Daily Talk Forum

Full Version: Italian Literature
You're currently viewing a stripped down version of our content. View the full version with proper formatting.


Before the 13th century the literary language of Italy was Latin, which served for the writing of chronicles, historical poems, heroic legends, lives of the saints, religious poems, and didactic and scientific works. In addition to those who wrote in Latin, a number of the early Italian poets wrote in French or in Provençal, and borrowed most of their verse forms and literary themes from foreign sources. One of the most important verse forms was the Provençal canzone. The literary themes included the deeds of ancient heroes, of Arthurian knights, and of Charlemagne and his paladins. The geste, or tales, of Charlemagne first appeared in a Franco-Venetian vernacular and were later Italianized in Tuscany (Toscana). Besides attaining lasting popularity in Italy, the tales furnished themes of chivalry for subsequent Italian poets.

13th and Early 14th Centuries

The earliest poetry written in Italian was that of the Sicilian school connected with the German Hohenstaufen court of the Italian-speaking Holy Roman emperor Frederick II and his son Manfred. They chose to administer their far-flung empire mainly from Sicily, which, partly under the impact of Arab civilization, had become one of the chief cultural centers of 13th-century Europe. The poetry of the Sicilian school, although written in Italian, had otherwise no native quality. It was largely a court type of love poetry, almost slavishly and often clumsily imitative of the current Provençal models. The most remarkable poets of the school were Giacomo Pugliese (flourished from about 1230 to 1250) and Rinaldo d’Aquino.

After the fall of the Hohenstaufen dynasty in 1254, the center of Italian poetry shifted to two cities, Arezzo, known for the work of Guittone d’Arezzo, and Bologna, distinguished by the innovations of Guido Guinizelli. Guittone d’Arezzo and his followers produced little poetry of distinction. Guinizelli was the creator of the dolce stil nuovo (“sweet new style”). In this style the poet did not exalt the worldly, fashionable type of love cultivated in the courts of princes, as in Provençal and Sicilian love poetry. He wrote instead of a Platonic love relationship, in which the loveliness of the adored woman spiritualized the lover, lifting his soul to a comprehension of divine beauty. The greatest of Italian poets, Dante Alighieri, who had a high regard for Guinizelli, wrote his first book, La vita nuova (1292; The New Life, 1861), in the new style. In prose narrative interspersed with lyrics, Dante described his idealized love for his beloved, Beatrice. Dante and the other poets of the dolce stil nuovo, notably Guido Cavalcanti and Cino da Pistoia, made it one of the great schools of Italian poetry.

Meanwhile another native, original type of poetry had appeared, a devotional poetry inspired by Saint Francis of Assisi, whose Canto dell’ amore (Canticle of Creatures) sings of love for all of God’s creation rather than for any single human being. The same feeling was expressed in a collection of legends in verse, Fioretti (Little Flowers), based on the life of Saint Francis. Other Franciscan poets followed in the 13th century, among them a poet with a Dantesque imagination, Jacopone da Todi, among whose beautiful hymns are the famous “Our Lady of the Passion” and “Stabat Mater.”

Dante is one of the great figures of world literature. He is remarkable for the loftiness of his thought, the vividness and fluency of his verse, and the boldness of his imagination. He was one of the founders of Italian literature through his use of the vernacular for some of his greatest works. About 1304 he wrote in Latin De Vulgari Eloquentia (Concerning the Common Speech), in which he advocated the use of Italian as a literary language.

Dante mastered the knowledge of his time and stands out as the greatest interpreter of the ideals of medieval Europe. His Convivio (The Banquet), written during the first years of the 14th century, is an almost encyclopedic summary of European culture. To his scholarship Dante added experience drawn from a varied and active civic life. He served as a magistrate of Florence and took part in the political controversies of the time. His political convictions, for which he suffered exile, are expressed plainly in his Latin treatise on government, De Monarchia (about 1313); in this work he projected enlightened imperial rule as the ideal system in which multiple conflicting states would be absorbed in one, church and state would be separated, and justice would be founded on Roman law.

