Carlo Cattaneo, principally known for the active role he played as leader of the War Council during the revolutionary “Five Days” of Milan in 1848, which he related in his highly personal account Dell’insurrezione di Milano nel 1848 (1848; Of the insurrection in Milan in 1848), has recently been rediscovered as one of the most original thinkers of his day and a precursor of positivist philosophy in Italy. He was one of the most dynamic figures in the cultural life of Lombardy, and Milan in particular, during the period of the Risorgimento.
His first articles were published in the Annali di Statistica (Statistical annals) and the Bollettino di Notizie Statistiche (Bulletin of statistical notices), two journals founded by the philosopher and jurist Giandomenico Romagnosi, who taught Cattaneo, and whose influence was considerable in shaping Lombard culture at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. Already in these early works, which explore topics in the field of social sciences, it is possible to detect the influence on Cattaneo of Milanese Enlightenment thinking, which, in the previous century, had permeated the social and administrative fabric of the Lombard-Venetian kingdom.
In 1839, after years of effort, he obtained permission from the Austrian rulers to edit his own journal, called Il Politecnico. The first series ran until 1844. In the preface to the first number, Cattaneo clearly stated that the aim of his journal was to further the study of all sciences, in particular applied sciences, in order to promote social progress. His “reviews,” a genre which aimed to inform and educate the public by expounding the most up-to-date ideas, covered a variety of subjects, even though his main interests were economics, history, and literature. His aim was to make Milanese culture less provincial by opening it up to all streams of contemporary debate, and more particularly to the new thinking on economics. This renewal of intellectual life in the capital was intended to modernize the Lombard state, “to free it from many of the anti-scientific opinions in agriculture, public economy, religion and everyday life” (preface to Il Politecnico). The Politecnico cultivated a vigorous dialogue with the mainstream of European thinking in a deliberate attempt to break away from the narrowly academic and humanistic tradition of Italian culture in favor of a more positive engagement with studies of a scientific and technical nature.
The journal was directed at a middle-class public with a sound literary and scientific background. Occasionally, Cattaneo also wrote on arti belle—the theater, opera, painting, architecture, and literature. In these pieces, which were often several pages long and possessed the style and authority of literary essays, Cattaneo sought to demonstrate the interdependence between artistic form and social reality, between literature and life.
While recognizing that the creative process was distinct from the rational and practical, he asserted that art, as the expression of beauty, ennobled the human spirit and constituted the most sublime ingredient of social existence. Although his ideas on art and literature were influenced by the Romantics, whose major exponents had lived and worked in Milan a few years earlier, Cattaneo’s philosophy was closer to the Enlightenment, and also to Giambattista Vico, whose work, La scienza nuova (1725; The New Science), he had studied in depth. Utilizing Vico’s ideas, Cattaneo developed his theory that the study of history does not produce merely passive knowledge of the past.
Through the investigation of the complex relationship between the individual, his culture, and civilization, and an examination of the “istoria delle idee dei popoli” (history of ideas of the people), it deepens our understanding of human nature. Thus his philosophy is “una filosofia della istoria” (philosophy of history) aimed at discovering the laws of human progress and, through them, enhancing our capacity to shape events; philosophy is a “scola pratica” (school of practice) and has a primarily social role (“La scienza nuova,” Il Politecnico, 1839).
The last reviews in the Politecnico dealt with the problem of the Italian language, a live issue which Cattaneo shared with all the intellectuals of his day. Against the classicists, who proposed a national language derived from popular Florentine dialect, Cattaneo, while recognizing the immense contribution of Dante’s works to Italian literature, puts forward the case for a language which, far from being archaic and academic, should be clear and comprehensible to the majority of the population, but also suitable for expressing elevated concepts.
After winding up the first series of the Politecnico, Cattaneo found more time to dedicate to his geographical articles, which he wrote for Il Crepuscolo (Twilight), a Milanese journal published by Carlo Tenca. He also completed his historical work, Introduzione alle notizie culturali e civili su la Lombardia (1844; Introduction to cultural and civic events in Lombardy), a book which, in the words of Mario Fubini in Romanticismo italiano (1965), celebrates the social, economic, and cultural history of
Milan and which, together with his La città considerata come il principio ideale delle istorie italiane (1858; The town considered as the ideal principle of Italian history), provides a clear outline of his vision of a unified and federal Italy.
The main objective of the second series of the Politecnico, which was published immediately on the departure of the Austrians from Lombardy in 1859 and continued until 1864, was to influence the new ruling classes in Italy in supporting scientific progress throughout the newly formed nation. The new Politecnico published mainly economic and technical material, with a few exceptions, for example the now famous literary essay on “Ugo Foscolo e l’Italia” (1860; Ugo Foscolo and Italy), an impassioned defense of the Romantic poet, and a grateful acknowledgment of his undisputed influence on the whole generation that participated in the Risorgimento.
