13th century (duecento)
The use of Italian language in literature began in the 13th century. Previously, almost all literature was written in Latin. In Italy, the legends of King Karl and King Arthur were freely redefined in their own Franco-Italian language. The first troubadours from Northern Italy wrote in Provencal, but in Sicily the real Italian lyric tradition began at the court of Fredrik 2.
One of the great merits of this school was that it created the sonnet, which was to become the dominant form of poetry in Italy and later used throughout Europe. The literary center later moved to Tuscany. Guittone d’Arezzo and Chiaro Davanzati wrote lyric, and others wrote longer allegorical poems, such as Brunetto Latinis Tesoretto. The portrayal of love gradually took on a mystical-philosophical direction, and the woman was seen as the incarnation of a religious or Platonic idea. The first great poet’s name from this literary school is Guido Guinizelli, but its greatest representative is Dante Alighieri, which gave the school the name Dolce Style Nuovo.
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was one of the greatest poets of the European Middle Ages. He wrote both in Latin and in “il vulare” (the Tuscan dialect). In his famous allegorical poem Divina Commedia he showed that the spoken language is suitable for high poetry. We see Dante with his divine comedy in his left hand, painted by Domenico di Michelino.
An Italian literary language had now been created. There was also written “comic” poetry called giocoso. Francis of Assisi’s famous Cantico di frate sole or Laude’s Creaturum was written in about 1225. Saint Francis inspired a rich religious poem. Jacopone da Todi laid with his laude the basis of a great dramatic literature, namely sacre rappresentazioni (sacred games). From original prose literature in Italian there were stories with topics from classical and oriental tradition and contemporary anecdotes. Most famous is the Novellino collection.
The 13th century is dominated by three big names: Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarca and Giovanni Boccaccio. Dante is considered the most important poet of the European Middle Ages. He wrote in both Latin and Italian, but his poetry in il vulare (Italian) stands for posterity as the most important. Divina Commedia is one of the highlights of world literature. Dante’s individualistic conception of man and his struggle for a modern writing language already point to the Renaissance, and Petrarca and Boccaccio were what we might call humanists. Petrarca collected the manuscripts of the classics and imitated Ciceros and Vergil’s style, but it was his poem cycle Canzoniere, written in Italian, that should give him world fame.
Like Dante and Petrarca, Boccaccio used the spoken language in his poetry, and he is regarded as the first great prose writer in Italian literature. As Petrarca’s Canzoniere became the model for later lyrical poetry, Boccaccio’s Decamerone became the role model for the prose poetry. After these masterpieces, nothing of the same quality was written in the 1300s and 1400s.
The influence of humanism led to intense philological activity with in-depth studies of Greek and Latin classics. The princes competed to support the scholars ‘studies, found libraries, and gathered literary men around them, as at the Lorenzo de’ Medici’s court in Florence. In the first half of the 1400s, the enthusiasm for the classics led Latin to regain a dominant position, but some poets, such as Angelo Ambrogini (known as Poliziano ) and Jacobo Sannazzaro, still wrote in Italian. With the Orlando Innamorato, begun in 1476, Matteo Maria Boiardo gave new life to the epic genre. As in Luigi Pulci’s Morgante, begun in 1460, the subject is taken from the Carolingian legends of the knight Roland. Another big name from this time is Leon Battista Alberti.
16th century (cinquecento)
The 16th century is strongly influenced by the language question. In 1525 Pietro Bembo published Prose della volgar lingua, one of the first Italian grammars. Bembo wanted a literary language based mainly on Petrarca and Boccaccio. His ideas won out, which was largely due to Accademia della Crusca; in 1612 the first edition of an Italian dictionary came from the academy.
In 1536 Aristotle’s Poetics was published, and a gradual development of aesthetic theory occurred. All the literary genres were subject to more or less strict rules, and the ancient demand for unity in time, space and action in the tragedy was reinstated. Both France, Spain and England submitted to the classicist notion of poetry revived in Italy. Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso is considered the most perfect expression of literary trends in the Italian Renaissance, before the Counter-Reformation had changed its character. Niccolò Machiavelli reflects the Renaissance idea in some of its most original aspects, especially in the objective analysis of human nature.
Of the autobiographical works, Benvenuto Cellini’s Vita is one of the most interesting. Baldassare Castigliones Cortegiano expresses the highest moral aspirations of the Renaissance. As a contrast to such moral writings one has Pietro Aretino’s striking and “juicy” satires. The comedy was generally of higher quality than the tragedy. Machiavelli wrote one of the best comedies of the century, Mandragola. A tendency to parody is found in the poem called Fidenziana, after Camillo Scroffa’s poetry where Latin words are combined with Italian form and syntaxas well as in the so-called “Makeronian” poetry in which Italian words are used for Latin morphology and syntax.
