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ON ITALIAN LITERATURE.
Rome, Nov. 12, 1825.
THE strong and marked distinction between Italian and French literature, is the sincerity, the singleness of purpose, which characterises the former. They do indeed tell the lies necessary to avert persecution for Carbonarism; but putting aside the nonsense they are compelled to write by the minute tyranny of five courts, each under the dominion of an imbecile king, and four or five knavish ministers or favourites, Italian writers say nothing which they do not conscientiously believe. In this country, if a man knows any thing, he knows it profoundly and thoroughly. Woe to you, therefore, if you ask him a question. You probably wish for an answer of two or three minutes he will dissertate for an hour and a half. He never imagines that a reply, which you have yourself provoked, can appear to you too long or too minute. The general character of his writings is sincere and earnest. He is by no means a charlatan-he has not the talents, nor perhaps the taste, which qualify a man for that sort of business. It may safely be affirmed, that there are not more than four men in Paris, if so many, among those who are trying to get a literary or scientific reputation, who are not, in the bottom of their hearts, complete charlatans. Every time you see the name of a French author in a journal, you may safely lay any wager you please-if he is extolled to the skies-that the article is the work of his own hands. There is nothing of this kind in Italy. Saverio Bettineli, the enemy of Dante, whom I mentioned to you in my last letter, and Foscolo, the poet, author of the Sepolcri, are the only writers spoken of as having made use of any quackish tricks.
The virtue of Italian writers has one very strong defence. In London or Paris people write to make money-your illustrious Johnson, your delightful Goldsmith, lived on the money they received from their booksellers. The case is very different in Italy. I have heard the great Monti declare that the printing of his works had never brought him any thing but expense. In a fortnight after his book was printed at Milan it was reprinted at Lugano, at Bassano, at Florence, &c. Very frequently, the bookseller who published the original edition, was precisely the one who sold the smallest number of copies. One of the Italian deputies, at the Congress of Vienna, requested the sovereigns to insert an article in the treaty, prohibiting these piracies. The Emperor Francis refused to afford any such encouragement to letters. This is perfectly consistent in the monarch, who afterwards said to the Professors of the College of Laybach, "Ich braue keine Gelehrte." The Emperor Francis, like all the princes of the house of Austria, is remarkably well informed on statistical subjects; but, of politics, as connected with morals, he seems perfectly incapable of understanding any thing whatever. By thus withholding from literary merits or labours all hope of pecuniary reward, he has, however, rendered one signal service to
Italian literature. He has excluded from it all the canaille of scribblers who pollute and debase the literature of France and England. The five despotic governments of Italy, those of Turin, Milan, Modena, Rome, and Naples, have on their side exactly those writers whom they enrich by granting them the privilege of publishing the Gazette-and no others.
As curiosity on political matters is intense, and as all newspapers not sold to the Jesuits are prohibited, the Government Journal is in great request, though its stupidity surpasses any thing you can form an idea of in England. At Venice, such is the terror inspired by the government, that people carefully avoid the reputation of reading the Milan Gazette with much interest, though written by a man who is even more entirely and absolutely sold to Austria, than the writer of the Venetian Paper. At Paris, on the contrary-at least, such was the case two years ago-the ministry for the time being could always, in four-and-twenty hours, hire two hundred writers, who live entirely by their pens. Neither must you imagine that these are men of no talents; they are indeed totally without principle, but this slight defect, which they share with the diplomatic servants of the public, only makes them the more dexterous in guarding and weighing their expressions. As they have always before their eyes the probability that a year hence the minister will order them to prove the exact contrary of what they are now employed in demonstrating, they acquire singular and admirable dexterity in the art of leaving loopholes. Thus we find that the most distinguished writers of France, Fiévée, Chateaubriant, Martianville, &c. &c. have said and unsaid ten times in their lives. Two years ago M. Fiévée received a pension of 801. per annum on condition that he would hold his tongue. When I relate these facts to the litterati of Italy, they laugh and exclaim "Sempre faceto!"-they don't believe a word I say. Excepting in the Government journals, which, among a people so eminently consistent as the Italians, are consigned to the lowest contempt, it would be a difficult matter to obtain a laudatory article in a journal. At Paris, on the contrary, you must be what we call, un espèce (un spiantato,) utterly without friends or connexions, if you cannot get your book praised in all the journals.
