Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1287

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.

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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.

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