The National Idea in Italian Literature

The National Idea in Italian Literature  (1921) 
by Edmund Garratt Gardner

Numbers in parentheses are references to Notes section.




Professor of Italian Studies in the University of Manchester.


Commendatore ARTHUR SERENA,
whose munificent gifts have firmly
established Italian Studies in the
Universities of England.

"The National Idea in Italian Literature" was the title of the inaugural lecture delivered in the University of Manchester, on November 6th, 1919, at the opening of the newly-founded department of Italian Studies. In the following pages the lecture has been somewhat expanded and, here and there, modified. It remains, however, substantially the same. I would ask my readers to take it still as no more than a prolusione, and to let this explain, if not excuse, the omission of many names, especially in the nineteenth century, which could not have been passed over in any fuller treatment of the subject.

E. G. G.

July 22nd, 1920



There is a noble poem by Carducci, Per il monumento di Dante a Trento (written in 1896), in which the soul of the Divine Poet soars up after death to the gate of Purgatory, impelled by conscience to seek the expiation of his pride before passing into the bliss of Paradise. A voice from on high tells him that the spiritual world of his vision has passed away, but God has consigned Italy to his charge; he is to watch over her destiny as a guardian spirit through the centuries, until the fulness of the times shall come:—

"Ed or s'è fermo, e par ch'aspetti, a Trento."

The national idea came to Dante as part of that essential continuity between ancient Rome and modern Italy which is the key to Italian civilisation. Virgil himself had defined the national aspirations of Italians throughout the centuries, when he placed upon the lips of Aeneas the pregnant words: Italiam quaero patriam. There was never a time, from the day on which a barbarian conqueror dethroned the last of the old Roman emperors in the west to that on which Victor Emanuel assumed the crown of the united modern kingdom, when Italy—in the notorious phrase of Metternich—was "a mere geographical expression." From the writers of ancient Rome the Italians of the early Middle Ages had inherited the conception of the Italy of classical literature, whose glories and beauties, whose ancient gods and heroes, had been sung by Virgil and Horace—the Italy which, through the Roman Empire, had given the Latin civilisation to the nations whom she united in the Roman Peace. The continuity of the Latin tradition in Italy, kept alive by the grammarians and rhetoricians, by the study of the classics and of Roman law, preserved this conception of an ideal Italian unity after the political unity had been torn to pieces as the result of the Langobard conquest.

We find Italia in this sense in the letters of Gregory the Great at the very beginning of the Middle Ages, when the political dissolution of the peninsula had but just begun. An anonymous writer of Ravenna, at the end of the seventh century, speaks of that patria nobilissima quae dicitur Italia. There was a notably strong sense of Latin continuity in the eleventh and twelfth centuries; the new, vigorous, many-sided life and activity of the communes was, in part, a conscious renovation in the Italian cities of the spirit of ancient Rome. Thus, the anonymous poet, who celebrates the victory of the Pisans over the Saracens on the African coast in 1088, begins by uniting this new glory of Pisa with the deeds of the Romans of old:—

"Inclytorum Pisanorum scripturus historiam, antiquorum Romanorum renovo memoriam; nam extendit modo Pisa laudem admirabilem, quam olim recepit Roma vincendo Carthaginem."

And he calls upon not only Pisa, but all Italy, to weep for the fallen hero, Ugo Visconti. A few years later (about 1114), the author of the Liber Maiolichinus—the poem on the conquest of the Balearic Islands from the Saracens—conceives of the enterprise as a national one in which the Commune of Pisa is, as it were, the representative of the Italian nation. The poem begins with Pisa, "Pisani populi vires et bellica facta," and ends with the name of Italy 1).

This—somewhat vague—sense of Italian nationality becomes, for a moment, more explicit in the latter part of the twelfth century, during the heroic contest carried on by the Lombard League against the mightiest of mediaeval German Caesars, Frederick Barbarossa. There is sufficient evidence that, above and beyond their respective cities or communes, these Italian burghers recognised—however dimly—the conception of a common Italian native land. A contemporary chronicler, Romoaldus of Salerno, tells us that, when the representatives of the Lombard communes met Pope Alexander III at Ferrara in 1177 (the year after their great victory at Legnano), they claimed to speak in the name of all Italy, universa Italia, and to have fought pro honore et libertate Italiae. They will receive peace from the Emperor gladly, but only salvo Italiae honore: "We freely grant him what Italy owes him of old, and deny him not his ancient jurisdiction; but our liberty, which we have received by hereditary right from our forebears, we will never abandon, save with life itself; for we would rather meet a glorious death with liberty than preserve a wretched life in servitude" 2). The fruits of the victory of Legnano and the peace of Constance were already being lost in the fratricidal conflicts of the Italian cities, when a national consciousness appears vividly in the writings of the grammarian and rhetorician, Buoncompagno da Signa. Thus, we find him writing in 1201: "I do not believe that Italy can be made tributary to any one, unless it come to pass from the malice and envy of Italians; for it is set down in the laws, that Italy is not a province, but the mistress of provinces"—domina provinciarum, the phrase which we meet again (donna di provincie) in the Purgatorio 3).

But it was Dante who first wedded an Italian national idea to the glorious modern vernacular which is the immediate continuation and development of the language of ancient Rome. It is to Dante, as Casini acutely observed, that we owe the discovery, so significant for our own times, that "language is the character and symbol of nationality." In the De Vulgari Eloquentia, he seeks the ideal Italian language, as the character and symbol of the Italian nation, and declares that, although their court in the body is scattered, the Italians "have been united by the gracious light of reason." A keen sense of Italian citizenship is revealed in the first of his political utterances after his exile: the Latin letter where he addresses "the kings of Italy all and several, the senators of her holy city, her dukes, marquesses, counts, and peoples," and subscribes himself "the humble Italian, Dante Alighieri, the Florentine." The respective rulers and peoples are admonished as members of one body; the writer's Italian nationality comes before his Florentine origin; the tidings of joy and hope are announced to Italy as a whole.

