1902 Encyclopedia > Italy > Italian Literature - Development of the Renaissance

(Part 49)


Italian Literature - Development of the Renaissance

The fundamental characteristic of the literary epoch following that of the Renaissance is that it perfected itself in every kind of art, in particular uniting the essentially Italian character of its language with classicism of style. This period lasted from about 1494 to about 1560; and, strange to say, this very period of greater fruitfulness and literary greatness began from the year 1494, which with Charles VIII’s descent into Italy marked the beginning of its political decadence and of foreign domination over it. But this is not hard to explain. All the most famous men of the first half of the 16th had been educated in the preceding century. Pietro Pomponazzo was born in 1462, Marcello Virgilio Adriani in 1464, Castiglione in 1468, Machievalli in 1469, Bembo in 1470, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Ariosto in 1474, Nardi in 1476, Trissino in 1478, Guicciardini in 1482. thus it is easy to understand how the literary activity which showed itself from the end of the 15th century to the middle of the following one was the products of the political and social conditions of the age in which these minds were formed, not of that in which their powers were displayed.

Niccolo Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini were the chief originators of the science of history. Machiavelli’s principal works are the Istorie Fiorentine, the Discorsi sulla prima Deca di Tito Livio, the Arte della Guerra, and the Principe. His merit consists in having been the creator of the experimental science of politics, - in having observed facts, studied histories, and drawn consequences from them. His history is sometimes inexact in facts; it is rather a political than an historical work. The peculiarity of Machiavelli’s genius lay, as has been said, in his artistic feeling fro the treatment and discussion of politics in and for themselves, without regard to an immediate end, - in his power of abstracting himself from the partial appearances of the transitory present, in order more thoroughly to possess himself of the eternal and inborn kingdom, and to bring it into subjection to himself. His Principle has been the subject of the severest accusations. But now, especially since Macaulay’s essay it is clear to every one that this book was only the result of the civil and moral conditions of Italy, as it still is the faithful portrait of them.

Next to machievellie both as an historian and a statesman, comes Francesco Guicciardini. He taught law for many years at Florence; then, having devoted himself to politics, he was always in the service of the service of the Medici. Leo X. made him governor of Modena, Reggio, and Parma. Clement VII. gave him the appointment of president of the Romagna, and afterwards that of lieutenant-general of the army against Charles V., and finally that of governor of Bologna. He worked for the return of the Medici to Florence, defending Duke Alexander, from the accusations of the exiles and supporting the election of Cosmo I. Guicciardini was very observed, and endeavored to reduce his observations to a science. His Storia d’ Italia, which extends from the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici to 1534, is full of political wisdom, is skillfully arranged in its parts, gives a lively picture of the character of the persons it treats of, and is written in a grand style. He shows a profound knowledge of the human heart, and depicts with truth the temperaments, the capabilities, and the habits of the different European nations. Going back to the causes of events, he looked for the explanation of the divergent interests of princes and of their reciprocal jealousies. The fact of his having witnessed many of the events he related, and having taken part in them, adds authority to his words. The political reflections are always deep: in the Pensieri, as Capponi says, e seems to aim at extracting through self-examination a quintessence, as it were, of the things observed and done by him, - thus endeavoring to form a political doctrine as adequate as possible in all its parts. Machiavelli and Guicciardini may be considered, not only as distinguished historians, but as originators of the science of history founded on observation.

Inferior to them, but still always worthy of note, were Jacopo Nardi (a just and faithful historian and a virtuous man, who defended the rights of Florence against the Medici before Cahrles V.) Benedetto Varchi, Giambattista Adriani. Bernardo Segni; and, outside Tuscany, Camillo Porzio, who related the Congiura de Baroni and the history of Italy from 1547 to 1552, Angelo di Costanza, Pietro Bembo, Paolo Paruta, and others.

Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso was a continuating of Boiardo’s Innamorato. His characteristic is that he assimilated the romance of chivalry to the style and models of classicism. Ariosto was an artist only for the love of his art; his sole aim was to make a romance that should please the generation in which be lived. His Orlando has no grave and serious purposes; on the contrary it creates a fantastic world, in which the poet rambles, indulging his caprice, and sometimes smiling at his work. His great desire is to depict everything with the greatest possible perfection; the cultivation of style is what occupies him most. In his hands the style becomes wonderfully plastic to every conception, whether high or low, serious or sportive. The octave stanza reached in him the highest perfection of grace, variety, and harmony.

