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This author is not ranked amongst the men of surpassing . genius which Italy has produced, and, perhaps, ought not to be; but the assiduity of his studies, the consummate skill with which he has known where to employ, and how to develop his superior abilities, the sleepless care with which he has watched over the rise, and preserved the integrity of his fame, the decorum both of his life and writings, have secured for him the undisputed possession of the first place in the intermediate class, between the great masters of the art, and those who write to captivate the multitude. This intermediate class, although, as in the present instance, it occasionally produces an author, is composed for the most part of those who may be called rather learned readers than learned writers. Such a class has sprung up partially amongst ourselves, but with this difference, that our critics, although they do not condescend to advance in the regular uniform of writers, still appear in print, and that not unfrequently ; whereas in Italy they seldom take up the pen, and acquire. by that discretion a dignity which gives more weight to their oral decisions. These persons have received what we call a regular education, are familiar with, and formed upon, the classical writers, both ancient and modern; and, by an habitual application of the prescribed rules to every popular performance, are the self instituted, but undisputed, arbiters of taste. There are five or six of these in every considerable town; and one set, some of whom are perhaps authors, has so much influence in all the provincial critics, that not even the writers of a respectable class dare to pronounce their opinion without a previous inquiry at the recognised oracle. A great compiler, Tiraboschi for instance, would not have ventured to speak of a contemporary until he knew what judgment had been pronounced by Bettinelli or Roberti.
These persons establish, by the union of their suffrages, a reputation which is sure not to be ephemeral. But there is yet another class of readers, whom it is prudent to gain before an author can promise himself
“The life to come in every poet's creed.”
These are the men of cultivated minds, the men of the world ; a vague phrase, but which will be understood, although it cannot be precisely defined. With the combined verdict of the former as the guardians of the language, and of the latter as the organ of the feelings of his countrymen, the Italian author may be secure that the common readers will follow in a crowd, and, like the Romans to Augustus, raise frequent altars to his living merit.
VINCENZO MONTI. This poet has always enjoyed, and still enjoys a sort of pre-eminence, of which, notwithstanding all the world seems agreed upon his claims, he has often been very nearly deprived. His subjects have, for the most part, been popular and occasional. He has laid hold of the most interesting events of the moment: he has sustained the preponderating opinions, and he has invariably advocated the interests of the succeeding reigning powers. With such advantages, it is not strange that he should have found many willing and eager readers; nor is it more strange that all the various governments, one after the other, should have continued to rank him amongst their partisans. It may excite somewhat more surprise to remark the air not only of enthusiasm, but of sincerity, with which he has delivered his contradictory panegyrics, and to admire the address, with which he appears rather repentant than changeful, and converts the dictates of interest into a case of conscience. By turns flattering and irritating every party, he has not only roused the passions of his contemporaries, but has given them a direction towards himself. His real merit, and the advantage derived from his powerful pen by the triumphant faction, have protected him from neglect; and that prostitution of talents which would have rendered him either odious or ridiculous in England, has been less contemptible in a country where there is more indifference, and less intelligence employed, in the review of political transactions.
For three centuries not a single Italian poet had raised . his voice against the will or the wish of the powerful. Alfieri and Parini had made the first noble exception to this submission, and it was more easy to admire than imitate so rare an example. Monti, independent of the difference of natural disposition, was not born to the wealth of Alfieri, nor was he thrown into the same juncture of circumstances that had favoured the Milanese poet; neither had he been formed by that independent education which both the one and the other had enjoyed. In a word, Monti was brought up at the court of Rome.
The charm of Monti's poetry consists in a pleasing union of the soft and the strong. His ideas are strikingly clear, his sentiments are full of fire, his verses are truly melodious, and his imagery is highly embellished, and has received the last finishing and decoration of taste. He has, indeed, touched nothing that he has not adorned. If his polish is confined to the surface, not only himself but his readers are content without inquiring into the depth of his capacity.
