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L'Italia: La Terra dei Morti?

From: Italian Culture
Volume 23, 2005
pp. 31-50 | 10.1353/itc.2006.0024

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

[. . .] fair Italy!
Thou art the garden of the world, the home
Of all Art yields, and Nature can decree;
Even in thy desert, what is like to thee?
Thy very weeds are beautiful, thy waste
More rich than other climes' fertility;
Thy wreck a glory, and thy ruin graced
With an immaculate charm which cannot be defaced.

Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1816)

On 19 February 1826, two men drew swords in the early morning light outside Porta San Frediano in Florence. On one side stood Gabriele Pepe: experienced soldier, Neapolitan exile resident in Florence and self-proclaimed defender of Italy's honor. On the other side stood Alphonse de Lamartine: romantic poet, French diplomat resident in Florence, and alleged castigator of the Italian nation. The outcome of the duel was predictable from the start; Lamartine's years of melancholic musing compared poorly to Pepe's formative experiences in battles and uprisings. Luckily for Lamartine, the event was brief and almost bloodless; the French poet suffered a gash to his right arm and quickly conceded to the Neapolitan.

But why were the two men fighting? Bizarrely, they were fighting over the issue of Italy being the so-called terra dei morti. The origins of this duel can be traced to Lamartine's poem Le Dernier Chant du pèlerinage d'Harold (1825), an imaginative continuation of Lord Byron's Childe Harold; the composition of the latter work had been cut short by the English poet's death in Greece the previous year. It was a brave undertaking to attempt to continue the work of the most famous and romantically popular European poet of the day. Unfortunately for Lamartine, his attempt failed in dramatic fashion, as Italians reacted negatively to the depiction of their country in the Frenchman's poem. In his work, Lamartine presented Italy as a place asleep in the midst of a universe in motion. He called the country a land of the past and called Italians a shadow of a people who had slumped to insignificance. For example, he wrote:

Monument écroulé, que l'écho seul habite!
Poussière du passé, qu'un vent stérile agite!
Terre, où les fils n'ont plus le sang de leurs aïeux!
Où, sur un sol vieilli les hommes naissent vieux;
Où le fer avili ne frappe que dans l'ombre;
Où sur les fronts voilés plane un nuage sombre;
Où l'amour n'est qu'un piège, et la pudeur qu'un fard;
Où la ruse a faussé le rayon du regard;
Où les mots énervés ne sont qu'un bruit sonore,
Un nuage éclaté qui retentit encore!
Adieu! Pleure ta chute en vantant tes héros!
Sur des bords où la gloire a ranimé leurs os,
Je vais chercher ailleurs (pardonne, ombre romaine!)
Des hommes, et non pas de la poussière humaine!

Had the Dernier Chant enjoyed only mediocre success, then it is possible that Italian nationalists would never have heard of Lamartine's words. Unfortunately for the Frenchman, his poem was immensely popular in France, going through five editions in six months. The theme of Byron was extremely topical only months after the poet's tragic death in Greece. News of Lamartine's work reached Florence, and in the patriotic commotion that followed, excerpts were widely circulated in salons, theaters, and literary gatherings. With indignation, the Italians read the lines, "Tout dort, et cependant l'univers est debout! / Par le siècle emporté tout marche, ailleurs, partout!" The strength of the reaction to Lamartine can be seen in many contemporary accounts. For example, Barone Poerio wrote to Carlo Troya to say that the "sdegno" against Lamartine was "grande e generale." The Tuscan censor noted that the poem had made a "vivissima impressione" in Florence, while Lamartine himself later recalled that:

Ce poème fit grand bruit. Ce bruit alla jusqu'à Florence [. . .] a peine y fus-je arrivé, qu'une vive émotion patriotique s'éleva contre moi. On traduisit mes vers séparés du cadre; on les fit répandre à profusion dans les salons, au théâtre, dans le peuple.

The Frenchman...