Vittorio Alfieri Alfieri, Vittorio - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Vittorio Alfieri 1749-1803

(Born Conte Vittorio Alfieri, also known as Vittoria Alfieri and Conte Vittoria Alfieri) Italian playwright, poet, essayist, and autobiographer.

Recognized as one of the creators of modern Italian tragedy and of Italian nationalist identity, Alfieri communicated his political beliefs through his work. A staunch advocate of freedom and an outspoken opponent of absolute monarchies, Alfieri used his writings to portray these themes. Alfieri primarily wrote tragedies that used historical sources both to convey his political interests and to develop a modern Italian theater. Of equal importance to scholars, many of Alfieri's works explicitly discuss his political and literary influences, artistic methods, and didactic purposes. In his well-received and much-translated autobiography, Vita (1804; Memoirs), Alfieri drew connections between his personal interactions, education, travels, political thinking, and artistic intentions. The autobiography also contextualizes themes found in Alfieri's other writings, most notably in his treatises Della tirannide (1789; Of Tyranny) and Del principe e delle lettere (1795; The Prince and Letters). Through his works' consistent thematic and political interests, Alfieri substantially influenced Italian drama and the development of Italy as a unified country.

Biographical Information

Alfieri was born into a noble Piedmontese family in Asti on January 16, 1749. His parents were the Count Antonio Alfieri and Monica Maillard de Tournon, the widow of the Marquis di Cacherano. The Count Alfieri died soon after Alfieri was born and his mother then married Giacinto Alfieri de Magliano. At the age of nine, Alfieri's uncle and guardian enrolled him in the Military Academy of Turin in order for the young Alfieri to receive an education appropriate to his station. Alfieri was an unenthusiastic student and, during the next eight years at the academy, learned little except for French—the language commonly spoken at the school—and some Latin. His autobiography harshly characterizes his time there, and Alfieri refers to himself as an “ass amongst asses, a fool being taught by the foolish.” After earning a Master of Arts in 1766, Alfieri left the academy and spent much of the next decade traveling throughout Europe, including France, England, Holland, and Russia. During these travels Alfieri's political ideas intensified, in particular his hatred of absolutism and his belief in the need for freedom of citizens. Alfieri instead valued forms of government that were based on the freedom of a country's people and felt this was a structure absent in Europe, with the exception of England. During this period of frequent traveling, Alfieri began his own education in earnest, reading the works of Ariosto, Dante, Machiavelli, Petrarch, and Tasso, among others. It was also during this decade that Alfieri composed his first tragedy, Cleopatra, which was produced in Turin in 1775. Subsequent dramatic works reflect Alfieri's use of historical sources and the classical unities of time, place, and action; they also mark Alfieri's self-imposed move from composing in French to composing in Italian. Although he was less comfortable and proficient in Italian, Alfieri's self-education motivated him to attempt to create a more distinctly Italian literature. Alfieri's political views and exposure to Machiavelli resulted in two treatises first drafted around 1777, Of Tyranny and The Prince and Letters. During this period Alfieri forfeited his property and rights as a Piedmont citizen in response to laws that decreed subjects must obtain permission from the government censor to publish outside Piedmont's boundaries; Alfieri's political beliefs would not let him be both a subject and an author. Instead, Alfieri chose to live on an annuity equal to half his former revenues but that gave him the freedom to concentrate on his writing. It is after this break with Piedmont that Alfieri began publishing collections of his works, revising them to better reflect his political and artistic beliefs. Also around 1777, Alfieri became seriously involved with Louise de Stolberg, the Countess of Albany and the unhappy wife of Charles Edward Stuart, the “Young Pretender” to the British throne. Alfieri credited her as a source of inspiration and support. After her legal separation from Stuart in 1784, Alfieri and the countess lived together until his death, although whether they were ever married is uncertain. Alfieri was residing with the countess in France, where she was supported by a governmental pension, when the French Revolution broke out in 1789. Initially supportive of the revolution, Alfieri later depicted its excesses as tyrannical. In 1792, Alfieri and the countess decided it was safer to leave France and they escaped to Florence. The last decade of Alfieri's life was marked by his study of Greek and Latin, the creation of six satirical comedies, and the completion of his autobiography, which was published posthumously. Alfieri died on the morning of October 8, 1803.