Monti owed the first diffusion of his reputation to his • Aristodemus,' a tragedy which, to use the language of the stage, is a stock play in constant acting, notwithstanding the passion and interest are totally confined to the chief character. The dialogue was found to have more warmth, and colouring, and energy, than that of Metastasio, who was then in possession of the stage; and the audience were not terrified even by the shadow of that harshness, and violence, and obscurity, which characterised the tragedies of Alfieri, who was just emerging into notice, and regarded as a wild irregular genius, scarcely within the pale of literary civilisation. Monti then was the tragic writer of Italy, and was confidently hailed as the successful candidate for an eminence as yet never occupied.
He afterwards published two other tragedies : Galeotto Manfredi,' which is not only far below his Aristodemus, but beneath the talents of the author, and · Caius Gracchus.' Some fine passages constitute the sole merit of the last
tragedy, into which he has introduced some scenes that the Italians are pleased to call by far too natural —" assai troppo naturali.” These scenes were expressly imitated from Shakespeare, and succeeded at first-nobody, however dared to applaud them in the subsequent representations. The critical spectators near the orchestra, and the closetjudges, having once condemned that which appears to militate against classical authority, their sentence is irrevocable: the people have not a voice; or, if they dare to speak, are not heard. The defects of Monti's tragedies are reducible to the insignificance of his characters, to the irregularity of his plot, and to a style sometimes too lyrical, sometimes too tame. These were discovered by the audience, and perhaps by the poet, for he laid no further claim to the throne of Melpomene.
The work of his which has made the most ni ise is the · Cantica in morte di Ugo Basville, published in Rome in 1793, when the author was about thirty-five years of age. This poem is even now considered superior to the subsequent productions of this fruitful writer, who has never laid aside, and still holds the pen. An edition of it has been published in London by Mr. Matthias, with the title · La Revoluzione Franceze,' and another appeared at Paris with another name, · Le Dante Ingentilito. It would be difficult to guess at the motive for these changes, with which it is probable the poet was not made acquainted ; and it would be more difficult still to justify the usurpation of rights which appear to belong only to the author.
Hugh Basville was a man of letters, employed on a mission at Rome by the National Convention. His object was, probably, to sow the seeds of democracy, and to watch the conduct of the papal government in the approaching revolution. Others there are, however, who affirm that he was only on his return from the court of Naples, where he had been secretary of the French Legation, and that he was charged with no such mission. This is asserted in one of the numbers of the · Gazette des Maires,' published at Paris by Captain de Basville, who has VOL. II.
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undertaken to justify his father's memory. The Roman populace, however, looked upon him as a Jacobin spy, murdered him, and pillaged his house. The capital of the world indulged in a savage triumph at this exploit, and the ministers of the pope, by their inactivity to punish, were suspected of participating in the crime. But Pius VI. was generous enough to save the wife and child of Basville from the rage of the multitude. On this occasion Monti wrote his poem.
According to the anecdotes contained in some pamphlets, and, amongst others, in one called · Esame su le accuse contro V. Monti, published at Milan in 1798, Monti was the friend of Basville ; and it is certain, that in the greater part of his subsequent writings he showed himself a friend of the revolution. His poem justified the court of Rome, perpetuated the name of his friend, and saved himself from the perils of his late intimacy with a Jacobin. The plan of this work is very simple. Basville repents and dies, and is pardoned by the Almighty. An angel conducts his spirit across those kingdoms of the earth which had been desolated by the wars and crimes of the French revolution.
They arrive at Paris at the moment that Louis XVI. is mounting the scaffold. The spirit of the king, ascending to heaven, meets the shade of Basville, and the angel makes them known to each other. The king questions him, and Basville narrates the cause and the manner of his death.
“La fronte sollevò, rizzossi in piedi
Signor, nel tuo cospetto Ugo Basville
Stolto! che volli con l'immobil fato
Chè di Giuda il Leon non anco è morto
E se monta in furor, l'aste, e gli stocchi