Ugo Foscolo

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Although his poetry resists categorization, Ugo Foscolo (FAWS-koh-loh) is generally considered the most important voice of Romanticism in Italian literature and certainly one of the greatest lyric poets in Italian since Petrarch. Foscolo was born in 1778, the first child of Andrea Foscolo, a Venetian doctor, and Diamantina Spathis, the daughter of a Greek tailor. He was baptized Niccolò but later adopted the name Ugo. When his father was offered the position of director of the hospital at Spalato in Italy, the family (a sister was born in 1780 and a brother in 1781; another brother would be born in 1787) moved there in 1784.

After his father died in October, 1788, Foscolo was sent to live with his mother’s family on the island of Zante, where he had been born, until his mother established herself in Venice in 1792. During this time he attended the school of San Cipriano in nearby Murano. One of the leading literary salons of Venice in the 1790’s was that of Isabella Teotochi (1760-1836), which the young Foscolo began attending in 1795; he commenced an affair with the older woman that eventually led to her divorce from Carlo Antonio Marin in 1796. Her subsequent marriage to an Italian nobleman instead of to Foscolo precipitated a serious depression and physical deterioration in the young man. The betrayal he felt is reflected in his novel, Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis, an autobiographical novel patterned after Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther (1774).

After recovering from his depression, Foscolo began an ambitious plan to revitalize Italian literature. Most of the writing of this period has not survived, but the verse tragedy Tieste was successfully produced at Venice’s Sant’Angelo Theater on January 4, 1797. Later the same year the Venetian republic surrendered without a struggle to Napoleon. Foscolo fled, and his writing turned mostly to journalism in the turbulent Napoleanic years. By 1799 he could no longer avoid direct involvement in the military; he joined the National Guard of Bologna and was twice wounded in battle. He fought the British in the siege of Genoa, an irony in that he was a great admirer of English Romanticism and was to spend the last ten years of his life in England.

In 1802 Foscolo’s novel, Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis, appeared, followed a year later by his collection of odes and sonnets, Poesie. Both books won immediate critical acclaim. The novel in particular represented a kind of writing previously available to Italian readers only in foreign works, the kind that lays bare a protagonist’s emotions, which color all his observations. His poems, while neoclassic in form, showed promise of the more subjective romantic sensibility he developed in his later verse. With these works Foscolo had ended the vogue of neoclassic objectivity in Italian writing and inaugurated a new literary style.

From 1804 to 1806 Foscolo, whose first published poem celebrated Napoleon, served in the famous general’s army in northern France, where he had a love affair with an English woman, Sophia Hamilton. She gave birth to a daughter, Floriana, though Foscolo did not discover the fact until 1822, when the girl was seventeen. In March of 1806 Foscolo returned to Italy, where he published what is considered to be one of his greatest poems, On Sepulchres. This reflection on death and eternity showed the influence of the English “graveyard” school of poetry, which anticipated British Romanticism and had been introduced to Foscolo by Melchiorre Cesarotti (1730-1808) in Teotochi’s salon. Though not as popular as Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis or Poesie, On...

(This entire section contains 753 words.)

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Sepulchres was a critical triumph and established Foscolo as a primary literary figure in Italy.

Foscolo’s rise, however, accompanied his increasingly falling into disfavor with the Napoleonic government. After accepting a lectureship at the University of Pavia in 1809, he found the post abolished by Napoleon. His tragedy Aiace was sabotaged by his literary rivals in 1811; by the time of his next drama, Ricciarda, which was a success in 1813, Foscolo was exiled from Napoleonic Italy. Fleeing to Switzerland in 1815, and ultimately to England in 1817, Foscolo lived out his days in England, where he dodged creditors and wrote essays on Italian literature for the British press. He died in the village of Turnham Green, near London, and was buried there. When Florence achieved independence from Austria in 1871 the city had his remains brought back. Foscolo, who spent much of his life in exile, created a poetic voice that expressed his century’s sense of human beings as eternal exiles, and he brought the spirit of Romanticism into Italian literature.


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