Il Cagalibri (The Bookshiter)

13/06/2021 10:50

Niccolò Tommasèo was a linguist, journalist and essayist, forerunner of the irredentist movement that advocated the incorporation of the eastern Adriatic territories to the 19th century Italy unification process. His featured work was the making of a comprehensive Italian dictionary. His nickname came after a statue raised in Venice.

Tommasèo was born in Sebenico on October 9, 1802, when Dalmatia was an Austrian domain, today it is Sibenik, Croatia. He also lived in Padua and Milan, working as a journalist. In his years in Paris, he published the political essay Dell'Italia, Il Duca di Atene and the volumes of poetry Confessioni and Memorie Poetiche. But his most outstanding work is linked to the edition, between 1861 and 1874, of the eight volumes of the Dizionario della Lingua Italiana, in addition to the Nuovo Dizionario de Sinonimi della Lingua Italiana, 1830, and a new version of the latter published in 1887.

Along the days he spent in Venice he published what is considered his main novel, Fede e Bellezza (Faith and Beauty). In a letter sent to Professor Giovanni Lanza in April 1873 from Florence, he summed up "il senso del bello, che col senso del convente è tutt'una cosa, è bisogno di popolo veramente civile, perchè instinct dell'umana natura". ("The sense of beauty, which with the sense of convenience is one thing, is the need for a truly civilized people, because they are instincts of human nature.") Tommasèo was linked, along with Daniele Manin and as minister of culture, to the government of the Republic of San Marco, which was independent of Austria for a short length of time, since March 22, 1848 up to August 22 of the following year. After, Tommasèo went into exile in Corfu, where he wrote Il secondo esilio (The Second Exile) and Venice would not join the new Kingdom of Italy until the month of October 1866. He spent his last years in the city of Florence, where he died in May 1874.

Giovanni Lanza, who, between 1869 and 1873 was prime minister of the Kingdom of Italy, prefaced an epistolary selection of Tommasèo published in Milan in 1878 with the title Lettere di Niccolò Tommasèo. Lanza pointed out that “schivo dal coltivare l’arte per sè stessa, il Tommasèo, più alto mirando, si studiò sollecito di subordinare sempre la forma al pensiero, la bontà e la giustezza delle idee al brio e alla peregrinità loro. (…) La frase negli scritti del Tommasèo suole spiccare per lucidezza e propietà, nè offende mai per alcunchè di stento e di superfluo”. ("Shy of cultivating art for himself, Tommasèo, pointing higher, studied solicitously to subordinate always the form to the thought, the goodness and the rectitude of the ideas to his vivacity and peregrinity. (...) The phrase in Tommasèo's writings is particularly striking for their lucidity and propriety, and never offend for being difficult or superfluous").

In 1882, Venice dedicated a statue to him. Elaborated in Carrara marble, work of the sculptor Francesco Barzaghi, stands in the middle of Campo San Stefano, in the sestiere of San Marco. It shows Tommasèo standing, with his long beard resting on his chest, his arms crossed, with a feather in his right hand and grasping a scroll of paper rolled up with his left. The curiosity is that, to complete and ensure the stability of the figure, supported by the two legs of the writer, resorted to the use of a third support consisting of a stack of four thick tomes, which can even be read on the spine his attributed authorship: Dante and Homer. What the sculptor surely did not expect was the funny aspect that conferred on the whole with the books that seem to appear under Tommasèo's coat back. Somebody has defined it as an unusual produzione culturale e risultando alquanto difficile trattenere il sorriso (cultural production and being rather difficult to hold back the smile), and hence, there was no more than one step to the nikename: the bookshiter.

© J.L.Nicolas


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