Palazzo Bello.1 Dog in the night from the farmhouse, as the wayfarer goes by.—
Era la luna nel cortile, un lato
Tutto ne illuminava, e discendea
Sopra il contiguo lato obliquo un raggio …
Nella (dalla) maestra via s’udiva il carro
Del passegger, che stritolando i sassi,
Mandava un suon, cui precedea da lungi
Il tintinnio de’ mobili sonagli.
[The moon shone in the yard, one side
In its full light, and a moonbeam
Slanting obliquely down the next …
On (from) the highway you could hear
The traveler’s carriage crunching on the stones,
And before that, from a long way off,
The jingling of harness bells.]
And so Avianus tells a story about a country woman who threatened her crying child that if he didn’t quieten down she would feed him to a wolf. And by chance a wolf was passing by and heard her. He thought she meant what she said, so he sat down in front of the door of the house and stayed there all day waiting for the woman to bring him his food. How he stayed there all that time without the woman noticing him, or being afraid, or chasing him off with a stone or anything, only Avianus can explain. And he adds that the wolf didn’t get anything because the child fell asleep, and even if he had not, he wouldn’t have come to any harm. And when it got late, and the wolf went back to his wife without any prey, because he had wasted the whole day waiting, he said what you can read in the story.2 (July or August 1817.)3
An elderly Lady asked a young man if she could read some of his poems, which had many old words in them. A little later, having read them, she handed them back and told him she hadn’t understood them because those were not words that were used in her day. The young man replied: “But I was sure they were used, because they are very old.”
Tutta la notte piove
E ritornan le feste a la dimane:
Fan del regno a metà Cesare e Giove.
[All night it rains
And the festivities return tomorrow:
Caesar and Jove share the realm between them.]4
In literature, one passes from nothing to the middle and to truth, then to refinement. There is no example of a return from refinement to truth. The Greeks. Italians writing in Latin. Fine taste among the generality of men of letters can exist only while it is still uncorrupted. For example, the only fault of sixteenth-century writers in Italian was insufficiency rather than excess, and they were therefore well suited to judge of the right amount, that is of true beauty, as indeed they did.5
The fourteenth century was the beginning of our literature, not yet its peak, since it had only three great writers;6 the fifteenth century was neither the corruption nor  the refinement of the fourteenth century, but a period of sleep for literature, which, while it had given way to erudition, still remained uncorrupted and erred rather on the side of insufficiency. Poliziano, Pulci. The sixteenth century was the real continuation of the fourteenth century and the peak of our literature. Then came the refinement of the seventeenth century, which in the eighteenth century was simply changed into corruption of another kind. But good taste among men of letters has not returned, nor will it return, in my view, because one can move to goodness from nothing but not, I think, from too much goodness, in other words from corruption.
The object of the Fine Arts is not Beauty but Truth, that is to say the imitation of Nature in any form. If it were Beauty, the more pleasing would be that which was more beautiful, and that would be the road to metaphysical perfection, which is nauseating rather than pleasurable in the arts. It is no good arguing that it is beauty only within the limits of nature because this itself shows that it is the imitation of nature therefore that gives delight in the fine arts. For if it were beauty in itself, it follows, as I have said, that greater beauty should bring greater pleasure, and thus the description of a beautiful ideal world should bring more pleasure than the description of our own. And that the Fine Arts are not concerned with natural beauty alone can be seen in all poets, especially in Homer, because if the opposite were true, every great poet would have had to seek out the greatest natural beauty that he could, whereas Homer made Achilles infinitely less beautiful than he might have done, and the same with the Gods, etc., and Anacreon would be a greater poet than Homer, etc., and we find that we like Achilles more than Aeneas, etc., so that it is also untrue that Virgil’s poem is greater, etc. Passions, deaths, storms, etc., give us great pleasure in spite of their ugliness for the simple reason that they are well imitated, and if what Parini says in his Oration on poetry1 is true, this is because man hates nothing more than he does boredom, and therefore he enjoys seeing something new, however ugly. Tragedy, Comedy, Satire are all concerned with ugliness and it is just a question of names to argue about whether they are poetry. It is enough that everyone regards them as poetry, especially Aristotle and Horace, and that when I talk about poetry I also mean these kinds of writing. See Dati, Pittori, Siena 1795, pp. 57, 66.2
Ugliness, like everything else, must be kept in its place: it will rarely have a place in epic and lyric poetry but very often will in Comedy, Tragedy, Satire, and it is a question of words, etc., as I said above. Baseness should rarely be described because rarely can it find its place in poetry (except in Satire, Comedy, and Bernesque poetry),3 not because it cannot be the object of poetry. Further, as there can be many kinds of a thing, and these of greater or lesser worth,  there is no reason that one of the various kinds of poetry may not have the beautiful as its object in particular, another the sorrowful, another the ugly and the base, and that one may therefore be more noble and worthy, another less so, yet they are all kinds of poetry, and there is nothing to prevent the object of any single one of them from being the object of poetry and the imitative arts, etc.
