1902 Encyclopedia > Italy > Italian Literature - The Revival in the 18th Century

(Part 51)


Italian Literature - The Revival in the 18th Century

Having for the most part freed itself from the Spanish dominion in the 18th century, the political condition of Italy began to improve. Promoters of this improvement, which was shown in many civil reforms, were Joseph II. Leopold I., and Charles I. The work of these princes was copied from the philosophers, who in their turn felt the influence of a general movement of ideas, which was quietly working in many parts of Europe, and which came to a head in the French encyclopedists.

Giambattista Vico was a token of the awakening of historical consciousness in Italy. In his Scienza Nouva he applied himself to the investigation of the laws governing the progress of the human race, and according to which events are developed. From the psychological study of man he endeavored to infer the ‘comune natural delle nazioni," i.e., the universal laws of history, or the laws by which civilizations rise, flourish, and fall.

From the same scientific spirit which animated the philosophical investigation of Vico, there was born a different kind of investigation, that of the sources of Italian civil and literary history. Lodovico Antonio Muratori, after having collected in one entire body (Rerum Italicarum) Scriptores) the chronicles, the biographies, the letters, and the diaries of Italian history from 500 to 1500, after having discussed the most obscure historical questions in the Antiquitates Italicae Medii Aevi, wrote the Annali d’Italia, minutely narrating facts derived from authentic sources. Muratori’s associates in his historical researches were Scipione maffei of Verona and Apostolo Zeno of Venice. In his Verona illustrata the former left, not only a treasure of leanring, but an excellent specimen of historical monograph. The latter added much to the erudition of lkiterary history, both in his Dissertazioni Vossaine and in his notes to the Biblioteca dell’ Eloquenza Italiana of Monsignore Giusto Fontanini. Girolamo Tiraboschi and the Count Giovanni Maria Mazzuchelli of Brescia devoted themselves to literary history. The latter meant to give in his Scrittori d’Italia, not only the biography of all the writes, but an account of their works. Only six volumes were printed, containing the letters A and B; but the immense materials collected by him are in the Vatican library, and it is to be hoped that some day they may be arranged and published.

While the new spirit of the times led men to the investigation of historical sources, it also led them to inquire into the mechanism of economical and social laws. Francesco Galiani wrote on currency; Gaetano Filangieri wrote a Scienza della Legislazione. Cesare Beccaria, in his treatise Dei Delitti e delle Pene, made a contribution to the reform of the penal system and promoted the abolition of torture.

The man in whom above all others the literary revival of the 18th century was most conspicuously embodied was Giuseppe Parini. He was born in Lombard village in 1729, was mostly educated at Milan, and as a youth was known among the Arcadian poets by the name of Darisbo Elidonio. Even as an Arcadian, however, Parini showed signs of departing from the common type. In a collection of poems that he published at twenty-three years of age, under the name of Ripano Eupilino, there are some pastoral sonnets in which the poet shows that he had the faculty of taking his scenes from real life, and also some satirical pieces in which he exhibits spirit of somewhat rude opposition to his own times. These poems are perhaps based on reminiscences of Berni, but at any rate they indicate a resolute determination to assail boldly all the literary conventionalities that surrounded the author. This, however, was only the beginning of the battle. Parini lived in times of great social prostration. The nobles and the rich, all given up to ease and to silly gallantry, consumed their lives in ridiculous trifles or in shameless self-indulgence, wasting themselves on immoral "Cicisbeismo," and offering the most miserable spectacle of feebleness of mind and character. It was against this social condition that Parini’s muse was directed. Already, improving on the poems of his youth, he had proved himself an innovator in his lyrics, rejecting at once Petrarchism, Secentismo, and Arcadia, the three maladies that had weakened Italian art in the centuries preceding his own, and choosing subjects taken from real life, such as might help in the instruction of his contemporaries. In the Odi the satirical note is already heard. But it came out more strongly in the poem Del Giorno, in which he imagines himself to be teaching a young Milanese patrician all the habits and ways of gallant life; he shows up all its ridiculous frivolities, and with delicate irony unmasks the futilities of aristocratic habits. Dividing the day into four parts, the Mattino, the Mezzogiorno, the Vespero, the Notte, by means of each of these he describes the trifles of which they were made up, and the book thus assumes a social and historical value of the highest importance. Parini, satirizing his time, fell back upon truth, and finally made art serve the purpose of civil morality. As an artist, going straight back to classical forms, aspiring to imitate Virgil and Dante, he opened the way to the fine school that we shall soon see rise, that of Alfieri, Foscolo, and Monti. As a work of art, the Giorno is wonderful for the Scoratic skill with which that delicate irony is constantly kept up by which he seems to praise what he effectually blames. The verse has new harmonies; sometimes it is a little hard and broken, not by accident, but as a protest against the Arcadian monotony. Generally it flows majestically, but without that Frugonian droning that deafers the ears and leaves the heart cold

