Vittorio Alfieri (ahl-FYAY-ree) is considered by many to be the greatest tragic dramatist in the history of Italian literature. Born into a wealthy and aristocratic family, he was educated at the Royal Academy in Turin and graduated in 1766. Thereupon he began a period of restless travel. Between 1767 and 1772 Alfieri saw much of Europe, read widely, and had two passionate and rather scandalous love affairs. Although he later looked back upon this period as one of irresponsible dissipation, his travels introduced him to theater throughout Europe and gave him an opportunity to observe the political realities of the Enlightenment. The experiences of these years contributed to his later development as a dramatist. Also during this period, Alfieri became a devoted reader of Plutarch, whose accounts of Greek and Roman heroes profoundly influenced his own tragedies.
In 1775 Alfieri’s first play, Antony and Cleopatra, was performed in Turin with moderate success. Alfieri saw the work’s faults and dedicated himself to the task of producing genuinely great drama in Italian. Having grown up speaking French in his aristocratic family, he quickly realized that it would be necessary for him to master Tuscan, the classic literary language of Italy. He began reading seriously in Italian poetry and, in 1776 and 1777, journeyed to Tuscany. Between 1775 and 1777 he conceived a series of tragedies that included Polynices, Phillip, and Virginia.
In 1777, in Florence, Alfieri met Luisa Stolberg, the countess of Albany and wife of Charles Edward Stuart, the pretender to the English throne and an aging and dissolute man. Alfieri fell deeply in love with the countess, recognizing her as the grand passion of his life; he remained devoted to her from this time forward.
In 1778 Alfieri abandoned his native Piedmont forever and began a period of intense work on his tragedies. Five...
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