Ugo Foscolo Foscolo, Ugo - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 was limited to essays, many of which were published in The Edinburgh Review. Some of these essays are credited with renewing British interest in Dante. He also worked with John Hobhouse on “An Essay on the Present Literature of Italy,” (1818) which was part of the historical illustrations that accompanied the fourth canto of Lord Byron's Childe Harold.

With his desire to live an upper-class lifestyle, but without the financial means to do so, Foscolo fell into poverty and spent his final years living under assumed names to avoid creditors. He died in England, penniless, on September 10, 1827. However, in 1871, when Foscolo's dream of a united Italy became a reality at last, his body was exhumed and, amid much fanfare, reburied at Santa Croce in Florence, the site that was the subject of I sepolcri. His life of wandering finally at an end, he remains in Florence where he rests with such other luminaries as Galileo, Michelangelo, and Machiavelli.

Major Works

Foscolo was versatile in his writing, successfully composing everything from plays to poems to essays and a novel. He was not extremely prolific, however, and of his more major works two clearly stand out as his greatest literary accomplishments, the poem I sepolcri and the epistolary novel Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis. The inspiration for I sepolcri came to Foscolo when he heard about the French edict to have all distinguishing features removed from graves in Italy. The graveyard theme was also inspired by such poets as Thomas Gray, whose verses were well known to Foscolo. The poem, which contains 295 lines of blank verse, exhorts the reader to remember the heroes of the past, while it also calls up mythological figures in a way that illustrates Foscolo's facility with blending mythic and historic elements seamlessly.

His novel, The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis, is loosely based on Foscolo's own life. The title character feels betrayed both in love and politics, as he bemoans the Treaty of Campoformio, which handed Venice to the Austrians, and his desperate love for Teresa, who likely represents Foscolo's love for Isabella Roncioni. At the novel's end, Jacopo commits suicide, an act that has special significance to Foscolo because two of his brothers killed themselves. The themes that pervade the novel have clear parallels with Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, a novel that, in fact, had been translated by Foscolo's lover, the Countess Antonietta Fagnani Arese, at the time he was reworking his final draft. However, scholars generally agree that the book is more reflective of Foscolo's personal life and not a mere reinterpretation of Goethe. The novel was a success for Foscolo, who, nevertheless, later admitted to being somewhat embarrassed by the emotionally revealing work.

Besides these two works, other significant works by Foscolo include his unfinished poem Le grazie, carme (The Graces), his plays Tieste, Aiace (1811), and Ricciarda (1811), his essays, and his translation of Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey (1813).

Critical Reception

Today, critics generally agree that I sepolcri is Foscolo's masterpiece. With its timeless themes of the importance of art and remembering the past, the poem strikes a chord even with modern readers. Its technical achievement and lyrical appeal is undeniable, and its place among the most significant poetic works of its time is assured. The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis, on the other hand, while widely acclaimed when it was first published, has fallen out of critical favor. This is partly due to the fact that it has so many similarities to Goethe's Werther, which is considered to be the more accomplished of the two.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Tieste (drama) 1797

Bonaparte liberatore (poetry) 1797

Orazione a Bonaparte pel Congresso di Lione (lecture) 1802

Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis (novel) 1802; revised as Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis, 1816 and The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis, 1818

La chioma di Berenice [translator; from The Locks of Berenice by Callimachus] (poetry) 1803

*Poesie (poetry) 1803

Esperimento di traduzione della “Illiade” di Omero [translator; from The Iliad by Homer] (poetry) 1807

I sepolcri [The Sepulchres, 1820?] (poetry) 1807; published as On Sepulchres: An Ode to Ippolito Pindemonte, 1971

Dell'origine e dell'ufficio della letteratura (lecture) 1809

Aiace (drama) 1811

Ricciarda [Ricciarda, 1823] (drama) 1811

Viaggo sentimentale di Yorick Iungo la Francia e l'Italia [translator as Didimo Chierico; from A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne] (novel) 1813

Lettere scritte dall'Inghilterra [also known as Gazzettino del bel mundo] (travel essay) 1818

“An Essay on the Present Literature of Italy” [with John Cam Hobhouse] (essay) 1818; published in Historical Illustrations of the Fourth Canto of Childe Harold

Essays on Petrarch (essays) 1821

“Discorso storico sul testo del Decamerone” (essay) 1825; published in Decamerone

Discorso sul testo e su le opinioni diverse prevalenti intorno alla storio e alla emendazione critica della “Commedia” di Dante (essay) 1825

†“On the New Dramatic School in Italy” (essay) 1826?

Le grazie, carme [The Graces] (poetry) 1848

Opere edite e posthume di Ugo Foscolo. 12 vols. (poetry, novel, essays, and letters) 1850-90

Edizione nationale delle opere di Ugo Foscolo. 21 vols. to date (poetry, novel, essays, and letters) 1933-

The J. C. Translations of Poems by Ugo Foscolo (poetry) 1963

*Many of the poems in this work were originally published in the journal Nuovo giornale de' letteratti in 1802.

†Although most critics believe that Foscolo wrote this essay in 1826, they are unable to establish when or where it was first published.

Antonio Cippico (essay date 1924)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Poetry of Ugo Foscolo,” in Proceedings of the British Academy, Kraus Reprint, 1976, pp. 13-25.

