British Romanticism and Italian Literature: Translating, Reviewing, Rewriting

By Laura Bandiera; Diego Saglia | Go to book overview

Mauro Pala (Università di Cagliari)


Facets of the Risorgimento: The Debate on the Classical Heritage from
Byron’s Childe Harold to Leopardi’s Canzone ad Angelo Mai

Lord Byron, Ugo Foscolo and Giacomo Leopardi present thematic convergences that may be ultimately grouped
under the common heading of the Italian Risorgimento. The complex issues in Foscolo’s and Leopardi’s reflec-
tions have a direct counterpart in the topographies of Canto IV of Byron’s Childe Harold. Meditations over ruins
and the attendant assessments of their import link Byron and Foscolo, whilst also transforming their standpoints
and conclusions. In the case of the British poet, the visit to, and description of, the classical Roman landscapes
coincide with a reflection on liberty as an absolute value which, however, is soon reintegrated within a fundamen-
tally private sphere. Foscolo’s Sepolcri, by contrast, insist on the possibility of action in the present, although the
poem also works from within the context of recurrent interpretations of the glorious memories of Italy. Similarly,
the ruins in Leopardi’s canzoni (‘All’Italia’ and ‘Ad Angelo Mai’) inspire direct political action. Not only does
Leopardi’s retrospective view eschew elegiac intentions, but it also constitutes an essential prelude to his Discorso
sopra lo Stato presente del costume degli Italiani
. Elaborating the same topoi, Byron, Foscolo, and Leopardi reveal
the different discourses at the basis of their works through profoundly dissimilar results.

Byron’s lines on the Roman Colosseum and Forum in Childe Harold, probably among the most famous expressions of the sentiment of ruins in British literature, not only convey a profound willingness, in his own words, to ‘meditate amongst decay’ and ‘stand a ruin amidst ruins’,1 but also pay tribute, albeit indirectly, to the theme of Italian irredentism. At approximately the same time, Ugo Foscolo’s and Giacomo Leopardi’s poems served to establish the decisive precedent of politicizing Italy’s monuments as icons of the Risorgimento movement, transforming places and buildings into symbolic props and images of a national identity without which political unity would be meaningless.

If, for Byron, a ruin is primarily a vehicle for meditation, one that foregrounds his poetic imagination, for Foscolo a sepulchre is the final stage of poetry and the teleological sense of human history, both at an individual and at a collective level. Similarly, Leopardi invokes that specific language of the Risorgimento encoded by ruins as he laments Italy’s inability to grow into a mature European nation. Unlike Byron, both Leopardi and Foscolo project the classical past on to a shared public dimension, to which Leopardi, with his Discorso sopra lo stato presente dei costumi degli Italiani, adds a specifically anthropological perspective, in order to promote the nationalist movement.

1 Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, IV. 25. 1–2, in Lord Byron, The Complete Poetical Works, ed. by Jerome J. McGann, 7 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980–93), II, p. 132. Henceforth cited in parenthesis in the text as CH.

-193-

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