The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis

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The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis

by Ugo Foscolo


An epistolary novel set mainly in Italy during the late 1790s; published in Italian (as Ultime lettere di jacopo Ortis) in 1802, in English in 1817.


Despairing of his country’s future after Napoleon’s invasion and suffering because of a doomed romance, an idealistic young man resolves to commit suicide.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Born on the Greek isle of Zante in 1778, Niccolo (later known as Ugo) Foscolo was the eldest son of Andrea Foscolo, a Venetian doctor, and Diamantina Spathis, the Greek daughter of a tailor. His father’s death in 1788 plunged the mother and children into poverty, forcing them to leave Spalato, where Andrea had worked as director of the hospital, and return to Zante. For a time, the children were sent to different relatives, but the family’s finally reunited in Venice, where they established a home in 1792. Ugo was educated at the school of San Cipriano in the area of Venice known as Murano, where he studied philosophy and literature and began to write poetry. His talents attracted the attentions of the cultured and influential Countess Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi, who invited him to join her literary circle, which included the poets Ippolito Pindemonte and Melchiorre Cesarotti. At 19, Foscolo composed his first play, Tieste (Thyestes, 1797), which attracted the praise of Italian dramatist Vittorio Alfieri (see Alfieri’s Myrrha , also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times). In addition to his literary pursuits, Foscolo engaged in political activities. He supported Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Italy in 1796, believing that it would lead to Venetian independence from the aristocratic families who had essentially ruled the centuries-old republic. After the French signed the Treaty of Campoformio, giving control of Venice to Austria in 1797, Foscolo became disillusioned and fled to Milan, where he worked for a Milanese periodical. In 1799 Foscolo began a military career, serving with the National Guard of Bologna and Genoa. During this period, he was also at work on The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis, a semi-autobiographical epistolary novel. Widely praised by the Italians who first read the novel, the work remains notable today for its portrayal of a romantic hero struggling in vain to cope with his nationalistic and romantic disappointments.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Italy during the French Revolutionary Wars

The Last Letters of jacopo Ortis takes place during the late eighteenth century, when poverty, banditry, begging, vagrancy, and other social ills grew especially widespread in the Italian states. Such wealth as the country possessed was mainly concentrated in the North or in the cities, while the majority of peasants in the agrarian South lived in debt and squalor. Conscious of their country’s ills, many Italian intellectuals and progressives felt that only drastic change would bring about the reforms they sought in order to improve the general quality of life in their land. The radicals consequently looked with approval on the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. Some Italians no doubt hoped that a similar uprising might result in the formation of a national homeland in their country, which at the time consisted of separate states and principalities, some ruled by the Italian nobility, some by foreign powers.

Enthusiasm waned, however, even among radicals when the French Revolution took an increasingly bloody turn around 1792. At the same time, the kings, princes, and dukes who ruled the various Italian states became more resistant to progressive reforms. Fearing similar outbreaks within their own domains, these rulers moved to enforce censorship rules and to suppress both the Freemasons (fraternal groups pledged to humanist, secular values) and Jacobins, outspoken advocates of the Revolution who were inspired by the newborn ideals of democracy and equality.

To some extent, the rulers’ fears were justified. War broke out in 1792 between France and several European nations. Italy was soon dragged into the conflict when French troops attacked the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia and occupied Savoy and Nice in an attempt to expand French boundaries and protect the new republic of France from attacks by other European powers. While most of the other Italian states chose to remain neutral, a few declared war on France, joining the anti-French coalition of Austria, England, and Prussia. The Italian areas that were under Austrian control (Tuscany and Lombardy) had little choice.

In 1795 a new government was established by the French republic, and its policy towards Italian opponents, such as Piedmont-Sardinia, became more aggressive. In March 1796 a young Corsican general (and future emperor of France), Napoleon Bonaparte, took command of French troops in northern Italy and within two months, had defeated the Piedmontese, forcing their king, Vittorio Amedeo III, to sign an armistice permitting French occupation of all Piedmontese fortresses. Napoleon’s army then triumphed over Austrian forces at Lodi, further strengthening France’s hold over northern Italy.

