Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

Italian literature

Literature of Italy

Click to enlarge

ITALIAN LITERATURE.—Origins and Development.—The modern language of Italy is naturally derived from Latin, a continuation and development of the Latin actually spoken among the inhabitants of the peninsula after the downfall of the Roman Empire. It is still disputed how far this spoken Latin was identical with the classical literary language of Rome, the Latinus togatus, and how far it was a merely popular tongue, the sermo rusticus. Most probably it was a mixture of the two—the latter, owing to the changed social conditions, predominating. A small number of words derived from Greek are in part relics of the epoch of Byzantine domination, in part introduced later through the Crusades and through commerce; the Saracenic invasions have left traces in a very few Arabic words, chiefly in Sicily; a certain number of words have come indirectly from the Latin through French or Provencal; even the long centuries of Teutonic conquests and inroads caused only a comparatively slight influx of words of Germanic origin.

In the “De Vulgari Eloquentia” (i, 10-16), Dante speaks of the “many discordant varieties of the Italian vernacular”, and rejects them all in favor of the “illustrious, cardinal, courtly, and curial vernacular in Italy“, the standard and ideal national language, “which belongs to every city of Italy, and seems to belong to none, and by which all the municipal dialects of the Italians are measured, weighed and compared”. These dialects fall into three groups: (I) Ligurian, Piedmontese, Lombard and Emilian, and Sardinian, which form a Gallo-Italian group apart from the vernacular of the rest of the peninsula; (2) Venetian, Corsican, Sicilian, Neapolitan, Umbrian, and the dialects of the Marches and of Rome, which, though diverging from true Italian, form one system with it; (3) Tuscan. But the national and literary language, the “illustrious vernacular”, is one and the same throughout the land. This language is not an artificially formed Italian, stripped of the accidental peculiarities of place and race; but substantially the vernacular of Tuscany, and more particularly of Florence, as established by the great Florentine writers of the fourteenth century, adopted by those of other districts in the Renaissance, and formulated by the famous Accademiadella Crusca, which was founded in the latter part of the sixteenth century.

From the seventh century onwards, we begin to find traces in extant documents, from various parts of Italy, of the use of the vernacular, in the shape of forms that are more or less Italian inserted into the corrupt Latin of the epoch. Italian familiar names of men and Italian names of places rapidly appear; and, in a document of 960 in the Archives of Montecassino, a whole sentence, four times repeated, is practically Italian: Sao ko kelle terre, per kelle fini que ki contene, trenta anni to possette parte sancti Benedicti (I know that those lands, within these boundaries that are here contained, the party of St. Benedict has possessed them thirty years). A confessio, or formula of confession, from an abbey near Norcia, probably of the end of the eleventh century, shows passages still nearer to the Italian of today. Fifty years later we meet literary composition in the vernacular. The inscription formerly on the cathedral of Ferrara, of 1135, consists of two rhyming couplets of Italian verse. Four lines, known as the “Cantilena Bellunese”, also in rhymed couplets, inserted in a fragment of a chronicle, allude to the taking of Casteldardo by the people of Belluno in 1193. In a contrasto (a dialogue in verse between lover and lady) by Raimbaut de Vaqueiras (c. 1190), the lady answers in Genoese to the Provencal advances of the poet. The “Ritmo Laurenziano”, a cantilena in praise of a bishop by a Tuscan, and the “Ritmo Cassinese”, an obscure allegorical poem in the Apulian dialect, are both probably of the end of the twelfth century. To the same epoch belongs a series of twenty-two sermons in a northern Italian dialect mixed with French, published by Wendelin Foerster, which are the earliest extant specimens of vernacular preaching in Italy.

The Thirteenth Century (Il Ducento).—The Italians naturally regarded the language and traditions of Rome as their own, and still clung to the use of Latin while a vernacular literature was already flourishing in France and Provence. Italian literature, strictly speaking, begins with the early years of the thirteenth century. Among the influences at work in its formation must first be mentioned the religious revival wrought by St. Francis of Assisi and his followers, bearing lyrical fruit in the lauda, the popular sacred song, especially in Central Italy. St. Francis himself composed one of the earliest Italian poems, the famous “Cantica del Sole”, or “Laudes Creaturarum” (1225), a “sublime improvisation” (as Paschal Robinson well calls it) rather than a strictly literary production. The growing self-consciousness of the individual states and cities later gave rise to the chronicles and local histories. Provencal troubadours, who settled at the petty Courts of Ferrara and Monferrato, or passed southwards into the Kingdom of Sicily, brought the conventions of their artificial love poetry with them. Equally influential with the Franciscan movement, though in a totally different spirit, was the impulse given to letters by the highly cultured, but immoral and irreligious court of the Emperor Frederick II andhis son Manfred, whose Kingdom of Sicily included not only that island, but also Naples and all the south of the peninsula.

