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ART. VI.-Intorno all' ingiustizia di alcuni giudizii letterarii Italiani. Discorso di Lodovico Arborio Gattinara di Breme, figlio. 8vo. Milano, 1816.
OUR attention has been often directed for some years past to the character and condition of the Italian states. Various circumstances have combined to give them an interest in the view of every class of readers; and all can now talk of Italian skies, and Roman ruins, of the Carbonari, or the doge of Venice. To the lovers of novels and poetry, Mad. de Stael and lord Byron have made the peninsula a marvel and a show; the inquiries of the northern critics and travellers have given a new impulse to the curiosity of scholars, and all Americans have had their enthusiasm awakened, though but to sleep again, by a momentary appearance of the spirit of liberty.
The general impression left among us, however, by most that has been said and written, is not, we should judge, very flattering to the present self-complacent and self-styled inheritors of Roman fame. Upon us, who value ourselves so highly on the enjoyment of freedom and independence, the failure of their political enterprises would of course produce no very favorable effect. It has inclined us to receive with additional aggravation what we had been told of their indolence and effeminacy. They figure in our imaginations very much like the Romans, whom Marius represented as the inactive and degraded descendants of ancestors, whose honors they could not sustain; and we admit them to be unworthy of the liberty, which they had not courage to vindicate. But in the mind of the scholar it is the all-subduing contrast of the present with the past, that degrades the living inhabitants of the peninsula. Such an one, indeed, comparing the ancient and modern Italians, might be tempted, perhaps, to venture upon rather an unlicensed extension of Mr Schlegel's doctrines of epic poetry, and consider, not only the true heroics of antiquity, but even the mock heroics of modern days, as pictures of human life. Thus the Romans would come to have in his mind about the same relation to their successors, as the Æneid of Virgil to Tassoni's Secchia Rapita;' and those, who were exhorted, parcere subjectis, et debellare superbos,' would seem fairly followed by a race, who, as Tassoni would describe them,
'Attendean le feste a suon di squille,
From the stern and classic heroes of republican and imperial Rome, or their more recent successors, whose wild instinct of gore and glory' gave a name to the Italian republics, and inspired the lofty meditations of Childe Harold, his thoughts might unluckily descend to Beppo, to the improvisatori, the cavalieri serventi, and to an idle and useless generation, who delight in carnivals, and, whether high or low, spend their lives with fiddling, feasting, dancing, drinking, masking;' and thus, though Italy rises and passes before him, like a magnificent vision, having many changes, it is only its distant and remembered glories, that inspire him with awe. At least the scholar, who has never visited its living and moving scenes, and knows the present, as the past, only by the help of reading and imagining, has most probably reserved all his reverence for those, who rule our spirits from their urns.' Theatres, ballets, and masquerades can scarcely for a moment intercept the thoughts, which hasten to fix themselves on the nobler recollections of departed greatness-the scenes, with which Livy and Tacitus have stored the imagination, and the everchanging pictures of Gibbon,-the treasures of art, the tombs of poets, and the monuments of heroes.
When we think of visiting the other countries of Europe, though we may have some few feelings of antiquarian curiosity to gratify, it is much more for what they now are, that our enthusiasm is excited. Our minds are at once thronged with conceptions of the stateliness and imposing magnificence of power, with ideas of institutions, venerable indeed for their antiquity, but still as they were, and still venerable. We long to listen to the living eloquence of the senate, the pulpit, and the bar; to revel in their hoarded treasures of literature and science, and gather knowledge from the lips of those, whose fame we have heard, or whose works we have read and admired. In Italy, only, we could wish to be alone, with nothing around us, but the monuments of the past. However unjust it may be, we cannot but feel that we should not recognize the bustling and self-satisfied race around us, as the objects of our search. They would serve but to break the charm, which the recollections of the scene would otherwise bring over us, and interrupt our converse with the mighty dead. For more than one reason, we might be tempted to apply to them what was said of the tumultuous rabble, whose uproar assailed the ears of Dante, on entering the place of souls:
• Fama di loro il mondo esser non lassa,
These feelings, we are ready to confess, however, whether right or wrong, belong to us rather as scholars and lovers of the ancient days, than as sober judges of merit. On looking more critically at the present character of the Italians, and recalling the circumstances perhaps unavoidable, which have made them what they are, we could not wish, as we might not be able, to pass them with quite so little ceremony, as was practised by the poet, and his Roman guide. Though we should sometimes inevitably forget them, when walking on the banks of the Tiber, or in the vale of Arno, we are aware, that much may be said for them by way of apology, and something in their praise. Their endless divisions, and local jealousies, transmitted from the middle ages, have long since discouraged the wiser part from attempting to cope with the power of their northern oppressors. They have consequently ceased to be ambitious of political or military glory. We suspect the true explanation of the late events, disgraceful as they seemed to us, must be sought in the be lief, that the whole movement was, in fact, no more than a partial convulsion of the baser multitude, and that those, best capable of combining and wielding the real resources of the peninsula, found too little encouragement of success to engage them in the work. They have been told, and are apparently convinced, that they must gain a name and a place among the nations, not by their arms, but their arts. These are consequently the objects of their ambition and their pride. They are more vain, and talk more, and write more of their ancient artists, than of their ancient heroes.