I should not think it worth while to mention the political papers of Italy, which are generally edited by spies in the pay of the police, were it not that I wish to do justice to that published at Rome by Cracas the printer. It appears under two titles, the Diario and the Notizie del Giorno, three times a week. The Court of Rome maintains its political superiority, even at this moment, under a prime minister stupified by age, the Cardinal della Somaglia. This government abstains from all absurdities and falsehoods which do not serve some immediate end. All the necrological articles, which in a government conducted by old men, are necessarily of frequent recurrence, are distinguished by a general air of truth, due allowance being made for the habit of using the most ridiculous superlatives. The Archæological articles in the Cracas, (for the name of the printer is transferred to the journal,) which are of considerable importance in this country, are superior to any thing of the same kind in Europe.
The first journal of Italy, without any comparison, is the Antologia, published at Florence, by a bookseller named Vieusseux, who is himself a very clever man. You must not, however, conclude that his journal is really a garland of flowers; on the contrary, it is verbose, heavy, and often tedious. He always praises stupid books, for he is completely the dupe of the learned pedants who abound in Italy. Notwithstanding all this, the Antologia is a very useful work.
An Italian does not understand hints-demi-mots. He reads but little-reading is a business-a toil to him, and you can never be too clear or too explicit for his taste. The piquancy of hints and inuendos, which constitute the great charm of the writings of La Bruyere, Voltaire, and Montesquieu, is totally unknown to the poor Italian, and would appear to him obscure or unintelligible. Ariosto had indeed something of this peculiar cast of genius, but he was a poet, and lived two hundred years ago. There is nothing in the least resembling French wit in the Antologia, but this defect is compensated by great good faith. I believe that any author who were to ask M. Vieusseux to insert an article in praise of a bad or insignificant work, out of mere complaisance or personal favour, would experience a very disagreeable reception. Many of the contributors to the Antologia are men of first-rate merit. What it wants is one Editor invested with full discretionary powers, who, without suppressing a single idea, might cut down the articles to three-fourths of their present length. The thoughts are distributed over, and lost among an ocean of words.
The Raccoglitore, a literary journal, is published at Milan three times a month, and has a great sale at Naples. It is edited by Davidde Bertolotti. If he had been more earnest and decided, his modest little journal would probably, long ere this, have shared the fate of the Conciliatore. This journal-which lived but a year, (about 1819,) during which short period it numbered among its supporters all the most illustrious men of Milan, whether for talents, knowledge, probity, or generous devotion to the improvement of Italy, and of mankind-was grave, earnest, awful to all whose subsistence or whose elevation depends on the ignorance and the delusions of the people. The Conciliatore was too serious and too argumentative to be useful to Lombardy, or to excite interest in any but the watchful speculators on public events, to be found in other parts of Europe. It contained articles by the two most philosophical men in Italy, Melchiore Gioja and the Marquis Ermes Visconti. The former is in prison, the common fate of almost all the writers in this journal. It was too patriotic not to offend against the system of moral Statu quo which M. Metternich has, for eleven years, been labouring to establish in Italy. Prince Metternich has too much sense to undertake the task of stupifying the people, as the Jesuits are trying to do at Turin and at Modena; but he throws into dungeons all who attempt to enlighten them. Pellico, one of the first tragic writers of Italy, now in the fortress of Spielberg, was among the writers for the Giornale bleu, the sobriquet given to the Conciliatore, from the colour of the paper on which it was printed.
La Biblioteca Italiana, a journal which comes out once a month from the government press, in thick numbers, is principally edited by M. Acerbi, who passes for a spy. It is held in great contempt through
out Italy, notwithstanding which it is useful to the Milanese and Venetians, who can get no other. It occasionally contains very good articles on medicine and natural history.