Gasparo Gozzi’s satire was less elevated, but directed towards the same end as Parini’s. In his Osservatore, something like Addison’s Spectator, in his Gazzetta Veneta, in the Mondo Morale, by means of allegories and novelties he hit the vices with a delicate touch, and inculcated a practical moral with much good sense. Gozzi’s satire has some slight resemblance in style to Lucian’s. It is smooth and light, but withal it does not go less straight to its aim, which is to point out the defects of society and to correct them. Gozzi’s prose is very graceful and lively. It only errs by its overweening affectation of imitating the writers of the 14th century. Another satirical writer of the first half of the 18th century was Giuseppe Baretti of Turin. In a journal called the Frusta Letteraria he took to lashing without mercy the works which were then being published in Italy. He had learnt much by traveling; and especially his long stay in England had contribute to give an independent character to his mind, and made him judge of men and things with much good sense. It is true that his judgments are not always right, but the Frusta Letteraria was the first book of independent criticism, directed particularly against the Arcadians and the pedants.

Everything tended to improvement, and the character of the reform was to throw off the conventional, the false, the artificial, and to return to truth. The drama felt this influence of the times. Apostolo zeno and Metastasio (the Aracdian name for Pietro Trapassi, a native of Rome) had endeavored to make "melodrama and reason compatible." The latter in particular succeeded in giving fresh expression to the affections, a natural turn to the dialogue, and some interest to the plot; and if he had not fallen into constant unnatural over-refinement and unseasonable mawkishness, and into frequent anachronisms, he might have been considered as the first dramatic reformer of the 18th century. That honor belongs to Carlo Goldoni, a Venetian. He found comedy either entirely devoted to classical imitation, or given up to extravagance, to coups de theater, to the mot boisterous succession of unlikely situations, or else treated by comic actors who recited impromptu on a given subject, of which they followed the outline. In this old popular form of comedy, with the masks of pantaloon, of the doctor, of harlequin, of Brighella, &c., Goldoni found the strongest obstacles to his reform. But at last the conquered, creating the comedy of character. No doubt Moliere’s example helped him in this. Goldoni’s characters are always true, but often a little superficial. He studied nature, but he did not plunge into psychological depths. In most of his creations, the external rather than the internal part is depicted. In this respect he is much inferior to Moliere. But on the other hand he surpasses him in the liveliness of the dialogue, and in the facility with which he finds his dramatic situations. Goldoni wrote much, in fact too much (more than one hundred and fifty comedies), and had no time to correct, to polish, to perfect his works, which are all rough cast. But for a comedy of character we must go straight from Machiavilli’s Mandragora to him. Goldoni’s dramatic aptitude is curiously illustrated by the fact he took nearly all his types from Venetian society, and yet managed to give them an inexhaustible variety. A good many of his comedies were written in Venetian dialect, and these are perhaps the best.

