Ugo Foscolo Foscolo, Ugo

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(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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Ugo Foscolo 1778-1827

(Born Niccolò Foscolo; also wrote under the pseudonym of Didimo Chierico) Greek-born Italian poet, novelist, essayist, translator, and playwright. For additional information on Foscolo's life and works, see NCLC, Volume 8.

Ugo Foscolo was a passionately idealistic writer whose works helped give rise to the Romantic period in Italian literature. Born of an Italian father and Greek mother, his verses and prose speak clearly of his longing for an Italy united and free from foreign rule and of his love for Hellenic mythology and feminine beauty. Foscolo's literary output was far from prodigious, due to a combination of his itinerate life and his penchant for constantly rewriting the works he did compose, which resulted in more literary fragments than complete publications. Nevertheless, the combination of modern and classical elements in his verse represents a transitional point in Italian literature, and his epistolary novel, Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis (1802), is credited by some scholars as marking the beginning of the novel as an art form in Italy.

Biographical Information

Born February 6, 1778, on the island of Zante in Greece, Foscolo was the son of an Italian doctor named Andrea Foscolo and a Greek mother named Diamantina Spathis. From an early age, Foscolo had a highly developed sense of justice, which he held onto throughout his life; circumstances beyond his control, however, slowly tainted his beliefs with cynicism. After his father became ill and died in 1788, financial problems forced Foscolo's family to leave Zante for Venice. This would mark the beginning of a life spent in fruitless pursuit of a permanent home. In Venice, Foscolo escaped the poverty of his home life by studying. Readily fluent in Greek, Italian, and Latin, he absorbed books at the Library of Saint Mark. By his teenage years he was writing poetry and impressing the Italian elite at the local salons; at the age of eighteen, his play Tieste (1797) became a successful production at the Sant'Angelo Theater.

By this time, Napoleon Bonaparte's armies had entered Italy. Foscolo, always the idealist, at first embraced the invasion and wrote his ode Bonaparte liberatore (1797) in honor of Napoleon and the French call for “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality.” Foscolo felt betrayed, however, when Napoleon handed Venice over to the Austrians. To avoid persecution by Venice's new rulers, he moved to Milan, where he wrote “Laura, Letters.” A prose work inspired by his love for Isabella Teotochi, “Laura” would evolve into his 1802 novel, Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis.

Foscolo served as a soldier in the National Guard of Bologna from 1799 to 1800 and defended the city of Genoa from the British. He also served in Napoleon's army from 1804 to 1806. After resigning his officer's commission, he returned to Italy and wrote his most famous poem, I sepolcri or The Sepulchres (1807). This work earned him a position as Professor of Italian Eloquence at the University of Pavia in 1808. However, Foscolo's willingness to express his strong opinions against authority led to the loss of this position when Napoleon eliminated the eloquence position from all Italian universities.

The next years were marked by more transitions as Foscolo moved to Milan, then to Florence, then back to Milan. After the Napoleonic Empire fell in 1814, Foscolo refused to swear allegiance to the Austrians and instead moved to Switzerland for two years. Before leaving Switzerland in 1816, he published what is considered the definitive version of Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis and then moved to England. In England, Foscolo was greeted warmly by the local literati and became reacquainted with his daughter, Floriana, in 1822. Floriana was the daughter of an Englishwoman named Sophia Hamilton whom the poet had met in France while serving in Napoleon's army.

Although Foscolo still worked on his verses, such as the never-completed Le grazie, carme or The Graces (1848), most of his work while in England...

(The entire section is 55,476 words.)