It would be hard to think of a novel, certainly such a long and unfailingly lively novel, that has more instances of psychosomatic malaise, more accounts of attempted suicide, than Ippolito Nievo’s Risorgimento classic Confessions of an Italian (originally published in 1867 and only this year available unabridged in English). To understand the place of those illnesses and moments of desperation in the overall arc of this 860-page masterpiece is to get close to the spirit that drove the campaign for the unification of Italy. Behind it all lies the intuition that for the modern individual there can be no free and fulfilled personal life until there is a free and self-governing nation in which to live. Personal happiness is profoundly conditioned by the social and political surroundings.
The novel was published posthumously. Born to wealthy parents in Padua in 1831, the same year that patriot Giuseppe Mazzini established his revolutionary independence movement Young Italy, Nievo was among the legendary Mille, the thousand Red Shirts, who in 1860 set sail from Genoa with Giuseppe Garibaldi to “liberate” Sicily from the Bourbon king of Naples. Having survived the initial battles that led, against all odds, to the capture of Palermo, he was appointed administrator of the campaign’s finances and remained in the Sicilian capital while the fighting moved on to the mainland. But the following March, with most of the country already effectively unified after Garibaldi’s now much larger army in the south had linked up with Piedmontese troops descending from the north, Nievo was obliged to take his account books to Turin to defend himself and his comrades from charges of corruption. Crossing from Palermo to Naples, his ship sunk in bad weather and was lost without a trace. No body or relic was ever recovered.
Confessions of an Italian had been written at extraordinary speed during a period of intense fervor and frustration in 1858. Nievo was twenty-seven. The dramatic uprisings of the previous decade, against Austrian rule in northern Italy and papal rule in Rome, had all collapsed very quickly and the reinstated status quo was more determined than ever to resist the patriotic tide. Further attempts at revolution during the 1850s were easily and brutally crushed.
As an adolescent, Nievo had been on the margin of events in his hometown of Mantua in 1848 and Florence in 1849, then more actively involved in an uprising in Livorno, again in 1849. Like many patriots he was repeatedly forced to leave town and university to avoid trouble with the authorities, a situation that reinforced rather than weakened Risorgimento sentiment as liberals from all over Italy met and got to know one another and the country. “It’s because of these wanderings of mine that I have been putting together my own particular idea of a homeland,” Nievo wrote.
Having finally graduated with a law degree in Padua in 1855, Nievo resisted his father’s attempts to settle him in legal practice in Mantua. What interested him were poetry, journalism, narrative, patriotism, and women. He published verses, articles, and novellas, all galvanized by the perceived need to bring Italians to consciousness of themselves at every social level so that they could put the failures of 1848 behind them and at last throw off the shackles of foreign domination. The project was very much part of a young man’s desire to take control of his destiny and be free, free to say what he wanted, take part in public life as he wanted, love whom he wanted, courageously, without fear.
In 1856 one of his novellas led to a charge of defaming the Austrian police. Tried in Milan, Nievo escaped with a fine, but while staying in the city he fell in love with his cousin’s wife, Bice Melzi. All too soon the whole Nievo family would be aware of this love, which Bice reciprocated, but which, given the conventions of the time, had no future. Like the political situation, Nievo’s private life was now stalled; everything was intense, exciting, and desperately frustrating. To escape the impasse, he was eager to enroll in any patriotic uprising and fight. But when a revolutionary expedition to the south in 1857 proved a complete fiasco, with almost all participants massacred and no welcoming response from the local people, the entire Risorgimento movement was shaken. Nievo retired to a family castle near Udine, northeast of Venice, and began to write at a feverish speed.
Confessions of an Italian was then a more provocative title than it seems today. Since there was as yet no nation of Italy, to declare oneself Italian, rather than Venetian, Milanese, or Neapolitan, was very likely to declare oneself a patriot—this in an atmosphere where to show an Italian tricolor in the street was to risk prison or exile. Nievo’s novel was turned down in his lifetime for its incendiary content. When it was published in 1867 the title was changed to Confessions of an Octogenarian. Even with the unification of Italy all but complete, publishers were anxious to draw attention away from the novel’s torrid politics.