The ideas that were making their way in French society in the 18th century, and afterwards brought about the Revolution of 1789, gave a special direction to Italian literature of the second half of the 18th century. Love of ideal liberty, desire for equality, hatred of tyranny, created in Italy a literature which aimed at national objects, seeking to improve the condition of the country by freeing it from the double yoke of political and religious despotism. But all this was associated with another tendency. The Italians who aspired to a political redemption believed that it was inseparable from an intellectual revival, and it seemed to them that this could only be effected by a reunion with ancient classicism, - in other words, by putting themselves in more direct communication with ancient Greek and Latin writers. This was a repetition of what had occurred in the first half of the 15th century. The 17th century might in fact be considered as a new Italian Middle Age without the hardness of that iron time, but corrupted, enervated, overrun by Spaniards and French, an age in which previous civilization was cancelled. A reaction was necessary against that period of history, and a construction on its ruins of a new country and a new civilization. There had already been forerunners of this movement; at the head of them the revered Parini. Now the work must be completed, and the necessary force must once more be sought for in the ancient literature of the two classic nations. Patriotism and classicism then were the two principles that inspired the literature which began with Alfieri. He worshipped the Greek and Roman idea of popular liberty in arms against the tyrant. He took the subjects of his tragedies almost invariably from the history of these nations, made continual apostrophes against the despots, made his ancient characters talk like revolutionists of his time; he did not trouble himself with, nor think about, the truth of the characters; it was enough for him that his hero was Roman in name, that there was a tyrant to be killed, that liberty should triumph in the end. But even this did not satisfy Alfieri. Before his time and all about him there was the Arcadian school, with its foolish verbosity, its empty abundance of epithets, its nauseous pastoralizing on subjects of no civil importance. It was necessary to arm the patriotic muse also against all this. If the Arcardians, not excluding the hated Metastasio, diluted their poetry with languishing tenderness, if they poured themselves out in so many words, if they made such set phrases, it behoved the others to do just the contrary, to be brief, concise, strong, bitter, to aim at the sublime a opposed to the lowly and pastoral. Having said this, we have told the good and evil of Alfieri. He desired a political reform by means of letters; he saved literature from Arcadian vacuities, leading it towards a national end; he armed himself with patriotism and classicism in order to drive the profaners out of the temple of art. But in substance he was rather a patriot than an artist. In any case the results of the new literary movement were copious.

Ugo Foscolo was an eager patriot, who carried into life the heat of the most unbridled passion, and into his art a rather rhetorical manner, but always one inspired by classical models. His life was a most exciting one: he was a soldier with General Massena, a professor of eloquence at the university of Pavia, an exile after 1815. Three strong passions were always united in him – a passion for Italy, for art, and for beautiful women. Foscolo was born at Zante, and took pride in being a Greek. He translated one books of the lliad, and the Coma Berenices of catullus. He studied classical authors widely, and in his original works the reflection of them is perceptible. The Lettere di Jacopo Ortis, inspired by Goethe’s Werther, are a love story with a mixture of patriotism; they contain a violent protest against the treaty of Campo Formio, and an outburst from Foscolo’s own heart about an unhappy love-affair of his. His passions were sudden and violent; they came to an end as abruptly as they began ; they were whirlwinds that were over in a quarter of an hour. To one of these passions Ortis owed its origin, and it is perhaps the best, the most sincere, of all his writings. Even in it he is sometimes pompous and rhetorical, but much less so than he is, for example, in the lectures Dell’ Origine e dell’ Ufficio della Lettertatura. On the whole, Foscolo’s prose is turgid and affected, and reflects the character of the man who always tried to pose, even before himself, in dramatic attitudes. This was indeed the defect of the Napoleonic epoch; there was a horror of anything common, simple, natural; everything must be after the model of the hero who made all the world gaze with wonder at him; everything must assume some heroic shape. In Foscolo this tendency was excessive; and it not seldom happened that, in wishing to play the hero, the exceptional man, the little Napoleon of ladies’ drawing-rooms, he became false and bad, false kin his art, bad in his life. The Sepolcri, which is his best poem, was prompted by high feeling, and the mastery of versification shows wonderful art. Perhaps it is to this mastery more than to anything else that the admiration the Sepolcri excites is due. There are most obscure passages in it, as to the meaning of which it would seem as if even the author himself had not formed a clear idea. He left incomplete three hymns to the Graces. In which he sang of beauty as the source of courtesy, of all high qualities, and of happiness. Here again what most excites our admiration is the harmonious and easy versification. Among his prose works a high place belongs to his translation of the Sentimental Journey of Sterne, a writer by whom one can easily understand how Foscolo should have been deeply affected. He went as an exile to England, and died there. He wrote for English readers some Essays on petrarch and on the texts of the Decamerone and of Dante, which are remarkable for the time at which they were written, and which may be said to have initiated a new kind of literary criticism in Italy. Foscolo is still greatly admired, and now without reason. His writings stimulate the love of fatherland, and the men that made the revolution of 1848 were largely brought up on them. Still, his fame both as a man and as an artist is now on the decline.