Dante wrote: “From the fact that the royal throne was in Sicily, it came to pass that whatever our predecessor s wrote in the vulgar tongue was called Sicilian” (V. E., i, 12). The writers of this Sicilian school were drawn from all parts of Italy. They did not normally use the Sicilian dialect, but wrote in a vernacular practically identical with what became the literary language of the whole nation. Their productions are almost exclusively love poems derived from those of Provence. Frederick himself (d. 1250) and his chancellor, Pier delle Vigne (d. 1249), wrote in this fashion. Many of these poets, like Ruggiero de Amicis (d. 1246), Arrigo Testa (d. 1247), and Percivalle Doria (d. 1264), were of high social position, notable in the history of the epoch, dying on the scaffold or the battlefield; but their lyrics are lacking in individuality, conventional, and artificial in sentiment and treatment. Noteworthy poets of this school are Giacomo da Lentino, “Il Notaro”, who was one of the emperor’s notaries in 1233; Rinaldo d’Aquino, a kinsman of St. Thomas, whose lament of a girl whose lover had gone on the Crusade was probably written in 1242; Giacomo Pugliese da Morra, in whom we find a trace of popular realism; and Cielo dal Camo, or d’Alcamo, whose contrasto, “Rosa fresca aulentissima”, now held to have been written after 1231, is strongly tinged with the local dialect of Sicily. A more personal note is struck in the pathetic poem of King Enzo of Sardinia (d. 1272), “S’eo trovasse”, written from his prison at Bologna, which brings the Sicilian epoch to a dramatic close. The last poet of the Sicilian school is Guido delle Colonne (d. after 1288), who also wrote the “Historia Trojana” in Latin prose, and is mentioned with praise by both Dante and Chaucer.

The earlier Tuscan poets, such as Pannuccio dal Bagno, of Pisa, and Folcacchiero de’ Folcacchieri, of Siena (c. 1250), are closely associated with the Sicilians. But from the outset the Tuscans did not restrict themselves to erotic poetry, but sang of religious, satirical, and political themes as well. Guittone del Viva (1230-94), known as Fra Guittone d’Arezzo, shows himself an imitator of the Provencals in his love lyrics, but writes with vigor and sincerity in his religious and political poems, especially in his canzone on the defeat of the Florentines at Montaperti (1260). He is also the author of a collection of letters, one of the earliest achievements of Italian prose. By the middle of the century, in addition to the canzone, or ode (which was taken over from the Provencals), we find in Central Italy two forms of lyrical poetry purely Italian in their origin: the ballata and the sonnet. The overthrow of the Suabian monarchy in the South, by the victory of Charles of Anjou (1266), shifted the center of culture to Bologna and Florence. A number of disciples of Guittone now appear, of whom Chiaro Davanzati (date uncertain), of Florence, and Bonaggiunta Urbicciani, of Lucca (d. after 1296), are the most noticeable. Of a far higher order is the poet who inaugurated the dolce stil nuovo, the “sweet new style”, of which Dante speaks—Guido Guinizelli of Bologna (d.1276). Guido wrote of the noblest love in a spirit that anticipates the “Vita Nuova”, and thereby founded a school to which the poets of the last decade of the century belonged, even as their predecessors had adhered to that of Guittone. The chief of these is Guido Cavalcanti (d. 1300), the chosen friend of Dante. He composed an elaborate canzone on the philosophy of love, in which poetry is smothered by metaphysics; but in his minor lyrics, original in motive and personal in sentiment, he brought the ballata and the sonnet to a degree of perfection previously unattained. With him and Dante is associated another Florentine poet, Lapo Gianni (d. 1323), whose work belongs to this epoch although he outlived it. In another vein, we have the humorous and satirical pieces of Rustico di Filippo (d. circa 1270) and the “Tesoretto” of Brunetto Latini (d. 1294), an allegorical didactic poem which influenced the external form of the “Divina Commedia”. The religious poetry of Umbria, developing under Franciscan influence, culminates in the mystical laudi of Jacopone da Todi (d. 1306), one of the most truly inspired sacred poets that the world has seen.

In comparison with the poetry, the Italian prose literature of this century is insignificant. The chief chronicler of the epoch, Fra Salimbene of Parma (d. 1288), wrote in Latin; Brunetto Latini composed his encyclopedic work, the “Tresor”, in French. Many of the literary productions formerly assigned to this are now known to belong to a later epoch, and it is impossible to say with certainty whether those that are authentic should be placed at the end of the thirteenth or at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Among these are the “Cento Novelle Antiche”, a collection of short stories drawn from various sources, and the “Tavola Ritonda”, an Italian version of the romance of Tristram. Fra Ristoro of Arezzo, in 1282, completed an elaborate treatise oncosmography, “Della Composizione del Mondo”. Most of the prose of this epoch is simply translated from the Latin or French. To Bono Giamboni (d. after 1296), a Florentine who italicized Brunetto Latini‘s “Tresor”, are attributed three ethical treatises (possibly of a later date), based upon medieval Latin models, but not mere translations; the most important of these, the “Introduzione alle Virtu”, derived in part from Boethius and Prudentius, is a striking religious allegory in which the Soul is led by Philosophy to the palace of Faith to witness the triumph of the Church, and herself attain to spiritual freedom.