Dante’s greatest work is his epic poem La divina commedia (The Divine Comedy), probably begun about 1307, and written in the vernacular for the sake of full and direct communication. It is a dramatization of medieval philosophy and theology partly in terms of the controversies and personalities of 13th- and 14th-century Italy. In some respects it is a literary guided tour through the three worlds of medieval theology: hell, purgatory, and paradise. Dante’s guides are Beatrice, the object of his chaste adoration, and the Roman poet Virgil.


The Renaissance in Italy was a period of expanding economic, political, and cultural activity. The towns and cities emerged from feudal conditions to become centers of commerce and industry. City leaders struggled constantly to increase their power by conquest and by establishing spheres of influence. Some city-states, such as Venice and Genoa, won control of Mediterranean empires. The period was marked by a rebirth of culture based on the discovery of ancient manuscripts and the reevaluation of classical literature and philosophy, which spread eventually throughout Europe.

Many of the great figures of early Renaissance literature were scholars concerned with philological research into and the translation of the Greek and Latin classics. They were called humanists because of their interest in human rather than otherwordly ideals, as opposed to the scholars and thinkers of the Middle Ages. Many humanists turned for inspiration to the works of Plato in preference to those of his pupil Aristotle, who had been the dominant influence in medieval scholarship.

Late 14th Century
One of the most important figures of the early Renaissance was the humanist scholar and poet Petrarch. With him a new feeling entered Western culture. Unlike Dante and other medieval thinkers such as the Italian Scholastic philosopher Thomas Aquinas and the French philosopher Peter Abelard, Petrarch was not concerned so much with using the material of the ancient classical writers for his own purposes as with acting in the classical spirit. A great Latinist, he helped to restore classical Latin as a literary and scholarly language and to discredit the use of medieval Latin, which had served as an international medium of communication. After this period Latin lost currency as a spoken tongue.

Petrarch is often referred to as the “modern man” because of his interest in individuality; his Vita Solitaria (1480; Solitary Life, 1924) and his De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae (1468; Physicke Against Fortune, 1579) are considered the first essays to express this new attitude. He has been called also the first Italian nationalist, as contrasted with Dante, who was a universalist and for whom Italy was a part to be fitted into an imperial whole. To Petrarch, Italy was the heir and successor of ancient Rome, the civilizing mission of which he glorified in his Latin epic Africa (critical edition, 1926), dealing with the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage. He believed that the various states of Italy should be united to resume the mission of ancient Rome.

Impressive as were Petrarch’s contributions to classical scholarship, his greatness rests on his Italian lyrics. His Canzoniere (after 1327; trans. 1777)—a collection of sonnets addressed to Laura, probably the Frenchwoman Laure de Noves, the counterpart of Dante’s Beatrice—departs from the idealized approach of the dolce stil nuovo. It introduced an intensity and inwardness of feeling and perception heretofore unknown in European poetry.

Giovanni Boccaccio, like Petrarch, was conscious of belonging to a new age. He was strongly influenced by Petrarch, and the two men became close friends. Boccaccio had a strong narrative bent, as evidenced by his prose romances Il Filocolo (about 1336) and L’amorosa Fiammetta (Amorous Fiammetta, about 1343). Boccaccio’s greatest work is his Decamerone (1353; The Decameron, 1620), a masterpiece in which he drew directly from life instead of from literary models. It is a collection of 100 short stories presumed to have been told during a period of ten days by seven gentlemen and three ladies of Florence living in a remote country villa in which they had taken refuge from an epidemic of the plague.

Unlike Petrarch, Boccaccio valued Dante highly; his last work was a biography and a series of lectures on the work of the great poet. Boccaccio’s writings gained an international public and were drawn upon for plots and characters by writers in other countries. For example, his epic poem La Teseida (about 1341) was used by the 14th-century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer as the basis for his “Knight’s Tale” and by the 17th-century English poet John Dryden in his poem “Palamon and Arcite.”

Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio were the first Italian writers to make literary use of the Tuscan dialect spoken in Florence, Siena, and other towns of north-central Italy, and they won for it general acceptance as the language of culture.

15th Century

In the Renaissance appeared many examples of the so-called universal man, who achieved greatness in more than one field. Among the most famous figures of this type were the architect, painter, organist, and writer Leon Battista Alberti, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo. This universality of mind and talent was true also of the princes who ruled the Italian towns, the most brilliant of whom was Lorenzo de’ Medici, a member of the Medici family that ruled Florence. Lorenzo was a brilliant statesman and administrator, a patron of the arts, a poet, and a critic of distinction.

Angelo Poliziano, called Politian, is generally considered the outstanding poet of the period. His verse play Orfeo (1480?; trans. 1880) ranks as the first important work in the Italian drama, and his collections of lyrics are of a high order. Politian is famous also for his scholarly editions and translations of Greek texts.

In this period the Carolingian geste and the pastoral continued to provide literary themes. Among the outstanding gestes was the Orlando innamorato (Roland in Love, 1487) of Matteo Maria Boiardo. The finest work in the pastoral genre was Arcadia (1504), by Jacopo Sannazzaro, which attained recognition across Europe. In their preoccupation with worldly rather than religious values Renaissance writers departed widely from the Christian concepts of the Middle Ages. The popes themselves patronized atheist and so-called pagan authors. Some of these writers, especially the humanist Lorenzo Valla, whose bold exposure of dubious papal documents almost cost him his life, mentioned Christian authors only to find fault with them. The sermons and polemical writings of the reformer Girolamo Savonarola, who attempted to reverse this trend, provide graphic descriptions of revived pagan tastes and practices. He instituted a theocratic republic in Florence, but it lasted less than three years. He was abandoned by the people and suffered martyrdom for his defiance of Pope Alexander VI, who was famous for his patronage of pagan culture.

16th Century

The Renaissance reached its fulfillment in the 16th century. Italian, long eclipsed by the humanists’ preoccupation with Greek and Latin, rose to a new and conscious dignity as a medium of serious literary expression. Pietro Bembo, who exercised tremendous influence in the first half of the century, contributed greatly to this development. In his treatises, especially Le prose della volgar lingua (Prose in the Vernacular, 1525), he established Boccaccio’s writings as the model for prose. His Rime (1530), imitative of Petrarch’s verse, marked the effective beginning of the movement known as Petrarchism. Other writers of this period who made much more creative use of the heritage of humanism were the statesman and political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli and the poet Ludovico Ariosto.

Both from his experiences as a Florentine official and diplomat and from his historical studies, Machiavelli arrived at the realistic conception of statecraft with which his name has since been linked. It is elaborated in Il principe (1532; The Prince,1640), an analysis of the basis and exercise of political power that formed part of a larger work, his commentary on The History of Rome by the Roman historian Livy. The premise of The Prince is that “the preservation of the state is the supreme law” transcending all other obligations. Machiavelli’s ideal prince anticipated the so-called benevolent despots of later periods who consolidated state power and deployed it in international affairs. In his thinking he departed from medieval theocratic concepts and presaged modern scientific political economy. Some historians conjecture that had his views been realized Italy might have been united under a strong ruler and spared the subsequent French and Spanish invasions. Other works by Machiavelli include a treatise on the art of war, a history of Florence, a biography (1520) of the Italian soldier and political figure Castruccio Castracani, poems, and a number of plays. His most famous play, La mandragola (1524; The Mandrake, 1957), is a bitter, pessimistic analysis of human instincts. In it he applied to social and religious life the principle of analysis that he applied in The Prince to political life.

The Florentine historian and statesman Francesco Guicciardini, Machiavelli’s friend, is best known for La storia d’Italia (posthumously published, 1561-1564; The History of Italy, 1579), a work outstanding for its objectivity and its astute discussion of personalities and events. His Ricordi politici e civili (Political and Civil Memoirs, 1857) is based on his thorough experience as a political participant in the affairs of Florence.

