Under the impact of the courtly love tradition,
of Provençal origin, the Latin domination was shattered in the late
12th and early 13th centuries by Sordello, Alberto di Malespina, Lanfranco
Cigala, and other Italian poets who adopted Provençal as the vehicle
of their amorous lyrics or political satires. The same courtly tradition
was at work in what is called the Sicilian school, which flourished at
the court of Frederick II (1194-1250), with the difference that here the
language used was Italian. Though this Italian was a somewhat stilted idiom,
the poets of the Sicilian school, who were by no means all Sicilians, tried
from the outset to free themselves from dialect peculiarities and to express
themselves in an ideal Italian. The language was as yet unformed, and the
tradition of these poets was aristocratic and foreign; nonetheless, lyrics
such as those of Pier delle Vigne, Jacopo da Lentini, who is said to be
the inventor of the sonnet, and Rinaldo d'Aquino can still be read with
pleasure. In their influence on subsequent Italian verse, however, these
early Sicilian poems were more important for their form than for their
Another and equally important use of the vernacular manifested itself in Umbria. The religious impulse, fused with a search for simplicity and a love for nature, came to new life in central Italy and was stimulated by the activities and example of Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), its splendid embodiment. St. Francis' Cantico delle creature (variously called "Praises of God's Creatures" and "Canticle of the Sun") is one of the most important examples of early Italian vernacular poetry. The succeeding generation produced on this pattern a number of Laudi, or "Praises," a type of religious poetry in which lyric and dramatic elements were mingled. The ablest and most affecting of the school is Jacopone da Todi (c. 1230-1306), a Franciscan himself, whose dramatic defense of his beliefs and deep mystic sincerity made a great impression on his contemporaries. There were many others of the same school, and the Laudi, though in a limited way, did much to make Italian poets and intellectuals aware not only of the existence and possibilities of the vernacular but also of the vigor of a native inspiration that had about it none of the imported mannerisms of the court.
It was, however, in Tuscany that the vernacular came truly into its own. In the middle of the 13th century a group of Tuscan poets flourished who were aware of the formal and aristocratic graces of the Sicilians and their Provençal predecessors, and yet felt as well something of the sincerity of the Umbrian religious fervor. Outstanding in this group were Guittone d'Arezzo (1230-1294), Chiaro Davanzati, and Guido Guinizelli (c. 1230-1276), with whom the dolce stil nuovo ("sweet new style") begins. This school was characterized by a graceful combination of idealism, intellectualism, and spontaneity of expression. Its leading exponents were Guido Cavalcanti (c.1250-1300); Cino da Pistoia (1270-1336); and Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), who gratefully acknowledged his indebtedness to Guinizelli. At the same time a more realistic type of lyric, foreshadowing the manner of later satirists, also arose. Folgore da San Gimignano, for example, made of his calendar of youthful activities a kind of social commentary, and Cecco Angiolieri (c.1250-c.1312) had a gift for trenchant and coarse satire equaled only by some passages in Dante's Divina commedia (Divine Comedy ). In the field of didactic verse the Tesoretto ("Little Treasure") of Brunetto Latini (c.1220-1294), the revered teacher of Dante, deserves mention. It has been said with good reason that Dante united all the emotional and literary tendencies of his predecessors. Indeed, in his Divina commedia alone, he illustrates not merely the interplay of all the crosscurrents outlined above, but also the persistence of a purely Scholastic and dogmatic theme which had continued as the major intellectual preoccupation of the late Middle Ages -- the harmonizing of revealed Christianity with Aristotelian science.
The 13th century came to witness the beginnings of Italian prose as well as the florescence of the lyric, and in the field of prose, too, Dante was a pioneer. His Vita nuova (New Life ) is a collection of lyrics written with a lengthy prose gloss for which Dante chose to employ the vernacular on the advice of his friend Guido Cavalcanti. Other prose of the period followed the medieval pattern: there were translations not only from the Latin but also from Marco Polo's Milione and Brunetto Latini's Li livres dou tésor (the "Book of the Treasure") (both originally in French), compilations and compendiums of tales or facts, such as the Cento novelle antiche and the Libro dei sette savi ("Book of the Seven Sages"), and the more original Composizione della terza of Ristoro d'Arezzo. History is represented by the arid and sometimes fanciful Storia di Firenze ("History of Florence") of Ricordano Malespini, the more authentic and perceptive chronicle of Dino Compagni belonging more properly to the following century. Drama, which had assumed a primitive form in the Laudi, ultimately evolved into a form called the sacra rappresentazione, or "sacred presentation."
The 14th century was dominated by the great
triumvirate, Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, and with them Italian literature
came into a preeminence that was destined to last through the 16th century
and to have incalculable influence on the intellectual and literary life
of the Western world.
Dante (1265-1321) actually belongs to the history of the culture of Western man rather than to any nation. His Divine Comedy gives permanent and majestic expression to the currents and preoccupations of the Middle Ages -- didactic, doctrinal, encyclopedic. It fuses, too, the secular motifs of the age; the threads of the amatory conventions of the courtly love, the satiric postures of earlier vernacular writings, the idealization of knightly virtues are all woven into the philosophical-theological tapestry. At the same time, the poem looks forward, and the syncretism that permits the author boldly and ingeniously to populate his Comedy with figures from the ancient world and to establish a new and more perceptive appreciation of the classical tradition gives a new direction to the literature of the West. Allegory, realism, and doctrine are artfully interwoven and a personal experience is universalized in a manner previously beyond the grasp of creative writers.
Dante's interests were wide, focusing, for all his concern with the hereafter, on the problems of life on earth. Politics is a consistent concern of the Comedy no less than of the De monarchia, and both as artist and patriot Dante had a passionate interest in the capacity of the Italian language to capture human experience. Aside from the magnitude of his genius and accomplishment, he is important for having made the vernacular the vehicle for intellectual and philosophic discussion no less than lyric expression. He showed that the new language was capable of conveying the most refined shades of meaning, and by his skill in handling it he guided the uses of the new tongue somewhat away from popular inspiration, and reinforced the older or Latin tradition of intellectuality.
