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Sketches and Studies in Italy and Greece
by John Addington Symonds
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Every employment seems easy to him, but he really cares for none but literature. He spends all his spare time in reading and in amusements, and begins to write a tragic opera. This proves, however, eminently unsuccessful, and he burns it in a comic fit of anger. One laughable love-affair in which he engaged at Udine exhibits his adventures in their truly comic aspect. It reminds us of the scene in 'Don Giovanni,' where Leporello personates the Don and deceives Donna Elvira. Goldoni had often noticed a beautiful young lady at church and on the public drives: she was attended by a waiting-maid, who soon perceived that her mistress had excited the young man's admiration, and who promised to befriend him in his suit. Goldoni was told to repair at night to the palace of his mistress, and to pour his passion forth beneath her window. Impatiently he waited for the trysting hour, conned his love-sentences, and gloried in the romance of the adventure. When night came, he found the window, and a veiled figure of a lady in the moonlight, whom he supposed at once to be his mistress. Her he eloquently addressed in the true style of Romeo's rapture, and she answered him. Night after night this happened, but sometimes he was a little troubled by a sound of ill-suppressed laughter interrupting the tete-a-tete. Meanwhile Teresa, the waiting-maid, received from his hands costly presents for her mistress, and made him promises on her part in exchange. As she proved unable to fulfil them, Goldoni grew suspicious, and at last discovered that the veiled figure to whom he had poured out his tale of love was none other than Teresa, and that the laughter had proceeded from her mistress, whom the faithless waiting-maid regaled at her lover's expense. Thus ended this ridiculous matter. Goldoni was not, however, cured by his experience. One other love-affair rendered Udine too hot to hold him, and in consequence of a third he had to fly from Venice just when he was beginning to flourish there. At length he married comfortably and suitably, settling down into a quiet life with a woman whom, if he did not love her with passion, he at least respected and admired. Goldoni, in fact, had no real passion in his nature.

Alfieri, on the other hand, was given over to volcanic ebullitions of the most ungovernable hate and affection, joy and sorrow. The chains of love which Goldoni courted so willingly, Alfieri regarded with the greatest shyness. But while Goldoni healed his heart of all its bruises in a week or so, the tragic poet bore about him wounds that would not close. He enumerates three serious passions which possessed his whole nature, and at times deprived him almost of his reason. A Dutch lady first won his heart, and when he had to leave her, Alfieri suffered so intensely that he never opened his lips during the course of a long journey through Germany, Switzerland, and Piedmont. Fevers, and suicides attempted but interrupted, marked the termination of this tragic amour. His second passion had for its object an English lady, with whose injured husband he fought a duel, although his collarbone was broken at the time. The lady proved unworthy of Alfieri as well as of her husband, and the poet left her in a most deplorable state of hopelessness and intellectual prostration. At last he formed a permanent affection for the wife of Prince Charles Edward, the Countess of Albany, in close friendship with whom he lived after her husband's death. The society of this lady gave him perfect happiness; but it was founded on her lofty beauty, the pathos of her situation, and her intellectual qualities. Melpomene presided at this union, while Thalia blessed the nuptials of Goldoni. How characteristic also were the adventures which these two pairs of lovers encountered! Goldoni once carried his wife upon his back across two rivers in their flight from the Spanish to the Austrian camp at Rimini, laughing and groaning, and perceiving the humour of his situation all the time. Alfieri, on an occasion of even greater difficulty, was stopped with his illustrious friend at the gates of Paris in 1792. They were flying in post-chaises, with their servants and their baggage, from the devoted city, when a troop of sansculottes rushed on them, surged around the carriage, called them aristocrats, and tried to drag them off to prison. Alfieri, with his tall gaunt figure, pallid face, and red voluminous hair, stormed, raged, and raised his deep bass voice above the tumult. For half an hour he fought with them, then made his coachmen gallop through the gates, and scarcely halted till they got to Gravelines. By this prompt movement they escaped arrest and death at Paris. These two scenes would make agreeable companion pictures: Goldoni staggering beneath his wife across the muddy bed of an Italian stream—the smiling writer of agreeable plays, with his half-tearful helpmate ludicrous in her disasters; Alfieri mad with rage among Parisian Maenads, his princess quaking in her carriage, the air hoarse with cries, and death and safety trembling in the balance. It is no wonder that the one man wrote 'La Donna di Garbo' and the 'Cortese Veneziano,' while the other was inditing essays on Tyranny and dramas of 'Antigone,' 'Timoleon,' and 'Brutus.'

