Vale, Italia



IF we indulge ourselves in one more look at Italy we shall find her, even in this seeming siesta, warm with life: Turin nursing Alfieri, Lucca publishing Diderot’s Encyclopédie, Florence flowering again under Grand Duke Leopold, Milan reforming law with Beccaria, Pavia and Bologna thrilling with the experiments of Volta and Galvani, Venice suffering Casanova, Naples challenging the papacy, Rome caught in the tragedy of the Jesuits, and a hundred breeding grounds of music exporting opera and virtuosi to tame the savage transalpine breast. We shall meet in Italy a hundred thousand foreigners coming to study her treasures and bask in her sun. There, in this age, Goethe, choked with Weimar dignitaries, came to renew his youth and discipline his Muse.

Goethe’s first impression, as he came down from the Alps into Venezia Tridentina (September, 1786), was of the mild and luminous air, which “gave exquisite enjoyment to mere existence, even to poverty.”1 And next, the uncaged life: “the inhabitants are always out of doors, and, in their lightheartedness, think of nothing” but to live. He thought that the fruitful soil must readily provide for the modest wants of these simple people; yet the poverty, and the lack of sanitation in the smaller towns, dismayed him.

When I asked the waiter for a certain place he pointed down into the courtyard, “qui abasso puo servire.’” “Dove ?” I asked. “Da per tutto, dove vuol” was the friendly reply. … Forecourts and colonnades are all soiled with filth, for things are done in the most natural manner.2

Sensory adaptation gradually reconciled him.

Venice was enjoying her amiable decay. About 1778 Carlo Gozzi described with righteous exaggeration what seemed to him a general dissolution of morality:

The spectacle of women turned into men, men turned into women, and both men and women turned into monkeys; all of them immersed … in the whirligig of fashion; corrupting and seducing one another with the eagerness of hounds on the scent, vying in their lusts and ruinous extravagance, … burning incense … to Priapus.3

In 1797 he blamed the collapse on philosophy:

Religion, that salutary curb on human passion, has … become a laughingstock. I am bound to believe that the gallows benefit society, being an instrument for punishing crime and deterring would-be criminals. But our newfangled philosophers have denounced the gallows as a tyrannical prejudice, and by so doing they have multiplied murders on the highway, robberies and acts of violence, a hundredfold. . . .

It was pronounced a musty and barbarous prejudice to keep women at home for the supervision of their sons and daughters, … their domestic service and economy. At once the women poured forth, storming like Bacchanals, screaming, “Liberty! liberty!” The streets swarmed with them. … Meanwhile they abandoned their vapory brains to fashions, frivolous inventions, . . .amusements, amours, coquetries, and all sorts of nonsense. … The husbands had not the courage to oppose this ruin of their honor, their substance, their families. They were afraid of being pilloried with that dreadful word prejudice. … Good morals, modesty, and chastity received the name of prejudice. … When all the so-called prejudices had been put to flight, … many great and remarkable blessings appeared: … irreligion, respect and reverence annulled, justice overturned, … criminals encouraged and bewept, heated imaginations, sharpened senses, animalism, indulgence in all lusts and passions, imperious luxury, … bankruptcies, … adulteries.4

But of course the basic causes of decay were economic and military; Venice no longer had the wealth to defend her former power. By contrast her rival, Austria, had grown so strong in manpower that she commanded all land approaches to the lagoons, and fought some of her campaigns on the soil of the neutral but helpless republic.

