30 November 2020

Ippolito Nievo - writer and patriot

Risorgimento novel now seen as an overlooked classic

ppolito Nievo (above) fought with  Garibaldi in the cause of unification
Ippolito Nievo (above) fought with 
Garibaldi in the cause of unification
The writer Ippolito Nievo, whose posthumously published Confessions of an Italian is now considered the most important novel about the Risorgimento in Italian literature, was born on this day in 1831 in Padua.

Nievo, who was a passionate supporter of the move to unify Italy in the 19th century, drew inspiration from his participation in Giuseppe Garibaldi’s Spedizione dei Mille - the Expedition of the Thousand - which sought to achieve that goal.

He died for the cause at the age of just 29, perishing in a shipwreck while transporting important documents from Palermo to Naples.

His legacy was preserved in his most famous novel, in which the central character and narrator shares Nievo’s passions. Nievo completed the work in 1858 but it was not until 1867, six years after his death, that it found a publisher.

Nievo was born into comfortable circumstances.  His father was a prominent lawyer and magistrate in Padua and his mother the daughter of a Friulian countess.  Their home in Padua was the Palazzo Mocenigo Querini, a 16th century house overlooking Via Sant’Eufemia, close to the city centre. 

They also had use of his mother’s ancestral home, a castle in Colloredo di Montalbano, a hamlet just outside the city of Udine in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and of the Palazzo Nievo in Mantua. 

Nievo was inspired by the political goals of revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini
Nievo was inspired by the political goals
of revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini
From 1832 to 1837, when Nievo was a small child, they lived in a house adjoining the Palazzo della Giustizia in Soave, about 60km (37 miles) from Padua, where his father was posted as a judge.  By the late 1840s, Nievo was becoming increasingly fascinated by the writings of Carlo Cattaneo and Giuseppe Mazzini, two of the central philosophical drivers of the Risorgimento.

He is thought to have taken part in a failed uprising in Mantua in 1848, a year marked by a series of insurrections inspired by Italian nationalists seeking to overthrow the Austian grip on the north of the country.  He had been inspired by conversations with his maternal grandfather, Carlo Marin, who had been a prominent official of the Venetian Republic when it fell to the Austrians in 1797.

Nievo refused to follow his father into the law as he felt it would imply submission to the Austrian government and instead pursued a career in journalism.

His political activity intensified in the late 1850s, when he joined Garibaldi’s Cacciatori delle Alpi, a brigade of volunteers fighting to liberate Lombardy, and then participated in the Expedition of the Thousand, given the number 690 in the list of 1,000 patriots.

Nievo embarked in Genoa on 5 May, 1860 setting sail for Sicily. After distinguishing himself in the battle of Calatafimi and in Palermo, he was promoted to colonel and took on administrative assignments, at the same time keeping diaries that served as a chronicle of events. 

It was in this role that he was tasked with bringing back from Sicily all the administrative documents and receipts from the expedition’s expenses. He boarded the steamship Ercole along with other members of the military administration to travel from Palermo to Naples, but during the night between March 4 and 5, 1861, the vessel ran into difficulties off the coast of Sorrento, almost within view of the Bay of Naples, and sank.  There were no survivors.

An English edition of Nievo's most famous book
An English edition of Nievo's
most famous book
It was during the years between these periods of active support for the revolutionary cause that Nievo did the bulk of his writing.

Much of this time he spent in retreat in Colloredo di Montalbano, writing a number of novels set in the Friulian countryside, as well as volumes of short stories and poetry.

He began writing his major work at some point in the mid-1850s. The central character is an 83-year-old man, Carlo Altoviti - thought to be based at least loosely on Carlo Marin - who has decided to write down the history of his long life, from an unhappy childhood to romantic entanglements during the siege of Genoa, and fighting in the cause of revolution in Naples. 

Carlo’s twin passions are the dream of a unified, free Italy and his undying love for Pisana, the woman with whom he is obsessed. With characters ranging from drunken smugglers to saintly nuns and scheming priests, as well as real figures such as Napoleon and Lord Byron, it is an epic novel that tells the story of one man's life and the history of Italy's unification.

When Nievo’s supporters found a publisher years after Nievo’s unexpected death, the book was titled Confessioni di un ottuagenario (Confessions of an octogenarian), because Nievo’s intended title was still deemed politically sensitive.  It was changed later to reflect the author’s wishes.

Nievo’s life is commemorated in a number of locations, including Colloredo di Montalbano and Fossalta di Portogruaro, in the Veneto, where the Castello di Fratta, the scene of Carlo Altoviti’s unhappy childhood, was thought to be located.  There is a statue of him in Cordovado, in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, where there is a literary park dedicated to his name.

Nievo wrote his masterpiece while in retreat at the castle in Colloredo di Montalbano
Nievo wrote his masterpiece while in retreat
at the castle in Colloredo di Montalbano
Travel tip:

Colloredo di Monte Albano - known locally as Colloredo di Montalbano - is a small village in Friuli-Venezia Giulia situated about 14km (9 miles) northwest of Udine.  In the 11th century, it was a fief of the Viscounts of Mels, who had received it from the Counts of Tyrol. In 1420, together with all of Friuli, the hamlet was acquired by the Republic of Venice.  The village was severely damaged by the Friuli earthquake in 1976, yet the family castle remains intact.

The Caffè Pedrocchi was at the centre of life for students and intellectuals in Padua
The Caffè Pedrocchi was at the centre of life for
students and intellectuals in Padua
Travel tip:

Padua’s revolutionary movement had strong links to the city’s Caffè Pedrocchi, a meeting place for business people, students, intellectuals and writers for nearly 200 years. Founded by coffee maker Antonio Pedrocchi in 1831, the café was designed in neoclassical style and each side is edged with Corinthian columns. It quickly became a centre for the Risorgimento movement and was popular with students and artists because of its location close to Palazzo del Bò, the main university building. It briefly became a battleground when the students rose up against the armed Austrians in 1848.  You can still see a hole in the wall of the White Room inside Caffè Pedrocchi made by a bullet fired by an Austro-Hungarian soldier at the students.

Also on this day:

1466: The birth of military commander Andrea Doria

1485: The birth of poet and stateswoman Veronica Gambara

1954: The birth of actress Simonetta Stefanelli

1957: The death of opera singer Beniamino Gigli


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