Petrarch (1304-1374), although very different in temperament from Dante, is a figure who looms just as large in world literature; in the eyes of his contemporaries and immediate successors he counted far more than his fellow Tuscan. In his Canzoniere, the famous sonnet sequence inspired by his unrequited love for a woman named Laura, he refined the lyric tradition of the troubadour poets, combining elegance and clarity with a new note of wistful melancholy. Reflecting the restlessness and uncertainties of his century -- which was for Europe a time of trial marked by the Hundred Years War, the dislocation of the papacy in Avignon, and the Black Death (1348) -- Petrarch gave moving expression to the self-consciousness and introspection that distinguish the modern man from the medieval man. Direct imitators of his manner followed him in Italy, France, Spain and England, and the indirect inheritors of the tradition are almost past counting.
The effect of Petrarch's Latin works was, if anything, more profound. His letters, of which there are more than 600, comprise a history of 40 years of Italian life and give us a thorough, generally honest self-portrait of an unusual and versatile mind. The devotion to the classical tradition and certain Roman authors, particularly Cicero, evident in the letters and in the other Latin works, makes Petrarch the true founder of humanism. Although a man of unquestionably devout Christian belief, he had little use for the philosophy of the Middle Ages and indeed regarded the immediate past with distaste. He had a great interest in the world about him, the beauties of nature, the accomplishments of man, the character of human life. Convinced that he lived in wretched times, he yet held that the world could be a happy place to live in and all the better for the study and cultivation of letters. His outlook profoundly influenced the course of European culture. The trajectory of his own career, in the course of which he managed to live independently and with complete freedom of expression even though subsidized by various princely patrons, was the first example in European history of the independent man of letters, and for all the differences in points of view, he is the forerunner and model of such various writers as Machiavelli, Montaigne, and Rousseau.
Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), lacking the spiritual and moral grandeur of Dante and the insinuating grace of Petrarch, was more versatile than either and, for the impact of his masterpiece, the Decameron, hardly less important. His epic, the Filostrato, set a new fashion that was taken up by Chaucer, and the octaves in which it was sung later served Ariosto and Tasso. His pastorals, notably the Ninfale fiesolano, stand at the fountainhead of that swelling stream; his satiric Corbaccio also left its inheritance. But it is the Decameron that truly endures. Throughout these 100 tales, drawn from all kinds of sources, runs a thread of tolerance, good-natured acceptance of the world and of the demands of nature, and a consistent skepticism on matters of dogma, whether religious or social. From one point of view the book is the assertion of the ethnic of the bourgeoisie -- practical, shrewd, and, if unidealistic, at least decent and democratic. Renegades, rogues, and faithless wives are allowed to speak in their own defense, and their eloquence is shattering to the medieval complex of rigid forms and credos. As in the case of Dante and Petrarch, it is the writer's own gifts that assure his world its immortality; the tales are told in a crisp, economical style, yet with a certain elegance that reveals the classical preparation of the author. The Decameron was the inspiration of the talented storytellers of the Renaissance and is still widely read.
As might have been expected, works written by lesser writers of the century showed the influence of the great triumvirate. The Divina commedia was imitated in the Dittamondo of Fazio degli Uberti (died 1367), and the Quadriregio ("Four Kingdoms") of Federigo Frezzi (died 1416); neither work is read nowadays, and the same may be said of the more lively, somewhat ill-natured semi-parody, L'acerba (literally, "the bitter poem," perhaps with reference to the sourness of its doctrine and style) by Cecco d'Ascoli (1269-1327). A like neglect has befallen the imitators of Petrarch (Petrarchisti), who were already abundant by the end of the century. The storytelling tradition of the Decameron was a more fruitful vein, however. The Pecorone (1378; English translation, 1897) of Giovanni Fiorentino and the novelle of Giovanni Sercambi (1347-1424) are, while clearly inspired by Boccaccio, not without merits of their own, and the most original genius of the last third of the century, Franco Sacchetti (c.1335-c.1400), also owes something to Boccaccio, though his novelle have a duly recognized originality and freshness. Sacchetti's verse, too, stands out from the field of lesser rhymesters. Two other figures should be noted in the twilight of this great century: Antonio Pucci (died 1390) of Florence, a versatile writer remembered for his capricious compendium Zibaldone, his comic verses, and his rhymed descriptions and observations on events of his time; and the ardent St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), whose letters are pervaded by religious faith and studded with practical political commentary. The tradition of distinguished historical writing, initiated by Compagni, was maintained by Giovanni and Matteo Villani, whose chronicles cover the history of Florence down to 1363.
In the 15th century, Italian literature was
almost suffocated under the resurgent interest in Latin, another legacy
of Petrarch. His emancipated humanism had borne fruit, and the century
was thronged with scholars such as Francesco Filelfo (1398-1481) and Lorenzo
Valla (1406-1457), industrious, gifted, and zealous to reaffirm the values
of antiquity and to reevaluate the classical authors, who were eagerly
studied and imitated. Two of the outstanding figures of the century, Aeneas
Sylvius Piccolomini (1405-1464; later Pope Pius II) and the gifted Giovanni
Pontano (1426-1503), wrote their masterpieces in Latin. Leon Battista Alberti
(1404-1472), a man of such versatility (he excelled in architecture, music,
science, and classical scholarship) as to foreshadow Leonardo da Vinci,
also wrote extensively in Latin; his urbane treatise On the Family , however,
written in the vernacular, gives him as assured and honorable place in
Again it was Florence with its stubborn devotion to popular literary forms that preserved Italian. Lorenzo de' Medici (1449-1492) was exposed to all the classical influences of the period and was an accomplished Latinist and well schooled in Greek. Yet in his works he sought inspiration from the older Italian models, particularly Dante and Boccaccio. In his sonnets there is a conscious Platonism that reveals the effect of classical studies, and in another sense the moral tone of the Canti carnescialeschi ("Carnival Songs") may be taken as symptomatic of the new and skeptical spiritual climate; nonetheless the canti, perhaps the most artistically successful of Lorenzo's writings, stem from a truly popular form.
Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494), the friend and protégé of Lorenzo, is much nearer to the classical manner, and his polished lines and graceful imagery are far from the sturdy and morally self-conscious works of the earlier masters. Yet scholar though he was, Poliziano chose the vernacular for his vehicle. His best-known works are the Stanze, written to celebrate the marriage of Giuliano de' Medici, and the Orfeo, a miniature dramatic composition. The form of the Orfeo unquestionably owes much to the medieval mystery plays, but its substance is of classical inspiration; in beauty of lines, development of action, and characterization, it is a milestone in the development of the drama in Italy.
Out of the humanistic urge there developed in Italy the Renaissance phenomenon of the academies. In the latter part of the 15th century, Florence, Rome, and Naples each had its own. These academies were of interest primarily to the scholars and philosophers of the time, and were mainly concerned with subjects tangential to literature; it might even be contended that their influence on literature proper was not a healthy one. Given the passion for the Classics and all things Greek or Roman, however, which was engulfing Renaissance Italy, the creation of the academies was inevitable. They had a great influence, if not on specific writers at least on the intellectual climate, and, indeed, their membership included such famous names as those of Pico della Mirandola in Florence, Platina in Rome, and Giovanni Pontano in Naples.
Chivalrous and Pastoral Romances
Also in the 15th century two new, or at least
newly fortified, literary forms became perceptible in Italian letters and
achieved a dominant role, though their height of development was left to
the next century. The first was the romance of chivalry. This could not
properly be called an epic, for it lacks something of the primitive virtues
normally associated with that form, but its origins, however remote, are
in the Carolingian cycle. The tales of Charlemagne and his knights had
filtered into Italy, and versions of their feats exist in what may be called
a Venetian French of the 13th century. The tales had passed among the people
in the form of popular cantari and had been collected in prose under the
title of I reali di Francia. In the 15th century the court writers turned
to these tales for inspiration and developed from them a new form, of which
Luigi Pulci's Morgante maggiore is the prototype. Pulci (1432-1484), a
Florentine under the patronage of the Medici, looked at the old paladins
with the ironic eye of the enriched bourgeois. He related their adventures
with an underlying note of mockery, inserting long digressions, generally
of a satirical nature, whenever the mood seized him. The element of the
fantastic and deliberately incredible was also played up, though we are
occasionally solemnly reminded that this is all straight history. Pulci's
work was much admired and was presently followed by the Orlando innamorato
of Matteo Maria Boiardo (1434-1494) of Ferrara. Perhaps because the house
of Este was truly aristocratic in origin and because the author, too, was
a nobleman, the Orlando innamorato treats the chivalrous subject with more
respect and less satire, but the element of exaggeration and burlesque
remains. A generation later the chivalrous romance was to burst into full
The other new form was the pastoral romance. This too had its origin in the preceding centuries; for evidence it is sufficient to recall the Ninfale fiesolano of Boccaccio. But as learning revived and readers came to enjoy Vergil's eclogues without regard to possible allegorical meanings (the Middle Ages' main concern), the vision of faithful shepherds, coy shepherdesses, and idyllic life became more appealing than before to the eye of the Italian intellectual. Possibly the violence of the Renaissance world compelled a sensitive spirit to look somewhere for escape; as a place of refuge, certainly, Arcadia has few rivals. The Ambra of Lorenzo de' Medici carried on the tradition of Boccaccio, but the first true pastoral romance is the Arcadia of Jacopo Sannazaro (1458-1530), published in 1504 though written some 15 years earlier. The world of Sannazaro, a Neapolitan and a faithful follower of his king, for whom he suffered exile, is a completely false world, but it is plausible enough if the basic premises are taken on faith. It is sentimentally depicted, yet in a vigorous style; the prose narrative is intermingled with lyric complaints or outbursts of emotion. The Arcadia is less important for its virtues than for its example; its influence at home and abroad was very great.
The literary manifestations of the High Renaissance (roughly from the late years of the 15th to the first half of the 16th century) are no less noteworthy for their vitality than their versatility. The humanistic thread was persistent; such men as Pietro Bembo (1470-1547), the literary arbiter of his generation, wrote Latin or Italian with equal ease and polish. The academies continued to flourish, and the chivalrous romance was brought to its perfection by Lodovico Ariosto (1474-1533). His Orlando furioso, whose plot is a continuation of Boiardo's Orlando innamorato, combines the burlesque of Pulci with the melancholy homage to chivalry that had characterized Boiardo and adds an airy, lighthearted element of its own. Ariosto, indeed, creates his own world, which is, in the words of Francesco De Sanctis, "a synthesis of the Renaissance and all its tendencies." Lyric poetry also flourished, though the example of Petrarch still lay heavy upon it, and a great number of poets merely elaborated themes already worked out by their predecessors. The austere and tragic Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), whose painfully wrought verse reveals a depth and intensity of feeling almost anachronistic in the polished tradition of the time, was exceptional, as were the women poets, Vittoria Colonna (1490-1547) and Gaspara Stampa (1533-1559), who though very different in character, have in common excellences of sincerity and style. Burlesque poetry reached its highest development in the work of Francesco Berni (1497-1535), whose humorous topical verses mirror, even in their indecencies, the wit of the period. And at this time Teofilo Folengo (1491-1544) invented "macaronic" verse.
