Friday, 13 December 2013

The Eighteenth Century in Italy.*


To educated people the eighteenth century in its French, English, and German aspects is as well known as any other famous epoch in history —its art and its literature are as familiar subjects of study of those of Greek and Roman antiquity, of the Middle Ages, or the Renaissance. Stephen and Lecky, Buckle, Stoughton, Abbey, and Overton, have described for us its philosophy, its social, literary, and moral phenomena, and the religious life of the period, as far as England is concerned. In the realm of thought we know how the movement initiated by Locke culminated with Hume ; how Berkely barely escaped scepticism by his doctrine of efficient causes ; how Shaftesbury attempted to convert the vox populi into the vox Dei, and drew down on himself the censure of even Voltaire for his too vehement opposition to Christianity. We have some acquaintance with the writings of the Deists from Toland, whose work was patronised by the wife of Frederick the Great, to Wollaston, who died in prison, where he had spent three years and a-half for having written against the miracles of Christ. As we close our eyes and recall the English thought and thinkers of the time, Butler and Warburton, Beattie and Paley, Priestley and Horsely, Paine and Gibbon, Reid and Hutcheson, Hartley and Adam Smith pass before us, and we know them all and the different schools of philosophy which they represent. In the artistic world we know that though William III. is said to have set the fashion of picture collecting in England, no art higher than that of portrait painting, if we except Hogarth's homely and truthful pictures of English life, had yet flourished beneath the ungenial sky of Britain. Taste there was none, but a good deal of pretended connoisseur-ship, such as one might expect where the upper classes had received a tincture of art culture and nothing more. Sacred music and the opera, it is true, received considerable impulse from Handel, but music in the eighteenth century was an exotic on English soil, and whether you sat freezing with the King and Queen in the empty Haymarket, or joined the Prince and the chief of the nobility at Lincoln's Inn Fields, you merely changed from Senesino to Heidegger, from one foreign singer to another. The stage was so immoral that even the easy-going ladies of the time could gratify their curiosity for its representations only under the cover of a mask. We know the life which reflected itself in such literature as that of Fielding and Smollett, of Coventry and Aphra Behm. Lord Hervey has introduced us to the vices of the English Court —the gross immorality of the men, the trooper-like jests of the women. We know the gambling propensities of the time, its   wild and reckless speculation. The stories of ruined fortunes of which White's was the frequent scene, the legend of Miss Pelham, the Prime Minister's daughter, who was also the most notorious gambler in England, the Laputan schemes for extracting silver from lead and for the discovery of perpetual motion, will rise at once to the mind of even the most superficial student of this epoch. This was the age in which a maid of honour appeared almost naked in the character of Iphegenia, and in which the King himself masqueraded with his subjects. It was the age of bull-fighting, prize-fighting, cock-fighting, and hard drinking. Sir Roger de Coverley and Squire Western were then to be seen in all their glory. These were the days of Southwark fair, of Vauxhall, of Ranelagh, and of Cuper's Gardens.
In France it was the age in which the salon had not yet died out; it was the age in which the Encyclopædists announced a new gospel and created a new literature. We have read of it all in the "Lettres Persanes" of Montesquieu, the "Memoires" of D'Argenson, of Barbier, of the Duc de Luynes. The doctrines dominant through Europe 100 years ago, though they may be all traced to Locke's famous essay, were learned by Europe not from the English thinker, but from his French disciples; and it is in France that we see his method carried with ruthless logic to consequences at which he himself would have shuddered with dismay. From Condillac, who first pointed out his inconsistency, we pass soon to the stark materialism of Cabanis, the cynical Deism of Voltaire, the coarse pantheism of Diderot, the "undogmatical Christianity" of Rousseau, and the full-blown atheism of Helvetius. We are amongst the men whose mental powers and literary ability stamped upon this century its supreme distinction and made it for ever after to be remembered as le siecle francais. No other country sends out a voice which commands a hearing beside theirs. The philosophy of sensation of which these men were the arch-apostles