Through his writings, Cattaneo played a crucial role in the development of nationalist ideas throughout Northern Italy. His style, compared by M.Balestrieri in his Antologia della letteratura italiana (1967) to that of the Latin historian Tacitus for his concise paragraphs and the clarity of his “istoriche e esperimentali” (historical and scientific) descriptions, is closely associated with a need for intelligibility and rationality. In this respect, it reflects the position he holds as a transitional figure between the humanistic orientation of the early protagonists of the Risorgimento and the later development of a more technical approach rooted in the social sciences.
Born 15 June 1801 in Milan. Studied at a seminary near Milan; Liceo Sant’Alessandro,Milan, from 1817; law courses taught privately by Giandomenico Romagnosi, 1820–21;
law degree granted from the University of Pavia, 1824. Taught in public schools, Milan, 1820–35. Contributor to various journals, including Annali di Statistica, from 1828; legal adviser for Società degli Editori (Society of publishers), early 1830s. Married Anna Woodcock, 1835. Legal advisor, then secretary, Società della Strada Ferrata Venezia a Milano (Society for the Venice-Milan railroad), from 1837. Cofounder and editor, Il Politecnico, 1839–44 and 1859–64. Leader in the Five Days of Milan march during the revolutionary uprising of 1848. Fled to Switzerland, August 1848, then Paris, then back to Switzerland, living permanently in Castagnola, near Lugano; became a Swiss citizen, 1859. Died in Castagnola, 5 February 1869.
Essays and Related Prose
Scritti politici ed epistolario, edited by Gabriele Rosa and Jessie White Mario, 3 vols., 1892–1901
Saggi di economia rurale, edited by Luigi Einaudi, 1939
Scritti letterari, artistici, linguistici e vari, edited by Agostino Bertani, 2 vols., 1948
Scritti critici, edited by Mario Fubini, 1954
Scritti economici, edited by Alberto Bertolino, 3 vols., 1956
Scritti storici e geografici, edited by Gaetano Salvemini and Ernesto Sestan, 4 vols., 1957
Scritti filosofici, letterari e vari, edited by Franco Alessio, 1957
Scritti filosofici, edited by Norberto Bobbio, 3 vols., 1960
Scritti politici, edited by Mario Boneschi, 4 vols., 1964–65
Scritti filosofici, edited by Alfredo Saloni, 1965
Scritti sulla Lombarda, edited by Giuseppe Anceschi and Giuseppe Armani, 2 vols., 1971
Antologia degli scritti politici, edited by Giuseppe Galasso, 1978
Scritti letterari, edited by Piero Treves, 2 vols., 1981
Scritti su Milano e la Lombardia, edited by Ettore Mazzali, 1990
Other writings: La città considerata come il principio ideale delle istorie italiane (1858), a history of Lombardy (1844), and a book on the 1848 uprising.
Collected works edition: Opere inedite, edited by Agostino Bertani, 7 vols., 1881–92.
Brignoli, Marziano, and Danilo L.Massagrande, Bibliografia degli scritti su Carlo Cattaneo (1836–1987), Florence: Le Monnier, 1988
Ambrosoli, L., “Giuseppe Mazzini e Carlo Cattaneo dal Risorgimento all’unità,” Belfagor 24 (1969)
Angelini, Cesare, Nostro Ottocento: Foscolo, Monti, Leopardi, Cattaneo, Carducci, Lettere di Domenico Gnoli, Bologna: Boni, 1970
Della Peruta, Franco, Conservatori, liberali e democratici nel Risorgimento, Milan: Angeli, 1989
Della Peruta, Franco, Milano nel Risorgimento, Milan: La Storia, 1992
Fubini, Mario, “Introduzione alla lettura del Cattaneo” and “Gli scritti letterari di Carlo Cattaneo,” in his Romanticismo italiano, Bari: Laterza, 1965
Galante Garrone, Alessandro, and Franco Della Peruta, La stampa italiana del Risorgimento, Rome/Bari: Laterza, 1978
Gobetti, Piero, “Cattaneo” (1922), in his Scritti storici, letterari e filosofici, edited by P.Spriano, Turin: Einaudi, 1960
Maturi, Walter, “La scuola democratica: Carlo Cattaneo,” in his Interpretazioni del Risorgimento, Turin: Einaudi, 1962
Salvemini, Gaetano, Preface to Scritti storici e geografici by Cattaneo, Florence: Le Monnier, 1957
Sestan, Ernesto, editor, Romagnosi, Cattaneo, Ferrari, Milan and Naples: Classici Ricciardi, 1957
Voza, Pasquale, Letteratura e rivoluzione passiva: Mazzini, Cattaneo, Tenca, Bari: Dedalo, 1978
Woolf, Stuart, The Italian Risorgimento, London: Longman, and New York: Barnes and Noble, 1969
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