Other Prose Writing
Especially noteworthy in the Renaissance
is the production of significant works outside the field of purely creative
literature and concerned with social, political, or intellectual problems
still of lively interest to mankind. Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527)
is the most important author in this category; the shrewd, unprejudiced,
and rational analysis of the ruler and his function that he set fourth
in The Prince was a pioneer application of the scientific approach
to a political-social question. Less well known but no less important are
some of his other works, notably the Discourse on Livy and the History
of Florence , Machiavelli's is not the first distinguished name in Italian
historiography; the Chronicles of Dino Compagni and the Villani have been
mentioned. But Machiavelli took the broader view of a modern historian
and concerned himself not only with the facts but with their interrelationship
and interpretation. In the same area Il cortegiano (The Courtier ) of Baldassare
Castiglione (1478-1529) is a work of great merit. Less acute than Machiavelli
and of a more placid temperament, Castiglione was, in his way, equally
concerned with the motivations and duties of various members of human society.
Such matters as education, pastimes, and the daily relations between princes
and their courtiers occupy a large part of his work. The Courtier
is more "dated" than The Prince and, in part for that very reason,
affords a better picture of the Renaissance mind.
Other outstanding examples of social commentary in this period are the Galateo, a manual of good manners by Giovanni della Casa (1500-1556); Gli Asolani by Bembo; and Raffaella, a satirical, misogynistic "dialogue" on the "good comportment" of women, by Alessandro Piccolomini (1509-1578). Historians are represented by Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540), whose Storia d'Italia ("History of Italy") places him nearly on a par with Machiavelli; Bembo, who translated into Italian his own Latin history of Venice; the Neapolitan Angelo di Costanzo (c. 1507-c. 1591), an impartial historian of his native city, and a poet as well; and many others. In the related field of biography the Renaissance produced such eminent masters as Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), author of the engaging and anecdotal Lives of Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects; and Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), whose lively if not always veracious Autobiography has been called his greatest work of all -- no small praise, for Cellini was a highly competent sculptor and goldsmith.
The Renaissance produced a number of very able and entertaining storytellers. The Lombard Matteo Bandello (c.1480-1562) wrote more than 80 novelettes, based for the most part on happenings in real life and showing much skill in the depiction of characters. Antonio Francesco Grazzini (1503-1584) is celebrated particularly for his style and his vignettes of Tuscan life. Giraldi Cinzio, or Cinthio, of Ferrara (1504-1573) is the author of the Ecatomiti ("The Hundred Myths"), from which came the tale of Othello, among others. Giovanni Straparola (c.1485-1557) wrote the Notti piacevoli ("Delightful Evenings") and is known for his use of folklore motifs. Here, too, might be mentioned the name of Pietro Aretino (1492-1556), the self-styled "scourge of princes," more famous for his satirical letters than for his novelle, and most famous for his brazen effrontery and self-confidence.
In the field of drama, the comedies of Ariosto, notably I suppositi (translated by George Gascoigne in 1566 as Supposes), and La mandragola of Machiavelli far surpassed any previous efforts in this line; indeed, La mandragola, with its witty dialogue and the malicious, typically Florentine gaiety of its plot, is counted among the best of all Italian comedies. Italy has never had a writer of tragedies of really first rank; some who essayed the form during the Renaissance, however, particularly Sperone Speroni (1500-1588) and Giovanni Giorgio Trissino (1478-1549), did produce noteworthy works.
The bright and illuminating, if somewhat cold, sunshine of the Renaissance day faded in the middle of the 16th century for reasons that seem in retrospect clearly historical. The Renaissance did not wither; it suffocated. Italy lost its independence to Spain, a reactionary ruling power, itself already exhausted with conquest. The Spanish effect on Italy, which was deprived of its independence and forced to accept an alien pattern, could not fail to be detrimental. Similarly, on the intellectual as distinguished from the political and social levels, the Counter Reformation, with its return to orthodoxy in thought and rigidity in morals, was almost fatal to the Italian genius, which, in its very nature, needed freedom and even skepticism to flourish. Between Ariosto and Tasso lies the Council of Trent, and no more dramatic illustration could be found of the effect of the Counter Reformation than the contrast between the Orlando furioso and the Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered ). The knights of Tasso are under moral compulsion; the Crusade is undertaken with a seriousness that is religious rather than epic -- and this in a generation which had already seen the Papacy and the Turk allied against Christian states; the light-hearted fantasy of Ariosto is gone, and the tale moves heavily on, relieved only by disgressions carefully planned to fit into the pattern. Yet because Torquato Tasso (1544-1595) was a genius and a sincere man, the Gerusalemme is not without a melancholy beauty, though paradoxically the passages that live on are the sensual and luxurious scenes introduced only for subsequent disapproval. In the climate of the late 16th century, and even more so in the 17th, it was impossible for an Italian creative writer to be sincere with himself even when, as in Tasso's case, he was only vaguely aware of his predicament. In the field of the pastoral masque, which was from the beginning escape literature, the problem did not exist, and hence Tasso could create the harmonious beauty of the Aminta -- graceful, technically perfect, and winning. The Pastor fido (1590; The Faithful Shepherd ) of Giovanni Battista Guarini is another creation of the same genre and very nearly of the same caliber.
In the last year of the 16th century Giordano
Bruno, the "God-intoxicated" mystic and reformer, was burned at the stake.
This act symbolized the completeness of the victory of reaction over freedom
of thought in Italy and thus explains the comparative barrenness of the
17th century, the least productive of any in the history of Italian literature.
The great Italian figures of the century are not primarily men of letters:
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), the scientist, celebrated for his clarity
of style in a century of stilted and affected writing; Tommaso Campanella
(1568-1639), the Neapolitan philosopher, author of the Città del
sole (City of the Sun ) and a number of thoughtful and vigorous sonnets;
and Paolo Sarpi (1552-1623), the earnest and patriotic historian of the
Council of Trent. It is noteworthy that all three of these men were persecuted:
Galileo was imprisoned, Campanella exiled, and Sarpi excommunicated.