Following these victories, Napoleon entered Milan, Bologna, and Verona and brought all three under French control. Overall, he encountered little resistance, especially in Milan, where a nest of Italian Jacobins had gathered. Several influential Milanese, including Francesco Melzi and Paolo Greppi, believed it was in the best interests of their state—Lombardy—to break with Austria and seek alliance with France. Taking it upon himself to redraw the political map, Napoleon turned Bologna and Ferrara (ceded to him under duress by Pope Pius VI in 1797) into the Cispadane Republic and similarly arranged for the territories of Milan and Mantua to become the Transpadane Republic. By April 1797 the two Napoleonic states had merged to form the Cisalpine Republic. A month later, Napoleon turned his attention to subduing the Venetian Republic, which had lasted for more than a millennium.

The end of the Venetian Republic

Already by the ninth century, Venice, situated amid lagoons at an oceanic crossroads, had developed itself into a commercial force. It then recognized the authority of the Byzantine Empire, whose decline in the ninth century led to Venice’s own proud emergence as a self-governing city, a status it would maintain for nearly a millennium while one Italian neighbor after another suffered foreign rule. Political power in Venice was concentrated in the hands of an oligarchy of merchant families. No doubt, they felt entitled to rule, since Venice had by this time established itself as a maritime power exceeding all other Italian cities, except Genoa. Around 1300, in the face of naval threats from Genoa, Venice expanded its ruling body and made the right to participate in this Great Council hereditary. The council expanded to 1,500 members out of a total population of about 120,000. In 1310, by election, the Great Council formed a smaller Council of Ten, whose main job was to ensure internal security and order. There was also a Doge, or head of state, accompanied by six counselors who limited his power. Commoners participated in government too, filling official secretarial posts. All this organization bred civic loyalty and adherence to principles, especially to the one that insisted no single person ever monopolize power. Then, in the 1600s, Venice entered an economic slump and political decline followed. The late 1700s found small cliques of Venetians competing as usual for political power, none of them strong enough to withstand Napoleon.

During the French Revolution and Napoleon’s first Italian campaigns, Venice claimed to be neutral, refusing to ally itself openly with any European power. Nonetheless, Venice’s sympathies were most closely associated with those of the deposed monarchy in France; the Comte de Provence—the brother of former French king Louis XVI—applied for and was granted refuge in the Venetian Republic. For two years, the government of the Doge (the chief Venetian official) accepted the presence of the “Comte De Lille” and his family’s; ultimately, however, fearing Napoleon’s hostility, the Venetian republic asked them to leave.

Unfortunately, the revolutionary government in France was too offended to be placated by the Comte’s departure; moreover, the French were further antagonized by the fact that Austrian troops were permitted to move with impunity on Venetian soil. So incensed was Napoleon that he threatened to burn down Verona and Venice. After successfully occupying Verona in 1796, he demanded an alliance with Venice, which refused his terms and continued to cling to its neutral status. An anti-French rising in Verona in April 1797 and the sinking of a French ship by a Venetian fort on the Lido, an island sandbar outside the lagoon of Venice, led to Napoleon’s declaring war on Venice in May 1797.

Although the Venetian senate issued orders for the defense of the city and preparations for a siege, the Doge and his ministers chose to accept unconditionally all of Napoleon’s terms, owing in part to pro-French sympathies among the Venetian masses. Their policies of appeasement effectively ended the 1,200-year-old Venetian Republic. In a proclamation dated May 16, 1797, Napoleon announced the end of all the traditional institutions, the recognition of the people as sovereign, and the abolition of hereditary rights held by the Venetian nobility and Great Council. French troops were deployed to maintain law and order.

Initially, some Venetians hailed the advent of the French with elation, believing that the forces of revolution would usher in a new age of liberty for their homeland. Joyful demonstrations were held in the Piazza San Marco, where a tree of liberty was planted, and the ancient Libro d’Oro, a Golden Book containing the names of the most privileged Venetian fandlies, was burned. All prisoners were released and some towns triumphantly proclaimed their independence from the now dissolved Republic of Venice.