But why would an Italian patriot need to be making confessions, and why would the twenty-seven-year-old Nievo have chosen to write them in the voice of a man in his eighties? Nievo’s mother, Adele Marin, came from an illustrious Venetian family that for centuries had enjoyed the right to take part in electing Venice’s doge. Her father, Carlo Marin, whom Nievo grew very close to in his teens, had been present at the last panicky council of Venetian patricians in 1797 that gutlessly surrendered to the advancing French “revolutionary army,” marking the end of a republic that lasted eleven hundred years. By giving his hero and narrator, Carlo Altoviti, a lifespan that went from his grandfather’s time to his own, Nievo was proposing to cover the entire Risorgimento period from the Napoleonic wars to the present in a single life. The ambition is clear from the opening sentence:
I was born a Venetian on 18 October 1775, the day of Saint Luke of the Gospel, and by God’s grace I shall die an Italian, whenever that Providence that so mysteriously governs the world deems it right.
What this would-be Italian had to confess, however, was that that transition from local to national, from subjugation to independence, was still by no means assured, and that the impulses that drove patriotism were not always impeccable. Nor were future Italians particularly admirable or even perhaps capable of the freedom that independence would bring.
Few books, in fact, dramatize as engagingly as Confessions the collective flaws that still dog Italian public life today. A centuries-long political vacuum, the narrator reflects, in a divided country under Spanish, French, and Austrian rule, had led people to believe that “they had been put in this world as spectators, not actors.” The result was a “sheep-like flock of men without faith, strength or illusions who reached the threshold of life already half dead, then wallowed in pleasures and oblivion until death.” Those who might have had the intellectual resources to lead others retired fearfully to their libraries to “dig up ancient inscriptions and broken stones”; others joined the priesthood for “an easy, untroubled life.” In general, “blind obedience” went hand in hand with “little regard for honesty and liberty,” while the majority were so intimidated that Carlo often thinks of himself as “a man in [the] company of rabbits.” It is pointless, he concludes, “to beg for liberty” if one’s “soul [is] servile.”
But this is to rush ahead. The cleverness of Nievo’s novel is that its political content arises naturally from a colorful cast of characters brought together in dense dramatic plotting delivered in a style that oscillates between the realism of William Thackeray and the playful vagary of Laurence Sterne, two of Nievo’s favorite authors. So although the tale is told in the first person, its narrator Carlo nevertheless has access to all the characters’ intentions and is privy to events he couldn’t have witnessed, while the action constantly shifts from encounters with historical figures to gritty realism, excited romanticism, and pantomime whimsy. One scene in particular, where Carlo runs into Napoleon’s army in the small town of Portogruaro and, merely because he is on horseback, finds himself leading a revolutionary mob and spouting a rhetoric of political liberty that is in the air rather than in his head, seems worthy of Swift’s Gulliver.
The story begins in the very castle Nievo was writing in. Abandoned by his disgraced parents, the infant Carlo lives with his uncle, the Count of Fratta; but far from giving him equal status with their own three children, the count and countess treat the boy as the lowliest of the servants. He lives and sleeps in the kitchen, where his main duty is to turn the spit over the fire:
The kitchen at Fratta was a huge space with an undefined number of walls each a very different dimension from the others; it rose toward the sky like a dome and plunged into the earth like an abyss; it was dark, nay, black with ancient soot from which glittered like so many diabolical eyes the bottoms of casseroles, roasting tins and carafes hung on their nails; it was cluttered everywhere with huge credenzas and giant cupboards and endlessly long tables; it was ploughed every hour of the day and night by an infinite number of grey and black cats, which lent it the semblance of a workshop for witches.
