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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 Giovanni Domenico Ruffini (1807–1881)

GIOVANNI DOMENICO RUFFINI, conspirator, politician, patriot, is remembered in none of these characters,—not rare in his time and country,—but as a novelist; and especially as the author of one book, ‘Dr. Antonio,’—a lovely record of love, patriotism, and despair.

His first story, ‘Lorenzo Benoni,’ purporting to be a novel, is really an autobiography; a faithful transcript of his boyhood and life in Italy between 1818 and 1833, when Piedmont was the stronghold of despotism, and when Ruffini, who was educated at the university (he was born in Genoa in 1807), was one of the band of high if turbulent spirits—Mazzini the leader—who joined the “Young Italy” movement and set up the national standard. ‘Lorenzo’ in one way merited the attention accorded it in the first reviews of the day. It fell at a lucky moment, and was filled with Italian politics, then at their most interesting moment. To the modern reader its sole interest is in one unique quality: the naïve expression of a conspirator’s life,—its futility, its childishness, its splendid courage, its duplicity, its high motives, and the stage tricks used to elevate it—as the author unconsciously betrays. The minute details of Italian school life are faithful enough; but a pedagogue is a pedagogue the world over, and his portrait can never be a novel one.

Ruffini fled to France in 1833, and afterwards to England, where he studied the language with such assiduity that it is hard to believe that the tongue in which he wrote is not his own. On the promulgation of the constitution of 1848 he re-entered Italian politics, and was deputy from Taggia, the little Riviera town which was to achieve romantic distinction as the scene of ‘Dr. Antonio.’ Charles Albert appointed him Sardinian minister to France; but the battle of Novara having resulted in the abdication of the King and his own exile, he returned to London, and wrote a series of novels depicting Italian life during the revolutions of 1833 and 1848. ‘Lavinia,’ ‘Paragreens,’ ‘Carlino,’ and ‘Vincenzo’ have the single merit of so portraying the fortunes of commonplace men and women, that the foreigner is able to understand their temper and social opportunity. Between the gloomy ‘Lorenzo Benoni’ and the other unremarkable stories that follow, ‘Dr. Antonio’ shines out an almost flawless jewel among a handful of smooth pebbles.

Ruffini spent his peaceful age in Taggia, and died there in 1881.

‘Dr. Antonio,’ published in 1855, is written in a style as far as possible from the modern manner. The author does not fill his canvas with figures, and then stand off, a dispassionate observer, to see how they look and move. He is frankly the partisan, the protector, of his hero and heroine; and prodigal in gifts to them of beauty, character, and charm. He crowns his Lucy with golden hair, his Antonio with dark curls, the one the complement of the other. His language is old-fashioned; and through his limpid sentences walk “Lucy the fair,” “Antonio the noble.” The story rests on supports which, though firm, are slender. Lucy Davenne, a young English girl, accompanied by her father, an insular, prejudiced, wealthy baronet, traveling by carriage along the Cornice road, is overturned at a dangerous pass and seriously injured. The parish doctor of the little town of Taggia happens to rescue her, carries her to an inn, and afterward attends her with patience and skill through a long invalidism. The romance which grows softly, sweetly, daily, before our eyes, is revealed by no gesture, no sound. Not a whisper, even to the reader, breaks the silence of perfect reserve, entire reticence. The unspoken love has a larger life, and permeates the atmosphere; it is a part of the fragrance of the flowers; it is breathed in the cool wind, tremulous with feeling. And perfect art leaves it so,—unanalyzed, undefined.

Long and lovely are their days in the little osteria on the olive-crowned height, the rainbow-colored Mediterranean at their feet, and the snow mountains piercing the northern horizon. Pleasant the hours when they drive along the silvery tract of road that undulates among palms and olives, from the bending coast to frowning hills, whose outlines are veiled in mists of mother-of-pearl. But when they wake from their day-dream, and Lucy is forced to return to England, the reader, with Dr. Antonio, can only submit. Parental authority is supreme in Italian eyes; and Antonio, poet and dreamer, has the practicality of his race and station.

After the lapse of years, Lucy, now the widow of an English lord, returns to Italy, with the unconfessed purpose of seeing Antonio again. He has thrown himself into politics, and become an authority in the Liberal party. They meet, but scarcely an hour of intercourse is vouchsafed them; for a crisis has come in the affairs of the country. The battle of Novara is fought and lost; and Antonio is captured, tried, and sentenced to imprisonment for life on the gloomy promontory which overlooks Ischia. The calamity which befalls her lover makes of the timid Lucy a very Machiavelli. With what art the author shows the change! how prodigal of self, of money, of charm to win her way! And finally it is done. The boat which is to rescue him passes under the prison walls, hands are stretched out to save him, he has but to leap into the soft darkness of the Italian night; but he does not come. The astonished, the indignant messengers bring back to Lucy a little note, the letters formed by holes pierced in the paper.

“There are five here besides myself: all noble fellows, the least of them worth ten of me. I cannot desert them. You cannot save us all; leave me to my fate. Providence has assigned me my place among the sufferers. Perhaps our trials will be reckoned to our country. Pray that it may be so. Pray for Italy. God bless you. Your own A——.”

The unuttered romance ends in failure and death. Does the sentimentalist protest that the real Antonio would not have submitted to fate, or taken his country for a mistress when love failed? Antonio was a character called out of the unordered individualities of Italian life, and patriotism with him might well have been the absorbing passion. And what of the vain sacrifice, the immolation to an idea, which bound him to his chains when his duty was to love? For Antonio there was no choice. The high resolve, the senseless, noble, quixotic action, was but the expression of his ideal.

Ruffini was a man of one book; a dignified and interesting figure.