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For M A Y, 1799.
ART. I. Historical Memoir on Italian Tragedy, from the earliest
Period to the present Time : illustrated with Specimens and Analyses of the inost celebrated Tragedies; and interspersed with occasional Observations on the Italian Theatres; and Biographical Notices of the principal Tragic Writers of Italy. By a Member of the Arcadian Academy of Rome. With Plates. 4to. pp. 400.
il is. Boards. Harding. 1799. CROM the recent extensive convulsions of states, in which ! « the Destroying Angel” has so pitilessly “ridden on the whirlwind and directed the storm,” we may expect a chasm in the details of many events which would be interesting to the historian and the scholar; and while the general interests of literature must in course suffer with the grand principles of humanity, during such tremendous contests for power and dominion, the traveller may soon perhaps in vain seek for the traces of antient magnificence, and the records of past exertions in the liberal arts. It was fortunate, therefore, for the purpose of the author of this work, that he made a voyage to Italy previously to the irruption of the French into that country i which has been followed by the plunder of its cities and the removal of their most valuable contents. During his residence there, he pointed his inquiries and researches, in a particular manner, to the rise and progress of the Italian Tragic Drama, written for declamation. This he has considered separately from the Melo-drama, or Opera; which for nearly two centuries has acquired a degree of favour that, it must be owned, has cona tributed more to the cultivation and refinement of music, in all its branches, than to nervous and robust poetry and declamation.
This Arcadian academician, we learn from the signature to his preface, is Mr. Joseph Cooper Walker, a gentleman of Ireland, and author of an historical account of the Irish Bards VOL. XXIX.
published about twelve vears ago * ; and he has here, with great diligence and good taste, procured a series of the best Italian Tragedies that have been written for public and private representation, in the dialogue of which Music had no con. cern. In tracing these dramas chronologically, Mr. Walker has given translations of some beautiful scenes, with a commentary on the several pieces, and biographical anecdotes concerning their authors; which are so curious and interesting, that they must render the book very entertaining to lovers of general literature, as well as to adepts in the Italian tongue.
Previously to the attempt at a regular tragedy in the Italian language, Mysteries and Moralities, performed either by the clergy (says our author) or under their direction, were the only dramatic amusements with which the people were in. dulged; and these rude exhibitions (he adds) were generally represented in dumb show, with figures of wood or wax,' In this last assertion, we believe, the author is deceived ; as we know that great numbers of these mysteries and moralities, which we have seen collected, were written in dialogue and spoken dramatically in the Italian churches, at a much earlier period than the time of Lorenzo il Magnifico, to which Mr. W. refers the sacred pantomimes.
The Sofonisba of Galeotto del Caretto, Marquis of Savona, 1502, was the first attempt at an Italian drama on a secular subject; and La Pamfila of Antonio da Pistoia, 1508, was the second :--but, as the first was written in ottava rima, and the second in terza rima, in a wild irregular manner, “it seenis, (according to Voltaire) as if the Sofonisba of Trissino, 1515, was the first regular Tragedy which Europe saw after so many ages of barbarism.” This tragedy is written in versi sciolti, or blank verse ; and the fable is conducted in a regular manner, on the model of the ancient Greeks, with odes, and an attend. ant moralizing chorus. It abounds with pathos, and beautiful strokes of nature. Mr. W. has inserted two or three specie mens, which will incline his readers to wish for more.
Trissino, the author of this tragedy, and of the epic poem, of Italia liberata, in blank verse, of which he was the inventor, produced likewise a treatise on Architecture, and acted as a statesman with considerable abilities under Leo X. He was born in 1478, and died in 1550. An old Italian poet has said :
“E'l Trissino gentil, che col suo canto
Prima d'ognun dal Tebro, e dall'Illissen
* See Rev. vol. lxxvii. p. 425.
which Mr W, thus translates :
Gentle Trissino too, whose potent strain,
Melpomene to weep.' .
The beautiful ode to Love, in this tragedy, which aboundswith original and ingenious thoughts embroidered on a threadbare subject, is better translated; though we deem the amo. plifications too numerous, and are unable to reconcile with either sense or grammar
A resistless glance
Through the soul.' The second regular Italian tragedy was Rosmunda, by Rucellai, nephew of Lorenzo de' Medici, about the year 1516. The subject, which has been often treated since, was taken from the history of Lombardy, and was first rendered dramatic by Rucellai. This tragedy has been praised by many eminent writers, of which number is Mr. Roscoe; and from the account which Mr. Walker gives of it, and from the fragments cited,, it seems well entitled to celebrity. It is written on the Greek model, and has an attendant chorus..
The same author produced a still better tragedy, Oreste : but, though Maffei pronounced it to be the best drama which either the antients or the moderns-ever brought on the stage, it was less esteemed by the Italians in general; as it was not an , original production, like the Rosmunda, but an imitation, constructed on the fable and plan of the Iphigenia in Tauris of Euripides. This drama has consequently an attendant chorus, à la Grec.
