Introduction to Piero Bigongiari’s Greek Wrintings

Theodore Ell


To be Italian in modern times has meant being haunted by disillusionment. Since

the Enlightenment, writers and philosophers, Italian and not, have never stopped

reminding Italy of the greatness of the early civilizations that flourished on its soil.

There is nothing wrong with this, except that Italians themselves know it all too

well. Their own marvelling is tinged with a feeling that by comparison those earlier

civilizations put the modern Italian self to shame. This inadequacy in relating to

history has been one of Italy’s self-criticisms ever since Giacomo Leopardi (1798-

1837) sublimated his own sense of failure into a national principle: the ancients

were the youth of the world, whereas moderns, coming so late, are its old age, too

degraded in spirit to live up to the ancient legacy. Italy’s antiquity is also its

tragedy, in that the country holds in its own hands the proof of what it once was

but seems incapable of becoming once more. Moderns have slipped too far from

the graceful Classical template, and have no equivalent systems to raise their spirits

or words anywhere near their precedents. So much of modern Italian mental life

has been about making do.

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