The Italian critic, educator, and legislator Francesco De Sanctis (1817-1883) was the foremost Italian literary historian of the 19th century.
Francesco De Sanctis was born in Morra Irpina near Naples. His early inclination toward learning suggested a career in the priesthood. But his interest in pedagogy and his loss of religious faith after 1834 altered his course, and he turned toward education. Trained by the literary scholar and philologist Basilio Puoti, he founded an academy under Puoti's leadership.
De Sanctis supported the short-lived Neapolitan revolution of 1848 and proposed a series of scholastic reforms calling for free compulsory education, improved teacher training, and greater uniformity and continuity in schools. But the tide of reaction in 1849 annulled these proposals and forced De Sanctis to leave Naples. In December 1850 he was imprisoned on a fabricated charge of plotting to kill the king. When released two years later, De Sanctis traveled to Turin, the Piedmontese capital, where, consistent with his lifelong conviction, he advocated Italian unification under the house of Savoy. There he also delivered a series of distinguished lectures on Dante, for which he was invited to be professor of Italian literature at Zurich, a post he held from January 1856 to August 1860.
Returning to Italy and to political activity, De Sanctis worked to reform the University of Naples and was elected to Parliament. Appointed minister of education, he championed quality education as a matter of civic responsibility, though he realized the difficulty of carrying out such a program in a largely illiterate and tradition-bound nation. During the later stages of his legislative career, De Sanctis also served as professor of comparative literature at the University of Naples (1871-1878).
Although after 1865 De Sanctis continued to hold public office, his literary pursuits assumed greater importance. Critical Essays (1866), the revised Essay on Petrarch (1869), and the monumental History of Italian Literature (written in 1868-1871 as a teaching manual) represent his major contributions to literary criticism and historiography. Among the basic tenets of his critical approach are: art is the product of the fantasy of great men; the work of art is absolutely independent of science, morals, history, or philosophy; and art is the appropriate synthesis of content and form.
De Sanctis accepted the Positivists' demand for rigorous scholarship but maintained that minutiae are not a critic's central concern. Faulted by some for apparent inattention to detail and for focusing only on major figures, De Sanctis was defended eloquently by Benedetto Croce, who oversaw the posthumous publication of De Sanctis's other works. Later, elaborating on De Sanctis's esthetics, Croce recognized the lack of systematic theories and the consequent imprecision of terminology, but he praised De Sanctis's critical acumen and wide range of interests.
Further Reading on Francesco De Sanctis
In addition to numerous studies in Italian by Croce and others, one may profitably consult Louis A. Breglio, Life and Criticism of Francesco De Sanctis (1941).