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Italy, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was inundated with crude and insipid romances, distributed into all the varieties of epic poetry. The last one, however, of sufficient importance to require our notice, namely, the Ricciardetto of Nicholas Fortiguerra appeared as late as 1738. After two centuries of marvellous romance, Charlemagne and his paladins became rather insipid dramatis personæ. What could not be handled seriously, however, might be ridiculed; and the smile, half suppressed by Ariosto and Berni, broke out into broad buffoonery in the poem of Fortiguerra.
The Ricciardetto may be considered the Don Quixote of Italy; for although it did not bring about that revolution in the national taste ascribed to the Spanish romance, yet it is, like that, an unequivocal parody upon the achievements of knight errantry. It may be doubted whether Don Quixote itself was not the consequence, rather than the cause of the revolution in the national taste. Fortiguerra pursued an opposite method to Cervantes, and instead of introducing his crackbrained heroes into the realities of vulgar life, he made them equally ridiculous by involving them in the most absurd caricatures of romantic fiction. Many of these adventures are of a licentious and sometimes of a disgusting nature; but the graceful though negligent beauties of his style throw an illusive veil over the grossness of the narrative. Imitations of Pulci may be more frequently traced than of any other romantic poet. But although more celebrated writers are occasionally, and the extravagancies of chivalry are perpetually parodied by Fortiguerra, yet his object does not seem to have been deliberate satire, so much as good humored jesting. What he wrote was for the simple purpose of raising a laugh, not for the derision or the correction of the taste of his countrymen. The tendency of his poem is certainly satirical, yet there is not a line indicating such an intention on his part. The most pointed humor is aimed at the clergy.* Fortiguerra was himself a canon. He com
* One of the leading characters is Ferragus, who had figured in all the old epics as one of the most formidable Saracen chieftains. He turns hermit with Fortiguerra, and beguiles his lonely winter evenings with the innocent pastime of making candles.
E ne l'orrida bruma
Quando l'aria è piu fredda, e piu crudele,
Io mi diverto in far de le candele.'-III. 53.
A contrast highly diverting to the Italians, who had been taught to associate
menced his epic at the suggestion of some friends with whom he was passing a few weeks of the autumn at a hunting seat. The conversation turned upon the labor bestowed by Pulci, Berni, and Ariosto on their great poems; and Fortiguerra undertook to furnish the next day a canto of good poetry exhibiting some of the peculiarities of their respective styles. He fulfilled his promise, and his friends, delighted with its sprightly graces, persuaded him to pursue the epic to its present complement of thirty cantos. Any one acquainted with the facilities for improvisation afforded by the flexible organisation of the Italian tongue, will be the less surprised at the rapidity of this composition. The 'Ricciardetto' may be looked upon as a sort of improvisation.
In the following literal version of the two opening stanzas of the poem, we have attempted to convey some notion of the sportive temper of the original.
It will not let my busy brain alone,—
Whose home hath been beneath the oak and fir.
Fortiguerra's introductions to his cantos are seasoned with an extremely pleasant wit, which Lord Byron has attentively studied, and in some passages of his more familiar poetry closely imitated. The stanza, for example, in Beppo, beginning
very lofty ideas with the name of Ferragus. The conflict kept up between the devout scruples of the new saint, and his old heathen appetites, affords perpetual subjects for the profane comic.
'She was not old, nor young, nor at the years,
Ha l' ali al capo, alle spalle, ed a' piè;
Vestigio alcun ne' visi, dove fu.'
Byron's wit, however, is pointed with a keener sarcasm, and his serious reflections show a finer perception both of natural and moral beauty, than belong to the Italian. No two things are more remote from each other than sentiment and satire. In Don Juan' they are found side by side in almost every stanza. The effect is disagreeable. The heart, warmed by some picture of extreme beauty or pathos, is suddenly chilled by a selfish' sneer, a cold blooded maxim, that makes you ashamed of having been duped into a good feeling by the writer, even for a moment. It is a melancholy reflection, that the last work of this extraordinary poet should be the monument alike of his genius and his infamy. Voltaire's licentious epic, the Pucelle,' is written in a manner perhaps more nearly corresponding to that of the Italian. But the philosophical irony, if we may so call it, which forms the substratum of the more familiar compositions of this witty and profligate author, is of somewhat too deep a cast for the light, superficial banter of Fortiguerra.
