Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2636
First published: Le confessioni di un ottuagenario, 1867 (English translation, 1954)
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Historical chronicle
Time of work: 1775-1852
Locale: Italy and England
Carlo Altoviti, an Italian patriot and the narrator
Countess Giovanni, Count of Fratta
Aquilina Cleonice, his wife
Monsignor Clara, and
Lucilio Pisana, their daughters
Leopardo Provedoni, Carlo’s wife
Raimondo di Orlando, the count’s brother
Father Vianello, a young doctor and Clara’s beloved
Alberto Provedoni, Carlo’s friend
Giulio del Doretta, his wife
Todero Venchieredo, Doretta’s lover
Spiro Pendola, a Jesuit
Mauro Partistagno, a young nobleman
Almoro Ponte, a poet in love with Pisana
The Altoviti, Carlo’s father
Napoleon Aglaura, Carlo’s half sister
Apostulos, the son of a Greek banker and later Aglaura’s husband
Navagero, an old nobleman and Pisana’s husband
Frumier, Senator of Venice
Spaccafumo, a bandit
Carlo Altoviti, born in Venice on the Day of St. Luke the Evangelist in 1775, spent his boyhood in the ancient, decaying castle of Fratta, the neglected, unwanted poor relation in the household of feudal gentry such as he would live to see swept away by war and revolutions. His mother, the sister of the Countess of Fratta, had made a runaway match with an adventurer named Todero Altoviti, but had deserted her husband a few months later. When her child was born, the infant had been dispatched at once to Fratta. In his childhood, Carlo knew only that his mother was dead and that his father was reported to have turned Turk somewhere in the Levant.
The household at Fratta was composed of the austere, pompous count and his haughty wife; their daughters, Clara and Pisana; the count’s brother, Monsignor Orlando, a stupid, gluttonous priest; the chancellor who managed the count’s business affairs; Captain Sandracca, the swaggering but timid captain of militia; the chaplain; and a number of hangers-on and servants. Carlo’s place was a menial one, and he spent most of his time in the cavernous, gloomy kitchen with the retainers. Sometimes he slipped away to play with his cousin Pisana, who even as a child was a creature of whims and passions, contradictions and loyalties; in later years, she was to make Carlo’s life a torment and a delight. The older daughter, Clara, was a grave, lovely girl who devoted herself to the care of her bedridden grandmother, Lady Badoer. It was Clara who drew the young men of the Friuli region to Fratta. Among these were Giulio del Ponte, a writer of graceful verses; Lucilio Vianello, a medical student; and Alberto Partistagno, a young man of noble family.
The Spaccafumo, a bandit who had once rescued young Carlo from the marshes, was the friend of Antonio Provedoni, the mayor of the commune. When Antonio’s son Leopardo courted Doretta, daughter of the chancellor of Venchieredo, he was set upon by some bullies of Venchieredo, and the Spaccafumo rescued him. The Count of Venchieredo charged that the chaplain of Fratta had sheltered the bandit, and he then laid siege to Fratta; his real purpose was to secure some incriminating documents that a retainer at Fratta possessed. His plan was thwarted by Lucilio Vianello, who put the castle in a state of defense, and by Partistagno, who arrived with his retainers to put the men of Venchieredo to rout. Later, Carlo saved the documents from theft. The Count of Venchieredo was sentenced to ten years in prison. With Venchieredo humbled, Leopardo was free to marry Doretta.
When the news of the French Revolution reached Venice and men began to dream of a new kind of freedom, the Inquisition of State began a reign of terror. Seeing troubled times ahead, Almoro Frumier, a Venetian senator and kinsman of the Count of Fratta, moved with his family to Portogruaro. There the people of Fratta went frequently to visit, and Carlo, now an acknowledged member of the family, went with them. The boy was often thrown into moods of depression as Pisana revealed her flirtatious nature among the young gallants of the region. Clara was kinder to him than ever, but Pisana paid no attention to his bitterness and gloom.
For relief, Carlo turned to his studies so earnestly that the count decided to send him to Padua to study for his doctor’s degree. About the same time, Raimondo di Venchieredo, son of the disgraced castellan, returned to his nearby castle, and Pisana began to pay attention to the young nobleman. Meanwhile, Clara was being courted by a number of aristocratic dandies. The countess tried to arrange a match between young Venchieredo and Clara; however, the alliance was unacceptable to Venetian authorities. Partistagno became Clara’s accepted suitor, but she refused him; people said that she was really in love with Lucilio. When the countess took her daughter to Venice, Lucilio, after taking his degree at Padua, also settled there.
