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de Sanctis, Francesco (1817–1883)


Francesco De Sanctis, the Italian liberal politician and political and literary critic, was born near Naples. Although trained for the law, he turned to the study of Italian culture. He taught at the Military School of Naples, but his participation in the Revolution of 1848 led to his dismissal, a three-year prison sentence, and banishment. He taught and lectured in Turin and Zürich, and returned to Naples in 1860 as governor of the province of Avellino. As director of the Ministry of Public Instruction he brought scholars of great repute to the University of Naples and fought for the secularization of the public schools. After becoming editor of the newspaper Italia in 1863, he continued to champion reforms and helped to establish the modern Italian tradition of combining philosophy and worldly affairs. In 1868 De Sanctis returned to literary criticism. Several years later he completed his Storia della letteratura italiana (History of Italian literature). He accepted the chair of comparative literature at the University of Naples in 1872, but in 1877 he resumed his political career as organizer of a liberal opposition party, vice-president of the Chamber of Deputies, and minister of public instruction.

De Sanctis developed no systematic aesthetics or political philosophy. His principles of criticism are implicit in his essays. Literary truth, for De Sanctis, is realized in form, but literature's connection with political and social life is the substance of its meaning and the true source of formal beauty. Form transforms an idea into art and is the instrument by which artistic truth is achieved; it is art itself. Content and ideas are, for artistic purposes, without truth. Form provides truth, artistic integrity, the capacity to project an experience or idea so as to bring it subjectively alive for an observer. It does so successfully when it is naturally wedded to the content and seems fused with it. Successful form is derived from the concrete vision of the poet as he reflects on a living experience of the language and forms of his age. This tie between the artist and his immediate image is the deepest source of true art. The language and ideas of art spring from and are shaped by the social and historical events against which they act in the mind of the artist. De Sanctis sought, by grasping history and language, to grasp the work of art as conceived by the artist. History, and specifically political history, provides the framework in which ideas are tested against each other and find concrete representation in artistic form.

Traditional criticism saw technical skill as the essence of poetry, but poetry is involved with the values of the moral, historical, and social orders it expresses and reflects. The philosophical commitments of the poet, his moods and personal objectives, are the stimuli, the raw materials from which an ordered piece of art is shaped. The essence of art is form, but form into which content has passed and fulfilled itself.

De Sanctis believed that the poet must be immersed in the life of his national community. The subject and object of art is the human being. The artist must study man, exhort him, laugh at him, understand him. The artist's manner of picturing human life gives art its truth; this truth is gained by mastery of the language of the age and absorption of its combinations and formal possibilities.

Although art is measured by aesthetic criteria, as a historical phenomenon it is subject to social and moral considerations. Therefore, De Sanctis was led from literary criticism to literary history to the history of Italian culture and ultimately to the relation and debt of Italian culture to Italian politics.

Politics, De Sanctis believed, is a reflection of the moral fiber of a nation. Political activities reflect a wider cultural context and have a special responsibility for that culture, through the power to stimulate or repress it. Politics is a national dialogue between the various sectors of the population. The capacity of the popular classes to participate in and guard a national political organism, to preserve its morality in the face of the tasks of national destiny, to absorb the style and content of past national leaders imprints the national style and goal on political behavior.

Many of De Sanctis's political essays are exhortations, expressions of concern over apathy and loss of morality in political life, as well as attempts to express the inner urgings of Italy. For De Sanctis morality and culture were intimately connected. Moral political activity carried out Italy's destiny, which its previous culture had marked for restored greatness. The politics of a great nation reflects its culture and is perpetually open to self-renewal through the participation of the bearers of that culture. If they cease to participate in the nation's political activity, the culture breaks down, and politics becomes immoral, politicians self-aggrandizing, and the people apathetic.

See also Aesthetics, History of; Aesthetics, Problems of; Art, Truth in; Political Philosophy, History of.


primary works

Scritti rarii inediti o rari, 2 vols. Naples, Italy: Morano, 1898.

Scritti politici, 3rd ed. Naples, Italy: Morano, 1900.

Saggi critici, 3 vols. Bari, Italy: Laterza, 1952.

La scuola liberale e la scuola democratica. Bari, Italy: Laterza, 1953.

Storia della letteratura italiana (History of Italian literature), 2 vols. Translated by Joan Redfern. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1968.

secondary works

Cione, Edmondo. Francesco de Sanctis, 2nd ed. Milan: Casoni, 1944.

Croce, Benedetto. Estetica (Aesthetics), 2nd ed. Translated by Douglas Ainslie. London: Macmillan, 1922.

Davis, John A., and Paul Ginsborg, eds. Society and Politics in the Age of the Risorgimento: Essays in Honour of Denis Mack Smith. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Holliger, Max. Francesco De Sanctis: Sein Weltbild und seine Ästhetik. Freiburg: Paulusdruckerei, 1949.

Landucci, Sergio. Cultura e ideologia in Francesco De Sanctis. Milan: Feltrinelli Economica, 1964.

Muscetta, Carlo. Francesco De Sanctis. Rome: Laterza, 1975.

Russo, Luigi. Francesco De Sanctis e la cultura napoletana. Venice: La Nuova Italia, 1928.

Irving Louis Horowitz (1967)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)

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