In the De Vulgari Eloquentia and in the Divina Commedia alike, Dante conceives of Italy as a cultural and geographical unity, from the extreme barriers of the Alps to furthest Sicily—the Alps alone being the northern boundary between the Italian and the German peoples. The cities of Istria are no less Italian than those of Lombardy and Tuscany; the eastern boundaries of Italy are indicated by the Quarnaro Gulf:—

"che Italia chiude e suoi termini bagna."[1]

It is true that, in the Divina Commedia, we do not find any indication of a political unification of Italy by the fusion of the several states. And we cannot deny that the good tidings, which Dante announced in the letter to the princes and peoples, was the advent of a German prince, Henry of Luxemburg, to restore the power of the Empire. But the Emperor, in Dante's theory, has two closely associated missions to perform: one universal and international, the other national and Italian. The Veltro, the symbol of the ideal Emperor in the first canto of the Inferno, is not only to slay the lupa of avarice, but to be the salvation of Italy:—

"di quell'umile Italia fia salute."

The position of the Emperor with respect to Italy is clearly stated in the letter to the princes and peoples: "Awake, then, all ye dwellers in Italy, and arise before your king, ye who are reserved not only for his empire, but, as free men, for his rule." Like the other nations, Italy is included in the Empire, but she has the special privilege of having the Emperor himself as her king. There are no indications that Dante anticipated a fusion of the different states; but the realisation of such an Italian kingdom would obviously imply a certain form of political unity and the end of the temporal power of the Church. In any case, the Emperor elect must drizzare Italia, he must inforcar li suoi arcioni, before he can fulfil his imperial mission of universal peace and liberation.

The nationality of this imperial deliverer from strife and anarchy was, in scholastic phrase, accidental; for Rome alone could confirm and give its sanctity to the choice of the Electors, and the tradition that he represented would be Latin. And, further, when we examine the De Monarchia, we find that Dante's "imperialism" is merely the outward form of his conception, He looks to the goal of civilisation, the function proper to humanity as a whole; and he finds it to be the actualising, the bringing into play, of all the potentialities of the human mind for thought and for action. For this to be realised, the first requisite is universal peace, and the second is freedom, "the greatest gift bestowed by God on human nature." In its ultimate analysis, the Empire meant for Dante the unity of civilisation: a unity of civilisation, originally Italian because the continuation of that Latin civilisation which Rome and Italy had of old given to the world, but now diversified in accordance with the diverse needs of the new nations of Europe. It meant the realisation of the principles of justice embodied in Roman law, with full liberty to the individual nations and states to regulate themselves by their own particular laws and customs, according to the special conditions of each. There is a striking sentence in the letter to the Florentines, where Dante rebukes his fellow-citizens because they are striving "that the civic life of Florence may be one thing, that of Rome another." In this Romana civilitas—this civic life in the Empire under Roman law—he sees all the nations included. But, among these nations, Italy has high prerogatives of her own; she has been donna di provincie; she is still "the garden of the Empire," "the noblest region of Europe." There is no opposition between Dante's nationalism and his imperialism, for his imperialism is itself essentially Italian. Rome is not only the seat of the Papacy and the capital of the Empire, but it is an Italian city, the centre and rallying point of the Italian people. In the letter to the Italian cardinals, Dante speaks of Rome as Latiale caput: "The head of Latium must be reverently loved by all Italians, as the common source of their civic life." The phrase, Latiale caput, is from Lucan; but, for Dante, it means "the capital of Italy." In the Convivio and the De Monarchia, Dante insists that the Empire is necessary for the well-being of the world, primarily in order to set a check upon illegitimate national aspirations and the greed of kingdoms for increase of territory, and to provide a supreme court of arbitration. In its essence, the world regime of his imagination was a Europe in which the individual characteristics and rights of races, nations, and states would be preserved and developed in the freedom and peace required for the realisation of the goal of civilisation: freedom and peace secured by an Empire which, translated into modern language, becomes a supreme international tribunal of arbitration, armed with authority to compel the quarrels of princes and peoples to be submitted to it, and with power to enforce its impartial decisions for the temporal welfare of humanity. The traditions of such a tribunal, in Dante's eyes, would be Italian, its centre of necessity—by divine predestination, as he would deem—Rome. Thus it was the leading part of Italy in a restored European unity of civilisation in peace and freedom to which Dante's thoughts were directed, rather than towards her political unity as a nation; but he indicated that unity as part of her heritage in the sacred name of Rome, and—though perhaps more dimly—foreshadowed the ideal to which we are now looking as the League of Nations 4).


We pass into another atmosphere with Petrarca. It has been said: "The italianità of Petrarca is one of his finest and most salient characteristics; that italianità still somewhat mediaeval, still somewhat too enamoured of ancient Rome, but which already presents and foretells modern Italy" (1). "From my boyhood," he writes, "I have been inflamed—beyond all my contemporaries whom I have known—with a love of the name of Italy" He exalts her beauty above that of all other lands, declaring that she lacks nothing—save only peace. And that peace is constantly upon his lips.

"I'vo gridando: Pace, pace, pace";

is the close of the great canzone, Italia mia; in which, as prelude to this peace, he confidently asserts that Italian arms can still achieve the destiny of the nation:—

"Vertú contra furore
prenderà l'arme; e fia'l combatter corto;
ché l'antiquo valore
ne l'italici cor non è ancor morto."

When war breaks out between Venice and Genoa, he bids the contending states remember that they are both Italian, exhorting them to shrink from their fratricidal conflict and turn their arms against the foreigner. "If there is any reverence left for the Latin name," he writes to the Doge of Venice, "remember that those whose ruin you are preparing are your brothers." In the most famous of his lyrics, Spirto gentil che quelle membra reggi, the address to the new ruler of Rome (whether Cola di Rienzo or another), the man of destiny on the Capitol must restore Rome to her ancient way as a prelude to the regeneration of Italy, for Italy herself is not yet aroused:—

"Ma non senza destino a le tue braccia,
  che scuoter forte e sollevar la ponno,
  è or commesso il nostro capo Roma
  Pon man in quella venerabil chioma
  securamente e ne le trecce sparte,
  sí che la neghittosa esca del fango."

But the poet has no settled convictions as to how this peace of the nation in the fulfilment of her destinies is to be accomplished. Somewhat alien from the world of reality, Petrarca dreamed constantly of the restoration of the sovereignty of the Roman People. He set his hopes now upon the Angevin monarchy of Robert of Naples, now upon the new Roman Republic of Cola di Rienzo, now in the Holy Roman Empire as represented by Charles of Luxemburg, now in the "papa angelico" of the religious ideal—whose features, disgusted as he was with the corruption of preceding popes and their neglect of Italy, he seemed for a moment to discern in Urban V (2).

