On This Day in 1816: Italy, Romanticism, and the Year Without a Summer (Part I)

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We continue the ‘On This Day’ series with a post on Italian Romanticism from Fabio Camilletti, who is Associate Professor at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, University of Warwick. This post has two parts; the second will be posted here next week.

As always, to contribute a blog to this series about the bicentenary of a significant event in 1816, please contact Anna Mercer.


29 February 1816: Italy, Romanticism, and the Year Without a Summer (Part I)


Damn Bonaparte!

‘Maladett Bonaparte!’ – ‘Damn Bonaparte!’: thus ladies exclaimed around 1816 (at least, according to Stendhal’s testimony), when approaching Porta Orientale, the ancient door of Milan – nowadays Porta Venezia – from whence the Alps could be seen at the end of the Corso, where aristocrats’ carriages used to parade.

Milan - Corso di Porta Orientale

Milan – Corso di Porta Orientale

For them, Stendhal records, the French Emperor was the cause of the early frosts experienced in Lombardy since the French Revolution: in opening the route of the Simplon, Napoleon must have breached the natural wall of the Alps, which had thus far sheltered the city from the inclemency of Northern winds.

Together with the frost, Bonaparte had also brought something else. Many years later, in The Charterhouse of Parma (1839), Stendhal credits to another breach opened by Napoleon – in 1796, at the bridge of Lodi, during the first Italian campaign – the opening of a deeper and far more incisive breach in Italy’s national consciousness, which had slumbered through centuries of political servitude and literary Classicism:

The Battle of Lodi

The Battle of Lodi

On 15 May 1796, General Bonaparte made his entry into Milan at the head of the youthful army that had just crossed the bridge at Lodi […]. The miracles of valour and genius of which Italy was the witness within a few months re-awoke a slumbering people […] In the Middle Ages, the republican Lombards had given proof of a valour equal to that of the French, and deserved to see their town razed to the grounds by the emperors of Germany. Since they had become ‘loyal subjects’, their main business was printing sonnets on little pink taffeta handkerchiefs whenever a girl belonging to some noble or wealthy family happened to get married […] Such effeminate customs were a far cry from the profound emotions aroused by the unforeseen arrival of the French army. Soon new and passionate customs arose. An entire people realized, on 15 May 1796, that everything it had hitherto respected was supremely ridiculous and sometimes odious.

In 1796, in other words, modernity had made its entrance into Italy – under the guise of an army whose soldiers ‘were not yet twenty-five and their commanding general, who was twenty-seven, passed for being the oldest man in his army’. Exactly twenty years later, in 1816, with Napoleon defeated and exiled in Saint Helena, one could easily believe that time had turned back. On the 6th of January, the Austrian monarchs – restored to their throne by the Congress of Vienna – had shown themselves again on the Corso di Porta Orientale. On that evening, the theatre La Scala had witnessed the premiere of Il ritorno di Astrea, a Classicist and apologetic piece by Vincenzo Monti celebrating the return to order. Italy, sang its chorus, was still alive and ‘divine’, but only by the favour of the Austrian Emperor. Italians – as well as Hungarians, the Moravians, and the Czechs – were back to their status of ‘loyal subjects’, all worshipping the Austrian throne that appeared in the middle of the scene – as per the libretto – at the end of the piece.

In sum, all evidence showed that the ‘new and passionate customs’ of 1796 had died – but was it really so? After all, some were still feeling that sonnets printed on handkerchiefs were odious. And, after all, it felt colder.


The Fall of the Sun

In a sense, the ladies parading in the Corso were right. The years from 1812 to 1816 had been particularly severe. 1816, in particular, would become globally known as the ‘year without a summer’ – a year of rains and floods in the whole Atlantic area, plaguing economies that had already been weakened by the Napoleonic wars. Literary works of 1816 bear the traces of such devastation, coupled with the idea that the entire world is growing colder and darker. In Byron’s lodgings in Geneva, the poet, his physician John Polidori, the Shelleys and Claire Clairmont, inspired by the unusual climate of that summer, took pleasure in reading German ghost stories: weather propitiated the abandonment to ‘Northern’ and Gothic imaginary, and the narratives produced in those weeks – the thunderstorms of Frankenstein, the blackened sun of Byron’s Darkness, the Swiss glaciers of Shelley’s Mont Blanc and of Polidori’s Ernestus Berchtold – are all marked by the vestiges of something obscure and apocalyptic that is impacting Europe, deeply interweaving reality and imagination.

