Giovanni Verga was the eldest of five children born to Giovanni Battista Verga Catalano and Caterina di Mauro. The Vergas were upper middle class, descended from a Spaniard, Lajn Gonzalo de Vergas, who came to Sicily in the thirteenth century. The elder Giovanni Verga was cultured and well read, and he dabbled in the occult; Verga’s mother was an intellectual and was a cousin of Domenico Castorina, a local writer. Both of Verga’s parents were cautiously liberal in that they opposed the Bourbon monarchy that held a tyrannical sway over southern Italy at that time. Although born and reared in Catania, Verga spent much of his life in Vizzini, where his father owned considerable property. There the family sought refuge in summers to avoid outbreaks of cholera and political violence.
In 1850, Verga went to a secular school directed by Antonino Abate. There he read Dante, Petrarch, Torquato Tasso, Ludovico Ariosto, Ugo Foscolo, and Manzoni, as well as the bombastic writings of Catania’s own Castorina.
Although Abate favored the union with Italy, unlike some Sicilians, who desired an independent Sicily, he wished to see an Italian republic rather than a monarchy. His student, Verga, on the other hand, was so grateful when the troops of Giuseppe Garibaldi made a unified Italy possible that he accepted the idea of a monarchy easily. A unified Italy, however, did not bring all it had seemed to promise. When the new leaders began to break up the ancient feudal estates, as the land-hungry peasants had hoped, the fragmented estates were purchased by members of the middle class, who by this means were able to elevate themselves, to the total exclusion of the peasants, who no longer had even the rights of use that they had enjoyed under the previous system. There occurred savage attacks on the gentry by an embittered and defrauded peasantry, and although Verga himself had to flee their unleashed wrath, somehow there took root deep within him a remarkable compassion for the plight of this unfortunate class of people, and it was precisely this empathy that led him to greatness as a writer.
To please his father, Verga entered the University of Catania to study law, but he soon was bored and began to apply himself to writing fiction. Because these first literary efforts were mildly successful, he decided to move to the Italian mainland to perfect his Italian and his literary style. Following the tradition of writers such as Alfieri, Foscolo, and Manzoni, who purified their Italian by taking up residence in the country’s linguistic capital, Verga chose to move to Florence, which in 1865 was also the country’s interim political capital. He mastered Italian, as was his goal, but skillfully preserved the rhythms and syntax of the dialects and, although he used outright idioms that had to be italicized within his texts less and less frequently as he matured as a writer, he succeeded in substituting Italian words for dialect in such a way as to preserve even the lexical flavor of the original speech.
In Florence, Verga renewed his acquaintance with Luigi Capuana, from Mineo, and Mario Rapisardi, from Catania; he also became acquainted with Francesco Dall’Ongaro, a respected critic and writer. At the Dall’Ongaro residence, Verga met Giselda Fojanesi, soon to be Rapisardi’s wife and subsequently Verga’s mistress. Verga saw her during his frequent visits to Catania, where she and her husband returned to live, until December, 1883, when Rapisardi discovered the infidelity and sent Giselda back to Florence, whereupon Verga ended...
(The entire section is 1455 words.)