not stopping for either paintings or sculpture or even architecture. At Florence, instead of making the most of his opportunities to practise the divine language, he took lessons in English. A day in Lucca seemed to him a century.
Obtaining permission to extend his travels, he went to Paris, being principally attracted by the hope of enjoying the theatre. But neither at this time nor when he had seen in Turin a company of French actors, nor for some years later, had the thought ever arisen in his mind that he might some day write theatrical compositions. And he says that though he knew the principal 319 French comedies and tragedies, and always listened with attention, still it was without the slightest thought or impulse toward creation. And at this time comedy pleased him more than tragedy though he was more inclined to tears than to mirth. He explains his indifference to French tragedy by the fact that whole scenes and even acts were devoted to dialogues between secondary characters, thus lengthening the action and dissipating the effect. He was also disagreeably impressed by the monotony and sing-song of the French verse and the unpleasing nasal tones.
He spent some time in Marseilles where he got great enjoyment from sea-bathing, going quite a distance from the port and sitting with his back against a high rock, so that he had only the vast immensities of sea and sky before him, while his soul was rapt within him at sight of the setting sun, and he would fain have composed many poems had he only known how to write in rhyme or in prose in any language.
Yet when he became tired of Marseilles, he says he went more like a fugitive than a traveller, night and day, pausing not at Aix with its lovely smiling landscape, nor at Avignon where was 320 Laura’s tomb, nor at Vaucluse so long the home of our divine Petrarcha; only at Lyons was he compelled by sheer wariness to pause and rest. From there he flew to Paris as an arrow is sent from a bow. Paris then was very different from the clean, magnificent city of to-day. And the contrast between the smiling landscapes of Provence and the wretched suburb of Saint Marcel, the foul-smelling, muddy† Faubourg Saint Germain, the tasteless architecture of the houses, the ridiculous pretensions of the palaces, the Gothic taste displayed in the churches, and the vandal-like structure of the theatres, and the pessimamente architettate facce impiastrate of the women, all seen under the gloom of a misty sky, entirely disenchanted him; though he liked the beautiful gardens and the thronged boulevards and the handsome coaches and the splendid façade of the Louvre and the innumerable shows.
But the general impression of disgust with Paris, where for two weeks he did not once see the sun, never faded from his mind: it was just as vivid twenty-three years later. But he was delighted with London and England and would 321 gladly have lived there all his days; the beauty of the country, the unaffected customs, the fair and modest women and girls and the government and liberty engendered therefrom made him almost forget the wretched climate, the melancholy ever present and the ruinous cost of living there.
In Holland he had his first serious love-affair and while he was languishing in the net, the Portuguese Minister to The Hague, a man of great talent and originality, of considerable culture, warm-hearted and high-spirited quite won his sympathy and confidence. He tells how he used to speak dell’ amata all’ amico e dell’ amico all’ amata. This worthy friend gave him excellent counsel, which made him ashamed of his stupid lazy life, never opening a book, of his ignorance and especially his neglect of the Italian poets and philosophers.
Among other writers he mentioned Machiavelli whom Alfieri knew only by name and, as it were, obscured by prejudices. He for the first time noticed what often afterwards occurred to his observation that only while he was deeply in love did he feel a passion for study and an impetus and effervescence of creative 322 ideas. The husband of the fair Dutch dame kept flying about the country: he was not at all jealous and after them flew poor Alfieri like the tail of a kite.
When the time came, however, for the Baroness to say a final adieu to her fiery lover, she left him a little note and the young man was so desperate that he tried to commit suicide by bleeding to death. He hired a doctor to bleed him and when the doctor was gone he tore off the bandage but his faithful servant discovered his condition and brought him to his senses.
Soon after this he returned to Italy travelling with his usual rapidity, seeing nothing of Nancy, Strasbourg, Basle, or Geneva except their walls; nor speaking a word during the twenty days of the journey, while Elia humouring his whim, used signs as if he had been deaf and dumb. While wearing off the melancholy effects of this ridiculous love affair he varied his solitude by reading Rousseau, Montesquieu, Voltaire and other French works. Plutarch also came into his hands and the stories of the great men of the past kindled in his mind the love for glory and virtue and what he calls the soddisfacentissima arte del rendere bene per male — the all satisfying 323 art of rendering good for evil. This was to him the book of books and he tells how when he came across certain passages he would spring to his feet in the keenest agitation, quite beside himself, while tears of grief and rage poured down his cheeks at the thought that he had been born in Piedmont, at a time and under a king when there was no chance for either action or speech.
