Ugo Foscolo

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(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

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.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1,292 words.)