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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Cesare Cantù (1804–1895)

CESARE CANTÙ, an Italian historian, was born at Brivio on the Adda. The eldest of ten children, he belonged to an old though impoverished family. To obtain for him a gratuitous education his parents destined him for the priesthood. On the death of his father in 1827 he became the sole support of his mother, brothers, and sisters. In 1825 he had made his appearance as a writer with a poem entitled ‘Algiso and the Lombard League.’ His ‘History of Como,’ following in 1829, gave him a standing in the world of letters.

Although not a member of the revolutionary society ‘Young Italy,’ he was the confidant of two of its leaders, Albera and Balzetti, a circumstance which led to his arrest in 1833. Seized by the Austrian officials in the midst of his lecture at the Lyceum in Milan, he was incarcerated in the prison in the Convent of Santa Margherita. Although deprived of books and pen, he beguiled the time by writing with a toothpick and candle-smoke on the back of a map and on scraps of paper, ‘Margherita Pusteria,’ with one exception the most popular historical novel in the Italian language.

Liberated at the end of a year, but deprived of his professorship, he and his family would probably have starved had he not chanced to meet a publisher who wanted a history of the world. The result of this meeting was his ‘Universal History’ in thirty-five volumes (Turin, 1836 et seq.), which has gone through forty editions and been translated into many languages. It brought the publisher a fortune and Cantù a modest independence.

Up to the time of his death in 1895, Cantù wrote almost without intermission. Besides the books already mentioned, the most notable are the ‘History of a Hundred Years, 1750–1850’ (1864), and the ‘Story of the Struggles for Italian Independence’ (1873). His masterpiece is the ‘Universal History,’ the best work of its kind in Italian and perhaps in any language for lucidity and rapidity of narration, unity of plan, justness of proportion, and literary art. It is however written from the clerical point of view, and is not based on a critical study of documentary sources. The political offenses for which Cantù suffered persecution were his attempts to secure a federal union of the Italian States under the hegemony of Austria and the Papacy.