Meanwhile side, by side with the romantic, there was an attempt at the historical epic. Gian Girogio Trissino of Vicenza composed a poem called Italia liberata dai Goti. Full of learning and of the rules of the ancients, he formed himself on the latter, in order to sing of the campaigns of Belisarius; he said that he had forced himself to observe all the rules of Aristotle, and that he had imitated Homer. In this again, we see one of the products of the Renaissance; and, although Trissino’s work is poor invention and without any original poetical coloring, yet it helps one to understand better what were the conditions of mind in the 16th century.

Lyric poetry was certainly not one of the kinds that rose to any great height in the 16th century. Originality was entirely wanting, since it seemed in that century as if nothing better could be done than to copy Petrarch. Still, even in this style there were some vigorous poets. Monsignore Giovanni Guidiccioni of Lucca (1500-1541) showed that he had a generous heart. In fine sonnets the gave expression to his grief for the sad state to which his country was reduced. Francesco Molza of Modena (1489-15440, leared in Greek, latin, and Hebrew, wrote in a graceful style and with spirit. Giovanni della Casa (1503-1556) and Pietro Bembo (1470-1547), although Petrarchists, were elegant. Even Miuchelangelo Buonarroti was at times a Petrachist, but his poems bear the stamp of his extraordinary and original genius. And a good many ladies are to be placed near these poets, such as Vittoria Colonna (loved by Michelangelo, veronica Gambara, Tullia d’Aragona, Giulia Gonzaga, poetesses of great delicacy, and superior in genius to many literary men of their time.

The 16th century had not a few tragedies, but they are all weak. The cause of this was the moral and religious indifference of the Italians, the lack of strong passions and vigorous characters. The first to occupy the tragic stage was Trissino with his Sofonisba, following the rules of the art most scrupulously, but written in sickly verses, and without warmth of feeling. The Oreste and the Rosmundas of Giovanni Rucellai were no better, nor Luigi Alamanni’s Antigone. Sperine Speroni in his Canace and Giraldi Cintio in his Orbecche tried to become innovators in tragic literature, but they only succeeded in making it grotesque. Decidedly superior to these was the Torrismondo of Torquato Tasso, specially remarkable for the choruses, which sometimes remind one of he chorus of the Greek tragedies.

The Italian comedy of the 16th century was almost entirely modeled on the Latin comedy. They were almost always alike in the plot, in the characters of the old man, of the servant, of the old man, of the servant, of the waiting-maid; and the argument was often the same. Thus the Lucidi of Agnolo Firezuola, and the Vecchio Amoroso of Donta Giannotti were modeled on comeies by Plautus, as were the Sporta by Gelli, the Marito by Dolce, and others. There appear to be only three writers who should be distinguished among the many who wrote comedies, - Machiavelli, Ariosto, and Giovan Maria Cecchi. In his Mandragora Machiavelli, unlike all the others, composed a comedy of character, creating types which seem living even now, because they were copied from reality seen with a finely observant eye. Ariosto, on the other hand, was distinguished for his picture of the habits of his time, and especially of those of the Ferrarese nobles, rather than for the objective delineation of character. Lastly, Cecchi left in his comedies a treasure of spoken language, which nowadays enables us in a wonderful way to make ourselves acquainted with that age. The notorious Pietro Aretino might also be included in the list of the best writers of comedy.

The 15th century was not without humorous poetry; Antonio Cammelli, surnamed the Pistoian, is specially deserving of notice, because of his "pungent bonhomie," as Sainte-Beuve called it. But it was Francesco Berni who carried this kind of literature to perfection in the 16th century. In the "Berneschi" we find nearly the same phenomenon that we already noticed with regard to Orlando Furioso. It was art for art’s sake that inspired and moved Berni to write, as well as Anton Francesco Grazzini called II Lasca, and other lesser writers. It may be said that there is nothing in their poetry; and it is true that they specially delight in praising low and disgusting things and in jeering at what is noble and serious. Bernesque poetry is the clearest reflection of that religious and moral skepticism which was one of the characteristics of Italian social life in the 16th century, and which showed itself more or less in all the works of that period, that skepticism which was one of the characteristics of Italian social life in the 16th century, and which showed itself more or less in all the works of that period, that skepticism which stopped the religious Reformation in Italy, and which in its turn was an effect of historical conditions. The Berneschi, and especially Berni himself, sometimes assumed a satirical tone. But theirs could not be called true satire. Pure satirists, on the other hand, were Antonio Vinciguerra, a Venetian, Lodovico Alamani, and Ariosto, the last superior to the others for the Attic elegance of his style, and for a certain frankness, passing into malice, which is particularly interesting when the poet talks of himself.

