1902 Encyclopedia > Italy > Italian Literature - Contemporary Period (19th Century)

(Part 52)


Italian Literature - Contemporary Period (19th Century)

At this point the contemporary period of literature begins. It has been said that the first impulse was given to it by the romantic school, which had as its organ the conciliatore established in 1818 at Milan, and on the staff of which were Silvio Pellico, Lodovico di breme, Giovile Scalvini, Tommaso Grossi, Giovanni Berchet, Samuele Biava, and lastly Alessandro Manzoni. It need not be denied that all these men were influenced by the ideas that, especially in Germany, at the beginning of the 19th century constituted the movement called Romanticism. Nevertheless in Italy the course of literary reform took another direction. There is no doubt that the real head of the reform, or at least its most distinguished man, was Alessandro Manzoni. He formulated in a letter of his the objects of the new school, saying that it aspired to try and discover and express "il vero storico" and "il vero morale," not only as an end, but as the widest and eternal source of the beautiful. And it is precisely realism in art that characterized Italian literature from Manzoni onwards. The Promessi Sposi is the one of his works that has made him immortal. No doubt the idea of the historical novel came to him from Sir Walter Scott, but he succeeded in something more than an historical novel in the narrow meaning of that word; he created an eminently realistic work of art. The romance disappears; on one cares for the plot, which moreover is of very little consequence. The attention is entirely fixed on the powerful objective creation of the characters. From the greatest to the least they have a wonderful verisimilitude; they are living persons standing before us, not with the qualities of one time more than another, but with the human qualities of all time. Manzoni is able to unfold a character in all particulars, to display it in all its aspects, to follow it through its different phases. He is able also to sieze one moment, and from that moment to make us guess all the rest. Don Abbondio and Renzo are as perfect as Azzeccagarbugli and II Sarto. Manzoni dives down into the innermost recesses of the human heart, and draws thence the most subtle psychological reality. In this his greatness lies, which was recognized first by his companion in genius, Goethe. With the exception of the Promessi Sposi, his works are important for the history of the author’s mind, not for the history of literature. Some of them are rather in contrast to that masterpiece. It is chiefly the Inni Sacri and the two tragedies that explain why Manzoni became the head of the school of Romanticism. It is not to be denied that even as a poet he had gleams of genius, especially where he describes human affections, as in some stanzas of the Inni and in the chorus of the Adelchi. But it is the promessi Sposi alone that places him at the head of the Italian literature of the 19th century, on account of the artistic realism prevailing in it. But Manzoni shared this glory with another writer, Giacomo Leopardi. It may seem absurd, but still it is the case, that the mystic, the religious Manzoni, has his place side by side with the poet of atheism and despair: they are indissolubly bound together for all time by an artistic intention, identical although realized by different means. Leopardi was born thirteen years after manzoni at Recannati, of a patrician family, bigoted and avaricious, and he almost entirely educated himself. His body was deformed, and he was of a sickly habit, so that in the years that bring cheerfulness and laughter to youths and children he shut himself up in his father’s library and studied. He became so familiar with Greek authors that he used afterwards to say that the Greek mode of thought was more clear and living to his mind than the Latin or even the Italian. Solitude, sickness, domestic tyranny, prepared him for profound melancholy. From this he passed into complete religious skepticism. He sought rest in art, and first wrote a Canzone all’ Italia and another for the monument of Dante Alighieri (1818), both full of classical and patriotic feeling. They show that for the time, though only for the time, he was of the school of Alfieri, Foscolo, and the others we have spoken of. His love of classicism always continued, but he changed its subject. He passed on into the poetry of sentiment and nature, describing with an unsurpassable realism what he felt and saw. The Passero solitario, the Quiete dopo la Tempesta, the Sabato del Villaggio, are pictures in which objective realism reaches its highest ideality; whilst beside them there are the Ultimo Canto di Saffo, the Ricordanze, the Genestra, and other poems, in which is poured out all the sorrow that weighs on the unhappy man to whom nature has denied every joy and every happiness. Everything is terrible and grand is these poems, which are the most agonizing cry in modern literature, uttered with a solemn quietness that at once elevates and terrifies us. The poetry of despair never had a more powerful or a more sorrowful voice than this. In this Leopardi surpasses even Byron and Shelley. But, besides being the greatest poet of nature and sorrow, he was also an excellent prose writer. In his Operette Morali-dialogues and discourses marked by a cold and bitter smile at human destinies which freezes the reader – the clearness of style, the simplicity of language, and the depth of conception are such that perhaps he is not only the first poet since Dante, but also the most perfect writer of prose that Italian literature has had.

