Hottentot, Parisian or Romantic?


When Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein, commonly known as Madame de Staël, published her essay “De l’esprit des traductions” in 1816, on the review “Biblioteca Italiana“, translated by Pietro Giordani , it was as if a bomb had exploded in the musty Italian Literary circles at the beginning of the nineteenth century, whose secret chambers had not been touched by the Northern, passionate, fresh winds of Romanticism yet. When the Lady claimed the importance of the habit of translation as the best means to “keep a literature from falling into banality which is a sure sign of decadence”, she was actually addressing her plea to the provincial Italian audience and incited to translate the literatures from the North, in order to resuscitate Italian letters which were imprisoned by the cobwebs of Classicism. As a matter of fact, Madame de Staël aimed at provoking social and literary changes in an Italy dominated by the Austrians after the defeat of Napoleons, and somehow she was right, because this article turned out to be the spark that lit the fire of Italian Romanticism. For many intellectuals the Lady’s words were considered outrageous and offensive for the dignity of the country, but many others soon understood the rightness of her thoughts. One of them was Giovanni Berchet, whose “Lettera semiseria di Grisostomo al suo figliolo” (1816)is considered somehow the manifesto of Italian  Romanticism. In this letter he remarked the necessity of a new popular poetry opposed to the classical mythological one, and on this purpose he believed essential to form new kind of audience, someone between the “Parisians“, that is the “sophisticated”, and the “Hottentots“, that is the “grosser”. This is the point. It was not easy to be Romantic and follow the European trends in a country where there wasn’t either a common language or even an adequate audience to speak to. That something in between the “Hottentots” and the “Parisians” was the middle class, but it had to be rooted and strong enough to be able to determine the cultural taste of a country and that country was not Italy for sure, it was England. The eighteenth century English writers had celebrated the emerging middle class in the new novel form with captivating plots, whose heroes were common people who spoke a modern simple language, wrote diaries, letters, thus disclosing their hearts to a more and more fascinated audience, thus increasing the reading public. Toward the end of the century the “embourgeoisement” of common taste had affected poetry as well and became the vital force of Romanticism. In Italy,  Foscolo had tried to model his “Ultime Lettere di Jacopo Ortis”  (1802) on the European epistolary trend, in particular Goethe‘s  “Die Leiden des jungen Werther” , but he didn’t succeed in bringing his epistolary novel to that degree of intimacy that this genre requires, for the lack of what he calls “mediocrazia” that is, that middle class audience to whom address his speculations. Federigo Tozzi ‘s “Tre Croci” is regarded, in fact, as the first bourgeois novel in Italy, but it was published in 1920, one hundred and twenty years after “Le Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis“, that is when Italy had now become a country with a common language spoken by the majority of people.