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The Italian Historians Post by :buggie Category :Essays Author :Isaac Disraeli Date :September 2011 Read :2955

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The Italian Historians

It is remarkable that the country which has long lost its political independence may be considered as the true parent of modern history. The greater part of their historians have abstained from the applause of their contemporaries, while they have not the less elaborately composed their posthumous folios, consecrated solely to truth and posterity! The true principles of national glory are opened by the grandeur of the minds of these assertors of political freedom. It was their indignant spirit, seeking to console its injuries by confiding them to their secret manuscripts, which raised up this singular phenomenon in the literary world.

Of the various causes which produced such a lofty race of patriots, one is prominent. The proud recollections of their Roman fathers often troubled the dreams of the sons. The petty rival republics, and the petty despotic principalities, which had started up from some great families, who at first came forward as the protectors of the people from their exterior enemies or their interior factions, at length settled into a corruption of power; a power which had been conferred on them to preserve liberty itself! These factions often shook, by their jealousies, their fears, and their hatreds, that divided land, which groaned whenever they witnessed the "Ultramontanes" descending from their Alps and their Apennines. Petrarch, in a noble invective, warmed by Livy and ancient Rome, impatiently beheld the French and the Germans passing the mounts. "Enemies," he cries, "so often conquered prepare to strike with swords which formerly served us to raise our trophies: shall the mistress of the world bear chains forged by hands which she has so often bound to their backs?" Machiavel, in his "Exhortations to Free Italy from the Barbarians," rouses his country against their changeable masters, the Germans, the French, and the Spaniards; closing with the verse of Petrarch, that short shall be the battle for which virtue arms to show the world--

che l' antico valore
Ne gl' Italici cuor non e ancor morto.

Nor has this sublime patriotism declined even in more recent times; I cannot resist from preserving in this place a sonnet by Filicaja, which I could never read without participating in the agitation of the writer for the ancient glory of his degenerated country! The energetic personification of the close perhaps surpasses even his more celebrated sonnet, preserved in Lord Byron's notes to the fourth canto of "Childe Harold."

Dov' e ITALIA, il tuo braccio? e a che ti servi
Tu dell' altrui? non e s' io scorgo il vero,
Di chi t' offende il defensor men fero:
Ambe nemici sono, ambo fur servi.
Cosi dunque l' onor, cosi conservi
Gli avanzi tu del glorioso Impero?
Cosi al valor, cosi al valor primiero
Che a te fede giuro, la fede osservi?
Or va; repudia il valor prisco, e sposa
L' ozio, e fra il sangue, i gemiti, e le strida
Nel periglio maggior dormi e riposa!
Dormi, Adultera vil! fin che omicida
Spada ultrice ti svegli, e sonnacchiosa,
E nuda in braccio al tuo fedel t'uccida!

Oh, Italy! where is thine arm? What purpose serves
So to be helped by others? Deem I right,
Among offenders thy defender stands?
Both are thy enemies--both were thy servants!
Thus dost thou honour--thus dost thou preserve
The mighty boundaries of the glorious empire?
And thus to Valour, to thy pristine Valour
That swore its faith to thee, thy faith thou keep'st?
Go! and divorce thyself from thy old Valiance,
And marry Idleness: and midst the blood,
The heavy groans and cries of agony,
In thy last danger sleep, and seek repose!
Sleep, vile Adulteress! the homicidal sword
Vengeful shall waken thee! and lull'd to slumber,
While naked in thy minion's arms, shall strike!

Among the domestic contests of Italy the true principles of political freedom were developed; and in that country we may find the origin of that PHILOSOPHICAL HISTORY which includes so many important views and so many new results unknown to the ancients.

