Francesco de Sanctis (March 28, 1817 – December 29, 1883) was an Italian philosopher, literary critic, and considered one of the most important scholars of Italian language and literature during the nineteenth century. De Sanctis showed an early aptitude for learning, and after studying several languages, opened a private academy in Naples. In 1848, he supported the short-lived Neapolitan Revolution, and was subsequently imprisoned for two years on false charges of plotting to assassinate the king. His reputation as a lecturer on Dante led to his first appointment as a professor in Zurich in 1856. He returned to Italy in 1860 to serve as Minister of Public Instruction, and also became a deputy in the Italian chamber. In 1871, he was appointed to the first chair of comparative literature in history, at the University of Naples.
De Sanctis taught himself German and studied the works of Hegel and other German idealists, incorporating Hegelian aesthetics into his literary criticism. He defined art as the product of the fantasy of great men, and declared that a true work of art is independent of science, morals, history, or philosophy. His masterpiece, Storia della letteratura italiana (1870–71; History of Italian Literature), used analyses of individual writers to portray the development of Italian culture, society and nationalism from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries. As Italian Minister of Public Instruction, De Sanctis campaigned, at a time when much of Italy was illiterate, for free compulsory education.
Francesco de Sanctis was born March 28, 1817 at Morra Irpino, Campania, to a family of middle-class landowners. He showed an early aptitude for learning and seemed destined for the priesthood, but his loss of religious faith in 1834 and his interest in teaching sent him in another direction. After high school studies in Naples in 1836 he went to study at the free institute of the literary scholar and philologist Marchese Basilio Puoti. His studies included Latin, Italian, and some Greek and French. He also read some of Hegel’s works, translated to Italian, and may have been exposed to other German philosophers. Under Puoti’s guidance he formed a private academy of his own and gained a reputation as a scholar of literature.
In 1848, De Sanctis supported the short-lived Neapolitan Revolution, and proposed a series of scholastic reforms including free compulsory education, improved teacher training, and greater uniformity and continuity in schools. When the revolution collapsed in 1849, De Sanctis was forced to leave Naples. In December of 1850, he was falsely implicated in a plot to kill the king and was imprisoned for two years in the Castel dell’Ovo at Naples. During this time, he taught himself German, using a German grammar book and an anthology of Le Bas and Regnier smuggled into the prison by an old woman who brought him his meals. He then began to translate Goethe’s Faust into Italian. After his release from prison, De Sanctis traveled to Turin, the Piedmontese capital, where he campaigned for Italian unity under the house of Savoy. While in Turin, he delivered a series of lectures on Dante which established his reputation, and resulted in his being appointed professor of Italian literature in Zurich, Switzerland, from January, 1856 to August, 1860.
In 1860, he returned to Naples as Minister of Public Instruction, and filled the same post under the Italian monarchy in 1861, 1878, and 1879. In 1861, he also became a deputy in the Italian chamber. As Minister of Public Instruction, he advocated for high-quality public education, though at the time the majority of Italians were illiterate. Although De Sanctis continued to hold public office after 1865, his literary interests assumed greater importance in his life. From 1871 to 1878 he occupied the first chair of comparative literature in history, at the University of Naples.
Francesco De Sanctis died in Naples on December 29, 1883.
Francesco De Sanctis, considered the most important scholar of Italian language and literature in the nineteenth century, was one of the founders of modern Italian literary criticism. Saggi critici (Critical Essays, 1866), a revised Essay on Petrarch (1869), Nuovi saggi critici (New Critical Essays, 1873), and Storia della letteratura italiana (History of Italian Literature, written in 1868-1871 as a teaching manual) represent his major contributions to literary criticism and historiography. His lectures on Manzoni and Leopardi later appeared in Letteratura italiana del XIX secolo (1897).
De Sanctis used his broad knowledge of history and philosophy in his literary criticism. His essays on the Italian poets (Saggi critici, 1866; Nuovi saggi critici, 1873) explained these poets in the historical context of their social and political surroundings. His masterpiece, Storia della letteratura italiana (1870–71; History of Italian Literature), used analyses of individual writers to portray the development of Italian culture, society, and nationalism from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries.
De Sanctis’ literary criticism incorporated elements of Hegelian aesthetics. He defined art as the product of the fantasy of great men, and declared that a true work of art is independent of science, morals, history, or philosophy. He evaluated a work of art, or literature, according to how appropriately it synthesized content and form. De Sanctis agreed with the positivists that literary criticism should be carried out according to a universal set of principles, but maintained that a critic should not concern himself with minute details. Some of his critics attacked him for apparently ignoring detail and for concentrating only on major literary figures.
One of De Sanctis’ students was Benedetto Croce, who defended him eloquently and went on to elaborate his own system of Hegelian aesthetics. He recognized that De Sanctis’ work lacked systematic theories and precise terminology, but admired his critical acumen and his use of knowledge in many fields.
After his death, De Sanctis became one of the most studied and celebrated romantic authors in Italy. In 1897, Benedetto Croce sponsored a publication, edited by Francesco Torraca, of La letteratura italiana nel secolo decimonono: Scuola liberale-scuolo democratica (Italian Literature of the nineteenth century: Liberal School – Democratic School), a collection of academic lectures delivered in Naples between 1872 and 1874. In 1917, Croce published a bibliography of Croce’s works in celebration of his one hundredth birthday. In the 1930s and again in the 1950s, Italian publishers compiled detailed collections of De Sanctis’ writing. His work remains an influence on modern literary criticism.
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