Ugo Foscolo

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The Romantic movement dominated Italian literature during the first half of the nineteenth century, and Ugo Foscolo, along with other writers, such as Vincenzo Monti and Alessandro Manzoni, was part of it, though at a rather different level. Foscolo’s personal life and his involvement in the political, social, and literary history of Italy are closely meshed in his poetry.

“Sonetti”

Foscolo’s twelve sonnets (known collectively as the “Sonetti”), which combine the strength of Dante and the melancholy of Petrarch, have much in common with his novel Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis: the oppressive influence of Fate on politics and personal life, hints of suicide, the pleasures and despair of love, and a sense of hostility against the invaders of Italy. There is in these sonnets, however, a new sense of nature, a more ironic and melancholic approach to the political problems of Italy, and a more lyric treatment of autobiographical themes such as love, exile, death of loved ones, and exhortations to achieve glory through poetry.

In the sonnet “Te nudrice alle muse” (“You Nurturer of the Muses”), addressed to Italy, Foscolo complains about the proposed abolition of the Latin language, a proposal made by the legislature of the Cisalpina Republic. This sonnet at first appears to be academic and traditional in structure, theme, and style, reflecting the influence of Alfieri and the neoclassical literary forms of the late eighteenth century. There is, nevertheless, an innovative element in this sonnet: the first use by Foscolo of a technique, later perfected in On Sepulchers, by which the various sections of a poem are related by larger, “historical” logic rather than by conventional syntactic logic. The two quatrains of this sonnet refer to the past, while, without any apparent connective tissue, the tercets ironically address Italy on the inconveniences that would be caused by the abolition of the Latin language. The logic which related quatrains and tercets reflects the overlying concept that there can be no contemporary Italian language and culture without reference to the language and culture of the past.

The sonnet “E tu?” (“And You?”) also contrasts quatrains and tercets: The quatrains have an abba-abba rhyme scheme and are historical in content, while the tercets rhyme aba-cbc and are erotic in theme and mood. The poet starts by using heroic, quasi-Ossianic terminology to recall the medieval fights in Florence; then, in a more lyric fashion, he praises Florence as the dwelling place of his beloved.

“Ne più” (“Never Again”), another sonnet from this collection, speaks of the tragedy of the exiled Foscolo. The poet, though Italian by birth and education, will never be able to forget that he was born of a Greek mother in the luminous and wooded Zacinto, and that his poetry echoes Homer and Theocritus. Foscolo recalls his island and the myths of Venus and Ulysses with a surge of melody in full rhymes. The first statement nostalgically affirms that he will never again set foot on the sacred shore of his native island and, unlike Ulysses, will not be granted burial in his native land. The last tercet, however, brings the consolation that, if not his body, at least his song will return to Zacinto: Poetry will be his means of immortality.

The Foscolo of the “Sonetti” reaches a climax of poetic inspiration when he turns from history and mythology to treat his personal life or naturalistically perceived objects. A vein of melancholy emerges in sonnets such as “Perché taccia il rumor di mia catena” (“To Hush the Clangor of My Chain”), “Forse perché della fatal quiete” (“Perhaps Because of the Fateful Quiet”), and “Un...

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dì, s’io non andrò sempre fuggendo” (“One Day, Should I Not Always Flee”). In these sonnets, for example, there are autobiographical references to his unfortunate love for the Florentine Isabella Roncioni and to the death of his brother John, which reminds him of his exile.

The sonnet “Perhaps Because of the Fateful Quiet” is a dialogue with the evening; it moves in a thickly harmonious structure from the proposal of the theme through a central part to the conclusion. Its merit, as Foscolo himself said, lies in producing, through a broken structure, the same effects that musicians achieve through dissonance and painters achieve through shading. The poem starts with monosyllables and bisyllables, pauses at the fourth line in perfect lyric hendecasyllables until the eighth line, and then begins again the tormented rhythmic pattern. In a fashion reminiscent of Edward Young and Giuseppe Parini, Foscolo writes of the evening that is dear to him because it is the image of death; it keeps the secret paths of his heart, promising rest for his ever-warring spirit.

“To Louise Pallavicini Fallen from a Horse” and “To the Healed Friend”

During the same years in which these sonnets were composed (1800-1802), Foscolo also wrote two odi: “A Luigia Pallavicini caduta da cavallo” (“To Louise Pallavicini Fallen from a Horse”) and “All’amica risanata” (“To the Healed Friend”), for Antonietta Fagnani Arese. These two odes praise the beauty of and virtually deify the two women to whom they are dedicated. The autobiographical elements and controlled poetic expertise of the sonnets continue in these odes, which are additionally characterized by literary eclecticism and imagery drawn from pagan mythology.

The first ode describes a fall which the beautiful Louise took from a horse and expresses the wish that she will recover and become more beautiful than before. The whole poem is supported by mythic prototypes: Venus stung on the foot while leaning over the dead body of Ado, the “bath of Pallas,” the intervention of Neptune against the enraged horse, and finally the fall of Diana into the volcano Etna, followed by her recovery. Though the poem’s structure (eighteen stanzas of six lines each) is taken from Carlo Frugoni, and its imagery is inherited from poets such as Ludovico Ariosto, Poliziano, and Alfieri, Foscolo proves his mastery of form, style, and imagination by achieving a certain degree of seriousness in a lyric genre which in eighteenth century Italy had a rather light, occasional status. In Foscolo’s work, goddesses care for human suffering and exchange feelings of love with mortal creatures. The highly artificial tone characteristic of occasional verse does not diminish the sense of beauty and serenity which this ode evokes, foreshadowing Foscolo’s more mature work in Le grazie.