The second half of the thirteenth century offers a notable series of political lyrics. Fazio degli Uberti, an exiled Florentine and great-grandson of that Farinata whom Dante saw rising indomitable from his fiery tomb in the Inferno, composed—probably in 1368—a striking canzone (Di quel possi tu ber che bevve Crasso), in which he brings the Italian nation herself upon the scene to rebuke the degenerate Caesar, Charles of Luxemburg:—

"Sappi ch'i'son Italia che ti parlo."

Cursing the crowns of Aix, Milan, and Rome, he declares that Italy will accept no more greedy adventurers from Germany, but calls upon God to take from their hands the "sacro segno," the imperial eagle, which they have dishonoured, "and give it back, thus defaced, again to my Italians and to the Romans." (3).

A more definite national idea, even an anticipation of the political unity of Italy, appears in other poets. It is found most explicitly in the famous "Canzone di Roma" (Quella virtú che'l terzo cielo infonde), formerly attributed to Fazio, but now recognised to be by Bindo di Cione, a Sienese. The poet prays Love to give him grace to recite in defence of Italy what he has heard in vision from a white-haired lady, who told him that she was Rome. She has appeared to him, stately in aspect, but in mourning attire, poor and in need, surrounded by the ghosts of the heroes of antiquity. To restore her to her throne, to secure peace and stamp out tyranny, there is only one way:—

"Se Italia soggiace
  a un solo re."

Let Italians accept one sole king, who shall found a line of hereditary sovereigns; thus will Italy, "questa ch'è donna dell' altre province," ascend to new greatness:—

"Canzon mia, cerca il talïan giardino
  chiuso da' monti e dal suo proprio mare,
  e piú là non passare."

In this poem, composed in 1355, the writer does not seem to have any definite Italian prince in his mind, and the conception is still in part that of mediaeval imperialism, inasmuch as this national king is to receive investiture from the Emperor. Towards the end of the century, a bevy of poets hailed the coming redeemer of Italy in the first Duke of Milan, Gian Galeazzo Visconti. A Paduan poet, Francesco di Vannozzo, composed, in 1388, a cantilena of eight sonnets, in which first Italy herself and then her cities in turn offer homage to the Lombard ruler, saluting him as the national Messiah, the chorus closing with the voice of Rome. A few years later, Simone Serdini, a Sienese, addressed the Duke with a canzone, exhorting him, "per parte d'ogni vero italiano," to take the crown of all Italy (4).

But the time was not ripe for the fulfilment of such designs. The need for political unification was less felt in the following century, the Quattrocento, when the balance of power between the five greater states, through the diplomacy of the Medici, had almost converted Italy into a federation, and at least gave the peninsula the appearance of independence. The classical revival confirmed and strengthened a sense of spiritual unity based on the sentiment of the romanità of Italy. And men prided themselves on working for Italy. Francesco Barbaro, defending Brescia for the Venetians, speaks constantly of the liberty of Italy, declaring that he has striven to fulfil his duty patriae sed potius Italiae. Pius II exclaims in his Commentaries: "I will help thee, Italy, to the utmost of my power, that thou mayst not endure any masters." Giovanni Pontano, the great Latin poet who was chief minister of the Aragonese kings of Naples, foretells that Italy will in future ages be united under one single government and resume the majesty of the Empire, and claims everlasting fame after death, not merely as a poet, but as the statesman who for years had sought the peace and tranquillity of Italy (5).

More particularly, as the fatal year 1494 approached, when Lodovico Sforza was preparing to ally with the French against king Ferrante of Naples, and men saw that disaster could not long be averted, the name of Italy—with impassioned intonation—is on the lips of poets and statesmen alike. Selfish as the foreign policy of the Italian states usually was, the cynical reply of Lodovico Sforza to the Florentine ambassador is nevertheless an eloquent testimony to the reality of this national feeling: "But you keep talking to me of this Italy, and I never saw her in the face" (Ma voi mi parlate pure di questa Italia, et io non la vidi mai in viso). In the dispatches which Pontano wrote for the old king Ferrante, in his despairing efforts to avert the national calamity, such phrases as la pace italica, lo comune reposo d'Italia, Italia unita, fall constantly from his pen. And, when Ferrante dies, this is Pontano's advice to the new king, Alfonso, if he wishes to save his throne. Let him say in the hearing of all the nation: "I have taken up arms not for myself alone, but for the reputation of Italy, that she may be in the hand and rule of Italians, not of foreigners." The lyrical counterpart of Pontano's letters is the virile canzone of another southern poet, his friend and colleague, Chariteo; the vanguard of the invaders had already crossed the Alps, when he exhorted the Italian states to lay aside private ambitions, and combine in the face of the common foe:—

"Quale odio, qual furor, qual ira immane,
  quai pianete maligni
  han vostre voglie, unite, hor sí divise?
  Qual crudeltà vi move, O spiriti insigni,
  O anime Italiane,
  a dare il Latin sangue a genti invise?"

It was with the name of Italy, in the last stanza of the Orlando Innamorato, that Boiardo, sick to death, drops his pen, too full of apprehension for his native land to continue his story:—

"Mentre che io canto, o Iddio redentore,
  vedo l'Italia tutta a fiamma e a foco,
  per questi Galli, che con gran valore
  vengon per disertar non so che loco." (6)


The independence of the Quattrocento had been extinguished, and Italy was the battle ground of the contending armies of her conquerors (though the contest was still undecided between France and Spain), when Machiavelli, in 1513, wrote the Principe. He is, as it were, crystallizing his observation of the political life of his own time, and his study of ancient history, into the conception of such a prince as he deemed called for by the exceptional conditions of Italy. It closes with that chapter of impassioned eloquence in which the writer appeals to his new prince, backed by a national army, to come forward as the redeemer of Italy from the dominion of the foreigner:—

