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

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The ‘On This Day’ series continues with the second part of a post on Italian Romanticism from Fabio Camilletti, who is Associate Professor at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, University of Warwick. The first part of this blog post can be viewed here.

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 II


Cold and Warm

The Fall of Napoleon

The Fall of Napoleon

In the imaginary space of the Classicist/Romantic quarrel, climate metaphorizes, since the beginning, Italy’s cultural specificity, resisting the tide of Northern literary fashions. Pietro Giordani, in answering Staël in the second issue of Biblioteca italiana, polemicizes against the ‘monkeys’ folly’ of those who would like to import foreign imaginaries in countries where nature ‘bids otherwise’. Romanticism, writes Carlo Giuseppe Londonio in 1817, is the literature of ‘those who are buried in snow and ice for the two thirds of the year, and to which the sun never shows itself with the fullest splendour of its beauty’, and who are therefore ‘naturally brought to see from a melancholy viewpoint all that surrounds them’: ‘their mind takes pleasure in the gloomiest ideas’, whereas ‘the lively, warm, bright-minded Italian sings nature as beautiful and smiling as he sees it around him’. Giovanni Gherardini notes in 1820 how the tempers of Northern people are ‘callous and unable to receive the soft impressions of the beautiful to which the Greeks and the Italians are so sensitive’: so rough sensibilities need ‘strong shocks’, ‘Gargantuan images’, ‘horrid objects’, ‘eccentricities’, ‘quickly changing sensations’, and ‘things outside natural laws’. In 1818, the jurist Pier Luigi Mabìl held a picturesque allocution at the university of Padua, rhetorically asking whether the ‘audacious innovators’ of Romanticism would not ask Italians to ‘abandon the pleasant and flowery Parnassus for the Hercynian forest, for the snowy and steep yokes of Scotland and Ireland’, and ‘if they, ‘accustomed to the gentle metres and to the sweet fashions of the poet from Teos [i.e. Anacreon]’, would perchance ‘give an easy and indulgent ear to the rough songs of the bards, of the skalds, of the Iroquois’, or ‘clutter theatrical stages with gallows, hangmen, skulls, sorcerers, and ghosts’. Italy, writes an anonymous editor of the anti-Romantic journal L’Attaccabrighe in March 1819, does not need the ‘barbarian’ and ‘obscure’ poetry of the Northern Romantics, because the weather – and, consequently, the aesthetic sensibility – are different. Adjectives denoting meteorological phenomena soon take on aesthetic and moral nuances:

a sky perennially bright, such as the Greek or Italian one; a most pure and tempered air, always imbued by the sweet-scenting smells of a thousand different flowers, of cedar and orange trees; such a sky will pour out of the mind of its poets joyful and pleasant ideas, full of imagination, in the same way as the soil generates through it a variety of flowers and fruits. He who secludes himself in the melancholy regions of the North, where mind and heart are both oppressed by the perennial shadows, and by the mist, and by ice, will not be surprised if the poems born in those country are gloomy, ferocious, and sad, and if the similes employed by the poets of those unfortunate climates look all the same.

The same geo-cultural opposition animates Leopardi’s Discourse on Romantic Poetry, whose apocalyptic closure explicitly equates territory and aesthetic disposition, individuating in the kind of poetry inspired by the Italian soil the only possibility for a true survival of antiquity (which, for Leopardi, is the only possibility – for poetry – to be as such). Italians, Leopardi writes, must ‘imitate this nature, and behold this sky and these fields and these hills’, for:

we are still great; we still speak that tongue before which all living ones retreat, and with perhaps would not retreat before the dead ones; […] we still drink this air and tread this earth and enjoy the same light that an army of immortals enjoyed; the fire that enflamed our ancestors still burns […]; that character that belongs to us is unchanged; it remains an inspirer of the highest things, ardent and judicious, most willing and most vivid, sweet and tender and sensitive in the highest degree, and still solemn and nonchalant, the most mortal enemy of every affectation whatsoever, aware and enamoured of naturalness above every other thing, that naturalness without which there never was nor ever will be any beauty nor grace, the yearning lover and most refined connoisseur of the beautiful the sublime and the true, and finally the most wise moderator of nature and reason.