The second ode, usually viewed in relation to the passionate letters which Foscolo wrote to Antonietta Fagnani Arese, is, by contrast, carefully controlled in emotion. The process of deification is more stylized here than in the ode to Louise Pallavicini. The poet begins with a description of the healing of his beloved, again using mythological allusions. The deification reaches its climax when the poet declares that his verses will be the woman’s salvation from death and from the jealousy of others. The conclusion reiterates the mood of the earlier sonnet to his native island, “Ne più mai toccherò le sacre sponde” (“I Will Never Touch Again the Sacred Shore”) and anticipates the poem Le grazie with a recollection of the spirit of Sappho and the sound of Greek poetry. As in the first ode, Foscolo contemplates evil and death only to distance himself from them, to aspire to a higher sense of beauty and eternity.

On Sepulchers

In considering On Sepulchers, Giovanni Getto, in La composizione dei “Sepolcri” di Ugo Foscolo (1977), observes that the three images—suggesting nature, civilization, and death—which are presented at the beginning of the poem, represent the complex symbol of On Sepulchers’s entire figurative world. The poem draws together all the poetic motifs of Foscolo’s earlier work into a new and powerful synthesis. The dialectic of this poem is, ultimately, between death and immortality. If the evils of this life cannot be avoided, immortality may be attained through memory, as evidenced by burial monuments, for after death the hero will obtain at least this measure of glory. In the various shadings of On Sepulchers, Foscolo continuously fuses images and contrasting tones and creates the highly individual syntax which distinguishes his verse.

On Sepulchers is infused with a sense of melancholy, mystery, and historicism. After evoking life, nature, poetry, and hopes broken by death, Foscolo blames the new Napoleonic law for having placed in the same tomb the bones of great men and those of thieves. He remembers then the sensible pagan rituals in honor of the virtuous dead, contrasting them with the superstitious rites of Christianity, which are characterized by a fear of the next world. He then passes to a historical vision in praise of Florence, where Dante and the parents of Petrarch were born, and where Machiavelli, Michelangelo, and Galileo are buried in Santa Croce. The sense of heroism and of the regeneration of the Italian nation comes from a tie between the living and the dead. This is why the heroic spirits of the past inspired Homer, especially the spirit of Hector, the greatest and most unfortunate of all heroes.

For Foscolo, poetry was one of the most pure and significant achievements of humankind. His translations from Homer in the period preceding the composition of On Sepulchers inspired him to celebrate the heros of the past in order to unite former times with the present in an ineffable harmony. The occasional, the meditative, the narrative, and the fantastic impulses all converge in this poem. Unlike Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis, which echoes the Titanism of Alfieri, and unlike the “Sonetti,” which expresses the solitude and the horror of Foscolo’s life, On Sepulchers testifies to the poet’s liberation from his past passions. From the beginning, the reader of On Sepulchers has in front of his eyes not a bare tomb but a sepulcher comforted by the tears of the living, because “Hope, the last Goddess, flees the sepulchers.” From reason to fantasy, from the past to the present, from the dead to the living, from autobiographical references to the recollection of the great poets and heroes of the past, Foscolo develops his themes like a symphony. The initial rhetorical question in On Sepulchers, in which the desolation of death is clearly stated, is finally transformed into the attitude that all people worthy of glory, such as Hector, will have the “honor of tears as long as the sun will shine over human afflictions.”

Le grazie

The interrelationship between poetry and the other arts, while present in Foscolo’s earlier poetry, becomes central in Le grazie. The vision of poetry which eternalizes heroism through emulation of living people, as found in On Sepulchers, is here replaced with that of beauty, which educates the human spirit to reveal the secret consonance of the universe.

Aldo Vallone, in Le Grazie nella storia della poesia foscoliana, has remarked that the neoclassicism of On Sepulchers becomes for Foscolo in Le grazie the natural way of composing poetry. The expressive elements contained in this ambitious allegorical and didactic poem, which remained unfinished at Foscolo’s death, reveal his absolute mastery of his material. By technical devices such as the usage of certain prepositions, of narrative sections, and of repetition of key words, Foscolo suggests at one moment the shading of the verse, while at another moment he reestablishes equilibrium among the various segments of the poem, producing an effect of musical lyricism.

Composing Le grazie while at the villa Bellosguardo, near Florence, Foscolo was inspired by the Venus of Canova and the statuary group of the Graces. The poem also reveals the influence of the neoclassical aesthetics of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, and marks Foscolo’s passage from pure to critical lyric. This is not to say that there is any lack of images or lyric pleasure; on the contrary, critical and poetic thoughts are here combined. The philosophical intuition of reality as harmony goes side by side with passion and melancholy.

In the tradition of Homer and Callimachus, three hymns compose Le grazie. The first hymn is dedicated to Venus, Goddess of Beauty, the second to Vesta, Goddess of the Hearth, and the third to Pallas, Goddess of the Arts. According to Le grazie, aesthetics were born in Greece, and with them civilization began. Italy became the major theater of civilization, and there music, dance, lyric language, greatness of mind, and physical beauty gave rebirth to the Graces—that is, to Harmony. This concept is presented in the second hymn and poetically developed by the image of a sacrifice made by three of the women Foscolo loved: Nencini, with a harp; Martinetti, with a honeycomb; and Bignami, with a swan. The last hymn takes the reader to the middle of an ocean on an ethereal Earth. Pallas, in fact, weaves a veil which exalts youth, love, hospitality, maternal affection, and filial piety. With this veil, she covers the Graces so that they can protect themselves from passion.

The form of the three hymns seems to be less impetuous than that of On Sepulchers: Dissonances are softened, and the verse has a smoother and less luminous modulation.

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Foscolo, Ugo