The writer Ippolito Nievo was born on this day in 1831 in Padua. His posthumously published Confessions of an Italian is one of the most important Risorgimento novels in Italian literature.
Nievo was a passionate supporter of the move to unify Italy in the 19th century. He participated in Giuseppe Garibaldi’s Spedizione dei Mille – the Expedition of the Thousand – and died for the cause aged just 29.
His legacy was his most famous novel, Confessions of an Italian, in which the central character shares Nievo’s passions.
Born in Padua to a lawyer and the daughter of a Friulian countess, he lived in the Palazzo Mocenigo Querini close to the city centre. The family also had use of his mother’s ancestral home a castle in Colloredo di Montalbano, a hamlet just outside the city of Udine in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. They also had Palazzo Nievo in Mantua.
By the late 1840s, Nievo was becoming increasingly fascinated by the writings of Carlo Cattaneo and Giuseppe Mazzini, two of the central philosophical drivers of the Risorgimento. It is believed, he took part in the failed uprising in Mantua in 1848.
Italian nationalists sought to overthrow the Austrians in the north. His grandfather, Carlo Marin, was a source of inspiration. Marin had been a prominent official of the Venetian Republic when it fell to the Austrians in 1797.
Nievo did not follow his father into law, instead becoming a journalist. In the late 1850s, he joined Garibaldi’s Cacciatori delle Alpi (Hunters of the Alps). A brigade of volunteers, they fought to liberate Lombardy. Later, he participated in the Expedition of the Thousand, given the number 690 in the list of 1,000 patriots.
Nievo embarked in Genoa on 5 May 1860, setting sail for Sicily. He had been promoted to colonel and was undertaking administrative duties, in this case bringing back documents and receipts from the expedition’s expenses.
During the night of 4th and 5th March, the ship ran into difficulties. Almost within view of the Bay of Naples, it sank. There were no survivors.
Confessions of an Italian
Much of Nievo’s writing took place between the periods of active support for the revolutionary cause. He spent time in Colloredo di Montalbano, writing a number of novels set in the Friulian countryside. He also penned short stories and poetry.
At some point in the mid-1850s, Nievo started work on his major novel. The central character is an 83-year-old man, Carlo Altoviti – thought to be loosely based on Carlo Marin. Carlo decides to note down the history of his long life. It ranges from an unhappy childhood to romantic entanglements during the siege of Genoa, and fighting in the cause of revolution in Naples. Carlo’s twin passions are the dream of a unified, free Italy and his undying love for a woman named Pisana.
Characters include nuns, drunken smugglers, Napoleon and Lord Byron, all wrapped up in one man’s lifestory and the fight for Italy’s unification.
Nievo completed the work in 1858. However, a publisher only took the work six years after his death. The title originally given by the publisher was Confessioni di un ottuagenario (Confessions of an octogenarian), because Nievo’s intended title was still deemed politically sensitive.