The genius of Ariosto, the supreme poet of the 16th century, found its best expression in the epic poem Orlando furioso (The Mad Roland, 1516), a work of originality and power in continuation of Boiardo’s Orlando innamorato. The events related in the poem concern the struggle of Charlemagne and his paladins against the Saracens. Against this unifying background, the epic weaves together adventure, romance, magic, heroism, villainy, pathos, sensuality, and contemporary reality into a sophisticated, ever varying narrative enlivened by humor and gentle irony. The poem achieves the universal appeal of a masterpiece because Ariosto’s extraordinary imagination is based on a profound understanding of human nature and psychology.

Two popular treatises on manners belong to this period of cosmopolitan refinement and worldly accomplishment. Il cortegiano (1528; The Courtier, 1561), by the diplomat Baldassare Castiglione, is a discussion of etiquette, social problems, and the advantages of intellectual pursuits. It served as a handbook for the training of gentlemen on the Continent and in England. Galateo (1558; trans. 1576), by the prelate Giovanni della Casa, discusses etiquette from the point of view of a broad understanding of human nature.

A violent reaction against this cult of fancy, beauty, and refinement is found in the mock epic Baldus (1517) by Teofilo Folengo. Written in the macaronic style, a comical burlesque of scholarly Latin, it is an extremely and often vulgarly funny parody of the world of chivalry and belles lettres and satirizes many aspects of contemporary life. The French writer François Rabelais found inspiration and material in Baldus. Another rebel, of much greater contemporary prestige, was Pietro Aretino, a talented playwright and pamphleteer. His Ragionamenti (Reasonings, 1532-1534) and the six volumes of his letters (1537-1557) best represent his scurrilous and harsh wit.

The great artists of the period made several notable contributions to literature. The sonnets of Michelangelo are impassioned expressions of inner feelings and religious conviction. Leonardo’s treatises on art and science contain principles of analysis that have profoundly influenced modern thinkers. The remarkable autobiography of the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini ranks among the greatest personal documents in all literature. The biographies of famous painters, sculptors, and architects written by the painter and architect Giorgio Vasari constitute an invaluable source of art history.

The short narrative tale is best represented in the 16th century by the Novelle (4 volumes, 1554-73) of Matteo Bandello. These tales, modeled on those of Boccaccio, formed the basis of many European literary works, including probably Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet.

The second half of the 16th century was dominated by the Counter Reformation, which began with the Council of Trent in 1545. The resulting wave of piety and submission to authority replaced the frank enjoyment and exploration of life cultivated by the humanists and their successors with a superficial regard for morality and public welfare. The exuberant freedom of expression and form characteristic of Ariosto was frowned on, while such freedom of thought and utterance as Machiavelli’s became downright dangerous. In literature this change was intensified by a new classicism, which relied on the authority of Aristotle's rediscovered Poetics and spread later throughout all Europe. In 1548 the Poetics was published in the original with a Latin translation and commentary by Francesco Robortelli. Many other versions as well as treatises on the Poetics followed, the most important of which were the Poetics (1561) of Julius Caesar Scaliger and the commentary (1570) by Lodovico Castelvetro, in which the unities of time and place in drama were first set forth.

Despite the prevailing climate of repression, one great lyric and imaginative poet, Torquato Tasso, produced a masterpiece, Gerusalemme liberata (1575; Jerusalem Delivered, 1884). This beautiful epic treatment of the First Crusade is much shorter and simpler and more unified and serious than the Orlando furioso. It aroused so much pedantic criticism, however, that the author later rewrote it, producing a work of inferior quality. Another great mind and bolder spirit, the philosopher Giordano Bruno, wrote dialogues attacking pedantry and authoritarianism and daring to uphold views that were forbidden by the church. He was burned at the stake as a heretic in Rome in 1600.


