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THE

MONTHLY REVIEW.

APPENDIX TO VOL. IV.

FOREIGN LITERATURE.

ART. I. Commedie di Alberto Nota. 5 vols. 12mo. Firenze. 1826. THE origin of Italian drama is involved in some obscurity. The first rude specimens of the art consisted of sacred performances, or mysteries relating to some event, or illustrating some of the promises of Revelation, and were acted in open places as early as the times of Dante. In these the sacred and the burlesque, the terrific and the absurd, were often profanely blended. From one of these mysteries the great father of Italian poetry has been supposed, by some, to have taken the first idea of his poem, which he styled the Divine Comedy. A drama on the subject of the visit of the Magi was performed at Milan towards the middle of the 14th century; and another at Florence, on the subject of Abraham and Isaac. These performances lasted several days, and were executed with much pomp and pageantry. Next appeared allegoric dramas, in which virtues and vices were personified, and in which angels and demons sung or recited parts.

Towards the end of the 15th century, ancient mythology was again brought upon the stage, in the shape of pastoral plays, in which nymphs and fauns, and other deities, sung and danced, dressed in rich costume, and surrounded by splendid scenery and decorations.

Poliziano's Orfeo, which was styled a fuvola tragica, was performed at Mantua in 1483. Trissino wrote his Sofonisba, which was the first regular Italian tragedy. Cardinal Bibbiena composed the first known comedy, La Calandra, in imitation of Plautus's plays, and it was performed at Rome in 1510. Machiavelli, Aretino, and Ariosto wrote comedies in prose and in verse. zini invented a new sort of popular comedy, and his example was followed by Firenzuola, Gelli, Salviati, and other Florentine writers. In these, the wit and humour peculiar to their countrymen were, at times, joined to licentious expressions and allusions.

VOL. IV. NO. XX.

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It appears, also, that Venice had its theatre long before Florence; several critics, among the rest Riccoboni and Denina, pretend that it was at Venice that Italian comedy had its origin; the last mentioned historian asserts, that Venice had comic performances previous to the age of Leo X., and he almost affirms the Venetian theatre to have been the earliest in modern Europe. It appears that the principal elements of the Venetian comedy were the maschere, which consisted then of harlequin, pantaloon, dotton and brighelta, each of whom spoke his respective dialect, and this was, probably, the beginning of that style of comedy, called commedia dell'arte, in opposition to classic comedy, or commedia antica, which afterwards became universally popular all over Italy. Venetian companies went to perform at the imperial court of Germany, in the reigns of Ferdinand I. and Maximilian II. But as the Venetian comedians used the dialect, and seemed solely intent to amuse their audience, without following any rules of composition, the literati of the rest of Italy took no notice of their labours; and the Tuscan or Florentine comedies, alone, of the 16th century have been handed down to us, and are known under the name of commedie antiche. The number of plays written in that age, amounted to several thousands.

At the beginning of the 17th century, this ancient style of comedy, which was modelled on the Greek and Latin dramatists, and was not remarkable for interest of plot or variety of incident, fell into neglect, and gave way to the commedia dell'arte, or burlesque comedy, more suitable to the national temper, and in which masked personages sustained an essential, and, to the audience, a most attractive part. Each of these personages was meant as a representative of the peculiar character, humour, and ridicule of the inhabitants of some Italian city or district; each had his peculiar dress and mask, and spoke the dialect of his native place. Besides those who performed the burlesque part of the play, there was a serious part, or plot, which was acted by the amoroso and his mistress, and supported by the servette, or waiting-maid; all of whom spoke Italian, and wore no masks. Thus the two actions, serious and burlesque, proceeded on, as it were, abreast, and the latter was a sort of parody of the former.

Such was the plan of the commedia dell'arte, a sort of drama peculiar to Italy, and which has been supposed to trace its origin from the Atellanæ of the ancient Romans. The author of the play only wrote a scenario, or a sketch of the different scenes and incidents, upon which each actor caught the idea of his part, and filled up his speeches extempore: hence the name of commedie a sogetto, by which they are also known.

It will occur to our readers, that this singular mode of composition, whilst it afforded great opportunities for the display of originality and talent in the performer, must have been open to great. abuses and licentiousness. Goldoni perceived this; and impelled

by a natural sense of order and propriety, he undertook and effected a great change in Italian comedy. He put down the impromptu comedies, and substituted for them regular-written plays. In his Teatro Comico, he states the faults and abuses of the former practice with great fairness. However, Goldoni retained the principal masks in many of his plays; but he wrote down their parts in their respective dialects. He has made rather free with the unities, especially with that of place. Those of his plays which are written in the Venetian dialect, have more vivacity and humour than his Italian comedies. However, some of the latter are possessed also of considerable interest. His Italian is far from being pure; his phraseology is often vulgar: but he has, on the other side, abstained from indecency and scurrility. Goldoni wrote much, and hastily; he has, however, been the founder of modern Italian comedy, which is sometimes distinguished by the name of Goldoniana. He stands, by the common consent of three generations of his countrymen, on the summit of Italian theatrical fame; his reputation has maintained itself in the midst of all vicissitudes; he is to the Italians what Moliere is to the French.

Carlo Gozzi, a cotemporary and countryman of Goldoni, an eccentric, but truly original genius, thought that the change Goldoni was working in the Italian drama, would prove detrimental to its spirit and interest, and would entail hereditary dullness on the stage. He endeavoured to oppose it by all the arms of ridicule, and of roused national feeling. His temper was violent; his disposition satirical; and he brought on himself a sea of troubles. He succeeded to uphold, for a time, le commedie dell'arte; but they fell, after him, never to rise again.