Machiavel seems to have been the first writer who discovered the secret of what may be called comparative history. He it was who first sought in ancient history for the materials which were to illustrate the events of his own times, by fixing on analogous facts, similar personages, and parallel periods. This was enlarging the field of history, and opening a new combination for philosophical speculation. His profound genius advanced still further; he not only explained modern by ancient history, but he deduced those results or principles founded on this new sort of evidence which guided him in forming his opinions. History had hitherto been, if we except Tacitus, but a story well told; and by writers of limited capacity, the detail and number of facts had too often been considered as the only valuable portion of history. An erudition of facts is not the philosophy of history; an historian unskilful in the art of applying his facts amasses impure ore, which he cannot strike into coin. The chancellor D'Aguesseau, in his instructions to his son on the study of history, has admirably touched on this distinction. "Minds which are purely historical mistake a fact for an argument; they are so accustomed to satisfy themselves by repeating a great number of facts and enriching their memory, that they become incapable of reasoning on principles. It often happens that the result of their knowledge breeds confusion and universal indecision; for their facts, often contradictory, only raise up doubts. The superfluous and the frivolous occupy the place of what is essential and solid, or at least so overload and darken it that we must sail with them in a sea of trifles to get to firm land. Those who only value the philosophical part of history fall into an opposite extreme; they judge of what has been done by that which should be done; while the others always decide on what should be done by that which has been: the first are the dupes of their reasoning, the second of the facts which they mistake for reasoning. We should not separate two things which ought always to go in concert, and mutually lend an aid, reason and example! Avoid equally the contempt of some philosophers for the science of facts, and the distaste or the incapacity which those who confine themselves to facts often contract for whatever depends on pure reasoning. True and solid philosophy should direct us in the study of history, and the study of history should give perfection to philosophy." Such was the enlightened opinion, as far back as at the beginning of the seventeenth century, of the studious chancellor of France, before the more recent designation of Philosophical History was so generally received, and so familiar on our title-pages.

From the moment that the Florentine secretary conceived the idea that the history of the Roman people, opening such varied spectacles of human nature, served as a point of comparison to which he might perpetually recur to try the analogous facts of other nations and the events passing under his own eye, a new light broke out and ran through the vast extents of history. The maturity of experience seemed to have been obtained by the historian in his solitary meditation. Livy in the grandeur of Rome, and Tacitus in its fated decline, exhibited for Machiavel a moving picture of his own republics--the march of destiny in all human governments! The text of Livy and Tacitus revealed to him many an imperfect secret--the fuller truth he drew from the depth of his own observations on his own times. In Machiavel's "Discourses on Livy" we may discover the foundations of our Philosophical History.

The example of Machiavel, like that of all creative genius, influenced the character of his age, and his history of Florence produced an emulative spirit among a new dynasty of historians.

The Italian historians have proved themselves to be an extraordinary race, for they devoted their days to the composition of historical works which they were certain could not see the light during their lives! They nobly determined that their works should be posthumous, rather than be compelled to mutilate them for the press. These historians were rather the saints than the martyrs of history; they did not always personally suffer for truth, but during their protracted labour they sustained their spirit by anticipating their glorified after-state.

Among these Italian historians must be placed the illustrious Guicciardini, the friend of Machiavel. No perfect edition of this historian existed till recent times. The history itself was posthumous; nor did his nephew venture to publish it till twenty years after the historian's death. He only gave the first sixteen books, and these castrated. The obnoxious passages consisted of some statements relating to the papal court, then so important in the affairs of Europe; some account of the origin and progress of the papal power; some eloquent pictures of the abuses and disorders of that corrupt court; and some free caricatures on the government of Florence. The precious fragments were fortunately preserved in manuscript, and the Protestants procured transcripts which they published separately, but which were long very rare.(1) All the Italian editions continued to be reprinted in the same truncated condition, and appear only to have been reinstated in the immortal history so late as in 1775! Thus, it required two centuries before an editor could venture to give the world the pure and complete text of the manuscript of the lieutenant-general of the papal army, who had been so close and so indignant an observer of the Roman cabinet.

Adriani, whom his son entitles gentiluomo Fiorentino, the writer of the pleasing dissertation "on the Ancient Painters noticed by Pliny," prefixed to his friend Vasari's biographies, wrote as a continuation of Guicciardini, a history of his own times in twenty-two books, of which Denina gives the highest character for its moderate spirit, and from which De Thou has largely drawn, and commends for its authenticity. Our author, however, did not venture to publish his history during his lifetime: it was after his death that his son became the editor.

Nardi, of a noble family and high in office, famed for a translation of Livy which rivals its original in the pleasure it affords, in his retirement from public affairs wrote a history of Florence, which closes with the loss of the liberty of his country in 1531. It was not published till fifty years after his death; even then the editors suppressed many passages which are found in manuscript in the libraries of Florence and Venice, with other historical documents of this noble and patriotic historian.

About the same time the senator Philip Nerli was writing his "Commentarj de' fatti civili," which had occurred in Florence. He gave them with his dying hand to his nephew, who presented the MSS. to the Grand Duke; yet, although this work is rather an apology than a crimination of the Medici family for their ambitious views and their overgrown power, probably some state-reason interfered to prevent the publication, which did not take place till 150 years after the death of the historian!

