Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Critical and Biographical Introduction

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 Vincenzo da Filicaia (1642–1707)

LITERARY historians agree that Italian poetry reached its lowest ebb in the early part of the seventeenth century. The verse of the imitators of Marini degenerated into mere artifice. Brought to a high technical perfection, it yet lacked substance and truth of feeling, and was become a mere plaything in the hands of skillful versifiers. Near the end of the century a group of Roman literary men founded a society called “The Arcadia,” whose avowed object was to repudiate this verse-making à la mode, and to bring poetry back to nature. But they marred still further what they had set out to mend. In their hands simplicity became inanity. Instead of returning to nature they played at being shepherds and shepherdesses, while their pastoral Muse wore patches and French heels.

In this period of make-believe, almost the only genuine voice was that of Vincenzo da Filicaia. Born in Florence in 1642 of an ancient and noble family, he was liberally educated, at first in the schools of his native city and afterwards at the University of Pisa. Then, withdrawing to a small villa near Florence, he gave himself up to study and to writing. Like all his contemporaries, he began by composing amatory verse. After the marriage and early death of the lady whom he had celebrated, he burned all these youthful effusions, and dedicated his muse to God and to Italy. In 1683, when John Sobieski raised the siege of Vienna and saved the civilization of Europe from the invading Turks, Filicaia, thrilled by the heroism of the Polish king, celebrated his victory in six famous odes. Uplifted by the grandeur of his theme, the poet rose to heights of lyric enthusiasm that set him among the inspired singers of his country. Read in all the courts of Europe, the modest poet who had hardly dared to show his verses to his friends, suddenly found himself face to face with a European reputation. The Christian nations, trembling to see their fate hang in the balance, found in these odes a passionate expression of their joy in deliverance, and of their admiration for the warrior king.

The brilliant Christina of Sweden drew the poet into her circle in Rome, and undertook to educate his two sons. Cosmo III., Grand Duke of Florence, made him governor of Volterra and of Pisa. Filicaia spent the last few years of his life at Florence, where he had been raised to the rank of a senator. He died in that city September 24th, 1707.

Although himself an Arcadian, and the most noted of that school, Filicaia was remarkably free from its extravagances. He was saved from bathos by the depth of his thought, the strength and energy of his expression, his mastery over technique, and the genuineness of his enthusiasm. Yet, sincere though he was, he did not quite escape the charge of affectation. His fame in consequence has undergone some mutations. Much of his poetry is still read with admiration, and his famous sonnet on Italy, which Byron has so finely paraphrased in the fourth canto of ‘Childe Harold,’ all Italians still know by heart.