The Fourteenth Century (It Trecento).—Through the triumph of the Guelphs, the chief place in Italian culture is now held by Florence instead of Sicily. Italian literature has become mainly republican in temper (even when professedly imperialist) and Tuscan in language. The philosophical glory of St. Thomas causes even belles Zettres to be deeply tinged with scholasticism; while the growing antagonism to the political actions of the popes, particularly during the Babylonian Captivity of Avignon, gives an anti-clerical tone to much of the poetry and prose of the century. At the close of the epoch the revival of classical studies begins to make itself felt. In the hands of three great Tuscan writers—Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375)—the national literature and the national language appear in full maturity and artistic perfection.

In his “Vita Nuova” (c. 1295), Dante still belongs to the preceding century, while uplifting the ideals of love set forth by Guido Guinizelli to the heights of Catholic mysticism. His “Rime”, more particularly his canzoni, develop the lyrical forms of his predecessors, while investing them with fresh passion and with philosophical authority. With his “Convivio” (circa 1306 unfinished, but the earliest monumental work of Italian prose) he intended to bring down the scholastic learning of his age to the understanding of the general reader. The “Divina Commedia” (1314-21), the noblest expression of the Italian spirit in poetry and a landmark in the history of man, sums up the intellectual gain and the spiritual progress of the nine centuries since the fall of the Roman Empire, while faithfully depicting the highest aspirations and whole moral atmosphere of the poet’s own epoch. In spiritual insight, dramatic intensity, sureness of touch, and terseness of expression, it has never been surpassed. In it modern Europe first produced a masterpiece to rival those of the classical world. Petrarca brings the canzone and the sonnet to their ultimate technical perfection in his lyrical poems, the “Canzoniere” or “Rime”, a series of miniature paintings of all the varying moods of the soul passing through earthly love and patriotic enthusiasm to find its rest in religion. His “Trionfi”, a poem in terza rima, in ten cantos, deal with the same matter in allegorical fashion, giving a symbolical representation of his own life. In his voluminous Latin writings—letters, treatises, and poems—he appears as the first of the Humanists, the precursor of the Renaissance. The worshipper of Dante and intimate friend of Petrarca, Boccaccio, in his “Filostrato” and “Teseide”, established ottava rima (previously only used in popular verse) as the normal measure for Italian narrative poetry. In his “Ameto” he introduced the prose pastoral and the vernacular eclogue. His grossly immoral “Fiammetta” may be said to inaugurate the modern psychological novel. In the hundred stories of the “Decameron”, he gave perfect artistic form to the novella, or short story, imbuing it with modern life. Written in an ornate and poetical prose, lacking in simplicity and directness, the “Decameron” gives an unsurpassable picture of certain aspects of fourteenth century society, but is disfigured by obscenity, and permeated by a superficial and sensual ideal of life.

This century in Italy, as elsewhere, is the golden age of vernacular ascetical and mystical literature, producing a rich harvest of translations from the Scriptures and the Fathers, of spiritual letters, sermons, and religious treatises no less remarkable for their fervor and unction than for their linguistic value. From the earliest years of the Trecento have come down the sermons of the Dominican, B. Giordano da Rivalto (d. 1311). The exquisite “Fioretti di San Francesco”, now known to be a translation from the Latin, date from about 1328. Prominent among the spiritual writers, who thus set themselves to open the Church‘s treasury to the unlearned, are the Augustinians, B. Simone Fidati da Cascia (d. 1348) and Giovanni da Salerno (d. 1388), whose works have been edited by P. Nicola Mattioli; and the Dominicans, Domenico Cavalca, a copious translator, and Jacopo Passavanti (d. 1357), whose “Specchio della Vera Penitenza” is a model of style and language. The admirable letters of B. Giovanni Colombini (d. 1367) and the mystical lyrics of his follower, Bianco dall’ Anciolina (El Bianco da Siena), have the glowing fervor, the Divine madness, of the first Franciscans. In a less exalted vein, the epistles of the monk of Vallombrosa, B. Giovanni dalle Celle (d. 1396), extend from the forties to the nineties of the century. Supreme above them all, a figure worthy, from the mere literary point of view, to stand by Dante and Petrarca, is St. Catherine of Siena (1347-80), whose “Dialogo” is the greatest mystical work in prose in the Italian language, and whose “Letters” have hardly been surpassed in the annals of Christianity.

Minor poets are numerous. Cecco Angiolieri of Siena (d. circa 1312), the Italian Villon, wrote humorous and satirical sonnets of amazing vigour and originality on subjects mainly drawn from low life. Folgore da San Gimignano (d. after 1315) pictured the fashionable existence of the young nobles of Siena with the touch of a painter. Guittoncino de’ Sinibuldi, known as Cino da Pistoia (d. 1337), also won renown as a jurist; the friend of Dante, whose “Rime” he imitated, his best amatory and political lyrics are hardly unworthy of his master. Francesco da Barberino (d. 1348), who was influenced by French and Provencal models, is the author of two somewhat insipid allegorical didactic poems. A higher note is struck by the Florentine exile, Fazio degli Uberti (d. after 1368), whose “Dittamondo”, a long poem in terza rima, “was intended as an earthly parallel to Dante’s Sacred Poem, doing for this world what he did for the other” (Rossetti); he surpassed himself in splendid patriotic lyrics, which give spirited expression to the new national Ghibellinism of Italy. Antonio Pucci of Florence (d. 1374) is the chief literary representative of the popular poetry of the age.