On a scholarship, Carlo went to Padua to study shortly before the French invaded Italy. Returning to Fratta for a visit, he found Pisana now a beautiful woman, demanding admiration from all. Her chief aim was Giulio del Ponte. Back in Padua, Carlo came under the influence of Amilcare Dossi, a young man of liberal political views, and became an ardent Voltairian. Then word came that the old chancellor had died at Fratta, leaving affairs disordered; Carlo returned to take over his duties. Clara entered the Convent of St. Therese. The old count died, and Pisana went to Venice.
One day news arrived that a young French general, Napoleon Bonaparte, had taken command of the Army of the Alps. Within a few months, he controlled the fate of Italy. The people of Fratta fled as the French advanced. Returning from a trip to Portogruaro, Carlo found Fratta deserted and looted and old Lady Badoer dying as the result of French atrocities. When Carlo went to Urbino to protest, Napoleon refused to listen to his story.
A change came in Carlo’s fortunes when his father returned unexpectedly to Venice. Grown wealthy in trade, he planned to establish a family of social and political prestige. His hopes failed, however, when Venice capitulated to the French in 1797. The fall of the patricians completed the ruin of the Frattas. Pisana gave in to her mother’s urgings and married an aged kinsman, Mauro Navagero. Lucilio begged Clara to marry him, but she refused to return to a world that had no respect for God and the Church. When the French turned Venice over to Austria, Carlo prepared to take refuge in the Cisalpine Republic. His father returned to the Levant after giving him a letter of credit on Apostulos, a Greek banker. Pisana became Carlo’s mistress and lived with him until he was forced to flee the city. In Milan he learned that Aglaura Apostulos, his companion in his flight, was his half sister.
Carlo fought with the Cisalpine Legion under Ettore Carafa, who became Pisana’s lover. When English and Russian troops entered Naples, Carafa was captured and hanged. Carlo, Lucilio, and Pisana escaped aboard a Portuguese ship to Genoa. After the battle of Marengo, Carlo served as Secretary of Finances at Ferrara. Returning to Fratta after the Peace of Pressburg, Carlo married Aquilina Provedoni; two children were born to them. Later, he fought under General Pepe against the Austrians. He was captured and sentenced to death but was later pardoned. Accompanied by Pisana, he went to London. There he lost his sight, but it was restored to him through an operation performed by Lucilio. Pisana, who had begged in the streets in order to provide for Carlo during his illness, died.
Carlo returned to Venice in 1823 and engaged in trade until he and Aquilina returned to the Friuli in 1848. Aquilina died soon afterward. At last, Carlo found courage to return to the site of the Castle of Fratta. Only a few stones remained of the place so full of memories of the past. Writing his memoirs, he realized that these were memories of sweetness as well as grief.
THE CASTLE OF FRATTA, second only to Alessandro Manzoni’s THE BETROTHED among Italian novels of the nineteenth century, is the English title of LE CONFESSIONI DI UN OTTUAGENARIO, written between December, 1857, and August, 1858, by Ippolito Nievo, one of Garibaldi’s historic “Thousand.” Nievo never lived to revise his work, to which he originally gave the patriotic title, “Le confessioni di un Italiano”; the later change of name was made by his publisher, who thought Nievo’s title too forthright for those unsettled times.
THE CASTLE OF FRATTA is a particularly striking example of those few masterpieces of fiction which encroach upon history, impress upon it their unity and values, and in so doing create what becomes the conventional image of an era. The work is as much an epitaph as a confessional novel, for it became the means to the creation of the myth of Ippolito Nievo, a myth of patriotic selflessness which would ultimately propagate the highest ideals of the Italian Risorgimento. Indeed, fictive and real authors seem almost to converge, when Carlo Altoviti, patriot and witness to his times, concludes his narrative in 1858, three years before the patriotic death of Ippolito Nievo at sea as he attempted to rejoin Garibaldi’s “Thousand.” Unfortunately, the posthumous success of THE CASTLE OF FRATTA cast a retrospective pall over his two earlier novels ANGELO DI BONTA (1856) and IL CONTE PECORAIO (1857). His VERSI (1854), his numerous satires, short stories, and even his two tragedies SPARTACO (1919) and I CAPUANI (1914) fell prey to literary historians oblivious to their intrinsic literary merit but intent on ransacking them for some anticipation of the later masterpiece. Nevertheless, few would deny the influence of Giuseppe Giusti and Giuseppe Parini on the early chapters of THE CASTLE OF FRATTA or that of Heinrich Heine (whom Nievo translated) on his satires. Above all, they revealed the influence of Tommaseo’s emphasis on the importance of a strong, stable family to a resurgent nation. More important than the simple identification of precursors or influences, however, is the understanding of the new meaning they take on in the body of the work itself.