diffused itself from Paris through the whole of Europe, and produced that sensuous life, that surface refinement, that relachement des mœurs by which almost as much as by its intellectual life the eighteenth century was marked. Under the tyrannie douceureuse of Louis the Well-beloved, and in the reign of Madame de Pompadour, what a spectacle of grace and gallantry was society in France; what wit, what elegance, what charm of manner, covered with its brilliant veneer the oppression, the vice, and irreligion which were to bring forth such bitter fruit before that gay, learned, wicked, polished century drew to its close. We know everything about it down to the smallest details. We can tell why a certain grand seigneur was not included in the last promotion to the Order of the Saint Esprit as well as we can why the King refused the dedication of the " Henriade." In looking round at the figures of the time which our memory so easily evokes, can we not point out that Count de Charolais who tried his carbine on some unlucky passer-by, that Duke de Meilleraye who horsewhipped a priest in the street, that Prince de Carignan who kept a gambling house? There is Cardinal Bernis, the minister, and Mademoiselle Fel, the singer ; the Marquis de Mirabeau and Madame de Rochefort, Dr. Quesnay and the Duke de Nivernois, the old Countess de Pontchartrin, who had such a pretty residence at St Maur, and the beautiful and pious Duchess de Cossè-Brissac, of whom Walpole has left so pleasing a picture. In imagination we can take a sedan chair and be off to the Hotel de Sully, where, in the brilliant circle we shall find there, we may listen to the learned conversation of Lamoignon or the President de Maisons, talk finance with such an authority as Caumartin, discuss the latest fad of the philosophes with Fontenelle or Ronsay; or, if we prefer it, listen to the gay witty scandalous chatter of the petits maitres. If we object to the society of the rakes of the Regency, who are to be met at the house of the Duke de Nevers, we may in the same building enjoy the society of the most distinguished of the nobility, and the leading men of science under the auspices of the Marquise de Lambert; or, with the assistance of some Asmodeus, we may mount into the air and come down at Sceaux, in the talon of the Duchess de Maine, where court poets and ladies of fashion, men of letters and men of rank, join in the masquerades, comedies, concerts, and fétes de nuit, so delicious and so decorous, which, almost as much as the brilliant conversation of the duchess herself, attracted all that was gifted and fairest and best in French society to this almost royal home. If we return to Paris we know whom we shall meet at the renowned suppers of Mme. de Tencin, with whom Benedict XIV. did not think it beneath the dignity of the tiara to carry on a lively correspondence for years ; and we shall feel quite at home at Mme. du Deffant's, where so many of our countrymen—Hume and Gibbon, and Horace Walpole—may be seen, now dangling after the Duchess de Chaulnes or the Duchess de Boufflen, now exchanging ideas with Voltaire, Diderot, or Montesquieu, and where even the Emperor Joseph may be found paying his court to this queen of society and " monster of wit" And what memories of literary glory, of stately manners, of "fair women and brave men," are recalled by the mere mention of the name of Mme. Geoffrin, whom Catherine II. did all she could to induce to visit St Petersburg, in order to show her courtiers at the Hermitage a specimen of French polish, and to whose high court of learning and fashion the same Empress sent a commissioner as regularly salaried and accredited as was her diplomatic representative at Versailles.
The eighteenth century as it was in England and France is almost as well known to us as the nineteenth. The historians, the chroniqueurs, the writers of memoirs, the news letters, the printed correspondence of the time, have told us everything or almost everything we want to know, and as the intellectual and aristocratic life of other countries was but a feeble reflex of Parisian wit and bon ton, we might not unnaturally conclude that there was no form of eighteenth century civilisation throughout Europe wholly unknown to us. This, however, would be a delusion. In Italy the most fairy-like form of art—the opera—was brought to its highest perfection at this period. The comic stage produced developments specially Italian, because founded on national tastes and national character, and under these influences and a few others indigenous to itself, Italian life in the last century had a colour peculiarly and charmingly its own. On all these subjects it cannot be said that there is any wide-spread or accurate knowledge even amongst persons of