Ugo Foscolo was born on 6 February 1778 in Zante, one of the Ionian islands, from a Venetian father and a Greek mother. After his father's death he moved to Venice, where he participated in the political upheavals of the time, expressing sympathy towards Napoleon, except to regret it bitterly after the Treaty of Campoformio.
He is considered the first great intellectual of the neoclassical age. A natural child of enlightenment, he embodies all the cultural ferments of the world in which he lived. In his work are found all the cultural elements that characterize his contemporary age (Neoclassicism, Enlightenment, Pre-Romanticism).
Having said this, it is certainly not possible to analyze Foscolo's work through an itinerary in which an illuminist phase is distinguished, then a neoclassical phase and finally a pre-romantic phase; we will only find works in which all three of these elements are present together (even in the "Grazie", which seem a cultural regression towards neoclassicism after the "Sepolcri" outbursts).
On a strictly personal level, instead, the native Zakynthos, who defined "the cradle of civilization" remained his ideal home, so much so that he dedicated a beautiful sonnet (the famous "A Zacinto"). For Venice he felt equally intense and, while for the Greek island he was fascinated by the melancholy desire, he considered the Serenissima as a second homeland, in fact the real one, for which, not surprisingly, he allowed himself to be involved in his political destinies. .
In fact, established in 1797 in Venice a democratic government in which he assumed public office, a few months later, following the Treaty of Campoformio with which Napoleon ceded Venice to Austria, he had to flee, sheltering in Milan (subtracted by Napoleon from Austria), where he tightened relationships of affectionate friendship with the Monti and had the opportunity to approach the Parini.
In Milan he was editor of the "Italian Monitore", but the following year he moved to Bologna, where he served as assistant chancellor of a military court. The following year he left the post to enlist with the rank of lieutenant in the National Guard and, alongside the French, he fought against the Austro-Russians (also being wounded during a battle). Under the command of the French general Massena he participated in the defense of Genoa and when the city was forced to surrender, he followed the Massena in flight.
In 1804 he went to France, for military reasons, and here he had the opportunity to spend two years of relative calm, which he employed largely in passionate loves, including the one with the Englishman Fanny Emerytt from whom his daughter Floriana was born. Back in Italy, he lived between Venice, Milan, Pavia (where he obtained the chair of eloquence at the University), Bologna and again Milan, from where he fled in May 1815 to avoid having to swear loyalty to the Austrians. After a brief stay in Lugano and Zurich, the following year he settled in London, welcomed by the high society. Here he earned enough with the publication of his works, but he squandered everything with his debauchery: he also began the construction of a luxurious villa, which failed to pay despite the help of his daughter Floriana (who, found in London, offered him three thousand pounds ). Pursued by creditors, he also suffered prison, and was then forced to retire in the village of Turnham Green, where he lived his last years in the company of his daughter.
Autobiographical elements of Foscolo's life are present in the "Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis", even if often the autobiography gives way to fantasy, presenting those ideals (later called "illusions") that, according to Foscolo, allow man to live one's own inner life in a less dramatic way, since there are even valid psychological levers against suicide. In the Ortis, however, we find all the elements that will be elaborated in the following works (the ideals of the homeland, of poetry, of love ...). The protagonist follows a different direction from the writer: Ortis arrives at suicide, Foscolo not always aspiring to peace and tranquility in his troubled existence.
Deeply materialistic and believing in the "mechanical" nature of existence (its enlightenment, we could say), he lived in a lacerating way the moment of crisis of the Enlightenment, so much to determine in him a pessimistic view of life. Foscolo aspired to glory, fame, eternity, but the Enlightenment concept (which saw life made of mechanical movements) limited the realization of these aspirations, being the optic of that philosophy linked to the belief that man is a be finished and subject to disappear after death. Pull the files, it is the reality of death that causes Foscolo to fall into the pessimism that gripped him. On the basis of these considerations, he elaborates as he said what will be defined as "the philosophy of illusions" which is characterized more than anything else as an awareness of the subject and of the artist rather than as a devaluation of the potentiality and validity of reason.
"Illusions", in short, give meaning to the whole existence and contribute to the belief that there is something for which it is worthwhile to live instead of giving oneself death independently. Illusions, in essence, are the homeland, poetry, family, love; in the Sepulchres, instead, we will find the "sublimation" of this process, discovering that "the illusion of illusions" is the same civil poetry.
Alongside the major production (Ortis, Odi, Sonetti, Grazie, Sepolcri) we also find other works, in particular the so-called didimea phase; it is the phase of the anti-Ortis, of the trip to England, of the mature Foscolo who has abandoned the passion and looks with a critical and ironic eye on the things of life.
Ugo Foscolo also wrote some tragedies (Aiace, Tieste and Ricciarda) in imitation of the Alfieri, in which the exaltation of passionate action prevailed.
He died on 10 September 1827. His bones were transferred to Florence only in 1871 and were buried in the temple of S. Croce, which he had so exalted in the "Dei Sepolcri".