Born at Rome, on the third day of January, 1698, Metastasio was apprenticed to the trade of a goldsmith, educated by a friend of the family, the jurist Gravina, who, appreciating his fine talents, took him into his own household, changing his name from Trapassi to the Greek translation of the same word, Metastasio, as more refined. Gravina also took care to have him instructed in every branch of knowledge likely to facilitate his progress in poetic art, whereby his powers were so thoroughly cultivated that he was enabled to express the finest traits of sentiment and passion with equal grace and facility. But Metastasio especially devoted himself to the style of composition by which he attained celebrity. At the early age of fourteen he wrote a tragedy, entitled Justin, which, though in truth a very indifferent production, does honor to one so young. Thenceforth his attention was turned entirely to opera, and even his tragedy was itself almost in the nature of an opera. The flow of the verse is extremely musical, and airs are introduced into his chorus in the same manner as those inserted, at a later period, in his more finished productions. Gravina afterward accompanied his pupil to Crotona, his native place, that he might further prosecute his studies. Soon after his return to Rome he died, leaving Metastasio a property which made him independent.
For a century and a half Italy had been unable to boast of her literary superiority, but in Metastasio nature seemed to have made ample amends, for none of her writers ever more completely united all the qualities that constitute a poet--vivacity of imagination and refinement of feeling, combined with every charm of versification and expression. Nor shall we easily find one who, by the mere force of his style, was entitled to be considered a more graceful painter or a more delightful musician. Metastasio, however, made no pretensions to the highest order of genius. He did not aim at those lofty and vigorous creations which inspire us by their sublimity. He wished only to be the poet of the opera, and in this he succeeded, confining himself to the path which he had marked out, and in that path surpassing the most distinguished writers of Italy, if not of Europe. He very correctly, appreciated the peculiar character of the theatre to which he devoted his talents, and in a species of composition which had never conferred much reputation on any other author, has produced, perhaps, the most national form of poetry that Italy can boast, certainly the one most deeply impressed upon the memory and feelings of the people.
Metastasio composed no less than eighteen hundred pieces, including twenty-eight grand operas, besides many of a shorter kind, a number of ballets and celebrations of festivalsa species of dialogue intermixed with musical airs and recitative, very frequently enlivened by dramatic action. He borrowed his subjects almost indiscriminately from mythology or history, and brought upon the stage most of the different peoples and different countries belonging to the ancient world. He is also indebted to Ariosta for one of his more romantic pieces, entitled Ruggiero, which must be referred to the middle ages. It is to this very enlarged view of different countries, ages and manners that Metastasio owes all those ornamental features introduced into his lyric scenes, the great variety of his decorations and costumes and even that richness of local imagery in which his poetry abounds. But he has been less successful in delineation of character, interests and passions, for, carried away by his exquisite musical taste, he sacrificed the highest objects of his art to the gratification of this feeling. Music, however well adapted to give expression to the passions, cannot serve to mark different situations, manners and characters, and he who should attempt to use it for such purposes would simply make it appear ridiculous. We should, for instance, feel disgusted at hearing barbarism celebrated in wild and savage strains; or, if in singing of love, it were attempted also to convey an idea of the pride of the Romans or the despotism of the Orientals.
By many of the Italians Metastasio has been ranked as a tragedian, but to this he is not entitled, nor ought he to be held out as a model in any species of composition but that of the opera. His poetry must not be divested for a moment of its musical attractions, nor should it be put into the mouths of tragic actors, as too often has been and is the case in Italy. We feel that the object of real tragedy is to call forth the most powerful emotions by pictures of human fate and wretchedness, and we know that feelings cannot be thus deep and powerful which are not essentially founded on nature and truth. The tragic poet transports us at once into the very place he has chosen, to make us the witness of some terrific action; and here we expect to find places, manners, prejudices and passions, everything in union together and as a consistent whole. We must be made to breathe, as it were, the very atmosphere, glowing with the words and spirit of the heroes, contending with their destiny around us. This was the triumph of the Greek theatre, and this the English and the Germans have also succeeded in effecting. The failure of the French tragedians has been generally attributed to their giving to all the great personages of antiquity the language and sentiments of their own countrymen, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the works of such acknowledged masters as Corneille and Racine. Thus the Horace and Cinna of the former and the Andromaque and Phedre of the latter speak and move in a French atmosphere, and so with Voltaire, whose Brutus and Caesar are still more thoroughly Gallicized.