On March 9, 1789, Lodovico Manin was elected to head the government—the last of the 120 doges who had presided over Venice in an impressive continuity since 697. He was a man of great riches and little character, but poverty and courage would not have prevented his tragedy. Four months later the Bastille fell; the religion of liberty captured the imagination of France; and when the religion came with the legions of Napoleon it swept nearly all Italy under its banner and ecstasy. On the ground that Austrian forces had used Venetian territory, and on the charge that Venice had secretly aided his enemies, the victorious Corsican, backed by eighty thousand troops, imposed upon the Queen of the Adriatic a provisional government dictated by himself (May 12, 1797). On that day Doge Manin, resigning, gave his cap of state to an attendant, and bade him “take it away; we shall not want it again.”5 A few days later he died. On May 16 French troops occupied the city. On October 17 Bonaparte signed at Campoformio a treaty that transferred Venice and nearly all her territorial possessions to Austria in exchange for Austrian concessions to France in Belgium and on the left bank of the Rhine. It was exactly eleven hundred years since the first doge had been elected to rule and defend the lagoons.

Parma was a Spanish protectorate, but its Duke, Don Felipe, son of Philip V and Isabella Farnese, married Louise Elisabeth, daughter of Louis XV; he adopted her expensive habits, and made his court a miniature Versailles. Parma became a center of culture, gaily mingling cosmopolitan ways. “It seemed to me,” said Casanova, “that I was no longer in Italy, for everything had the air of belonging to the other side of the Alps. I heard only French and Spanish spoken by the passers-by.”6 An enlightened minister, Guillaume du Tillot, gave the duchy stimulating reforms. Here were made some of the finest textiles, crystals, and faïence.

Milan now experienced an industrial expansion modestly prefiguring its economic pre-eminence in the Italy of today. Austrian rule gave loose rein to local ability and enterprise. Count Karl Joseph von Firmian, governor of Lombardy, co-operated with native leaders in improving administration, and reduced the oppressive power of feudal barons and municipal oligarchs. A group of economic liberals led by Pietro Verri, Cesare Bonesana di Beccaria, and Giovanni Carli adopted the principles of the physiocrats, abolished taxes on internal trade, ended the farming of taxes, and spread the burden by taxing ecclesiastical property. The textile industry grew till in 1785 it comprised twenty-nine firms, operating 1,384 looms. The land was surveyed, the state financed irrigation projects, the peasants worked with a will. In the twenty-one years between 1749 and 1770 the population of the duchy rose from 90,000 to 130,000.7 It was in this period of Milanese exhilaration that the community built the Teatro alla Scala (1776-78), seating 3,600 spectators amid palatial decorations, and offering facilities for music, conversation, eating, playing cards, and sleeping; and, surmounting all, a reservoir of water designed to extinguish any fire. Here Cimarosa and Cherubini now enjoyed resounding victories.

This was the heroic age of Corsica. That mountainous isle was already surfeited with history. The Phocaeans from Asia Minor had established a colony there toward 560 B.C.; they were conquered by the Etruscans, who were conquered by the Carthaginians, who were conquered by the Romans, who were conquered by the Byzantine Greeks, who were conquered by the Franks, who were conquered by the Moslems, who were conquered by the Tuscan Italians, who were conquered by the Pisans, who were conquered by the Genoese (1347). Two thirds of the population, in that century, died from the Black Plague. Under Genoese rule the Corsicans, harassed by pestilence and piratical raids, barred from major offices and taxed beyond bearing, sank into a semisavagery in which violent vendettas were the only honored law. Periodical revolts failed because of internecine feuds and lack of foreign aid. Genoa, fighting for its own life against Austrian armies, appealed to France for help in maintaining order in Corsica; France responded lest the island be taken by the British as a citadel for control of the Mediterranean; French troops occupied Ajaccio and other Corsican strongholds (1739-48). When peace seemed secure the French withdrew, Genoese domination was resumed, and the historic revolt of Paoli began.

Pasquale di Paoli anticipated by a century the exploits of Garibaldi. Lord Chatham called him “one of those men who are no longer to be found but in the pages of Plutarch.”8 Born (1725) the son of a Corsican rebel, he followed his father into exile, studied in Naples under the liberal economist Genovesi, served in the Neapolitan army, returned to Corsica (1755), and was chosen to lead a rebellion against Genoa. In two years of fighting he succeeded in driving the Genoese from all but some coastal towns. As elected head of the new republic (1757-68) he proved himself as brilliant in legislation and administration as he had shown himself in the strategy and tactics of war. He established a democratic constitution, suppressed the vendetta, abolished the oppressive rights of feudal lords, spread education, and founded a university at Corte, his capital.