However, the 17th century was by no means without literary activity. Unhappily for its fame, the turgid and elaborate verse of the Neapolitan G. B. Marini (1569-1625) cast a long shadow, and "Marinismo" came to mean in Italian literature what "Gongorismo" signified in Spanish -- a highly ornate, affectedly elegant style. Yet the century also produced such original poets as Gabriello Chiabrera (1552-1637), Alessandro Tassoni (1565-1638), and Francesco Redi (1626-1699). Chiabrera, though his work is not impressive for its content, is of great importance in the history of Italian prosody, because his attempts to purify the traditional bombastic Petrarchism by innovations "in the Greek style" introduced new forms and new rhythms into Italian verse. Such able and honest writers as Fulvio Testi (1593-1646) and Vincenzo da Filicaia (1642-1707) followed Chiabrera's lead, and, in virtue of their sincere efforts to achieve a new poetic diction and their occasional flashes of real patriotic feeling they were in some degree precursors of the Risorgimento. Redi, too, the author of the most delightful Italian poem of the century, the dithyramb Bacco in Toscana , may be included in this group. The Secchia rapita ("Rape of the Bucket") of Tassoni is in an older tradition and is generally held to be a masterpiece of the mock heroic; it has overtones of political allegory, for Tassoni was, like the others, a patriot.
As the 18th century came in, the grip of
Spain on northern Italy was definitely broken, and though ecclesiastical
censorship by no means disappeared, it became less rigorous throughout
the whole peninsula. The vigor of the Italian literary tradition reasserted
itself, and intelectual activity gained a new strength even though the
country was still dominated by several foreign powers. Italian letters
in the 18th century were distinguished by an interest in social and juridical
matters and also by the fact that, broadly speaking, the most important
influences came from France and England rather than directly from native
or even classical tradition. It is true that the Neapolitan Giambattista
Vico (1668-1744) was saturated in the Classics, and his great work, The
New Science , is primarily concerned with Roman jurisprudence, but the
inspiration that brought it to birth, as Vico admits, was provided by such
writers as Hobbes, Bacon, Grotius, and Descartes. Vico's great work, at
once history, sociology, philosophy, and a kind of apocalyptic poetry,
defies easy classification, but it has proved a source of inspiration to
succeeding generations of philosophers and historians and is still a storehouse
of provocative conjectures. Another Neapolitan jurist, Pietro Giannone
(1676-1748), earned for himself the admiration of succeeding generations
and persecution at the hands of contemporary clericals with his monumental
Civil History of the Kingdom of Naples . Gaetano Filangieri (1752-1788),
the author of the Science of Legislation , is yet another example of the
reawakened interest in the philosophy of law and history that characterized
the Naples of the 18th century.
In Milan, Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794), author of On Crime and Punishment , was also prominent in the renewed studies of social philosophy; his relationship to the French reformers is clear enough, but his work remains original and significant, as is that of Pietro Verri (1728-1797), another Milanese. Milan was indeed full of the new spirit, and the leading Italian poet of the century, Giuseppe Parini (1729-1799), reflects in his great work Il giorno ("The Day") the critical, satirical, and evangelical aspects of the age of reason and reform. The Day , viewed purely as a literary creation, is admirable for its welding of form and content, the polished blank verse depicting with masterful skill and irony the idle life of the typical Milanese dandy. There are traces of the influence of Alexander Pope and James Thomson the Parini, as indeed in other minor writers of the period. Another English influence was that of the Spectator, clearly discernible in the writings of Gaspare Gozzi (1713-1786) and in the Frusta letteraria ("The Literary Whip") of Giuseppe Baretti (1719-1786).
The most interesting aspect of the 18th century, however, is the vigorous development in dramatic writing, so long the stepchild of Italian letters. The Venetian, Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793), who still remains Italy's leading writer of comedies, owes something to Molière, but even more to his own special genius and the background of the carefree and colorful life of 18th-century Venice. His rival Carlo Gozzi (1720-1806) turned for inspiration to the native school of the commedia dell'arte. Apostolo Zeno (1698-1750) and Metastasio (1698-1782) brought to its perfection the hybrid but extremely popular form, called the melodramma, essentially operatic rather than truly dramatic in nature. The Merope of Scipione Maffei (1675-1755) is a true tragedy of considerable power, and in the latter half of the century the Piedmontese Vittorio Alfieri (1749-1803) emerged, the greatest Italian writer of tragedy. Though his works are somewhat stilted and lacking in action, they have a lyric intensity and a purity of language that set them apart from all other Italian efforts in this field. Alfieri brings us to the threshold of the 19th century spiritualy as well as chronologically, for his passion for liberty is an authentic Risorgimento attitude, even though he was not altogether happy when the French Revolution swept over the Alps and prepared the way for Italy's liberation. For Alfieri was, as his memorable Autobiography indicates, a typical 18th-century aristocrat: a man of liberal leanings, but not a revolutionary.
As in other countries of Europe, so too in Italy the 18th century is memorable for the animated interest in research and literary scholarship that accompanied it. The famous academy called the Arcadia (Accademia degli Arcadi), founded in 1690, was at once an indication of this interest and a stimulus to it. If the influence of the Arcadia on creative writing was not always a happy one, it is fair to remember that we owe to it, or to the scholarly zeal that created it, the works of such men as Giovanni Maria Crescimbeni (1663-1728), Ludovico Muratori (1672-1750), and Girolamo Tiraboschi (1731-1794), antiquarians and literary historians of remarkable perceptivity and industry.
