« AnteriorContinua »
OF THE PRESENT STATE OF POLITE LEARNING IN ITALY.
From ancient we are now come to modern times, and in running over Europe, we shall find, that wherever learning has been cultivated, it has flourished by the same advantages as in Greece and Rome; and that, wherever it has declined, it siuks by the same causes of decay.
Dante, the poet of Italy, who wrote in the thirteenth century, was the first who attempted to bring learning from the cloister into the community, and paint human nature in a language adapted to modern manners. He addressed a barbarous people in a method suited to their apprehensions ; united purgatory and the river Styx, St. Peter and Virgil, heaven and hell together, and shews a strange mixture of good sense and absurdity. The truth is, he owes most of his reputation to the obscurity of the times in which he lived. As in the land of Benin a man may pass for a prodigy of parts who can read, so in an age of barbarity, a small degree of excellence ensures success. But it was great merit in him to have lifted up the standard of nature, in spite of all the opposition and the persecution he received from contemporary criticism. To this standard every succeeding genius resorted; the germ of every art and science began to unfold; and to imitate nature was found to be the surest way of imitating antiquity. In a century or two after, modern Italy might justly boast of rivalling ancient Rome; equal
(1) [It is obvious, throughout Michael Angelo's works, that the poetical mind of Dante influenced his feelings. "I have read somewhere," says Lord Byron, "that Dante was so great a favourite of Michael Angelo's, that he had designed the whole of the Divina Commedia, but that the volumes containing those studies were lost by sea."- Works, vol. xi. p. 297.]
in some branches of polite learning, and not far surpassed in others.
They soon, however, fell from emulating the wonders of antiquity into simple admiration. As if the word had been given when Vida and Tasso wrote on the arts of poetry, the whole swarm of critics was up. The Speronis() of the age attempted to be awkwardly merry; and the Virtuosi and the Nascotti sat upon the merits of every contemporary performance. After the age of Clement VII. the Italians seemed to think that there was more merit in praising or censuring well, than in writing well; almost every subsequent performance since their time being designed rather to show the excellence of the critic's taste than his genius. One or two poets, indeed, seem at present born to redeem the honour of their country. Metastasio(2) has restored nature in all her simplicity, and Maffei is the first that has introduced a tragedy among his countrymen without a love-plot(3). Perhaps the Samson of Milton, and the Athalia of Racine,
(1) [Speroni was born at Padua in 1500, and died there in 1588. His writings, consisting of orations, dissertations, dialogues, letters, and a tragedy, were published in five volumes quarto.]
(2) [Metastasio was born in 1698, and died at Vienna in 1782, having completed his eighty-fourth year. Dr. Burney describes him, at the age of seventy-two, " as looking like one of fifty, and the handsomest man of his time of life, he had ever beheld."—" This enchanting writer," says Dr. Wharton, "has been excelled by few moderns in genius and in learning. Hear a very serious philosopher asserting, 'that nothing can be more deeply affecting than the interesting scenes of the serious opera; when to the poetry of Metastasio, and the music of Pergolesi, is added the execution of a good actor.'"-See Adam Smith's Essays, p. 159.]
(3) [Maffei was born at Verona in 1675, and died there in 1755. "The glory of the tragic muse in this age is the 'Merope' of the Marquis Scipione Maffei ; une tragédie,' says Voltaire, ‘digne des beaux jours d'Athènes, dans laquelle l'amour d'une mère fait toute l'intrigue, et où le plus tendre intérêt nait de la vertu la plus pure.' But the praise of Voltaire is cold when compared with that of a living English writer of great literary eminence, who, struck with the classical charms of this drama, pronounces it 'the most finished tragedy in the world." "—Walker on Italian Tragedy, p. 232.]
might have been his guides in such an attempt. But two poets in an age are not sufficient to revive the splendour of decaying genius; nor should we consider them as the standard by which to characterize a nation. Our measures of literary reputation must be taken rather from that numerous class of men, who, placed above the vulgar, are yet beneath the great, and who confer fame on others without receiving any portion of it themselves.