The difference between the men is seen no less remarkably in regard to courage. Alfieri was a reckless rider, and astonished even English huntsmen by his desperate leaps. In one of them he fell and broke his collar-bone, but not the less he held his tryst with a fair lady, climbed her park gates, and fought a duel with her husband. Goldoni was a pantaloon for cowardice. In the room of an inn at Desenzano which he occupied together with a female fellow-traveller, an attempt was made to rob them by a thief at night. All Goldoni was able to do consisted in crying out for help, and the lady called him 'M. l'Abbe' ever after for his want of pluck. Goldoni must have been by far the more agreeable of the two. In all his changes from town to town of Italy he found amusement and brought gaiety. The sights, the theatres, the society aroused his curiosity. He trembled with excitement at the performance of his pieces, made friends with the actors, taught them, and wrote parts to suit their qualities. At Pisa he attended as a stranger the meeting of the Arcadian Academy, and at its close attracted all attention to himself by his clever improvisation. He was in truth a ready-witted man, pliable, full of resource, bred half a valet, half a Roman graeculus. Alfieri saw more of Europe than Goldoni. France, Germany, Holland, Switzerland, England, Spain, all parts of Italy he visited with restless haste. From land to land he flew, seeking no society, enjoying nothing, dashing from one inn door to another with his servants and his carriages, and thinking chiefly of the splendid stud of horses which he took about with him upon his travels. He was a lonely, stiff, self-engrossed, indomitable man. He could not rest at home: he could not bear to be the vassal of a king and breathe the air of courts. So he lived always on the wing, and ended by exiling himself from Sardinia in order to escape the trammels of paternal government. As for his tragedies, he wrote them to win laurels from posterity. He never cared to see them acted; he bullied even his printers and correctors; he cast a glove down in defiance of his critics. Goldoni sought the smallest meed of approbation. It pleased him hugely in his old age to be Italian master to a French princess. Alfieri openly despised the public. Goldoni wrote because he liked to write; Alfieri, for the sake of proving his superior powers. Against Alfieri's hatred of Turin and its trivial solemnities, we have to set Goldoni's love of Venice and its petty pleasures. He would willingly have drunk chocolate and played at dominoes or picquet all his life on the Piazza di San Marco, when Alfieri was crossing the sierras on his Andalusian horse, and devouring a frugal meal of rice in solitude. Goldoni glided through life an easy man, with genial, venial thoughts; with a clear, gay, gentle temper; a true sense of what is good and just; and a heart that loved diffusively, if not too warmly. Many were the checks and obstacles thrown on his path; but round them or above them he passed nimbly, without scar or scathe. Poverty went close behind him, but he kept her off, and never felt the pinch of need. Alfieri strained and strove against the barriers of fate; a sombre, rugged man, proud, candid, and self-confident, who broke or bent all opposition; now moving solemnly with tragic pomp, now dashing passionately forward by the might of will. Goldoni drew his inspirations from the moment and surrounding circumstances. Alfieri pursued an ideal, slowly formed, but strongly fashioned and resolutely followed. Of wealth he had plenty and to spare, but he disregarded it, and was a Stoic in his mode of life. He was an unworldly man, and hated worldliness. Goldoni, but for his authorship, would certainly have grown a prosperous advocate, and died of gout in Venice. Goldoni liked smart clothes; Alfieri went always in black. Goldoni's fits of spleen—for he was melancholy now and then—lasted a day or two, and disappeared before a change of place. Alfieri dragged his discontent about with him all over Europe, and let it interrupt his work and mar his intellect for many months together. Alfieri was a patriot, and hated France. Goldoni never speaks of politics, and praises Paris as a heaven on earth. The genial moralising of the latter appears childish by the side of Alfieri's terse philosophy and pregnant remarks on the development of character. What suits the page of Plautus would look poor in 'Oedipus' or 'Agamemnon.' Goldoni's memoirs are diffuse and flippant in their light French dress. They seem written to please. Alfieri's Italian style marches with dignity and Latin terseness. He rarely condescends to smile. He writes to instruct the world and to satisfy himself. Grim humour sometimes flashes out, as when he tells the story of the Order of Homer, which he founded. How different from Goldoni's naive account of his little ovation in the theatre at Paris!

