History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/Italian Romantic

Alessandro Manzoni

Alessandro Manzoni wrote two of the best tragedies of the Romantic period. Painting of the author by Francesco Hayez (1791–1882)

Italian tragedy of the Romantic period is capably represented by Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873) with "Adelchi" (Adalgis, 1822), based on the life of Adalgis (?-788), son of the king of Lombardy at war with Charlemagne, and "Il Conte di Carmagnola" (The count of Carmagnola, 1819), based on the life of Francesco Bussone, count of Carmagnola (1382-1432) at a time when Francesco Foscari (1373-1457) reigned as the doge of Venice.

Adalgis' "faults may be briefly enumerated, the poverty of the plot, the remote and uninteresting nature of the story, the outrage of all poetical justice in the denouement, the slender links by which the fate of Ermengarda is connected with the main action, the perversion of an historical fact in the death of Adelchis, who was not killed until some years afterwards, and the character of Adelchis himself, the pure and perfect abstraction of every human virtue. But though these errors may strike the critical reader, it is scarcely possible to perceive them upon the first perusal of this noble tragedy, the happiest medium which has yet been found, between the irregularity of Shakespeare and the frigid simplicity of the French school...As a lyric poet he is unrivalled” (Anonymous, 1834, pp 368-369). Herbert (1835) resented the portraiture of Charlemagne in "Adalgis": "in the daughter of the Lombard King, Desiderius, the rejected bride of Charlemagne, we have a sweet portrait of resignation; but the poet sins against poetical truth and propriety, in repre­senting Charlemagne as cruel and unjust to the Lombards, and there is even less of poetical justice in the conclusion, or of satisfaction to the reader, or spectator, in the unmerited misfor­tunes by which the injured princes of his drama are overwhelmed (p 282). In contrast, Caserta (1974) felt moral satisfaction in the conclusion. "Aeschylus saw in the defeat of the Persians in the his tragedy The Persians as an example of God's vengeance against the impiety and arrogance of Xerxes. Darius himself, the victim, acknowledges it. In favoring the Greeks, Jove wanted to humiliate the proud, irreverent barbarians, who in their fury had dared to burn the sacred temples. Manzoni viewed similarly the war between the Lombards and the Franks. Like Darius, Desiderio, the proud Lombard and his son, Adelchi, will be forced to admit their error and witness the triumph of God's justice" (p 519). “Admirably represented are the internal conflicts of the three main protagonists: Desiderius, the proud, fearless monarch, resolved to maintain his power, his unhappy daughter Ermengarda, repudiated by Charles, torn between her passion for the latter and her desire to serve God, her melancholy Hamletic brother Adelchi, endowed with a noble ideal of justice which he is aware must succumb to the reality of force. ‘Adelchi’ is the masterpiece of the Italian romantic theatre” (Luciani, 1961 p 30).