With the early years of the century begins the series of chronicles and diaries in the vernacular. Dino Compagni (d. 1324), to whom is also ascribed the “Intelligenza”, an allegorical poem in nona rima, describes the factions of the Bianchi and Neri in Florence with patriotic indignation and impartiality. Giovanni Villani (d. 1348) and his brother Matteo (d. 1363) wrote the whole history of Florence from the legendary origins down to the year of the latter’s death; their work, in addition to its supreme historical value, is a monument of the purest Tuscan prose. Minor chroniclers arose all over Italy; we will mention only the two Sienese, Agnolo di Tura and Neri di Donato, and the Benedictine Abbot Niccold of Gavello, who wrote the “Libro del Polistore”, a kind of universal history (still only in part published) which ends in 1367. In fiction, the “Reali di Francia” of Andrea da Barberino, written at the end of the century, renders the chivalrous tales of Charlemagne and his Paladins from the French; the “Pecorone” of Ser Giovanni Fiorentino (c. 1378) is a collection of tales in imitation of Boccaccio. Franco Sacchetti (1335-1400), less artificial than Boccaccio, adapted the novella to a moral purpose; he also wrote evangelical sermons, and poems, both playful and serious, frequently of real lyrical beauty, in which the literature of the Florentine Trecento comes to a pleasant close.

The Renaissance.—There are two distinct epochs in the history of the Italian Renaissance: the earlier, including the greater part of the fifteenth century (Il Quattrocento), from the return of the popes from Avignon (1377) to the invasion of Charles VIII (1494); the later, comprising the sixteenth century (Il Cinquecento), from the defeat of the French at Fornovo (1495) to the devolution of the Duchy of Ferrara to the Holy See (1597). Allowing for some necessary overlapping, the literature of the epoch falls into two corresponding periods.

The Quattrocento is an intermediate period between the mainly Tuscan movement of the fourteenth, and the general Italian literature of the sixteenth, century. It developed under the auspices of the princes who were forming hereditary states on the ruins of the communes, and is at first marked by the continuance of the work (inaugurated by Petrarch) of recovering classical writers and copying manuscripts, while the vernacular was despised, and authors attempted to write Latin verse and prose in the manner of the ancients. Greek scholars flocked to Italy, and the influence of Plato, translated into Latin by Leonardo Bruni (d. 1444) and Marsilio Ficino (d. 1495), became paramount. The latter, who was bent on harmonizing Plato with Christianity, and who also translated Plotinus, was instrumental in founding the Florentine neo-Platonic Academy. Some of these Humanists were purely pagan in spirit, like Poggio Bracciolini (d. 1459), Antonio Beccadelli, called Panormita (d. 1471), and Francesco Filelfo (d. 1481). But there were others, such as the Camaldolese monk, Ambrogio Traversari (d. 1439), Palla Strozzi (d. 1462), Giannozzo Manetti (d. 1459), Guarino Veronese (d. 1460), Vittorino da Feltre (d. 1446), and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-94), who could reconcile their worship of antiquity with their living faith in the Catholic Church. Among these Christian Humanists were two popes, Nicholas V (d. 1455) and Pius II (d. 1464). A vivid picture of the literary life of the age is given in the “Vite d’uomini illustri” of the Florentine bookseller, Vespasiano da Bisticci (1421-98). In the earlier part of the century, vernacular literature is of minor importance. Leonardo Giustiniani of Venice (1388-1446) wrote popular love poetry and religious laudi, some of which have been attributed to Jacopone da Todi. The Florentine architect, Leon Battista Alberti (1406-72), is the author of artistic treatises and moral dialogues, especially the four books of “Della Famiglia”, in a Tuscan tinged with Latinisms. Feo Belcari (1410-84) wrote mystery plays and religious poems, and also lives of B. Giovanni Colombini and his followers, with the devout simplicity of an earlier age. Also in religious literature we have the ascetical letters of B. Giovanni Dominici (d. 1419), a strenuous opponent of the pagan tendencies of the classical revival, and the vernacular sermons (1427) of St. Bernardine of Siena.