Although scholars such as Bozzetti, Mirmina, and others have devoted studies to Nievo’s social thought, it is important to bear in mind that these studies are often derived from his fictional works and often retain their fictional qualities. One element that nevertheless remains constant to Nievo’s social thought, whatever its origin, is his reluctance to divorce it from his understanding of the importance of his poetic vocation. The moral and national restoration he envisioned in his early VERSES and his letters to Mathilde Ferrari could only be impeded by those eunuchoid poets who continued to rehearse their formulaic anguish in an ornate, archaic style incomprehensible to the peasants, the artisans, and the poor. Literary tradition and its misuse were simply another form of oppression aimed at excluding the experience of the poor from literature and culture. Such poetic language was little more than a social frippery intended to perpetuate class barriers by the inaccessibility which effectively travestied its true ends. Poetic language would have to be broken down, purified, and polished into the shining mirror and window to truth which Dante had made of it. In his LA POETICA SOCIALE DEL NIEVO (1972), Nievo affirmed his faith that Dante, the last poet capable of fusing the experience of an entire civilization, would inspire the masses to a national rebirth. Nievo’s yearning for unity is apocalyptic: The union of upper and lower classes ultimately becomes, in his thought, the union of heart and mind. Poetry would be renewed by this mythicized people, whom it would in turn serve, once freed of its decadence and imbued with peasant spontaneity.
According to its Italian title, Nievo’s novel is a confession: testimony to an apocalyptic spiritual renewal which marks the emergence of a new man from the corruption of his former self. In the case of Carlo Altoviti, however, this renewal is both political and pantheistic; it culminates in Carlo’s new identity as a citizen and as an Italian able to enjoy the calm of the “ocean of eternity.” His transcendence of the oppressive ignorance and passion of his youth is the microcosm of the experience of Italy on the threshold of liberation from its political disintegration. If Italy’s history will culminate in unification, Carlo’s will culminate in the unity of the self, achieved through submission and adherence to the justice of nature. It is a truth he discovered as a boy one day when he wandered away from the dark, infernal kitchen of Fratta into the beautiful countryside. Carlo’s realization of the contrast between the glory of nature and the bizarrely artificial world of Fratta climaxes in an overwhelmingly religious experience of natural beauty and its all-pervasive justice. The effect of this Edenic moral awakening is manifest in Carlo’s refusal to break a promise not to reveal that it was the Spaccafumo who brought him home despite his punishment; this event marks the first time that pleasure and duty had ever struggled within him. Forever after, justice would demand self-sacrifice. The central theme of the novel lies in the ways in which Carlo overcomes all the internal and external impediments to his adherence to justice.
Carlo’s moral education eventually teaches him to distinguish truth from appearance. He is taken in one moment by Father Pendola, only to realize in the next the duplicity of Advocate Ormenta; each is in turn the victim and perpetuator of a society inimical to justice in which capricious egoism has been petrified into system. Their venality represents a moral failure in what is ultimately a metaphysical struggle between the material and the spiritual. The heroes of the work are consequently those whose tenacity overcomes the resistance of the material to the spiritual: Clara’s in maintaining her vows, Lucilio’s in his unyielding fidelity, and ultimately Pisana’s in her renunciation of Carlo. Neither the claims of the body nor of personal happiness exempt them from the relentless demand of justice for integrity; thus, Pisana’s apparently capricious demand that Carlo punish her by ripping out her hair prefigures her virtual martyrdom for his survival.
Carlo’s ultimate identity as citizen and Italian, as well as his origins, are emblematic of the novel’s concern with ethical and metaphysical justice and unity, since he was the child of East and West, was raised virtually as a savage at Fratta, and was destined to participate in both centuries of the struggle for Italian unification. Although Carlo must constantly contend with what he regards as the bestial in himself that seeks bodily ease and personal gain, it is his all-consuming love of Italy that purges his soul by demanding that he renounce the comforts of the Countess Migliana’s household as well as the security of his inheritance. By that time, moral self-consciousness has become a continual ascetic awakening from the compromising ease of the material. Such moments are often accompanied by the reappearance of Pisana whose mere presence is an indictment of Carlo’s moral lapses. Nevertheless, there is a striking reciprocity in their relationship, for although Carlo will expose her to the redemptory justice of nature, he will become in the end the beneficiary of his own earlier selflessness when she begs in the streets in order that he may eat. It is precisely this reciprocity that makes human brotherhood and indeed all community possible. Carlo must save Pisana from her capriciousness if he would save himself by becoming one with the “ocean of eternity,” just as Pisana must sacrifice her happiness in order that Carlo may found the family on which civil order depends.