In Italy, then, we shall nowhere find a stronger passion for the arts of taste, yet no country making more feeble efforts to promote either. The Virtuosi and Filosofi seem to have divided the Encyclopædia between each other: both inviolably attached to their respective pursuits; and, from an opposition of character, each holding the other in the most sovereign contempt. The Virtuosi, professed critics of beauty in the works of art, judge of medals by the smell, and pictures by feeling in statuary, hang over a fragment with the most ardent gaze of admiration; though wanting the head and the other extremities, if dug from a ruin, the Torso becomes inestimable. An unintelligible monument of Etruscan barbarity cannot be sufficiently prized; and any thing from Herculaneum excites rapture. When the intellectual taste is thus decayed, its relishes become false, and, like that of sense, nothing will satisfy but what is best suited to feed the disease.
Poetry is no longer among them an imitation of what we see, but of what a visionary might wish. The zephyr breathes the most exquisite perfume, the trees wear eternal verdure; fawns, and dryads, and hamadryads, stand ready to fan the sultry shepherdess, who has forgot indeed the prettinesses with which Guarini's shepherdesses have been reproached, but is so simple and innocent as often to have no meaning. Happy country, where the pastoral age begins to revive! where the wits even of Rome are united into a
rural group of nymphs and swains, under the appellation of modern Arcadians! where, in the midst of porticos, processions, and cavalcades, abbés turn shepherds, and shepherdesses, without sheep, indulge their innocent divertimenti !(1)
The Filosofi are entirely different from the former. As those pretend to have got their knowledge from conversing with the living and polite, so these boast of having theirs from books and study. Bred up all their lives in colleges, they have there learned to think in track, servilely to follow the leader of their sect, and only to adopt such opinions as their universities, or the inquisition, are pleased to allow. By these means, they are behind the rest of Europe in several modern improvements; afraid to think for themselves; and their universities seldom admit opinions as true, till universally received among the rest of mankind. In short, were I to personize my ideas of learning in this country, I would represent it in the tawdry habits of the stage, or else in the more homely guise of bearded schoolphilosophy.(2)
(1) ["Perhaps, while I am writing, a shepherdess of threescore is listening to the pastoral lute of a French abbé a warm imagination might paint her in all the splendour of ripened beauty, reclining on a pasteboard rock; might fancy her lover, with looks inexpressibly tender, ravishing a kiss from the snowy softness of one of her hands, while the other holds a crook according to pastoral decorum. Amidst such frippery as this, there was no place for friendless Metastasio; he has left Italy, and the genius of nature seems to have left it with him."--First edit.]
(2) [Goldsmith is not singular in thinking that the literary character of Italy has declined; that the pursuits of many of its men, not deficient in talents and erudition, are beneath their powers, if not absolutely frivolous, and that this declination is not of recent date. An eminent writer contrasts the age of Lorenzo de' Medici with even the following century: "when by an overstrained attention to the beauty of language the importance of the subject was frequently neglected or forgotten, and the talents of the first men of the age, being devoted rather to words than to things, were overwhelmed in a prolixity of language, that in the form of letters, orations, and critical dissertations, became the opprobrium of literature, and the destruction of true taste."-Roscoe's Lorenzo de' Medici, vol. ii. p. 156.]
OF POLITE LEARNING IN GERMANY.
If we examine the state of learning in Germany, we shall find that the Germans early discovered a passion for polite literature; but unhappily, like conquerors, who, invading the dominions of others, leave their own to desolation, instead of studying the German tongue, they continue to write in Latin. Thus, while they cultivated an obsolete language, and vainly laboured to apply it to modern manners, they neglected their own.
At the same time also, they began at the wrong end, I mean by being commentators; and though they have given many instances of their industry, they have scarcely afforded any of genius. If criticism could have improved the taste of a people, the Germans would have been the most polite nation alive. We shall no where behold the learned wear a more important appearance than here; no where more dignified with professorships, or dressed out in the fopperies of scholastic finery. However, they seem to earn all the honours of this kind which they enjoy. Their assiduity is unparalleled; and did they employ half those hours on study which they bestow on reading, we might be induced to pity as well as praise their painful pre-eminence. But, guilty of a fault too common to great readers, they write through volumes, while they do not think through a page. Never fatigued themselves, they think the reader can never be weary; so they drone on, saying all that can be said on the subject, not selecting what may be advanced to the purpose. Were angels to write books, they never would write folios.(1)
(1) [“ Miles Davies has given his opinion of the advantages of little books with some wit and humour. 'A big book,' he says, ' is a scarecrow to the