A troubled publication, between French Revolutionism and Austrian Conservatism
258. Foscolo, Ugo (1778-1827)
Vera storia di due amanti infelici, ossia Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis.... [Bologna, Jacopo Marsigli, 1799].
Two parts in one volume, 16° (130x85 mm). , 138; , 139-264 pages. The first leaf of the second part is blank. Frontispiece with an engraved medallion portrait of Foscolo, in bistro (85x63 mm), uncounted in the foliation. Contemporary mottled calf, over pasteboards. Smooth spine, compartments underlined by double gilt fillet and decorated with floral tools in gold; title in gilt lettering. Upper joint somewhat worn, lower extremity of spine slightly damaged. A good copy, foxing throughout, the upper margin of a few leaves waterstained. The manuscript note 'Par Ugo Foscolo' on the recto of the front flyleaf.
Provenance: ownership inscription, partially trimmed, on the recto of the blank leaf signed [χ]1, separating the two parts, 'M Antonio Centura' [?]; on the verso of the title-page of the second part 'Comprato li 18:7bre 1802'.
The extremely rare first edition – in the 'Austrian' issue known as '1799A' – of Foscolo's masterpiece, which is considered the first Italian epistolary novel.
Foscolo's Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis (The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis) is a semi-autobiographical work; in epistolary form, it narrates the impossible love of the young patriot Jacopo Ortis for a girl named Teresa, set against a backdrop of the Napoleonic wars in northern Italy. The epilogue is tragic as sentimental disappointment and political disillusionment lead the young Jacopo to commit suicide.
The work has a very complex publishing history, in which issue 1799A plays a fundamental role. Foscolo had been writing the work between the summer of 1798 and the beginning of the following year, and it was set to be published by the Bolognese printer Jacopo Marsigli. Foscolo then joined the Napoleonic Army, interrupting the text at letter forty-five. Marsigli, the printer, decided to assemble the material regardless, and he asked the young law student Angelo Sassoli (b. 1773) to continue writing the story up until the epilogue. The book came to light – under the title Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis – around 30 June 1799, although the title-page bears the year '1798 Anno vii' as the date of publication. This first issue, known as Ortis 1798, was evidently not distributed: only three complete copies are recorded, these being preserved in the Archiginnasio in Bologna, the Biblioteca di Storia moderna e contemporanea in Rome, and the Biblioteca Comunale in Treviso. At the same time, the city of Bologna was occupied by the Austrian army, and Marsigli attempted to conform his still undistributed publication, which was replete with political statements and references to religious questions, to the new political context. In order to overcome the reactionary Austrian control he assembled a 'new Ortis' – known as issue 1799A – which appeared on the market around August 1799 under the more 'reassuring' title of Vera storia di due amanti infelici, ossia Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis (The True Story of Two Unhappy Lovers, i.e., The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis). Marsigli re-used the 1798 quires containing the Foscolo-Sassoli text, and organised the Letters into two parts, each of which was preceded by new preliminaries, including the Annotazioni, a sort of 'justification' of what could be considered suspicious. He also eliminated the more delicate or dangerous passages of the Ortis 1798, inserting instead substitute bifolia or single leaves (cancels). After Napoleon's victory in Marengo on 14 June 1800, the French government was restored in Bologna, and the enterprising Marsigli decided to distribute a third and more 'revolutionary' issue of Foscolo's work – issue 1799B –, assembling copies and leaves from the two previous issues, Ortis 1798 and 1799A. Foscolo had been unaware of Marsigli's various attempts at publishing his epistolary novel; it was only in September 1800 that he came into possession of a copy of the Ortis, in its 1799B iteration. The publication was, however, firmly refuted by Foscolo as being not his own work, and thus the 'official' edition appeared only in 1802. “The editorial history of this novel is controversial and partly conjectural, with some aspects still shrouded in darkness [...] Although recent scholarship tends to see Foscolo's contribution greater than he cared to admit, the question of how much can be attributed to him and how much to others is still debated [...] Marsigli himself was involved more than one would expect of a publisher, being most probably responsible for assembling the material and filling in some of the gaps” (R. Loretelli, “Fleurons as Temporal Markers in Richardson and Foscolo”, p. 150).
The present copy is in the rare 1799A or 'Austrian' issue, with the following issue points – as noted by Gambarin – being observed: the novel is divided into two parts, both with new title-pages bearing the different, aforementioned title. In the first part, an additional quire was inserted for the new preliminaries, including the Avviso a chi legge (fol. [π]2; replacing the shorter address of Ortis 1798 Al lettore, signed by Lorenzo F.), the preface Lorenzo F. Al sensibile Lettore (fol. a1) and Annotazioni Alla prima parte delle ultime Lettere di Jacopo Ortis indispensabilmente da Leggersi (fol. a2). At the beginning of the second part, following the new title-page, are four unnumbered pages containing the Annotazioni Alla seconda parte delle ultime Lettere di Jacopo Ortis indispensabilmente da Leggersi. In this copy the title-page and the four-page Annotazioni are preceded by a blank leaf, forming a quire of four leaves (χ4), a feature unrecorded in the bibliographies.
Overall, in the 1799A issue, fourteen leaves are cancels, single leaves variously pasted over the stubs of the cancellands, or bifolia inserted into the quires. In this copy, the leaf signed e5 is taken from the original Ortis 1798 (cancelland, bearing on page 74 the misprints 'lampi lampi' and 'gi à') and not a cancel (with the corrected 'lampi' and 'già'), as is normally found in other recorded copies of the 1799A. This particular feature was also described in 1955 by Limentani in his paper “Ancora sulle prime edizioni delle Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis” with regard to his own copy of the 1799A, suggesting that the volume offered here may in fact be the same copy that was once in the hands of that Foscolo scholar.
Only two copies of the Ortis 1799 first edition are preserved in American libraries, one held in the Houghton Library at Harvard (1799B); and one, from the Ferrara collection of Renzo Bonfiglioli (1904-1963) and without any indication of issue (A or B), which is held in the Beinecke Library at Yale University.
Raccolta Foscoliana Acchiappati, 19; Ottolini 55; Limentani (“oltremodo rara edizione”); G. Gambarin, “Introduzione” to U. Foscolo, Edizione Nazionale, Firenze 1955, IV, pp. XII-XXXV; U. Limentani, “Ancora sulle prime edizioni delle Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis”, La Bibliofilia 57, (1955), pp. 156-160; M. A. Terzoli, Le prime Lettere di Jacopo Ortis. Un giallo editoriale tra politica e censura, Roma 2004; R. Loretelli, “The Space of Time. Fleurons as Temporal Markers in Samuel Richardson's Clarissa and Ugo Foscolo's Ortis”, R. Loretelli - F. O'Gorman (eds.), Britain and Italy in the Long Eighteenth Century: Literary and Art Theories, Newcastle Upon Tyne 2010, pp. 144-155; Philobiblon, One Thousand Years of Bibliophily, no. 258.