Italy, beginning in the late 15th century, was exhausted by constant wars as rival Spanish, French, and Austrian rulers made the country their battleground. At the same time, world trade was shifting from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, causing an economic decline in Italy. The once free-spirited, cosmopolitan city-states offered little resistance to tyranny and began to stagnate into provincial communities. In the 17th and 18th centuries most of the country was under Spanish or Austrian rule.

17th Century

The predominant style of the 17th century, not only in literature but in the fine arts and music, was baroque, that is, characterized by exuberant and often somber emotion. Poetry and drama became extravagant in imagination, rhetorical in expression, and richly metaphorical in imagery.

Typical of the century in this respect is the poetry of Giambattista Marino, whose Adone (Adonis, 1623) is a masterpiece of literary virtuosity. A remarkable study of the universality of love, it masks sense under sentiment and discovers amorous tendencies in all nature.

Much of the writing of the period is morbid in spirit. Representative of this genre are the tragedies of Federigo della Valle, whose La reina di Scotia (The Queen of Scotland, 1628) centers on the trials of Mary, Queen of Scots. A dissatisfaction with life, especially with the social order of his time, is expressed in the work of the poet, scientist, and philosopher Tommaso Campanella, whose speculations about ways of improving society cost him imprisonment and exile. His most important work is Civitas solis (City of the Sun, 1623), which he wrote in prison. It is a utopian vision of an egalitarian state maintained by careful regulation.

18th Century

Toward the end of the 17th century a movement arose in opposition to the affectations and unrestraint of the baroque style. The principal exponents of this tendency belonged to Arcadia, a society founded in Rome in 1690. In conformity with the simplicity traditionally associated with the term Arcadian, this group advocated a conscious naiveté of expression. The Arcadian writers borrowed from classical sources, chiefly from the Greek pastoral poets.

The outstanding Arcadian figure was the poet and dramatist Pietro Metastasio, who became the court poet in Vienna, capital of the Austrian emperors. He succeeded Apostolo Zeno, author of dramas and opera librettos, and a pioneer literary critic who was the cofounder (1710) of the first journal of criticism, Giornale dei Letterati d’Italia (Journal of Italian Literature). Metastasio’s plays, such as Artaxerxes and Semiramis, are remarkable for the melodic fluency of their lines. Several were used as librettos for operas.

The influence of Arcadia is discernible in the comedies of Carlo Goldoni, one of the great playwrights in Italian literature. His best comedies include La locandiera (1753; The Mistress of the Inn, 1856), Il ventaglio (1763; The Fan, 1911), and Le baruffe chiozzotte (1760; Squabbles at Chioggia, 1914). Goldoni’s genius was at its best in rendering situations simply and forcefully and in depicting the milieu from which his characters derive their distinctive qualities.

According to some critics, Goldoni developed his style of writing in reaction to the famed commedia dell’arte, or guild comedy, which flourished from the 16th to the 18th century. The guild comedy was based on routine comic situations, the plot outlines of which were composed by wandering companies of actors. The characters were fixed types called maschere (“masks”), such as Pantaloon, Harlequin, and Columbine; the actors improvised the dialogues for different performances. The most effective use of the guild-comedy style was made by the dramatist Carlo Gozzi, who was opposed to Goldoni’s type of dramatic writing. Gozzi dramatized a number of popular fairy tales, establishing a new form known as the fairy play. Two of his plays later served as the basis for the operas The Love for Three Oranges, by the 20th-century Soviet composer Sergey Prokofiev, and Turandot, by the 19th-century Italian composer Giacomo Puccini.

In its scientific and ethical aspects, Italian literature was influenced during the 18th century by the ideas of the 17th-century French scientist and philosopher René Descartes and by the writers of the 18th-century French Enlightenment. The principal organ of Italian intellectual life, which was centered in Milan, was the periodical Il Caffè (The Coffeehouse, 1764-66). The most influential thinker of the Enlightenment in Italy was the jurist Cesare Bonesana Beccaria, who advocated humane treatment of prisoners and abolition of capital punishment. An unfortunate result of the general French influence was the infusion of French words and expressions into Italian at a time when the language already was overladen with Grecisms and Latinisms revived by the Arcadians. An important counterinfluence was that of English literature and ideas, which were popularized in Italy by the work of Giuseppe Baretti, a resident of England for many years. His periodical Frusta Letteraria (Literary Scourge, 1763-65) communicated English cultural values through translations and informative articles.