As realism in art gained ground, the positive method in criticism kept pace with it. From the manner of Botta and Colleta history returned to its spirit of learned research, as is shown in such works as the Archivio Storico Italiano, established at Florence by Giampietro Vieusseux, the storia d’Italia nel Medio Evo by Carlo Troya, a remarkable treatise by Manzoni himself, Sopra alcuni Punti della storia Longobardica in. Italia, and the very fine history of the Vespri Siciliani by Michele Amari. The same positive method is now being applied to literary history.

But alongside of the great artists Leopardi and Manzoni, alongside of the learned scholars, there was also in the first half of the 19th century a patriotic literature. To a close observer it will appear that historical learning itself was inspired by the love of Italy. It is well known what Vieusseux's intentions were when he established the Antologia, in which work all Italian liberals took part, and which was suppressed by the action of the Kussian Govern-ment. And it is equally well known that the Archivio Storico Italiano was, under a different form, a continuation of the Antologia. Florence was in those days the asylum of all the Italian exiles, and these exiles met and shook hands in Vieusseux's rooms, where there was more literary than political talk, but where one thought and one only animated all minds, the thought of Italy.

The literary movement which preceded and was contem-porary with the political revolution of 1848 may be said to be represented by four writers,— Giuseppe Giusti, Francesco Domenico Guerrazzi, Vincenzo Gioberti, and Cesare Balbo. Giusti wrote epigrammatic satires in popular language. In incisive phrase he scourged the enemies of Italy ; his manner seemed very original, but it really was partly imitated from Beranger. He was a telling political writer, but a mediocre poet, —too much a poet of occasion. Few of his verses will survive as works of art. Guerrazzi had a great reputation and great influence; he was the author of historical novels written with a political object, such as the Assedio di Firenze, the Battaglia di Benevento, &c. Read with feverish avidity before 1848, these books of his are now almost forgotten. They struck the imagination then by their style, which is partly atfected and partly spasmodic. They seemed to be sublime, but were little les3 than ridiculous. Gioberti had a noble heart and a great mind ; his philosophical works are already as good as dead, but the Primato morale e civile degli Italiani will last as an important document of the times. It is a book false in substance, but inspired by lofty sentiments, and it is written in an easy and eloquent style, although sometimes a little verbose. The Gesuita moderno will live as the most tremendous indictment ever written against the Jesuits. Gioberti was a powerful polemical writer ; and in polemics he showed his most original and characteristic qualities. Balbo was an earnest student of history, and made history useful for politics. Like Gioberti in his first period, Balbo was zealous for the civil papacy, and for a federation of the Italian states pre-sided over by it. His Sommario della Storia d'Italia is the best epitome that exists of the intricate history of Italy. In the Pensieri sulla Storia d'Italia he touched on import-ant subjects, which still await treatment. He did not do himself justice in the Meditazioni Storiche, a work on the philosophy of history, for which he had not the necessary qualifications.

It is not advisable to speak of living authors. We shall only notice the fact that the political revival in Italy seems to have brought forth good fruit also in the fields of literature. It appears that the literary bent of the present day is towards historical research. Of the poets, only one, Giosuè Carducci, has as yet acquired a reputation that seems certain to last.

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