Vittorio Alfieri, of a noble Piedmontese family, was born at Asti in 1749, and educated at Turin. He learnt but little Latin, and read no Italian classic but Ariosto. At the age of 16 he found himself with a considerable fortune, and for many years he led a life of restlessness, and unsatisfied aims; between 1765 and 1777, travelling much over Italy, France, Holland, Germany, England, and Sweden. His early life was a search after excitement, but not degraded or debauched, and was filled with the vague Rousseauism and classical republicanism which then dominated Europe. His first drama was produced at the age of 26, as a mere mental exercise. At the age of 28 he became attached to the Countess of Albany, the unhappy wife of the wretched Prince Charles Edward, the Young Pretender. With her he formed an intimate union which lasted through life, and to her he attributes all that was good or enduring in himself. He championed her cause; before long he lived with her; and perhaps after the Prince's death (in1788) he became her lawful husband, but she never assumed his name.
In the seven years 1777-1782, Alfieri produced fourteen dramas, some of which are still Italian classics, and one or two of which still keep the stage. He laboured seriously long after middle life to improve his education, learned Latin, and at the age of 47 made himself master of Greek. He died in 1803, aged 54, and is buried in Santa Croce in Florence, where the Countess of Albany raised over his remains a sumptuous monument by Canova. Alfieri offers not a few analogies with Byron, whom he preceeded by forty years, in his restless, proud, and self-willed temper, in the circumstances of his life, and in generous social aspiration. As a man, Alfieri has far more dignity and simplicity of nature: as a poet he has far less passion and splendour of imagination. Alfieri, who loved Plutarch and the heroes of antiquity, would admit nothing worthy of tragedy but the heroic, the terrible, and the imposing. He disdained the courtier-like tenderness of Metastasio, and held that the task of tragedy was to cleanse the soul by pity and terror. His dramas are uniformly noble and stately in general conception: but they are devoid of individual character, grace of form, or tragic movement: and, as Alfieri is not Æschylus, his persistent appeal to the terrible and the sublime is often tedious. The style is severe almost to dryness; the plot simple almost to dulness; and the scene often bare to coldness. Antigone, Saul, Myrrha, and Rosmunda are still read and performed.
His own Life of Himself is a fair and striking study. Madame de Staël thus characterises him:-- "His tragedies have the monotony of energy, as those of Metastasio have the monotony of sweetness. Such is the profusion of magnanimity, such the exaggeration of crime in them, that the true character of men is lost. He is a poet accidentally transplanted from antiquity to modern times." Alfieri, though perhaps as a classical poet superior to Metastasio, has none of his tenderness and charm, and had far less influence in his age. Augustus Schlegel has well said:-- "He aimed at being the Cato of the theatre; but he forgot that, though the tragic poet may be a Stoic, tragic poetry must never be stoical. We praise his tragedies rather as the actions of the man than as the works of the poet." Although, like Byron, Alfieri was full of disdain for revolutionary anarchy, he belongs essentially to the new era; and his monumental style and powerful character deeply impressed the generation which succeeded him. More than any other poet, he has helped to raise Italian literature out of the fatal tendency towards morbidezza which has more or less afflicted it ever since the time of Boccaccio.
Purchase books by Vittorio Alfieri