The sense of an antiquated space, magically cluttered, obscurely complex, and irretrievably decadent, extends outward from the castle kitchen into the whole premodern feudal world of Fratta where the feckless count and his selfish wife reign supreme, supported by the count’s brother, Monsignor Orlando, a cleric whose most urgent concern is his stomach and whose only heartfelt attachment to religion seems to be his determination to have his urchin nephew, Carlo, learn the Confiteor, the Latin penitential prayer that begins “I confess,” by heart.
Among rigid but intricate hierarchies, revealed by different angles and frequencies of knee-bending, the count is supposed to be administrating justice in the locality, a task he lazily assigns to his corrupt clerk and other variously clownish inferiors. In fact,
justice was the reign of the cunning and the sly, and it was only with cunning and trickery that the poor could find a way to compensate themselves for the bullying they endured.
But if the whole purpose of the opening two hundred pages of Confessions is to suggest that whatever nostalgia one might have for pre-Napoleonic Italy, its customs were already exhausted and even grotesque long before the modern era swept them away, still the worst manifestation of that decadence comes with the count and countess’s utter failure to prepare their children for adulthood. The eldest daughter, Clara, is assigned to keeping her grandmother company in her bedridden decline; presumably at some point someone will want to marry her. Their son, Rinaldo, is allowed to lose himself in abstruse studies of no relevance to any future duty. Above all, the youngest daughter, Pisana, the liveliest, most talented, and most beautiful of the three, is left entirely to her own devices, without even the menial duties that give some structure to Carlo’s life.
From earliest infancy Carlo is in love with Pisana, who is two years his junior. She is splendidly generous and capricious, but has no intention of limiting her favors to her cousin; instead she scandalizes the maids by gathering together a gang of boyfriends from the lowest classes:
As the band [of her friends] grew, so did her ambition to hold court, and as she was quite a precocious girl, as I’ve said, and liked to play the little lady, there were soon flirtations, jealousies, marriages, separations, reconciliations: all in childish fun, of course, but still, a fair indication of la Pisana’s nature. And may I suggest that there was not so much innocence in all of this as people would like to believe: it astonishes me to think how the Contessina used to roll around in the hay and ride piggyback on one boy or another, how she would pretend to marry and go off to sleep with her husband, driving away all unwelcome witness from that tender scene.
Carlo reflects on the link between infant license and later life. “Let us be frank,” he says ominously, and indeed throughout Confessions Nievo’s desire to break taboos that prevented candid discussion of sexuality is everywhere evident. “I sinned,” we are told at one delicate moment. And again: “I believe that a Christian education does more to conceal than remove vice.” It encourages deception, slyness. Reassured by the formalities of absolution, Italians indulge in “wild, lax and sensual habits.” They have grown flighty and unreliable. “How can we expect millions of men,” Carlo concludes, “to conduct a great national drive lasting one, two, ten or twenty years, when not one of them is capable of keeping up that drive for three straight months?”
This rapid swinging from the personal and intimate to the vast sweep of history is a constant in the book and keeps readers alert, if only to wonder if the connections are convincing. Separated by social status, hindered by the canon law that forbade union between cousins, Carlo and Pisana are constantly seeking to leave each other, and constantly brought back together by an attraction over which neither has any control. Doubtless Nievo’s own fatal attraction to his cousin’s wife was in his mind as he wrote, and some of the scenes achieve an intensity and psychological complexity that looks forward to D’Annunzio or Verga.
One evening when the ten-year-old Carlo is sent hungry to bed in a tiny cubbyhole, Pisana, “half-naked in her nightdress,” comes to comfort him and “barefoot and trembling with cold, leapt into [his] bed.” All is well until she complains that he is too nice to her when she is unkind to him. She wants him to punish her, she says. She wants him to pull out a lock of her hair. If not she will shriek so loud they will both be discovered and punished. “‘I tell you I want to be punished!’ she shrieked, beating her feet and knees against the rough floor.”