He gives a most naïve and amusing account of a plan to marry him to a very beautiful black-eyed young lady with large possessions and a title; but his reputation for eccentricity and lack of good manners caused the negotiations to fall through. His good fortune, he says, saved him from this marriage to which he was inclined. The girl, he adds, acted most wisely for her well-being, for she spent a happy life in the home of the young gentleman whom she married and the result was that Alfieri was reserved for the service of the Muses.
The plans for his diplomatic career, as well as the plans matrimonial, all went up in smoke. He was free to travel and so with an increased allowance of spending money — 2,500 zechins equal to about $6,000 a year — he started off through Germany, Hungary, Denmark and 324 Sweden. Montaigne was now his daily companion, but the Latin quotations were an almost insuperable obstacle and the occasional passages from the early Italian poets were beyond his comprehension. “Such,” says he, “was the primitive ignorance in me and my lack of practice in that divine language which every day I was more and more losing the use of.”
At Vienna where he might have met Metastasio he declined the introduction, feeling that the society which met at his house was only una brigata di pedanti. Besides he had actually seen the poet on his knees kissing Maria Teresa’s hand with a face expressive of such servile delight and obsequiousness that in his newly acquired Plutarchian spirit of democracy he felt that he could never shake hands with a Muse sold to a despot so warmly abhorred.
At Berlin the military spirit also disgusted him, but he was presented to Frederick the Great. At seeing him he confessed to no feeling either of wonder or of respect, but rather of indignation and fury. He even refused to wear the Court uniform, and when the King’s minister asked him his reason he replied that it seemed to him there were plenty of them. The King, 325 he says, uttered the usual meaningless formalities. “I studied him deeply, respectfully looking into his face and I thanked heaven that I was not born his slave.”
At Copenhagen, which especially delighted him because it was not Prussia or Berlin, he had a chance to practise, or at least to hear, pure Tuscan spoken by the Neapolitan minister to Denmark. Under this influence he even read the Dialogues of Aretino, the originality, variety and correctness of which delighted him.
Sweden gave him a practical acquaintance with Ossian before he had ever read any of that humbugging bard’s rhapsodies. The sudden appearance of spring in that far northern climate again made him feel like tuning his harp but alas! he knew not how to play.
He had a great desire to visit Russia, having heard his Russian schoolmates at the Academy boast of their land. After a most exciting and dangerous voyage from Stockholm to Åbo and from Åbo to Petersburg, he was once more bitterly disappointed. The great barrack-like palaces of that Asiatic encampment, as he called it, seemed laughable. He refused to be presented to la Clitenestra filosofessa, the Semiramis 326 of the North, Catherine the Second, and he accounts for his “uselessly barbarian behaviour” by attributing it to his inflexible intolerance, his utmost hatred of tyranny in the abstract, and more especially because she was guilty of having poisoned her husband.
Alfieri’s second visit to London, in 1771, was rendered notable by a love affair with a viscountess. The whole story reads like one of Cardinal Bibbiena’s comedies, nor do I know anything more ludicrous in the modern system of duelling as practised by French deputies and novelists than Alfieri’s sword battle with the injured husband. Driven out of his senses by his passion for the fair lady he spent the time away from her presence in galloping about on a very fiery and impetuous steed. In trying to clear a gate the horse fell with him, breaking his collar-bone and dislocating his shoulder. It was some time before he began to feel the pain. The surgeon set the bones and ordered him to say in bed, but not he. He was bound to keep an appointment with her ladyship who was staying at a villa about sixteen miles from London.
When he got back after all manner of adventures his bandages were out of place and his 327 shoulder in a terrible state. The surgeon pulled him together again, but the following evening he insisted on going to the opera. While apparently listening to the music, his face like marble, betraying no emotion while mille tempeste terribili were agitating his heart, he was called out and there stood the viscount. The conversation was short and to the point — to the point of the sword. They adjourned to Green Park and had their duel, Alfieri apparently trying to provoke his adversary to kill him and the Lord L—— as obstinately refusing to take any such advantage from a man who had his arm in a sling. They fought for ten minutes, and then Alfieri received a slight scratch in his arm, and the militant husband declared his honour was satisfied. Alfieri tied up his little wound with his teeth, and finding it not painful returned to the box where he had been sitting and heard the rest of the opera.
