1902 Encyclopedia > Drama > Italian Drama

(Part 10)

Italian Drama

The priority in this as in most of the other aspects of the Renaissance belongs to ITALY. In ultimate achievement, the Italian fell short of the fullness of the results obtained elsewhere—a surprising fact when it is considered, not only that the Italian language had the vantage-ground of closest relationship to the Latin, but that the genius of the Italian people has at all times inspired it with a predilection for the drama. The cause is doubtless to be sought in the absence from Italian national life during a long period, and more especially during the contemporary with the rise earlier most of Italian dramatic literature, of those loftiest and most potent impulses of popular feeling to which a national drama owes so much of its strength. This absence was due partly to the peculiarities of the Italian character, partly to the political and ecclesiastical experience Italy was fated to undergo. The Italians were strangers to the enthusiasm of patriotism, which was as the breath in the nostrils of our Elizabethan age, as well as to the single minded religiosity which identified Spain with the spirit of the Catholic Revival. The clear-sightedness of the Italians had something to do with this—for they were too free from illusions to deliver up their minds to their priests. The chilling and enervating effects of a pressure of foreign domination, such as no Western people with a history and a civilization like those of Italy has ever experienced, did the rest, and for many generations rendered impotent the higher efforts of the dramatic art. No basis was permanently found for a really national tragedy ; while literary comedy, after turning from the direct imitation of Latin models to a more popular form, lost itself in an abandoned immorality of tone and in reckless insolence of invective against particular classes of society. Though its productivity long continued, the poetic drama more and more concentrated its efforts upon subordinate or subsidiary species, artificial in origin and decorative in purpose, and surrendered its substance to the overpowering aids of music, dancing, and spectacles. Only a single form of the Italian drama, the improvised comedy, remained truly national ; and this was of its nature dissociated from higher literary effort. The revival of Italian tragedy in later times is due partly to the imitation of French models, partly to the endeavour of a brilliant genius to infuse into his art the historical and political spirit. Comedy likewise attained to new growths of considerable significance, when it was sought to accommodate its popular forms to the representation of real life in a wider range, and again to render it more poetical in accordance with the tendencies of modern romanticism.

The regular Italian drama n both its tragic its comic branches, began with a reproduction, in the Latin language, of classical models ; but tragedy in its beginnings showed a tendency which it was before long to treat themes of national historical interest. Two earliest tragedies of which we hear, written by the Paduan historian Mussato about 1300, were both copies of Seneca ; but while one (Achilleis) treated a classical theme, the other dealt with the history of a famous tyrant of the author’s native city (Eccerinis). In the next century events of recent or contemporary history were similarly dealt with ;1 but the majority of its Latin dramas were doubtless written to suit the tastes of the friends and patrons of the Italian Renaissance, who, like Lorenzo the Magnificent, wished to domesticate the heathen gods and goddesses on a stage hitherto occupied by the sacred figures of Christian belief. Such were the Latin imitations and translations of Greek and Latin tragedies and comedies by Bishop Martirano, the friend of Lorenzo’s son Pope Leo X., on the adventure of Danaë2 and other subjects ; the famous Progne of G. Corraro (d. 1464), the nephew of an earlier Pope ; and the efforts of Pomponius Laetus, who, with the aid of Cardinal Riaro, sought to revive the ancient theatre, especially that of Plautus and Terence, at Rome. Many Latin comedies are mentioned from the 15th century, during which, as during its predecessor, Latin continued the dominant language of the stage in Italy. Nor was the representation even of Greek plays altogether unknown ; it was by her performance of the Electra of Sophocles that Alexandra Scala caused Politian to envy Orestes.