In the 16th century there were not a few didactic works. In his poem of the Api Giovanni Rucellai approaches to the perfection of Virgil. His style is clear and light, and he adds interest to his book by frequent allusions to the events of the time. But of the didactic works that which surpasses all the others in importance is Baldassare Castiglione’s Cortigiano, in which he imagines a discussion in the palace of the dukes of Rubino between knights and ladies as to what are the gifts required in a perfect courtier. This book is valuable as an illustration of the intellectual and moral state of the highest Italian society in the first half of the 16th century.
Of the novelist of the 16th century, the two most important were Anton Francesco Grazzini and Matteo bandello, - the former as playful and bizarre as the latter is grave and solemn. As part of the history of the times, we must not forget that Bandello was a Dominican friar and a bishop, but that notwithstanding his novels were very loose in subject, and that he often holds up the ecclesiastics of his time to ridicule.

At a time when admiration for qualities of style, the desire for classical elegance, was so strong as in the 16th century, much attention was naturally paid to translating Latin and Greek authors. Among the very numerous translations of the time those of the Aeneid and of the Pastorals of Longus the Sophist by Annibal Caro are still famousl as are also the translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by Giovanni Andrea dell’ Anguillare, of Apuleius’s Golden Ass by Firenzuola, and of plutarch’s Lives and Moralia by Marcello Adriani.

The historians of Italian literature are even now in doubt whether Tasso should be placed in the period of the highest development of the Renaissance, or whether he should form a period by himself, intermediate between that and the one following. Certainly he was profoundly out of harmony with the century in which he lived. His religious faith, the seriousness of his character, the deep melancholy settled in his heart, his continued aspiration after an ideal perfection, all place him as it were outside the literary epoch represented by Machiavelli, by Ariosto, by Berni. As Carducci has well said, Tasso "is the legitimate heir to Dante Alighieri; he believes, and reasons on his faith by philosophy; he loves, and comments on his love in a learned style; he is an artist, and writes dialogues of scholastic speculation that would fain be Platonic." He was only eighteen years old when, in 1562, he tried his hand at epic poetry, and wrote Rinaldo, in which he said that he had tried to reconcile the Aristotelian rules with the variety of Ariosto. He afterwards wrote the aminta, a pastoral drama of exquisite grace. But the work to which he had long turned his thoughts was an heroic poem, and that absorbed all his powers. He himself explains what his intention was in the three Discorsi written whilst he was composing the Gerusalemme; he would choose a great and wonderful subject, not to ancient as to have lost all interest, nor so recent as to prevent the poet from embellishing it with invented circumstances; he meant to treat it rigorously according to the rules of the unity of action observed in Greek and Latin poems, but with a far greater variety and splendor of episodes, so that in this point it should not fall short of the romantic poem; and finally, he would write it in a lofty and ornate style. This is what Tasso has done in the Gerusalemme Liberata, the subject of which is the liberation of the sepulcher of Jesus Christ in the 11th century by Godfrey of Bouillon. The poet not follow faithfully all the historical facts, but sets before us the principal causes of them, bringing in the supernatural agency of God and Satan. The Gerusalemme is the best heroic poem. That Italy can show. It approaches to classical perfection. Its episodes above all everything reflects the melancholy soul of the poet. As regards the style, however, although Tasso studiously endeavored to keep close to the classical models, one cannot help noticing that he makes excessive use of metaphor, of antithesis, of far-fetched conceits; and it is specially from this point of view that some historian have placed Tasso in the literary period generally known under the name of "Secentismo," and that others. More moderate in their criticism, have said that he prepared the way for it.

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