While Foscolo’s novel deals only with the two years immediately following the Treaty of Campoformio, it is worth noting that, after becoming First Consul of France in 1799, Napoleon renewed his military campaigns against Austrian forces in Italy, In 1801 the Treaty of Lunéville forced Austria to cede all of its Italian territory, with the exception of Venice, to France. By I8Q5, however, Venice too, along with Istria and Dalmatia, had passed into French hands, becoming part of the Kingdom of Italy, which had been established in the North, with Milan as its capital. Another French-ruled state, known as the Kingdom of Naples, existed in the South after 1806. Most of the Papal States fell under French rule in 1808-09. Until his abdication in 1814, Napoleon controlled the en-tire Italian peninsula, but not the islands of Sardinia and Sicily.

Five months later, however, Venetians’ hopes for liberty were dashed when Napoleon signed the Treaty of Campoformio, which gave Venice and her territories in Istria and Dalmatia to Austria in exchange for the latter’s Belgian provinces and the new Cisalpine Republic. After appropriating Venetian ships, gold, and works of art, the French departed on January 18, 1798; the Austrians arrived to occupy the former republic on the very same day. The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis begins just days before the signing of the treaty, with Jacopo’s first letter conveying the bitterness and disillusionment experienced by many Venetians at news of this betrayal by their supposed liberators: “The sacrifice of our home-land is complete. All is lost, and life remains to us—if indeed we are allowed to live—only so that we may lament our misfortunes and our shame” (Foscolo, Letters, p. 7).


The passionate tone of Foscolo’s novel reflects the beginnings of a new literary movement known as Romanticism, which first swept through Europe during the late eighteenth century and became increasingly dominant in the nineteenth century. Although each country brought its own unique interpretation to the movement, universal characteristics of Romanticism included a preference for innovation over traditionalism and for subjective over objective experience, emphasis on the imagination rather than the faculty of reason, emotional reaction to one’s natural surroundings, and an exaltation of the individual person, however imperfect or flawed.

These Romantic characteristics apparently manifested themselves first in Germany before taking hold elsewhere. Several modern scholars contend that Romanticism did not become a full-blown phenomenon until the post-Napoleonic years, from about 1815 to 1827. However, German works like Johann Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) were available in translation, often in French, the language of cultured society all over Europe in the 1700s. Foscolo himself read Goethe’s work in translation, courtesy of his friend and lover Countess Isabella Arese. The Last Letters of jacopo Ortis often evokes comparison with The Sorrows of Young Werther, not least because the protagonists of both novels struggle with unfulfilled romantic hopes and ultimately commit suicide. However, in his passion for the unattainable Teresa and his lingering grief over Italy’s oppression, Jacopo Ortis also anticipates the Romantic hero immortalized by the British poet Lord Byron: a brooding, melancholy, often self-absorbed individual who wanders in lonely exile far from his native shore, while languishing in the grip of a forbidden passion.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

The Last Letters of jacopo Ortis is written in the form of an epistolary novel. Most of the protagonist’s letters are written to his friend Lorenzo Alderani, whom he meets periodically over the course of the novel. Other letters are addressed to Teresa, the woman Jacopo loves in vain. Occasionally notes and story fragments—written by Jacopo or Lorenzo—interrupt the narrative progression of the letters. Before it begins, Lorenzo informs the reader in an editorial note that Jacopo has died and that Lorenzo is publishing these letters “to raise a monument to unknown virtue, and to consecrate to the memory of my only friend those tears which now I am forbidden to shed upon his tomb” (Letters, p. 3).

The first letter in the novel is dated October 1797, shortly before the ratification of the Treaty of Campoformio, which will grant the Austrians control over Venice. Jacopo, an upper-class Venetian youth with strong nationalist sympathies, reveals that “[his] name is on the list of those proscribed” and so he has taken refuge in the Euganean Hills to escape persecution as a rebel (Letters, p. 7). Despairing of his homeland’s future, Jacopo contemplates suicide rather than life under foreign rule: “Ah, how often in despair of vengeance I feel like plunging a knife into my heart to pour out all my blood amid the last shrieks of my homeland!” (Letters, p. 7).

