1902 Encyclopedia > Italy > Italian Literature - Period of Decadence

(Part 50)


Italian Literature - Period of Decadence

From about 1559 began a period of decadence in Italian literature. The Spanish rule oppressed and corrupted the peninsula. The minds of men were day by gradually losing their force; every high aspiration was quenched. No love of country could any longer be felt when the country was enslaved to a stranger. The suspicious rulers fettered all freedom of thought and word; they tortured Campanella, burned Bruno, made every effort to extinguish all high sentiment, all desire for good. cesare balbo says, "if the happiness of the masses consists in peace without industry, if the nobility’s consists in titles without power, if princes are satisfied by acquiescence in their rule without real independence, without sovereignty, if literary men and artists are content to write, paint, and build with the approbation of their contemporaries, but to the contempt of posterity, if a whole nation is happy in erase without dignity and the tranquil progress of corruption,-then no period ever was so happy foro Italy as the hundred and forty years from the treaty of Cateau Cambresis to the war of the Spanish succession." This period is known in the history of Italian literature as the Secentismo. Its writers, devoid of sentiment, of passion, of thoughts, resorted to exaggeration; they tried to produce effect with every kind of affectation, with bombast, with the strangest metaphors, in fact, with what in art is called mannerism, "barcchism." The utter poverty of the matter tried to cloak itself under exuberance of forms. It seemed as if the writers vied with one another as to who could best burden his art with useless metaphors, with phrases, with big-sounding words, with affectations, with hyperbole, with oddities, with everything that could fix attention on the outer form and draw it off from the substantial element of thought.

At the head of the school of the "Secentisti" comes Giovan battista Marini of Naples, born in 1569, especially known by a poem called L’Adone. His aim was to excite wonder by novelties; hence the most extravagant metaphors, the most forced antitheses, the most far-fetched conceits, are to be found in his book. It was especially by antitheses that he thought he could produce the greatest effect. Sometimes he strings them together one after the other, so that they fill up whole stanzas without a break. Achillini of Bologna followed in Marini’s steps. He had less genius, however, and hence his peculiarities were more extravagant, becoming indeed absolutely ridiculous. In general, we may that all the poets of the 17th century were more or less infected with "Marinism." Thus Alessandro Guidi, although he does not attain to the exaggeration of his master, is emptily bombastic, inflated turgid, while Fulvio Testi is artificial and affected. Yet Guidi as well as Testi felt the influence of another poet, Gabriello Chiabrera, born at Savonna in 1552. In him the Secentismo took another character. Enamored as he said he was of the Greeks, he made new metres, especially in imitation of Pindar, treating of religious, moral, historical, and amatory subjects. It is easy to understand that a Pindatic style of poetry in the 17th century in Italy could not but end in being altogether artificial, without anything of those qualities which constitute the greatness of the Greek poet. Chiabrera, though elegant enough in form, proves empty of matter, and, in his vain attempt to hide this vacuity, has recourse to poetical ornaments of every kind. These again, in their turn, become in him a fresh defect. Nevertheless Chiabrera’s school, in the decadence of the 17th century, marks an improvement; and sometimes he showed that he had lyrical capacities, which in better literary surroundings would have brought forth excellent fruit. When he sings, for example, of the victories of the Tuscan galleys against the Turks and the pirates of the Mediterranean, he rises to grand imagery, and seems quite another poet.

Filicaia the Florentine has a certain lyric élan, particularly in the songs about Vienna besieged by the Turks, which seems to raise him more than the others above the vices of the time; but even in him we see clearly the rhetorical artifice and the falseness of the conceits. And in general all the lyric poetry of the 17th century may be said to have had the same defects, but in different degrees, - defects which may be summed up as absence of feeling and exaggeration of form. There was no faith; there was no love; and thus art became an exercise, a pastime, a luxury, for a servile and corrupt people.

The belief then arose that it would be sufficient to change the form in order to restore literature, in forgetfulness that every reform must be the effect of a change in social and moral conditions. Weary of the bombastic style of the 17th century, full of conceits and antithesis, men said – let us follow an entirely different lime, let us fight the turgid style with simplicity. In 1690 the "Aacdemy of Arcadia" was instituted. Its founders were Giovan Maria Crescimbeni and Gian Vincenzo Gravina. The Arcadia was so called because its chief aim and intention were to imitate in literature the simplicity of the ancient shepherds, who were fabulously supposed to have lived in Arcadia in the golden age. As the "Secentisti" erred by an overweening desire for novelty, which made them always go beyond the truth, so the Arcadians proposed to themselves to return to the fields of truth, always singing of subjects of pastoral simplicity. This was obviously nothing else than the substitution of a new artifice for the old one; and they fell from bombast into effeminacy, from the hyperbolical into the petty, from the turgid into the over-refined. The Arcadia was a reaction against Secentismo, but a reaction which, reversing the movement of that earlier epoch, only succeeded in impoverishing still further and completely withering up the literature. The poems of the "Arcadians" fill many volumes, and are made up of sonnets, madrigals, canzonets, and blank verse. The one who most distinguished himself among the sonneteers was Felice Zappi. Among the authors of songs Paolo Rolli was illustrious. Innocenzo Frugoni was more famous than all the others, a man of fruitful imagination but of shallow intellect, whose wordy verses nobody now reads.

Whilst the political and social conditions in Italy in the 17th century were such as to make it appear that every light of intelligence, all spirit of liberty, was extinguished, there appeared in the peninsula, by that law of reaction which in great part govern human events, some strong and independent thinkers, such as Bernardino Telesio, Giordano Bruno, Tommaso Campanella, Lucilio Vanini, who turned philosophical inquiry into fresh channels, and opened the way for the scientific conquests of Galileo Galilei, the great contemporary of Descartes in France and of Bacon in England. Galileo was not only a great man of science, but also occupied a conspicuous place in the history of letters. Devoted students of Ariosto, he seemed to transfuse into his prose the qualities of that great poet, - a clear and frank freedom of expression, a wonderful art of knowing how to say everything with precision and ease, and at the same time with elegance. Galileo’s proise is in perfect antithesis to the poetry of his time. Perhaps it is the best prose that Italy has ever had; it is clear, goes straight to the point, is without rhetorical ornament and without vulgar slips, artistic without appearing to be so.

Another symptom of revival, a sign of rebellion against the vileness of Italian social life, is given us in satire and in particular in that of Salvador Rosa and Alessandro Tassoni. Salvador Rosa, born in 1615, near Naples, was a painter, a musician, and a poet. As a poet he showed that he felt the said condition of his country, showed that he mourned over it, and gave vent to his feeling (as another satire-write, Giuseppe Giusti, said) in generosi rabbuffi. His exhortation to Italian poets to turn their thoughts to the miseries of their country as a subject for their song – their country languishing under the tyrant’s hands – certain passages where he deplores the effeminacy of Italian habits, a strong apostrophe against Rome, make Salvador Rosa a precursor of the patriotic literature which inaugurated the revival of the 18th century. Tassoni, a man really quite exceptional in this century, was superior to Rosa. He showed independent judgment in the midst of universal servility, and his Secchia Rapita proved that he was an eminent writer. This is the heroic comic poem, which are at the same time an epic and a personal satire. He was bold enough to attack the Spaniards in his Filippiche, in which he urged Duke Carlo Emanuele of Savoy to persist in the war against them.

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