It is with a very liberal observation of these facts, one too which, as Americans, we have special need to make, that we must judge, if we would estimate correctly, not only the character of the Italian people, but the merits and defects of their productions. We do not say, that such a state of things is an advantage either to the one or the other. On the contrary, we would attribute to this cause many of the faults of both. The fine arts are not fitted, of themselves and alone, to give a manly firmness and dignity to character. When they become, as they seem to have done in this case,
* Dante's Inferno, Can. 3. Ri. 17
the great business of a people, instead of building that people up to firmness of purpose, and greatness of soul, they in fact divest life of its importance, and its seriousness. Such has unquestionably been the case here, and notwithstanding the partial change, which a few individuals have wrought in their literature, we suspect, and might confirm the suspicion from the representations of the work before us, that the character and taste of those, who read and hear, have a more natural sympathy with the operas of Metastasio, than with the sterner and more impassioned style of his successors.
It need scarcely be said, that the arts themselves no less necessarily lose their dignity and power, when life ceases to be agitated, and the soul aroused by concerns and events of greater seriousness and importance. It is when contemplation is prompted by scenes of bold and adventurous action, that the mind ascends to its highest heaven of invention, and acquires the power of giving_back its images in the most living and enduring forms. The arts accordingly, and especially poetry, have reached their highest elevation in periods, when religion, and the great business of securing national independence and freedom have awakened men to serious feeling and to bold and vigorous action, when they were the dignified and worthy resort for solace and amusement of minds, which more powerful causes had developed, and made susceptible of their highest pleasures. When they are not sustained by such circumstances, they too naturally become the idle and effeminate employment of effeminate men. Truth, and with it, all serious and ennobling aims are forgotten, and literature becomes a business of mechanism, a childish amusement.
Such to a great extent has been much of the literature of the Italians, as described by their own writers.
The essential thought contained in those works,' says signor de Breme, and all the ideas, which go to form the body of them, neither are, nor can be in fact, the prime object of their mechanism. On the contrary, the ideas make but a hypocritical show, and act a part entirely subordinate to the language. They are called in merely because necessary to sustain the pomp of external form, and are like the occupants of a house which belongs alike to every chance inhabitant.'
Of such poetry, where thought is nothing, and the form and expression every thing, and with the harmony of the New Series, No. 11. 13
Italian language to aid them, all can easily become authors. Little strength of mind is necessary either to write, or to enjoy it. With only a few positive and common-place ideas, every one can chant extempore harmony, and the Italians are as much given to poetry, as the Parisian multitude to dancing.
Es' udian gli usignuoli al primo albore,
We by no means intend to represent this, as the general character of the present literature of Italy. The work of de Breme, if we had no other evidence, furnishes proof of the existence of another class of men, who both think, and write in a different manner. Indeed we have no where seen the characteristic faults of Italian literature more feelingly and more clearly set forth, than in the remarks of this author, and in the extracts, which he has given from Baretti, Gravina, and others. We only mention the faults as growing naturally out of the state of society, and the devotion of the people to pursuits too exclusively belonging to the fine arts.
It is from the same causes, and the great importance which they attach to every thing connected with their reputation in the arts, that literary controversies assume a tone, and acquire an interest among them, which among us good republicans belong only to the subject of the tariff, the government of the Floridas, or the next president. They seem, though wonderfully altered, not to have entirely forgotten, that they are descended from the Guelphs and Ghibbelins. Though they shed less blood, they shed more ink. Where Dante was sentenced to be burned, his too exclusive admirer, Mad. de Stael, was sentenced to be reviewed. They whose ancestors, five or six centuries ago, arranged themselves with shield and spear under the banners of the emperor and the pope, now gird up their loins, like Dominie Sampson, and engage in the classic and romantic war, for the rival claims of Homer and Ossian. In no country, perhaps, have questions of a purely literary character excited so much superficial passion, or been discussed with so much perseverance. Ever since the arrival of those spurious Greeks, to whom de Breme attributes so much of the literary intolerance, and dogmatical dictatorship of their followers, and the decided spirit of imitation introduced