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Radical Translations

Francesco Saverio Salfi


Francesco Saverio Salfi (Cosenza, 1759 - Paris, 1832) epitomizes the figure of the politically-engaged intellectual. He was a prolific playwright, journalist and political actor active between the Italian republics and France during the revolutionary period.

Born in a poor family, Salfi became a priest so that he could advance in his studies of Latin, Greek and scientific subjects. In 1787 he published a treaty on the earthquake that had hit Calabria in 1783 and for the ideas expressed there he had to flee to Naples. Salfi was accused of being a follower of Voltaire and Rousseau and an active opponent of religious institutions. Once he settled in the capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Salfi became a follower of Mario Pagano, lawyer and future leader of the 1799 Neapolitan Republic, and of the Freemason Abbot Jerocades who promoted meeting for the diffusion of the French revolutionary ideals across the Bourbon kingdom.

Between 1789 and 1790 Salfi wrote two tragedies Corradino and Giovanna I- which remained unpublished - where the main protagonists are royal figures who had to fight to rule virtuously over their reign against the viciousness of the Church and its members. Even though the criticism against the religious establishment, Salfi’s tone is proper of the reform movement led by Genovesi, Pagano and Filangeri who deemed possible for the Bourbon monarchy to embrace the enlightened ideals as absolutist monarchs.

The turning point in the life of Salfi is his commitment in the 1794 Jacobin plot to overthrow Ferdinand IV. Salfi was an active member of this plot together with other patriots like Carlo Lauberg, Matteo Galdi and Giuseppe Abamonti. However, the plot was discovered and Salfi was forced to leave Naples and moved first to Genoa and later to Milan. In this period he wrote another tragedy Brezia where he exalted the heroism of the pre-roman population of the Brutians who opposed the invasion of their territories from the armies of the tyrant Alexander of Epirus. Salfi’s historical tragedy constituted an open invitation to act against the Bourbons even plotting to kill them.

Beside his activity as playwright Salfi translated plays by the French author Joseph Marie Chenier such as Fénelon ou les religieuses de Cambrai and Charles IX. These translations were the active contribution of Salfi in the renovation of theatrical production in the Italian Republics. Salfi defined his translation of Fénelon in these terms: “The (French) Revolution needs pushes to speed up its progress; this tragedy abounds of them; this is the reason why I translated it”.[1] In the eyes of the Italian author theatrical plays had to support the new republican ideals where exalted republic values overcame corruption and viciousness caused by bigotry and monarchy.

Salfi’s political activity emerged from his frequent contributions on the democratic newspapers Termometro Politico della Lombardia (The Lombard Political Thermometer) and Giornale de’ patrioti italiani (Journal of the Italian patriots). He kept writing theatrical pieces where he exalted the republican values like Congiura pisoniana (another history of plotting against the tyrant, in this case Nero) or the pantomime Il general Colli in Rome which was better known as the Ballo del Papa (The Pope’s Ball) where he openly criticize the secular power of the Church and the obstinate reluctance to embrace the universal values brought by the French revolution.

Before the Austrian-Russian troops entered in Milan, Salfi had moved to Naples where he was appointed the secretary of the short-lived Neapolitan Republic. The collapse of the republican forces led Salfi to flee first in France and from there he returned to Milan after the French victory at Marengo (18 June 1800). He remained in Milan until 1814 teaching at the University in Brera but also heading the Society of the Patriotic theatre. The end of the second Cisalpine Republic and the creation of the kingdom of Italy did not stop Salfi’s activism in the theatrical production (Pausania and translation of the French piece Les Templiers by François Raynouard) and in Freemasonry activities supporting the ideal of a unified Italian republic. In the last years of the Napoleonic Empire Salfi supported Gioacchino Murat, King of Naples, in his efforts to propose an Italian unification. However, all efforts failed and the return of Ferdinand IV forced Salfi to a long exile in France.

In Paris Salfi met again Carlo Lauberg who introduced the Neapolitan exile in the salon of Madame Condorcet, where he met Volney, Ginguené, Manzoni, Fauriel and Destutt de Tracy. He became an active contributor of the review Magasin Encyclopédie led by the former secretary of the Neapolitan Republic, Marc-Antoine Jullien de Paris. From the Parisian exile, Salfi never lost interest in the political Italian vicissitudes: in 1820 he published an essay where he pleaded the cause of a liberal constitution for a federation of Italian states. In his last years, Salfi actively took part in the Carbonari activities in Paris as well as in the publication of the Histoire littéraire d’Italie left unfinished by the death of Pierre Louis Ginguené.

[1] See, “Fenelon o le monache di Cambrai,Milan, 1800, p.11.


Chénier, Marie-Joseph, Fénelon, ovvero Le monache di Cambrai. Tragedia in cinque atti del cittadino Chénier deputato alla Convenzione nazionale, rappresentata per la prima volta in Parigi a’9 febbraio 1793. Tradotta dal cittadino Salfi. (Milan, dalla Stamperia italiana e francese a S. Zeno, 1800).

Beatrice Alfonzetti. Teatro e tremuoto: gli anni napoletani di Francesco Saverio Salfi, 1787-1794 (Milan: FrancoAngeli, 1994).

Ferrari, Valeria. Civilisation, laicité, liberté: Francesco Saverio Salfi fra Illuminismo e Risorgimento. (Milan: FrancoAngeli, 2009).