Torquato Tasso was the last great poet of the Renaissance. In his epic Gerusalemme liberata he summarizes and develops the typical of the period: the classic ideal united with the spiritual interests of the time. The most important philosopher in Italy in the 16th century, Giordano Bruno, expresses anti-humanist ideas in his dialogues from 1584–1585.
1700s and 1700s (seicento, settecento)
The 17th century and the first half of the 18th century signify a period of decline in Italian literature. Freedom of the press was hampered by the Spanish dominion, the Counter-Reformation and Accademia della Crusca’s efforts to preserve the purity of the Tuscan language. The popularity enjoyed by satire was a clear reaction to conditions. Alessandro Tassoni won fame with La secchia rapita, a parody of an epic poem, partly based on historical facts. Giambattista Marino’s poem with a flood of images and a dazzling technique. The phenomenon is called “marineism” and influenced most of the poets in the 18th century. Galileo Galilei, who founded the mathematical philosophy, wrote in a concise prose style.
Tragedies with biblical and historical motifs were published and listed, and when the religious opera emerged, the authors wrote librettos. In the 1600s, the demand for intermediate acts came (intermezzi), and the unity of the performance was dissolved. In 1690, the Academy Arcadia was established in Rome and met for the first time under Queen Kristina of Sweden’s protection. The purpose of the academy was to “fight the bad taste”. Many of the members were rationalists with rigorous classical formation, and their reaction consisted in imitating the simplicity found in ancient shepherd poetry. A new art skill replaced the old “marineism”. One of the greatest “mariners” was Pietro Metastasio, which would become one of the librettists for the most important cultural contribution of the 18th century, opera seria (the serious opera). Carlo Goldoni reformed the comedy; the original comedy had taken the place of commedia dell’arte, which in the early years of the 18th century had developed into pure improvised frivolity.
Historians such as Giambattista Vico and Antonio Muratori also dealt with literary criticism and argued that imitations of the classics should be more reserved. With the end of the Spanish dominion, and especially with the spread of the ideas of the Enlightenment, the reforms became more numerous. Giuseppe Parini, in his satirical poem Il giorno, rejects a whole social class for its corrupt way of life. The tragedy found its way into Vittorio Alfieri and became a stark contrast to Metastasio’s melodrama. Alfieri’s influence was enormous during the romance and risorgimento, the national revival of the 19th century.
19th century (ottocento)
The 19th century was characterized by political ferment. Ugo Foscolo united patriotic glow with formal perfection inspired by classicism. His poem Dei sepolcri had a great influence on “risorgimento”. Vincenzo Monti is next to Foscolo one of the most important poets in the early 19th century. Like many others, Ippolito Pindemonte was strongly influenced by English literature in the 18th century.
The language issue was once again lively discussed, and the purists worked to preserve the “pure” Tuscan language. In the literature, an artificial classicism was associated with Napoleon’s rule, and by the fall of this regime, a push was made for romance, especially in Milan, where a romantic journal, Il Conciliatore, was published. Several of the contributors were later arrested by Austrian police for their liberal opinions. Alessandro Manzoni is the big name in Italian romance, and his novel I promessi sposi, the first historical novel in Italian, is one of the classics of world literature. It depicts the Spanish tyranny of the 17th century, which readers could compare to the Austrians of today. Manzoni’s tragedy marks the victory of romance over classicism. The most important lyricist of the period was Giacomo Leopardi. His poem has a greatness that consists in the balance between depth of meaning and formal beauty.
After 1821 the literature was mainly characterized by political events; the poets were romantics and patriots. Giovanni Prati was the fan bearer of the so-called secondo romanticismo (the other romance), characterized by strong sentimentality and manners. The dominant figure in the second half of the 19th century was Giosuè Carducci. His poems, prose writings and enthusiasm for the national cause gave him a popularity that overshadowed everyone else. Francesco de Sanctis wrote literary dissertations and the famous Storia della letteratura italiana. Giovanni Pascoli wrote poems in a fragmentary and impressionistic style. Carducci and Pascoli are with Gabriele D’Annunzio representatives of the literary period called decadentismo. Giovanni Verga wrote strongly realistic novels and stories from Sicily, and Italian realism also became a regionalism, called verismo. Antonio Fogazzaro sought to set up a personal idealism against the ruling “verism”. In Milan there was a literary movement, Scapigliatura milanese, which was inspired by French bohemians.
The 20th century started with a violent reaction to the ideals of the 19th century. The philanthropic ideas and philosophy of “society at the center” were replaced by a glorification of the individual. The strongest representative of the reaction was Gabriele D’Annunzio, who would later become a glowing supporter of fascism. The philosopher Benedetto Croce condemned fascist ideology and so distinguished himself from his friend and colleague Giovanni Gentile whose theories of “absolute idealism” meant an acceptance of the fascist regime.
