My Ten Years' Imprisonment/Introduction
Silvio Pellico was born at Saluzzo, in North Italy, in the year of the fall of the Bastille, 1789. His health as a child was feeble, his temper gentle, and he had the instincts of a poet. Before he was ten years old he had written a tragedy on a theme taken from Macpherson's Ossian. His chief delight as a boy was in acting plays with other children, and he acquired from his father a strong interest in the patriotic movements of the time. He fastened upon French literature during a stay of some years at Lyons with a relation of his mother's. Ugo Foscolo's Sepolcri revived his patriotism, and in 1810, at the age of twenty-one, he returned to Italy. He taught French in the Soldiers' Orphans' School at Milan. At Milan he was admitted to the friendship of Vincenzo Monti, a poet then touching his sixtieth year, and of the younger Ugo Foscolo, by whose writings he had been powerfully stirred, and to whom he became closely bound. Silvio Pellico wrote in classical form a tragedy, Laodicea, and then, following the national or romantic school, for a famous actress of that time, another tragedy, Francesca di Rimini, which was received with great applause.
After the dissolution of the kingdom of Italy, in April 1814, Pellico became tutor to the two children of the Count Porro Lambertenghi, at whose table he met writers of mark, from many countries; Byron (whose Manfred he translated), Madame de Stael, Schlegel, Manzoni, and others. In 1819 Silvio Pellico began publishing Il Conciliatore, a journal purely literary, that was to look through literature to the life that it expresses, and so help towards the better future of his country. But the merciless excisions of inoffensive passages by the Austrian censorship destroyed the journal in a year.
A secret political association had been formed in Italy of men of all ranks who called themselves the Carbonari (charcoal burners), and who sought the reform of government in Italy. In 1814 they had planned a revolution in Naples, but there was no action until 1820. After successful pressure on the King of the two Sicilies, the forces of the Carbonari under General Pepe entered Naples on the ninth of July, 1820, and King Ferdinand I. swore on the 13th of July to observe the constitution which the Carbonari had proclaimed at Nola and elsewhere during the preceding month. On the twenty-fifth of August, the Austrian government decreed death to every member of a secret society, and carcere duro e durissimo, severest pains of imprisonment, to all who had neglected to oppose the progress of Carbonarism. Many seizures were made, and on the 13th of October the gentle editor of the Conciliatore, Silvio Pellico, was arrested as a friend of the Carbonari, and taken to the prison of Santa Margherita in Milan.
In the same month of October, the Emperors of Austria and Russia, and the Prince of Prussia met at Troppau to concert measures for crushing the Carbonari.
In January, 1821, they met Ferdinand I. at Laybach and then took arms against Naples. Naples capitulated on the 20th of March, and on the 24th of March, 1821, its Revolutionary council was closed. A decree of April 10th condemned to death all persons who attended meetings of the Carbonari, and the result was a great accession to the strength of this secret society, which spread its branches over Germany and France.
On the 19th of February, 1821, Silvio Pellico was transferred to imprisonment under the leads, on the isle of San Michele, Venice. There he wrote two plays, and some poems. On the 21st of February, 1822, he and his friend Maroncelli were condemned to death; but, their sentence being commuted to twenty years for Maroncelli, and fifteen years for Pellico, of carcere duro, they entered their underground prisons at Spielberg on the 10th of April, 1822. The government refused to transmit Pellico's tragedies to his family, lest, though harmless in themselves, the acting of them should bring good-will to a state prisoner. At Spielberg he composed a third tragedy, Leoniero da Dordona, though deprived of books, paper, and pens, and preserved it in his memory. In 1828, a rumour of Pellico's death in prison caused great excitement throughout Italy. On the 17th of September, 1830, he was released, by the amnesty of that year, and, avoiding politics thenceforth, devoted himself to religion. The Marchesa Baroli, at Turin, provided for his maintenance, by engaging him as her secretary and librarian. With health made weaker by his sufferings, Silvio Pellico lived on to the age of sixty-five, much honoured by his countrymen. Gioberti dedicated a book to him as "The first of Italian Patriots." He died at Turin on the 1st of February, 1854.
Silvio Pellico's account of his imprisonment, Le Mie Prigioni, was first published in Paris in 1833. It has been translated into many languages, and is the work by which he will retain his place in European literature. His other plays, besides the two first named, were Eufemia di Messina; Iginia di Asti; Leoniero da Dordona, already named as having been thought out at Spielberg; his Gismonda; l'Erodiade; Ester d'Engaddi; Corradino; and a play upon Sir Thomas More. He wrote also poems, Cantiche, of which the best are Eligi e Valfrido and Egilde; and, in his last years, a religious manual on the Duties of Men.