If in Foscolo patriotism and classicism were united, and formed almost one passion, so much cannot be said of Vincenzo Monti, in whom the artist was absolutely predominant. Yet we must be careful: Monti was a patriot too, but in his own way. He had no one deep feeling that ruled him, or rather the mobility of his feelings is his characteristic; but each of these was a new form of patrioism, that took the place of an old one. He saw danger to his country in the French Revolution, and wrote the Pellegrino Apostolico, the Bassvilliana, and the Feroniade; Napoleon victories caused himto write the Prometeo and the Musagonia; in his Fanataismo and his Supertizione he attacked the papacy; afterwards he sang the praises of the Austrians. Thus every great event made him change his mind, with a readiness which might seem incredible, but is yet most easily explained. Monti was above everything an artist; art was his real, only passion; everything else in him was liable to change, that alone was persistent. Fancy was his tyrant, and under its rule he had no time to reason and to see the miserable aspect of his political tergiversation. It was an overbearing deity that moved him, and at its dictation he wrote. Pius VI. Napoleon, Francis II., were to him but passing shadows, to which he hardly gives the attention of an hour: that which endures, which is eternal to him, is art alone. It were unjust to accuse Monti of baseness. If we say that nature in giving him one only faculty had made the poet rich and the man poor, we shall speak the truth. But the poet was indeed rich. Knowing little Greek, he succeeded in making a translation of the Iliad which is remarkable for its Homeric feeling, and in his Basvilliana he is on a level with Dante. In fine, in him classical poetry seemed to revive in all its florid grandeur.

Monti was born in 1754, Foscolo in 1778; four years later still was born another poet of the same school, Giambattista Niccolini. In literature he was a classicist; in politics he was a Ghibelline, a rare exception in Guelph Florence, his birthplace. In translating or, if the expression is preferred, imitating Aeschylus, as well as in writing the Discorsi sulla Tragedia Greca, and on the Sublime e Michelangelo, Niccolini displayed his passionate devotion to ancient literature. In his tragedies he set himself free from the excessive rigidity of Alfieri, and partly approached the English and German tragic authors. He nearly always chose political subjects, striving to keep alive in his compatriots the love of liberty. Such are Nabucco, Antonio Foscarini, Giovanni da Procida, Lodovico il Moro, &x. He assailed papal Rome in Arnaldo da Brescia, a long tragic piece, not suited for acting, and epic rather than dramatic Nicoolini’s tragedies show a rich lyric vein rather than dramatic genius. At any rate he has the merit of having vindicated liberal ideas, and of having opened a new path to Italian tragedy.

The literary period we are dealing with had three writers who are examples of the direction taken by historical study. It seems strange that, after the learned school begun by Muratori, there should have been a backward movement here, but it is clear that this retrogression was due to the influence of classicism and patriotism, which, if they revived poetry, could not but spoil history. Carlo Botta, born in 1766, was a spectator of French spoliation in Italy and of the overbearing rule of Napoleon. Hence, excited by indignation, he write a History of Italy from 1789 to 1814; and later on he continued Guicciardini’s History up to 1789. He wrote after the manner of the Latin authors, trying to imitate Livy, putting together long and sonorous periods in a style that aimed at being like Boccaccio’s, caring little about that which constitutes the critical material of history, only intent on declaiming his academic prose for his country’s benefit. Botta wanted to be classical in a style that could no longer be so, and hence he failed completely to attain his literary goal. His fame is only that of a man of a noble and patriotic heart. Not so bad as the two histories of Italy is that of the Guerra dell’ Indipendenza Americana.

