This piece deals with the first ode ever written on our American Revolution. I hope your readers find it interesting and significant to our lives....
From Tyranny to Liberty
Reflections on Vittorio Alfieri’s
Ode to America’s Independence
By Adolph Caso
From his birth in 1749 until his death in 1803, the renowned Italian tragedian and essayist, Vittorio Alfieri, had the opportunity to travel throughout Europe, to experience and to observe eighteenth century life. Some time before his death, however, he expressed the following feeling with regard to his age: “I never liked this vile century of mine. It is servile and indolent. I know it only too well: it is nauseating and boring. Nothing uplifts me; nothing pricks my heart; nothing entices me.” Yet, Alfieri lived through the age of the Enlightenment, a time of optimism such as cannot be found even in fifteenth century Humanism.
Having virtually replaced philosophy and philology with the physical sciences of mathematics and physics, the new intellectuals with their followers felt that they could discover and resolve—once and for all—the mysteries that were keeping mankind in darkness. They sincerely believed in an age of new happiness about to dawn and fast approaching: its light to illuminate the way for mankind. Fraternity, equality, and liberty became the new slogans.
When the Bastille was taken, many rallied around the event. Vittorio Alfieri answered the call by writing, in French, his second ode, Parigi Sbastigliato— his first ode having been dedicated to America’s independence. In his ode to the fallen Bastille, he hailed the triumph of the Revolution as the scourge of tyranny and as the harbinger of liberty. When the goals of the Revolution did not materialize, however, Alfieri, who had taken up residence in Paris, fled the city to return to his native Italy. Two days after his departure, the "new" people of Paris raided his home, confiscated his belongings, and took the owner of the apartment into custody for the reason that he belonged to the nobility. Alfieri’s great moment of anguish, however, was yet to come.
In 1797, the Italian-French General, Napoleon Bonaparte, with the treaty of Campoformio, unilaterally handed the Venetian Republic to the Austrians, thus destroying the last vestige of a government that had been founded on some ideals of liberty.
A few years before his death, Alfieri published his Misogallo, a book whose title clearly demonstrates his hatred toward the French, who, in his eyes, had betrayed the ideals of liberty. As a protest against the evils of his times, he chose to spend the last part of his life alone and in a dejected state of mind.
To understand the change that took place in him, it is important to look briefly at the kind of education he had received, as a young man under the tutelage of his aristocratic family, and later as mature man filled with an idealism burdened by melancholy.
In his autobiography entitled Vita scritta da esso— Life written by himself--published in 1804, Alfieri made a very negative assessment of his education.
He spent the first eight years of his life with his mother. From her he received an education full of neglect—una pessima educazione; cioè, pessima di negligenza.
The following eight years he termed as eight years of un-education—otto anni di ineducazione; he frequented the Academy of Torino.
From about 1766 to 1776, he traveled throughout Europe. He defined this period as ten years of travel and dissipation dieci anni di viaggi e di dissolutezze, a period of intense reading of Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Helvetius, and others.
Finally, in 1775, he achieved his true liberation--liberazione vera, which meant an intensive and independent study of Plutarch, Dante, Petrarca, Machiavelli, Ariosto, and Tasso. During this time he began what most critics consider the most fertile and creative period of his life.
With the discovery of the Italian masters, Alfieri suddenly found himself on the road of true liberation.
His first task was to unlearn French and to learn Italian. For this purpose, he moved to Florence, where he wrote, all in Italian, twenty tragedies, four comedies, seventeen satires, four civic essays, his autobiography, and one volume of verse; he also translated from the Latin and Greek. His works reflected the recurrent theme of the fight of the free man pitted against the tyrant.
Having seen the ideals of liberty vitiated by so many half crimes—mezzi delitti—and perpetrated by so many pseudo intellectuals and semi philosophers—mezzi lumi e semifilosofi—all gathered together in a stinking hospital that unites the incurables and the lunatics—fetente spedale, che riunisce gli incurabili e i pazzi, Alfieri must have turned to the Neapolitan philosopher, Gianbattista Vico, for an anti-Rousseau’s definition of liberty and tyranny.
Man is born with chains; he frees himself from them when he learns to distinguish what he is and who he is. And when he is able to control his instincts and give them another direction, he becomes master of himself. He becomes the human being destined to participate and to contribute to the activities of the human consortium in which he grows as an individual and as a social being. Concomitant to this growth and applied wisdom, he achieves the individual and the collective liberty necessary for the prosperity of the consortium. Otherwise, he creates stronger chains and becomes either more enslaved or more tyrannical.
