Page images
PDF
EPUB

in which Muratori has long held undisputed sway. Tiraboschi, with his History of Italian literature, was the other great scholar of the age, which was erudite rather than critical. And these two men were only the leaders of a host of lesser workers in the same field. The positive scientific spirit which inspired these pioneers gradually leavened Arcadia itself and brought literature once more into touch with reality.

After the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle Arcadia ceased to be a necessity. With the exception of Lombardy and the Duchy of Mantua, Italy was free from foreign rule. She could turn her back on shams and think of setting her house in order, though a complete reform was impossible till the old edifice had been overthrown by Napoleon. Hence those to whom the Settecento' means the beginning of the new rather than the end of the old prefer to dwell upon its second half.

In literature no poet of the first rank found full scope within the sheepfolds of Arcadia except Metastasio; and even he wrote a treatise denouncing the absurd tyranny of Aristotle's so-called rules as interpreted by his modern imitators, though the melodrama, being of recent origin, was not held to be subject to them. Every other writer of importance either broke into Arcadia or broke out of it. But, with the possible exception of Alfieri, there is not a single poet of note who altogether escaped its influence till well into the 19th century.

One day, in Pisa, Goldoni noticed a number of people disappearing through a large gateway. *I looked in and saw a great courtyard with a garden beyond where there was a considerable gathering of guests seated under an arbour. I drew closer and observed a man in livery, who had, however, the air and bearing of a person of importance. I asked him who was the master of the house and why so many people were assembled. It proved to be a meeting of the Colonia Alfea, a colony of the Roman Arcadia.

.. I asked whether I might look on. “Certainly," says the porter. He went with me to the entrance of the garden and passed me on to one of the footmen of the Academy, who placed me in the circle. I listen; I hear good and bad and applaud both alike. Every one was staring at me and seemed curious to know who I was, and I was seized with a desire to satisfy their curiosity. The man who found me a seat was Vol. 233.--No. 463.

X

not far from my chair. I summoned him and requested him to ask the President of the Academy whether a stranger might express in verse the pleasure he had just experienced. The President repeated my request aloud and the assembly assented. I had a sonnet in my head, which I had written for a similar occasion in my youth. I quickly altered a few lines to suit present surroundings. .. The sonnet might have been composed on the spot and was loudly applauded. I do not know whether the meeting ought to have lasted longer, but all present rose and came crowding round me.'

This anecdote exactly illustrates Goldoni's relations with Arcadia. He was never on more than bowing terms with it. And it was he who breathed new life into Italian comedy by drawing his inspiration from the world around him. He belonged to the bourgeois class that was beginning to come into prominence; and his plays and memoirs contain a more truthful and varied picture of the life of the day than those of any other writer. Now Goldoni describes himself as an adventurer—an 'avventuriere onorato,' but still an adventurer; and the adventurer is a prominent figure in the Italy of his day. As readers of the · Promessi Sposi' will remember; Spanish rule had, in the previous century, given ample encouragement to the spirit of restless energy that produced these adventurers. But there was no room for them on this side respectability in the tame, Arcadia-ridden 'Settecento.' As one would expect, most of them either came from Venice or gravitated to it as their natural home. The perfect adventurer stands alone, unhampered by family or other ties, without ideals or scruples, ready to seize any chance for a little notoriety or a little money. He readily availed himself of the opportunities which the decay of faith and the growth of superstition threw in his way at this time. Had he lived in Lucian's day, Cagliostro would have founded an oracle and managed it as successfully as Alexander managed his shrine of Esculapius in Paphlagonia. The world of Casanova is a little more refined, but hardly less corrupt than that of Apuleius or Petronius. In our own day such men would have reaped golden harvests in the shadier paths of finance.

Filippo Mazzei found the sphere where the more reputable members of the tribe might have succeeded.

6

[ocr errors]

After doing well in business in London, he emigrated to America on the advice of Franklin and Thomas Adams, and bought land adjoining Thomas Jefferson's estate. He was intimate with the leaders of the American revolution and was entrusted by them with important missions. His last duty, undertaken after his retirement to Pisa, was to find sculptors for the statue of Liberty at Washington, What an empire-builder was lost in Gorani, who believed himself to be descended from a mythical king of Scotland, and spent much of his life in seeking the crown which his nurse had prophesied for him in his cradle ! Voltaire actually recommended him to Catharine the Great when she was ooking for a leader to rouse the Greeks against the Turks.

