Thursday, January 22, 2015

I cannot say how, or why, I was impelled to write these scenes in Italian - Vittorio Alfieri's Memoirs

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.


  1. ...he calls French (and English) a “tyrant jargon” that sounds like “a detestable bagpipe” compared to the “fine toned harp” of Italian

    I could go along with that. There's a similar comment in one of the books I've been reading about Giaocchino Belli and his Romanesco dialect.

  2. Alfieri was well known to Russian writers in the early 19th century. Pushkin refers to him several times in his letters and critical essays, including this:

    "Les vrais génies de la tragédie ne se sont jamais souciés de la vraisemblance. Voyez comme Corneille a bravement mené le Cid. Ha, vous voulez la règle de 24 heures? Soit et là-dessus il vous entasse des événements pour 4 mois. Rien de plus inutile à mon avis, que les petits changements de règles reçues: Alfieri est profondément frappé du ridicule de l'a-parte, il le supprime et là-dessus allonge le monologue et pense avoir fait faire une révolution dans le système de la tragédie; quelle puérilité!"

    Pushkin translated a monologue from Filippo in blank verse. One of Pushkin's literary opponents, the much laughed-at admiral Shishkov, translated Filippo into Russian prose a little later, ca. 1828.

    Alfieri himself wrote a sonnet on the four Italian greats: Dante, Petrarch (the "grandfather of love"), Ariosto (the creator of Orlando), and Tasso (as far as I could guess: the "epic poem" must have been Jerusalem). Naturally, he wondered if a fifth had been working hard somewhere to have Phoebus smile upon him. Apparently, Leopardi agreed that Alfieri was worthy of that slot.

  3. Leopardi had a deep relationship with Alfieri. Maybe all of the recent Zibaldone reading will spark an Alfieri revival. That was a meant as a joke. It will not happen.

    I had not seen any of that Pushkin material. Very interesting; thanks.

    1. In the Zibaldone Leopardi spends years fretting about the popularity of French in Europe. Italian is more beautiful, Italian is more expressive, Italian is purer and closer to Latin, people only learn French because it's 'scientific" and stiff and easy -- years and years he goes on on griping over the same arguments to himself. If Alfieri is calling French "a tyrant" then I'd guess they had their own cross-pollinating let's-hate-French club.

    2. You know, I can see where this would come from. Leopardi is reading Enlightenment French, and Alfieri is speaking whatever French dialect he grew up with in Turin. They are not thinking of Hugo and Verlaine like I am.

      I have also been learning, while reading Leopardi, that I have no idea how to pronounce Italian.