After it was over he went to the house of a lady who knew Lady L——. There to his amazement he found la stessa stessissima donna mia — her ladyship herselfmost. He soon found that she was a most contemptible character, and only that discovery prevented him from 328 doing exactly what Lord Byron a generation later proposed to do with the Countess Guiccioli — namely to fly to America — “the world forgetting by the world forgot.” There is a very curious analogy between Lord Byron’s career and Alfieri’s: the neglected childhood, the erratic youth, the early susceptibility, the long journeys, the numberless intrigues and finally the irregular relationship which lasted through the last part of their lives.
The finale of Alfieri’s adventure was just as ridiculous as any other part of it, but as Lord L—— did not see fit to sue him for alienating his wife’s affections, the impetuous poet left England and soon found himself in Paris again, where out of mere whim he refused to meet Rousseau, though he felt the highest esteem for his pure and lofty character and his sublime and independent conduct.
He atoned for this by making the acquaintance of seven or eight of the first men of Italy and of the world: Dante, Petrarca, Ariosto, Torquato Tasso, Boccaccio and Machiavelli. In other words, he bought 36 volumes of prose and poetry and he says that these illustrious masters henceforth accompanied him wherever he went. He 329 had left all his English horses in England, selling all but one; now he went to Spain and as usual paid no attention to the lovely landscapes on the way. But to atone he bought two Spanish horses of noble pedigree, one a golden chestnut Andalusian — un stupendo animale, castagno d’ oro. And in Barcelona he actually had the enterprise to read “Don Quixote” with the aid of a grammar and dictionary.
He crossed the wide desert plains of Arragon rather slowly with his beautiful horse trotting by him like a faithful dog, while behind came all his servants and mules and other live stock. He was uncertain whether it was good fortune or ill fortune that he had no means of expressing himself at that time in verse; for he would have poured forth a perfect flood of rhymes expressive of the melancholy and moral thoughts and varying images called up by those wide solitudes and the constant motion.
At Madrid his servant Elia while arranging his hair accidentally pulled it, and Alfieri in an ungovernable rage hurled the candle at him and narrowly escaped killing him on the spot. It struck his temple and caused blood to spurt forth, and the valet being hot tempered 330 would in turn have killed Alfieri had not the other servants interfered to stop a quarrel which he calls tragicomica e scandalosissima. But that night Alfieri slept with his door open next Elia’s room and offered him free chance for vengeance. Elias was too much of a hero to avail himself of it, and contented himself with keeping the two handkerchiefs which bound up his bleeding temple, and occasionally showing them to his master.
At Madrid he visited neither the Escorial nor the Aranjuez nor the King’s palace, and the only acquaintance that he made was that of a poor watchmaker.
At Lisbon he was more fortunate: the Abate Tommaso di Caluso, brother of the Piedmontese Minister to Portugal, conceived a great friendship for him and with equal tact and kindness tried to turn his mind to the noble things of literature. He insisted that Alfieri was born to be a poet and that it was not too late for him, by study, to become one equal to the greatest.‡331
After three years’ absence he reached Turin in May, 1772, and soon after took a magnificent house luxuriously furnished, and as he was unmarried and quite free, he used twice a week to assemble in his salon a brigata of young men whose sole object was amusement. Among their amusements was the reading of compositions which were handed in anonymously. Alfieri himself wrote several in very mediocre French: one was a scene representing the last judgment when God demanded of various souls a short account of their actions: he introduced several well-known characters and the wit and satire caused much amusement. His natural inclination was to satire and the ridiculous, but thought and reflection caused him even then to recognise that it was the fruit of malignity and natural envy and therefore not worthy to be cultivated.
Having been caught, as he expresses it, in a third net of love, he made his first attempt at a tragedy. The lady whom he was serving was of high rank, older than he and bore a not very savoury reputation in society. Once when she fell dangerously ill and he had been sitting in perfect silence from morning to night at the foot of her bed, he beguiled the tedium by writing 332 a dramatic piece (whether tragedy or comedy in one, five or ten acts, he could not say) but in the form of a dialogue between Photinus, Cleopatra and a female whom he called Lachesi, forgetting that Lachesis was one of the three Fates.
In his autobiography Alfieri gives some specimens of this precious composition that the reader might judge for himself of the leanness of his poetic patrimony at that time. The verses rhyme irregularly: some lines are too long and some are too short; bad grammar and erratic punctuation are everywhere in evidence against his training, but he persevered till he got half through the first scene of the third act, when the lady saw fit to get well.