In "The count of Carmagnola", “the chief interest is excited by the unnatural collision between the proud and fiery soldier of fortune, and the cold, calculating Venetian senate; between the wise and worldly politicians, and their noble but imprudent victim. Perhaps the most effective passages in the drama, are the soliloquy of Carmagnola after his election, the spirited scene in the second act, which introduces us to the camp of the Duke of Milan, near Maclodio, and the chorus which terminates the second act, and which describes, in all the pomp of beautiful language and striking imagery, the destructive effects of war” (Anonymous, 1834, p 358). "Manzoni entirely abandoned the trammels of the unities of time and place to which Alfieri rigidly adhered; his play has consequently much of the picturesqueness and variety of Shakespeare and the Elizabethans; and it is distinguished by that thoroughness of historical study which marked everything he wrote; but on the other hand, it must be admitted that he is not inspired by the genuine spirit of tragedy in nearly so high a degree as Alfieri, nor has he his predecessor's remarkable gift of writing sonorous and impressive blank verse. His verse is clear and flowing, but rather wanting in colour. His characters say what they ought to say, but they do not say it in a striking manner. Even more than for its merits as a play, it deserves to be read for the accurate picture it presents of the Venice of the Fifteenth century" (Cliffe, 1896 pp 259-260). The main theme of "The count of Carmagnola" "is the spiritual position of the just man powerless before injustice supported by force and a political system whose only course is represented as the renunciation of the temporal and so, of history, in order to seek refuge in the eternal realm which waits to receive him at death...Carmagnola...has to undergo a rather abrupt and much criticized transformation from the lifelong soldier and condottiere urging war on the Venetian senate largely to revenge himself on the Duke of Milan who had rejected him and also to preserve his worldly honor, to the individual Christian repudiating the human world and all its values and accepting a sentence of death as a means of access to the consoling presence of God...Carmagnola's situation before a historical moment resembles that of Schiller's 'Wallenstein trilogy' (1799)...Unlike the count, Marco does not gain a viewpoint outside the normal flow of life. Carmagnola could rise above injustice because he set it against God's eternity, but he could not return as the Pauline new man to a positive temporal life; Marco will depart to his new political post without any real insight into his tragic situation, full of self-pity and assignment of responsibility to others- Venice has taken from him his 'virtue' and a friend, he asserts- and failing to understand his position before God. Both men fall short of the complete process: a union of the temporal or earthly and the eternal or spiritual, with man committed to this life but in a newly awakened relationship with God” (Chandler, 1920 pp 303-311).

In general, "Alfieri took a great historical character, formed his own view of it, and adopted the story accordingly. Manzoni, on the other hand, starts with the historical facts and bases all his conclusions on a careful study of them, endeavouring to present to us both the facts and the characters in accordance with the spirit of their times" (Collison-Morley, 1911 p 190).


Defeated by Charlemagne, Desiderius is left to watch his dying son, Adalgis

Time: 8th century. Place: Lombardy, Italy.

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Charlemagne, king of the Franks, repudiates his wife, Hermangard, daughter of Desiderius, king of Lombardy. Hermangard is received sadly back to her father and her brother, Adalgis, but prefers to retire in a monastery. Desiderius receives Charlemagne's message to take the ground King Pepin of the Franks once gave and hand it over to Pope Hadrian, for Charlemagne is a "champion of God, called by God, it is to God he consecrates his arm, and it is with regret he would turn it against those who connive with iniquity," declares Albin, one of his military leaders. The Lombard kings refuse, but Charlemagne is unable to attack them efficiently. "Nature itself prepared our enemy's camp," Charlemagne declares, for, to his people, the Alps are "a school of terror". Yet many Italians wish for Charlemagne's victory. Nevertheless, Charlemagne's son, Martino, finds a passage through these mountains. Another of Charlemagne's leaders, Ekhart, is ordered to follow a guide conducting the troops towards the Lombard camp. Once the Franks are rid of, Adalgis is confident in heading towards Rome, "to pile up ruins on ruins", but, thanks to their guide, the Franks surprise the Lombards by attacking them from an unsuspected direction, so that Desiderius is forced to flee to Pavia and Adalgis to Verona. Meanwhile, Hermangard learns that Hildegard has become Charlemagne's new wife. She becomes delirious, thinks she sees Charlemagne before her, and encourages the vision to chase the new wife away. She dies raving. Fearing the emperor, the city of Pavia has treacherously opened her portal to him, so that Desiderius is dragged along as a captive. Giselbert, duke of Verona, announces to Adalgis that their army also prefers to give up. But Adalgis is invited by the emperor of Greece to take shelter in Byzantium, and hopes by such means to convey some hope for his imprisoned father. Meanwhile, Desiderius begs Charlemagne not to attack Verona, but is refused. In the conflict, Adalgis is injured and carried dying to his father. Adalgis says that he should not regret the loss of his kingdom, for on this earth "all that remains is either to do evil or be subject to it". Charlemagne promises to treat Desiderius honorably. "I lie in chains to weep for you," Desiderius declares.

"The count of Carmagnola"

Portrait of Francesco Foscari, doge of Venice by Lazzaro Bastiani (1430–1512)

Time: 15th century. Place: Venice and fields of battle, Italy.