While in his country retreat, Jacopo meets the cultured Signor T*** and his two daughters, the child Isabella and her older sister Teresa, who is betrothed to Odoardo, a wealthy but dull nobleman. This marital agreement has been made to ensure the family’s future security as Signor T***’s own nationalist sympathies have brought him under governmental scrutiny. The family’s grows fond of jacopo, who becomes enamored of the beautiful Teresa. After a bond develops between the two, Teresa confides to Jacopo that her mother disapproves of the arranged marriage between Teresa and Odoardo and has left her own husband because of it. Teresa also admits that she is unhappy and does not love her betrothed. Jacopo complains to Lorenzo, who is also acquainted with the family’s, about the unyielding attitude of Signor T***, who will brook no resistance to his plans: “He loves his daughter deeply, he often praises her and looks at her with pride, and yet he holds a sword over her…. To make it worse, he considers his wife’s opposition a violation of his own authority” (Letters, p. 17).

When Odoardo is called away to Rome because of a relative’s death, Jacopo begins spending more time at Signor T***’s villa with the family’s. One day, listening to Teresa play the harp and sing an ode by the Greek poetess Sappho that he has translated, he realizes that he loves the girl. Not wishing to distress her or her father by his attentions, he leaves the hills for the University of Padua in December 1797. In Padua the beautiful, dissolute wife of a nobleman attempts to seduce him but memories of Teresa impel Jacopo to decline her advances. Discontented with his surroundings, Jacopo grows bored, restless, and short-tempered; he enters into a quarrel concerning his honor and challenges his adversary to a duel, only to have the challenge refused. The university also displeases him because it is “composed of proud professors at odds with each other and dissolute students” (Letters, p. 29). Finally, Jacopo asks Lorenzo to sell all of his books and give the profits to his mother. By the new year, Jacopo has returned to the Euganean Hills and Teresa’s side. In response to Lorenzo’s criticism of his decision, Jacopo argues that “If I had to keep a constant watch on my irrepressible heart, I would always be at war with myself, and to no advantage. I shall give myself up for lost, and let what happens happen” (Letters, p. 31).

With Odoardo still in Rome, Jacopo and Teresa spend even more time together. Although happy in his beloved’s company, Jacopo is frequently reminded of his country’s plight, which plunges him into gloom. At one point, he digresses from his letters to write a romanticized account of Lauretta, a young girl he knew who lost her sweetheart Eugenio in the wars and subsequently lost her mind. Distraught, she wanders the fields, carrying a basket containing a skull, which she crowns with fresh roses. Later, learning that Lauretta has died, Jacopo feels relieved that she is at last free of her affliction.

The attachment between Jacopo and Teresa deepens. One evening in May 1798, Teresa confesses that she loves Jacopo and they exchange a single kiss. However, she also declares that they can never be together because she must obey her father. Jacopo alternately rejoices at the knowledge that his love is reciprocated and despairs that his political and economic circumstances prevent his marrying Teresa. His distress escalates when his rival finally returns from Rome; Jacopo agonizes over Teresa’s impending marriage and unhappiness, despises Odoardo as complacent and commonplace, and rails against every perceived injustice, from the condition of his homeland to the necessity of Teresa marrying to please her father. The violence of his emotions eventually causes Jacopo to fall ill with a fever. Upon recovering, he yields to the entreaties of Lorenzo and Signor T*** and agrees to depart the hill country again.

In the second part of the novel, Jacopo, still mourning the loss of Teresa, wanders through northern Italy, witnessing various social problems, including poverty, regional hostilities, and political oppression. In Bologna he observes the executions of two men who committed theft out of hunger and feels disgust at the way the rich continually victimize and punish the poor. In Florence he visits the tombs of Galileo, Machiavelli, and Michelangelo; sights that exalt and at the same time depress him:

Near these marble monuments I felt myself living again those ardent years of mine when, staying up late over the writings of great men, I imagined myself enjoying the applause of future generations. Such thoughts are too elevated for me now! They may even be mad. My intellect is blind, my limbs unsteady, and my heart corrupt, here, in its very depths.

