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MLN 119.1 (2004) 52-66

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The Language of Passion:
Gesture and Melodrama in Niccolò Tommaseo's Fede e bellezza

Enrico Cesaretti
University of Virginia

By the time Tommaseo wrote and then published Fede e bellezza (FB) in 1840, the second term of his novel's title, "bellezza," had become a particularly poignant and layered one. It represented the latest intellectual development and literary interpretation of a central philosophical notion which had (pre-)occupied the Dalmatian writer since his youth and which would continue to do so in subsequent years. 1

In his early treaty of aesthetics Del bello e del sublime (1824), Tommaseo gives us his definition of the concept of "beauty" and suggests the way one should judge it: ". . . il bello è l'unione di più veri compresi dall'anima in un concetto. E perché questa unità di veduta non può essere intera, cioè semplice, che nel sentimento; quindi appare come al sentimento spetti il giudizio del bello" (in Assunto 157). Later on, in his essay Del concetto del bello, while, as the title suggests, he identifies "beauty" with a "concetto," he also specifies that such a "concetto" is not merely an arid intellectual notion, but it includes, once again, "sentimento e . . . affetto."

Sentiments and affections with their quasi-synonyms feelings and passions, 2 in other words, are crucially linked to and an inherent part [End Page 52] of the concept of "beauty" and, in cooperation with "intelligenza," 3 they are some of the necessary elements for its individuation, perception and definition.

It does not come as a surprise, therefore, that a tormented love story is at the core of FB, nor that the omnipresent "affetti" play such an essential role in its development. 4 As several scholars have observed, the novel represents Tommaseo's attempt to reconcile the sensual and the spiritual side of beauty, an effort which, to use Manzoni's insightful words, meant the improbable combination of the passion of "giovedì grasso" together with the spiritual purity of the "venerdì santo." 5 At the same time, precisely because of the existing, strong links between "affetti" and "beauty" on the one hand, and between Tommaseo's meditation on aesthetics and linguistics on the other, the interpretation of the novel may benefit from an investigation of Tommaseo's literary and linguistic representation of "affetti" and/or passions.

Since, in other words, in Tommaseo aesthetic questions are often reflected on and interrelated with linguistic ones,I would like to suggest a reading of FB that broadly sets it against the background of the eighteenth and nineteenth century debate on the origins and the learning of language in Italy and in France. This was a debate in which notions such as "les sensations" and "les passions"played a crucial role. Tommaseo, from his spiritualistic position derived mostly from Rosmini and Manzoni, was a convinced anti-illuministic and one of the most prominent polemical critics of sensisme and the French ideologues. A targeted analysis of his treatment of passions in FB, [End Page 53] however, in their specific relationship to the linguistic theories straddling the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, may prove that his perspective in this regard is closer than previously thought to some principles and ideas developed in a sensualist context. If my hypothesis is valid, Tommaseo's continuity of thought with certain aspects of the culture of Enlightenment which go beyond the stock impact of Rousseau and his Confessions, even though potentially involuntary, may need to be further revaluated. 6 This effort, in turn, may eventually lead to a more comprehensive reassessment of the reciprocal cultural influence and interchange between the Enlightenment and Romanticism. 7

On a different level, the author and the text discussed in the following pages may obviously suggest a plethora of diverse critical and hermeneutical responses when considered under the perspective of the representation of passions.

From a biographical perspective, for example, one could emphasize Tommaseo's own ambivalent and passionate nature and persona, his existential and ideological restlessness stemming from a lifelong attempt to combine an intransigent catholic faith...


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