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Edoardo Zuccato, Coleridge in Italy

Friday, December 5, 1997 - 01:37
Edoardo Zuccato, Coleridge in Italy. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996. xix + 256pp. $55.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-312-16572-2).

Reviewed by
Morton D. Paley
University of California, Berkeley

This erudite and valuable study should really have been called Coleridge and Italy, for it does not attempt to re-chronicle Coleridge's time south of the Alps but instead breaks new ground in studying Coleridge's intellectual relation to Italian poetry, art, philology, and philosophy. Contesting the view that among foreign cultures Germany alone was significant for Coleridge, Zuccato shows that Italy ran a surprisingly strong second when all the aspects of its importance to him are considered. He argues that while Byron and Shelley reversed the values of the British view of Italy, they did so within the traditional binary system, with the "pagan" South now positively valorized. Coleridge's Italy, in contrast, was "Christian, Platonic, sublime." The subject matter itself is divided into "internal" and "external" history, referring to "the influence Italian culture exerted in Coleridge's intellectual life" and "Coleridge's place in the history of Anglo-Italian literary relationships."

With respect to poetry, the influence of Petrarch, Christian and Platonist, is rightly emphasized. Regarding Dante, it was thanks to Coleridge that H. F. Cary's translation of the Divine Comedy, through which generations of Anglophone readers were to know the work, was rescued from obscurity and republished by Taylor and Hessey. Coleridge appreciated Dante's Rime, then little known in England, as well, and he was also remarkable for preferring Boccaccio's romances to his Decameron and Ariosto's minor works to his Orlando Furioso. Tasso did not interest him, and he was immune to Pulci's irony. On the whole, however, his other Italian poetical interests were remarkably catholic, embracing Giambattista Marino, Pietro Metastasio, Gabriella Chiabrera, Battista Guarini, and Givan Battista Strozzi, among others. (The different tastes of different times are indeed striking: the author remarks that in the anthology of Italian poetry complied in 1784 by Agostino Isola, best known to us as Wordsworth's Italian tutor, there are 26 poems by Metastasio and none by Dante!) Coleridge did not, of course, merely read—he translated, imitated, and reworked. Taken together, his writings after as well as about these poets show his very high degree of insight into their work.

It is also shown how the fine arts contributed significantly to Coleridge's theory of imagination. The modern in both painting and poetry, according to Coleridge, preferred the part to the whole, while the poets of the Renaissance used general imagery and traditional themes. However, this view needs to be qualified by Coleridge's lack of detailed knowledge of the art of his own time, despite his association with Washington Allston. Coleridge's greatest degree of response was to the Renaissance, beginning with the Camposanto frescoes at Pisa and especially The Triumph of Death, which in its engraved form also stimulated Keats. (It must be said that St. Martin's Press has done a disservice to the author and his readers with its muddy reproductions of details from this fresco). Although Coleridge could take pleasure in earlier Italian art, he described the contribution of Giotto in terms of the liberation of figures from their imprisonment in two-dimensionality. Coleridge's appreciation of the high Renaissance is spirited but conventional: he elevates the Roman and Florentine schools above the Venetian (a view so widely held that it was shared by Reynolds and Blake), and he identifies Michelangelo with the sublime, Raphael with the beautiful. Coleridge appears to have been less responsive to sculpture than to painting—he called Bernini's works an "unhappy attempt at picture petrifactions," and he thought Michelangelo's only great statue was his Moses. Zuccato is fair in describing Coleridge's limitations as a writer about art:

His comments on painting often seem to disembody the image, to atomize it into its components: he considers colour, or form, or drawing, but seldom the relations between them. Moreover, he tended to discuss these aspects in non-pictorial terms. (75)

Zuccato's consideration of Coleridge and Italy extends beyond the vulgar language to Latin writings, and beyond literature and the arts to philosophy and political history. Coleridge proves to have had a good knowledge of Italian poetry in Latin, admiring especially Petrarch's metric epistles. Among Italian philosophers, Giordano Bruno was particularly important to Coleridge from 1801 on, at a time when Bruno was known in Germany but not in England. Bruno's philosophy of nature was for a time very appealing to Coleridge, and Zuccato accepts at least part of Coleridge's defense against charges of plagiarism from Schelling on the ground that "most basic concepts of Naturphilosophie appear in Bruno, who was popular in Romantic Germany" (129). Zuccato concurs with Thomas McFarland's view that Coleridge concluded that Bruno's views were incompatible with his own on the grounds of pantheism. Much later, in 1825, Coleridge was introduced to the work of Giambattista Vico. However, according to Zuccato, "his notes on the New Science show that he paid less attention to Vico's principles than their applications" (141). And though at first Coleridge accepted the periodization of history that was the basis of the Viconian cycles, in the end he rejected time's cycle for time's arrow. Regarding the history of Italy, and particularly of Florence, Coleridge's view was opposed to that of Sismondi, who emphasized the role of communes. "Florence was for Coleridge a sort of modern version of Plato's republic, a republic of the learned" (150). Here as elsewhere, Zuccato's distinctions are judiciously grounded in the culture of Coleridge's Europe.

A few incidental mistakes should be corrected. The Act of Union with Ireland took place in 1800, not 1802 (8). Percy Bysshe Shelley was upper-class, not "bourgeois" (12). In the context of a discussion of Italian art, the reference to "the Viennese school" (65) is almost certainly a typo for "the Siennese school." It is puzzling to read that John Constable's patron Sir George Beaumont "had little enthusiasm for Constable" (77). However one might characterize Coleridge's feeling for Sara Hutchinson, "a moment of emotional bewilderment" is inadequate (21). A criticism of the "Select Bibliography" is also in order: although the endnote documentation of Coleridge in Italy is scrupulous and even massive, the nine subdivisions of the bibliography, with entries alphabetized according to author within each, make it hard at times to find individual items. Some seem to have fallen between the cracks. Where, for example, is Sismondi's Histoire des républiques italiennes du moyen âge, mentioned several times in the text? Where is Benedetto Stay, whose Fable of the Madning Rain is cited in Coleridge's opinion as "one of the finest satires ever written" (114)? More importantly, where are the printed sources for Samuel Taylor Coleridge himself? These are of course secondary problems, having nothing to do with this book's main subject or lines of argument.

We are privileged to have in Edoardo Zuccato as a guide someone so learned in Italian culture and having a command of Italian literature that few if any other Coleridge scholars possess. Coleridge in Italy is a welcome study of an important subject that has at last received the attention that it deserves.