When Giovanni Verga was born in Catania on September 2, 1840, into a well-to-do landowning family of aristocratic background, Italy was not yet united, and Sicily belonged to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, governed by Bourbon monarchs from their capital in Naples. Catania remained very distant, therefore, from the cultural centers of Milan and Florence. Verga’s father deserves credit for wanting his son to have the most liberal education possible in his culturally provincial society, and for this purpose, he enrolled him, at age ten, in the private school of Antonino Abate. The teacher, who shared the liberal and pro-Italian sentiments of the younger generation, had the attitude and enthusiasm, if not the talents, of a Romantic poet and as such inspired his pupils, including the young Verga, to try their hands at writing. At age seventeen, Verga wrote his first novel, Amore e patria (1857; love and fatherland), inspired by the American Revolution and full of teenage enthusiasm for patriotic ideals, although not worthy of publication.
In 1858, Verga enrolled in the Faculty of Law at the University of Catania, but instead of studying, he worked on his second novel, I carbonari della montagna, another historical novel imbued with patriotic fervor, which, with his father’s consent, he published, using the money intended for his last two years of university study. Although the second novel was little better than the first, it was given a favorable review in the Florentine periodical Nuova Europa. Encouraged by this success, Verga submitted a third novel, Sulle lagune (1863; on the lagoon), to the same periodical, which published it in serial form (it was published in book form in 1975). In the meantime, he had become involved in various Sicilian journalistic enterprises, but the combination of his publication in Florence and the transfer to Florence of the capital of the now independent and united Italian Kingdom made that city irresistibly attractive to him. After several visits, he established residence there in 1869 and was befriended by the temporary capital’s intellectual, artistic, and social elite. These were Verga’s most intensely lived years, full of the experiences that inspired the series of novels of passion from Una peccatrice (1866; A Mortal Sin, 1995) to Eros, as well as the play Rose caduche (fading roses).
With the exception of Florence’s brief heyday as a capital city, Milan was Italy’s leading center of culture in the nineteenth century, and soon afterward, the capital was transferred to newly annexed Rome. Verga moved to Milan in 1872, where he quickly took up with the leading cultural figures of the Lombard city. In addition to its own traditional culture, Milan has always been the Italian city most receptive to cultural influences originating beyond the Alps, and the most tolerant of unorthodox styles. Thus, it was here that Verga came into contact with both the Scapigliati and French naturalism. The Scapigliati (that is, the disheveled) were a group of young intellectuals and artists who, as the epithet coined by one of their own number suggests, explicitly rejected the high ideals and heroic tension that characterized the Risorgimento, embracing instead all that was abnormal, irregular, and antibourgeois. Most important for Verga, this group attempted to express itself in everyday language, a practice that would become characteristic of Verga’s masterpieces. It was also here that Verga became more familiar with the work of Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and particularlyÉmile Zola. Verga maintained a residence in Milan until 1885, but after the death of his sister in 1877, and his mother in 1878, he spent increasingly longer periods in Sicily.
The period of Verga’s greatest literary production began in 1880 with the publication of Under the Shadow of Etna and ended in 1889 with Mastro-don Gesualdo. In 1884, he enjoyed his only theatrical success with Cavalleria Rusticana . For practical purposes, he made a...
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