« PreviousContinue »
Art. 9.-ELEONORA FONSECA AND THE NEAPOLITAN
REVOLUTION OF 1799.
1. Una Poetessa Partenopea. Nuova Antologia LXXXII,
August, 1899. 2. The • Monitore' of the First Parthenopean Republic.
Feb. 2-June 8, 1799. 3. La Rivoluzione Napoletana del 1799 (New edition of
1912). By Benedetto Croce Bari: Laterza, 1912. 4. La Rivoluzione Napoletana. By Salvatore di Giacomo. 5. Naples in 1799. By Constance H. D. Giglioli. Murray,
1903. 6. Nelson and the Neapolitan Jacobins. Edited by H. C.
Gutteridge, for the Navy Records Society, 1903. On Jan. 16, 1752, the infant daughter of a Portuguese nobleman resident in Rome, Don Clement de Fonseca Pimentel, was baptised in Santa Maria del Popolo. According to the register, a stately series of names was bestowed on the baby of three days old, but Eleonora was the one selected for general use. On the lips of the younger members of the family, it doubtless assumed some shorter form ; for, though its owner was the eldest child of the Marquis de Fonseca and his equally aristocratic spouse, Catarina Lopez, the household included two small boys, related to Eleonora by a double cousinship. They had come from Portugal with their mother, who was the sister of Donna Catarina and the widow of Ferdinand Fonseca, brother of Don Clement.
No light has been thrown on the reasons which brought this little company of relatives from Braganza to Rome; but there they continued to reside till Eleonora was in her ninth year, and there her brothers, Michele and Girolamo, also were born. Swift was her progress from the nursery to the schoolroom, where her cousins were already at work under the supervision of Abbé Lopez. To her uncle Eleonora' was probably indebted for her escape from the cramping influence of 'female, education, and for her early association with men of letters. Her childhood in Rome was in itself a goodly gift of fortune. Whether the city spoke to her in its ancient or its modern tongue, she was equally ready to respond. Latin was the staple of the
teaching she shared with her brothers and cousins; and for her there was never any deadness in the language of the great writers of the Augustan age. Their spiritual kinship was the discovery of a later day, but her schooling gave her the passport to their realm of gold; and from the first it had a homelike aspect to the young explorer, familiar with the city of the Cæsars.
Strained relations between the Papal Curia and the Court of Lisbon were the inevitable outcome of the expulsion of the Jesuits from Portugal in 1759. In the summer of the following year, Portuguese subjects in Rome were commanded by their King to quit the city within three months. In Naples the Fonseca family found a new home and a congenial social environment at the predominantly Spanish Court. Thus it came about that another ancient city laid its spell upon Eleonora. Of its ugly, repellent side, she had as yet no conception. To her delighted gaze, Naples revealed itself in all its loveliness of situation and surroundings.
Happy in the place of her nativity, Eleonora was no less happy in the date of her transplanting to Naples. That city of startling contrasts was on the eve of an outburst of intense intellectual vitality. The quickening influence was the literary and philosophical revival in Northern and Western Europe, which for lack of a better name is loosely summed up as the Romantic Movement. Originating in revolt against the rationalism and pseudo-classicism of the early 18th century, it became, in its ultimate issue, a change of attitude towards the whole of life. Its demand for the free play of the emotions was soon seen to be incompatible with any intellectual thraldom of women. In the wake of the pioneer Romanticist, Samuel Richardson, comes the modern woman-novelist, Fanny Burney ; in the wider pathway opened up by Rousseau and his followers, appears the modern woman-journalist, Eleonora Fonseca.
These representatives of the spirit of the New Age were born in the same year. While, however, the English girl, 'with very little education but what she gave herself,' made straight for her appointed course, Eleonora's classical training predisposed her to mistake an exceptional facility in Latin and Italian verse for the poet's high vocation. And, since the writing of passable
sonnets is an easier achievement than the production of enduring fiction, it is not surprising to find that, whereas Fanny Burney was six-and-twenty when Evelina'
• appeared, Eleonora's compositions were being handed about in manuscript when she was sixteen.
Outward resemblance there is none between the shy, shrinking Fanny, whose fame no mortal foresaw, and the daughter of the South, with her swift advance to maturity and her finely-wrought intelligence, in whom the fire of youth burned with exceeding brightness, of whom we catch delightful glimpses in the letters of contemporary travellers and, more astonishing still, in the verses and compliments addressed to her by her every-day associates. Amidst companions neither dull nor halting in speech, she was singled out for her mental attainments, her overflowing vivacity and her felicity of expression; and, withal, her learning was lightly, her brilliance was so spontaneous, that no one was aggrieved, no one jealous. Here is her portrait painted by herself,' writes one enthusiast, as he encloses a sonnet of Eleonora's in a letter to a friend. Unfortu-. nately, this.portrait has disappeared.