Most of these adventurers were of a milder type, knights of the pen rather than of the sword, who owed their adventures to the force of circumstances rather than to any seeking on their part. Some were to be found in the very heart of Arcadia, like Francesco Algarotti, who captivated Frederick the Great by his polish and charm. He was ready to write pleasantly of Newton's Optics for the ladies—his dialogues were translated into English by Dr Johnson's friend, Elizabeth Carter-or to act as Voltaire's mouthpiece in denouncing the monstrosities of Shakespeare's 'Julius Cæsar.' And of course he was in complete sympathy with the Gallomania of the day, which, in the sphere of literature, had reduced Italy to the position of a mere province of France.

More interesting is Giuseppe Baretti, who ruined his prospects of preferment at home by his attacks on the trivialities that passed for scholarship in Turin. After a residence of nine years in England, where the friendship of Johnson and his circle only strengthened his robust independence, he returned to Venice and began publishing the 'Frusta Letteraria,' modelled on the Spectator' or rather the Rambler.' Baretti insisted that a poet must have something to say when he writes, and generally played such havoc among the trim gardens of Arcadia and its outraged shepherds that the authorities were called in to muzzle the dangerous intruder. So he returned to England, where, in spite of his violence, his

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

sterling qualities made him welcome in the best literary society.

With all their faults, these adventurers prove that the vigour of the race was still unimpaired and was ready to assert itself at the first opportunity. They have more to tell than their stay-at-home brethren ; and the most readable memoirs of the century come from their ready pens. Goldoni and Casanova are the best known, since they wrote in French. Baretti's letters are classics in their way. Antonio Longo had no need to go beyond the Veneto for his adventures. Relapses into virtue merely indicate periods of convalescence in his natural extravagance; consequently he gives us a highly entertaining picture of the life of an idle young man of the day. But Lorenzo Da Ponte has left us the most complete and certainly the most charming picture of Bohemian life in 18th-century Venice.

If the spirit that carried the Lion of St Mark through the Mediterranean asserts itself, even in its decadence, in these adventurers, Milan, which was then, as now, the intellectual and industrial capital of Italy, soon took the lead in the movement that was to give birth to the new order; for at that time Austrian rule was the most enlightened in the peninsula. It was in Milan that the brothers Alessandro and Pietro Verri and Cesare Beccaria founded the “Accademia dei Pugni' and produced the Caffè,' the first Italian imitation of the Spectator,' advocating, among other reforms, a greater freedom for the language and urging its readers solemnly to forswear the Crusca dictionary before a notary. And here it was that Beccaria wrote his Dei Delitti e delle Pene,' which was immediately read throughout Europe and resulted in the abolition of torture in Austria and elsewhere. Their ideas were largely derived from the Encyclopædists. They are disciples of Reason; and the rationalism of the Encyclopædia, combined with the scientific spirit which originated with Galileo, was to be the foundation of the new literature.

Hence it is not surprising to find the Gallomania of the period bringing with it as an antidote the Anglomania that was then so prevalent in France. It took various forms. In literature it awakened interest in contemporary writers like Pope and Gray, Young and Ossian'

6

[ocr errors]

e

6

9

Macpherson. The Verris were confirmed Anglomaniacs. When Alessandro, telling his brother Pietro of his visit to London, complained that a Thames waterman had nearly run his boat down and, instead of apologising, had merely remarked that there was little harm in drowning a French dog, Pietro replied that, as the English are markedly superior to the rest of the continent of Europe, they are right to treat foreigners as slaves. In later years Alessandro amused himself by translating Shakespeare. Pietro's Anglomania showed itself chiefly in his championship of the claims of trade against those of agriculture. His denunciation of the method of farming the taxes in Lombardy so impressed Kaunitz in Vienna and Firmian, the liberal plenipotentiary in Milan, that he was made a member of the committee for the reform of the taxes, and thus saw a number of his suggestions put into practice. Peace and the reforms introduced into the administration at this time laid the foundation of the prosperity of modern Lombardy.

From that province came Giuseppe Parini, the first poet of the new literature who is a man,' as De Sanctis calls him, that is, who has within himself a spirit (contenuto) living and passionate, religious, political and moral. His upright character is free from all ostentation and all exaggeration, ... The man and the artist are one. His idea is not a thesis to be proved, or an aspiration to be attained only after a struggle. It impresses us as something that is known to us all and makes its way quietly and harmoniously.'

'He was a man,' writes Leopardi, 'of singular blamelessness, charity towards the unfortunate and love for his country, loyalty to his friends, highmindedness and constancy in the face of the bodily afflictions and the buffets of fortune which distressed the whole of his unhappy and humble life until death rescued him from obscurity.' This calm, self-contained abate, who had been a tutor in the house of a great Milanese family and had lost his post because he had taken the part of a young girl unjustly bullied by her mistress, set himself, in his bestknown poem, 'Il Giorno,' to describe the life of a young man of fashion of the day. Parini's purpose was moral. He wished to awaken the upper classes in Lombardy

6

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »