British Romanticism and Italian Literature: Translating, Reviewing, Rewriting

By Laura Bandiera; Diego Saglia | Go to book overview

Diego Saglia (Università di Parma)


‘Freedom alone is wanting’:
British Views of Contemporary Italian Drama, 1820–1830

In late eighteenth-century Britain, the growing interest in contemporary Italian drama and theatre was dominated
by the figure and works of Vittorio Alfieri, while other established and new authors soon began to attract attention.
Nonetheless, if at the turn of the century critical contributions on Italian dramaturgy were far from numerous, the
1820s saw a renewal of critical attention linked to the popularity of the first Italian revolutionary insurrections that
seemed to indicate the resurgence of patriotism and the return to a more deeply national and traditional literature.
British commentators were also attracted by the fact that an artistically fertile nation such as Italy had never dis-
tinguished itself in the dramatic field and had never produced a tradition of ‘regular’ theatre. Between the early
1820s and the 1830s, such aesthetic and ideological reinterpretations of Italian drama did not produce book-length
studies, but rather appeared in long essays published in some of the most influential periodicals of the periods,
from the Edinburgh Review and the Quarterly Review, to Fraser’s Magazine, and Blackwood’s Magazine. The
Italian authors considered in these essays ranged from Alfieri and Vincenzo Monti, to Ugo Foscolo, Silvio Pellico,
Ippolito Pindemonte, Alessandro Manzoni and Giambattista Niccolini. And interpretations of their works ranged
from a celebration of the Italians’ return to a form of patriotic, libertarian, and ‘liberal’ writing, to pessimistic con-
clusions about their inability to achieve political or artistic independence. Thus, on the one hand, writing about the
Italian stage in late Romantic Britain was a way of discussing the status of the dramatic and the theatrical crucial
issues for a culture that saw its own theatre as unworthy of Shakespeare’s heritage; on the other, it enabled com-
mentators to throw light on the clash between liberal and conservative discourses that distinguished the cultural
and ideological panorama of early nineteenth-century Britain.

‘Il n’y a pas plus en Italie de comédie que de tragédies; et dans cette carrière encore c’est nous qui sommes les premiers. Le seul genre qui appartienne vraiment à l’Italie ce sont les arlequinades’.1 Thus the French Comte d’Erfeuil dispatches Italian drama in Madame de Staël’s Corinne ou l’Italie (1807), prompting the heroine, the prince Castel-Forte and other Italians to vindicate the national dramatic tradition. A complex debate ensues in which Alfieri’s achievements are amply discussed. Yet, despite this concerted attempt at redressing the balance, Corinne’s intervention ultimately confirms that ‘notre littérature exprime peu notre caractère et nos moeurs’, as well as certifying the lack of ‘regular’ national tragedy in Italy: ‘Nous sommes une nation beaucoup trop modeste, je dirais presque trop humble, pour oser avoir des tragédies à nous, composées avec notre histoire, ou du moins caractérisées d’après nos propres sentiments’.2 Thus, even as she qualifies the Comte d’Erfeuil’s prejudiced judgement, Corinne does not disprove it, reflecting Madame de Staël’s opinions on Italian literature and its lack of tragedy in De la littérature (1800) where she inquires: ‘Les

1 Madame de Staël, Corinne, ed. by Simone Balayé (Paris: Gallimard, 1985), part VII, ch. 2, p. 180.

2 Madame de Staël, Corinne, pp. 186–87.

-237-

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