The Italy of Dante, the "Italianism" of Stendhal

Goethe himself only saw a fragment of Italy; he put aside the Middle Age with disgust, out of contempt for Germany perhaps, and Pagan -- or unconsciously Protestant -- he exaggerated his antipathy for the contribution of the Church to Italian life from the origin of the Communes onward.

Stendhal without doubt loved all Italy, the Italy of Dante and that of the eighteenth century, the Italy of the churches and the palaces and that of the by-ways and taverns. But it is not only the Italy of Stendhal that is the true and real Italy, it is Stendhal himself who is essentially an Italian character; and it is necessary, in face of the problem of Stendhal, that Italians should see things as they really are, and hold to the reality -- which is in itself fair and noble enough -- and have nothing to do with dithyrambs. The same phenomenon of ingenuous vanity appeared four generations earlier in Japan; the Japanese in the earlier years of the Meji epoch hid and destroyed their lacquers and porcelains in order to show Europeans how "modern" they were. All this is even more ridiculous than it is odious; but if one desires the truth and not mere lyricism, one must not forget that the "Italianism" of Stendhal, intense though it was, was above all due to reaction from, and disgust of, the France of the "enricbissez-vous" ; what we ought to admire most in Stendhal is the fact that he felt that the natural dignity of any man of the commonalty or of a contadino was the purest gem in the nobility of our people.

If Stendhal felt the profundity and the contrasts of our character it was because he lived in Italy as a man and not as a writer. And -- as a Stendhalian might add-he lived in loneliness. Barrès was wrong to make Stendhal a "professor of energy", in the sense of success in life; he might rather have said this of Balzac, who was ever in search of social success. The energy of Stendhal was concerned with the interior passions, not with external action.

Action never seemed worthy to him except when it did not make itself mediocre by looking for a reward. This explains perhaps the small success Stendhal had with women. He envied a man who knew how to love but not one who might have simply numerous adventures. He would have held Valmont of the Liaisons dangereuses in horror.

Byron and Chateaubriand, Lamartine and Ruskin, unlike Stendhal, never penetrated into the Italy of the mind, the heart and the spirit. Their Italy was simply a pretext for their art. Stendhal was saved by the fact that he wrote only for far-away readers; a poor Consul of France at Cività Vecchia, he was fortunate enough not to find a publisher; while from the others, the celebrated writers, many in London and Paris, demanded Odes, Memoires d'Outre Tombe and books on Venice.

The conclusion, only apparently paradoxical, is: the more a people possess a literature rich and powerful, the more its artists have fixed its character on canvas and in frescoes famous' everywhere, so much the more is this people crystallized for foreigners, enfolded in an asphyxiating mist of preconceived ideas whose prisoners they are, even when they believe themselves freed from it.

The terribilità of Dante is probably the origin of a whole series of psychological legends, as a whole side of Stendhal is only explained by his passionate love -- almost the love of a collector -for Italian chronicles of the fifteenth century. I have known certain cultured Germans who maintained that the history of England was stained with blood, with violence and treason as that of no other European nation; when I showed my astonishment, they referred me to the plays of Shakespeare.

In conclusion: for us Italians it is above all the judgment which a foreign writer and visitor pronounces on our peasants and contadini whose roots are in the soil, that is the test with us of his psychological understanding; it is not that we look for nothing but praise of our artisans and peasants : the English novels of Ouida, so much in fashion in the time of our grandparents, romances in which every piping goatherd was a hero and every gondolier a poet, sound to us as false as when in idiotic hatred of Italy some English tourist only records of all his journey that some antiquarian of the Ponte Vecchio or the Via Costantinopoli offered him a false antique and succeeded in sticking him with it.

It would be better that foreigners should resign themselves to admitting that the Italian people, in spite of all their apparent cordiality, are a closed book to them; at least until they have lived for ten years in some Italian country-side. Perhaps they would get nearer the truth if they only knew how to observe, how to look at the vintagers on the Roman hillsides, the shepherds among the Abruzzi mountains, the proprietors of half an hectare of land in Liguria and in the Lunigiana. One cannot do less than admire the perfect equilibrium of their bearing, an equilibrium quite unconscious that is not affected even when they come down into the city or have to wear the ugly cappotto of the conscript. If you look at a regiment of infantry passing down the street of some Italian city, you will receive an impression of neatness and general refinement such as you will get in no other country. He who -- like myself -- has lived beside thesemen in the relative liberty of wartime, will not have forgotten their marvellous ability to take advantage of even the rarest and most casual expedient, and even before orders have been issued, know how to judge and sum up with an astonishing exactness the real value of their leaders. Those Lombard peasants, gigantic and gay, or the Apulians, stumpy and melancholy, with whom I have passed so many days, miserable or fortunate, on the Eastern front from 1915 to 1918, seem to me the living illustrations of a phrase of Palladio's : "that man ought to look to four things, that is, the air, the water, the land and their mastery; for of these three exist by nature, and the fourth by the will and the might of man."

No comments: