The one truly great novel of mid-nineteenth century Italy is by Ippolito Nievo (NYAY-voh): The Castle of Fratta, written between December, 1857, and August, 1858, and published six years after the writer’s death. This work was preceded by two collections of poems, several plays, and two novellas that have been described as the beginning of modern Italian realism. Angelo di Bontà (angel of goodness) re-creates eighteenth century Venice with minute fidelity to detail in manners and dialect, while Il conte pecoraio (the shepherd count) sets a similar story in Nievo’s own day and region. Both are poetically conceived yet realistic in the depiction of Italian peasant life.
Nievo was descended from a patrician family of Venetian background. During his student days at Mantua and Pisa he became interested in the cause of Italian freedom from Austro-Hungarian domination. After graduating from the University of Padua in 1855, he wrote poems and plays that on at least one occasion involved him in difficulties with the Austrian authorities.
In May, 1859, following the outbreak of hostilities between Austria and the Italian patriots, he joined the rebels under the leadership of Giuseppe Garibaldi and fought at Varese, San Fermo, and Calatafimi. One of Garibaldi’s “Thousand,” he was in charge of administrative duties in Naples in 1861 when he was ordered to return to Palermo. He sailed on March 4, 1861, aboard a ship that is believed to have foundered during the voyage; there were no survivors to tell what had happened to the ship or its company.
The Castle of Fratta is written as the autobiography of one Carlo Altoviti, who tells of the rambling castle in which he grew up, of his turbulent love for the daughter of a countess, and of his final peace in maturity. The chapters dealing with Altoviti’s boyhood experience are particularly impressive. The manuscript was never revised by the author, however, and is somewhat loose and rambling in structure. Nievo had intended, possibly for patriotic reasons, to call his novel “Le confessioni del’Italiano” (the confessions of an Italian), but the publisher in 1867 thought the title too political and renamed it Le confessioni di un ottuagenario (the confessions of an octogenarian), by which the book is still generally known. Many critics have stated that this is the only nineteenth century Italian novel that can be compared with Alessandro Manzoni’s I promessi sposi (1827; The Betrothed, 1828).