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Italian historian and poet, b. at Brivio, 8 December, 1807; d. at Milan, 11 March, 1895. He was at first a student of theology, but left the seminary without completing the course, not feeling himself called to the priesthood. after this he turned his attention to literature, and taught the Italian language and literature at Sondrio in 1823, at Como in 1827, and at Milan in 1832. While at Como Cantù wrote a tale in verse called "Algiso o la lega Lombarda" (1828), which attracted well-deserved attention; the "Storia della citta e della diocesi di Como" (2 vols., Milan, 1829-1832) made him still better known. Shortly afterwards appeared "Ragionamenti sulla Storia Lombarda nel secolo XVII" (Milan, 1832), which was published later under the title "Commento storico ai Promessi Sposi de A. Manzoni, o la Lombardia nel secolo XVII". In this work Cantù expressed liberal views in his comments on the Austrian policy, and was consequently condemned to thirteen months' imprisonment. The miseries of the incarceration were described by him in the well-known historico-political novel, "Margherita Pusterla" (Milan, 1838), a book widely read and frequently republished.
About this date Cantù began his most important work, the "Storia universale" (35 vols., Turin, 1837, and succeeding decades). The work was often reprinted, and has been translated into English, German, French, and Spanish. It is the first historical work by an Italian which, in a well-finished and vigorous style, gives a philosophical treatment of the development of all civilized peoples from the remotest times to the pontificate of Pius IX. Cantù, it is true, did not draw directly from original sources, but depended on French and German authorities, the value of which he did not always judge with sufficient acumen. He worked up the material thus obtained, however, with entire independence. Yet he showed the influence of the Romantic school, of which Manzoni is the most important representative, and he sought to combine Church and State, politics and religion. The effect of the Romantic movement is still more evident in those works in which Cantù treated the history of Italy of his own time, as in: "Storia dei cent' anni, 1750-1850" (5 vols., Florence, 1851); "Storia degli Italiani" (3 vols., Turin, 1879). Constantly viewed with suspicion by the Government on account of his political opinions, he was obliged to make his escape from Milan to Piedmont when the Revolution of 1848 broke out, but he returned when the uprising came to an end. He was a member of Parliament from 1859 to 1861, and from 1874 until the time of his death he was the director of the archives of Lombardy. In addition to the more important publications mentioned above, Cantù wrote a large number of small historical works and numerous popular books and tales for the young, most of which passed through several editions, and were translated into other languages. Among these minor writings may be mentioned: "Letture giovanili", 4 vols.; "Buon senso e buon cuore"; "Il giovinetto dirizzato all bontà"; "Il galantuomo"; and many others. A complete edition of his poetry appeared at Florence in 1870.
Bertolini, Cantù e le sue opere (Florence, 1895); Mazzoni, Atti dell' Accademia della Crusca (Florence, 1899).