Perfection in a work of Fine Art is measured not by the greatest Beauty but by the most perfect imitation of nature. Now, if it is true that the perfection of things consists essentially in the perfect achievement of their object, what shall be the object of the Fine Arts?
Usefulness is not the purpose of poetry although poetry can be useful. And the poet can be or deliberately intend to be useful (as Homer may perhaps have done) without usefulness being the purpose of his poetry, in the same way as a farmer can use an axe to scythe crops or for some other purpose without scything being the purpose of an axe. Poetry can be indirectly useful, in the same way as an axe can scythe, but usefulness is not the natural purpose without which it could not exist, in the way that it could not exist without delight, for to give delight is the natural office of poetry.
Sentìa del canto risuonare le valli
[I heard the valleys ring with farmers’ song, etc.]1
A plant or animal seen in real life should give us more delight than when it is painted or imitated in some other way, because it is impossible for an imitation not to leave something to be desired. But the contrary is clearly true: from which it appears that the source of delight in the arts is not beauty but imitation.
The fifteenth century did not create beauty but preserved the idea of it intact, so although it did not produce anything itself, it still admired what had been done before, and indeed sought it out: hence the endless study of the Classics and the scholarship that was dominant during that century. The sixteenth century, with the capital acquired in the 15th century and the direction set in the 14th, began to create again. But the seventeenth, because it was not weak but corrupt, was not only incapable of creating good work but despised work that was good, was even offended by it. Thus Dante, Petrarch, etc., were forgotten and no longer printed. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, we did not regain our strength but only good taste and a love for classical studies, and for that reason the first half of that century is like the fourteenth century. Little account is taken of this period of rebirth because (like the 1400s) it did not produce any work of art apart from Merope,2 and it lasted for such a short time that one man’s lifetime was enough to witness the corruption, the rebirth, and the decline. After our literature declined (into imitating and studying foreigners), our  last works of art appeared in the second half of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. These are by those writers who remain untouched by corruption, cannot be admired by many, etc. But art today has seen incredible growth, everything is art and more art, hardly anything is spontaneous, spontaneity itself is sought out with great fervor but through endless study, and cannot be achieved without it, yet without it Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, etc., and all the good fourteenth- and sixteenth-century writers had spontaneity in abundance (particularly as far as language is concerned). This is happening because we live today in a time of corruption (as well as among corrupt people) and we have to study as hard as possible to avoid corruption, particularly that of our own time, which takes hold of us before we can avoid it, and also that of the past, because we now know all the vices of art and want to protect ourselves against them. We no longer have the simplicity of the Greeks and Romans or the writers of the 14th and 16th centuries, because we have passed through the time of corruption and have become cunning in our art. We avoid those vices with our cunning and our art, not with nature’s help, as the ancients did, who did not know much about them, but who, because art was in its infancy and still not corrupted, neither avoided nor fell into such vices. They were like children who know no vices, we are like old people who know them but avoid them through judgment and experience. And we have a great deal more judgment and art than the ancients, who made endless mistakes (without recognizing them) that would not be made today by a schoolboy. Homer’s flaws, Petrarch’s conceits, Dante’s failures of taste, the seventeenth century flourishes of Ariosto, of Tasso, of Caro’s translation of the Aeneid,1 etc. And so our great works of today (very few because we are still in the midst of corruption from which very few writers stand out) will all be flawless, perfect, but in the end no longer original: we won’t have any more Homers, Dantes, Ariostos. Obvious example of Parini, Alfieri, Monti, etc. Therefore, what I said above is quite clear, that the arts having changed from being childish and uncorrupted into being mature and corrupt (like middle-aged men full of vices), when they grow old and mend their ways, they can no longer regain the vigor of their childhood and their youth. The arts among the Greeks and Romans, once corrupted, never recovered, now they are rising again among us: the first example so far in the world, from which alone practical proof can be obtained of my opinion.2 Except that in a certain way if the great poets and other writers of today are put beside those of the 14th and 16th centuries, they resemble Greek writers in the centuries of Augustus and the emperors, e.g., Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Cassius Dio, and Arrian, compared to Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon. But they had passed through a period and still were in a period of weakness rather than corruption.