The same conflicted behavior will see Pisana ruining the lives of various suitors (one in particular falls into a long psychosomatic malaise), and eventually marrying a rich old man to save the family from bankruptcy caused by her mother’s gambling debts. All this while never entirely abandoning Carlo. For forty years the two are forever losing and finding each other, in and out of depression and related illnesses. They will be together when Venice capitulates to Napoleon, the novel’s most complex and dramatic moment. They meet again in the thick of a patriotic uprising in southern Italy. They betray each other, hate each other, love each other again. Losing Pisana, Carlo turns to revolutionary conspiracy: a new and modern nation, he believes, will be one where education is sound and there are no outdated conventions to thwart true love. At the same time he wonders if he is engaging in revolution only to escape an inappropriate obsession.
Each time the reader feels convinced that the relationship must be over it starts again in an unexpected way. When Carlo almost suspects Pisana of a lesbian relationship with a younger woman, she surprises him by demanding that he marry the girl to save himself from her, something that, after much agonizing, he does. But still their story isn’t over. Pisana will save Carlo from execution when he is condemned to death in a Neapolitan prison, and when he goes temporarily blind with cataracts she will beg for him on the streets of London, a safe haven for many Italian patriots at the time. Finally, her “suicide of love” becomes a real suicide as, aware of having destroyed both their lives, Pisana simply wills herself into decline and death to save Carlo’s marriage and leave him free to serve his country.
This tormented but always vivid relationship is paralleled by the sadder story of Pisana’s much older sister Clara (Nievo’s beloved Bice also had a sister eight years older than herself). As calm and pious as Pisana is wild and sensual, Clara is courted, for her wealth, by the vain Count Partistagno and for her beauty by the merely libertine Count Venchieredo. However, the local doctor’s son, Signor Lucilio, himself training to be a doctor, woos the girl more surreptitiously while supposedly assisting her ailing grandmother. Eventually he wins her heart, but convention demands that the girl marry a noble, not a commoner. Nievo offers a powerful drama of a young woman fighting for her freedom as Clara turns down both titled men, but in order to do so she has to claim that she wishes to become a nun.
To keep her daughter away from Lucilio, Clara’s mother takes her to Venice and eventually persuades her to move into a convent. Maturing from profligate youth to expert doctor and dedicated patriot, Lucilio follows his beloved to Venice and builds up such a fortune that when old Venice collapses and with it all the old restrictions of feudalism, he is well placed to go to the convent and invite Clara to become his wife. She refuses. Deprived of her vitality and brainwashed by her mother superior, she has dedicated her virginity to God.
This turnaround from positive modern heroine to frigid and idle nun, one of the many telling reversals in the book, expresses Nievo’s growing frustration over the church’s role in holding Italians back. Again and again priests and nuns are shown as intimidating the ignorant and encouraging mindless obedience to obsolete, repressive authorities. During one depressive malaise brought on by Pisana’s betrayals, Carlo consults the powerful Padre Pendola, who encourages him to shift his attention from private pleasure to some valuable public service. Ironically, one of the book’s most eloquent and idealistic speeches is delivered by a man the reader has already understood is cynical and corrupt. The public service Carlo is pushed toward involves spying on fellow students in Padua to identify those sympathetic to revolution. It is this spying that introduces Carlo to the patriotic movement where authentic passion sweeps away ecclesiastical eloquence.
Meanwhile, Lucilio, deprived of an object of love, directs his bitterness toward the patriotic struggle, where he is joined by Giulio, Pisana’s most unhappy and ailing suitor, and Leopardo, who has married happily only to be betrayed by a frivolous wife. This alignment of personal unhappiness and political commitment runs throughout Risorgimento literature, starting with Ugo Foscolo’s masterpiece, The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis (1802). Disappointment in love disposes a man to extremes. He is willing to fight. But if revolution fails, or the patriotic cause disappoints, the hero is exposed to even deeper depression. Leopardo takes poison and kills himself when his marital woes are compounded by Venice’s capitulation to the French.