Early in the 16th century, tragedy began to be written in the native tongue ; but it retained from the first and never wholly lost, the impress of its origin. Whatever the source of its subjects—which, though mostly of classical origin, were occasionally derived from native romance, or even due to intention—they were all treated with a predilection for the horrible, inspired by the example of Seneca, though no doubt encouraged by a perennial taste. The chorus, stationary on the stage as in old Roman tragedy, was not reduced to a merely occasional appearance between the acts till the beginning of the 17th century, or ousted altogether from the tragic drama till the earlier half of the 18th. Thus the changes undergone by Italian tragedy were for a long series of generation chiefly confined to the form of versification and the choice of themes; nor was it, at all events till the last century of the course it has hitherto run, more than the after-growth of an after-growth. The honour pf having been the earliest tragedy in Italian seems to belong to Galeotto’s Sofonisba (1502), a piece in 15 to 20 acts, regardless of unity of scene. A. da Pistoia’s Pamfila (1508) followed, of which the subject was taken from Boccaccio, though the names of the characters were Greek. The play usually associated with the beginning of Italian tragedy—that with which "th’ Italian scene first learned to grow"—was another Sofonisba, acted before Leo X. in 1515, and written in black verse (verso sciolto) instead of the ottava and terza rima of the earlier tragedians (retaining, however, the lyric measures of the chorus), by Trissino, who was employed as nuncio by that Pope, Other tragedies of the former half of the 16th century were the Rosmunda of Rucellai, a nephew of Lorenzo the Magnificent (1516); Alamanni’s Antigone (1532); the Canace of Sperone Speroni, the envious Mopsus of Tasso, who, like Guarini, took Sperone’s elaborate style for his model; the Orazia, the earliest dramatic treatment of this famous subject, of the Notoprious Aretino (1549); and the nine tragedies of G. Cinthio, among which L’Orbecche (1541) is accounted the best and the bloodiest. Cinthio, the author of those Hecatommithi to which Shakespeare was indebted for so many of his subjects, was (supposing him to have invented these) the first Italian who was the author of the fables of his own dramas; he introduced some novelties into dramatic construction, separating the prologue and probably also the epilogue from the action, and has by some been regarded as the inventor of the pastoral drama. In the latter half of the 16th century may be mentioned the Didone and the Marianna of L. Dolce, the translator of Seneca (1565); the Hadriana (acted before 1561 or 1586) or L. Groto, which treats the story of Romero and Juliet; Tasso’s Torrismondo (1587); the Tancredi of Asinari (1588); and the Merope of Torelli (1593), the last who employed the stationary chorus (coro fisso) on the Italian stage. Leonico’s Soldato (1550) is noticeable as supposed to have given rise to the tragedia cittadina, or domestic tragedy, of which there are few examples in the Italian drama, and De Velo’s Tamar (1586), as written in prose. Subjects of modern historical interest were in this period treated only i8n isolated instances. 1

The tragedians of the 17th century continued to pursue the beaten track, at times in vain, seeking by the introduction of musical airs to compromise with the danger with which their art was threatened of being (in Voltaire’s phrase) extinguished by the beautiful monster, the opera, now rapidly gaining grouped in the country of its origin. (See OPERA). To Count P. Bonarelli (1589-1659), the author of Solimano, is on the other hand ascribed the first disuse of the chorus in Italian tragedy. The innovation of the use of rhyme attempted in the learned Pallavicino’s Erminigildo (1655), and defended by him to a discourse prefixed to the play, was in Italy no more than in England able to achieve a permanent success; its chief representative was afterwards Martelli (d. 1727), whose rhymed Alexandrian verse (Martelliano), though on one occasion used in comedy by Goldini, failed to command itself to the popular taste. By the end of the 17th century, Italian tragedy seemed destined to expire, and the great tragic actor Cotta has withdrawn in disgust at the apathy of the public towards the higher forms of the drama. The 18th century was, however, to witness a change, the beginning, of which are attributed to the institution of the Academy of the Arcadians at Rome (1690). The principal efforts of the new school of writers and critics were directed to the abolition of the chorus, and to a general increase of freedom in treatment. Before long the Marquis S. Maffei with his Merope (first printed 1713) achieved one of the most brilliant successes recorded in the history of dramatic literature. This play, which is devoid of any love-story, long continued to be considered the master-piece of Italian tragedy; Voltaire, who declared it "worthy of the most glorious days of Athens," adapted it for the French stage, and it inspired a celebrated production of the English drama. 2 It was followed by a tragedy full of horrors, 3 noticeable as having given rise to the first Italian dramatic parody; and by the highly esteemed productions of Granelli (d. 1769) and his contemporary Bettinelli. The influence of Voltaire had now come to predominate over the Italian drama; and, in accordance with the spirit of the times, greater freedom prevailed in the choice of tragic themes. Thus the greatest of Italian tragic poets, Count V. Alfieri (1749-1803), found his path prepared for him. Alfieri’s grand and impassioned treatment of his subjects caused his faultiness of form, which he never altogether overcame, to be forgotten. The spirit of a love of freedom which his creations 4 breathe was the herald of the national ideas of the future. Spurning the usages of French tragedy, his plays, which abound in soliloquies, owe part of their effect to an impassioned force of declamation, part to those "points" by which Italian acting seems pre-eminently capable of thrilling an audience. He has much—besides the subjects of two of his dramas 5—in common with Schiller, but his amazon-muse (as Schlegel called her) was not schooled into serenity, like the muse of the German poet. Among his numerous plays (21). Merope and Saul, and perhaps Mirra, are accounted his master-pieces.