 In the same way as children and young people, though they may be of good character, nevertheless through natural wickedness slip into some fault from time to time and despite this are totally different from adults who are bad, so also the ancients, who, without either understanding or loving the vices of the arts, but by virtue of the mind’s natural tendency toward affectation and similar things sometimes slipped into them without realizing that they were vices, were nevertheless infinitely different from the adult art-makers of the 1600s and 1700s, who were rooted in corruption. And now anybody, even with the most basic schooling, can see at first sight that those are errors and that the ancients erred. For example, who cannot now see how ridiculous and affected Olympia’s lament, etc., is in Ariosto, and Erminia’s, etc., in Tasso?1 And yet these great poets fell into such errors in good faith because their art was young and inexperienced, while we, because we are old in the art with the experience and judgment of these corrupt times, laugh at them and shun them. But this judgment and this experience is the death of poetry, etc. How then can it be said that Ariosto, for example, was the possessor of supreme art if he so often lapsed into mistakes that the most wretched artist of today can recognize at first glance? He possessed not supreme art but supreme genius, crystal clear, but untarnished, and still less polished to perfection.
To avoid the vices and corruption of writing, we now need endless study and intense imitation of the Classics to a much much greater extent than the ancient writers needed. If one does not have these things, one cannot be an eminent writer, and if one does, it is not possible to become as great as the great models. Like the coachman who, guiding his horses down a slope, gives them short rein so that they don’t carry him away.
Padron, se con lamenti e con rammarichi
Si rimediasse a le nostre miserie,
Bisognerebbe comperar le lagrime
A peso d’or: ma queste tanto possono
Le disgrazie scemar, quanto le prefiche
Svegliare i morti con le loro istorie:
Ne’ guai non ci vuol pianto ma consiglio.
[Master, if with regret and lamentations
We could cure our miseries,
The tears would need be bought
By their worth in gold: but they can as much
Lessen the pain as mourners
Awaken the dead with their wailing:
Times of trouble demand not tears but counsel.]2
 When a certain gentleman was asked by some people who were discussing an ancient terracotta statue of Jupiter what he felt about it, he answered: I am surprised you have not noticed that this is a Jupiter in Creta, meaning: made from terracotta, but appearing to mean: from the island of Crete, where Jupiter was brought up.1
SYSTEM OF FINE ARTS.
Purpose—to give pleasure; secondary purpose sometimes, usefulness. —Object and means of obtaining the purpose—the imitation of nature, not necessarily of beauty. —Primary cause of the outcome produced by this object or by this means—wonder: power of the wonderful and desire for it inborn in man: tendency to believe in the wonderful: wonder is thus produced by the imitation of the beautiful as well as by the imitation of any other real or truthful thing: hence the delight of tragedies, etc., produced not by the thing imitated but by the imitation, which creates wonder. —Secondary causes, relating to the different objects imitated—beauty, memory, the attention that is paid to things that we see every day without noticing them, etc.2 —Original cause of the delight aroused by wonder, etc., and therefore consequently of the delight aroused by the fine arts—man’s natural abhorrence of boredom, research into the reasons for this abhorrence, etc. —Causes of defects in the fine arts—Disproportion, unsuitability, things out of place, which the defects of baseness ugliness deformity cruelty filth wretchedness all come down to (contrary to the opinion of those who think that it arises from the beautiful being the object of the arts), all things which when represented or used in their place are not defects, since they please and produce wonder by means of imitation, but which are defects when they are out of place, e.g., in Anacreontic verse the image of a cyclops (generally), or the figure of a deformed person in an epic generally, etc. Other defects and vices, affectation, etc., almost all come down to unsuitability and implausibility, which arise from the fact that the attributes of the implausible thing do not go together in nature, thanks to which the mind that understands the  unsuitability of the attributes perceives the implausibility. —Different branches of imitation that form the different objects of the fine arts and the various genres, e.g., of poetry, which are the more worthy and noble the more worthy, etc., are their objects, whence a genre that has deformity as its object will be little esteemed and should not be placed, e.g., with the epic, although it too is a kind of poetry that arouses wonder and hence delight through the medium of imitation1—
Copyright © 2013 by The University of Birmingham
Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837) was born in Recanati, Italy. He was a poet, essayist, philosopher, and philologist.