Close to Batto comes Pietro Colleta, a Neapolitan born nine years after him. He also in his Storia del Reame di Napoli dal 1734 al 1825 had the idea of defending the independence and liberty of Italy in a style borrowed from Tacitus; and he succeeded rather better than Botta. He has a rapid, brief, nervous style, which makes his book attractive reading. But it is said that Pietro Giordani and Gino Capponi corrected to for him. Lazzaro Papi of Lucca, author of the Commentari della Rivoluzione Francese dal 1789 al 1814, was not altogether unlike Bottaand Colleta. He also was an historian in the classical style, and treats his subject with patriotic feeling; but as an artists he perhaps excels the other two.

At first sight it seems unnatural that, whilst the most burning political passions were raging, and whilst the most brilliant men of genius in the new classical and patriotic school were at the height of their influence, a question should have arisen about "purism" of language. Yet the phenomenon can be easily accounted for. Purism is another form of classicism and patriotism. In the second half of the 18th century the Italian language was specially full of French expressions. There was great indifference about fitness, still more about elegance of style. Prose then was to be restored for the sake of national dignity, and it was believed that this could not be done except by going back to the writers of the 14th century, to the "aurei trecentisti," as they were called, or else to the classics of Italian literature. One of the promoters of the new school was Antonio Cesari of Verona, who republished ancient authors, and brought out a new edition, with additions, of the Vocabolario della Crusca. He wrote a dissertation Sopra lo stato presents della Lingua Italiana, and endeavored to establish the supremacy of Tuscan and of the three great writers Dante, Petrach, Boccaccio. And in accordance with that principle he wrote several books, taking pains to copy the "trecentisti" as closely as possible. But aptriotism in Italy has always had something municipal in it; so to this Tuscan supremacy, proclaimed and upheld by Cesari, there was opposed a Lombard school, which would know nothing of Tuscan, and with Dante’s De Vulgari Eloquio returned to the idea of the "lingua illustre." This was an old question, largely and bitterly argued in the Cinquecento (16th century) by Varchi, Muzio, Castelvetro, Speroni, and others. Now the question came up again quite fresh, as if no one had ever discussed it before. At the head of the Lombard school were Monti and his son-in-law Count Giulio Perticari. This gave Monti an occasion to write Proposta di alcune Correzioni ed Aggiunte al Vocabolario della Crusca, in which he attacked the Tuscanism of the Crusca, but in a graceful and easy style, such in fact as to form a prose that is one of the most beautiful in Italian literature. Perticari on the other hand, with a very inferior intellect, narrowed and exasperated the question in two treatises Degli Scrittori del Trecento and Dell’ Amor Patrio di Dante, in which often disguising or altering the facts, he only makes confusion where there was none. Meantime, however, the impulse was given. the dispute about language took its place beside literary and political disputes, and all Italy took part in it, - Basilio Puoti at Naples, Paolo Costa in the romagna, Marc’ Antonio Parenti at Modena, Salvatore betti at Rome, Giovanni Gherardini in Lombardy, Luigi Fornaciari at Lucca, Vincezo Nanucci at Florence.

A patriot, a classicist, and a purist all at once was Pietro Giordani, born in 1774; he was almost a compendium of the literary movement of the time. His whole life was a battle fought for liberty. Most learned in Greek and Latin authors, and in the Italian trecentisti, he only left a few writings behind him, but they were carefully elaborated in point of style, and his prose was in his time considered wonderful. Now it is looked on as too majestic, too much labored in phrases and conceits, too far from nature, too artificial, Giordani closes the literary epoch of the classicists.

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