In the latter part of the century, mainly through the influence of Lorenzo de’ Medici and the dukes of Ferrara, Italian again triumphed over Latin. Three poets appear, almost of the first class: Lorenzo de’ Medici himself (1449-92), Angelo Poliziano (1454-94), and Matteo Maria Boiardo (1434-94). Of extraordinary versatility as a poet, Lorenzo left the imprint of his striking personality upon all he wrote and, especially in his subjects drawn from country life, shows a keen feeling for nature. The ballate and canzonette of Poliziano have the true lyrical note, while his “Stanze per la Giostra” are impregnated with the spirit of Florentine painting, and his “Orfeo” handles a mythological subject in the style of a religious mystery play. Boiardo ‘s “Canzoniere”, somewhat Petrarchan in tome, but largely original in form, is the finest collection of love poems of the century; his unfinished “Orlando Innamorato”, a poetic romance in ottava rima, gives fresh life to the Carlovingian legends by informing them with the spirit of the Arthurian Cycle. Among these lesser poets of the Medicean circle, Luigi Pulci (1432-1484), in his “Morgante”, treated the adventures of Orlando with a fantastic mingling of seriousness and japery; Girolamo Benivieni (1453-1542), a noble mystical and patriotic spirit who outlived his age, sang of celestial love “according to the mind and opinion of the Platonists” (1487), and became the lyrical interpreter of the aspirations of Savonarola. At the northern courts, the blind poet Francesco Bello followed his “Mambriano” (1496); the Ferrarese courtier Antonio Tebaldeo (1463-1537), whose poetry all belongs to the fifteenth century, exaggerated the defects of Petrarch and versified the politics of his patrons; Antonio Cammelli, called “II Pistoia” (1440-1502), produced an extraordinarily vivid series of satirical sonnets which are historical documents of high importance. In the South, the two chief literary figures are the Neapolitans, Giovanni Pontormo (1426-1503) and Jacopo Sannazaro (1458-1530). The former, who gave his name to a famous academy, wrote only in Latin, which, alike in prose and verse, he used as though it were his own tongue. The latter owes his fame to his Latin “Eclogae Piscatoriae” and his Italian “Arcadia”, in prose and verse, which influenced the literature of Elizabethan England; his chief Latin poem, “De Partu Virginis”, was not published until 1526. The most important Italian historical work of the fifteenth century is the “Storia di Milano” of Bernardino Corio (1459-1510), of special value for its minute and vivid picture of the reigns of the dukes of the Sforza family.

The Cinquecento witnessed the Tuscan vernacular finally established as the literarylanguage of Italy, and the classical studies of the past bearing fruit no longer in pedantic imitation, but in a national literature which is classical only in its perfection of form. In prose, Niceolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) and, in poetry Lodovico Ariosto (1474-1533), are the master spirits of the age. Machiavelli’s political and historical works, admirable in clarity, brevity, and efficacy of expression, penetrating in insight, and at times noble in patriotic aspiration, are open to severe condemnation as virtually excluding moral considerations from the sphere of public life. Next to Dante, Ariosto is the greatest poet that Italy has produced. His “Orlando Furioso”, a romantic epic continuing thematter of Boiardo’s chivalrous poem, but conforming to classical models, has all the highest qualities of style, imagination, and humor; but, while faithfully reflecting the society of the early Cinquecento, it is stained with the licentiousness and lack of noble ideals that characterize the age. His “Satires”, or epistles in verse, give a perfect portrait of the poet himself, and sketch the life of the times with a master’s hand. In his “Rime”, notwithstanding occasional Petrarchan imitations, we recognize a sincerity of utterance and a genuine passion which are rare in the lyrical poetry of that day. Next to these two giants stands Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540), pitiless investigator of men’s secret motives in his “Storia d’Italia” and his political writings, endowed with a rare power of historical portraiture, but devoid of enthusiasm and all lofty aspirations.

A higher ideal of life and conduct is expressed in the “Cortegiano” of Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529), the picture of the perfect gentleman, which at the close rises on the wings of Platonic love to the mystical contemplation of celestial beauty. Pietro Bembo (1470-1547), the literary high-priest of the century, touched the latter theme, less nobly, in his “Asolani”; his poetry is little more than a servile imitation of Petrarch; but his “Prose”, in which he formulated the rules of the Italian language, and the zeal with which he set the example of editing the vernacular classics, were influential in creating a standard of good taste. To the same poetic school as Bembo belong the Petrarchists, Francesco Maria Molza (1489-1544), Giovanni Guidiccioni (1500-41), Giovanni della Casa (1503-56), all noted for perfection of technique rather than for originality of thought; Vittoria Colonna (1490-1547), whose saintly life illumines her poetry, Gaspara Stampa (1523-54), in whose lyrics we find the faithful delineation of a profound and unhappy passion; and the great artist, Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), raised above the others by loftiness of thought and rugged vigor of style. A versatile Southerner, Luigi Tansillo (1510-68), shows marked individuality alike in his lyrics and in his idyllic poems. Among burlesque poets are the witty but immoral Francesco Berni (1498-1535), and Teofilo Folengo (1492-1544), whose “Macaronea”, or “Baldus”, is a burlesque epic written in an extravagant but subtile blend of Latin and Italian, the poesia maccheronica, of which he was the perfecter but not the inventor.

Didactic poems in blank verse, in imitation of Virgil’s Georgics, were composed by Giovanni Rucellai (1475-1526) and Luigi Alamanni (1495-1556), while Gian Giorgio Trissino (1478-1550), one of the chief literary critics of the age, essayed the heroic epic in the same metre in his “Italia liberata dai Goti”. Numerous writers strove to tread in Ariosto’s footsteps with romantic epics, of which the “Amadigi” of Bernardo Tasso (1493-1569), the father of Torquato, is the most successful. In the religious poetry of Celio Magno (1536-1602), we find the renovation of spiritual ideals caused by the Catholic reaction, and this is no less marked in Torquato Tasso (1544-95), with whom the poetry of the Italian Renaissance ends. Modeled upon classical rules, Tasso’s “Gerusalemme Liberata” is at once a heroic and a religious epic, stately and musical, in which the minor charms of romance and sentiment are not lacking. He likewise won a high place as lyrist and dramatist, and, at the end of his life, composed a didactic poem, “Il Mondo Creato”, the merits of which are theological rather than poetical.