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Francesco Foscari, doge of Venice, presents before the senate the choice of either accepting the terms of peace offered by Filippo, duke of Milan, or to declare war against him. The duke recently attempted to assassinate the count of Carmagnola, a mercenary soldier once favored by him. Carmagnola speaks against the overtures of peace, as does the doge. Otherwise, "it would be the first time that the lion of St Mark languishes, sleeping at the sound of flattering words," the count declares. Although Marino, one of the Council of Ten, is suspicious of the mercenary soldier as to his loyalty to the state, the senate votes to declare war against Milan with Carmagnola as head of their army. In the Milanese camp, opinions are divided as to whether they should fight on a field of battle chosen by Carmagnola or bide their time. Malatesti, head of the duke's army, decides to fight at the present moment with the troops at the height of their strength. "Let us choose what promises glory the most," Malatesti declares. But Carmagnola is victorious. Against the advice of the senate, he refuses to pursue the defeated, liberating instead hundreds of prisoners. Angry at this, Marino challenges a senator, Marco, for being alone to defend Carmagnola. Marino wants Marco's promise on paper that he will not warn Carmagnola about the imminent danger he faces, set to return to Venice at once and perhaps find clemency. Otherwise, he is condermned to death as a traitor. Despite grave misgivings, Marco signs the paper. "Remind yourself you hold two lives in your hand," Marino says. Marco leaves to fight the Moors. Before the Council of Ten, the doge asks Carmagnola whether they should pursue the war. He answers positively provided the general of the Venetian army possesses complete power and is not interfered with. This answer supports their worst suspicions. He is arrested. A secret tribunal tries and condemns him to death.

Alberto Nota

Alberto Nota probed the depths of mental suffering and the characteristics of the new rich. Drawing of the author by an unknown illustrator, 1847

Noted comedies of the Romantic period include “I primi passi al mal costumi" (First steps in moral suffering, 1806) and "Il nuovo ricco" (The new rich, 1809) by Alberto Nota (1775-1847), who also wrote "The projector" (1807) concerning a man with a thousand projects who squanders his sister's money and almost marries off his niece to a swindler and "The grouch" (1811) concerning a philosopher who wishes to remain single but whose uncle wishes him to marry a woman in love with the philosopher's friend. He plays along with the idea until the woman faints, at which time letters drop from her bosom revealing her love.

"The plays of Alberto Nota procured considerable reputation for their author, but they are not quite amusing enough for comedies and not quite strong enough for dramas, so that they have fallen into neglect in spite of their delicacy and refinement" (Cliffe, 1896 p 280). "Alberto Nota, a living writer of great celebrity, has succeeded still better than his predecessors, in giving interesting and polished exhibitions of manners and society in Italy. The Ambitious Woman, in which a vain mother, sacrificing everything to vanity, is reclaimed and First Steps in Moral Suffering, in which a wife, on the point of falling into the besetting sin of her country, cicisbeism, [the practice of raising admiration in a married woman], repents and is forgiven, are his among first pieces, both of a very moral tendency and full of Italian life, in which wit and humour arise, more from the natural drawing of the characters than from the force and spirit of the dialogue. His The Projector, and The Imaginary Invalid (1811), in the first of which the principal character is a projector or builder of castles, never to be finished, in the second, a sufferer of imaginary diseases, are both rather happy imitations of Molière, in the continued ridicule kept up upon the chief characters” (Herbert, 1835 pp 307-308).

"First steps in moral suffering"

Trouble starts when Camilla dismisses the advice of husband and father to forego her habit of appearing at balls

Time: 1800s. Place: Livorno, Italy.

