Ugo Foscolo

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Why is Foscolo’s Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis relevant in relation to the theme of Italian national identity?

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The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis is an epistolary novel written by Ugo Foscolo, a Venetian writer and poet. Foscolo was also a revolutionary, and the work was inspired by political events occurring in Northern Italy during the Napoleonic era. The signing of the Treaty of Campo Formio forced Foscolo into exile in Milan and there are autobiographical events within the novel, so its political nature, specifically in dealing with the idea of Italian national identity, is prominent.

The Treaty of Campo Formio gave control of Venice to Austria and signified an end to the idea that Napoleon may be partial to the Italian nationalist cause. As such, Foscolo lost his homeland. Similarly, Jacopo is forced from his homeland, so the novel explores the idea of love of nation. This is not an abstraction of love but rather a love based in personal identity and culture. Without this connection to homeland, life becomes unlivable, and Jacopo responds to this despair by committing suicide.

This idea of love is further explored through the lens of personal relationships. Jacopo loves Theresa and wants to marry her. However, her father instead promotes an arranged marriage to benefit the family politically, socially, and economically. This arranged marriage mirrors the reasons for why the independence of Venice was not restored and serves to further reinforce the importance of connection with one’s homeland.

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Ugo Foscolo's The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis is centered around the twin themes of love for homeland and romantic love—both of which are denied. The titular protagonist is driven mad in part by the fact that his mutual love with Theresa is thwarted by Theresa's father pushing her into an arranged marriage for economic and political reasons.

Foscolo published the text in 1802, shortly after the 1797 Treaty of Campo Formio, in which Napoleon—once hoped to be an ally to the Italian nationalist cause—ceded Venice to Austria. Jacopo is a political exile mourning both the loss of his homeland's hope for independence and his own personal loss of homeland via exile. He is eventually driven to suicide by the loss of his twin loves, and the book is framed by a sense of despair seen in the opening passage:

The sacrifice of our homeland is complete. All is lost . . .

Works such as this take on a political significance in part simply because of the political significance of the time in which they are written. When political control of a country shifts unexpectedly and large groups of people see their shared hopes vanish, the ground is ripe for influential artistic works that grapple with these questions. Further, in linking patriotic love with romantic love, Foscolo links the pursuit of Italian political independence to more personal, romantic freedom, thus broadening its potential appeal. Lastly, we can read the despair of the novel in multiple ways. Suicide can clearly be seen as a defeatist gesture, admitting that nothing can be done politically and framing life as unworthy of living. But, it can also be seen as implying that Italian independence is a cause so important that it is worth any cost.

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Italy became a unified nation in 1861 under King Victor Immanuel II of Sicily. Ugo Foscolo published The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis in 1802, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic French occupation. Both the themes of Foscolo’s novel and numerous events of the intervening years served to support the nationalist feelings of people who had previously identified primarily or exclusively with the separate nation states.

Foscolo’s protagonist and the titular character becomes dispossessed from his homeland, Venice, when the French change their minds and given the territory to Austria rather than restoring its independence. His opposition to the Austrians and his travels across Italy serve to increase his awareness and pride in his identity as Italian, not simply Venetian. He realizes that discord among Italians is strengthening the foreigners and not contributing to any nation-state’s individual cause. Succumbing to despair, however, the futility of both his own romantic intentions and the prospects of national liberty drive him to suicide.

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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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