"If it was necessary, in order to behold the virtue of Moses, that the people of Israel should be slaves in Egypt, and to recognise the greatness of the mind of Cyrus that the Persians should be oppressed by the Medes, and the excellence of Theseus that the Athenians should be scattered; so, at the present time, in order to know the virtue of an Italian spirit, it was necessary that Italy should be reduced to that condition in which she now is, and that she should be more enslaved than the Hebrews, more down-trodden than the Persians, more scattered than the Athenians; without a head, without order, beaten, despoiled, torn, overrun, the victim of every kind of ruin … Left without life, she waits to see who it is that shall heal her wounds … We see how she prays God to send her some one to redeem her from these barbarian cruelties and insolence. We see her all ready and disposed to follow a banner, if there be the man to raise it … Then let not this occasion pass, in order that Italy, after so long a time, may see one who shall be her redeemer. Nor could I express with what love he would be received in all those provinces which have suffered from these foreign inundations; with what thirst for vengeance, with what steadfast faith, with what devotion, with what tears. What gates would be barred against him? What people would refuse him obedience? What envy would oppose him? What Italian would deny him homage? This barbarian domination is repugnant to all."

The figure of the redeemer of Italy again comes before us, in Machiavelli's later work, the Arte della Guerra,—and now the prophecy is more explicit. Machiavelli is showing, from the examples of the past and present, how a national army should be raised, equipped, and handled in the field. A prince, of a character totally different from that of those who held sway in the land before the disasters ushered in by the French invasion of 1494, is needed for the purpose:—

"I declare to you that, whichever of those who now hold states in Italy shall first enter upon this road, he will—before any other—become ruler of this country; and it will befall his state as befell the kingdom of the Macedonians, which, coming under Philip, who had learned the method of training armies from Epaminondas the Theban, became so powerful by this training and discipline, that, in a few years, Philip was able to occupy the whole of Greece." (1)

No such clear vision is found in the other political writers of the Cinquecento. If we turn to the poets, Ariosto reveals a certain sense of nationality, in his impassioned denunciation of all Italy's invaders, Frenchman and Spaniard, Swiss and German alike, and vaguely anticipates a time when Italians will have the power to repay them in kind. He gives the answer to Boiardo's dying cry of dismay, in his pictured pageant of the French invasions of Italy and their results:—

"Poco guadagno et infinito danno
riporteran d'Italia; ché non lice
che'l Giglio in quel terreno habbia radice."

But Ariosto's Italian feelings are inevitably coloured by the politics of his sovereign, the Duke of Ferrara, and he finally acclaims the saviour of society in the Emperor Charles V. In general the poets of the Cinquecento, however inconsistent their actual politics may be, bear eloquent witness to the patriotic aspirations that all the mighty armies of Europe could not quench, to the conviction that Italy, in virtue of the Roman idea and the Latin tradition, represented something imperishable, something immeasurably beyond the power of her conquerors to touch or comprehend. Thus, Francesco Maria Molza, in his sonnets on the sack of Rome, taunts the uncouth barbarian with the mighty life of the Romans in the tongue that scorns age and time, and warns him that the noble Latin blood cannot remain long under the vile yoke of Germany and Spain:—

"Vivrà, barbaro stolto, la grandezza
del gran popol di Marte in quella pura
voce, che poco di tua man si cura,
e la vecchiezza e 'l tempo insieme sprezza."
"Non potrà molto il latin sangue adorno
sotto giogo sí vil rimaner preso,
lo qual piú volte alteramente ha scosso."

In a celebrated series of sonnets, Giovanni Guidiccioni exhorts Italy to be true to her former self, urging her, by her memories of old, to recover her lost liberty from those who once adorned her triumphs, closing with an inspired picture of the return of peace and freedom to the land (2). Nor are such ideas confined to the polished lyrics of the Petrarchists, who may be regarded as merely following in the steps of Petrarca himself. We find them expressed, with uncouth vigour, by the greatest realist among the Italian poets of the Cinquecento: Teofilo Folengo (Merlino Coccaio). What his latest editor, Alessandro Luzio, well calls the "magnanimo orgoglio di italianità," appears alike in the hexameters of his maccheronic epic, Baldus, and the unpolished octaves of his Italian poem, Orlandino:—

"Italia bella, Italia, fior del mondo,
è patria nostra in monte ed in campagna,
Italia forte arnese che, secondo
si legge, ha spesso visto le calcagna
de l'inimici, quando a tondo a tondo
ebbe talor tedeschi, Franza e Spagna;
ché se non fusser le gran parti in quella,
dominarebbe il mondo, Italia bella."

And he can utter his thought with a coarseness of invective unknown to the Petrarchists, when he invokes a horrible curse upon every Italian, rich or poor, who desires the presence of the foreigner within his land (3).


Now in the period that followed the Renaissance and preceded the French Revolution—the period in which Italy first lay under the dominion of Spain, then became again the battlefield of Europe, and finally in great part a political dependency of Austria—there were two states that preserved the Italian independence and remained the depositaries of Italian nationality: the Republic of Venice and the Duchy of Savoy. Bernardo Tasso wrote of Venice:—

"Is she not the ornament and splendour of Italian dignity? Does she not represent an image of the authority and greatness of the Roman republic? In this dark and tempestuous age, what other light or splendour remains to hapless Italy? Are we not all servants, all tributaries, I will not say of barbarian, but of foreign nations? of those, I say, whom the noble Italians of old led captive in their triumphs? She alone has preserved her ancient liberty; she alone renders obedience to none save God and her own well-ordered laws" (1).

The part of Venice, in the shaping of the national destiny, was to maintain the glory of the Italian name and preserve the Latin civilisation on the eastern shore of the Adriatic, bequeathing her rights and tradition to the Italy of to-day; the part of Savoy was the ultimate fulfilment of Machiavelli's prophecy. There is a noble canzone by Marino, composed in the early years of the seventeenth century, in which Italy appeals to Venice, urging an alliance between the Lady of the Sea and the Unicorn of the Alps, for the deliverance of the nation from the power of Spain (2). Traiano Boccalini, writing in the shelter of "la serenissima libertà veneziana," prophesies that the universal monarchy, which Spain is vainly seeking, will return again "alla nobilissima nazione italiana," and styles the Duke of Savoy, Charles Emanuel I., "il primo guerriero italiano." This phase of Italian political thought, looking to the House of Savoy for deliverance though hardly yet for unification, is represented in the famous poem addressed to Charles Emanuel by Fulvio Testi in 1614:—

"Carlo, quel generoso invitto core,
     da cui spera soccorso Italia oppressa,
     a che bada? a che tarda? a che piú cessa?
     nostre perdite son le tue dimore.