Not for their intrinsic excellence, but just because of their authorship, do we prize the meagre handful of Eleonora's poems which have escaped destruction. Even the most juvenile evince unusual knowledge of poetic form and easy command of word and phrase, together with all the wealth of classical analogy and allusion pre-eminently associated with the School of Metastasio, the Italian Laureate of the Court of Vienna. Seldom does he rise to any great poetic height but he is assuredly a very prince of improvvisatori. Fanny Burney studies Italian in order to read the works of Metastasio, her father's personal friend. Eleonora Fonseca, craving
more authoritative verdict than that of her admiring kinsfolk and acquaintance, gathers up her most cherished productions and sends them off to Metastasio, albeit with a letter more calculated to disarm than invite criticism. His reply left her with no further misgiving as to being on the right track.
One of the first poems. on which Metastasio was invited to pass judgment was "Il Tempio della Gloria, an epithalamium celebrating the marriage of Ferdinand
IV of Naples and Marie-Caroline of Austria in 1768. It secured for its author a special welcome at Court; and thenceforward no birth, journey, or other event in the royal circle failed to evoke its appropriate tribute of ode or sonnet. With La Nascita di Orfeo,' a cantata in honour of the birth of the eldest son of Ferdinand and Caroline in 1775, Eleonora reveals complete mastery of all the niceties of Metastasian craftsmanship. The immediate popularity of these compositions is the surest proof that they showed no trace of original genius. A few lines and descriptive passages might be cited as evidence of the writer's possession of 'a thin vein of true poetry,' but, in the main, they simply illustrate the conventional adulation of royal personages under mythological names.
Less inspiring subjects for a minstrel's lay than Ferdinand and Caroline can hardly be imagined. Untutored, undisciplined, left to his own devices, the young King had consorted with idle aristocrats for the slaughtering of preserved game, and with coarse-minded fishermen and boatmen in the pursuit of other sports, growing up uncouth of speech, depraved in taste, goodnatured, and not wanting in natural shrewdness, but inconceivably lazy, ignorant, and superstitious. Thus he was at a disadvantage as compared with the ambitious daughter of Maria Theresa, to whom he was married when he was nineteen and she fifteen. Her first attempts to play a political part were promptly suppressed by her father-in-law. Though the latter had become Charles III of Spain, he continued to control the policy of the Two Sicilies by making his able minister, Tanucci, the responsible functionary at Naples. Marie-Caroline's endeavour to obtain primary consideration for Austrian interests was naturally resented at Madrid. She was on safer ground when, in imitation of the reigning Hapsburgs and other benevolent despots, she proceeded to show favour to eminent representatives of science, art, and literature.
The years immediately following her marriage are associated with the institution or extension of libraries, museums,and schools of art, and with the founding of new chairs in the University of Naples. Amongst the professors of those days were men of European renown, such
as Mario Pagano, who wrote and lectured on criminal jurisprudence; Pasquale Baffi, the professor of Greek; and the outstanding authority on medical science, who at the age of twenty-one had become professor of botany, Domenico Cirillo. These men and certain of their fellow-workers constituted the nucleus of a small but growing element in the life of the community, which stood for efficiency and social reform. With this element Eleonora Fonseca came to be closely identified. Not as a mere adjunct to classics but for their own enthralling interest, she had studied mathematics and natural science. There are contemporary references to her grasp of physics, astronomy, and botany. Her love of botany was probably due to intercourse with Cirillo, the friend of Linnæus, the friend and correspondent also of the foremost scientific and literary men in England and France. Far-travelled, everywhere welcome, a member of the Royal Society of London and of many another learned body, detesting the sordid atmosphere of the Neapolitan Court, yet accepting the office of royal physician as a means of launching his schemes of medical reform, Cirillo might pass for a Renaissance scholar strayed out of his own epoch.
For the irksomeness of his attendance on royalty, he may have found compensation in closer acquaintance with the little group of thoughtful, studious men and women of aristocratic birth, who formed the connecting link between the Court and the University. Their familiarity with current French literature, especially the writings of Rousseau and the Encyclopædists, was impelling them to take disquieting views of the social conditions in their own country. For the time being, this tendency escaped adverse comment. Pride in the position of her sister, Marie-Antoinette—the only person for whom she felt any strong affection-was one reason why it suited Marie-Caroline to encourage French literature and French fashions; but she was chiefly moved by her determination to counteract the influence of Spain. forgave an opponent, and was merely biding her time to be avenged on Charles III for thwarting her political ambition. In 1777, she dealt a severe blow to her adopted country by compassing the downfall of Tanucci. Two years later, her ascendancy over her easy-going husband