British Romanticism and Italian Literature: Translating, Reviewing, Rewriting

By Laura Bandiera; Diego Saglia | Go to book overview

William Spaggiari (Università di Parma)


The Canon of the Classics: Italian Writers and Romantic-Period
Anthologies of Italian Literature in Britain

During the Romantic period, the experience of exile in England decisively influenced the flourishing of anthol-
ogies of Italian literature that could represent both a link with the homeland and a form of consolation for the
difficulties of cultural and linguistic isolation. The first modern instance of a chrestomathy of Italian literature
published in England dated back to Giuseppe Baretti’s Italian Library (1757), a selection based on such discrimi-
nating factors as the correctness of the Tuscan language, the preponderance of poetry, a limited selection of texts
from the early ages, and reservations about seventeenth-century literature. These criteria inspired and directed
most eighteenth-century and Romantic-period selections of Italian literature until, in 1828, Antonio Panizzi,
professor of Italian at London University, published an anthology of Italian prose writers. After 70 years, the
supremacy of verse decreed by Baretti was overthrown. And, against the emphatic pronouncements of other
exiles, Panizzi’s choices reveal an unmistakably and concretely useful way of understanding tradition and present-
ing its landmarks to the readers of his adoptive country.

The conspicuous presence in Britain of Italian political exiles, from such areas as Lombardy, the Veneto and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, was one of the decisive influences on the burgeoning of collections of Italian literary texts in the Romantic period. Indeed, such anthologies could represent a link with the abandoned homeland and, simultaneously, a form of spiritual support that would help the exile face the difficulties of a precarious life in an environment which was often seen as hostile, as well as of conditions of isolation not infrequently caused by language, as in Ugo Foscolo’s exemplary case. As is well known, British society generally welcomed exiles, but also showed diffidence towards those groups which, often in conflict with each other, resisted the idea of leading unhappy and ineffectual lives armed with courage and common sense. As a result, many political exiles in the early years of the post-Napoleonic period experienced existential difficulties rooted in their inability to become used to British customs, the related tendency to limit their acquaintances to their own fellow countrymen, and the habit of deploring their unhappy situations while conjuring up consolatory images of a lost Italy through poetry and letter-writing.1

1 On these issues, see L’esilio romantico: forme di un conflitto, ed. by Joseph Cheyne e Lilla Maria Crisafulli Jones (Bari: Adriatica, 1990); L’exil et l’exclusion dans la culture italienne. Actes du colloque franco-italien, Aix-en-Provence, 19–20–21 octobre 1989, réunis par Georges Ulysse (Aix-en-Provence: Université de Provence, 1991); Expériences limites de l’épistolaire: lettres d’exil, d’enfermement, de folie. Actes du Colloque de Caen, 16–18 juin 1991, textes réunis et présentés par André Magnan (Paris: Champion, 1993); the special issue on ‘Exile Literature’ in Annali d’Italianistica, 20 (2002). For England, in particular, see Margaret Wicks, The Italian Exiles in London, 1816–1848 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1937), and my own ‘La lettera dall’esilio’, in Scrivere lettere: Tipologie epistolari nell’Ottocento italiano, ed. by Gino Tellini (Rome: Bulzoni, 2002), pp. 41–81. For specifically literary aspects, see Remo Ceserani and Donata

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