In his famous book, Del Principe e delle lettere—Of the Prince and of letters—Alfieri restates Vico's definition: tyranny is the result of the unlimited force of passion which is fatalistically intrinsic in man. Because of his natural impulse, he persistently drives himself to be more and better than the next man.
Vittorio Alfrieri seems to have had a disproportionate hatred for tyrants and for tyrannies, for those forms of government that thrive on tyranny, and for those tyrants who ostentatiously display acquired refinements and create false forms of constitutions. He reacts against this type of power in his book, La Tirannide—On Tyranny.
In his travels, he saw what absolute power had done to the people. His first experience was Paris itself, which he compared to an immense prison—immensa prigione. He labeled the kings plebeians—re plebei—whose influences were more baneful—funesti—to France and to the rest of the world than the descendents of Hugh Capet themselves.
In Vienna, he witnessed the obsequious genuflection of his ever popular countryman, Pietro Metastasio in front of Marie Therese.
In Berlin he was horrified by what seemed one continuous body of guards and militaristic satellites--corpo di guardie e assoldati satelliti—engaged in military training to serve as the strong arm to a more infamous arbitrary authority of that government. He thanked Heaven for not having been born in a land he described as that universal Prussian caserne—quella universale prussiana caserme.
In Russia, the land of Peter the Great, whose nation Francois Voltaire had admired and praised as upcoming and resurgent, Alfieri had one of the more negative experiences of his life.
Though he arrived in Petersburg with an extraordinary palpitation from the expectation—con una certa straordinaria palpitazione dall'aspettativa--in the six weeks he remained there, he saw little that pleased him except for the beards on the men and the quality of their horses. Meanwhile, he learned to hate the abstract tyranny being practiced by a woman who had perpetrated the murder of her husband and was now placing the entire Russian population under universal slavery by means of a so-called just constitution. His experience at Petersburg was so nauseating that he refused to visit Moscow as planned, preferring to return to his native country, which seemed he had not seen for a thousand years.
These having been some of his experiences, he finally defines tyranny as being any government in which those persons who are given the responsibility to execute the laws, these same men become tyrants when they make, destroy, break, interpret, obstruct, or even only dilute the laws with impunity.
The lessons Alfieri wanted to impart are clear--political regimes must be based on the ideals of liberty. They must exalt and invigorate moral life. Should despotism arise, the people must deal with it with the same means as the despot. If they want to remain free, they must exercise their basic rights of praising public opinion, which preserves freedom of speech and guards against would-be tyrants. Governments must not be based on fear, nor should they be established with the help of the nobility, the military, or of the clergy. Should an individual happen to be born in a tyranny, or for some reason subjected to it, he must take the route of exile if he cannot fight from within, or to die, if necessary, if liberty is to be preserved.
Far from being an anarchist, Alfieri recognizes many forms of governments. He prefers the republican types because in them the people, through representation, are guaranteed their individual and collective rights to liberty.
Individuals of sensibility go through life accompanied by the perennial struggles between the instinctive needs of the body and the arresting or restrictive forms of society. When individuals balance the two forces, they achieve liberty. When they are overwhelmed by either or by both, they have the choice of committing suicide, in the manner of Cato of Utica, as exemplified by Dante in his Divine Comedy.
Natural death represents, for the romantic writer of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the ultimate and highest form of liberation. Suicide becomes necessary when the individual is powerless against the internal and external forces that act upon him. Alfieri deals with this situation in his famous tragedy, Saul. Through the biblical King of Israel, Alfieri represents the two levels of tyranny that exist in man.
Rebelling against God for having chosen David as the next King, Saul cannot acquiesce to his inner desires to continue as King. His counselors falsely and secretly urge him to stay on, thus rekindling the old man's passion for power. As a result, he becomes a victim of his passions by subjecting the people to them, and disregarding the supreme laws of the word of God. When the Philistines are about to capture him, Saul suddenly realizes what he had done and what had taken place. He draws the sword and plunges it into his heart, thus robbing the enemy of that precious booty--life itself which is worth living only when free from tyranny. Through this heroic last act, Saul is able to achieve purification and his eventual liberation.
Madame de Staël, the self-appointed innovator of what she termed as stagnant Italian literature, was one of the first among the many critics to reject Alfieri and his works. By answering her criticism, Giacomo Leopardi, a poet of the first part of the nineteenth century, also gives his own appraisal: Madame de Staël says that Alfieri was not born to write, but to do, if the customs of his time permitted. But Alfieri distinguished himself from almost all of the so-called erudite and pedantic critics of his and our time. Exactly for this reason, he was the authentic writer he was.