The political colouring given by Alfieri to Italian tragedy reappears in the plays of U. Foscolo (c. 1760-1827) and A. Manzoni (1784-1873), both of whom are under the influence of the romantic school of modern literature; and to these names must be added those of S. Pellico (1789-1854) and G. B. Niccolini (1785-1861), whose most celebrated dramas 6 treat national themes familiar to all students of modern history and literature. While Italian has upon the whose adhered to its love of strong situations and passionate declamation, its later growths have shown a capability of development precluding the supposition that its history is closed. The art of tragic acting at the present day probably stands higher in Italy than in any other European country; if the tragic muse were to be depicted with the features of a living artists, it is those of Adelaide Ristori which she would assume.

In comedy, the efforts of the scholars of the Italian Renaissance for a time went side by side with the progress of the popular entertainments noticed above. While the constrasti of the close of the 15th and of the 16th century were disputations between pairs of the abstract or allegorical figures, in the frottola human types take the place of abstractions and more than two characters appear. To the farsa (a name used of a wide variety of entertainments) a new literary as well as social significance was given by the Neapolitan court-poet Sannazaro (c. 1492); about the same time a "capitano valoroso," Venturino of Pesara, first brought on the modern stage the capitano glorioso or spavente, the military braggart who owed his original both to Plautus 1 and to the Spanish officers who abounded in the Italy of those days. The popular character-comedy, a relic of the ancient Atellanes, likewise took a new lease of life—and this in a double form. The improvised comedy (commedia a sogetto) was now a rule performed by professional actors, members of a craft, and was thence called the commedia dell’arte, which is said to have been invented by Francesco (called Terenziano) Cherea, the favourite player of Leo X. Its scenes, still unwritten except in skeleton (scenario), were connected together by the ligatures or links (lazzi) of the arlecchino, the descendant of the ancient Roman sannio (whence our zany). Harlequin’s summit of glory was probably reached early in the 17th century, when he was ennobled in the person of Cecchino by the Emperor Matthias; of Cecchino’s successors Zaccagnino and Truffaldino, we read that "they shut the door in Italy to good harlequinas." Distinct from this growth is that of the masked comedy, the action of which was chiefly carried on by certain typical figures in masks, speaking in local dialects, 2 but was not improvised, and indeed from the nature of the case hardly could have been. Its inventor was A. Bealco of Padua, who called himself Ruzzante (joker), and who published six comedies in various dialects, including the Greek of the day (1530). This was the masked comedy to which the Italian so tenaciously clung, and in which, as all their own and imitable by no other nation, they tool so great a pride that even Goldini was unable to overthrow it.

Meanwhile the Latin imitations of Roman, varied by occasional translations of Greek, comedies early led to the production of Italian translations, several of which were performed at Ferrara in the 15th century, and before its close to the composition of what is regarded as the first original Italian comedy—in other words, as the first of the modern drama. But the claim to his honour of Boiardo’s Timone (before 1494) is doubtful—not in time, 3 but because this play is only in part original, being founded upon, and in a great measure taken from, a dialogue of Lucian’s since moreover its personages are abstractions, it represents at most the transition from the moralities. The "first Italian comedy in verse," Ricchi’s I Tre Tiranni (before 1530), is likewise a morality, and Trissino’s comedy, which followed, a mere adaptation of the Menaechmi of Plautus. About this time, however, the commedia erudite, or scholarly comedy, began to be cultivated by a succession of eminent writers, among whom the title of the father of modern comedy, if it belongs to any man, belongs to Ariosto (1474-1533). His comedies (though the first two were originally written in prose) are in black verse, to which he gave a singular mobility by the dactylic ending of the line (sdruccilo). Ariosto’s models were the master-pieces of the palliate, and his morals those of his age, which equaled those of the worst days of ancient Rome or Byzantium in looseness, and surpassed them in effrontery. He chose his subjects accordingly; but his dramatic genius displayed itself in the effective drawing of character, 4 and more especially in the skillful management of complicated intrigues. 5 Such, with an additional brilliancy of wit and lasciviousness of tone, are likewise the characteristics of Macdrogola (the Magic Draught); 6 and, in their climacteric, of the plays of P. Aretino (1492-1557), especially the prose Marescalco, whose name, it has been said, ought to be written in asterisks. Other comedians of the 16th century were B. Accolti, whose Virginia (prob. Before 1513) treats the story from Boccaccio which reappears in All’s Well that Ends Well; G. B. Araldo and J. Nardi, noteworthy as decent and moral in tone and tendendy; G. Cecchi, F. A’Ambra, A.F. Grazzini, N. Secco or Secchi, and L. Dolce—all writers of romantic comedy of intrigue in verse or prose.