The ‘year without a summer’, as is nowadays well known, had most probably been caused by the eruption, on 10 April 1815, of the Indonesian volcano Tambora: ashes and toxic gases caused a remarkable lowering of temperatures all over the world for several years, giving birth to unusually cold summers, rigid winters, and hurricanes; volcanic ashes gave sunsets a brightly red colour, as portrayed in William Turner’s canvases. Two months later, on 18 June 1815, an unexpected night rain had transformed the area surrounding the village of Mont Saint-Jean, near the Belgian town of Waterloo, into a sort of morass: the French army had had to wait for the sun to dry the wet ground, and when Napoleon had finally be able to draw his attack, late in the morning, cannons had remained blocked by the mud, leaving the Prussian troops the time to re-join the British infantry. On that evening, both armies had lost many men, but the British-Prussian coalition of Wellington and von Blücher had won, and the French had been defeated.

The connection between Waterloo and Tambora is merely speculative: there remains its involuntarily symbolic charm, and the idea that only some apocalyptic fatality could destroy the power of Napoleon, a sort of Icarus or Phaethon who had more ruinously fallen, the more he had attempted to ascend. Not incidentally, when commemorating Napoleon’s death in the poem ‘The Fifth of May’ (1821), Alessandro Manzoni would surreptitiously evoke the mythologem of the reckless son of Apollo: Napoleon, once ‘shining in his throne’, has fallen; in his exile at Saint Helena, ‘at the silent dying of a useless day’, the Emperor’s ‘lightning eyes’ – but Manzoni uses the lyrical term ‘rai’, literally meaning ‘rays’ – bend down, subtly delineating the image of a dying sun. By so doing, Manzoni transforms the chariot of Napoleon-Apollo of imperial iconography into the wrecked carriage of Phaethon: the sun of Austerlitz reveals itself to be a false star, betraying the folly and haughtiness of a usurper who had come to the point of defying God.

Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret, Allegory of the Battle of Austerlitz

Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret, Allegory of the Battle of Austerlitz


Apocalyptic Imaginaries

Not only literature bears the traces of such symbolic short circuits. In the ‘year without a summer’ all Europe seems to be crossed by apocalyptic fears, a sort of post-traumatic aftermath of Waterloo, mixing science and superstition, political metaphors, and the entire panoply of the age’s taste – from the grotesque to the sublime, and through the Gothic. Popular imagery often points to the sun as a seemingly dying star on the point of extinguishing or exploding. Rumours had spread about the planet getting colder, and between 1815 and 1816 spots had been seen on the surface of the sun. Both phenomena could be perfectly explicable: Carlo Riccati, a nobleman from Piedmont who had written a first-hand chronicle of the first two years of the Bourbon Restoration, explained through the data of the Milan observatory of Brera that temperature fluctuations and sunspots were perfectly natural. Still, the idea that the sun was extinguishing, and that a fragment of it was about to fall on earth, had run all over the continent. Rumours fixed the catastrophe for the 18th of July, and it is interesting – Riccati notes – how this whisper had been particularly welcomed in such a formerly revolutionary country as France: while travelling through France and the Brabant, in July 1816, one would have wondered – he writes – to see so many people believing in such superstitious ways among those who had lately erected temples to Reason.

Finally, on the 26th of July, the newspaper Gazzetta di Milano commented the ‘ridiculous prophecy’ that had been cheating so many between Alsace and Belgium. The article was ironic, but also ironic was its incidentally being followed by an article in praise of Wellington, including a meditation on Napoleon that reactivated, again, the image of Phaethon:

Wellington was the first who dared to challenge Bonaparte when this latter, at the peak of his glory, aspired to rule the continent. Wellington made the dream of human ambition to vanish.