"Chi fia, se tu non se', che rompa il laccio
     onde tant' anni avvinta Esperia giace?
     posta ne la tua spada è la sua pace,
     e la sua libertà sta nel tuo braccio." (3)

More than a century later, in 1739 (by which time the Dukes of Savoy had attained the title of Kings of Sardinia), we find a southern Italian, Pietro Giannone, writing that the "antico valor d'Italia" is preserved alone in the Italian peoples who form the dominions of the princes of Savoy, and calling upon the other Italian rulers to follow their example, and restore in their subjects the ancient military discipline, whereby "they will see Italy delivered from servitude and brought back to her former glory" (4). But not even Giannone has yet the conception of the unification of the peninsula and its islands under the sceptre of the King of Sardinia.

I do not quote the famous sonnets of Vincenzo da Filicaia on Italy. The typically Italian spirit at any epoch reveals itself, I think, not in melancholy sentiment concentrated on Italy's "dono infelice di bellezza," but in sheer virility of thought and utterance—that virilità that Santa Caterina so prized even in the mystical life. And this national virilità is personified in the poet who arose during the period immediately preceding the French Revolution, the period of literary and intellectual renovation which heralded the Risorgimento. This poet, in whose person Piedmont became identified with Italy, was Vittorio Alfieri.

At the end of one of his works in prose, Del Principe e delle lettere, completed in 1786, Alfieri speculates upon the form in which the destiny of Italy will be accomplished. Italy, he thinks, will soon be reunited under two princes (evidently the kings of Sardinia and Naples), and these two kingdoms will afterwards, either by marriage or conquest, be reduced to one. At this stage in Alfieri's political creed, king and tyrant were synonymous. So he continues that this one remaining sovereign will proceed to abuse his excessive power, and will in consequence be abolished by the Italians, "who by then, being all united and illumined, will have learned to act together and to consider themselves one single people." The form of government, then to be introduced, he declares elsewhere to be a question which must be solved by the best Italians living at the time of this liberation. But Alfieri's gift to the nation was not his political reflections, but his poetry. The passion for liberty and hatred of oppression, with the belief in the power of literature as an instrument for national and social regeneration, is the animating spirit of his tragedies. For him the drama, as he says in one of his letters, should be a school in which "men may learn to be free, strong, generous, impelled by true virtue, intolerant of all violence, lovers of their native land, fully conscious of their own rights, and in all their passions ardent, upright, magnanimous." The aim of the poet in his dramas was the creation of characters of rigid strength and inflexible wills, to inspire and form men and women of virile temper for the popolo italiano futuro, "the generous and free Italians of the future,"—to whom he dedicated his latest tragedy, the Bruto secondo, in 1789, the year that marks the beginning of the French Revolution (5).


Eight years after Alfieri's dedication, that popolo italiano futuro saw what was destined to become the symbol of Italy's national aspirations. In January, 1797, during the republican movement that accompanied the invasion of Italy by the French revolutionary armies, the future banner of the nation—the tricolour of red, white, and green, the mystical hues of love and faith and hope—was raised for the first time at Reggio Emilia (1).

In spite of the devastations of the French armies and the prepotency of the conqueror (himself of Italian name and Italian blood), to whom, in common with a great part of Europe, Italy was made subject, the revolutionary and Napoleonic era stimulated the national consciousness of Italians, turning their thoughts—though as yet but vaguely—towards an ultimate renovation and unification. "Potremo sperare di risorgere fra non molto," the poet Giovanni Fantoni had written in 1796 (2). In an ode. La Repubblica Cisalpina (written at the end of 1797), Giovanni Pindemonte salutes the national banner, uttering the hope that the new republic may liberate all the other Italian states, reign "sul bel paese intero," and change its name from "Cisalpina" to "Italica." He is addressing Milan:—

"Oggi in te la Repubblica nascente
     fonda suo centro e di sua possa il nido;
     e finor troppo ignoto Italia sente
     uscir da te di libertade il grido.
"Il Mincio istesso nel cui forte aiuto
     il Teutone oppressor vivea tranquillo,

     su le torri ondeggiar vede il temuto
      tricolorato libero vessillo." (3)

Vincenzo Monti, in his tragedy Caio Gracco (finished in exile at Paris in 1800), makes his hero appeal to the Romans in the name of "l'italiana libertà," and receive as answer from the assembled citizens:—

      "Itali siam tutti, un popol solo,
una sola famiglia."
tutti, e fratelli."

Ugo Foscolo, in the days of Napoleon's power, had fearlessly admonished him in the name of Italy. On the return of the Austrians to Milan, in 1815, he chose to leave his native land rather than swear allegiance, "Cosí Ugo Foscolo diede alla nuova Italia una nuova istituzione, l'esilio" (4). In that same spring, almost exactly a century before Italy drew her sword in the great European war, came the proclamation of Rimini—Murat's abortive call to the Italians from the Alps to Sicily to assert their independence. A poet, then thirty years old, destined in old age to become a citizen of the Rome of United Italy, Alessandro Manzoni, hailed the proclamation in a noble canzone, cut short by the failure of the enterprise:—

"Liberi non sarem se non siamo uni."

It is the first lyric of the Risorgimento (5).


It was in the middle of the epoch of Italy's political martyrdom that followed the Congress of Vienna—the epoch at the beginning of which we hear Leopardi's lyrical cry of despair—that the luminous vision of the Third Italy formed itself in the mind of the man who was at once the apostle of the unity of Italy and the prophet of universal brotherhood among the nations: Giuseppe Mazzini.

"Da quelli scogli, onde Colombo infante
  Nuovi pe'l mar vedea monti spuntare,
  Egli vide nel ciel crepuscolare
  Co'l cuor di Gracco ed il pensier di Dante

"La terza Italia; e con le luci fise
  A lei trasse per mezzo un cimitero,
  E un popol morto dietro a lui si mise" (1).