Leopardi concretizes, therefore, a recurrent image of Classicist polemics: that modern poetry – i.e. Romantic verse – is nothing else but the prosecution, through other means, of Napoleonic invasions, aiming to ravage Italy from its last prestige, that of literature. The Romantic invasion is much subtler as it disguises itself under the (Satanic) temptations of fashion: in his later work Operette morali, of 1827, Leopardi will name fashion (moda) the sister of death; with ‘modernity’, moda shares the etymology from the Latin adverb modo (today), conveying the principle that what is new is intrinsically better than what is old.

From this angle, Leopardi shares exactly the same view as Stendhal: the breach opened by Napoleon near Milan has allowed modernity to irrupt into Italy. However, whereas Stendhal saw the battle at Lodi as presenting a possibility for reawakening, Leopardi views modernity as the most threatening menace to Italian specificity, namely its being located before modernity, before that extreme sophistication of taste that exceeds civilization, turning into barbarism. Romanticism is, therefore, the last attempt, on the part of the nations that has ‘always hated and will [always] hate’ Italy, to defeat it for good: because, ‘having defeated us when we were weak and unarmed and motionless, but always defeated in the arts and writing’, it now tries to outrage Italy’s last prestige.

Hayez Meditazione

Hayez Meditazione

Leopardi – unlike other Classicists, who often equate Romanticism, Bonapartism, and liberalism – is not interested in the historical and political dimension of the matter: the rape of Italy he is describing is not flattened to the mere contingency of French occupation, but deliberately groups the manifold invasions suffered by the country over the centuries, to the point that the image of France itself (which he never names directly) is dissolved into the almost archetypal one of a Transalpine, imperial, and foreign Europe that has always threatened Italy’s identity, and now tries to barbarize it through the ‘sentimental and poetic dung dripping down to us from the Alps, and vomited on the shores of our seas’. The natural borders of Italy have been violated, and the passing of the Alps – a Romantic trope connected to the sublime and the experience of Grand Tour  – becomes the channel by which ‘drips down’ something intimately horrid, excessive, and Northern aiming to pervert Italy’s most intimate nature.

Turner, 'Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps'

Turner, ‘Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps’

That ‘dung’, Leopardi writes, is ‘welcomed and greedily swallowed and praised and magnified’ by young Italians; ‘as soon as some odd newness appears on the top of Cottian or Noric Alps’, notes in 1816 Carlo Botta, ‘Italians immediately follow as a bunch of fools’.

Within this constellation, the most interesting text is perhaps the first answer received by Staël, initially appeared in the Florentine journal Novelle letterarie and republished in Lo Spettatore. The author, signed ‘P.L.V.’, compares Staël with Adam Müller, a peasant clairvoyant from Baden who had predicted the victory at Waterloo to an attendant of von Blücher and had met the Prussian king. Under the veil of irony, the Swiss Germaine de Staël is made the reincarnation of those German priestesses, mentioned by Tacitus, who enflamed warriors against Rome; the people who follow her are the victims of the same credulity of ancient Germans, which, as the telling example of Müller shows, still survives among the moderns:

The French journal named Débats referred on 29 February, date of Frankfurt, that a Spirit, one of the Lemures, a Genius or a Demon whatever we want to call it, has become acquainted since quite a while with a certain Muller, and that this good German, through his secret influence, makes all sort of prophecies, but especially political ones […]. Another Spirit, certainly not much different from the former, makes since quite a long time political and literary prophecies in several parts of Europe, through an old Pythoness; and it is almost sure that, after travelling the North, has now pointed towards the South, and that, having crossed the Alps and the Apennines, has now penetrated in the hearth of Italy. […] We know that by the Germans, or other Boreal peoples, women were believed to possess some divine power of predicting the future. By these peoples, therefore, the names of Veleda and Aurinia and many others were very famous: for them, these nations had a sort of worship, and kept in great value their advice and responses.