(Letters, p. 84)

The beauties of nature have the power to soothe Jacopo, but their solace is only temporary. In his letters, he reproaches Lorenzo for not writing more frequently and for not including more news of Teresa, even though he dreads to hear of her marriage to Odoardo. Finally, he asks Lorenzo not to speak of him to Teresa and admits that he cannot help exacerbating his own torment: “I finger my wounds where they are most grievous, and I try to ulcerate them, and I look at them as they bleed. And it seems to me that my sufferings are some expiation for my faults, and a brief comfort for the griefs of that innocent young girl” (Letters, p. 88).

Jacopo’s embittered wanderings continue. He travels through Tuscany and Parma, feeling like an exile in his own country, especially after he is denied a passport to visit Rome because of his nationalist sympathies: “So all we Italians are political exiles and foreigners in Italy, and when we are only a short distance away from our own little bit of earth, neither intellect, nor fame, nor a blameless life protects us” (Letters, p. 89). Journeying instead to Milan, Jacopo witnesses further evidence of foreign rule: the general population speaks mostly French, a local bookseller does not stock Italian books, and the elderly poet Giuseppe Parini, whom Jacopo meets several times during his Milanese sojourn, has become disillusioned by the current regime and withdrawn from the struggle for a free Italy. Although Parini sympathizes with Jacopo’s ardor and idealism, he sees no hope for their homeland and advises the young man to find another outlet for his passions. But torn between his despair over Italy and his hopeless love for Teresa, Jacopo feels that only death will bring him peace.

In February 1799 Jacopo sets out for Nice in France, taking a route through Genoa and the Maritime Alps. While staying in the small village of Pietra Ligure, Jacopo meets a friend of Lorenzo’s who has fallen on hard times. Having emigrated after the Peace of Campoformio, the former army lieutenant now finds himself unemployed with a young family’s to support and “[d] riven from town to town by every government, either because my poverty kept the magistrates’ doors closed to me, or because no one took account of me. And those who knew me, either did not wish to know me, or turned their backs on me” (Letters, p. 103). Moved by the man’s misfortunes, Jacopo gives him what money and clothing he can spare, and refrains from condemning him for whatever errors in judgment brought him to this pass.

Reaching the frontier at Ventimiglia, Jacopo experiences an epiphany, of sorts. Despite his torment, he decides that death in Italy, among his countrymen, is preferable to life in exile, where nobody knows or can sympathize with him. Rather than continue into France, Jacopo turns back towards Italy. In Rimini he writes to Lorenzo, inferring from the latter’s silence that Teresa is now married to Odoardo. Describing himself as “incredibly peaceful,” Jacopo writes that “It is better like this, because now it is all decided” (Letters, p. 114). In a note following this letter, Lorenzo surmises that his friend apparently decided to die and informs the reader that he has arranged Jacopo’s remaining papers according to their dates.

During his last days, Jacopo sets his affairs in order. He makes a brief trip to Ravenna to visit the tomb of Dante, poet of The Divine Comedy (also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times). Next Jacopo returns to the Euganean Hills and, after a brief, emotionally tense encounter with Teresa and the rest of the T*** family’s, shuts himself up in his retreat with a Bible borrowed from the parish priest. To Lorenzo, Jacopo reveals a ten-month-old secret: while out riding, he had accidentally trampled a poor workman to death and then fled the scene. Subsequently, he had taken the man’s widow and children into his household and seen to their security. Despite the family’s’s gratitude, Jacopo remains overcome with remorse at having deprived them of a husband and father.

On a later visit to Signor T***’s villa, Jacopo tells the family’s he is preparing for another journey, this time to the once Venetian Islands. With the exception of Odoardo, everyone is sorry to hear of his impending departure, and a tearful Teresa gives Jacopo a miniature portrait of herself as a parting gift. Accompanied by Lorenzo, Jacopo then pays a last visit to his mother in Venice to receive her blessing. Jacopo’s mother entreats her son to go on living but after he has left, she voices her fear to Lorenzo that they will never see Jacopo again.