The Renaissance in Italy produced no great national drama. The Italian comedy of the Cinquecento is directly imitated from Plautus and Terence, but attempts to adapt the plots and characters of the Latin playwrights to the conditions of life in the sixteenth century. Here, as in the romantic epic, Ariosto stands supreme. His earlier comedies (1508-1509) are written in prose, his later (1520-1531) in verso sdrucciolo, blank verse ending in a dactyl, intended to reproduce the trimeter iambic of the Latin comedians. They give us vivid pictures of the times; the dialogue is natural and brilliant, the characterization superficial but clever; but they are disfigured by deplorable obscenity. Between Ariosto’s earlier and later comedies come the “Calandria” of Bernardo da Bibbiena (1513) and the “Mandragola” of Machiavelli (after 1512), both in prose; the latter is a work of real dramatic power, but cynical and immoral to the last degree. This, unfortunately, applies to much of the comedy of the century, and is found at its worst in the plays of the infamous Pietro Aretino (1492-1556). The tragedies are poorer, and have no relation with the life of the age; they are mere rhetorical imitations of the Greek tragedians and of Seneca, the “Torrismondo” of Torquato Tasso (1587) alone rising above mediocrity. Far more attractive are the pastoral lyrical dramas, Tasso’s “Aminta” (1573) and its worthy rival, the “Pastor Fido” of Battista Guarini (1585), masterpieces of their kind, in which what is artificial and conventional in sentiment is idealized and made acceptable by the melodiousness of the poetry with which it is clothed.

Besides Machiavelli and Guicciardini, Florence produced a number of admirable historians, especially Jacopo Nardi (1476-1555), Donato Giannotti (1492-1572), and Benedetto Varchi (1502-65). At Venice, besides the official histories of Bembo and Paolo Paruta (d. 1598), we have the voluminous “Diarii” of Marino Sanudo (1466-1536), which enable us to reconstruct the public and private life of the republic day by day. Angelo di Costanzo (1507-91) wrote the history of Naples with accuracy and simplicity. The autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71) and the series of “Vite” of the painters, sculptors, and architects, by Giorgio Vasari (1531-74) bring the artistic side of the Renaissance vividly before our eyes. Bernardino Baldi (1553-1617), also an idyllic and didactic poet of an austere spirit, composed admirable monographs on the lives and times of the first two dukes of Urbino. Two novelists, Matteo Bandello (1480-1560) and Giambattista Giraldi (1504-75), have the merit of being less immoral than Boccaccio. Among minor prose treatises the “Galateo” of Giovanni della Casa, a manual of good breeding, has made its title proverbial. The translation of Tacitus by Bernardo Davanzati (1529-1606) is a model of style. Among grammarians and literary critics, besides Bembo, Trissino, and Varchi, should be mentioned Leonardo Salviati, who played a leading part in the foundation of the “Accademia della Crusca” in 1582. The spiritual element in vernacular literature is represented by the “Vita e Transito della beata Osanna da Mantua”, by Girolamo Montolivetano (1505); the “Trattato del Purgatorio” of St. Catherine of Genoa (d. 1510); the mystical writings of her godchild, the Carmelite nun, Battista Vernazza (d. 1587); the Letters of St. Catherine de’ Ricci (d. 1590); and the “Combattimento Spirituale” (circa 1585) of Lorenzo Scupoli, still so widely used among us for purposes of devotion.

The Decadence.—The creative genius of the Italians had been exhausted by the Renaissance, and the life of the nation crushed down by the foreign yoke of Spain, imposed on the peninsula by the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis (1559). Already in the latter part of the sixteenth century the decline had set in; it lasted through the whole of the seventeenth (Il Seicento), and the first half of the eighteenth century (Il Settecento), which together form the least fruitful epoch in the history of Italian literature. Exaggeration and extravagance, with corrupted taste and frantic straining after novelty (in part a reaction against the frigid classicism in which the Renaissance ended), are the characteristics of earlier seventeenth-century poetry, of which the most typical work is the “Adone” of the Neapolitan poet, Giovanbattista Marini (1569-1625), a profoundly immoral poem with a pretended ethical intention. Alessandro Tassoni (1565-1635) parodied the heroic poem in his comic epic, “La Secehia Rapita”, and assailed the Spanish oppressors of his country in his prose “Filippiche”. A new school of lyrical poetry was inaugurated by Gabriello Chiabrera (1552-1637), who attempted, with only partial success, to adopt the meters of the Greek and Roman poets for Italian verse. He was followed, with less refined taste and more virility, by Fulvio Testi (1593-1646), whose patriotic poems strike a higher note. Among satirical poets, natural fruit of a corrupt age, is the Neapolitan painter, Salvator Rosa (1615-73). The inevitable reaction against the inflated mannerisms of the Marinisti led to a movement for reforming Italian poetry by a return to nature and simpler ideals. To this latter school belong Vincenzo Filicaja (1642-1707), a deeply religious poet, the best of whose sonnets are the poetic gems of his age, Benedetto Menzini (1646-1704), a Florentine priest, who was also successful as a writer of satires; and Alessandro Guidi (1650-1712), called “the Italian Pindar”, who introduced greater freedom into the rhythmical structure of the canzone. This movement culminated in the famous “Accademia dell’ Arcadia”, inaugurated at Rome in 1690, which soon sank into an affected pastoralism and artificial simplicity, as false to nature and to true poetry as the mannerisms which it was intended to combat.

