Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Ugo Foscolo's Tragic Vision in Italy and England

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Ugo Foscolo's Tragic Vision in Italy and England

Article excerpt

Rachel A. Walsh. Ugo Foscolo's Tragic Vision in Italy and England. University of Toronto Press, 2014. 218 pp.

Rachel A. Walsh's monograph on Ugo Foscolo's early nineteenth-century tragedies focuses on the less successful but highly interesting aspect of the great Italian writer's oeuvre, his tragedies. A distinguished representative of the generation that witnessed and, in his case, took part in the Napoleonic Wars, Foscolo hoped that the fall of Venice, his family's city, would lead to the creation of a free, united Italy. Napoleon, however, gave Venice to the Austrian monarchy, which for many years controlled the old duchy and its culture. A fiery partisan of Italian national unity, Foscolo expressed his disappointment in his novel The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis (1802), an epistolary confession similar to Goethe's The Sufferings of Young Wertber. In Foscolo's story a disenchanted young man commits suicide, not because his beloved marries someone else, as in the case of Goethe's character, but because Italy, betrayed by Napoleon, will not be able to conquer its freedom. As Rachel Walsh shows, the paths Foscolo pursued during his time in Italy involved both literary creation and literary criticism and sought the same goal: to preach the national ideal by teaching the public moral values and by offering examples of political grandeur. His 1809 lecture On the origins and function of literature argues that "literature should inspire a sense of national awareness, especially during a time of foreign occupation" (p. 45). Italian history, until then a topic for foreign writers, should become one of the main topics of Italian literature. Only by representing the spirit of the Italian people would literature fulfill its mission of helping the development of a national spirit.

Foscolo also wrote three tragedies but, as Walsh notices, at first sight they seem to be quite removed from the ideas expressed in his critical writings. The first two continue the Italian neoclassical tradition, as illustrated by Vittorio Alfieri (1749-1803), and develop Greek mythological subjects. Tieste (1796), inspired by Seneca and Crebillon's plays on the same topic, presents a horrifying story of adultery, murder, and blood-drinking involving Thyestes and Atreus, the uncle and brother of Homer's Agamemnon and Menelaos. Like Alfieri, Foscolo aimed at inspiring pity and terror in his audience by evoking the cruel grandeur of legendary times. As Walsh argues, his much later Ajace remains faithful to the same artistic ideal, yet, being much longer and less well-built than Tieste, it failed to please its spectators in Milan. However, in Foscolo's own view, Ajace still represented a crucial signpost on the road toward a successful Italian national literature.

Walsh's emphasis on the links between Italian neoclassicism and the ideal of a patriotic literature is particularly interesting within the wider European literary context. …

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