Unable to overcome him, Genoa sold the island to France (May 15, 1768) for two million francs. Paoli now found himself fighting against repeatedly reinforced French troops. His secretary and aide at this time was Carlo Buonaparte, to whom a son Napoleone was born at Ajaccio on August 15, 1769. Overwhelmed by the French at Pontenuovo (May, 1769), Paoli abandoned the hopeless struggle and took refuge in England; there he received a government pension, was celebrated by Boswell, and numbered Johnson among his friends. The National Assembly of Revolutionary France recalled him from exile, acclaimed him as “the hero and martyr of liberty,” and made him governor of Corsica (1791). But the French Convention judged him insufficiently Jacobin; it sent a commission to depose him; British troops came to his aid, but the British general took control of the island and sent Paoli back to England (1795). Napoleon dispatched a French force to expel the British (1796); the islanders welcomed the French as coming from “the Corsican”; the British withdrew, and Corsica submitted to France.

Tuscany flourished under the Hapsburg grand dukes who succeeded the Medici (1738). Since its nominal ruler, Francis of Lorraine, resided in Austria as the husband of Maria Theresa, the government was deputed to a regency under native leaders, who rivaled the Milanese liberals in economic reforms; seven years before Turgot’s similar attempt in France, they established free internal trade in grains (1767). When Francis died (1765) he was followed as grand duke by his younger son Leopold, who developed into one of the most enterprising and courageous of the “enlightened despots.” He checked corruption in office, improved the judiciary, the administration, and the finances, equalized taxation, abolished torture, confiscation, and capital punishment, helped the peasantry, drained marshes, ended monopolies, extended free trade and free enterprise, allowed self-government in the communes, and looked forward to setting up a semidemocratic constitution for the duchy. Goethe was impressed by the comparative cleanliness of the Tuscan cities, the good condition of roads and bridges, the beauty and grandeur of the public works.9 Leopold’s brother Joseph, on becoming sole emperor, supported Leopold in abolishing most feudal privileges in Tuscany, in closing many monasteries, and in reducing the power of the clergy.

In ecclesiastical reforms Leopold received powerful co-operation from Scipione de’ Ricci, bishop of Pistoia and Prato. A harsh custom in Tuscany required all dowerless women to take the veil; Ricci joined the Grand Duke in raising the minimum age for taking the vows, and turning many convents into schools for girls. Provision was made for secular education by substituting lay for Jesuit schools. Ricci celebrated Mass in Italian, and discouraged superstitions, much to the displeasure of the populace. When it was rumored that he intended to remove as spurious the famous “girdle of the Virgin” at Prato, the people rioted and sacked the episcopal palace. Ricci nevertheless called a diocesan synod, which met at Pistoia in 1786 and proclaimed principles recalling the “Gallican Articles” of 1682: that the temporal power is independent of the spiritual (i.e., the state is independent of the Church); and that the pope is fallible even in matters of faith.

Leopold lived simply, and was liked for his unassuming manners. But as his reign progressed, and the hostility of the orthodox pressed upon him, he grew suspicious and aloof, and employed a multitude of spies to watch not only his enemies but his aides. Joseph advised him from Vienna: “Let them deceive you sometimes, rather than thus torment yourself constantly and in vain.”10 When Leopold left Florence to succeed Joseph as emperor (1790) the forces of reaction triumphed in Tuscany. Ricci was condemned by Pope Pius VI in 1794, and was imprisoned (1799-1805) until he retracted his heresies. The advent of Napoleonic government (1800) restored the liberals to power.

Goethe hurried through Tuscany to Rome. Hear him, writing on November 1, 1786:

At last I have arrived at this great capital of the world.... I have as good as flown over the mountains of the Tirol. … My anxiety to reach Rome was so great … that to think of stopping anywhere was out of the question. Even in Florence I stayed only three hours. Now, … as it would seem, I shall be put at peace for my whole life; for we may almost say that a new life begins when a man once sees with his own eyes all that previously he has but partially heard or read of. All the dreams of my youth I now behold realized before me.

