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.
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.
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).
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.