Vittorio Alfieri was born on January 16, 1749, in Asti, Piedmont, to Count Antonio Alfieri and his wife, Monica Maillard de Tournon, a Turinese lady of Savoyard origin and the widow of Marquis Cacherano. His mother was much younger than his father, who married when he was in his late fifties and died before Vittorio was a year old. Later, Alfieri’s mother remarried a man her own age, Giacinto Alfieri, from a different branch of the same family, with whom she lived in perfect harmony.
Alfieri and his older sister, Giulia, lived with their mother and stepfather, but when Giulia was sent to the convent boarding school, Alfieri, although living at home, felt very lonely under the care of his private teacher, and he developed a melancholy that was to accompany him for the greater part of his life.
At the age of nine, Alfieri was sent to the military academy in Turin, where he stayed from 1758 to 1766. Although this school enjoyed a good reputation in eighteenth century Europe and counted prominent foreigners among its graduates, Alfieri condemned it as a horrible institution with an antiquated and useless system of education. On graduating, he received the military degree of ensign and joined the provincial regiment in Asti. Intolerant of any kind of subordination, he could not adapt to military life and asked permission from the king to travel. His first journey took him through various Italian cities and was followed by a trip abroad from 1767 to 1768 to France, England, Holland, and Switzerland. Half a year later, he departed again, this time for Austria, the German states, Denmark, Sweden, and Russia. In 1771, he was again in England. Then, passing through Holland and France, he visited Spain and Portugal. He returned to Italy only in 1772 and settled in Turin for a time. His restless travels reflect his desire to conquer the melancholy and boredom that oppressed him. His uneasy spirit found comfort in constant motion. He did not actually visit these countries, he flew through them, stopping only to admire that which caught his fancy and affected his sensibility, such as the immensity of the sea, the deep silence of the forests, the spectacle of a frozen Nordic sea, the danger involved in passing in a boat through floating ice, and the desolate beauty of the Spanish desert. Intolerant of all authoritarianism, Alfieri was quick to criticize the French court, Prussian militarism, Pietro Metastasio’s servile genuflections in the presence of Empress Maria Theresa, and Russian primitivism. This period, through 1774, was also a period of unrestrained passions, which made him suffer to the degree of attempting suicide, as in Holland, when Cristina Emerenzia Imholf abruptly ended their relationship. In England, his liaison with Penelope Pitt ended in a duel with the lady’s husband, who was generous enough to spare the Italian’s life.
Although Alfieri’s travels were carried out with impatience, they served not only to acquaint him with his world and its problems but also to bring him in contact with many European diplomats, some of whom...
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