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ART. VI.-Arnaldo da Brescia ; Tragedia di Gio-Batista
Niccolini. Arnold of Brescia; a Tragedy, by Gio-Batista
Niccolini. 1843. To those who have a general knowledge of Italy, as she was in the twelfth century, as well as some acquaintance with her present condition, it will not appear surprising that a tragedy on Arnold of Brescia, written and published at Florence, in 1843, should have awakened a host of various and powerful emotions from one end of the Peninsula to the other; and if, to the nature of the subject, we add the consideration of the author's position and reputation, it will be easily imagined that the appearance of the work must have caused a movement in the ordinarily sluggish atmosphere of the Italian literary world, such as has not been felt there for many a day.
A bomb has burst in the midst of the dead unhealthy calm that oppresses with its ominous storm-charged weight all intellectual life in Italy, and all the social elements are yet quivering with the unwonted vibration. A myriad of living sparks of fire have been generated by the explosion, and none of them have fallen to the ground and become extinguished; not one of them but has fallen on tinder, which, though it burst not out into flame immediately, yet preserves and augments the fire. On the other hand, consternation and anger—that bitter anger which is generated by fear-are in the camp of those who deem it, alas ! their interest or their duty to hush every sound, and check every mental movement, that may tend to foster in Italian bosoms the wish that unhappy Italy were other than she is. Rome--poor old tottering feeble Rome--is shaking in her embroidered pontifical shoes; and casts an anxious glance across the mountains, to her stout and vigorous Austrian son, without whose uninquiring filial support she had ere now fallen from her decayed and unsafe throne. Her Italian children feel that their fate is bound up with hers, and share her terrors and her resentments.-All of them, save one :-Tuscany, in all respects happier far than any other of the Italian states, in a great measure stands alone,—and feels that she may stand alone, when mayhap more important powers and principalities may totter around her. She has long been looked on with no kindly eye by her of the seven hills; and truth to say, there can be no doubt that fair Florence, with her Medicean reminiscences, and her present truly sage and moderate government, is regarded by all her neighbours as little better
than a traitor in the camp--as a nest of dangerously active intelligences and troublesome ideas, from whose dreaded contagion no quarantine can render them secure. Few persons, who know Italy and her governments, can doubt, that were Tuscany an island in the Atlantic Ocean,—were she, in short, as free from all exterior influence and as secure from all external interference as our own island, -Niccolini's “ Arnold of Brescia" would not be a prohibited book-as it now is.
This condition of circumstances unfortunately enforcing the necessity of “letting, I dare not, wait upon I would,” produces in its action a state of things sufficiently anomalous. Arnold of Brescia” is “prohibited" on the third day after its appear
It is unlawful to introduce copies into the country, or to sell them; yet between three and four thousand copies-a number almost unheard of in the literary world of Italy—have been sold ; the publisher has reaped a golden harvest almost unprecedented, and the author is walking about the streets of Florence amid the reverence and enthusiastic admiration of all classes of his countrymen. The prohibition, however, has doubtless fully attained its object, which was to enable Tuscany to reply to the remonstrances of her big brother, who keeps frowningly peering over the Alps at all her goings on. “The obnoxious work is prohibited. What can we do more?
Before we proceed to introduce to our readers this remarkable production of a remarkable man-both of them, it must be remembered, far more worthy of notice than they would have been had London or Paris been the scene on which they appeared, though, apart from all consideration of circumstances, " Arnold of Brescia” is a very striking poem,-before proceeding to introduce our readers to the tragedy, we wish for a few moments to draw their attention to the author. The name of Niccolini has for many years, it is true, been favourably known to those who take an interest in Italian literature. It is probable, however, , that to many of our readers it may be new; and it is essential to the formation of a right estimate of the social significance and true importance of the work in question, that it should be known who and what manner of man the author is.
Our readers have already seen that Signor Niccolini is one of those Italians who ardently sigh for political and social changes in the constitution of their country; and we fear that some among them may be sufficiently unacquainted with the social condition of Italy, to suffer this fact to awaken all those antirevolutionary sympathies and antipathies, which the course of English, and still more of French, events have generated in their minds. We must entreat them not to suffer a similarity of words to become the means of coupling together in their minds things widely dissimilar. We must caution them against applying to Italy those judgments which have been formed from observations of what has passed in other countries. Let Italy and the aspirations of her best and worthiest sons be judged only by those who have qualified themselves for the task, by making themselves really acquainted with the actual social condition of the country, its wants and its capabilities. It may be safely said, that very few enlightened English conservatives would not, thus prepared, become Italian destructives; and yet the word we have just used is calculated to do injustice to the moderation and calm prudence of the best part of Italian reformers. France, who vaunts herself as the leader of European civilization, may perhaps be charged with having been as powerful in retarding it, at certain stages of its progress, as she has ever been in forwarding it. And in no way has she done more mischief in the matter than by the just odium that her misdeeds and absurdities have cast on the cause of political regeneration. It cannot be too strongly asserted, that between “La jeune France,” and “La jeune Italie," there is no resemblance, no connection, no analogy.