education. Hundreds of volumes of operas have lain buried in dust for over 100 years in the libraries of Venice and Bologna, of Rome and Naples; the comedies of Gozzi have vanished with the companies of players, who literally gave them life; the cantatas of Porpora are heard no more, the quaint fantastic masks are gone, all that made the special features of the age in that sweet southern land of Italy— with the exception perhaps of a few plays by Goldoni—are forgotten or dead. Into this world of phantoms—this "close weird atmosphere filled with invisible ghosts"—Mr. Vernon Lee, in his "Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy," leads us, and proves himself a delightful companion. It is no easy task to paint the life and write the character of any epoch. The phenomena which meet the eye are so complex, so many causes from different spheres unite to produce a blended effect that it is hardly possible to do so in an adequate and satisfactory manner. Mr. Lee avoids this difficulty to some extent by searching into remoter layers of Italian life for the origin and explanation of most of what he shows us. With light such as this, with the author's conspicuous power of word-painting, his wealth of epithet, and his true sense of the picturesque and spectacular, glimpses are caught which help us to reconstruct a whole civilisation that is gone, and to bring the past almost as a living reality before our minds.
To show us, for instance, the two great characteristics of the country and the age of which he treats—the national music and the national drama—he carries us back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, because, as he tells us, the great musical and dramatic efflorescence of the eighteenth century has its roots deep hidden in Italian character and civilisation, and germinates slowly through the two preceding centuries. Nay, the Italian comedian and musician of a hundred years ago being the culmination of an unbroken series of artistic phenomena, he bids us look back to old Latin and Oscan days for the art of the one, and bids us look through the Middle Ages at the slow development of the other. It is in the seventeenth century, however, that he finds most of the influences which shaped the eighteenth. Then it was that poets no longer addressed the "unconquered Hippolytus" and the "magnanimous Alfonso," but spoke to a nation in the name of a nation ; and especially then it was that those purists and pedants who formed the Arcadian Academy directed attention to the simplicity and elegance of the early Italian classics. Hence our author gives us the most charming aperous of this famous society as it existed at the close of the seventeenth and all through the following century—its powdered princesses and purple clad cardinals, its sad poetesses, its portly priests, its inspired improvisatori, and all the other literary ghosts of that long-deceased and long-forgotten Italian world. We are introduced to, and feel as if we had considerably cultivated the acquaintance of, some of the most famous among them—the hump-backed Alessandro Guidi, the graceful form of Giambattista Zappi, the fine worn thoughtful face of Gravina, and the wonderful nose of the Abate Crescembeni. They live around us as we read Mr. Lee's pages. We hear Rolli and Frugoni reciting the verses they addressed to the beautiful and accomplished Faustina. We are led from Arcadia to anti-Arcadia—from the meadows of St. Angelo to the Parrhasian Grove. We see how the glory of Arcadia had well nigh passed away in the middle of the eighteenth century, when Baretti made such a savage onslaught upon it with his " Literary Whip;" how the revival of Arcadia brought back some of the olden fame, but, at the same time, unbounded ridicule, when Maria Maddalena Morelli (the original of Madame de Stael's Corinne) was crowned in the Capitol, and how it was forgotten, passed clean out of men's minds in the dreadful days when the soldiers of the French Revolution poured into Italy, burning, sacking, and pillaging, while they declared they were bringing liberty to the people, and when the Austrians came and sacked in their turn ; when families, once the wealthiest and most powerful of Upper Italy, crossed the Alps on foot as beggars, and the best blood of the southern provinces was shed in torrents.
But we must stop here for the present. What Mr. Lee tells us of the Italian life of the period, and the features which distinguished its intellectual and artistic developments, affords ample matter for a second notice, and richly deserves it.

* Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy, by Vernon Lee. London : W. Satchell and Co.

 The Brisbane Courier 1 February 1882,

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