The French Revolution of 1789 and the subsequent Napoleonic era in Italy did not bring about the liberation of the country nor indeed the social equality that the Revolution preached and the reformers prayed for. Superficially the ensuing reaction left Italy no better off than before, but nonetheless the spark had been struck. The first years of the new century were the years of the Carbonari and of sporadic risings and revolts, pathetically ineffectual and yet symbols of a movement destined to triumph. The temper of this movement, called the Risorgimento, is reflected in the literature of the time, and beginning with Ugo Foscolo (1778-1827) Italian writers were largely concerned with the patriotic motif. Foscolo himself is a typical Italian romanticist, in that his forms, his deeper inspiration, and his terms of reference are classic and traditional, and only the generosity of his emotions romantic. His memorable poem I sepolcri ("The Tombs") is austerely classic in form, with a mixture of melodramatic and classic detail, while the mood is clearly romantic melancholy; the patriotic note sounds vigorously over all. More truly romantic is Foscolo's Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis , which is suggestive of Goethe's Werther, and here, too, the patriotic theme is in evidence. Vincenzo Monti (1754-1828) is another classic-romantic, though hardly of the same stature. Monti wrote much and on all political sides; he is now best remembered for a few of his charming lyrics and mordant satires and as translator of the Iliad.
Manzoni and Leopardi
The two most important writers of the early
19th century express far more than patriotism in their work. Yet the tone
of I promessi sposi (The Betrothed ), the greatest work of Alessandro Manzoni
(1785-1873), is clearly patriotic; and the same element reappears in his
plays, which show Shakespearean inspiration, and in his lyrics, though
it is frequently blended with a deep and all-embracing Christianity. I
promessi sponsi, still counted the best of Italian novels, owes something
to the influence of Walter Scott but adds to Scott's formula a profound
and serene realism of its own. The genre of the historical novel was cultivated
by a number of able writers, such as F. D. Guerrazzi (1804-1873), Tommaso
Grossi (1791-1853), and Massimo d'Azeglio (1798-1866), the author of the
very readable I miei ricordi ("My Memories").
Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), the second important figure of the period, was primarily a magnificent exponent of lyric pessimism. Leopardi's keen intellectual power, depth of feeling, and erudition can probably be justly compared only with Dante, and as a poet of subjective emotion he is, being modern, much more moving to the modern reader than is Dante. The Canti of Deopardi are among the most articulate expressions of man's protest against his fate that we have in modern literature. Leopardi also expounded his philosophy in a trenchant and vigorous prose. Although he later transcended all purely patriotic concerns in his pessimism, much as Manzoni transcended them in his Christian faith, Leopardi reflects in some of the Canti the true Risorgimento longing for national liberation and unity.
Other 19th-Century Writers
Among the lesser-known figures of the age
were the truly romantic poet Giovanni Prati (1815-1884), the skillful and
urbane satirist of Italy's pocket dictatorships Giuseppe Giusti (1809-1850),
and the gentle Silvio Pellico (1789-1854), author of the noble Le mie prigioni
("My Prisons") and the drama Francesca da Rimini. G. B. Niccolini (1782-1861)
is memorable as the patriotic and idealistic dramatist of the Risorgimento.
With the exploits of Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) and the ingenuity of
Cavour (1810-1861) the cause moved on to triumph, and the capture of Rome
in 1870 completed the unification that had so long been the patriot's dream.
Giosuè Carducci (1835-1907) was the greatest literary figure of the "Third Italy," the new country built on the triumph of the Risorgimento. Carducci was at heart a historian; though his verses are by no means without feeling, they are animated by an epic rather than a lyric inspiration. His work is noteworthy not only for the character of its subject matter but also for his adaptations in modern Italian of the Classic verse forms of the ancients. He was not the first to experiment in this style, but he improved it, made it his own, and combined it with a substance worthy of the form.
In its life and through its literature modern
Italy has reflected the common European experience. For the period dating
from the late 19th century to the eve of World War II, the perspective
of time now permits some critical evaluation of both trends and individuals.
In the field of poetry, the immediate successor of Carducci was Giovanni Pascoli (1853-1912), who wrote a number of poems under the guidance of the historical muse of his predecessor, but whose deeper inspiration sprang from a vein of melancholy reminiscent of Leopardi and even Petrarch. More spectacular and of wider if less enduring impact was the contribution of Gabriele D'Annunzio (1863-1938), who for a time was the dominant voice in Italian literature. D'Annunzio's personality and career added glamor to his fame; he also made his impression as poet, playwright, and novelist. To a later generation, much of D'Annunzio seems false; yet both in the power of his example and for the reaction against it, he must be considered a living force in Italian letters even today. The futuristic movement of 1909-1914, represented by such poets as Corrado Govoni, professed an antirhetorical position; it had in fact much in common with D'Annunzio's mentality. The crepuscolari, "twilight poets," Guido Gozzano (1883-1916) and Sergio Corazzini (1886-1907) may be seen as a reaction against D'Annunzianesimo; while Dino Campana (1885-1932), regarded nowadays as the precursor of the modern school, also felt D'Annunzio's influence.
In this period, too, the Italian novel may be said to have come of age. The Sicilian Giovanni Verga (1840-1922), whose work reveals social and literary attitudes associated with French naturalism, is at the same time original in technique, and fresh and powerful in inspiration. A case apart is that of Italo Svevo (1861-1928), a Triestino whose penetrating intellectualism was far ahead of his time. Other leading novelists of the late 19th and early 20th century include Matilde Serao (1856-1927) of Naples, the Tuscan Federico Tozzi (1883-1920), the Sardinian Grazia Deledda (1878-1936), all classifiable as regionalists; the somewhat sentimental Antonio Fogazzaro (1842-1911) and, in the period of World War II and its aftermath, the pleasantly ironic Alfredo Panzini (1863-1939); Massimo Bontempelli and Aldo Palazzeschi, both endowed with an unusual sense of fantasy and both associated for a time with Futurism; G. A. Borgese (1882-1952), a penetrating critic of both literature and politics; Bruno Sicognani; and Ricardo Bacchelli, famous for his great historical trilogy, The Mill on the Po.