Gozzi wrote many allegorical and satirical plays, in which he introduced fairies, sorcerers, and all their supernatural machinery, in furtherance of his favourite object, of ridiculing Goldoni and his regular plays and Martellian verse. Gozzi's plays were translated into German: Schiller himself employed his pen in the task, and German professors in the university of Halle, expounded them to their pupils. Considerable resemblance may be traced between Gozzi's plays and those of Aristophanes, in the nature of their machinery, as well as in the temper in which they were written.

Gozzi was not, perhaps, altogether wrong in deploring the banishment of the commedie dell'arte. The latter, under proper management, might have been preserved and improved. The buffo, or burlesque, is, after all, the real spirit of Italian comedy. Even in the melo-drama, the opera buffa proves in general to be much superior in attraction to the stately opera seria, of which, bating a few ariettas, nothing is, in our humble opinion, more soporific.

Goldoni's successors and imitators did not all inherit the natural talent, the felicity of style, and the flow of ideas, of which, undoubtedly, he was possessed. A set of imitators of French and German literature introduced on the Italian stage the lachrymose

and elegiac style-the style of domestic tragedy, which, in the absence of real passion, and real grief, served to excite the tears of romantic and love-sick damsels, and was applauded by idle young men, who mistook vanity and egotism for philosophy; foreign manners and maxims for real feeling; and pompous rhapsodies for moral precepts. The contrast between this display of cheap morality and of morbid sentimentality, and the well known conduct of both performers and spectators, removed toto cælo from either Platonic or chivalresque models, bore a lamentable, and, at the same time, ludicrous, evidence of the evils of affectation and servile imitation; and will strike, even now, occasionally, the reflecting spectator in some of the Italian theatres.

The political storms which broke out towards the close of the last century, and the real calamities which then befell every Italian state, acted as a powerful corrective on the distempered taste for fictitious woe. A healthier and more natural impulse was given ; and a few really clever writers arose, who supported, in some measure, the character of the Italian comedy. Plays, describing actual characters and incidents, and ridiculing or exposing the prevalent failings of the times, were written in natural style and good language, and were well received by the public.

Italy could not, from her political condition, have satirical or political comedies after the manner of the ancient Greeks, in which the great interests of state were discussed under the veil of allegory; comedy, therefore, was obliged to confine itself to the domestic circle. However, in exposing the views of various classes and individuals, it often brought under its lash the abuse of power: especially of delegate power, the most oppressive of all. This has been done in several plays of De Rossi, Capacelli, and Federici. The latter dramatist, a man of considerable skill, who wrote towards the end of the last century, became very popular by his severe censure of the injustices and irregularities of the high and the powerful, in which he spared no rank or condition. But these pieces de circonstance, as the French would call them, passed away with the times to which they referred; and they were laid aside the sooner, as they were defective in their plot and style.

Among those who have contributed, and still contribute in the present day, to improve and strengthen the Italian comic drama, is Alberto Nota, the writer whose name is prefixed to this article. A Genoese by birth, and bred to the profession of the law, he has for several years past employed himself in writing comedies for the Italian stage; in which, although he may be considered as being of the Goldonian school, he has however imparted a reality to the sentiments, novelty to the situations, and has brought forth occasional bursts of natural feeling, which have acquired him the reputation of being the first dramatist of the day. Nota has pourtrayed classes, rather than individuals; but some of those classes he has painted with great fidelity and spirit, and with a deep

knowledge of the human heart; and what is not a little to his praise, in the most unexceptionable language.

The evils of a country like Italy do not all proceed from the rulers, as some are apt to persuade themselves, for the sake of saving themselves the labour of investigation. One of the great sources of unhappiness, immorality and guilt, in Italy, has been for ages past the culpable excess to which gallantry (so misnamed) is carried, and the unpardonable liberties which are taken with the marriage state, in opposition to the feelings of human nature, and to the principles of justice and of religion. The looseness of the marriage tie; the arts of coquetry, to which many young women are trained up, by those who ought to give them better examples; the vanity of parents in disposing of their daughter's hand and happiness, and the domestic dissensions, the dissipation of fortunes, the scandal, the sins and crimes which spring from all the above causes; these form the canker which preys on the vitals of Italian society, and which prevents its members from rising to the full dignity of men. How can a man, who allows his wife to be openly courted by a set of idle or dissolute characters, and to appear in public places under the protection of a forward admirer, while he, the husband, is courting as openly another man's wife; how can such a man presume to improve the condition of his countrymen, who cannot reform his own family? We know, however, and with pleasure assert it, that the evil just complained of has been for some time abating; but yet it is undeniable that it still exists to a baneful extent in most Italian cities. Of course, the rulers ought to give the example of regularity in this, as in other respects. Some of the Italian courts are known to be extremely correct in their domestic habits and conduct; but perhaps they do not discourage the opposite propensity, among the patricians and their own dependants.

For the laudable object of correcting this evil, writers can do much; and here they have a subject upon which they can exert their pens freely, without fear of the censure. Some of them may perhaps disdain such a homely topic: Nota has however exposed, in several, and the best among his plays, the various vices, and their results, which spring from one source; i. e., want of proper steady principle in females. In his play, entitled 'I primi passi al mal Costume,' he describes a young lady of natural good feelings, married to a man she loves, but who, seduced by the dangerous example and imprudent freedom of general society, by the evil advice of an intriguing maid, and by the arts of a dissolute young officer, admits the latter to her intimate society, bestows on him her portrait, gives him assignations, and thus proceeds step by step towards inevitable ruin; from which she is only saved by the cool sense and judicious interference of her husband, who, taking her to a masked ball, in a dress different from that in which she had promised the officer to accompany him, gives her the opportunity

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