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Italian Literature

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

In the Eighteenth Century there had been an attempt to reform Italian literature by introducing simplicity in place of the over-wrought rhetoric which had long prevailed. For this purpose the Academy of Arcadia was established at Rome. Its members adopted a style of thought and language supposed to be used in the fabulous Arcadia of the classical poets. But this was far from being a real return to nature such as Wordsworth advocated in English. The Arcadian mode was a palpable sham. The result was a flood of trifling, effeminate son-nets, madrigals and other forms of verse. But the deep-reaching social and political ideas which were circulated in France, and eventually produced the Revolution, made their way also into Italy. The Arcadian school of feeble, languishing poets vanished. The mighty but uncultivated genius of Alfieri was aroused. Inspired with love of liberty and hatred of tyrants, he poured forth twenty-one tragedies, chiefly founded on incidents and characters of classical history. He swept away the foolish trifling that had usurped the place of literature, and directed the intellectual movement to liberal and national aims.

The Italian poets who were excited by the same causes and inspired by his example, looked back to the ancient glory of their land for subjects and to the ancient classics for models of style. Hence they were careful to observe the rules and methods which had long been stamped as classical. In thought they were really modern, full of new ideas of the rights of man and universal freedom, but in form they followed that stiff and antiquated style which the French Romanticists opposed and ridiculed. Yet it must be admitted that the richness and easy grace of the Italian language are seen to advantage in their works.

The most remarkable of these modern classical poets was Vincenzo Monti (1754-1828), who illustrated in his career the frequent political changes which swept over his country. Kindly received at the Papal court, he was early admitted to the Academy of the Arcadians, but provoked his fellow-members by his sharp satire and impatience of criticism. Then he wrote a classical drama in rivalry with Alfieri. In 1793 the murder of the French minister, Basseville, at Rome called forth his splendid poem, "Bassvilliana," written in imitation of Dante. The spirit of Basseville is represented as condemned to wander over France under an angel's guidance, beholding the sufferings brought upon the land by the Revolutionary principles which he had advocated in life. Strange as the subject is, the poem abounds in fine descriptive and dramatic passages, one of which represents the ascension of the soul of Louis XVI to Heaven. In 1796 Monti wrote a poem, "Musogonia," which was favorable to the Papal party, but two years later he altered it to make Napoleon the hero. Still further was this homage to the French general carried in the "Prometeo," another imitation of Dante. Here Napoleon was exalted to Heaven as the impersonation of valor and virtue. After the down-fall of the Emperor, Monti sang the praises of the Austrians. This frequent change of attitude is attributed to the mobility of his feelings. He felt keenly the impression of the moment and immediately gave it utterance in vigorous poetry. His only deep abiding passion was for his art. In him the common talent of the Italian improvisator was magnified to a powerful genius. He insisted on making Dante and Petrarch the models of style, and opposed the pretensions of the Della Cruscan school who wished to limit the literary vocabulary to strictly Tuscan words. His influence on the regeneration of Italian poetry was beneficial and permanent.

While the fickle Monti varied in political opinion with every passing breeze, Ugo Foscolo (1778-1827) was ever steady in his love of country, though a man of fierce passions, and apt to quarrel with his friends. He was born at Zante and was proud of being a Greek, yet thoroughly devoted to Italy. His first fame was due to the "Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis" (1799), a tragical love story in imitation of Goethe's "Sorrows of Werther," but also expressing disappointment that Napoleon did not liberate Italy. His finest poem, "The Sepulchers" (1807), rebukes the people of Milan for allowing the poet Parini to be buried in a common grave with robbers, and tells how "the aspiring soul is fired to lofty deeds by great men's monuments." His "Hymns to the Graces" make beauty the source of all high qualities. In all of his poetry the charm lies in the harmonious versification. When made professor at Pavia in 1808, Foscolo offended Napoleon by directing his pupils to seek inspiration in patriot-ism, and again by his tragedy of "Ajax." Obliged to leave Italy he went to England, where for a time he promoted the study of Italian literature, but afterward by his waywardness lost his patrons and sank into poverty. His prose writings were disfigured by rhetorical vehemence.

A third poet who was a still more ardent classicist was Giambattista Niccolini (1782-1861), born in Florence, where he became professor of history. His first tragedy, "Polyxena," was crowned by the Della Cruscan Academy in 1810. While he imitated AEschylus he allowed his Muse more freedom than Alfieri. His tragedies show lyrical power rather than dramatic genius. His subjects were taken from modern history as well as classical mythology. One of them, "Giovanni da Procida" (1830), treats of the expulsion of the French from Sicily and ends with the Sicilian Vespers. On its presentation, it was felt to be an attack on Austrian tyranny. The "Arnaldo da Brescia," founded on the history of the philosopher who proposed Church reforms in the Twelfth Century, was directed against the Papal power. Although in dramatic form, it is too long for presentation on the stage.