Much of Confessions is concerned with the question of how personal frustration and despair can be harnessed to serious and lasting public endeavor. Immediately upon finishing his novel, completed in just eight frenetic months, Nievo himself fell into a depression entirely similar to those he describes in his book. Two years later, when he set sail with Garibaldi for Sicily, the adventure is described in his correspondence as a cheerful and noble collective suicide.
The plot of Confessions is rich, picaresque, extravagant. Young Carlo draws benevolent attention to himself among the local people when he helps save the castle from the rival fiefdom of Venchieredo. The complex dispute behind the attack draws in the Venetian Republic and the count’s extended family in farcical shenanigans that lead to one servant’s promising the count that “I shall be the witness of anything you command.”
Later Carlo gets an education in Padua, tells us about his atheism and idealism, falls in and out of depression, joins revolutionaries at the university, becomes administrator of his uncle’s property, meets Napoleon, rediscovers his father, and eventually takes the man’s place at the council of Venetian patricians. He witnesses the charade of supposed French freedoms being imposed on the Venetian people and escapes from the police by jumping from a window into the Grand Canal. He joins an uprising in the south and saves a woman from a burning house in the thick of the battle, only to discover that she is Pisana, who has become his commander’s mistress.
And so on. This and a great deal more takes us to the book’s halfway point. Carlo has still to marry, fall out with his wife over the children’s education, lose a son in a patriotic uprising, and follow a dozen different crafts and professions, none of which, he laments, he freely chose himself, as he didn’t choose his lovers or his wife either. And all is delivered in a fresh, lively prose, simultaneously aware of the need to establish a standard Italian for a unified Italy, but equally eager not to lose all the vitality of the country’s dialects in the process.
For those who read Italian, Nievo’s writing is an exciting surprise, full of unexpected turns of expression, droll, rapturous, or argumentative. In this regard, while the English reader could never be given the same experience contemporary Italians enjoy on reading Confessions, the translator Frederika Randall has been remarkably successful in keeping the novel’s flavor and sustaining Nievo’s quirkiness and readability over so many pages. Here is his introduction of Carlo’s uncle the count, one of scores of rapid and brilliant sketches:
The Count of Fratta was a man past sixty who always looked as if he had just stepped out of his armor, so stiffly and pompously did he sit in his chair. But his elaborate bagwig, his long cinder-colored, scarlet-trimmed zimarra, and the boxwood snuff container forever in his hands detracted somewhat from the warrior pose….
When the Count spoke the flies fell silent, and when he had finished, each man agreed in his own fashion, with his voice or with a nod of the head, and when the count laughed, all hastened to laugh, and when he sneezed, even when tobacco caused the sneeze, eight or nine voices shouted out: “Long live!” “His health!” “His happiness!” “God save the count!” When he got up, all got up, and when he left the kitchen, everyone, even the cats, breathed deeply, as if a millstone had been lifted from their breasts.
History has not been kind to Nievo’s book. Death prevented him from revising it, or from building up an oeuvre that would very likely have put him among Italy’s greats. And as the governments of the post-Risorgimento period set about imposing a cultural homogeneity on the country, Alessandro Manzoni’s conservative and very Catholic masterpiece, The Betrothed (1827), safely set in the distant past, was always going to be preferred to Nievo’s rich and wild account of love and politics, where so much was dangerously close to home. Manzoni is still a staple of the Italian school curriculum, while it is rare to meet anyone who has read Nievo. Yet there is no doubt in my mind which author English-speaking readers will prefer now that Confessions of an Italian is at last attractively translated in its entirety.
Nievo is so seductive and convincingly reminds us that political movements can never be separated from the private worlds of their leaders. Five years after his death, his beloved Bice died of tuberculosis. She asked to be buried in the red shirt Nievo had worn with Garibaldi. There was no separating thwarted passion and patriotism.