But it would be idle to carry on this comparison, already tedious. The life of Goldoni was one long scene of shifts and jests, of frequent triumphs and some failures, of lessons hard at times, but kindly. Passions and ennui, flashes of heroic patriotism, constant suffering and stoical endurance, art and love idealised, fill up the life of Alfieri. Goldoni clung much to his fellow-men, and shared their pains and pleasures. Alfieri spent many of his years in almost absolute solitude. On the whole character and deeds of the one man was stamped Comedy: the other was own son of Tragedy.

If, after reading the autobiographies of Alfieri and Goldoni, we turn to the perusal of their plays, we shall perceive that there is no better commentary on the works of an artist than his life, and no better life than one written by himself. The old style of criticism, which strove to separate an author's productions from his life, and even from the age in which he lived, to set up an arbitrary canon of taste, and to select one or two great painters or poets as ideals because they seemed to illustrate that canon, has passed away. We are beginning to feel that art is a part of history and of physiology. That is to say, the artist's work can only be rightly understood by studying his age and temperament. Goldoni's versatility and want of depth induced him to write sparkling comedies. The merry life men passed at Venice in its years of decadence proved favourable to his genius. Alfieri's melancholy and passionate qualities, fostered in solitude, and aggravated by a tyranny he could not bear, led him irresistibly to tragic composition. Though a noble, his nobility only added to his pride, and insensibly his intellect had been imbued with the democratic sentiments which were destined to shake Europe in his lifetime. This, in itself, was a tragic circumstance, bringing him into close sympathy with the Brutus, the Prometheus, the Timoleon of ancient history. Goldoni's bourgeoisie, in the atmosphere of which he was born and bred, was essentially comic. The true comedy of manners, which is quite distinct from Shakspere's fancy or from Aristophanic satire, is always laid in middle life. Though Goldoni tried to write tragedies, they were unimpassioned, dull, and tame. He lacked altogether the fire, high-wrought nobility of sentiment, and sense of form essential for tragic art. On the other hand, Alfieri composed some comedies before his death which were devoid of humour, grace, and lightness. A strange elephantine eccentricity is their utmost claim to comic character. Indeed, the temper of Alfieri, ever in extremes, led him even to exaggerate the qualities of tragedy. He carried its severity to a pitch of dulness and monotony. His chiaroscuro was too strong; virtue and villany appearing in pure black and white upon his pages. His hatred of tyrants induced him to transgress the rules of probability, so that it has been well said that if his wicked kings had really had such words of scorn and hatred thrown at them by their victims, they were greatly to be pitied. On the other hand, his pithy laconisms have often a splendidly tragical effect. There is nothing in the modern drama more rhetorically impressive, though spasmodic, than the well-known dialogue between Antigone and Creon:—

'Cr. Scegliesti?

'Ant. Ho scelto.

'Cr. Emon?

'Ant. Morte.

'Cr. L'avrai!'

Goldoni's comedies, again, have not enough of serious thought or of true creative imagination to be works of high art. They lean too much to the side of farce; they have none of the tragic salt which gives a dignity to Tartuffe. They are, in a word, almost too enethistically comic.

