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The epistolary novel Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis (1802) was written in the aftermath of the Treaty of Campoformio (1797) with which French authorities agreed to leave the independent Republic of Venice to Austrian forces. Italian patriots like Foscolo, who also had an administrative role in the Republic, were forced to leave the town. The novel thus reflects a sense of hope followed by bitter despair, a feeling shared by many Italians of Foscolo's generation. They had initially seen in Napoleon an ally to defeat the different nations that occupied Italian soil and that prevented the formation of a unified independent country.
Modeled after Goethe’s Werther and Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse, Foscolo’s novel intertwines fiction, history and autobiography to show how political contrasts can have a deep impact on individual emotions. Because of Napoleon’s choice to leave Venice to the Austrians, Jacopo, like Foscolo, is forced into exile in the nearby area of the Euganei hills where he can see his beloved Venice from afar. The letters expose the persecutions of Italian patriots not only at the hands of Austrians, but also of Italians themselves: “even we Italians, alas, are washing our hands in Italian blood.” Jacopo falls in love with Teresa whose marriage has however been arranged by her father to solve his financial problems. Ortis’s letters thus projects this story of unfulfilled love on a wider political context: the loss of political hopes reflects Jacopo’s sentimental loss. “The sacrifice of our homeland is complete,” opens the first letter, “[a]ll is lost.” This first line foreshadows Jacopo’s final choice of taking his own life. Critics have widely debated the meaning of Jacopo’s suicide, reading it in turn as a political act to affirm the value of freedom over foreign domination or as the escape of intellectuals from reality and adverse political circumstances. In either cases, this tragic conclusion highlights the links between the personal and the political.
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