Here may be noted, also, a prose classicist who, in his "History of Italy," imitated the style of Livy, and after the fashion of ancient writers put into the mouths of his characters long declamations. This was Carlo Botta (1766-1837) of Piedmont, who in early life suffered long imprisonment for an unproved political offense, and there-after spent much of his life at Paris. His "History of the War of Independence in America" (1810) is superior to his other work, and attests his republican principles. Cesare Cantu (1805-1895) , a Lombard by birth, through-out his long life was a diligent writer of history. His chief work was his "Universal History" in thirty-five volumes, which has been translated into many languages. It made, no pretension to original research of documentary evidence, but gave in clear and fluent style the traditional clerical view of the world's progress.

While the Liberal poets in Italy adhered to the classic forms in literature, there were others who desired the literary freedom of the Romantic school. In Milan a large group of these held firmly the Catholic faith, and from their general avoidance of political controversy, were sometimes known as the School of Resignation.

They had for their organ the "Conciliatore," established in 1818. Its very name shows that they were a party of compromise. Some of them longed for national unity, while others looked upon such ideas as chimerical. Minor controversies about purity of language occupied much of their attention. The classicists generally insisted on exclusion of words and forms not belonging to the Tuscan dialect, while the Milanese desired a literary language which should draw from all the dialects of the peninsula. This Milanese or Lombard group is often vaguely called Romantic.

The most distinguished leader of this new school was Count Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873). He declared that its object was to discover and express historical and moral truth as the eternal source of the beautiful. It has therefore connection with the later realists as well as the early Romanticists. In youth Manzoni had at Paris imbibed the infidelity of Rousseau, but he was converted by the faith of his wife, and became a fervent Catholic, as he proved by his "Sacred Hymns" (1810), which follow the festivals of the Church as in Keble's "Christian Year." Manzoni's noble ode on the death of Napoleon is called "The Fifth of May." His two fine tragedies were criticised for violation of classical rules. But his fame rests on his "Promessi Sposi" (The Betrothed) (1827), which placed him at the head of modern Italian literature. The idea of this picture of the past was undoubtedly suggested by Sir Walter Scott's novels, but Manzoni did not confine himself to reproducing history. The plot is slight; Renzo and his betrothed Lucia, simple peasants, are prevented from marriage by the craft and violence of Don Rodrigo and the weakness of the priest, Abbondio. The cruel Innominato assaults Lucia in his castle. Fra Federigo endeavors to rescue the lovers from their perils, and the holy archbishop of Milan is brought to their aid. Don Rodrigo dies of the plague of 1630, which is fully described from contemporary documents. To his famous novel Manzoni added a sequel called "The Column of Infamy." The people of Milan had believed that an inhabitant had introduced the plague by poison and therefore destroyed his house and erected a column-to mark the accursed spot. The real value of Manzoni's work lies in its searching analysis of characters. In his later years he so far yielded to the claims of the Tuscan dialect as to revise carefully the diction of his great work. He outlived all his children and died in his ninetieth year.

Another noted member of the Milanese group was the gentle Silvio Pellico (1789-1854), most widely known by his narrative, "My Prisons" (1832). Born of wealthy' parents in Piedmont, he associated with Foscolo and Monti and wrote tragedies of which the most famous was "Francesca da Rimini" (1818). He joined the secret society of the Carbonari, who sought the freedom of their country. Being arrested, he was tried, convicted and condemned to death, but this sentence was commuted to fifteen years' imprisonment. In 1830, ten years after his arrest, the Emperor ordered his discharge. Pellico went to live at Turin and wrote there his simple, affecting narrative which attests his piety and charity. This unpretending revelation of Austrian tyranny did much eventually toward winning liberty for Italy.

When Austrian domination was fully re-established in Italy, the lovers of their country expressed their feelings in satire or took refuge in history of its former glory. The noblest of the satirists was Giuseppe Giusti (1809-1850), who in spite of ill health, preserved a sunny temperament. His early verses were romantic lyrics, and had the times been favorable he might have proved himself the restorer of Italian supremacy. As it was, he employed his wit on light temporary themes, and the excellence of his work has caused his admirers regret that his ability was not displayed on grander subjects. He was a Tuscan by birth, and his diction is always in that purest dialect. One of his strongest satires, "The Guillotine," exposes to infamy the bloody tyranny of the King of Naples. Another, "Gingillino," playfully yet pointedly treats of the corruption of treasury officials in Tuscany. Giusti was at first active in the Revolutionary movements of 1847 and 1848, yet afterward was distrusted by his comrades.