Major Works

Though Alfieri wrote in four distinct genres—drama, poetry, essay, and autobiography—his works are united expressions of his political beliefs. Alfieri's writings may be characterized as depicting a hatred of tyranny and a love of freedom. Alfieri's first serious tragedy was Fillipo (1783; Philip). In Philip Alfieri offers a critique of absolute monarchy utilizing the tyrant figure of Philip II of Spain, who oppresses the innocent figures represented by the characters of Charles, his son, and Isabella, his wife. While Alfieri did not consider the play to be his best tragedy, it is nonetheless representative of his political interests and belief that the theater may convey an ethical stance. Philip uses historical and literary sources as inspirations for his work and it develops characters as political symbolic expressions rather than as individual figures. Subsequent tragedies, including the highly regarded Agamennone (1783; Agamemnon), Don Garzia (1787; Don Garcia), and Saul (1787), similarly develop. Alfieri's dramas also tend to observe the unities of time, place, and action, use a five-act structure, focus on action over narration, and emphasize soliloquies. Alfieri's dramas are further united by the method of writing Alfieri discusses in the Vita: conception, development, and versifying. Through this method Alfieri attempted to create cohesive works that expressed his ideas in a controlled manner, consistent with his political beliefs.

Also expressing these political beliefs are his writings in other genres. Alfieri's two most famous treatises, Of Tyranny and The Prince and Letters were first composed in 1777, while Alfieri was writing his tragedies. Of Tyranny depicts tyranny in all its forms, including that of absolute monarchy, religion, and the military, as antithetical to freedom, and states there is no compromise possible between the two. The Prince and Letters takes as its primary argument the uneasy relationship between the power of the prince and the power of the people; one of its arguments, that the “sponsored artist” can never be a “free artist,” reflects Alfieri's self-imposed exile from Piedmont. Although not as extensive as his drama or as direct as his treatises, Alfieri's poetry also expresses his advocacy of freedom for all people. His tribute to the American Revolution, L'America libera (1784; America the Free), was written after Alfieri's tragedies and treatises, although it was published before some of his other writings. America the Free supports the principles of political freedom that Alfieri felt were represented in the revolution. In his autobiography, Vita, Alfieri depicts his writings and political beliefs as connected with his early education, his travels, and his desire for an Italian literature and language. The Vita clarifies and supports his other writings by making his artistic philosophy and political intentions clear.

Critical Reception

Because of its detailed, personal, and accessible nature, the Vita has received much of the scholarly attention devoted to Alfieri. Early scholars primarily concentrated on offering English translations of the Vita. Critics have used the autobiography or its translations to depict Alfieri and his works as pivotal in constructing an Italian literature, developing modern Italian theater, and even enabling the construction of Italy as a nation. Many view Alfieri's Vita as an accurate depiction of the challenges for Italy and Italian literature during the second half of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century. These critics have for the most part concentrated on Alfieri's life and used the Vita as a historical document. Such critics, including Edward Copping and Rupert Sargent Holland, tend to use condensed versions of Alfieri's autobiography to discuss its effects on Italian literature or history. Later critical works that reference the Vita tend to use the autobiography to clarify Alfieri's other work, either with biographical insights or stated theoretical intentions. More recently, critics such as Olga M. Ragusa and Gustavo Costa have analyzed Alfieri's autobiography on its own merits. Like the Vita, Alfieri's two treatises, Of Tyranny and The Prince and Letters have been used more often as sources of secondary, critical information than as primary texts. Such is the case with the critical examination of America the Free, where the treatises inform Edoardo A. Lebano's argument about Alfieri's interest in American democracy. Works focusing on Alfieri's early tragedies, such as the analysis of Philip by Franco Betti, usually examine his works as exemplars of Alfieri's approaches to both tragedy and to historical sources. Criticism also emphasizes the dramas' use of historical sources or classical literature and considers the dramas as expressions of Alfieri's political intentions. For example, Deirdre O'Grady examines Alfieri's Agamemnon in relationship to the Enlightenment, viewing Alfieri's work as distinct from both classical and French theater. As the work of Jerome Mazzaro suggests, much of the scholarship on what is considered his finest tragedy, Saul, incorporates Biblical scholarship, historical criticism, and a consideration of Alfieri's development as a writer. Generally acknowledged by literary historians as a catalyst in fermenting Italian nationalism, Alfieri's role in the birth of the Italian state and modern Italian drama have been his greatest legacies.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Cleopatra (drama) 1775; revised as Antonio e Cleopatra 1804

Oreste [Orestes] (drama) 1781

Antigone (drama) 1782

Agamennone [Agamemnon] (drama) 1783

Filippo [Philip] (drama) 1783

Merope (drama) 1783

Ottavia [Octavia] (drama) 1783

Polinice [Polynice] (drama) 1783

Rosmunda (drama) 1783

Timoleone [Timoleon] (drama) 1783

Tragedie [The Tragedies] 3 vols. (drama) 1783–85

L'America libera:...