What a dizzy mixture it was, that eighteenth-century Rome, swarming with beggars and nobles, cardinals and castrati, bishops and prostitutes, monks and tradesmen, Jesuits and Jews, artists and criminals, bravi and saints, and tourists seeking antiquities by day and cortigiane by night. Here, within twelve miles of city walls, were pagan amphitheaters and triumphal arches, Renaissance palaces and fountains, three hundred churches and ten thousand priests, 170,000 people, and, around the Vatican citadel of Catholic Christianity, the most turbulent, lawless, and anticlerical rabble in Christendom. Scurrilous pamphlets against the Church were hawked about the streets; buffoons parodied in public squares the most sacred ceremonies of the Mass. Perhaps Winckelmann, a timid and tender soul, exaggerated a bit:

In the daytime it is pretty quiet in Rome, but at night it is the devil let loose. From the great freedom which prevails here, and from the absence of any sort of police, the brawling, shooting, fireworks, and bonfires in all the streets, last during the whole night. … The populace is untamed, and the governor is weary of banishing and hanging.11

Even more than Paris, Rome was a cosmopolitan city where artists, students, poets, tourists mingled with prelates and princesses in the salons, the galleries, and the theaters. Here Winckelmann and Mengs were proclaiming the revival of the classic style. And here the harassed, beleaguered popes were struggling to mollify the impoverished populace with bread and benedictions, to hold back ambassadors pressing for the abolition of the Jesuits, and to keep the whole complex edifice of Christianity from crumbling under the advance of science and the assaults of philosophy.

But let us go on, with Goethe, to Naples. He thought he had never seen such jote de vivre.

If in Rome one can readily set oneself to study, here one can do nothing but live. You forget yourself and the world; and to me it is a strange feeling to go about with people who think of nothing but enjoying themselves. … Here men know nothing of one another. They scarcely observe that others are also going on their way, side by side with them. They run all day backward and forward in a paradise, without looking about them; and if the neighboring jaws of hell begin to open and to rage, they have recourse to St. Januarius.12

Don Carlos, leaving Naples for Spain in 1759, had bequeathed the kingdom of Naples and Sicily to his eight-year-old son Ferdinand IV, with the Marchese di Tanucci as regent. Tanucci continued that war against the Church which he had begun under Carlos. He suppressed many convents and monasteries, and willingly followed the directive of Charles III of Spain to expel the Jesuits. Shortly after midnight of November 3-4, 1767, soldiers arrested all members of the order in the realm, and escorted them, with no possessions but the clothes they wore, to the nearest port or frontier, whence they were deported to the Papal States.

Ferdinand IV, reaching the age of sixteen (1767), ended Tanucci’s regency. A year later he married Maria Carolina, pious daughter of Maria Theresa. She soon dominated her husband and led a reaction against Tanucci’s anticlerical policies. The Marchese’s reforms had strengthened the Neapolitan monarchy against the feudal barons and the Church, but they had done little to mitigate the poverty that left to the populace no hope but in another life.

Sicily followed a similar curve. The erection of the cathedral of Palermo (1782-1802) was of far more moment to the people than the attempt of Domenico di Caraccioli to tame the feudal lords who controlled the land. He had served many years as Neapolitan ambassador in London and Paris, and had listened to Protestants and philosophers. Appointed viceroy of Sicily (1781), he laid heavy taxes upon the great landowners, reduced their feudal rights over their serfs, and ended their privileges of choosing the local magistrates. But when he dared to imprison a prince who protected bandits, and decreed a reduction of two days in the holidays honoring Palermo’s patron St. Rosalia, all classes rose against him, and he returned to Naples in defeat (1785).13 The philosophers had not yet proved that they understood, better than the Church, the needs and nature of man.

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