In 1831, Mazzini opened his Giovine Italia propaganda, declaring that Italy must be founded on the three inseparable bases of Unity, Liberty, and Independence, associating the future of Italy with international social regeneration, giving a mystical colouring to the national movement as the cause of God and the People. The note of self-sacrifice, in the cause of a nation and thence for that of all humanity, was Mazzini's great gift to the Italian spirit of the Risorgimento. "Man has no rights from nature, save this alone: to emancipate himself from every obstacle that impedes the free fulfilment of his own duties." Life is a mission. Virtue is sacrifice. "Where shall we go, O Lord? Go to die, ye who have to die; go to suffer, ye who have to suffer" (2). In this spirit he sent men forth on forlorn hopes to die for Italy, on the scaffold as conspirators or in hopeless struggles against overwhelming numbers; in this spirit he prepared the way for the national uprising of 1848, when, as George Meredith writes: "Italy reddened the sky with the banners of a land revived." It was then that one of his disciples, the young poet Goffredo Mameli, who fell "tra un inno e una battaglia" under Garibaldi in the defence of Rome, wrote the battle-hymn of the Risorgimento, the hymn that was sung again, in the early days of the European war, by the soldiers of United Italy on their way to the front:—

"Fratelli d'Italia,
  l'Italia s'è desta,
  dell'elmo di Scipio
  s'è cinta la testa;
  dov'è la Vittoria?
  Le porga la chioma,
  ché schiava di Roma
  Iddio la creò." (3).

Mazzini wrote of Dante: "L'Italia cerca in lui il segreto della sua Nazionalità; l'Europa, il segreto dell' Italia e una profezia del pensiero moderno." And it is in Dante, so to speak, that Mazzini finds the starting point of his own political creed. He is with Dante in associating the national aspirations of Italy with a philosophical theory of the function of nationality in human civilisation. Like Dante, he looked for a restored unity of civilisation, and assigned to Italy a leading part therein. But there is this difference. Dante started from the conception of this greater unity, merely leaving place for the free development of nationality within it; Mazzini held that the unity of civilisation could only be attained by first solving the question of nationalities: "Without the recognition of nationalities, freely and spontaneously constituted, we shall never have the United States of Europe," On the map of Europe, "you can see the design of God clearly marked by the courses of the great rivers, the curves of the great mountains, and other geographical conditions." These natural national boundaries have been violated by treaties inaugurated by conquest, by artificial politics, by the will of dynasties. In the name of nationality, these violations must be ended, "in accordance with the tendencies and the vocations of the peoples, and with their free consent." The instinct of nationality thus satisfied, he looked forward to a universal federation of unified and republican nations, "uno spirito d'affratellamento e di pacifica emulazione sulle vie del progresso." And from Rome alone can come la parola della unità moderna. The destinies of Italy are those of the world. The Italian people will be the Messiah people to initiate this new epoch of the human race. Rome is called upon to spread for a third time among the nations a gospel of civilisation, a gospel of moral unity: "From the Rome of the People will issue the unity of civilisation, accepted by the free consent of the nations, for Humanity" (4).

We find some of Mazzini's noblest passages on the national idea of Italy and her international mission, infused with that political mysticism which at times resembles the national Messianism of the poets of Poland, in the little book. Ai giovani d'Italia, published in 1860. It is there that he declares that Nationality is the sign placed by God on the brow of every people; it is the sign of its special mission, which must be developed in harmony with the special missions of the other peoples, and the union of all these missions, when fulfilled, will one day represent la patria di tutti, la patria delle patrie, l'Umanità; "and only then will the word foreigner pass from the speech of men." But the individual can do nothing to actualise this conception, save in union with those who share his nationality.

"When God created Italy, He smiled upon her, and gave her as boundaries the two most sublime things that He placed in Europe, symbols of Eternal Power and of Eternal Motion, the Alps and the Sea. From the immense circle of the Alps descends a wonderful chain of continuous ranges that reaches to where the sea bathes her, and even beyond into severed Sicily. And, where the mountains do not gird her, the sea girds her as with a loving embrace; that sea which our forefathers called mare nostro. Scattered around her in that sea, like gems fallen from her diadem, are Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, and other lesser islands, where the nature of the soil and the structure of the mountains and the language and the hearts of men, all speak of Italy. Within those boundaries all the nations passed, one after the other, as conquerors and savage persecutors; but they have not been able to extinguish the holy name of Italy, nor the innermost energy of the race that first peopled her; the Italic element, more powerful than all, has worn out the religions, the speech, the tendencies of the conquerors, and superimposed upon them the imprint of Italian Life."

A little further on is the picture of Rome: Rome of the Caesars, Rome of the Popes, Rome of the People to take the place of both, to unite all the world in the faith of Thought and of Action: È la trinità della storia, il cui verbo è in Roma. The pact of the new Faith will shine one day upon the nations from the Pantheon of Humanity.

"In the meantime Rome is your metropolis. You cannot have a native land save in her and with her. Without Rome, there is no Italy possible. There is the sanctuary of the nation. Even as the Crusaders moved to the cry of Gerusalemme, you must advance to the cry of Roma, nor have peace or truce, until the banner of Italy floats in the pride of victory from each of the seven hills."

"I tell you that, as when the pagan gods died and Christ was born, so Europe to-day is athirst for a new life and a new heaven and a new earth; and she will follow, as on a holy crusade, the steps of the first people from whom, supported by strong deeds, a voice will come forth to proclaim adoration of the Eternal Truth and Eternal Justice, and to anathematise the power that oppresses and the lie that debases life. Be yours that voice and that living example. You can do it. And Europe will crown your native land with a crown of love, upon which God will write: Woe to him who touches it" (5).

The opening and closing sentences of his Politica internazionale (published in 1871) may be regarded, as it were, as Mazzini's political testament. "The moral law is the criterion by which must be judged the worth of the social and political acts that constitute the life of nations." "Great ideas make great peoples. And ideas are not great for peoples save inasmuch as they pass beyond their own boundaries. A people is only great on the condition of fulfilling a great and holy mission in the world, even as the importance and worth of an individual are measured by what he accomplishes on behalf of the society in which he lives. Internal organisation represents the sum of the means and forces gathered for the fulfilment of the appointed external work. As circulation and exchange give value to production and reinvigorate it, international life gives worth and motion to the internal life of a people. National life is the means; international life is the end. The first is the work of man; the second is prescribed and pointed out by God. The prosperity, the glory, the future of a nation are in proportion to its approach to the end thus assigned" (6).