Returning to the Euganean hills, Jacopo begins writing his last impassioned letters, one to Lorenzo enjoining him to take care of his mother, one to Teresa assuring her of his eternal love and exculpating her from all responsibility for his untimely demise. Jacopo fears interference with his plans when Lorenzo arrives unexpectedly at the country villa and witnesses his final farewell to the T*** family’s, but he manages to send his friend to Padua on the pretext of fetching letters from one of his former professors at the university. Late that night, Jacopo places Teresa’s portrait around his neck and stabs himself fatally in the chest. His servant discovers his mortally wounded master the next morning and rushes to the T***’s villa for help. Teresa faints on hearing the news and her father hurries to his dying friend’s side; Jacopo expires within moments of the older man’s arrival. Returning from Padua, Lorenzo is grief-stricken to learn of Jacopo’s suicide: “That night I trudged along behind his corpse which three labourers buried on the hill of pines” (Letters, p. 140).

Man without a homeland

Arguably the most distinctive element in The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis is the protagonist’s continuing anguish over his country’s fate. Exiled from his native Venice after the Austrian occupation, Jacopo wanders through Italy, brooding over its oppression by foreign powers and its inability to defend itself:

These, O Italy, are your borders! But every day they are crossed at every point by the obstinate greed of other nations. Where are your children then? You lack nothing but the strength which comes from a common purpose. I would indeed give my unhappy life gloriously for you. But what can be done by my arm alone, and by my mere voice? Where is the ancient terror your glory inspired?

(Letters, p. 110)

Jacopo’s recognition of the sheer magnitude of his country’s problems and his personal inability to solve them aggravates his gloom. “Nations devour each other,” he muses, “because no single one of them could go on existing without the bodies of another. When I gaze at Italy from where I stand on these Alps, I weep and tremble, and I call for vengeance on the invaders. But my voice is lost in that murmur which is all that now survives of so many dead nations” (Letters, p. 111).

Jacopo’s other disappointment in life—his inability to marry Teresa—likewise stems from Italy’s political repression. During the late eighteenth century, unmarried Italian women still led lives defined by custom and tradition. In general, a young girl of good family’s was often educated in a convent school, then, upon reaching maturity, brought home to marry a man whom her father had chosen, regardless of her preferences. Teresa, in keeping with this practice, is betrothed to a wealthy nobleman chosen by her father. The arrangement causes severe strain in the family’s; her mother chooses to leave her father rather than condone a loveless marriage between their daughter and Odoardo.

Not only do Jacopo’s nationalist sympathies and hatred of the Austrian regime prevent him from proposing marriage but Teresa’s father, like-wise under suspicion for “having desired true liberty for his country, a capital crime in Italy,” would be ruined if he allowed a match between Jacopo, openly condemned as a revolutionary, and his daughter (Letters, p. 72). Therefore, he has arranged for Teresa to marry a nobleman, whose wealth and status will afford the family’s some protection. Significantly, Jacopo acknowledges in his last letter to Teresa that their doomed romance is not the primary motive for his decision to commit suicide: “No, my dear young friend, you are not the cause of my death. All my desperate passions, the misfortunes of those people most necessary to my life, human crimes, the certainty of my perpetual slavery and of the perpetual infamy of my betrayed homeland—all had been decided a long time ago” (Letters, p. 128). Later, imagining himself called to account for his life before the throne of God, Jacopo again repeats the cry, “If you [God] had granted me a homeland, I would have spent all my intellect and blood on its behalf, and even so, my weak voice has courageously shouted out the truth” (Letters, p. 135).

