Now, 18th century Italian tragedy, which I know by one name, Vittorio Alfieri, and by one play, Saul (1782), although he wrote several dozen. Alfieri was a Count and a wild man, which makes his Memoirs (1806) quite a lot of fun. He was the most curious mix of his own time and the one to come, an Enlightenment Romantic, systematically driven by passion, an aristocrat but an enemy of all tyrants, past and present, including the revolutionary tyrants who overthrew the tyrannical king and the tyrannical general who overthrew them in turn.
Alfieri’s book is a portrait of an artist, with the mystery, the driving question, being how a wealthy, lazy, uneducated wastrel ever became a writer. He learns nothing at boarding school in Turin. He is not brought up to any sort of duty. The “eight years of my adolescence comprise a period of sickness, idleness, and ignorance” (60). Alfieri in fact advises “my readers not to dwell on it too long, or even to skip it,” which is a funny thing to say at the end of a section, after I have already read it. He then travels Europe, seeing everything but absorbing nothing, understanding nothing.
So what does happen? This is the Romantic part. He is subject to the urge to create:
… I could behold the sea and sky without interruption. In the midst of these immensities illumined into still greater beauty by the rays of the sun setting below the waves, I spent delicious hours of fanciful dreaming. I would have written poetry there had I any knowledge of verse, or even of prose, or indeed of any language whatever. (80)
First he becomes a reader – Voltaire, Plutarch, Montaigne (I’ll note that he did read Goldoni as a youth; everyone read Goldoni). Second, he finds a Muse. This is an odd part of the story, since the woman with whom he falls in love and spends most of his life is a celebrity, the Countess of Albany, the young wife of the no longer Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, angrily drinking his way through his life in exile. The Chevalier Charles Edward Stuart, forty years younger, is a character in Waverley, which I have been reading. It was odd to come across him here.
Third – now the Enlightenment side of Alfieri’s character – he works like the devil, working on his language, his style, systematically writing plays twelve at a time. Why he writes in Italian rather than the more familiar French seems to be a mystery even to him:
When I now reflect on this attempt, it appears to me so much the more extraordinary as for five or six years I had not only never written a single line of Italian, but never even opened an Italian book of any kind except very rarely, and that at long intervals. Thus, I cannot say how, or why, I was impelled to write these scenes in Italian, and in verse. (142-3)
Later he calls French (and English) a “tyrant jargon” that sounds like “a detestable bagpipe” compared to the “fine toned harp” of Italian (255). I guess he just thought Italian was more beautiful, whatever efforts it cost him to learn it as an adult.
Inspiration being what it is, Alfieri would go long stretches without writing anything, even thinking he had ended his career, turning his energy instead to horses or escaping the French revolutionaries or in one strange scene to the design of an elaborate jeweled collar (309), a sort of poet’s crown for himself. But then out of nowhere, again and again, he needs to write, “tragi-melo-dramas” (278) or sonnets or translations or this memoir, even though “in degenerate Italy it is easier to gain public attention by one’s fine horses than one’s dramatic works” (245).
Page numbers are from the 1961 Oxford University Press edition of the anonymous 1810 translation.