During the same century the pastoral drama flourished in Italy. The origin of this peculiar species—which was the bucolic idyll in a dramatic form, and which freely lent itself to the introduction of both mythological and allegorical elements—was purely literary, and arose directly out of the classical studies and tastes of the Renaissance. Its first example was the renowned scholar A. Poliziano’s Orfeo (1472), which begins like an idyll and ends like a tragedy. Intended to be performed with music—for the pastoral drama is the parent of the opera—this beautiful work tells its story simply. N. da Correggio’s (1450-1508) Cefalo, or Aurora, and others followed, before in 1554 A. Beccari produced, as totally new of its kinds, his Arcadian pastoral drama Il Sagrifizio, in which the comic element predominates. But an epoch in the history of the species is marked by the Aminta of Tasso (1573), in whose Arcadia is allegorically mirrored the Ferrara court. Adorned by choral lyrics of great beauty, it presents an allegorical treatment of a social and moral problem; and since the conception of the characters, all of whom think and speak of nothing, but love, is artificial, the charm of the poem lies not in the interest of its action, but in the passion and sweetness of its sentiment. This work was the model of many others, and the pastoral drama reached its height of popularity in the famous Pastor Fido (written before 1590) of B. Guarini, which, while founded on a tragic love-story, introduces into its complicated plot a comic element, partly with a satirical intention. Thus, both in Italian and in other literatures, the pastoral drama became a distinct species, characterized like the great body of modern pastoral poetry in general by a tendency either towards the artificial or towards the burlesque. Its artificiality affected the entire growth of Italian comedy, including the commedia dell’arte, and impressed itself in an intensified form upon the opera. (See OPERA). The foremost Italian masters of the last-named species, so far as it can claim to be included in the poetic drama, were A. Zeno (1668-1750) and P. Metastasio (1698-1782).

The comic dramatists of the 17th century are grouped as followers of the classical and of the romantic school, G. B. Porta and G.A. Cicognini (whom Goldoni describes as full of whining pathos and common-place drollery, but as still possessing a great power to interest) being regarded as the leading representatives of the former. But neither of these largely intermixed grouped of writers could, with all its fertility, prevail against the competition on the one hand of the musical drama, and on the other of the popular farcical entertainments and of those introduced in imitation of Spanish examples. Italian comedy had fallen into decay, when its reform was undertaken by the wonderful theatrical genius of C. Goldoni (1707-1793). One of the most fertile and rapid of playwrights (of his 150 comedies 16 were written and acted in a single year), he at the same time pursued definite aims as a dramatist. Disgusted with the conventional buffoonery, and ashamed of the rampant immorality, of the Italian comic stage, he drew his characters from real life, whether of his native city (Venice)1 or of society at large, and sought to enforce virtuous and pathetic sentiments without neglecting the essential objects of his art. Happy and various in his choice of themes, he produced, besides comedies of general human character,2 plays on subjects drawn from literary biography 3 or from fiction.4 Goldoni, whose style was considered defective by the purists whom Italy has at no time lacked, met with a severe critic and a temporarily successful rival in Count C. Gozzi (1722-1806), who sought to rescue the comic drama from its association with the real life of the middle classes, and to infuse a new spirit into the figures of the old masked comedy by the invention of a new species. His themes were taken from Neapolitan 5 and Oriental 6 fairy tales, to which he accommodated some of the standing figures upon which Goldoni had made war. This attempt at mingling fancy and humour—occasionally of a directly satirical turn 7—was in harmony with the tendencies of the modern romantic school, and Gozzi’s efforts, which though successful found hardly any imitators in Italy, have a family resemblance to those of Tieck. During the latter part of the 18th and the early years of the present century comedy continued to follow the course marked out by its acknowledged master Goldoni, under the influence of the sentimental drama of France and other countries. Villi, Nelli, the Marquis Albergati Capacelli, Sografi, Federici, and Signorelli (the historian of the drama) are mentioned among the writers of this school; to the present century belong Count Giraud, Marchisio (who took his subjects especially from commercial life), and Nota, a fertile writer, among whose plays are three treating the lives of poets. Of still more recent date are Bon and Brofferio. Though no recent Italian comedies have acquired so wide a celebrity as that which has been obtained by the successful productions of the recent French stage, there seems no reason to predict a barren future for Italian comedy any more than for Italian tragedy. Both the one and the other have survived periods of a seemingly hopeless decline; tragedy has been rescued from the pedantry of a timid classicism, and comedy from the conventionalism of its most popular but least progressive form ; and neither the opera nor the ballet has succeeded in ousting from the national stage the legitimate forms of the national drama.

