- Nel bitume, nel fuoco, e nell'obblio: Poesie inedite by Giuseppe Baretti
Karl Kraus famously wrote that to contemplate a poet in the act of reading must be as embarrassing as watching a cook in the act of eating. We are all too familiar with another kind of paradox in the world of letters: the inexorable critic whose whip has famously lashed first and second rate poets and playwrights, now caught in the act of writing verse, and not particularly memorable verse at that. Historians of literature are not allowed to turn from this embarrassing view: they need fresh documents to analyse so as to shed new light on the critic turned poet, whether the transformation was short-lived or permanent. Giuseppe Baretti was among these chameleonic writers. Well aware of the limits of his Muse ("la poésie a été le péché de Baretti" [poetry was Baretti's sin], observed the French critic Norbert Jonard), he was nonetheless sure of his place in the wider world of literature.
Francesca Savoia's latest contribution to Baretti Studies continues in the vein of her previous ground-breaking archival and interpretive work on the Baretti oeuvre: in 2010 she published Fra letterati e galantuomini. Notizie e inediti del primo Baretti inglese (Florence: Società Editrice Fiorentina), a comprehensive survey of his early years in England; in 2013 she transcribed and commented on seven unknown letters from Baretti's later years in Il Baretti vostro. Lettere inedite di G. B. (Verona: QuiEdit). Here, once again, Savoia offers a variety of unpublished sources: the autograph manuscript (Co.199/88) of the Firestone Library at Princeton University, which contains a canzone for the liberation of the town of Cuneo from the siege of the French-Spanish troops during the War of Austrian Succession (1744); a midlife crisis sonnet (1748); some complimentary verse for the Piedmont prince Vittorio Amedeo (later to become king Vittorio Amedeo III); twelve opera arias (1751); and two autographs of the Real Biblioteca in the Royal Palace of Madrid (II/866_A] and II/1867_A) with two encomiastic blank verse compositions (versi sciolti) for the Bourbon king of Spain Carlos III and his wife, Maria Amalia of Saxony (1760). The Princeton manuscript had been already identified by Gustavo Costa and Franco Fido, but the Madrid manuscripts were completely unknown (Baretti does not appear in the Library Catalogue: Savoia recognized Baretti's hand on the autograph manuscript). These lucky finds enable us to better evaluate three distinct moments of Baretti's life: his Italian youth; his [End Page 259] first English period; and his two Spanish sojourns 1760 and 1768, even though the verses for Carlo III and his wife were probably written in England. As documents of the Arcadian Academy's practice of scribbling verses (schiccherare versi), these poems show Baretti's flair and ability to write "in all colours of style, and almost all the modes of composition," to quote Baretti's self-promotional blurb for an English edition of his poems that was never published.
The hero of Cuneo's siege was the Saxony baron Wilhelm von Leutrum (1692-1755), still remembered today in Piedmont as the protagonist of the vernacular folksong Barùn Litrún. Baretti's canzone is obviously no folksong, but a learned and elegant evocation of the battle (September-October 1744) and of Leutrum's bravery in fighting for the Sardinian king ("Musa, cantiamo il forte / Leutronne, il generoso Duce saggio" ["Muse, let us sing the praises of the brave/Leutrum, the generous and wise Duce"]). Savoia underscores the pleasure in reading these verses with their elegant imitation of classical (Horace) and modern (Tasso) patterns. In Baretti's imagination Leutrum is a new Hector defending Troy; more astute than the ancient warrior, he ultimately succeeds by using the military cunctandi ratio, i.e., the ability to buy time through playing, in order to repel the enemy's assault. Baretti loves to present himself as a good patriot (though in all likelihood he was absent at the time of the siege), proud to...