In the field of the theater, competent dramatists of the period include the bourgeois moralist Giuseppe Giacosa (1847-1906), the sober and disillusioned Marco Praga (18621929), the superficial but very popular Dario Nicodemi (1874-1934), and the engaging Sabatino Lopez (1867-1951). All, generally speaking, were exponents of the social drama, ultimately French in inspiration. Of importance, too, were the plays of the gifted Neapolitan Roberto Bracco (1862-1943), at once realistic and sentimental, and the highly romantic theater in verse of Sem Benelli (1877-1949). The original Italian contribution to the theater was the "theater of the grotesque," emerging in the second decade of the century and dedicated to an ironic and paradoxical presentation of personal and social themes. Dramas studying the eccentric and the bizarre were produced by Luigi Chiarelli (1884-1947), whose The Mask and the Face (1916) was a pioneer in the field, and by Rosso di San Secondo (1887-1957), whose theater combined symbolism with social criticism. The dominant exponent of the grotesque, however, was Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936). His dramas, expertly constructed and marked by crisp and lucid presentation, unusual situations, and a good deal of technical innovation, attracted worldwide attention. Their chief distinction is that collectively they brought to the stage problems of a nature essentially philosophical: the multiplicity of personality, the problem of truth versus illusion, the contrast between convention and sincerity, the definition of identity, and the nature of hallucination. Pirandello's theater has been called cerebral. It is certainly highly intellectualized, although the realistic, sometimes shocking content of the plays assures the attention and participation of the spectator. The originality of Pirandello's plots, his inventions in the area of stagecraft, and his sardonic and pessimistic outlook have all left their mark on the theater; something Pirandellian may be seen in such diverse writers as Sartre, Giraudoux, Beckett, Wilder, and Ionesco.
Over all literary activity of the half century looms the figure of Benedetto Croce (1866-1952), distinguished historian, philosopher, and literary critic. Croce's literary criticism, in part reflecting the influence of Francesco De Sanctis (1817-1883), author of a History of Italian Literature that became a classic, and partly influenced by his own austere philosophical standards, served as a disciplinatory and refining element through the successive schools and fashions that appeared in the early decades of the century. In that connection special mention should be made of the group formed around two periodicals: La voce, founded in 1910 by Giuseppe Prezzolini (1882-1982) and Giovanni Papini (1881-1956); and La ronda, founded in 1922 by Vincenzo Cardarelli. The general trend of La voce was experimental and hospitable to foreign influences, in which that of France prevailed; the intent of La ronda was basically conservative. In fact, however, the major contribution of both groups was to stimulate the creative impulse in the writers who found such periodicals useful as a rallying point. Associated with La voce were the novelists Riccardo Bachelli, Antonio Baldini, Piero Jahier, and Aldo Palazzeschi (1885-1974), also a poet; the poets Corrado Gavoni and Giuseppe Ungaretti; the critics Giuseppe De Robertis, Emilio Cecchi, Pietro Pancrazi, and Renato Serra (1884-1915), of considerable influence during the years 1910-1930; and such philosophers as Croce himself, his disciple Giovanni Gentile (1875-1945), later famous for his school reform under the Fascist administration, and Guido de Ruggiero. For La ronda Cardarelli was the founder theorist. Cecchi, Bacchelli and Barili were among the principal figures associated with the new review whose avowed purpose was to rediscover the true Italian tradition, much emphasis being put on style. After Croce, the Italian thinker who contributed most to European cultural and political studies is Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), considered perhaps Marxism's most influential theorist in the West.
Coming to the strictly contemporary period
(World War II to the present) one may note the vigor of the Italian novel,
the emergence of important figures in the field of poetry, the predominance
of social over purely academic concerns, and a significant American influence,
particularly in prose writing. Some of the figures who loom large in the
contemporary scene made their mark before the second postwar period; others
emerged in the milieu of war and its aftermath. The Fascist censorship
did of course exist, yet it was, relatively speaking, lenient. Ignazio
Silone published his Fontamara (typical of the new regionalism in its political
implications) in exile, but Borgese's Rubè, Corrado Alvaro's L'uomo
è forte (Man Is Strong ), Alberto Moravia's Gli indifferenti (The
Time of Indifference ), and Elio Vittorini's Conversazione in Sicilia
(Conversation in Sicily ) were published in a Fascist climate. Alvaro (1895-1956)
later produced writings that were primarily of the nature of social commentary.
He had considerable influence on the younger Italian writers. Moravia (1907-1990),
Italy's most widely known novelist and most productive of his generation,
explored new territory with his bleak portrayal of middle-class life. He
and Vittorini, together with Vasco Pratolini, who also began his career
under Fascism, and Cesare Pavese, noteworthy for the strong American influence
pervading his work, may be regarded as the vanguard of the contemporary
Other prominent names in this field, all well known beyond the confines of the peninsula, are Dino Buzzati; Giuseppe Marotta, whose subject matter typifies a revival of interest in southern Italian problems; Vitaliano Brancati, the ironic Sicilian; and the Triestino P. A. Qurantotti Gambini, whose work carries on the somewhat isolated tradition of Italo Svevo as exemplified by Svevo's La coscienza di Zeno (Confessions of Zeno ). Very original inspiration may be noted in the works of Guido Piovene (b. 1907), Carlo Emilio Gadda (1893-1973), and Elsa Morante (1918-1985), whose significant work is all in the postwar period. A special area of psychological interest, somewhat Proustian in tone, was cultivated by Giorgio Bassani (b. 1916), and a kind of decadent cosmopolitanism is evident in the sophisticated tales of Mario Soldati (b. 1906). Among women writers Alba de Cespedes (b. 1911), whose earlier works are written in the Fascist era, Natalia Ginzburg (b. 1916), and Gianna Manzini (1896-1974) achieved prominence. Of the nation's somewhat younger novelists Italo Calvino (1923-1985), notably his Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore (If on a Winter's Night a Traveler), P. P. Pasolini (1922-1975), and Carlo Cassola (b. 1917) can be cited as illustrating respectively the currents of fantasy, proletarian interest, and a new regionalistic naturalism.