Text at https://archive.org/details/selectcomedies00notagoog

Edoardo scolds his son-in-law, Fulgentio, about his indulgence over the doings of his wife, Camilla, in the habit of often indulging herself in parties and balls. Fulgentio dismisses his fears. Edoardo next scolds Camilla herself for her light habits, in addition to engaging in gambling and being courted by Lieutenant Guglielmi, but is reassured after being told that she bet with someone else’s money as a favor and that the lieutenant will soon be leaving with his troops. After some hesitation, Camilla nevertheless accepts the flowers the lieutenant sent over to her. Fulgentio’s sister, Christina, discovers an incriminating note among the flowers and reveals it to him. “There is no evil except in your own thoughts,” Fulgentio declares. When she further informs him that the lieutenant asked for his wife’s picture, he requests that she never enter his home again. Despite her brother’s threat, Christina tells Camilla that she wishes to keep her room as before. A bored Camilla chases her out by asking her servant, Paulina, to open a vial of a strong-scented perfume. Camilla greets Raimond, Flaminia, and her gouty lover, Mr Filucca. Raimond gives her a copy of his poem “The realms of love”, a book of gallantry appreciated by the ladies. He recites a part of it; Filucca falls asleep. Their talk is interrupted by the arrival of Fulgentio and Edoardo. The latter invites the lieutenant to dinner with them. After dinner, Camilla tells Guglielmi that she is worried about how cross her husband looked. Guglielmi says she has no reason to fear and begs for her picture. As she hesitates, he takes it from her. Meanwhile, Fulgentio dismisses her hair-dresser and says she cannot go to the ball. She asks Guglielmi to help confront her husband’s anger, which he relunctantly accepts. Fulgentio insists that she remain at home because she appeared to look sick at table and speedily dismisses the lieutenant. Eventually, he accedes to her demand to go to the ball provided she abandon the new dress she meant to wear, take up a mask, and be accompanied by him. She readily accepts. At the ball, Camilla is disagreeably surprised at finding Guglielmi with Flaminia. Camilla and Fulgentio overhear the lieutenant disparaging her. Flaminia takes Filucca’s winnings to play cards while Guglielmi flirts with the masked Camilla whom he fails to recognize. As people come and go, Camilla also overhears Guglielmo boast to Raimond that in matters of love he always carries two strings in his bow and that Camilla loves him to distraction. He shows him her picture. An exasperated Camilla snatches it away from Raimond and refuses to give it back to Guglielmi, who is prevented from confronting her by the arrival of Flaminia, having lost all of Fulucca’s money. Back home, Fulgentio tells Camilla that he wants to send her back to her father. She asks Christina to intercede on her behalf, but the latter declines because humiliation should facilitate repentance. Worse follows: Edoardo refuses to take her back. Desperate to be accepted somewhere, Camilla receives Guglielmo and asks to see her picture. He answers that a masked woman took it from him. Before her father and husband, she hands over to the lieutenant a letter she requested from the commanding general to join his regiment the next day. As a result, father and husband forgive her. As further proof of her amendment, she refuses to see Raimond and gives him back his poem as well as ridding herself of Paulina who encouraged her excesses.

"The new rich"

A former blacksmith, Gepido, dreams of marrying into high society along with his son. Etching and aquatint of an upstart riding past a walking man of independent means by an anonymous artist, 1797

Time: 1810s. Place: Italy .

