Andrew Saint

Voguish these days for weddings, Chiswick’s Thames-side parish church has seen its share of august burials. So its large graveyard, a stone’s throw from the howl of the Great West Road, is just the place for a thoughtful stroll. Painters are prominent: Hogarth, De Loutherbourg and Whistler all have striking monuments. Less noticed is a granite table tomb cast into insignificance by two scruffy evergreens, its railings plundered for war scrap. It commemorates the Italian poet Ugo Foscolo, buried here in 1827 at the age of fifty.

Foscolo’s tomb is a cenotaph. ‘From the sacred guardianship of Chiswick to the honours of Santa Croce in Florence the Government and People of Italy have transported the remains of the wearied Citizen Poet 7th June 1871,’ reads the fulsome inscription. ‘This spot where for forty-four years the Relics of Ugo Foscolo Reposed in honoured Custody will be for ever held in grateful Remembrance by the Italian Nation.’ No clue, though, as to why one of the great Romantic poets once lay in a suburban London churchyard.

There are other puzzles. Why, if the monument was raised after Italian unification, does another inscription say it was restored in 1861? The Buildings of England ascribes it to Queen Victoria’s favourite sculptor, Marochetti, but there is no sculpture to it, and Marochetti died in 1867. As for those undisciplined evergreens, neither bush nor tree, bickering and collapsing shapelessly into one another, were they really cypresses, deformed from their true Italian straightness and nobility? The church was open but the verger could not tell me: ‘To me a tree is just a tree.’

Chaotic in life, in verse Foscolo was a perfectionist. Just once did his talents as poet, scholar and controversialist come together to create a finished masterpiece: Dei sepolcri, published 200 years ago, in 1807. The Sepolcri is perhaps the greatest middle-length poem in Italian. It blends scorn, idealism and melancholy with a high-flown Neoclassical diction altogether Foscolo’s own. It is not an easy work. Its close-packed, learned allusions make it practically untranslatable. But for those who can grapple with it, the Sepolcri resonates with Miltonic anger and grandeur.

The poem’s topic is the commemoration of the dead, more seriously treated in English graveyards, Foscolo claims in passing, than in the new mega-cemeteries decreed for Italians by Napoleonic law. When he wrote that, he had not yet visited this country. His notions about its burial customs drew heavily on Young’s Night Thoughts and Gray’s Elegy, poems then honoured in Italy. That Foscolo himself should end up in an English churchyard would have seemed absurd in 1807. Yet the seed that led him to an impoverished death in Chiswick had already germinated.

Foscolo was always something of an outsider. He was born in 1778 to an Italian father and Greek mother on Zakinthos (then Zante), a Venetian outpost. When he was fifteen his widowed mother moved to Venice, where he turned out a precocious young poet, headstrong in love and politics. Like many Italians, he was thrilled by the liberties that seemed to open up when the French invaded in 1797. Then Napoleon handed Venice back to the Austrians. The radical Foscolo shifted to Milan, mixing literature with soldiering for the short-lived Cisalpine Republic. His first and biggest hit was the Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis, a novel about hopeless love in the genre of Goethe’s Werther. It begins with an epigraph from Gray and ends in Romantic suicide.

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