As a political idealist, a man whose lips too were touched with the prophetic fire, we associate with the name of Mazzini that of his rival, Vincenzo Gioberti. In 1843, Gioberti published his famous book, Il primato morale e civile degli Italiani. The conception, from which the work takes its title, is similar to that of Mazzini's third Rome: Italy, by her history and by her nature, is the nazione madre del genere umano, destined by Providence to exercise a primato morale e civile, to guide the other nations on the road of civilisation, to initiate a new epoch for the peoples. But—apart from the fact that (at that stage in his thought) the one looked to an Italian confederation, the other to a revolutionary unification—Mazzini and Gioberti differed in the form of their vision. Mazzini saw Italy the initiator of a republican Europe, the leader and inspiration of all nationalities struggling for liberty and self-determination; Gioberti saw the future Italy as a great democratic power in our modern sense of the word, with the part pertaining to her in the counsels of Europe, with a national army, a common navy to defend her ports and guard the liberty of her seas, and the acquisition of colonies in various parts of the globe. I may add that, while Mazzini would carry the boundaries of Italy up to the Alps and eastwards as far as to include Fiume, Gioberti went farther, and declared that the whole eastern coast of the Adriatic with its islands, where not Greek, should be Italian.

Unlike Mazzini, Gioberti did not live to see the unification of Italy. But, in 1851, in the days that followed the disaster of Novara, he left to the nation with his last breath a greater book than his previous Primato: the Rinnovamento civile d'Italia. It was the completion and rectification of the Primato. Let Italians no longer look to a confederation or to revolutionary conspiracies, but to the hegemony of Piedmont, rallying round the young king, Victor Emanuel. Let conservatives and democrats, monarchists and republicans, unite in the national idea, and each party, laying aside the character of faction and of sect, identify itself with the nation. Gioberti already indicated, in Cavour, the statesman who would collaborate with the king in the work of Italian renovation. And, looking to the future of Europe, he declared: "The adequate constitution of our nationality will only be effectuated by one of those universal and unconquerable commotions which free the peoples from the tutelage of their rulers, and make them the arbiters of their own destinies" (7).

Mazzini and Gioberti are the prophets of the Risorgimento. In poetry, the republican idealism is represented by Mameli; the monarchical faith by Giovanni Prati. Niccolò Tommaseo speaks for the Italians of Dalmatia, his "seconda Italia." In 1856, Daniele Manin—the heroic defender of Venice in 1849—followed Gioberti: "Io, repubblicano, pianto per primo il vessillo unificatore: Italia col Re Sardo." The meeting of Garibaldi and Victor Emanuel in the liberated South on October 26th, 1860, symbolises the union of the revolutionary and monarchical forces that had delivered and were making Italy: "Saluto il primo Re d'Italia" (8).


In more recent times, particularly since 1870, the national poet of Italy has been Giosue Carducci: perhaps the greatest European poet in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Benedetto Croce writes of him: "The poetry of Carducci, sprung to birth at the close of the old Italian life and the beginning of the new, can be called a true epos of the history of Italy in the history of the world." Much of Carducci's verse, especially in the Odi barbare, represents in the highest artistic form that continuity of the Latin spirit which is the note of Italian civilisation throughout the centuries. The worship of Italy is with him a passion. His lyrical exaltation of agriculture and rural life, his love of the fields, the harvests, the "sante visioni della natura," becomes one with his patriotic fervour; for the land that he depicts is Italy, the Italy of immemorial Latin tradition, Italy with her reminiscences of a mighty past, Italy which the glorious achievements of the Risorgimento has prepared for an even nobler future. At the end of one of his masterpieces, the ode Alle fonti del Clitumno, comes a characteristic and significant note—we see the smoke and hear the whistle of the railway engine, symbol of economic progress, bringing new industries through the Umbrian plain:—

"Plaudono i monti al carme e i boschi e l'acque
  de l'Umbria verde: in faccia a noi fumando
  ed anelando nuove Industrie in corsa
  fischia il vapore."

It has been well said of Carducci: "Egli senti il presente con animo antico." His hero was Garibaldi, he for whom the sword was the instrument of justice and the symbol of peace. In his odes the embarking of Garibaldi and his thousand volunteers at Scoglio di Quarto is linked with the coming of Aeneas to Italy, and the new Rome invokes the deliverer as novello Romolo. Carducci has Mazzini's vision of the third Rome, the Rome of the People, spreading for a third time among the nations a gospel of civilisation. Italy, whom Rome made one, returns to her mother whom she has freed, and who shows her the monuments, the columns and arches of old:—

"Gli archi che nuovi trionfi aspettano
  non piú di regi, non piú di cesari,
  e non di catene attorcenti
  braccia umane su gli eburnei carri;

"ma il tuo trionfo, popol d'Italia,
  su l'età nera, su l'età barbara,
  su i mostri onde tu con serena
  giustizia farai franche le genti.

"O Italia, o Roma! quel giorno, placido
  tonerà il cielo su'l Fòro, e cantici
  di gloria, di gloria, di gloria
  correran per l'infinito azzurro."

But the poet abandons Mazzini's republicanism for the constitutional monarchy of the House of Savoy. In one of his latest odes, Piemonte, he hymns the part played by Piedmont and the "italo Amleto," Charles Albert, in the redemption of Italy; in another, Bicocca di San Giacomo, he looks in the name of the Italian people to King Humbert for the fulfilment of the national destiny: —

"Noi non vogliamo, o Re, predar le belle
rive straniere e spingere vagante
l'aquila nostra a gli ampi voli avvezza:
ma, se la guerra
l'Alpe minacci e su' due mari tuoni,
alto, o fratelli, i cuori! alto le insegne
e le memorie! avanti, avanti, o Italia
nuova ed antica" (1).