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Now that he has become rich as the heir of his dead uncle, Gepido, a former blacksmith, no longer wants a mere village girl, Agnese, to marry his son, Luigi. As approved by his counsellor, Costanzo, Gepido forces Luigi to engage in dancing and fencing lessons. Although Costanzo owes Gepido money, the master agrees to forget the debt. Costanzo insists he wants to pay him back, yet in the meantime time asks him for another loan. In view of their mutual confidence in each other, Gepido tears up the bond stipulating the amount of the previous debt. When faced with Agnese who ardently wishes to marry him, Luigi dithers and is unable to face up to his father, who offers the girl dowry money to get rid of her. Gepido arranges instead with the high-bred Clotilda to marry off his son with her niece, Isabella. Although Isabella considers father and son as "firescreen Barbary apes", she dismisses her former lover, Faustino, from further consideration and is willing to submit to her aunt's wishes. However, she is affronted when Agnese returns to claim back her lover, which Costanzo promises to settle for the happiness of all. Gepido quickly wants to prepare the wedding, specifying to Clotilda that he has no family member to invite for the wedding at the moment Bernardo, his cousin and Agnese's uncle, barges in. Despite owing his cousin money, Gepido dismisses him off-handedly. Bernardo has no choice but to recommend Agnese that they leave. Gepido favors Clotilda and ideally seeks a double wedding. In particular, he offers her an expensive ring while using Costanzo as the messenger. Costanzo also eyes the woman favorably, and so offers her the ring as if it were his own gift, to Clotilda's contentment. When sounding Isabella as to the marriage plan, Gepido discovers her to be willing to marry his son provided certain terms are met. "I want a coach, domestics for my particular service, theatre seats for all performances, it goes without saying, society people of my own choice, complete liberty," she specifies. Costanzio agrees to these conditions but suggests that she should offer her future husband a gift for the betrothal. As a result, she asks Faustino for a box she once gave him as a gift, which he relunctedly yields, though swearing to her his undying love. The angry Luigi discovers Faustino at Isabella's feet, which Costanzio explains by announcing Faustino as a poet and merely her speech tutor. Luigi is overjoyed when Isabella offers him the box. A supper is prepared in celebration of signing the wedding contract. Assured that Clotilda knows the ring came from him, Gepido is glad to learn that she prizes the gift all the more so in consideration of the man who gave it. When village girls enter dancing, Agnese is discovered among them. As Gepido prepares to remove her from their presence, a judge and notary enter with news that papers of the dead uncle's testament have been found, revealing that important sums have been left to Agnese and Bernardo but none at all for Gepido, except for money destined at a hospital. As a result, Luigi returns to Agnese and Isabella to Faustino. Moreover, Gepido discovers Costanzo's treachery in regard to the ring he offered Clotilda and his unwillingness even to acknowledge the money he owes him. Out of pity for his friend, Bernardo offers a disconsolate Gepido a room in his house.

Giovanni Giraud

Giraud plumbed the depths of jealousy. St Eustace basilica, Roma

Another noted comedy of the Romantic period is “Gelosie per equivoco” (Jealousy at fault, more precisely Jealousy out of misunderstanding, 1807) by Giovanni Giraud (1776-1834), who also wrote "The fanatic foreteller" (1825) concerning a man deluded into thinking he can predict the future as well as to guess people's intentions and identities so that his daughter winds up betrothed to the wrong man.

"Giovanni Giraud alone can be said to have carried on to some extent the traditions of the full, bustling, bright Goldonian comedy, drawn directly from life itself" (Collison-Morley, 1911 p 72). "Giraud's dramatic talents display a curious combination of the qualities peculiar to the two nations to which he may be said to trace his birth; his productions exhibiting as much of the Italian good nature as of the finesse of the French. His plots are conducted with a spirit and rapidity peculiar to the people of the South, whilst his characters, in the midst of the most ridiculous situations, always preserve a tone of dignity, which French taste can never be altogether content to resign” (Sismondi, 1823 p 437).

“Jealousy out of misunderstanding”


Time: 1800s. Place: Near Naples, Italy

Text at https://archive.org/details/selectcomedies00notagoog

Urbano wishes to marry off his niece, Albina, but her suitor, Alberto, a lieutenant in the army, has not been heard from for a long time. Fed up with the delay, Urbano tells her that unless Alberto shows up soon, he will marry her to an old doctor, a man she abhors. While expressing her distress to Urbano’s wife, Rosa, Albina takes off her chain with Alberto’s picture on it and inadvertently forgets it on a table, where it is picked up by Matilda, a lodger in her father’s house, who pretends to hide it suspiciously from the sight of her husband, Petronio, to make him jealous. He recovers the picture from her toilet drawer and while looking at it, Alberto shows up, anxious to find out whether Urbano has carried out his threat. When Alberto discovers the picture in Petronio’s hands, he becomes certain that the man is Albina’s husband. He tells a stunned Petronio that he loves his wife and leaves before committing an act of violence as Matilda enters with Albina. It is Matilda’s turn to be surprised when Petronio accuses her of loving Alberto while Albina, considering herself betrayed, becomes all the more distressed. Albina is uncertain about what to do soon after receiving a letter from Alberto, requesting a secret meeting late at night. She asks Rosa for advice, but does the opposite, agreeing to the meeting. To help Albina by misleading her husband, Rosa tells him that it is Matilda who wishes to meet a man late at night and is willing to pay a good sum of money. The greedy Urbano accepts to keep the street door open, but yet pitying her husband, all the more so when he empties his purse to him, Urbano reveals to him the proposed meeting. When Alberto meets Albina, he shows her the picture he obtained from her supposed husband. At last, Albina reveals she has no husband as Petronio enters with a pistol and dagger. His arm trembles so much that he misses his shot. While Alberto rushes off to obtain help from servants, Albina faints. Seeing her on the floor, a bewildered Petronio thinks he has killed her until she recovers in Alberto’s arms. Angry at the misinformation, Petronio and Matilda demand Urbano to explain himself until Alberto interrupts to explain his intention. Rosa asks everyone’s pardon for her role in the confusion and Albina her uncle’s pardon for hers, but the latter considers he too is to blame and so agrees to his niece’s choice of a husband.

