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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 Joel Foote Bingham (1827–1914)

By Silvio Pellico (1789–1854)

IN the little curious old capital of Savoy, some thirty miles southwest of Turin, stands an elegant but unobtrusive monument which is a center of pilgrimage from all quarters of the literary world. Around this monument, in the year of our Lord 1889, were gathered the most distinguished representatives of literature, learning, and patriotism from all parts of Italy and of Europe, to celebrate with eloquence and song the hundredth anniversary of the birth there of Saluzzo’s most illustrious son, a name now as familiar as that of Dante throughout the civilized world,—Silvio Pellico.

Here he and a twin sister of extraordinary beauty (who exercised an important influence over his whole life) were born on the 21st of June, 1789. The mother was a Tournier (a name famous in the manufacture of silk) of Chambéry, the ancient capital of Savoy; then as now, after several alternations, a province of France, and always an important intellectual center, as well as a leader in silk manufactures. Mademoiselle Tournier had relations also in the silk trade in Lyons. So prized or so important was the name regarded, that she retained it after marriage, and is always spoken of as La Signora Pellico Tournier.

The fact that his family was not noble, like that of Alfieri and Manzoni and so many others in the front rank of Italian literature, with whom Pellico is of necessity brought into literary comparison, but was of the prosperous mercantile class; and further, that his mother, a woman as it appears of a strong character, was of the warm blood of the bourgeoisie of southern France,—is a matter of interest and importance in many ways to the critical historian of literature, but one on which it is beyond the scope of this work to dwell. It is only necessary here to point out that it naturally set him nearer to the heart of the common people; led him into those associations, and brought him to breathe in that atmosphere of heated patriotism, so called, which cost him many years of dreadful suffering, and cost the world, perhaps, the loss of some peculiar and precious things which would otherwise have flowed from his gentle, sympathetic pen.

The father and mother of Pellico, however, were cultivated and religious people. The father was also a poet of some fame, and formerly held an important civil office in the government. During the political overturnings of the stormy times which ushered in this century in Europe, he lost his civil function, and engaged in the manufacture of silk.

The children, of whom there were six,—three boys and three girls, alternating with one another in the order of their birth,—were educated at home with the aid of tutors; which home was changed first to Turin, and finally to Milan, where the father had been restored to a place in the civil government. This education of the children under the devoted care of these excellent people, in an atmosphere of religion, learning, and the purest domestic love, told with beautiful effect on both the mind and heart of Silvio, and left a distinct impress on his whole life and work.

His adored twin sister he always speaks of as beautiful and lovely beyond description; and to her he was inseparably attached. In their eighteenth year this sister was married to a silk merchant of Lyons. Silvio went with her on the bridal journey to her home, and remained in her house four studious years. It was the time of the swiftly ascending glory of the First Empire in France. Napoleon I. was already the wonder and terror of Europe. Italy was feeling, with mingled and conflicting emotions, his irresistible hand.

The passionate yet ingenuous, patriotic youth felt his heart burn and his blood boil at the changes and crimes that were transpiring in Italy, especially in his own Savoy and Lombardy; and in 1811 he returned to Milan, with the purpose of doing what he could for his country. He lived there in great intimacy with Ugo Foscolo and Vincenzo Monti, and many of the leading liberal poets and littérateurs of the day.

When in 1815 Napoleon had disappeared, and the Congress of Vienna had remapped Western Europe, and the iron hand of Austria clenched his fatherland with a tenfold crueler grip, his patriotism overstepped the limits of prudence. He not only set himself to writing articles offensive to the government, but actually connected himself with the Carbonari (or Coalmen, on account of holding their meetings in a coal cellar), a treasonable secret society of the lower orders. He was arrested, and languished two years in the prison of the Piombi in Venice. He was at length tried for constructive treason, and condemned to die. By the clemency of the Emperor the sentence was commuted to hard labor for fifteen years in the subterranean dungeons of the Spielberg.

How could he be so imprudent? Yes, how could he? Perhaps the incredible brutality of that Austrian tyranny is forgotten. Let me quote from the ‘Martyrs of Italy,’ by Bocci and Zaccaria, certainly authentic history, only one of hundreds of similar or worse examples, some of which cannot be quoted:—

  • “In Milan a Florentine girl of eighteen, and her companion, a girl of twenty, from Cremona, were condemned to fifteen stripes each, for having reproached a renegade Italian woman, who had made an obtrusive display from one of her windows of the colors black and yellow,—the colors of the Austrian flag! And when the wretched girls were led out stripped for punishment into the public square, and the edifying sentence was being executed in the sight of thousands, all the élite of Austrian society from their carriages and palace windows looked on and laughed at the fright and frantic cries and agony and shame of the poor girls!”
  • And remember that Pellico had sisters whom he loved more than life.

    The ‘Francesca da Rimini’ had been produced. It had caught the ear of the people. Fame seemed to be coming. But he was still in the dew of youth. His name was new in the world of letters. Suddenly, in this first blossoming of youthful promise, he was withdrawn from view, as entirely as if he were in his grave. He was virtually in the chambers of the dead—even in hell itself.

    Had his story ended here, the world would have heard no more of Silvio Pellico. But he lived to come forth from his long entombment, to mingle again in the activities of this living world, and to recount the tremendous and refined tortures undergone by the wretched human beings who moved and breathed and suffered in these infernal abodes, still this side the river of death. No sooner was that story uttered upon the free air of heaven, than it was evident to all the world that the star of Pellico had not set. It had emerged from the black cloud which ten years before had seemed to quench it, now like a comet blazing in the face of the universe.

    The book ‘Le Mie Prigioni’ (My Imprisonment) was first published in Turin in 1832. It was written in a style of unpretending simplicity, with an almost superhuman gentleness and sincerity (considering the subjects of which it treats), and with an angelic pathos all his own, without one blast of malediction, one growling thunder of the coming storm; but in the event it made the Austrian powers turn pale, and shook that old iron throne. It was quickly translated into every language of modern Europe, carried the civilized world off its feet with admiration and astonishment and made all Christendom blush with sympathy and anger; and as was remarked by an eminent statesman of the time, “it struck a heavier blow upon the tyranny of Austria, and for Italian liberty, than would have been the loss of an army in battle.”

    With a constitution broken by suffering, he lingered on in a certain literary activity till 1854; but left no other results comparable to the productions of his youth.