His attempts to free himself from this unworthy servitude were as abortive as his rhymed dialogue but vastly funnier. If he had only had the comic vein of Goldoni! He tells in the story which he sent to a friend how he once started off to be gone a year but was back within eighteen days, unable to endure separation; how, when once more he resolved to break the yoke, he cropped his long red hair — lunga e ricca treccia dei miei rosissimi capelli — (for only peasants 333 and sailors wore their hair short) and stayed in the house for five or six days, seeing his Calypso going in and out of her house, which faced his and even hearing her voice; and how like another Ulysses fearing lest her siren-song should be too much for him he obliged Elia to tie him into his chair lest he should escape and become a slave again. The cord was concealed under a large cloak, but his hands were left free for writing or reading and no one seeing him would suspect that he was fastened!
Thus struggling with his fate, he read, but often he understood not a word of what he had been reading and he wrote his first sonnet, which runs as follows:
At last I have won the day, unless I am deceived, the day I have won; quenched is the flame which burnt voraciously this poor heart of mine caught by unworthy snares: whose motions blind Love controlled.
Before I loved thee, O Lady, I knew well, that such a fire (of praise) was wrong and a thousand times I have avoided it and conquered love a thousand times so that it was not alive nor yet extinct.
The long pain and the grievous tears, the keen torments and the cruel bitter doubt (‘whereby the life of lovers is entwined’) I behold with eyes not abstinent of weeping [avari di pianto]. Fool, what do I say? Virtue, Courage among so many cares, it is alone whose thoughts are dear.334
This piccolo saggio he showed to the learned Padre Paciandi who replied in a gracious letter:
Messer Francesco was kindled with love for Monna Laura and thus unpassioned himself [si disinnamoro] and sang his repentance. Then again he loved his Diva and ended his days loving her not indeed philosophically but as all other men have been wont to do. You, mio gentilissimo Signor Conte, have taken up poetising: You will only imitate that father of Italian rhymesters in this amorous occupation. If your escape from its chains has been by force of courage [virtù] as you write, we must hope that you will not fall a victim again.
However it be, the sonnet is good, sententious, vibrato and quite correct. I have happy auguries for you in the poetic career and for our Piedmontese Parnassus which needs just such men as you to rise above the vulgar herd.
Alfieri, however, knew well enough that the worthy abate was flattering him and that the sonnet was bad. But the cacoethes scribendi had seized him. He had been prudent enough to rescue his half-finished “Cleopatra” and the fit came upon him to revise that with the aid of some of his friends. He turned his house into a semi-accademia di literati. While this was going on he was taken with the whim of going out during the last days of the Carnival of 1775 masked as Apollo with his lyre, and at the theatre he sang some verses composed by himself — 335 the whole episode most contrary to his natural disposition.
In the first of these colascionate§ he makes the statement that the man who really loves is most unfortunate; the false-hearted is only happy in love; he who doth not deceive is himself deceived; and he comes to the conclusion that l’ innamorato fa trista figura. Everyone laughs at him and rightly too. L’ innamorato is always a great beccone — he-goat. And he ends by saying that he has made his dear friends laugh, and he himself laughs at women, at his friends and at himself. There were three of these poems which he calls ridiculous and foolish, and he transcribes them to let the world see them as “an authentic monument of his lack of skill in everything that was becoming and decent.”
Next he revised his “Cleopatra Tragedia” and sent the first act to the benignant Padre Paciandi to taste of it. The worthy priest thought the play showed genius, fecund imagination, and judgment in its plan, but he had to find fault with the poetry: the lines he wrote were not well 336 turned and failed of the giro Italiano — Italian swing or order. His spelling was vicious, and he suggested several text-books to read on grammar and orthography. Some of the marginal notes greatly amused Alfieri, as for instance in the 184th line where he has spoken of il latrato del cor — the barking of the horn — and the priest suggested that the metaphor was exceedingly canine.
He wrote the “Cleopatra” a third time and had it performed in the theatre at Turin in June 1775. He transcribes also parts of this version as a proof of his asininity. After the tragedy a short piece in prose entitled “I Poeti” written by Alfieri made satiric sport of the Cleopatrassa. He himself was represented as Zeusippo, but he also satirised other playwrights, whose tragedies he says were the mature fruit of learned incapacity, while his was the premature offspring of a capable ignorance.
Both of them were applauded but he soon withdrew them. His heart was filled with the keenest ambition to win some day a true theatric palm. With this absurd and feeble manner he made his first appearance before the public.