[In the following essay originally presented in 1924, Cippico provides an overview of Foscolo's life and examines how his various poetic works were affected by—and sometimes stand in contrast to—the historical events and romantic interludes of his life.]

If we are to draw our conclusions from events of the last centuries, all great crises in the history of nations, be it wars or revolutions, cause humanity to gather the illusion of an essential renovation of human nature itself. It matters little if wise philosophers and impartial historians, especially...

(The entire section is 5050 words.)

Douglas Radcliff-Umstead (essay date 1970)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Creator of Poetic Myths,” in Ugo Foscolo, Twayne Publishers, 1970, pp. 107-24.

[In the following essay, Radcliff-Umstead traces the various evolutionary stages of Foscolo's unfinished poem The Graces, and discusses how the fragments illustrate the poet's views on artistic expression and contemporary events and figures, as well as how it fuses modern and mythic elements.]

After completing Of Tombs, Foscolo considered composing several ambitious verse projects. A letter to Monti of December 12, 1808, lists the subjects of his proposed series of Italian hymns. In a poem to be entitled Alceus (Alceo), he intended to trace the...

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Glauco Cambon (essay date 1975)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ugo Foscolo and the Poetry of Exile,” in Mosaic, Vol. 9, No. 1, Fall, 1975, pp. 123-42.

[In the following essay, Cambon explains how Foscolo's increasing distance from his original homeland of Greece created a strong mythos in his poetry that reflects not just nostalgia but an urge to transcend the present.]

For our Western tradition, the literature of exile begins with two very different sources: the Old Testament on the one hand, and Ovid's Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto on the other. Interdiction of his Roman aqua et ignis wrought a metamorphosis on the jolly author of Ars Amatoria; he now wrote letter upon letter in verse...

(The entire section is 10129 words.)

Glauco Cambon (essay date 1980)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Demon of Suicide and the Demon of Fiction,” in Ugo Foscolo, Poet of Exile, Princeton University Press, 1980, pp. 27-116.

[In the following essay, Cambon compares and contrasts Foscolo's Letters of Ortis with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's thematically similar The Sorrows of Young Werther. The critic also discusses the input provided by the Countess Antonietta Fagnani Arese, who had translated Goethe's work, and with whom Foscolo was in love.]

If we are to believe Foscolo's love letters to her, Countess Antonietta Fagnani Arese, that naughty Milanese beauty who irritated him into some of his finest writing, said teasingly that he was a...

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Victor A. Santi (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Image of the Sun in the Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis, the Sepolcri, and the Grazie of Ugo Foscolo,” in Italian Culture III, edited by Douglas Radcliff-Umstead, Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1983, pp. 63-70.

[In the following essay, Santi explains how Foscolo uses images of sun and night, and light and dark to reflect the state of mind of Jacopo in The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis. The critic further discusses Foscolo's use of this imagery in his poetic works, including The Sepulchres and The Graces.]

A Central Passage relating to the image of the “sun” in the Ultime lettere di Jacopo...

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Franco Ferrucci (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Italian Romanticism: Myth vs. History,” in MLN, Vol. 98, No. 1, January, 1983, pp. 111-17.

[In the following essay, Ferrucci compares Foscolo's ideas on history—which Foscolo felt could be recreated as a human mythology and thus be made more culturally significant—with those of two other Italian authors of the romantic period: Leopardi and Manzoni.]

The modern notion of history was born in Italy, as elsewhere, between the late Enlightenment and the first wave of Romanticism. The effects of such a cultural revolution are visible in the three major Italian writers of the romantic period: Foscolo, Leopardi, and Manzoni.

Each of these...

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Gustavo Costa (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ugo Foscolo's Europe: A Journey from the Sublime to Romantic Humor,” in Symposium, Vol. 47, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 98-111.

[In the following essay, Costa reflects on how Foscolo's travels from Italy to England, his readings, and the politics of the time affected the tone of his fragmentary work Lettere scritte dall'Inghilterra, which was written between 1817 and 1818.]

The concept of Europe envisioned by Ugo Foscolo was deeply affected by the aesthetic views that dominated his life. Foscolo's Europe is a reflection of his creative spirit and, as such, must be gathered from his works in prose and verse. Fashioned in various genres, such works...

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Antonio Illiano (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “From Gray's Elegy to Foscolo's Carme: Highlighting the Mediation and Sublimation of the ‘Sepulchral,’” in Symposium, Vol. 47, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 117-31.

[In the following essay, Illiano examines Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, which was known to Foscolo, for the influence it had on Foscolo's Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis and The Sepulchres. The critic also discusses Ippolito Pindemonte's I Cimiteri and its effect on The Sepulchres.]

Widely acclaimed as a masterwork of poetic expression, Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard had a far-reaching impact on Italian...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Howells, W. D. “Vincenzo Monti and Ugo Foscolo.” In Modern Italian Poets: Essays and Versions, pp. 102-25. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1972.

Compares and contrasts the very different lives and demeanors of contemporaries Vincenzo Monti and Ugo Foscolo, both prominent writers in Lombary.

Vincent, E. R. Byron, Hobhouse and Foscolo. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1949, 135 p.

Uses letters and other documents to trace the indirect relationship between Foscolo and Lord Byron, who never met but who interacted through their mutual friend John Hobhouse.


(The entire section is 262 words.)