Bernardo Segni composed a history of Florence still more valuable, which shared the same fate as that of Nerli. It was only after his death that his relatives accidentally discovered this history of Florence, which the author had carefully concealed during his lifetime. He had abstained from communicating to any one the existence of such a work while he lived, that he might not be induced to check the freedom of his pen, nor compromise the cause and the interests of truth. His heirs presented it to one of the Medici family, who threw it aside. Another copy had been more carefully preserved, from which it was printed in 1713, about 150 years after it had been written. It appears to have excited great curiosity, for Lenglet du Fresnoy observes that the scarcity of this history is owing to the circumstance "of the Grand Duke having bought up the copies." Du Fresnoy, indeed, has noticed more than once this sort of address of the Grand Duke; for he observes on the Florentine history of Bruto that the work was not common, the Grand Duke having bought up the copies to suppress them. The author was even obliged to fly from Italy for having delivered his opinions too freely on the house of the Medici. This honest historian thus expresses himself at the close of his work:--"My design has but one end--that our posterity may learn by these notices the root and the causes of so many troubles which we have suffered, while they expose the malignity of those men who have raised them up or prolonged them, as well as the goodness of those who did all which they could to turn them away."

It was the same motive, the fear of offending the great personages or their families, of whom these historians had so freely written, which deterred Benedetto Varchi from publishing his well-known "Storie Fiorentine," which was not given to the world till 1721, a period which appears to have roused the slumbers of the literary men of Italy to recur to their native historians. Varchi, who wrote with so much zeal the history of his fatherland, is noticed by Nardi as one who never took an active part in the events he records; never having combined with any party, and living merely as a spectator. This historian closes the narrative of a horrid crime of Peter Lewis Farnese with this admirable reflection: "I know well this story, with many others which I have freely exposed, may hereafter prevent the reading of my history; but also I know, that besides what Tacitus has said on this subject, the great duty of an historian is not to be more careful of the reputation of persons than is suitable with truth, which is to be preferred to all things, however detrimental it may be to the writer."(2)

Such was that free manner of thinking and of writing which prevailed in these Italian historians, who, often living in the midst of the ruins of popular freedom, poured forth their injured feelings in their secret pages; without the hope, and perhaps without the wish, of seeing them published in their lifetime: a glorious example of self-denial and lofty patriotism!

Had it been inquired of these writers why they did not publish their histories, they might have answered, in nearly the words of an ancient sage, "Because I am not permitted to write as I would; and I would not write as I am permitted." We cannot imagine that these great men were in the least insensible to the applause they denied themselves; they were not of tempers to be turned aside; and it was the highest motive which can inspire an historian, a stern devotion to truth, which reduced them to silence, but not to inactivity! These Florentine and Venetian historians, ardent with truth, and profound in political sagacity, were writing these legacies of history solely for their countrymen, hopeless of their gratitude! If a Frenchman(3) wrote the English history, that labour was the aliment of his own glory; if Hume and Robertson devoted their pens to history, the motive of the task was less glorious than their work; but here we discover a race of historians, whose patriotism alone instigated their secret labour, and who substituted for fame and fortune that mightier spirit, which, amidst their conflicting passions, has developed the truest principles, and even the errors, of Political Freedom!

None of these historians, we have seen, published their works in their lifetime. I have called them the saints of history, rather than the martyrs. One, however, had the intrepidity to risk this awful responsibility, and he stands forth among the most illustrious and ill-fated examples of HISTORICAL MARTYRDOM!

