The Italian playwright and poet Conte Vittorio Alfieri (1749-1803) was a fervent adversary of political tyranny. His vigorous defense of freedom, the keystone of all his works, made him the idol of Italian patriots during the Risorgimento.
Born into a noble Piedmontese family on Jan. 16, 1749, Vittorio Alfieri received his early education at the Military Academy of Turin. Later, in characterizing his squandered adolescence, he especially criticized this school, where he was "a donkey amongst asses, a fool being taught by the foolish."
Travels in Europe
Alfieri spent most of the decade following 1766 in travel throughout Europe. He frequently had the opportunity to meet European sovereigns, but he generally declined because of his deep aversion to autocratic power. He was particularly repelled by the despotic and militaristic regimes of Prussia and Russia. Only in England was Alfieri pleased with the form of government and the freedom of the citizens.
During his travels Alfieri began a process of self-education. He discovered the works of the great Italian writers Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Machiavelli, as well as foreign classics. These 10 years also exposed Alfieri to the temptations of love to which he frequently yielded both at home and abroad. But in 1776 he met Louise de Stolberg, Countess of Albany, who was the wife of Charles Edward Stuart, the "Young Pretender" to the British throne. Alfieri rescued her from her much older, irascible, and alcoholic husband. They began living together in 1784 and spent most of the years until 1792 in Paris and in Colmer in Alsace. Then, opposed to the excesses of the French Revolution, Alfieri and the countess escaped with difficulty to Florence, where they remained until his death.
Alfieri is considered the greatest Italian tragic dramatist. His career as a tragedian began in 1775 with Cleopatra, a work he later renounced. Next there appeared two plays, Filippo and Polinice, which were first written in French and later cast into Italian verse. His subsequent tragedies are tightly written dramas in harmony with prevailing tradition and polished in their technique. While generally respecting the classical unities of time, place, and action, Alfieri sought greater plot advancement through action rather than narration. He gave a larger role to soliloquies and minimized the use of lengthy speeches to confidantes. Building upon the theatrical examples of Voltaire and Scipione Maffei, Alfieri wrote five-act verse tragedies dealing with illustrious figures and great problems. His protagonists often embody political stances—heroism, tyranny, treachery, or freedom.
Three major sources offered Alfieri material for his tragedies. Classical literature inspired Antigone, Virginia, Orestes, and two plays on Brutus (Bruto I was dedicated "To George Washington, Liberator of America"). Modern history was the genesis for Mary Stuart, Don Garcia, and The Pazzi Conspiracy. The Bible inspired Abel and Saul. The latter is considered Alfieri's masterpiece. While his other tragedies generally display clear conflict between oppressor and oppressed, in Saul the tension exists solely within the mind of the protagonist, whose envy, hate, and suspicion give rise to self-torment. The collected tragedies were published in 1789.
Alfieri's first treatise on statecraft, Of Tyranny (1777), reflected both his personal views and his reading of the Discourses of Machiavelli and the Spirit of the Law of the French philosopher Montesquieu. Alfieri, although aware that his essay was neither original nor polished, nevertheless took pride in the youthful defiance and righteous anger which emanated from every page. In this book, dedicated "To Liberty," Alfieri's fundamental premise—like Machiavelli's—is that the most perfect form of government was the Roman republic, where all citizens were protected by impartial laws. Like Machiavelli too, Alfieri believed that a tyrant's usurpation of power should be stopped by popular uprising. Alfieri also considered organized religion and the military unalterable enemies of free men. He alleged that anyone who accepted papal authority would be equally acquiescent to a political despot. In his concluding chapter—"What Government Would Be the Best Substitute for a Tyranny?"—Alfieri resists facile and general solutions. Instead, he cautiously urges all enlightened men to cherish freedom and to be aware that "it is at the cost of many tears and much blood (never otherwise) that people pass from slavery to freedom."
Among his other political works, The Prince and Literature (completed in 1786) is also important. In this treatise Alfieri states that literature is based on truth and morality and will flourish only in an atmosphere of freedom.
After settling in Florence, Alfieri initiated a series of new literary activities. While polishing The French-Hater (an anti-French work in prose and verse), Alfieri taught himself Greek and translated numerous plays from that language. In six satirical comedies (published in 1803), he criticizes the faults of monarchy, oligarchy, and popular government. During these Florentine years Alfieri also wrote his autobiography, an important but sometimes imperfect source of personal history, which he completed only months before his death.
Alfieri died on Oct. 8, 1803. The sculptor Antonio Canova executed a marble monument which marks his tomb in the Church of Sta Croce in Florence, the burial place of innumerable illustrious Italians.
Further Reading on Conte Vittoria Alfieri
The Life of Vittorio Alfieri Written by Himself was translated by Sir Henry McNally in 1953. An 1810 anonymous translation of this work, entitled Memoirs, was revised by E. R. Vincent in 1961. An excellent translation of Alfieri's Of Tyranny, with notes and introduction, is by Julius A. Molinare and Beatrice Corrigan (1961). Gaudence Megaro, Vittorio Alfieri: Forerunner of Italian Nationalism (1930; reprinted, 1975), affords a wide view of Alfieri's role. See also Charles R. D. Miller, Alfieri (1936). There is an essay on Alfieri in William Dean Howells, Modern Italian Poets (1887).