Three lines quoted by Mr. W. (p. 41) from this tragedy, seem sufficiently nervous, robust, energetic, and sonorous, to shield the Italian language from the common censure of too great softness and effeminacy. A distant noise being heard by the characters on the stage, resembling a peal of thunder, mingled with cries of distress; Thoas, astonished and alarmed, demands,
“ Ma che stridore spuventoso, e strano
Esce del fondo abisso della terra,
The noise and cries continue ; and, during the intervals of the pealing sounds, the chorus exclaim :
“O cielo, O terra, O fiamma, O mare, O venti,
O alta nume, O podestà suprema,
Tanta é si bella macchina del mondo.” Mr. W. has not attempted to render these fast beautiful lines into English ; though it seems as if an almost literal translation would convey to the English reader some faint idea of the sentiments, if not of the language, of the original. Will the reader admit the following attempt ?
Oh heavens, oh earth, oh sea, oh winds and fame!
Again be shivered, and re-plunged in chaos ! Alamanni, a studious refiner of blank verse, wrote a tragedy about this time (1530) in imitation of the Antigone of Sophocles; and a didactic poem in the same measure, entitled LQ Cultivazione, published at Paris, whither he was a fugitive, in 1546.
Mr. Walker's account of the next tragedy in the series is so curious, that we shall present it to our readers.
• The tragic muse being now roused in Italy found several votaries. Amongst the many pieces, as well original as translations, which covered her altars, the Edipo Re ( dipus tyrannus) of Orsatto Giustiniano, a Venetian noblemau, particularly recommends itself to our notice, not only by its intrinsic merit, but from the adventitious cir. cumstance of its having been the first drama represented in the famous Olympic theatre of Palladio at Vicenza, where, says an Italian author, it was recited in 1585, con sontuosissimo apparato. This tragedy becomes attractive also from another anecdote attached to its scenical history. When it was first exhibited, the part of Edipus was performed with great ability,--by Luigi Groto, commonly called Il Cieco d'Adria (the blind man of Adria) from the circumstance of his being totally deprived of sight; a misfortune that befel him on the eighth day after he was born. This extraordinary man was not only an actor of merit, but a fruitful (fertile) and successful writer. His pastoral of Calisto, and his comedies of Alteria, Emilia, and Il Tesoro, are honourably mentioned by Gravina and other Italian critics.
This extraordinary person, so early deprived of sight, was author of a tragedy entitled Hadriana ; which bears so strong a resemblance to our Shakspeare's Romeo and Juliet, in its principal incidents, and in many of the sentiments, that the Eng. lish reader will be much interested in Mr. Walker's account of it. Were it not too long for the limits of our article, we should gladly have transcribed it.
After the account of the blind actor and bard, we find an historical and descriptive relation of the celebrated Olympic theatre built by Palladio at Vicenza.
The next tragedy analyzed by Mr. W., after that of Hadriana, is the memorable Canace and Macareo of Speron Speroni, 1546; which may be said to have been ded into fame by critical opposition. The wild horror, terrific events, and mythological theogony of Æschylus, seem to have occupied the mind of Speron Speroni when he wrote this tragedy; which is on so disgusting a subject, that a modern audience would not bear the representation. Indeed it was never acted in Italy. Speroni had, however, acquired great respect and reverence by his Dialogues, learning, and critical sagacity, before he terminated his vital course in 1588, at the advanced age of fourscore.
The Fable of Canace is a mythological texture, first dramatised by the author, which none but bigoted Pagans could digest. Æolus, god of winds, had twins, a sun and a daughter, by his consort Deopeia. This divinity, favoured by Juno, was of course persecuted by Venus, for the storm with which he had opposed Æneas, as well as in remembrance of the quarrel relative to the judgment of Paris; and in order to render him and his family miserable, the goddess made the twins so criminally fond of each other, that an incestuous intercourse took place, and a child was the consequence,
The play opens with the Ghost of this infant, who had been murdered by order of the grandfather, and whose carcase had been thrown to the dogs * :-but, though the ghost anticipates all the disgusting horrors of the piece, the plot is detailed in scenes between the following characters of the drama: Æolus, Deopeia, Canace their daughter, Macareo their son, a councellor or confidential officer of state in the court of the bluster, ing god, a nurse, a servant, a lady of the bedchamber (cameriera) to Deopeia, and a minister of justice, or executioner.
We have now before us an edition of this extraordinary drama, of 1506, without the printer's name; with the Giudi. cio, or examination of the piece, dated 1543 ; 'containing many useful reflections on the art of tragedy, and other poems.' Much learning and knowlege of antiquity are displayed in this critique.
* Gay, in his What d'yr call it, has the ghost of an Embryo, or una bora child.