Throughout his lifetime, Vittorio Alfieri had wanted to die. He attempted suicide several times, the first at the age of seven. He may already have understood that man everywhere is born with chains and generally remains in them until death. Though mankind is aware of those chains, few individuals acquire the wisdom and the willingness to cast them off. On realizing the divisional struggles that followed America’s Declaration of Independence, Alfieri was not happier than he had been after he wrote about the Bastille. The Machiavellian intonation becomes significant in the concluding tercet of his Ode to America's Independence:
What am I to sing about? And, to whom?
I look around and weep:
Observations on the ODE
The Italian title of Alfieri's ode is L’America Libera, which could be translated as America the Free—meaning, free from the tyranny that the English imposed on the American colonists, and free from foreign intervention that might restrict the complete attainment of freedom.
The composition is divided into five odes, each having eight stanzas of sixteen lines, except for the third which has six stanzas. These stanzas, or strophes, are composed of a given number of eleven foot lines (endecasillabo), interspersed with seven foot lines (settenario). Their rhyme scheme is the following: A b C B a, etc.
The present English translation does not follow Alfieri's scheme or his highly rhetorical style.
Alfieri wrote the first four odes in 1781. Upon completing them, he seemed happy with the result; he was happier with the outcome of America's war of Independence.
After having had some spiritual troubles--turbamento di spirito--he wrote in 1783 the fifth and final ode, and this may help explain his observation that betrayal and tyranny go hand in hand and more often than not unwittingly stand on the side of tyranny and against liberty.
It is interesting to note that one of his first-titles was The War of America—La Guerra D'America. The present essay is taken, with few exceptions, from Scritti Politici e Morali, V. II, edited by P. Cazzani, Asti, 1966. The only critical analysis available is that of F. Maggini, Rime (of Alfieri) published in 1933.
Italians in America
Unbeknownst to many, Italians played a great role in forging America's destiny during those revolutionary years. Aside from a large amount of correspondence between American and Italian men of letters, there were also many who visited each other's country.
Jefferson and Franklin visited Italy; Philip Mazzei, Charles Bellini, and others came to America. Besides corresponding with Giacomo B. Beccari and Gian Francesco Cigna, Benjamin Franklin corresponded on a regular basis, from 1750 to beyond 1771, with Giambattista Beccaria. Franklin and Jefferson also corresponded regularly with John Fabbroni.
Jefferson was influenced by the famous architect, Andrea Palladio; but few know of the influence that the Italian humanist Leon Battista Alberti had on Jefferson. Alberti's two books are of enormous importance; they are: De re aedificatoria and Trattato della famiglia. The first deals with architecture; the second with the way to build a successful family. Another Alberti, this one a musician, actually gave Jefferson instruction in music in Virginia.
Another Beccaria—Cesare Bonesana—was of more influence on John Adams and on Jefferson than is otherwise accepted. Beccaria's book. On Crimes and Punishments, was being published in the American colonies as early as 1773. Joseph Francis Vigo was a wealthy fur trader when he made himself and his wealth available to Colonel Clark for the conquest of the Northwest Territory.
Fathers Chino and Salvaterra had established thirty or more .missions and churches in California from 1681 until 1711. William Paca, whose family came from the province of Naples, signed the Declaration of Independence, along side Caeser Rodney, another American of Italian origin. George Wythe, also a signer of the famous document, was married to Elizabeth Tagliaferro.
The Declaration of Causes of 1775, passed by the Continental Congress on July 6 of that year, was written in English and in Italian only. During this time, Philip Mazzei was writing articles and pamphlets for the Virginia Gazette on behalf of America's independence.
Of course the land of America was described in the epic poems of Ariosto and of Tasso, and by other authors of the Rinascimento.
It should be of no surprise that another Italian wrote the first history of America's War for Independence. Charles Botta, History of the War Of Independence (Kennikat Press, 1970), is considered the first such history written on the war. It received accolades from many great Americans, including Jefferson, who made the following statement: "...when the superiority of the work over every other on the same subject shall be known, I think it will be the common manual of our Revolutionary History."
The American Congress of the 1770 decade commissioned several warships. Three of them carried the names of Christopher Columbus, Andrea Doria, and John Cabot. Two others were significantly named the Protector and the Tyrannicide.
Adolph Caso, author, publisher, photographer, is an ongoing contributor to Book Readers Heaven. He has written much on his home country, Italy, and its contributions to the world. This piece is one of those; however, I found much of interest and relevance to each of us and today's world... Taking liberty from Adolfo's submission, to highlight/spotlight what I found to be most important for today...
Thank you, Adolfo, for once again sharing from your research and study...