At the time of Foscolo’s novel, the notion of an Italian homeland seemed at once tantalizingly near and hopelessly distant. The ideals of the French Revolution had been largely responsible for inspiring Italians with the dream of nation-hood, but when the French entered Italy in 1796, they came as an invading rather than as a liberating force. However, the formation of northern and central Italy into the Kingdom of Italy in 1805 represented a landmark in modern Italian history. For the first time in centuries, northern Italy existed as a unitary state, with a centralized administration and a national civil code, even though the French were responsible for the structure and implementation of both. As one historian writes, “The Napoleonic era was one of mixed gains for Italy. Many of the old privileges and much of the administrative chaos that had so plagued pre-revolutionary governments, formally disappeared; yet the benefits were far less than they might have been” (Duggan, p. 96). Napoleon, nominally king of the newly formed state, regarded Italy as either a territory to be apportioned to relatives and allies or as a source of funds for furthering French military campaigns. He had little interest in Italy itself, nor in the cause of Italian independence.

Significantly, Italian nationalist sentiment only increased in the face of his opposition. While no organized political or intellectual movements arose to counter the forces of occupation openly—indeed, such movements would inevitably have been suppressed by the Bonapartist regime—Italian patriots found subtler ways of fighting back, namely, through art and literature. In response to Napoleon’s attempt to make French the official language of the empire, many Italian writers, including Foscolo, determinedly produced important works in their native language. Meanwhile, in the South, secret societies intent on ousting foreign invaders from Italian soil became increasingly active. The most famous of these societies was the Carboneria, so called because its members—the carbonari—met in caves around charcoal fires. Disunity and internal conflict still plagued the regions of Italy, so years would pass before such resistance movements became sufficiently organized to be effective. Nonetheless, the dream of independence and unity took firmer hold decades before it was realized in the mid-nineteenth century.

Sources and literary context

Although The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis was partly influenced by Vittorio Alfieri’s tragedies and Lawrence Sterne’s The Sentimental Journey (specifically, the section about Lauretta), the novel mainly shows a strong autobiographical influence. Foscolo’s life did not, it is true, end in a dramatic suicide like that of his protagonist; nonetheless he drew heavily upon his own youthful experiences and emotions in writing his novel. Like many of his countrymen, Foscolo had hoped that the French invasion would result in an independent Italy, but his hopes were dashed when his native Venice was ceded to Austria under the Treaty of Campoformio. Foscolo reacted just as Jacopo Ortis did, by leaving Venice and fleeing to Milan to avoid political persecution.

Also like his protagonist, Foscolo proved unlucky in love. For a time he was romantically involved with his patroness Isabella Teotochi; her marriage to Giuseppe Albrizzi in 1796 so disappointed Foscolo that he suffered a decline in health and had to be sent to the Euganean Hills by his mother to recover. Later, while in Milan, Foscolo fell in love with Teresa Monti, wife of the poet Vincenzo Monti. He also became enamored of a beautiful unmarried girl, Isabella Roncioni, whom he met in Florence. Although Isabella returned Foscolo’s affections, marriage between them was not possible because she was already betrothed to a suitor chosen by her family’s. Teresa, the unattainable beloved in Foscolo’s novel, appears to be a composite of all three women whom he loved but could not have.

Foscolo’s work is most readily classified as an epistolary novel, a genre that enjoyed great popularity with eighteenth-century audiences. In particular, Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), which Foscolo had read and admired, served as a model for The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis. Both works feature idealistic young men who suffer from political disillusionment and thwarted love for an unattainable woman; both works end with the protagonist’s suicide. But while Werther’s decline is partly attributable to the dull mediocrity of his surroundings, Jacopo’s is a result of the frenzy and subsequent disappointments of the Napoleonic Wars.


Although The Last Letters of jacopo Ortis is fictional, its protagonist mentions and even encounters real-life literary figures, such as the writers Vittorio Alfieri (1749-1803) and Giuseppe Parini (1729-99). Like Foscolo, Parini recognized the need for significant social change in italy. When the French entered Milan in 1796, Parini was among those who hoped that some of the nobler principles of the French Revolution would take root in his country. In 1797, when Napoleon established the Cisalpine Republic, with Milan as its capital, he made Parini a member of the municipal government. But the idealistic Parini soon became disenchanted with the new regime and lost his position, partly because of his liberal utterances and sympathies. According to one anecdote, Parini publicly responded to the outcry of “Long live the Republic. Death to traitors!” with “long live the Republic. Death to no one!” (Parini in Hearder, Italy in the Age of Risorgimento, p. 255).

