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Reviewed by:
  • Voyage en Italie par Hippolyte Taine
  • Daniel Rosenberg
Hippolyte Taine, Voyage en Italie. Édition établie par Michel Brix. Paris: Bartillat, 2018. 663 pp.

This is a new annotated edition of Hippolyte Taine’s essay, Voyage en Italie, which was originally published as a series of articles in the Revue des deux mondes between 1864 and 1866. During this time, Taine had been perfecting his theoretical apparatus, the objective of which was to explain human society, including art and literature, through its material factors (the famous triad ‘race, milieu et moment’). Taine’s iconoclastic thesis, which was established as an alternative to the speculative and idealist tendencies of mid-nineteenth-century France, greatly influenced the new intellectual establishment of the Third Republic and its positivist doctrines. In the Voyage en Italie, which represents the early culmination of Taine’s critical method, he uses Italian society as a case study for his novel scientific apparatus. Italian scenery is thus described by Taine in a dispassionate, distanced, and often impersonal style, a far cry from the enthusiasm of earlier French Italophiles such as Staël or Stendhal. Taine’s narrative in the Voyage moves from one location to another, beginning in Naples and ending in Alpine Lombardy, and covers all aspects of life, from religion and art, to politics, crime, and sexuality. True to his positivist methodology, Taine identifies in each Italian city or region a number of generative principles that explain its social and cultural character. In Naples, for example, it is the vivid natural environment, as well as the Neapolitan penchant for disorder and violence, which prove so formative in the fondness for ornament and decoration that characterizes Neapolitan aesthetics. In Venice, it is the aquatic environment, combined with Venice’s position as a trade hub with the Orient, which created a uniquely dense and colourful style of painting. Despite his claim to objectivity, Taine does not shy away from judgements and evaluations, a tendency is apparent in his constant comparisons between the social mores of the Renaissance and the modern era. In these comparisons, it is evident that Taine favours the pre-modern way of life; in passages that also inspired the young Nietzsche, Taine praises the danger and vitality which he associates with the civilization of the Renaissance. The current edition of Taine’s essay is significant in its incorporation of the entire work into a single tome, and in the extensive commentary provided by editor Michel Brix. Brix, a specialist in early nineteenth-century literature, provides original and non-intuitive insights on Taine, such as his debt to the Romantic tradition and to Hegelian philosophy. Brix also highlights stylistic and rhetorical aspects of Taine’s language, giving the work an additional literary dimension. Brix’s footnotes are similarly enlightening, giving critical information on Taine’s voyage and on the historical circumstances of the peninsula. This rich volume is recommended to a general readership, who may find interest in its remarkable descriptions of Risorgimento-era Italian civilization. It is indispensable for scholars of nineteenth-century philosophy and critique, who will find much of value in this scholarly edition.

Daniel Rosenberg
Hebrew University of Jerusalem


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