British Romanticism and Italian Literature: Translating, Reviewing, Rewriting

By Laura Bandiera; Diego Saglia | Go to book overview

Cecilia Pietropoli (Università di Bologna)


The Tale of the Two Foscaris from the Chronicles to the Historical Drama:
Mary Mitford’s Foscari and Lord Byron’s The Two Foscari

According to the documents held in the archives of the Venetian ‘Council of Ten’, the story of Jacopo Foscari was
no more than a further instance of the duplicity and corruption typical of medieval Italian politics. Yet, already in
late fifteenth century, the Venetian chroniclers began to transform Jacopo into a patriot and a hero who, exiled to
Candia for no apparent reason, feigned an alliance with the Duke of Milan in order to be brought back to Venice,
even though as a traitor to his own country. The figure of the Venetian Doge forced to condemn his own son to
death attracted Romantic historians, J. C. L. Simonde de Sismondi above all, as well as playwrights. In 1821 Lord
Byron was in Ravenna, where he came in contact with, and was strongly attracted by, the Carboneria and the
Italian Risorgimento. Here, he wrote his second historical tragedy, The Two Foscari. In the same year, in England,
Mary Russell Mitford drew on the same subject for her own historical drama, Foscari, which was to be performed
in London in 1826. The two plays will be compared with their sources in order to determine to what extent, and for
what purpose, the two playwrights re-wrote this well-known Italian tale with clearly divergent results. Finally, the
plays will also be analyzed as instances of their authors’ theoretical approaches to Romantic historical drama.

The way an early nineteenth-century British writer made use of a historical-literary source from the late Italian Middle Ages to turn it into the plot of a tragedy with a historical background, first of all encapsulates his or her own personal reflection on the nature of the historical process. Secondly, nineteenth-century historical dramas paved the way for a wider debate on the function of the tragic theatre in the modern world. In 1821, and seemingly unaware of each other’s activities, Mary Russell Mitford and Lord Byron drew inspiration from an event which had been recorded in the archives of the Venetian ‘Council of Ten’ and reported by numerous fifteenth-century Chronicles. Their methods and aims were, nonetheless, quite different.

The story of the Doge Francesco Foscari, who according to the tradition was obliged to bear witness to the sentencing and the torture of his own son Jacopo, ‘grecista e raccoglitore di manoscritti greci e latini’,1 and read out the sentence of condemnation, attracted the Romantic literati as it merged an event of historical consequence with an event of a private nature bearing strongly emotional connotations. In the re-writing process, the story underwent many variations, thus lending itself to different interpretations. According to Francesco Berlan, who in 1852 with his I Due Foscari: Memorie storico-critiche con Documenti

1 Francesco Berlan, I Due Foscari: Memorie storico-critiche con Documenti Inediti tratti dagli archivi segreti del Consiglio dei Dieci, dei Pregadi e del Maggior Consiglio (Turin: Tipografia G. Favale e Comp., 1852), p. 62 (‘a Hellenist and collector of Greek and Latin manuscripts’, my translation). All translations are mine, unless otherwise indicated.

-209-

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