He was now twenty-seven and with resolute, 337 obstinate and indomitable courage, with a strange mixture of fire and of gentleness, with the intensest hatred of tyranny he began to prepare himself for his career. He had practically to begin at the very beginning and acquire his native language. Indeed his first serious attempts had been in French. He translated them into Italian, but he found they lost the little power they had.¶ He studied Tasso, Ferrara, then Dante. After spending six months in learning Italian he began to relearn Latin, and in three months became a fair scholar. But largely through the encouragement of his friends Paciandi and Count Tana he kept up the feroce continua battaglia and says “If I become a poet I ought to sign myself one by Grace of God and of Paciandi and of Tana.”
Paciandi sent him the “Galateo” of Casa to study, but when he opened it and came across the first portentous conjunction — conciossiacosache, inasmuch as — introducing a long pompous phrase, he was so angry that he flung the book out of 338 the window, with a howl of rage at its pedantry. And he says he did not take up “Il Galateo” for many years until his shoulders and his neck were calloused in enduring the grammatic yoke.
His first labours were in translation, and I need not mention all the works which he put into his best Italian: they included Horace and Seneca and Racine. But when he began to compose his own tragedies he found himself too much influenced by the authors he had read, and for that reason he gave up reading Shakespeare — Shakespeare, however, not in English, but the wretched French version of the last century.
We have followed his career so far perhaps rather too closely, but it seems to me a most valuable and stimulating history: to see the evolution of this wonderful man and his strenuous endeavours to undo the errors of a false education.
The fourth epoch of his life is devoted mainly to his studies and his literary compositions. But it also includes the story of his expatriation for liberty’s sake, his sacrifice of large means that he might be free to live and 339 write. It also includes that long and strange attachment to the Countess of Albany, first when she was the wife and then the widow of Charles Edward Stuart the Pretender, who had very much the same good influence upon his literary work that la Guiccioli had upon Byron. It is not known whether he ever married her: if so, the ceremony was absolutely private. His description of his first impression of this lady is very charming. And there are other passages that well merit consideration: but it has been my intention to give chiefly the history of his literary education and therefore I must pass over all account of his various compositions; his “Polinices and Virginia,” his “Agamemnon and Orestes,” his “Congiura de’ Pazzi,” his “Garzia” and “Timoleone.” By 1782 he had fourteen tragedies completed, seven of which were the product of about ten months’ work.
Nor need I speak of his further travels or of his wonderful passage of the Alps with his English horses, his escape from Paris at the time of the Revolution, or of his final days in Florence or of his wonderful acquisition of Greek, his translations of Greek and Latin 340 authors, his Order of Homer, his six extravagant and Aristophanean Comedies, or even of his strange and haughty seclusion which he allowed to be broken neither by letters nor visits. Profound melancholy and moody irascibility marked his genius. He finished his memoirs in May 1803 and passed away on the eighth of October of the same year. He lies under a costly mausoleum design by Canova, erected in the church of Santa Croce to his memory by the Countess of Albany who lies buried with him.
Most of the subjects of his tragedies were taken from antiquity, either classic or biblical. Such tragic episodes as the assassination of Agamemnon, the murder of Abel, the madness of King Saul, or in more modern times the pathetic career of Mary Queen of Scots appealed to him. He was able to depict to the life the gloomy, morbid nature of Philip II. His tendency was to follow the classic models and to dress his few characters, as it were, in the simple draperies of the antique. He permitted few ornaments. His lines therefore seem rather bare, and this austerity is intensified by his somewhat limited vocabulary, his habit of using the same gloomy 341 and terrible words again and again; but when it comes to action the simplicity of the play unites itself to power, and therefore his works have held their own upon the stage and have found worthy interpreters in such consummate actors as Salvini and Ristori.
* L’Anguillara partially translated the “Oidipous” of Sophokles, supplying some of the scenes by passages from Seneca. This was published in 1565 in Venice. In 1574 Tasso’s “Torrismondo” was brought out. This is written in the same meter as Alfieri’s Tragedies and the poetry, as might be imagined, is more imaginative than dramatic.
† It seems strange to think of the Royal Coach being embourbée — stuck in the mud — between Versailles and Paris.
‡ His Andalusian steed he presented to a banker to whom he applied for a letter of credit in exchange for 300 Spanish doubloons. The banker showed his gratitude by cheating him and this confirmed him in his opinion of that class of people, which, he says, had always seemed to him one of the vilest and worst — in the social world — the more when they affect being gentleman!
§ From Colascion, the two-stringed Italian lute; hence a poem sung to music.
¶ He says his tragedies were amphibious things swimming between French and Italian without being either, and again he compares them to the brown color — ce non è nero ancora, e il bianco muore — mentioned by Dante.
[The End of the Online Edition of
A Teacher of Dante and Other Studies in Italian Literature,
by Nathan Haskell Dole.]
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