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Edward Copping (essay date 1857)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Vittorio Alfieri,” in Alfieri and Goldoni: Their Lives and Adventures, Addey and Co., 1857, pp. 76-121.

[In the following excerpt, Copping considers the reasons behind Alfieri's extraordinary efforts to publish in Italian rather than in French, his first language. The critic also discusses the influence of Alfieri's travels and relationships on his writing.]


Alfieri had entered upon dramatic composition as a diversion, as a means of leading his mind from thoughts which enslaved and tormented him. That object gained, it would not have been surprising had he given no further attention to his literary performances, or merely...

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William Everett (essay date 1904)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Alfieri,” in The Italian Poets Since Dante, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1904, pp. 182-216.

[In the following excerpt, Everett provides a survey of Alfieri's life and literary influences in order to discuss characteristics of the playwright's work, focusing specifically on his tragedies.]

The degeneration of Italian poetry at the time of our Independence was so great that its restoration was sure to be a revolution—a harsh and violent process by which a Cromwell or Napoleon should strike a rude but necessary blow at the luscious languors which did duty for form, sense, and feeling. And certainly the master's hand, when he did come, was no gentle one.


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Nathan Haskell Dole (essay date 1908)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Alfieri and Tragedy,” in A Teacher of Dante and Other Studies in Italian Literature, Moffat, Yard & Company, 1908, pp. 299-341.

[In the following excerpt, Dole examines Alfieri's early life and literary education as portrayed in Alfieri's autobiography.]

Ranieri de'Casalbigi, in a long letter criticising Alfieri's first four printed tragedies, begins with the statement that the Italians had been hitherto shamefully poor in tragedy, vergognasamente poveri nella tragedia, and after making some very reasonable criticisms on the unnaturalness of the complications, the absurdity or puerility of the conceptions, the languidness of the verse, the...

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Rupert Sargent Holland (essay date 1908)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Alfieri, The Poet,” in Builders of United Italy, Henry Holt and Company, 1908, pp. 1-39.

[In the following excerpt, Holland considers how the circumstances of Alfieri's life and his opposition to tyranny shaped his writings, and additionally how Alfieri's writings influenced the development of Italy as a unified whole.]

Alfieri was more than a great poet, he was the discoverer of a new national life in the scattered states of Italy. Putting aside consideration of his tragedies as literature, no student of the eighteenth century can fail to appreciate his influence over Italian thought. It was as though a people who had forgotten their nationality suddenly...

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Gaudence Megaro (essay date 1930)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Hatred of Tyranny and Love of Liberty,” in Vittorio Alfieri: Forerunner of Italian Nationalism, Columbia University Press, 1930, pp. 41-62.

[In the following excerpt, Megaro discusses the themes of tyranny and liberty in Alfieri's tragedies. Megaro also emphasizes the political and cultural effects of Alfieri's writings on Italian nationalism.]


One who reads the works of Alfieri is struck by the intensity of his hatred of tyranny and of his love of liberty. “My predominant passion”, he once wrote, “is the hatred of tyranny; the only aim of all my thoughts, words and writings is to combat...

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Antonio Illiano (essay date 1971)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Alfieri's America Libera,” in Romance Notes, Vol. 12, No. 2, Spring, 1971, pp. 357-63.

[In the following essay, Illiano asserts that the motifs of America Libera are symbolic of Alfieri's political beliefs.]

Alfieri conceived America libera late in 1781, while reading Filicaia's patriotic lyrics. He felt suddenly inspired and d'un fiato, overstepping his usual methodology of composition, wrote the first four odes of a lyrical poem in praise of the American revolution: “Ode prima: Accenna le cagioni della guerra,” “Ode seconda: Annovera i popoli belligeranti,” “Ode terza: Parla del Sig. de La Fayette,” and “Ode...

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Edoardo A. Lebano (essay date 1971)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Vittorio Alfieri and the United States of America,” in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 8, No. 4, December, 1971, pp. 310-16.

[In the following essay, Lebano examines Alfieri's Odes to Free America and speculates on Alfieri's political interest in American democracy.]

