Giuseppe Giusti’s poetics should be sought in his concrete approach to life: Without searching for past utopias or making gigantic leaps into the future, Giusti’s poems concentrate both in time and space on the present, on the topography, history, and mores of contemporary Tuscany. In one of his short prose writings, aptly titled “Dell’aurea mediocrità” (about golden mediocrity), Giusti evaluates human life in terms of a median condition residing between Heaven and Earth. Man’s horizon should be sought, he suggests, at eye level, between the sky and the land, where the concreteness of life lies.
This amused acceptance of things as they are, not as they should be, had its roots in Giusti’s native Tuscan traditions. Although his satirical mode has been traced to all sorts of Italian and foreign satirists, humorists, and caricaturists—his style has been compared, for example, to that of the lighthearted French folk poet Pierre Jean de Béranger—his primary inspiration was the homely Tuscan folklore that extolled the virtues of moderation.
The folkloric element in Giusti’s verse is evident in the early poem “Lo stivale” (“The Boot”), written in 1836. Headed by an epigraph taken from Dante’s rhymes, it is written in stanzas of six hendecasyllabic lines. The Boot is the narrator; it stands for Italy, whose safety resides in that unity which Dante so strongly advocated. Describing the Boot from top to toe, Giusti recalls the Boot’s history and its ravaging by many who sought to rule it—“from one thief to the next.” It is true, the Boot once “galloped” by itself and ruled the Roman world, but, wanting too much, it fell flat on the ground. While sketching the long, harrowing history of the peninsula, Giusti directs his sarcasm particularly against the Papacy. “The priests harmed me most/that truly malevolent race and indiscreet.” In the end, the Boot asks only to be refurbished and given a solid form by a competent boot maker, yet should such a man of courage and energy appear, he would, as usual, “be kicked in his seat.”
Among Giusti’s most famous scherzi of this first period are “L’incoronazione” (“The Coronation”), written in 1838, and three others, all of 1840: “Il brindisi di Girella” (“Girella’s Toast”), “Umanitari” (“The Humanitarians”), and “Il Re Travicello” (“King Travicello”). “The Coronation” was written on the occasion of the coronation of the Emperor of Austria as King of Italy, but the satire is actually directed against Leopold II—the Emperor’s brother—during whose tenure as Grand Duke of Tuscany the atmosphere in the region became more stagnant than ever. Identified in this poem as “il toscano Morfeo” (“Tuscan Morpheus”) for the somnolence he caused among his subjects, Leopold became proverbially symbolic of complacency and ineptitude in government.
“Girella’s Toast,” “The Humanitarians,” and “King Travicello” address what Giusti called, with much contempt, “our deepest wounds”—that is, the proliferation of cosmopolitanism, the opportunism of the weathercocks (those ready to change their loyalty to enter the ranks of the latest conqueror), and the obsequious role so many Italians played in order to gain favor, giving their allegiance to harsh or inept monarchs such as the dull-witted King Travicello. All of those vices had to be eliminated if the country were to be rebuilt. Cosmopolitanism in particular went against Giusti’s grain, for he believed that the Italians, being so divided among themselves, were hardly ready for the international scene.
It was this aversion to cosmopolitanism that prevented Giusti from siding with either the classicists or the Romantics in the battle between the two factions which had begun to rage in 1816, when he was a small boy. His posture on this all-important issue of his time was typically Giustian: He wanted to follow a middle road, preserving a balance between the old and the new. This eventually happened, though Giusti failed to understand how much the...
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