The Italian author Ugo Foscolo (1778-1827) was a poet, critic, and dramatist as well as a patriot. His romantic temperament and flamboyant life characterize his role as a key transitional figure in Italian literary history.
Born Niccolò Foscolo on the Greek island of Zante on Feb. 6, 1778, he soon adopted the pseudonym Ugo. Well educated in philosophy, classics, and Italian literature, in 1792 Foscolo moved to Venice, where he immediately became embroiled in the struggle for independence. After writing "Ode to Bonaparte the Liberator" (1797), Foscolo began a life of exile, during which he fought against Austria, first in Venice, then in Romagna, in Genoa, and even in France (1804-1806).
Concurrent with his military exploits, Foscolo gave literary expression to his ideological aspirations and to the numerous amorous experiences of these years in odes, sonnets, plays, the epistolary novel The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis (1802), and the long poem On Tombs (1807). As professor of rhetoric at Padua (1809), Foscolo espoused in his lectures the view—new in Italy—that poetic beauty arose from the fusion of imitation with the genius of the individual creator.
Banished for his anti-French drama Aiace (1811), Foscolo went to Florence, where he completed his translation of Laurence Sterne's Sentimental Journey and wrote his third tragedy, Ricciarda. He also worked assiduously on The Graces; although never given final form, these fragmentary hymns, characterized by delicate musical and plastic sensibility, represent Foscolo's best lyric poetry. In 1815 Foscolo fled to Zurich, where he republished Ortis and composed several works against those Italians receptive to foreign occupation. The next year Foscolo went to London, where he authored critical essays, reworked Ortis and The Graces, and participated actively in British literary society until his death at Turnham Green near London on Sept. 10, 1827. In 1871 the transfer of his remains to Sta Croce in Florence conferred upon Foscolo a well-deserved place among the other great Italians entombed there.
Ortis and On Tombs best exemplify the major themes of Foscolo's works: the search for glory, beauty which restores serenity to man's turbulent life, patriotic exile and its attendant loss of liberty, and the inspirational value of tombs of illustrious men. The later versions of Ortis portray the life of Jacopo, driven from his Venetian home by foreign occupation. Disappointed by unfulfilled love and comforted only by the sight of tombs dedicated to great Italians, Jacopo commits suicide, thus terminating his lonely struggle against tyranny and hypocrisy. On Tombs, written after Napoleon had prohibited funereal monuments, is also strongly autobiographical and didactic. Animated by rich imagery and lyrical language, it also stresses the inspirational value of tombs and the pain of exile.
Foscolo's vitality and unflagging quest for freedom account for his immense popularity during subsequent Italian struggles for unification and independence.
The only full-length studies of Foscolo in English concern his stay and activities in England: E.R. Vincent, Byron, Hobhouse, and Foscolo: New Documents in the History of Collaboration (1949) and Ugo Foscolo: An Italian in Regency England (1953). □