This text is overtly ironic, but the image is clear: a spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Romanticism – and it aims, as Botta puts it, to darken the ‘light’ of Classical tradition with its ‘Germanizing and Frenchy stuff’, and with ‘the mist of Caledonian moors’. As in Napoleon’s time, Milan is the most vulnerable front against the invasion: a borderline city between South and North, Milan is the place where the plague (of modernity and of central/Northern Europe) is more likely to make its entrance into the country.


Bringing the Plague

On 22 October of that year 1629, Pietro Antonio Lovato, an infantryman in a regiment located in the area of Lecco, made his entrance into Milan, with a load of clothes stolen or bought from German soldiers; and he went to stay at the place of some relatives of him, in the neighbourhood of Porta Orientale. As soon as he got there, he got sick; they brought him to the hospital; and on the fourth day he died. In the corpse they found a bubo, which raised the suspicion of plague.

Lovato enters Milan

Lovato enters Milan

In Alessandro Manzoni’s novel Fermo e Lucia, begun in 1821, the great plague of 1630 enters Milan on a specific date and from a specific gate, Porta Orientale, from whence the otherwise unknown infantryman Pietro Lovato had brought infected clothes, stolen from German soldiers. Names of streets running parallel to the former Corso di Porta Orientale – now Corso Venezia – still bear the memory of the contagion: and are named via Lazzaretto, or via Lodovico Settala, in honour of the doctor who had first acknowledged the disease to be bubonic plague.

In Manzoni’s times, another kind of plague had entered the city, and from the same route. After the forced closure of the Romantic journal Il Conciliatore, in 1819, and while he was being transferred from the Milanese prison of Santa Margherita to the Venetian one of Piombi, from whence he would be deported to the Spielberg fortress, in Moravia, Silvio Pellico remembered the glory days of Italian Romanticism:

Oh, you avenue of Porta Orientale! Oh, you the public gardens, where I had often walked with Foscolo, Monti, Lodovico di Breme, with Pietro Borsieri, with Porro and his children, and with so many other beloved mortals, talking in the fullest of life and of hope! […] When we exited the Porta, I brought my hat over my eyes and, unnoticed, I cried.

From this angle, in the topography of Milan, Porta Orientale and its Corso are remarkably allusive. Not only do they recall – as we have seen – the memory of Napoleon’s invasion and the route of Simplon, but also that of the plague and, at the same time, of Romanticism: another kind of contagion, since the arrival of which nothing will ever be the same.

Manzoni’s view of Romanticism was ambiguous. Initially, he had sided with the Milanese Romantics, for he viewed Romanticism as a salutary revolution for Italian literature: since then, he had progressively withdrawn his support, seeing – as did many of his contemporaries – the plain import of Northern Romanticism as a ‘hodge-podge of witches and ghosts’, to be rejected with the greatest severity. In 1821, while Pellico was being transferred to the Venice prison of Piombi, he began to write Fermo e Lucia – a draft and a prelude to his masterpiece I promessi sposi (1827), bearing the traces of the cultural and political conflicts animating Italy at the time.

From this angle, the emphasis Manzoni places in mentioning Porta Orientale in Fermo e Lucia is less innocent than it could seem at a first glance. In the novel, Porta Orientale is the doorway through which something innately Other enters into Milan, as a deadly consequence of the foreign invasion of Landsknechts coming from Germany.

Melchiorre Gherardini, The Plague in Porta Orientale

Melchiorre Gherardini, The Plague in Porta Orientale

Equally, in Fermo e Lucia the ambiguity surrounding the theme of the plague echoes the ambiguity with which Manzoni views Romanticism, a ‘hodge-podge of witches and ghosts’ that has nonetheless had the merit – as Manzoni writes to Cesare D’Azeglio – to sweep away the Arcadia-like and provincial junk plaguing Italian literature. Such ambiguity will remain unresolved throughout the entire course of Italian modernity, between the defence of tradition and the yearning for renovation, intellectual autarchy and foreignizing temptations: South and North. ‘This pestilence has been a curse, my sons, a curse’ – comments Don Abbondio in the ending of Manzoni’s novel: ‘but it was also a broom: it swept away certain people whom, my sons, we’d never got rid of’.