Although the greatest Italian of the epoch, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), belongs to science rather than to literature, his writings are distinguished by the highest literary excellences. Francesco Redi (1626-1698), a distinguished physician, was also a poet and philologist. Three Jesuits are among the chief prose writers of the century, combining devotion and learning with a literary style which, though far less free than Galileo’s from the faults of the age, is unsurpassed by any of their contemporaries: Father Sforza Pallavicino (1607-1667) composed the official history of the Council of Trent, in refutation of that of Fra Paolo Sarpi (1552-1623), and ethical and religious treatises, of which the “Arte della Perfezione Cristiana” and the four books “Del Bene”, philosophical dialogues held in the villa of Cardinal Alessandro Orsini at Bracciano, are still read; Father Daniello Bartoli (1608-85), a prolific and brilliant author, wrote the history of the Society of Jesus in a style which is typical of the Seicento at its best; Father Paolo Segneri (1624-94) reformed the art of religious oratory and freed it from the corruptions of the times. Prominent among historians are Cardinal Guido Bentivoglio (1579-1644), a trusted diplomatist of the Holy See, and Enrico Caterino Davila (1576-1631), who wrote on the Civil Wars of France. A little later, the study of history was set upon a scientific basis by Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) and Lodovico Antonio Muratori (1672-1750). Vico showed how history is illumined by the application of jurisprudence and philosophy; Muratori, that worthy priest to whom the student of the Middle Ages owes more than to any other man, taught by his own example that history must be founded in documentary research, and prepared the ground for subsequent scholars. In philology and literary criticism must be mentioned Carlo Dati (1619-76), who is associated with the Accademia della Crusca (of which the first Dictionary had been published in 1612); Gianvincenzo Gravina

(1664-1718), who was one of the founders of the Arcadia; and the Sienese, Girolamo Gigli (1660-1722), the zealous editor of St. Catherine. The Jesuit Girolamo Tiraboschi (1731-94) compiled the voluminous history of Italian literature which is still indispensable.

By the middle of the eighteenth century dynastic changes had swept away most of the old decadent reigning houses, and by the Peace of Aachen (1748) the reactionary yoke of Spain was forever lifted from Italy. The latter half of the century shows a moral and intellectual awakening, but at the same time the growth of a skeptical and irreligious spirit, due in part to French influence. It is an epoch of scientists and political economists, among the latter Cesare Beccaria (1738-94) winning the most permanent fame. In poetry, Pietro Trapassi (1698-1782), better known as Metastasio, brought the melodrama to the ultimate perfection of which it is capable, investing it with tragic dignity and lyrical beauty. Carlo Goldoni (1707-93) reformed Italian comedy, withdrawing it from pedantry and buffoonery to the representation of real life and character. With Giuseppe Baretti (1718-89), the critic who lashed literary affectations and pleaded for virile sincerity in letters, Piedmont made a significant entry into Italian literature. Finally, two great poets arose, a Lombard priest and a Piedmontese nobleman, who anticipated the new age and used poetry as an instrument for social progress: Giuseppe Parini (1729-99) and Vittorio Alfieri (1749-1803). Parini’s chief poem, “Il Giorno”, satirizes the corrupt and effeminate life of the aristocracy, and protests against the injustice of class; his “Odi”, no less admirable in style, bring the same virile note into lyrical poetry. Alfieri, besides composing robust sonnets and satires, produced a long series of austere and powerful tragedies which are in the main a protest against every kind of tyranny and oppression, and a trumpet-call to the nation to put on the armor of manliness and endurance.

Modern Literature.—At the beginning of the nineteenth century the ideals of the French Revolution had penetrated into Italy, while the establishment first of the Cisalpine Republic and then of the short-lived Napoleonic Italian kingdom inspired national feeling and gave hope of ultimate independence. These events had naturally a profound influence upon Italian literature, which, for the next fifty years, is divided between the Classic and the Romantic schools; the former attempting to accomplish the work of renovation by adapting classical models to the new conditions, the latter appealing less to form than to the picturesque aspects of history (particularly of the Middle Ages), to popular sentiment, and to nature.