This great historian is Giannone, whose civil history of the kingdom of Naples is remarkable for its profound inquiries concerning the civil and ecclesiastical constitution, the laws and customs of that kingdom. With some interruptions from his professional avocations at the bar, twenty years were consumed in writing this history. Researches on ecclesiastical usurpations, and severe strictures on the clergy, are the chief subjects of his bold and unreserved pen. These passages, curious, grave, and indignant, were afterwards extracted from the history by Vernet, and published in a small volume, under the title of "Anecdotes Ecclesiastiques," 1738. When Giannone consulted with a friend on the propriety of publishing his history, his critic, in admiring the work, predicted the fate of the author. "You have," said he, "placed on your head a crown of thorns, and of very sharp ones." The historian set at nought his own personal repose, and in 1723 this elaborate history saw the light. From that moment the historian never enjoyed a day of quiet! Rome attempted at first to extinguish the author with his work; all the books were seized on; and copies of the first edition are of extreme rarity. To escape the fangs of inquisitorial power, the historian of Naples flew from Naples on the publication of his immortal work. The fugitive and excommunicated author sought an asylum at Vienna, where, though he found no friend in the emperor, Prince Eugene and other nobles became his patrons. Forced to quit Vienna, he retired to Venice, when a new persecution arose from the jealousy of the state-inquisitors, who one night landed him on the borders of the pope's dominions. Escaping unexpectedly with his life to Geneva, he was preparing a supplemental volume to his celebrated history, when, enticed by a treacherous friend to a catholic village, Giannone was arrested by an order of the King of Sardinia; his manuscripts were sent to Rome, and the historian imprisoned in a fort. It is curious that the imprisoned Giannone wrote a vindication of the rights of the King of Sardinia, against the claims of the court of Rome. This powerful appeal to the feelings of this sovereign was at first favourably received; but, under the secret influence of Rome, the Sardinian monarch, on the extraordinary plea that he kept Giannone as a prisoner of state that he might preserve him from the papal power, ordered that the vindicator of his rights should be more closely confined than before; and, for this purpose, transferred his state-prisoner to the citadel of Turin, where, after twelve years of persecution and of agitation, our great historian closed his life!

Such was the fate of this historical martyr, whose work the catholic Haym describes as opera scritta con molto fuoco e troppa liberta. He hints that this history is only paralleled by De Thou's great work. This Italian history will ever be ranked among the most philosophical. But, profound as was the masculine genius of Giannone, such was his love of fame, that he wanted the intrepidity requisite to deny himself the delight of giving his history to the world, though some of his great predecessors had set him a noble and dignified example.

One more observation on these Italian historians. All of them represent man in his darkest colours; their drama is terrific; the actors are monsters of perfidy, of inhumanity, and inventors of crimes which seem to want a name! They were all "princes of darkness;" and the age seemed to afford a triumph of Manicheism! The worst passions were called into play by all parties. But if something is to be ascribed to the manners of the times, much more may be traced to that science of politics, which sought for mastery in an undefinable struggle of ungovernable political power; in the remorseless ambition of the despots, and the hatreds and jealousies of the republics. These Italian historians have formed a perpetual satire on the contemptible simulation and dissimulation, and the inexpiable crimes of that system of politics, which has derived a name from one of themselves--the great, may we add, the calumniated, MACHIAVEL?


(1) They were printed at Basle in 1569--at London in 1595--in Amsterdam, 1663. How many attempts to echo the voice of suppressed truth--Haym's Bib. Ital. 1803.

(2) My friend, Mr. Merivale, whose critical research is only equalled by the elegance of his taste, has supplied me with a note which proves but too well that even writers who compose uninfluenced by party feelings, may not, however, be sufficiently scrupulous in weighing the evidence of the facts which they collect. Mr. Merivale observes, "The strange and improbable narrative with which Varchi has the misfortune of closing his history, should not have been even hinted at without adding, that it is denounced by other writers as a most impudent forgery, invented years after the occurrence is supposed to have happened, by the 'Apostate' bishop Petrus Paulus Vergerius." See its refutation in Amiani, "Hist. di Fano," ii. 149, et seq. 160.

"Varchi's character as an historian cannot but suffer greatly from his having given it insertion on such authority. The responsibility of an author for the truth of what he relates should render us very cautious of giving credit to the writers of memoirs not intended to see the light till a distant period. The credibility of Vergerius, as an acknowledged libeller of Pope Paul III. and his family, appears still more conclusively from his article in Bayle, note K." It must be added, that the calumny of Vergerius may be found in Wolfius's Lect. Mem. ii. 691, in a tract de Idolo Lauretano, published 1556. Varchi is more particular in his details of this monstrous tale. Vergerius's libels, universally read at the time though they were collected afterwards, are now not to be met with, even in public libraries. Whether there was any truth in the story of Peter Lewis Farnese I know not; but crimes of as monstrous a dye occur in the authentic Guicciardini. The story is not yet forgotten, since in the last edition of Haym's Biblioteca Italiana, the best edition is marked as that which at p. 639 contains "la sceleratezza di Pier Lewis Farnese." I am of opinion that Varchi believed the story, by the solemnity of his proposition. Whatever be its truth, the historian's feeling was elevated and intrepid.

(3) Rapin.

(The end)
Isaac Disraeli's essay: Italian Historians

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