The Italiano* continues, I believe, to be published at Turin. The object of this journal is to effect a change in the statu quo of the public mind of Italy, but in an opposite direction to that which the supporters of the Conciliatore had in view. The tendency of the Italiano is to stupify and mislead the people, and to bring them back to the opinions which prevailed in Italy about the year 1650, and were current through the rest of Europe three centuries ago. There is one great fact never to be lost sight of for a moment, when we are discussing the affairs of Italy;-from the taking of Florence by the Medicis in 1530, down to this hour, despotism has left no means untried to debase and destroy the noble mind of that nation. The Jesuits are even more absolute at Turin than at Paris. If the governments of Philip II. and Philip III. had succeeded in their endeavours, they would have kept the Milanese in the same state of intellectual degradation in which Napoleon found the Spaniards in 1808. I speak, of course, of the mass of the people; nobody has a more sincere and profound respect than I have for those illustrious Spaniards who are now in London. But they themselves, if national pride and partiality will permit them to be sincere, will confess that the distance between the educated and uneducated classes in Spain is immense. In Spain this distance is at its maximum-in France at its minimum-in Italy, thanks to all that has heen done to deaden and pervert the minds of the people, from 1530 down to 1796, when Napoleon awoke them from their lethargy by the noise of his exploits, it is very considerable. Not only did Italy make no progress during these two hundred and sixty-six years; she would be positively a gainer if she could revert to the state in which she was in 1530, before the restoration of the infamous and most pernicious Medici. Then she had an energy which she has now totally lost; then she was a stranger to those puerilities which have marked the enterprizes of the Carbonari. The chief occupation of the nation during these two hundred and sixty-six years has been to write sonnets, in imitation of Petrarch-in imitation rather of his defects. They have adopted the Platonic philosophy which obscures his divine poems, but they have not caught the strain of deep and true pathos which frequently pervades them. Nothing remains of sixty literary academies, celebrated for the singularity of their names, such as Gli Infuocati, Gli Oziosi, &c. but a wretched literary journal published at Rome, which may claim to be the most niais in all Europe it is called the Arcadico. There are three or four very good journals of Natural History and Medicine. The Italians are said to stand pre-eminent in this latter science, the practice of which is, however, often obscured by quackery. I heard a great deal at Naples of the ingenious systems of Dr. Rasori of Piacenza. This very distinguished physician has been for three years in prison at Mantua, for conspiring against the Austrian government. I have also heard very favourable mention of the medical annals of Dr. Omodei, of Venice; of Dr. Configliachi's journal, &c. &c.
⚫ We are told that it has been dropped for some years.-ED.
L'Ape, (the Bee,) a little journal which, I believe, still appears at Milan, is much more French than Italian in its character. It is the property of a bookseller of Brescia, named Bettoni, a man of some talent and great enterprize, who publishes every thing, good, bad, and indifferent.
I have observed that three-fourths of the books bought by the intelligent part of the population of Naples, are published at Milan. This fact astonished me greatly. The Austrian censorship at Milan is terrible, and is much the more sharp-sighted for being in the hands of Italian Renegados-priests, for the most part-who have sold themselves to the Austrian police. At Florence, on the other hand, the liberty of the press is perfect; nevertheless, if you except new editions of Dante, Petrarca, Boccacio, Ariosto, Tasso, and Alfieri, the booksellers of Florence publish nothing but puerile trash. Florence has lost all her energy. The system of espionage, which was carried to its maximum by the Grand Duke Leopold, effectually crushed all the energy of the people. They are very frugal, have few wants, and think themselves supremely happy whenever they are not assailed by great misfortunes. Their character, taken in the mass, is that of a prudent man of fifty-five. Milan, on the contrary, during an inoculation of fifteen years, has imbibed a great deal of French civilization.
After two hundred and sixty-six years of government, whose whole object seemed to be to obscure, pervert, and deaden the intellect of the governed, you cannot expect to hear that the moral and political sciences are in a very advanced or brilliant state. Giambattista Vico, a Neapolitan philosopher, would have been known to all Europe, if his stars had given him Rotterdam for a birth-place, or even Paris under Louis XIV. Born at Naples at the beginning of the seventeenth century, he has produced La Scienza Nuova, a book which is scarcely intelligible. Giannone, the excellent historian of Naples, died in 1758, in the citadel of Turin, into which the King of Sardinia threw him to do a pleasure to his royal brother of Naples. By these two examples you may judge of the rest; yet, during this period, Ariosto, Tasso, Metastasio, Goldoni, Alfieri, threw a glory over Italy. In painting, the Bolognese school united the expression of Raphael to the colouring of Titian and the grace of Correggio. In music, that art which has almost entirely escaped the minute persecution of the Jesuits, Italy produced Leo, Durante, Pergolesi, Sacchini, Cimarosa, &c.
I suppose you have read the history of Italian literature by that most jesuitical Jesuit, Tiraboschi, abridged in French, and strewed over with liberal, but for the most part anti-poetical ideas by Guinguéné, a philosopher of Voltaire's school. I shall therefore pass over all the works that appeared previous to the year 1770, as their merits are discussed and decided upon in his Histoire de la Littérature Italienne, and in the Littérature du Midi de l'Europe, by the learned Sismondi. Guinguéné, from a kind of infatuation in favour of Italian literature, which he thought, but very erroneously, he understood, has cried up as excellent a thousand poets and prose-writers who are actually despised by their own countrymen.
All that appeared during the two hundred and sixty-six years, corrupted and darkened by the Jesuits, is, with the exception of a very small number of celebrated books, worth absolutely nothing.