Niccolò Ugo Foscolo was born to parents of mixed heritage; his mother, Diamantina Spaty, was Greek, while his father, Andrea Foscolo, was Venetian. When Foscolo was ten years old, his father died. He and his mother then moved to Venice, where he stayed until 1797, during which time he began to attend political and literary gatherings such as those of the Countess Isabella Teotochi. In this period, he developed an admiration for the revolutionary doctrines of Jean- Jacques Rousseau, Vittorio Alfieri, and Robespierre while attending classes taught by Melchiorre Cesarotti at Padua University.
In 1797, because of his political ideas, Foscolo was forced to flee to Bologna, where he received the nomination of honorary lieutenant for the French army in Italy. He performed this role as a strict republican until the infamous Treaty of Campoformio, which caused Foscolo to hate Bonaparte so much that he moved to Milan, where he lived from 1797 to 1815. In Milan, Foscolo made the acquaintance of Vincenzo Monti and Giuseppe Parini, and he also pursued love affairs with Teresa Pickler, Isabella Roncioni, and the Countess Antonietta Fagnani Arese.
When, in 1798, the second coalition of the Austrians and Russians reconquered northern Italy from Napoleon (who was at that time in Egypt), Foscolo fought against this action under General Jean-Étienne Championnet, but his open aspiration for Italian independence provoked great hostility from the French. Nevertheless, he went to France for two years (1804-1806) and made the acquaintance of the famous Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni, as well as an English girl, Fanny Emerytt, by whom he had a daughter, Floriana. Returning to Milan in 1806, Foscolo pursued more love affairs and dedicated himself to various writing activities. In 1812, after the presentation of his second tragedy, Aiace, in which certain characters were seen as anti-French, the poet was forced to flee to Florence. There, Foscolo involved himself in the circle of the countess of Albany until the Austrians took Milan in 1813. Unable to pledge allegiance to the Austrian government, Foscolo went into voluntary exile in Switzerland in 1815. One year later, he moved to England, where he collaborated in the publication of magazines and journals, gave classes in literature, and was reunited with his daughter, Floriana. He quickly exhausted Floriana’s savings, some three thousand pounds, and remained deeply in debt until his death in 1827. Only in 1871 was his body brought to Florence and buried, as requested in his will, in the Church of Santa Croce, next to the tombs of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Alfieri, and Galileo.
Foscolo’s achievements were acknowledged during his lifetime, but it was only after his death that his writings were fully recognized as a milestone in Italian literature. He succeeded in detaching himself from the regionalism of his predecessors. From political realism, he went on to pessimism, though he never espoused the fatalism expressed by his younger contemporary Giacomo Leopardi; Foscolo’s was a dynamic pessimism which organized his heroic and lyric behavior. If the function of poetry, as Natalino Sapegno states in his Disegno storico della letteratura italiana (1973), is to discover amid the contradictions of this earthly life that universal harmony by which man restores his own existence, Foscolo, amid a troubled life, found support in his art and created a personal vision of the sublime.
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 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.