The contrast between these authors might lead us to raise the question long ago discussed by Socrates at Agathon's banquet—Can the same man write both comedies and tragedies? We in England are accustomed to read the serious and comic plays of Shakspere, Fletcher, Jonson, and to think that one poet could excel in either branch. The custom of the Elizabethan theatre obliged this double authorship; yet it must be confessed that Shakspere's comedies are not such comedies as Greek or Romnan or French critics would admit. They are works of the purest imagination, wholly free from the laws of this world; while the tragedies of Fletcher have a melodramatic air equally at variance with the classical Melpomene. It may very seriously be doubted whether the same mind could produce, with equal power, a comedy like the 'Cortese Veneziano' and a tragedy like Alfieri's 'Brutus.' At any rate, returning to our old position, we find in these two men the very opposite conditions of dramatic genius. They are, as it were, specimens prepared by Nature for the instruction of those who analyse genius in its relations to temperament, to life, and to external circumstances.

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FOOTNOTES:

[Footnote 1: This Essay was written in 1866, and published in 1867. Reprinting it in 1879, after eighteen months spent continuously in one high valley of the Grisons, I feel how slight it is. For some amends, I take this opportunity of printing at the end of it a description of Davos in winter.]

[Footnote 2: See, however, what is said about Leo Battista Alberti in the sketch of Rimini in the second series.]

[Footnote 3: The Grisons surname Campell may derive from the Romansch Campo Bello. The founder of the house was one Kaspar Campell, who in the first half of the sixteenth century preached the Reformed religion in the Engadine.]

[Footnote 4: I have translated and printed at the end of the second volume some sonnets of Petrarch as a kind of palinode for this impertinence.]

[Footnote 5: This begs the question whether [Greek: leukoion] does not properly mean snowflake, or some such flower. Violets in Greece, however, were often used for crowns: [Greek: iostephanos] is the epithet of Homer for Aphrodite, and of Aristophanes for Athens.]

[Footnote 6: Olive-trees must be studied at Mentone or San Remo, in Corfu, at Tivoli, on the coast between Syracuse and Catania, or on the lowlands of Apulia. The stunted but productive trees of the Rhone valley, for example, are no real measure of the beauty they can exhibit.]

[Footnote 7: Dante, Par. xi. 106.]

[Footnote 8: It is but just to Doctor Pasta to remark that the above sentence was written more than ten years ago. Since then he has enlarged and improved his house in many ways, furnished it more luxuriously, made paths through the beechwoods round it, and brought excellent water at a great cost from a spring near the summit of the mountain. A more charming residence from early spring to late autumn can scarcely be discovered.]

[Footnote 9: 'The down upon their cheeks and chin was yellower than helichrysus, and their breasts gleamed whiter far than thou, O Moon.']

[Footnote 10: 'Thy tresses have I oftentimes compared to Ceres' yellow autumn sheaves, wreathed in curled bands around thy head.']

[Footnote 11: Both these and the large frescoes in the choir have been chromolithographed by the Arundel Society.]

[Footnote 12: I cannot see clearly through these transactions, the muddy waters of decadent Italian plot and counterplot being inscrutable to senses assisted by nothing more luminous than mere tradition.]

[Footnote 13: Those who are interested in such matters may profitably compare this description of a planned murder in the sixteenth century with the account written by Ambrogio Tremazzi of the way in which he tracked and slew Troilo Orsini in Paris in the year 1577. It is given by Gnoli in his Vittoria Accoramboni, pp. 404-414.]

[Footnote 14: So far as I can discover, the only church of San Spirito in Venice was a building on the island of San Spirito, erected by Sansavino, which belonged to the Sestiere di S. Croce, and which was suppressed in 1656. Its plate and the fine pictures which Titian painted there were transferred at that date to S.M. della Salute. I cannot help inferring that either Bibboni's memory failed him, or that his words were wrongly understood by printer or amanuensis. If for S. Spirito we substitute S. Stefano, the account would be intelligible.]

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THE END

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