Ugo Foscolo (1778-1827)
The Italian author Ugo Foscolo was a poet, critic, and dramatist as well as a
patriot. His romantic temperament and flamboyant life characterize his role as a
key transitional figure in Italian literary history.
Born Niccolò Foscolo on the Greek island of Zante on Feb. 6, 1778, he soon
adopted the pseudonym Ugo. Well educated in philosophy, classics, and Italian
literature, in 1792 Foscolo moved to Venice, where he immediately became
embroiled in the struggle for independence. After writing "Ode to Bonaparte the
Liberator" (1797), Foscolo began a life of exile, during which he fought against
Austria, first in Venice, then in Romagna, in Genoa, and even in France
Concurrent with his military exploits, Foscolo gave literary expression to his
ideological aspirations and to the numerous amorous experiences of these years
in odes, sonnets, plays, the epistolary novel The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis
(1802), and the long poem On Tombs (1807). As professor of rhetoric at Padua
(1809), Foscolo espoused in his lectures the view--new in Italy--that poetic
beauty arose from the fusion of imitation with the genius of the individual
Banished for his anti-French drama Aiace (1811), Foscolo went to Florence, where
he completed his translation of Laurence Sterne's Sentimental Journey and wrote
his third tragedy, Ricciarda.
He also worked assiduously on The Graces; although never given final form, these
fragmentary hymns, characterized by delicate musical and plastic sensibility,
represent Foscolo's best lyric poetry. In 1815 Foscolo fled to Zurich, where he
republished Ortis and composed several works against those Italians receptive to
foreign occupation. The next year Foscolo went to London, where he authored
critical essays, reworked Ortis and The Graces, and participated actively in
British literary society until his death at Turnham Green near London on Sept.
10, 1827. In 1871 the transfer of his remains to Sta Croce in Florence conferred
upon Foscolo a well-deserved place among the other great Italians entombed there.
Ortis and On Tombs best exemplify the major themes of Foscolo's works: the
search for glory, beauty which restores serenity to man's turbulent life,
patriotic exile and its attendant loss of liberty, and the inspirational value
of tombs of illustrious men. The later versions of Ortis portray the life of
Jacopo, driven from his Venetian home by foreign occupation. Disappointed by
unfulfilled love and comforted only by the sight of tombs dedicated to great
Italians, Jacopo commits suicide, thus terminating his lonely struggle against
tyranny and hypocrisy. On Tombs, written after Napoleon had prohibited funereal
monuments, is also strongly autobiographical and didactic. Animated by rich
imagery and lyrical language, it also stresses the inspirational value of tombs
and the pain of exile.
Foscolo's vitality and unflagging quest for freedom account for his immense
popularity during subsequent Italian struggles for unification and independence.