Gabriele d'Annunzio, in his funeral oration on the death of Carducci in 1907, uttered the pregnant words: "Giosue Carducci—il quale credeva e affermava essere la civiltà italica elemento necessario, come fu già primo, alla vita della civiltà mondiale—lega agli Italiani d'oggi l'orgoglio di stirpe e la volontà di operare" ("Giosue Carducci—who believed and declared that the Italian civilisation is a necessary element, even as it was of old, in the life of the civilisation of the world—bequeathes to the Italians of to-day the pride of race and the will to act"). And Gabriele d'Annunzio himself, in his splendid Canzoni della gesta d'oltremare and his more recent orations Per la più grande Italia, came forward as the apostle of the Greater Italy of the future, creating a kind of new national romanticism, a conception of Italy's destiny as a nation, blended from the classical glories of Rome, the mighty history of the Italian maritime republics of the Middle Ages, the heroic Garibaldean epic:—

"Cosí, divina Italia, sotto il giusto
  tuo sole o nelle tenebre, munita
  e cauta, col palladio su l'affusto,
"andar ti veggo verso la tua vita
  nuova, e del tuo silenzio far vigore,
  e far grandezza d'ogni tua ferita" (2).

In Antonio Fogazzaro's great romance, Daniele Cortis, a feature of the protagonist's political faith is that the monarchy is capable of completing "the lesson of Italian geography that King Victor Emanuel gave Europe." The note of irredentismo was no new thing in Italian literature. In the early days of the unification, we find Giovanni Prati lamenting that his native region, the Trentino, "il mio verde Tirolo," should still be held back from the maternal embraces of Italy:—

"No, non son pago. Chiedo e richiedo
  da mane a vespro la patria mia" (3).

Carducci, in his Saluto italico, bids his "antichi versi italici" fly with the new year "al bel mar di Trieste" and her sister cities, gathering up the sighs and expectations, bearing the sacred name of Italy to the cities and regions of "Italia irredenta":—

"In faccia a lo stranier, che armato accampasi
  su'l nostro suol, cantate: Italia, Italia, Italia!"

It was a saying of Garibaldi that a great part of modern Italy is due to her poets: "Già buona parte di quest' Italia la si deve ai poeti." A few years ago a small volume was published at Florence, Poeti italiani d'oltre i confini, a selection from the poets of "Italia irredenta." Natives of the Trentino, of Trieste, of Istria, of Dalmatia, these poets spoke and speak with the voice of Italy, participating in her intellectual life, sharing her aspirations and ideals. Thus from the foot of the Alps and from the shores of the Adriatic—regions where, as a poet of Trieste has said, every stone and every cave reflects the light of Rome or echoes the roar of the winged lion of Venice (4)—the Virgilian cry, Italiam quaero patriam, arose, and we know what Italy's answer has been.


"Troppo ubbidisti e troppo sofferisti,
     giovane Italia, piena d'umiltà!
     Con l'insidia a ogni passo
     tu crescesti nel mondo,
     e ogni mano alle spalle
     ti scagliava il suo sasso:
     sola tra i tuoi nemici,
     sola crescevi tu.
     La grande ora è squillata:
     mostra la tua virtú!"

I read these lines, dated September, 1914, in a recently published volume by Luigi Siciliani (1). Let me quote from two poems written at the Italian front in the early days of Italy's entry into the war. In the one, by my friend Antonio Cippico, the two Crosses—the White Cross of Savoy and the Red Cross of healing—bear the message of a new Risorgimento to the Italian cities still held in Austrian bondage:—

"Segno candido o cruento
  del novel Risorgimento,
  dì a Trieste, a Zara, a Trento:
  'La gran Madre Italia è qui'" (2).

The other is L'Altare, of Sem Benelli, written in the trenches shortly before the first taking of Gorizia: the altar being the Carso, that desolate upland wilderness of rocks and stones over which, later, after the disaster that proved one of the greatest moral victories in history, the third army (as one of the British correspondents reported) "came back with the discipline and stern regularity of a parade manœuvre." Upon that altar, Benelli wrote. Victory had ascended to place the ring of Italy upon the finger of Trieste:—

"Su quest' Altare è salita
  ormai la vittoria
  per porre l'anello d'Italia
  in dito a Trieste."

But the poet even then pictured an image of Victory, mangled with wounds and with a countenance of sorrow, as the Italian soldier—"il mite soldato d'Italia"—surmounted the crags and rocks that barred him from his goal. And he apostrophised Italy with her cities:—

"O Patria multanime, sposata
  ogni giorno dal sole …
  … tu devi ora patire
  il patimento che ti farà sacra";

for that desolate plateau of the Carso, drenched with Italian blood, becomes in the poet's imagination the altar upon which the festival of Greater Italy will, in days to come, be celebrated (3).

The victory of Vittorio Veneto crowned and completed the work of the Risorgimento. We may remember how Swinburne, looking back upon the past gifts of Italy to the world and looking forward to the fulfilment of Mazzini's prophecy of the third Rome, wrote in the Song of the Standard:—

"Out of thine hands hast thou fed us with pasture of colour and song;
  Glory and beauty by birthright to thee as thy garments belong;
  Out of thine hands thou shalt give us as surely deliverance from wrong.

"Out of thine eyes thou hast shed on us love as a lamp in our night,
  Wisdom a lodestar to ships, and remembrance a flame-coloured light;
  Out of thine eyes thou shalt show us as surely the sun-dawn of right.

"Turn to us, speak to us, Italy, mother, but once and a word,
  None shall not follow thee, none shall not serve thee, not one that has heard;
  Twice hast thou spoken a message, and time is athirst for the third."

With what sublime heroism, with what immense sacrifices (too often so inadequately recognised by her allies and associates), Italy has contributed—in measure out of all proportion to her resources—in saving the civilisation of Europe and giving us deliverance from wrong, the events of these terrible years have abundantly shown. We look with confidence to Italy's future; we know that she will speak again to the world. In Dante's "Roman Empire" and in Mazzini's "United States of Europe," there is an anticipation of what we are now calling the "League of Nations." And, in any such restored unity of civilisation, we may well believe that Italy—with her history and her traditions, her glorious past and her heroic present, her admirable advance in every sphere of intellectual and economic activity, and that genius in virtue of which the primato morale e civile has been justly claimed for her—is destined to give light and guidance to our steps along the road of peace and progress.

  1. Niccolò Tommaseo, as an Italian of Dalmatia, wrote to Cesare Cantú in 1837: "Dante m'esilia me, il disgraziato. Iddio gli perdoni: e'non sapeva quello che si facesse."