The model type of a citizen of “ La jeune France" is more than sufficiently well known to us on this side of the Channel. Their literature, too, has been examined and is accurately enough estimated at its worth by most of us. The factious, hot-headed youth, the strength of whose republicanism is, like Sampson's, seated, it should seem, in those pendant masses of unkempt hair, whose “principles” are set forth visibly in the lappets of his “gilet à la Robespierre," and whose want of principle is equally visible in his restless longing for any change which may throw into confusion all the elements of society,--this personage is well known to us all. We hope to show our readers that the gentleman we wish to present to them has little indeed in common with any such. Let them imagine a grave and earnest man, whose sixty years of studious labour have been so spent as win the genuine respect and cordial approbation of his fellow citizens—whose talents have been conscientiously exercised in the production of works of which the sexagenarian author and his country may alike be proud-and who now, at the latter end of a well-spent life, speaks forth the matured convictions which have been formed, not amid the strife and heat of contending political parties, but in the tranquillity of a laboriously studious retirement.
Such a man is the author of “Arnold of Brescia ;” and our readers will probably agree with us in thinking that the opinions of such should be at least received with respect, and examined, as far as we may be able, without prejudice. When it shall have been more accurately perceived what these opinions are, from an examination of the work before us, we may take occasion to say a few words thereanent.
Signor Niccolini has deemed it necessary, for the better comprehension of his tragedy, to prefix to the volume a short account of the life of his hero, Arnold of Brescia. Had he thought fit to have trusted to his own pen the execution of this task, we should have had a biography as comprehensive, vivid, and full of life, as a thorough knowledge of the history of the period, and a warm sympathy with the subject of it, could have produced; but from this Signor Niccolini has wisely refrained. It was especially necessary to the attainment of his object, that it should be impossible to charge him with exaggerating or misrepresenting such portions of the history of the twelfth century as he had occasion to refer to. It was essential that his work should be clearly seen by all to be, not a declamatory address to the passions, in which the events of past ages are for rhetorical purposes animated with modern sympathies and affections, which never were their own; but an accurately truthful production, not only of facts, but of the sentiments, ideas and opinions to which those facts gave birth in their own day. Instead, therefore, of writing a life of Arnold, he has contented himself with reprinting an account, sufficiently cold and colourless, by Guadagnini, a priest of Brescia, who, “moved by the love of truth and affection for his native soil," printed an “ Apologia” for him, in 1790, at Pavia. Copious historical notes have also been added at the end of the tragedy, in which the author has collected pretty well all the information respecting his hero, which is to be found in the writers of the twelfth century,
From these sources we shall endeavour to draw very briefly such an account of Arnold and his times, as may suffice to show the drift of Signor Niccolini's tragedy, and to explain why Rome stands aghast at this re-appearance of the spirit of him, whom six centuries ago she thought she had sunk deep in black night with the load of all her anathemas.
The date of Arnold's birth has not been recorded; but there appears good reason to suppose that it must have occurred about the beginning of the twelfth century. Guadagnini fixes it in 1105, believing him to have been fifty years old at the time of his death, which is known to have occurred in 1155. He manifested at a very early period great talents, and much inclination for study. It was, therefore, a matter of course that he should become an ecclesiastic; and he went, like many other Italian youths of promise, into France, to become a scholar of the celebrated Abelard ;-probably about the time that the great dialectician, having quarrelled with the monks of St. Denis, and by his efforts to introduce some reformation of manners into the convent having made that retreat untenable, established his school in a reed-built hut in the fields near Troyes. The monk, Gunter, in his poetical chronicle, says, speaking of Arnold, “Tenui nutrivit Gallia sumptu, edocuitque diu.” This passage has furnished matter for much speculation; and there is much obscurity, or rather, in truth, perfect darkness, respecting the events of Arnold's life up to the year 1138 ; at which period we find him at Brescia, actively engaged in supporting the popular party in that town, in their endeavours to resist the temporal power of their bishop. And here begins the real business of his life,—the lifelong struggle in the cause for which he lived an outcast wanderer, and died a martyr.
The tenth century is generally spoken of as the period of the most extreme depravation of morals and annihilation of discipline in the history of the church. But it is difficult to believe that the twelfth, of which we have a much more perfect knowledge, could have been exceeded in its widely spread clerical demoralization and pastoral unfaithfulness by any epoch. Rome itself and the pontifical seat may not have been disgraced to an equal de gree by the personal atrocities of the popes, and the monstrous scandals of their court during the latter period ; and it may be true that the iron hand of Hildebrand had not exercised its austere despotism entirely in vain. Great names shine forth amid the corruption of the twelfth century; and the idea of what a church should be had been revived in the minds of many, and grew not without fruit, though the gathering of it was not for their own generation. In the mean time the corruption was so profound, so all but universal, as to render well nigh hopeless all attempt at immediate reformation.
Simony in its grossest form had spread like a gangrene over the whole body of the church, and paralysed its every healthy action. Having first sprung up in the higher orders of the hierarchy, simony inevitably propagated itself throughout every rank of the subordinate clergy, with a monstrous and unshrinking audacity, which, while it recalls to our minds the origin of the odious term, far outruns the sin of that misguided man who first conceived the unworthy thought that the gifts of the Holy Ghost might be bought for money. Bishops purchased their sees, calculating the amount which it might answer to give for their own consecration, according to their estimate of the returns that might be expected from the sale of holy (!) orders. Priests who had thus purchased the privilege of shearing the flock committed