Silvio Pellico’s Le mie prigioni: Autobiography versus Religion
From Firenze University Press Book: Rewriting and Rereading the XIX and XX-Century Canons
Discussion of Silvio Pellico’s memoirs Le mie prigioni, has focused principally on its religious and, for some at least, political mission. After publication in 1832 it certainly became a politically unwelcome work for the Austrian government and for reactionaries on the Italian peninsula. As the work was also rejected by the patriotic press, the fact of its public acceptance reflected the profound division in Italian society at that time and foreshadows the two principal and enduring divisions which would fracture la Nuova Italia between Church and State and between State and the popular classes.
The publication in 1832 of Silvio Pellico’s Le mie prigioni, met with immediate success. More than fifty editions had been printed in Italian by the end of 1842. The popularity of the work spread through Europe and the Americas. Parenti’s 1952 bibliography identifies forty-eight editions in French for the years 1833- 1851 and fourteen English language editions in the same period. The success may not have been a surprise to the Turin publisher Botta who paid Pellico the considerable sum of nine hundred Piedmontese new lire for the rights. However, Pellico claims the publisher’s contract denied him the right to free copies for the harm this would do to sales. In fact, Botta had good reasons to be confident. Pellico’s imprisonment at Spielberg had only served to enhance the fame gained previously from his tragedy Francesca da Rimini. First performed in 1815, the tragedy was reprinted fifteen times during the years Pellico spent in jail (1820–1830).
Contemporary observers suggested that Pellico’s success owed much to the appeal of his work to a female audience. Di Breme’s prefatory “Avvertenza” to the 1818 edition of the play confirms the success which the sentimental aspects of Francesca da Rimini had among the female spectators:
[…] gli uditori , e meglio ancora le amabili uditrici di Milano, di Torino e di Firenze, che cogli occhi lagrimosi chiesero la ripetizione della Francesca […] penseranno coll’Editore della medesima, che l’Amore manterrà i diritti suoi sul teatro, finché non verrà in disuso nel gran dramma della vita; finché palpiteranno dei cuori […]. (Pellico 1968, 350)
In brief, the imprisonment of Pellico, the sentimental interpreter of tragic love, only served to bring together Life and Art and to make his destiny no less worthy of tears of compassion than the fate of Paolo and Francesca. The image of Pellico as a romantic hero, sensitive and suffering in solitude clearly preceded the publication of Le mie prigioni but was confirmed by it. The existence of these elements, so particularly consonant with the tastes of Romanticism and the fact that Pellico’s imprisonment could arouse people of different classes and political beliefs, ensured extensive public interest and literary success. Massano observes that the fortune of Pellico’s “Memorie” was enhanced to varying degrees by “correnti laiche e liberali come dai cattolici neoguelfi” (1986, 403).