Southern Italy has received particular attention from writers. Naples alone has produced a substantial school of talented novelists, including Michele Prisco (b. 1920), Domenico Rea (b. 1921), Mario Pomilio (b. 1921), and Raffaele LaCapria (b. 1922). Sicily is represented by the solidly constructed novels of Leonardo Sciascia (b. 1921) as well as by the works of Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa (1896-1957), whose Il gattopardo (The Leopard ) is more widely known abroad than any other Italian novel of recent years. Writers such as Fortunato Seminara (b. 1903) and the younger Saverio Strati (b. 1924) speak for Calabria, and the Sardinian Giuseppe Dessì (b. 1909), in treating of his native island, assumed the mantle of Grazia Deledda, although with a more sophisticated approach.
In the postwar period, a number of Italian novelists sought to revolutionize the pattern of the traditional novel. Writers such as Oreste del Buono (b. 1925), Goffredo Parise (b. 1929), Tommaso Landolfi (b. 1908), and Alberto Arbasino (b. 1930) attempted new and sometimes startling approaches. Yet paradoxically, the most able novelist among the youngest group was probably Fulvio Tomizza (b. 1935), whose works combine historical and personal themes with suggestive affinities with Pavese and Svevo, and remain, in structure and treatment, well within the traditional concept of the novel.
During this period, with the novelists may be bracketed the names of certain prose writers who, while not truly creative, commented perceptively on the social and political scene: the facile and cynical commentator Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957), Carlo Levi (1902-1975), author of the perceptive and seminal Christ Stopped at Eboli, the dedicated crusader Danilo Dolci (b. 1924), and Primo Levi (1909-1987) with his graphic account of life in a German labor camp exemplify this category. The Italians of Luigi Barzini (1908-1984), a very popular dissection of his countrymen, and, on a different level, the writings of the political martyr Antonio Gramsci also belong in this group.
The postwar period also saw the emergence of Italian poetry into the European mainstream. The "hermetic" trio of Eugenio Montale, Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888-1970), and Salvatore Quasimodo (1901-1968) have their origins in the prewar era ("hermetism" emphasizes the formal perfection of the poem -- the poem as autonomous object), but their work achieved its wider recognition (typified by the award of the Nobel Prize to Quasimodo in 1959) after the war. Perhaps the same may be said of Umberto Saba (1883-1957). A second generation of hermetics is represented by Alfonso Gatto (b. 1909) and Mario Luzi (b. 1914); more independent trends are exemplified by P. P. Pasolini and Cesare Pavese.
The most original and forceful playwright of the contemporary period is Eduardo De Filippo (1900-1984), whose work is perhaps more strictly Neapolitan than Italian. There has been a revival of interest in the somewhat intellectualized symbolic theater of Ugo Betti (1892-1953), and Diego Fabbri (b. 1911) has written some promising plays. In criticism, while there is as yet no giant of Croce's stature, the field is a lively one. Francisco Flora (1883-1962), Emilio Cecchi (1884-1966), Luigi Russo (1892-1961), and Attilio Momigliano (1883-1952) have written valuable studies of both contemporary and older writers; a somewhat younger group, less "Crocean" in conviction, is represented by Mario Praz, Mario Fubini, and Carlo Bo.
In the decades between the 1960's and the
1980's, new voices were recognized in both fiction and poetry as well as
criticism. The novel fluctuated between a return to the traditional concept
of narrative, as epitomized by Elsa Morante's La storia (History: A Novel
, and the sophisticated intellectualism of an entire generation of writers
who attempted to express their sense of the unintelligibility of human
experience. The general direction taken by the literary experimentalism
of these years was influenced by the theorists of the neo-avant-garde Gruppo
'63 . It is best seen in the abstract formalism of Antonio Pizzuto (1893-1976),
whose Si riparano bambole ("Dolls Are Repaired") is among the most original
narratives in contemporary literature; in Giorgio Manganelli's (b. 1922)
Salto mortale ("Death Leap"), which explores the indeterminate status of
fictional events; and, in a more political spirit, in Paolo Volponi's (b.
1924) La macchina mondiale ("The World Machine"). The most prominent novelist
in the current period is Umberto Eco (b. 1934), whose medieval detective
story Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose ) explores the complex process
of human communication. Among the younger novelists, Antonio Tabucchi (b.
1943) and Maurizio Gucchi (b. 1945) stand out.
In poetry, the important names include Franco Fortini (b. 1917); P. P. Pasolini, also notable as a novelist and film director; Roberto Roversi (b. 1923); Giovanni Giudici (b. 1924); and an avant-garde group for whom poetry functioned as a mirror of the modern world's "muddle": Eduardo Sanquinet (b. 1930), who disrupts conventional syntax; Elio Pagliarini (b. 1927), who juxtaposes the different vocabularies of science, art, and trade in order to render them unintelligible; and Antonio Porta (b. 1935), who depicts the horrific corrosion of the material world. By far the most original and disquieting voice in current Italian poetry is Andrea Zanzotto (b. 1921), whose work probes the relation between language and the unconscious.
In literary criticism, the representative names of the postwar period are Luigi Russo (1928-1961), Mario Fubini (1900-1977), Natalino Sapegno (b. 1901), and Giuseppe Petronio (b. 1909). Known for their contributions to philological and stylistic analysis are Carlo Dionisotti (b. 1908), Gianfranco Contini (b. 1912), and Lanfranco Caretti (b. 1915). Valuable studies of individual authors, historical periods, and literary movements have been produced by Sebastiano Timpanaro (b. 1923) and Alberto Asor Roas (b. 1933). Among the important voices of the 1970's and 1980's are Umberto Eco, Francesco Orlando (b. 1934), and Romano Luperini (b. 1940). The best known literary theorist of the current period is Galvano Della Volpe (1895-1968).