Reception and impact

Published in 1802, The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis proved highly successful in and beyond Foscolo’s native Italy. Its popularity spread to other parts of Western Europe, where translators rendered the novel into English, German, French, and modern Greek. Critics generally applauded the novel, one of them praising its portrayal of the effect of grief on the mind (Anonymous in Harris and Tennyson, p. 260). Other reviewers praised the vivid depiction of Italy’s political woes and the difficulties faced by Italian patriots who longed to see their homeland independent and united. Andre Viesseux, writing for the Foreign Quarterly Review in 1832, argued that its great attraction “lies in the political structures and patriotic sentiments, in the living picture of the extraordinary epoch in which they were written, in the sarcastic exposure of the republican mimics of the time, the pungent satire on the corruptions of Italian society, the glow of indignation against injustice, hypocrisy, and oppression, from whatever quarter they came” (Viesseux in Harris and Tennyson, pp. 262-263).

Foscolo would not have disagreed with that assessment of his novel’s strengths; indeed, he observed that “Ortis may boast of having been the first book that induced the females and the mass of readers to interest themselves in public affairs” (Foscolo in Harris and Tennyson, p. 261). When Foscolo left Italy for England, he found himself most often associated with his one early


Like his fictional counterparty Foscolo became deeply disillusioned by the various foreign regimes occupying Italy. He fled Venice when Austrian forces marched into the former republic after the Treaty of Campoformio, and later, despite having served in Napoleon’s Atlantic army from 1804 to 1806, he found himself frequently at odds with the Bonapartists, who from 1805 to 1814 ruled the Italian peninsula as the Kingdom of Italy in the North and the Kingdom of Naples in the South. His appointment as lecturer in eloquence at the University of Pavia came to an abrupt end when Napoleon suppressed teaching of eloquence at all Italian universities, a decision to which Foscolo’s reportedly inflammatory lectures against tyranny may have contributed. After Napoleon’s abdication in 1814, the Austrians regained much of their power over northern Italy. Rather than take an oath of allegiance to Austria, Foscolo went into exile, fleeing first to Switzerland, then to England, where, after a precarious existence marred by debts and ill health, he died in 1827.

novel in his adopted country. To his embarrassment, some young English ladies even addressed him as “Ortis” (Vincent, p. 7).

More recently, The Last Letters of jacopo Ortis has been considered a work of Romantic self-expression and has been singled out as Italy’s first modern novel. It not only depicts its Romantic hero’s feelings of rebellion and despair, notes literary historian Antonio Cippico: “What gives the greater historical importance to Foscolo’s book,” he continues, “is … the tragedy of jacopo himself, who lives through the death of his country” (Cippico, pp. 53-54).

—Pamela S. Loy

For More Information

Brand, C. P. Italy and the English Romantics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957.

Cambon, Glauco. Ugo Foscolo, Poet of Exile. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Cippico, Antonio. The Romantic Age in Italian Literature. London: Philip Lee Warner, 1918.

Davis, John, ed. Italy in the Nineteenth Century: 1796-1900. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Duggan, Christopher. A Concise History of Italy.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Foscolo, Ugo. Last Letters of jacopo Ortis. Trans. J. G. Nichols. London: Hesperus Press, 2002.

Harris, Laurie Lanzen, and Emily B. Tennyson. Nineteenth- Century Literature Criticism. Vol. 8. Detroit: Gale Research, 1985.

Hearder, Harry. Italy: A Short History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

—— Italy in the Age of the Risorgimento 1790-1870. London: Longman, 1983.

Killinger, Charles. The History of Italy. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Radcliffe-Umstead, Douglas. Ugo Foscolo. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1970.

Vincent, E. R. Ugo Foscolo: An Italian in Regency England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953.