The two prevailing literary directions after the turn of the century were crepuscolarismo and futurismo. The first, the “twilight poem,” appeared in response to D’Annunzio with his muted tone. Guido Gozzano and Sergio Corazzini are the most famous of these poets. The “Futurists”, led by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, published their manifesto demanding “words of freedom” and violations of all traditions. Among the leading novelists of the 1920s are Riccardo Bacchelli, Grazia Deledda and Italo Svevo. Alberto Moravia and Corrado Alvarodebuted in the 1930s. The drama was completely dominated by Luigi Pirandello. The poetry under fascism was influenced by the French symbolists and their belief in the mysticism of the word. A new group of poets formed a poetic elite, including Eugenio Montale, Salvatore Quasimodo and the leader of the “hermetic” movement (ermetismo), Giuseppe Ungaretti.
After World War II, the rupture of fascist ideology was culturally expressed in neorealism. Inspired by the verist Giovanni Verga as well as American artists and intellectuals the Neorealists a modern, international style of cultivating national folk culture. The purpose was to give a credible picture of everyday life during fascism, partisan struggles and the post-war society. Key author names here are Elio Vittorini, Cesare Pavese and Beppe Fenoglio. One of the most important literary settlements of fascism and the brutality of the war was undertaken by the Jew Primo Levi, who was in German concentration camp during the war. The fate of Italian Jews is also dealt with in Elsa Morantes La storia from 1974, which is at the same time a realistic, historical and poetic-mythical novel in full epic breadth and with several plans of action.
Italo Calvino’s many novels and short stories blast the realistic framework and move on into fantastic literature. He may go the longest in the “anti-novel” See una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore from 1979, which is a game in the relationship between fiction and reality – between author, text and reader. In the 1960s, “alienation” was a key word for many authors, especially Natalia Ginzburg and Alberto Moravia. Like Moravia, Sicilian Leonardo Sciascia used the narrative to analyze society and historical contexts. The task of literature was to reveal mystifications and false representations of reality. Another important Sicilian writer is Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. His 1958 novel Il Gattopardo marks the transition from the political commitment of neorealism to a more existential and pessimistic attitude.
The 1960s were the time of the neo-avant-garde. Gruppo-63, modeled on the German Group 47, became the rallying point for a new generation of intellectuals who did not have the same war experiences as the neorealists. Avantgarden’s most striking figures were Umberto Eco, Edoardo Sanguineti and Nanni Balestrini. Their common starting point was the notion of art as the area in which one could most clearly express moral, philosophical and political problems. The writer and director Pier Paolo Pasolini took on a more ambiguous role in the new left-wing movement of the 1960s. His novels and films constantly surprised the public and expressed contrasts in the Italian post-war culture.
Italian cultural life has traditionally been male-dominated, but from about 1970, female writers began to assert themselves more strongly. The opposition to the uniform female image led to a fierce struggle against the mother role among some writers, for example in the 1975 Oriana Fallacis Lettera a un bambino mai nato from 1975 and Dacia Marainis Donna in guerra from 1975.
In the literature of the 1980s and 1990s, there are some common themes that recur, albeit in varying form and degree. Among other things, the authors have been concerned with the influence of the media on the literary expression and the relationship between scientific and literary recognition. Three key authors are Umberto Eco, Claudio Magris and Antonio Tabucchi, all of whom are also university professors. Eco and Magris made their international breakthrough by writing popular about topics they had worked on as researchers, Il nome della rosa from 1980 and Danubio from 1986. Tabucchi is particularly famous for his literary experiments which he combines with a sensuous, burlesque and at the same time everyday storytelling style, for example in the novelSostiene Pereira from 1994.
One of the new literary movements that emerged in the 1990s was Gioventù cannibale (“the young cannibals”). This Bologna- based group of writers writes unconventional and experimental Crimea and draws inspiration from an American universe, with obvious fascination for B-movies and “splatter”. Carlo Lucarelli’s Almost Blue from 1997 and Niccolò Ammanitis Io non ho paura from 2001 are among the best known novels.
Regionalism is an important concept in recent Italian literature, albeit expressed in many different ways. In both the writings of Erri De Lucas and Andrea Camilleri, the cities of Naples and Sicily are not only scenes, but also one of the author’s main issues. In both De Lucas’s product and warm childhood portrayal of Montedidio from 2003 as well as in Camilleri’s long crime series, the dialects play a central role, both as social and geographical-cultural markers. Camilleri’s police novels with Commissario Montalbano have been one of the greatest sales successes of all time in Italy.
Other important names in today’s Italian literature are Stefano Benni, Aldo Busi, Paola Capriolo, Andrea de Carlo, Alessandro Baricco, Simona Vinci and Melania Mazzucco.