Physical suffering, mental gloom and moral despair were united in the person of Count Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837). This lyric poet of atheism and pessimism remains in the greatest possible contrast with the cheerful Catholic novelist, Manzoni. Yet he represents fairly well the spirit of intellectual Italians under the rigorous, crushing despotism of the Bourbons. His father, an impoverished, bigoted and avaricious noble, lived at Recanati in the Apennines. The sickly, deformed, sensitive boy picked up his education by solitary reading in the home library. He became an expert classical scholar and wrote learned treatises before reaching manhood, but his virtual imprisonment produced deep melancholy, which ended in atheism. His only recreation was in writing poetry, at first in the classical style yet full of the Revolutionary spirit, then realistic descriptions of nature and country life, then the sorrowful. cries of agonizing despair. Deprived of companionship, friendship and love, he came to regard all objects of human pursuit and desire as vain illusions. The bright metal, of his genius was consumed with rust. When the pale, shy, sickly man ventured to Rome at the age of twenty-four, he was rather an object of ridicule than of pity. He wandered from one Italian city to another, and settled at a friend's house in Naples. Not only is his poetry exquisite and limpid, but his prose has been pronounced among the best that Italy has produced. It was chiefly in philosophical dialogues and discourses. His best poems are "Sylvia," "The Last Song of Sappho," "The Villagers' Saturday Night," "Brutus the Younger," "The Broom Flower," and "The Night Song." All critics have united in pronouncing him the greatest of Italian poets of the Century. It has been said that "pain and love form the two-fold poetry of his existence." So exquisite is the melody of his verse that it cannot be adequately rendered in translation.

Two historical novels of this period were received with enthusiasm, "The Battle of Benevento" (1827), and "The Siege of Florence" (1835). They were written by Francesco Domenico Guerrazzi (1804-1873), a lawyer of Leg-horn, who wished to rouse the patriotic feeling of his countrymen. His activity in political agitation caused him to be banished more than once. While in exile in Corsica he wrote "Beatrice Cenci" and other novels, but none 0f his numerous later books reached the success of the early spasmodic novels which for a brief time caused him to be regarded as the Walter Scott of Italy.

Poet as well as patriot was Aleardo Aleardi (1812-1378), born near Verona, and educated at the University of Padua. His "Primal Histories" (1845) is a lofty rhapsody tracing the progress of the human race through the Scriptural, classical and feudal periods to the present age and giving a vision of a glorious future. Another meditative poem, "An Hour of My Youth" (1858), deals with his disappointments as a patriot. His later poems, "Raphael and the Fornarina," "The Three Rivers," "The Three Maidens," "The Seven Soldiers," are more definite in scope, finely descriptive, brilliant and impassioned. He inclined rather to the classicists, and was Christian as well as patriotic.

Francesco Dall'Ongaro (1808-1873) was in early life a priest, but his patriotic feeling brought him into disfavor with the authorities, so that he abandoned that profession and entered on a varied career as journalist, dramatist and political agitator. For Madame Ristori he composed the tragedy "Bianca Capella," and for Salvini "Fasma" and "Il Tesoro." For a time he was banished from Italy but afterward returned and held literary professorships at Milan, Venice and Naples, where he died. As a lyric poet he took high rank.

Giovanni Prati (1805-1884) was best known by his political songs and lyrics but wrote also "Edmenegarda" (1841), a narrative poem in Byron's style, a satire "Satan and the Graces" (1855), and some epics.


Of contemporary Italian poets the greatest is Giosue Carducci, born in 1836. To his example is attributed the marked revival of poetry in recent times. As Leopardi represented the hopeless apathy of Italy under foreign domination, Carducci expresses the joy of the nation in its new life. He is a professor in the University of Bologna. His first work to attract attention was the "Hymn to Satan," published in 1865 under an assumed name. It was really a celebration of the advent of science and free thought, and showed strong love of Hellenic culture. This Paganism is displayed in his other poems, just as it was in the works of artists and poets of the Renaissance of the Sixteenth Century. It interferes with the modern poet's regard for the Christian Dante, whom he otherwise reverences as the supreme master of Italian literature. In his "Odi Barbare" (Barbarian Odes) Carducci has endeavored to introduce new meters into Italian. Thoroughly versed in the literary history of his country, he has published some able treatises upon it. Strong national feeling, a thoroughly modern spirit, and a love of art are seen in all his work.

Two writers of later birth have secured more attention abroad the traveler Edmondo De Amicis, born in 1846, and the novelist Gabriele D'Annunzia, born in 1864. De Amicis had been a soldier, and was .a journalist when, in 1869, his volume of short stories called "Military Life," at once scored a success. Other stories from civil life kept up his reputation. But his brilliant books of travel "Holland," "Morocco," "Spain," "London," "Paris," and "Constantinople," have not only been highly popular in Italian, but when translated into other tongues have attained equal success. They are picturesque, full of enthusiasm, and exhibit the best aspects of every land and people that he has visited. D'Annunzio, born on the Southern Adriatic coast, began his career at the early age of sixteen with a volume of riotously erotic poems, but after some others of similar character, became serious and even pessimistic. French critics were the first to give him full recognition as a master of melodious verse. His first novel, "Pleasure" (1889), was as objectionable as his early poems. His "Giovanni Episcopo" is a tragedy of low life, in which a weak man, long tyrannized over by a brutal companion, at last stabs him for beating his wife and child. In "The Triumph of Death," a sensualist is pursued by the thought of death and at last commits suicide by leaping from a cliff into the sea. In the "Maidens of the Crag," an Italian, wearied with the corruption of Roman society, retires to his native mountain, and finds three charming sisters. The problem is, Which will he choose? D'Annunzio belongs to the naturalistic school of fiction, but he surpasses its French representatives by the poetic beauty of his style.

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