To the above summary of the history of the modern Italian drama it would not have been inappropriate to append a brief account of that of the MODERN GREEK. The dramatic literature of the later Hellenes is a creation of the literary movement which preceded their glorious struggle for independence, or which may be said to form part of that struggle. After beginning with dramatic dialogues of a patriotic tendency, it took a step in advance with the tragedies of J. R. Nerulos 8 (1778-1850), whose name belongs to the political as well as to the literary history of his country. His comedies—especially one directed against the excesses of journalism 9—largely contributed to open a literary life for the modern Greek tongue. Among the earlier patriotic Greek dramatists of the present century are T. Alkaeos, J. Zampelios (whose tragic style was influenced by that of Alfieri),10 S. K. Karydis, and A. Valaontis. A. Zoiros 11 is noteworthy as having introduced the use of prose into Greek tragedy, while preserving to it that association with sentiments and aspirations which will probably long continue to pervade the chief productions of modern Greek literature. The love of the theatre is ineradicable from Attic as it is from Italian soil; and the tendencies of the young dramatic literature of Hellas seem to justify the hope that a worthy future awaits it.


FOOTNOTE (p. 416)

(1) Landivio, De Captivitate Ducis Jacobi (Jacopo Piccinino, d. 1464) Tragaedia; Verardo, Ferdinandus (of Aragon) Servatus ; Histora Baetica (expulsion of the Moors from Granada).

(2) Imber Aureus.

FOOTNOTES (page 417)

(1) Mondella, Isifile (1582); Fuligni, Bragadino (1589).

(2) Home, Douglas.

(3) Lazzaroni, Ulisse il Giovane (1719).

(4) E.g., Bruto I. and II.

(5) Filippo; Maria Stuarda.

(6) Pellico, Francesca da Rimini; Niccolini, Giovanni da Procida; Beatrice Cenci.

FOOTNOTES (page 418)

(1) Pyrgopolinices in the Miles Gloriosus.

(2) The marked characters, each of which spoke the dialect of the place he represented, were (according to Baretti) Pantalone, a Venetian merchant; Dottore, a Bolognese physician; Spaviento, a Neapolitan braggadocio; Pullicinella, a wag of Apulla; Giangurgulo and Coviello, clowns of Calabria; Gelfomino, a Roman beau; Brighella, a Ferrarese pimp; and Ariecchino, a blundering servant of bergamo. Besides these and a few other such personages (of whom four at least appeared in each play), there were the Amorosos or Innamoratos, men or women (the latter not before 1560, up to which time actresses were unknown in Italy) with serious parts, and Smeraldina, Colombina, Spilletta, and other servettas or waiting-maids. All these spoke Tuscan or Roman, and wore no masks.

(3) Bolardo died in 1494, in or after which year Nardi’s Amicizia was written; while Dovizio’s (afterwards Cardinal of Bibbiena) disreputable but entertaining Calandra, a prose comedy, which protests that it is not taken from Plautus, is thought to have been composed not long before its representation in 1508.

(4) La Lena; Il Negromante.

(5) La Cassaria; I Suppositi.

(6) Of Machiavelli’s other comedies one is in verse, the other two, free adaptations from Plautus and Terence, are in prose.

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