The works of Vittorio Alfieri that contain numerous references to America and its people are the political treatises Della tirannide and Del principe e delle lettere1 and, particularly, the five odes that the Italian dramatist published with the title Odi per l'America libera (Odes to Free America). But although Italian and foreign scholars...

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Richard B. Hilary (essay date 1973)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Biblical Exegesis in Alfieri's Saul,” in South Atlantic Bulletin, Vol. 38, No. 2, May, 1973, pp. 3-7.

[In the following essay, Hilary considers Alfieri's understanding of sin as illustrated in the tragedy Saul.]

Vittorio Alfieri selected the subject of his tragedy Saul from the Old Testament account of the Hebrew king and developed a powerful drama justly considered his best by many critics.1 Saul is ideally suited to Alfieri both from the point of view of technique and of personality. The author's rigid neoclassical concept of the threefold unity of character, scene, and action is nowhere more clearly illustrated than in...

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Franco Betti (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Birth of a Theater,” in Vittorio Alfieri, Twayne Publishers, 1984, pp. 1-20.

[In the following excerpt, Betti examines Alfieri's early writings for evidence of his methods for writing tragedy, his political stance on tyranny, and his cultural context.]


Vittorio Alfieri was born on the eve of the second half of the eighteenth century, on January 17, 1749. A year earlier an important historical event had taken place in Europe: the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, which brought to an end the Austrian wars of succession—a power struggle which had engaged all major European states.

The political structure...

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Olga M. Ragusa (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Alfieri between France and Italy as Reflected in the Vita,” in Voltaire, the Enlightenment and the Comic Mode, edited by Maxine G. Cutler and Peter Lang, 1990, pp. 215-39.

[In the following essay, Ragusa closely examines Alfieri's autobiography, focusing on the author's perceptions of French culture.]

Alfieri first saw Paris in mid-August 1787 at the end of a precipitous trip from Marseilles which took him across the better part of France in little more than a week. He had spent a month in Marseilles, anxious to avoid travelling in the excessive heat of July and attracted by that city's “cheerful aspect, new, well laid out, clean streets,...

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Deirdre O'Grady (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Images of the Enlightenment: Alfieri's Agamennone,” in Studies in Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, The Voltaire Foundation, 1992, pp. 1547-50.

[In the following essay, O'Grady discusses Alfieri's Agamennone and its concern with Enlightenment principles, claiming the tragedy portrays the failure of reason to maintain social order.]

Of pre-Romantic Italian writers, the dramatist and political thinker Vittorio Alfieri (1749-1803)1 best communicates the moral, political and philosophical aspects of the Age of Reason. He cannot be regarded as a defender of rational theories or systems, but rather he dramatically demonstrates his...

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Gustavo Costa (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Achilles and Thersites in the Maelstrom of the French Revolution: The Sublime and the Ludicrous in Alfieri's Vita,” in Forum Italicum, Vol. 26, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 28-45.

[In the following essay, Costa examines the French Revolution's effect on Alfieri's Vita. Costa considers the autobiographical work to be highly original, one that “produces striking anticipations of the Romantic humor.”]

Alfieri's autobiography (Vita), one of the most significant examples of modern Italian prose, marks a turning point in the intellectual and artistic development of the Piedmontese writer. The Vita is a unique masterpiece, in which...

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Jerome Mazzaro (essay date 1999)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Alfieri's Saul as Enlightenment Tragedy,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 33, No. 1, Spring, 1999, pp. 125-39.

[In the following essay, Mazzaro examines the tragedy Saul as an example of the Enlightenment's influence on Alfieri's poetics and politics.]

Vittorio Alfieri's Saul was written in 1782, six years after the American colonies declared their independence from England and while the Italian playwright was involved with the Countess of Albany, wife of the aging Young Pretender to the British crown, Charles Edward Stuart. Alfieri had already written Of Tyranny (1777), assisted the Countess in her escape from her raving husband,...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Lee, Vernon. The Countess of Albany. London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1910, 222 p.

A brief examination of Alfieri's relationship with the Countess of Albany.

Mills, James. “Vittorio Alfieri and André Chénier: The Problem of Relationships.” In Italian Echoes in the Rocky Mountains, edited by Sante Matteo, Cinzia Donatelli Noble, and Madison U. Sowell, pp. 119-26. Provo, Utah: The American Association for Italian Studies and the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies at Brigham Young University, 1990.

Speculates on the nature of the friendship and literary relationship between Alfieri...

(The entire section is 309 words.)