Camillo Federici


Mention should be made of "Lo scultore e il cieco" (The sculptor and the blind man, 1816) by Camillo Federici (1749-1802), based on the life of Sigismund of Luxemburg (1368-1437), Holy Roman Emperor from 1433 until 1437.

Federici “wrote a considerable number of comedies of the mixed kind, which are entitled by the French dramas. But he rarely excites our laughter by the sprightliness of his wit, or awakens our sympathy by the pathos he displays. The chief attraction of his comedy consists in the force of the incidents and situations. The dialogue is, for the most part, dull and monotonous, without being natural; his pleasantries are severe; and when he aims at sentiment he is most frequently pedantic or affected. His plots, however, are, in general, striking and new; and, in the conduct of his little romance, the interest depends more upon curiosity, and upon humorous and unexpected surprises, than upon sentiment” (Sismondi, 1823 pp 423-424).

"The sculptor and the blind man"

Sigismund of Luxemburg solves social problems of a sculptor and a blind man. Tempera on vellum mounted on wood of Emperor Sigismund by an unknown artist

Time: 1430s. Place: Austria.

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Emperor Sigismund enters at an inn in the disguise of a soldier and is welcomed by Count Stemberg. Sigismund asks for a horse to continue his journey but is unable to find any. Stemberg offers lodging or horse, but the disguised emperor refuses, unwilling to bother him. He asks Stemberg, however, to introduce him to the local high society. Their talk is interrupted by Edward. Hearing that Sigismund is in the emperor's retinue, Edward wishes for his help regarding his marriage prospects. They agree to meet later at Sigismund's inn. When Sigismund hears of a meeting at the local society, he asks to be present, but is refused by the president, Baron Neimann, Edward's father, because his rank is not high enough. However, Countess Valsingher disagrees and decides to lead him herself to the meeting along with Stemberg. They are greeted coldly by the members, taking Baroness Stolen's lead of ignoring his presence. Shortly after, Stemberg receives a letter revealing Sigismund's true identity. His reaction confirms the countess' suspicion. Sigismund next visits the house of an honorable sculptor, Egidius. He is surprised to learn that Egidius' fortunes are far inferior than he imagined. Only two of his statues were sold at one third their original value. Egidius' daughter appears and sees Edward, her husband, forced to remain in hiding because their marriage is disapproved of by his father, Neimann, who has vowed to annul the marriage contract. The anxieties of the couple are mitigated by Sigismund's assurances. Sigismund next wishes to meet Egidius' brother, Ferdinand, also fallen on hard times. Sigismund knew him as a professor in natural sciences at the university. Since then he has become blind and his indemnity was prevented by jealous colleagues. When the emperor's expected arrival is discussed, Ferdinand describes his physical attributes, so that everyone recognizes that the officer they saw is the emperor in disguise. As promised, the emperor welcomes the countess' two sons. The nobles arrive to find the emperor but still fail to recognize him. Naimann is astounded to find Edward with Louise. At last the nobles are mortified to discover that the officer they ignored is the emperor himself, who assures Edward that he will remain Louise's husband no matter what his father says.