It is, therefore, as if an unconscious but tenacious knot encompassed – in the collective imaginary of 1816 – the falling sun and the ruination of Napoleon’s star. The very distribution of the 18th of July gossip is eloquent: Paris, the Alsace, Belgium – that is to say, the military geography of the Hundred Days. On the 11th of July, Riccardi notes, people in Gand (less than 45 miles from Waterloo) had mistaken the trumpet of a cavalry regiment for that of the angel of the last day; like the French army, terror had invaded the entire Europe. Thus comments the Gazette de Lausanne on the 23rd of July:

18 July has passed, and this day, which had to be devastated by the most terrible cataclysm, has offered no other marvel than the return of nice weather. This terrible catastrophe of the planet has often been predicted, but never, perhaps, has terror exalted so many minds and run over so many countries. Since a month, all Belgian churches were full of anxious and fearful masses of people. In Germany there have been towns were people stopped working and disdained daily occupations. In Naples a priest has announced terrible devastations from the pulpit. In Paris, still on the 17th, travelling booksellers distributed a poor writing bearing the title of Details on the end of the world, gathering an alarmed people.

The weather could well have improved, but what collective imaginary was confusedly trying to express, all over Europe, was the idea of a fracture from whence it was impossible to come back. The falling sun, the Northern winds coming from the Simplon, the very idea of something terrible and fateful that has forever changed Europe and the world, unchaining the fury of elements, are nothing but ways of metabolizing and elaborating a historical transition: Napoleon – and, more broadly, the French Revolution and the war, in a word: modernity – was seen as having dissolved the timeless connection binding humankind and nature, opening a fissure between a pre-modern, Arcadian world and a new, enlightened and technicized, one.


Et In Arcadia Ego

On 29 February 1816, in Milan, the weather was fine; temperature, however, had remained low, at least if compared to contemporary standards – between 4 and 10-15 degrees, in February-March – oscillating between 2 degrees in the morning and 5.5 degrees in the afternoon. This data is taken from the measurements of the Milan observatory of Brera, published as an appendix to each volume of Biblioteca italiana, a literary and scientific journal printed in Milan and directly funded by the Austrian government. On that day, the first issue of the periodical made its first appearance: the journal was opened by a short text by Madame de Staël, Sulla maniera e la utilità delle Traduzioni (On the Custom and Usefulness of Translations), which – as the following months would make clear – was to be the inaugural act of the so-called ‘Classicist/Romantic quarrel’.

Biblioteca Italiana vol. 1, 1816

Biblioteca Italiana vol. 1, 1816

The debate would enflame Italy for years, dividing those who felt that it was necessary for Italian literature to open itself to the literary novelties coming from the rest of Europe (the ‘Romantics’) and those who reclaimed, instead, the legacy of Classical tradition as the most characteristic trait of Italian identity. In years of political and cultural censorship, the quarrel incorporated and challenged, under the guise of a literary skirmish, a deeply political problem concerning Italian identity and its role within the broader scenario of modern Europe. While Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich contemptuously claimed that Italy was ‘a geographical expression’, the quarrel raised questions that would deeply permeate Italy’s later cultural history: the onerous heritage of its historical past, its troubled transition into modernity, its ambiguous relationship with foreign cultures and their ‘lure of Italy’ – in many cases, a badly dissimulated colonial attitude.

Of this attitude, Staël’s article was a perfect example. She made a conventional paean of praise to Italian culture and its tradition: still, Staël could not help but noticing how Italian culture had lost its central and propulsive role, and how the most lively cultural experiences were now taking place elsewhere, in the ‘rest of Europe’, ‘beyond the Alps’, in the North. Even Italy’s sun, an already outworn Grand Tour cliché, was almost useless, for a people – such as the Italian – plagued by centuries of Classicism and sterile classical philology: presently, it was nothing but a motionless star, shining over a landscape made of ruins and tombs.

5. Sablet_Eleėgie romaine (1791)

Sablet’s Elégie romaine, 1791

This image was combined, in the article’s ending, with an insulting consideration of the role of Italy in the Europe to come, relegating it to an unspecified ‘prestige’ in literature and the arts:

nations must have some interest moving them. Some have it in the war, some in politics: Italian must find their prestige in literature and the arts, without which they would lie in a dark sleep, whence even the sun could not awake them.

The fracture between North and South, and between cold and warm, aimed thus at delineating a specific political and cultural geography, placing Italy in a subaltern position against Transalpine Europe: an equation between climate and the national inclinations grounded in the thought of the French Enlightenment, but which in 1816 could possess far more literal resonances.