The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXV. Scholars

§ 7. Lorenzo DaPonte

Another of the notable transmitters of Latin culture was Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749–1838), a genuine celebrity, and, as the librettist of Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutte, one of the lesser immortals. A converted Jew, he was educated and he taught in a church seminary, and actually became an Abate. He mingled freely in the gay and the learned society of Venice, carrying on numerous love intrigues and supporting himself by private teaching. One of his sonnets having given offence, in 1777 he left Italy to wander over Europe. At Dresden he made translations and redactions of plays for the Electoral Theatre; thence he removed to Vienna, where he became acquainted with Mozart, and wrote the libretti for Figaro (1786) and Don Giovanni (1787), produced with brilliant success. Driven away by court intrigues Da Ponte in 1793 went with his young English wife to London, and there made his headquarters for some twelve years, writing for the Italian theatre, touring the Continent to engage singers, opening an Italian book shop, and always more or less retreating from his creditors, from whom, indeed, he retreated to Philadelphia in 1805. Again he moved about erratically, but he settled finally in New York in 1819, gave Italian lessons (Fitz-Greene Halleck was one of his pupils), again opened a book shop, and helped in 1825 to bring over Garcia’s troupe, which introduced Italian opera to New York. His own Don Giovanni was performed with great éclat. He published several volumes of Italian verse, gave lectures and conversazioni upon Italian literature; read and expounded Alfieri, Metastasio, Tasso, and Dante to his pupils, and in 1825 published in The New York Review interpretative notes upon several passages of the Inferno. This was the first time Dante had been taught or commented upon in America; Ticknor’s classes in Dante did not begin until 1831. In 1829, upon Da Ponte’s offer to give instruction in Italian gratis at Columbia College, he was named professor—inane munus, for he had neither salary nor fees nor pupils. Two months before his death in 1838 he wrote in a piteous letter to a friend in Paris; “The author of thirty-six dramas; the poet of Joseph II, of Salieri, of Martini, and of Mozart; after having given to America the Italian language, literature, and music; after having taught about three thousand pupils, imported thirty thousand volumes of precious treasures; established libraries, public and private; formed professors; given to the college three hundred volumes of classic verse; having finally reached the age of eighty-nine years, and lavished away all he had in the world; now remains deserted, neglected, and forgotten, as if his voice had never been heard, or as if he were a fugitive escaped from the galleys.”

Da Ponte’s fatal facility in verse—for he was an improvisatore of the old stripe—of course prevented his ever becoming a poet, yet the writer of Batti batti and of La ci darem la mano ought surely not be forgotten. His Memoirs, published in New York in 1823, also belong in the great Venetian eighteenth-century tradition with those of Goldoni and Carlo Gozzi, and bring back the merry time of ridotti and cicisbei, of petits abbés, theatrical cliques and claques, and wandering adventurers. How this echo of the days of Cagliostro and Casti and Casanova happened to be first heard in the New York of 1823 is one of the curiosities of literature. That American scholarship owes Da Ponte no great debt is not his fault. The time and the ground were not prepared for him. He is significant rather as the most brilliant of the group which transmitted to America the traditions of an urbane—a humane—Latin culture.

After 1815 the stream of Romanic culture seems not to have received new affluents; as it had been headed toward America by the political disturbances of the American and the French Revolutions, so, apparently, it ceased with the Revolutionary period, though Du Ponceau and Pickering continued to produce works of genuine scholarship, and the initial impulse imparted by Jefferson’s French ideas reached a ripe issue in the opening of the University of Virginia in 1825.