We have now traced the course of Italian narrative poetry down to the middle of the last century. It has by no means become extinct since that period, and among others, an author well known here by his history of our revolutionary war, has contributed his share to the epopee of his country, in his Camillo, o Vejo Conquistata.' Almost every Italian writer has a poetic vein within him, which if it does not find a vent in sonnets or canzones, will flow out into more formidable compositions.*
*Boccaccio, Macchiavelli, Bembo, Varchi, Castiglione, Pignotti, Botta, and a host of other classic prose writers of Italy, have all confessed the 'impetus sacer,' and given birth to epics, lyrics, or bucolics.
In glancing over the long range of Italian narrative poems, one may be naturally led to the reflection, that the most prolific branch of the national literature is devoted exclusively to purposes of mere amusement. Brilliant inventions, delicate humor, and a beautiful coloring of language are lavished upon all; but with the exception of the Jerusalem,' we rarely meet with sublime or ennobling sentiment, and very rarely with anything like a moral or philosophical purpose. Madame de Staël has attempted to fasten a reproach on the whole body of Italian letters, that, with the exception of their works on physical science, they have never been directed to utility.* The imputation applied in this almost unqualified manner is unjust. The language has been enriched by the valuable reflections of too many historians, the solid labors of too many antiquaries and critics, to be thus lightly designated. The learned lady may have found a model for her own comprehensive manner of philosophising, and an ample refutation of her assertion in Macchiavelli alone. In their works of imagination, however, such an imputation appears to be well merited. The Italians seem to demand from these nothing further than from a fine piece of music; where the heart is stirred, the ear soothed, but the understanding not a whit refreshed. The splendid apparitions of their poet's fancy fade away from the mind of the reader, and like the enchanted fabrics described in their romances leave not a trace behind them.
In the works of fancy in our language, fiction is almost universally made subservient to more important and nobler purposes. The ancient drama, and novels, the modern prose drama, exhibit historical pictures of manners, and accurate delineations of character. Most of the English poets in other
*Tous les ouvrages des Italiens, exceptè ceux qui traitent des sciences physiques, n'ont jamais pour but l'utilitè.'-De la Literature, &c.
We say manner, not spirit. The 'Discorsi sopra T. Livio,' however, require less qualification on the score of their principles. They obviously furnished the model to the Grandeur et Decadence des Romains,' and the same extended philosophy, which Montesquieu imitated in civil history, Madame de Staël has carried into literary.
Among the historians, antiquaries, &c. whose names are known where the language is not read, we might cite Guicciardini, Bembo, Sarpi, Giannone, Nardi, Davila, Denina, Muratori, Tiraboschi, Gravina, Bettinelli, Algarotti, Beccaria, Filanghieri, Cesarotti, Pignotti, and many others;-a hollow muster roll of names, that it would be somewhat ridiculous to run over, did not their wide celebrity expose, in a stronger light, Madame de Staël's sweeping assertion.
walks, from the 'moral Gower' to Cowper, Crabbe, and Words worth, have made their verses the elegant vehicles of religious or practical truth. Even descriptive poetry in England interprets the silence of external nature into a language of sentiment and devotion. It is characteristic of this spirit in the nation that Spenser, the only one of their classic writers who has repeated the fantastic legends of chivalry, deemed it necessary to veil his Italian fancy in a cloud of allegory, which, however it may be thought to affect the poem, shows unequivocally the didactic intention of the poet.
None of these grave and extended views are visible in the ornamental writing of the Italians. It conveys no useful information, inculcates no moral or practical truth; but it is simply an elegant unprofitable pastime. Novelle, lyrical and epic poetry, may be considered as constituting three principal. streams of their lighter literature. These have continued to flow, with little interruption, the two first from the 'golden urns' of Petrarch and Boccaccio, the last from the early sources we have already traced, down to the present day. Their multitudinous novelle, with all their varieties of tragic and comic incident, the last by far the most frequent, present few just portraitures of character, still fewer examples of sound ethics, or wise philosophy.* In the exuberance of their sonnets and canzone, we find some, it is true, animated by an efficient spirit of religion or patriotism. But too frequently they are of a purely amatory nature, the unsubstantial though brilliant exhalations of a heated fancy. The pastoral drama, the opera, and other beautiful varieties of invention, which, under the titles of Bernesco, Burlesco, Maccherónico, and the like, have been nicely classed according to their different modifications of style and humor, while they manifest the mercurial temper and the originality of the nation, confirm the justice of our position.
The native melody of the Italian tongue, by seducing their writers into an overweening attention to sound, has doubtless been in one sense prejudicial to their literature. We do not
The heavier charge of indecency lies upon many. The Novelle of Casti, published as late as 1804, make the foulest tales of Boccaccio appear fair beside them. They have run through several editions since their first appearance, and it tells not well for the land, that a numerous class of readers can be found in it, who take delight in banqueting upon such abominable offal.