Vincenzo Monti (1754-1828) is the head of the Classical school in poetry, though his earlier works belong to the preceding century. With no great originality, no stability of thought or constancy of ideals, he has inexhaustible fertility and a vigor of style that is frequently impressive. Ugo Foscolo (1778-1827) is, like Monti, a literary critic as well as poet, but a consistent patriot. His masterpiece, “I Sepolcri”, is a poetical epistle in blank verse, classical in thought, lofty in style, and rich in imagery; the “Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis”, his best known prose work, is an unwholesome and morbid production. Among minor writers of the Classical school are the poet Ippolito Pindemonte (1753-1828), the translator of the Odyssey, who answered Foscolo’s “Sepolcri” from the religious standpoint; Antonio Cesari (1760-1828), a priest of Verona, whose aim was to purify the language by the standard of the Tuscan writers of the Trecento; Giulio Perticari (1779-1822), the son-in-law of Monti, with whose linguistic labors in connection with the revision of the “Vocabolario della Crusca” he was closely associated; Carlo Botta (1766-1837), who attempted to follow in the footsteps of the Latin historians and the great Florentines of the sixteenth century. Belonging more to the Classic than the Romantic school, Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) is a solitary and tragic figure. Domestic unhappiness, physical health early shattered by excessive application to study, unrequited love, combined with loss of the Catholic Faith, in which he had been reared, drove him into crude pessimism. No Italian since Petrarch had reached the lyrical beauty of his “Canti”, in which the contrast between the past and present of his country, the worship of antiquity, political disillusion, hopeless love, and, at length, even the contemplation of nature find utterance in sheer despair.

The founder of the Romantic school is Giovanni Berchet (1783-1851), of Milan, who in 1816 characterized the Classical school as “poetry of the dead”, and the Romantic school as “poetry of the living”; his own patriotic lyrics, a little later, won him the title of “the Italian Tyrtaeus”. To the Romanticists belongs the noblest figure in Italian literature of the nineteenth century, the great Catholic writer, Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873), whose life was ruled, and his art inspired, by religion and patriotism alone. In his “Inni Sacri” (1815-22), he gives lyrical expression to the chief mysteries of the Faith; in his ode on the death of Napoleon, “11 Cinque Maggio”, he passes judgment on the mighty conqueror’s career in the light of religion. His lyrical dramas, “Il Conte di Carmagnola” (1820) and “L’Adelchi” (1822), are deficient in true dramatic qualities, but notable for the choral interludes, patriotic no less than religious in their aim. The same ideals inform his masterpiece, “I Promessi Sposi” (1827), a realistic romance with a historical background, as admirable in characterization and description, in pathos and in humor, as it is lofty in its idealism. To the school of Manzoni, similarly combining fervent Catholicism with nationalistic enthusiasm, belong Tommaso Grossi (1790-1853), poet and novelist; Silvio Pellico (1789-1854), whose “Le Mie Prigioni” describes with pathetic detail and Christian resignation his cruel imprisonment at the hands of the Austrians; and Cesare Cantu (1804-95), better known for his later voluminous works on history. Political considerations color most of the literature of the middle of the century, whether it be the historical writings of Cesare Balbo (1789-1853), the satirical and patriotic poems of Giuseppe Giusti (1809-50), the revolutionary lyrics of Gabriele Rossetti (1783-1854), the tragedies of Giovanbattista Niccolini (1782-1861), or the once admired romances of Francesco Domenico Guerrazzi (1804-73). The “Storia d’Italia nel Medio Evo” of Carlo Troya (1784-1858), the “Storia della Repubblica di Firenze” of Gino Capponi (1792-1876), and the “Storia dei Mussulmani di Sicilia” of Michele Amari (1806-89) are works of more permanent value. Niccolo Tommaseo (1802-74), poet and patriot, who united the study of philology with that of philosophy, made his name dear to students of Dante and St. Catherine.

Midway between this epoch and our own, belonging by the character of his art to the old rather than to the new era, stands a true, though not a great, poet, Giacomo Zanella (1820-89), a learned professor and devout Catholic priest. In Zanella’s work the cult of science, the love of nature, an ardent patriotism, and profound religious convictions are nobly blended. He is at his best in his lyrics; and in the last of these, an ode to Leo XIII, he pleads for a reconciliation between Church and State, the wedding of the Cross of Christ with the Savoyard cross on the national banner. Since the unification of Italy, more has been accomplished in economics and in social science than in pure literature. One modern Italian, indeed, takes his place among the foremost European poets of the nineteenth century—Giosue Carducci (1836-1906). A bitter opponent of the Christian ideal and a strenuous democrat, Carducci has given poetic form to the anti-clerical side of the Revolution that has made Italy one, and has expressed the paganism that is latent in the Italian genius. In his masterpiece, the “Odi Barbare”, he casts his essentially modern matter into new rhythmical forms modeled upon the lyrical meters of the classical poets of Greece and Rome. His prose writings and professorial teaching have been influential in creating a high standard of literary criticism and scholarship in Italy. In this latter field much, too, is due to the veteran historian Pasquale Villari (b. 1827). Of living poets (in 1909) the place of honor belongs to Giovanni Pascoli (b. 1855), whom the contemplation of nature and the life of the peasants in the fields inspire to short poems that are classical in their beauty. Alike in verse and in prose, Gabriele d’Annunzio (b. 1864) has perverted extraordinary talents to the basest literary uses; it is impossible to believe that his gorgeous rhetoric, with its elaboration of sensual passion and its gross obscenity, can win any permanence. The mantle of Manzoni has fallen upon the pupil of Zanella, Antonio Fogazzaro (b. 1842), a Catholic and an idealist, whose romances tower above the rest of modern Italian fiction, and of which the keynote is found in the author’s conviction that the one mission of art is to strengthen the Divine element in man.


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!