The poets Giuseppe Parini and Vittorio Alfieri were among those writers who reacted most vigorously and effectively against excessive foreign influences, and strove to arouse a sense of national pride and unity against foreign domination. Parini is best known for his social satire in the mock-heroic poem Il giorno (The Day), published in several parts between 1763 and 1801. He attacked by ridicule and irony the uselessness, frivolity, and immorality of the aristocracy, and praised in contrast the sober frugality of the working classes. Although he strove to free his work from undue foreign influences, the spirit of social indignation characteristic of Il giorno is very much the same as that found in many French writings that led to the French Revolution. In contrast, however, Parini displayed greater moderation and respected the classical traditions and the church.

Alfieri, whose autobiography describes one of the stormiest and most romantic figures in literature, turned from a youthful life of aristocratic self-indulgence to a mature life of vigorous and prolific activity as a man of letters. Freedom was his obsession and tyranny his favorite target, both in his treatises and minor lyrics and in his famous tragedies. Except for Agamennone (1783), Saul (1783), and Mirra (1787), his best-known plays, such as Filippo (1781), have a strong political emphasis, which earned them great popularity in the struggle for national liberation that marked the following century.

Other important 18th-century writers are the literary critic and archaeologist Lodovico Antonio Muratori and the philosopher Giambattista Vico, whose influence was revived by the work of his 20th-century disciple Benedetto Croce. In his Principii d’una scienza nuova (Principles of a New Science, 1725), Vico attacked the Cartesian concept of body and mind as separate entities, propounded a cyclical view of history, and anticipated the romantics’ interest in the past.


Liberation and unification had been a hope of Italian writers since the 13th century. At that time nationalism had been manifested, among other ways, by the development of an Italian literary language. The hope of liberation was stimulated further by the French Revolution, which released a fervent nationalism throughout Europe. From the beginning of the 19th century until 1870, when the evacuation of French troops from Rome removed the last trace of foreign domination, the prevailing influence in Italian literature and in almost every phase of Italian life was nationalism, in its particular Italian form called the Risorgimento.

Nationalism, Romanticism, and Classicism

Early 19th-century Italian literature was marked not only by nationalism but also by a lingering classicism and by a new spirit of romanticism, which, emphasizing history and tradition, encouraged nationalism. The great influence on Italy by the French Revolution and Napoleon I is directly evident in the works of Vincenzo Monti, Ugo Foscolo, and Carlo Porta. Monti’s writings mirror the instability of his convictions. He began as a foe of the French Revolution, as shown in his poem La bassvilliana (1793), about the assassination of the French envoy Hugo Bassville, and he later favored the French cause, extolling Napoleon in a series of poems. Monti is best known for his translation of Homer's Iliad.

Ugo Foscolo was a more stable personality than Monti. He served as a soldier and teacher in Italy during the French occupation, and on the return of the Austrians, he went to England, where he died. Foscolo’s fame was established by an epistolary romance, Le ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis (1798; The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis,1818), patterned on The Sorrows of the Young Werther by the German poet and novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Foscolo’s novel is a fusion of romantic love and ardent patriotism. Later his patriotism yielded to a resigned contemplation of the past glories of his divided country, the fairest provinces of which remained under foreign rule. In this mood, he wrote his masterpiece, I sepolcri (1807; The Sepulchres,1860). In his later poems he turned from his passion for Italy to celebrate the ancient world.

The poet Carlo Porta, who wrote in a Milanese dialect, was concerned with describing the miserable life of the Italian common people during the Napoleonic period. He condemned the role of the clergy and nobility, but without excessive bitterness, in Poesie in dialetto milanese (Poetry in the Milanese Dialect, 1821).

Giacomo Leopardi stands out as one of the greatest lyric poets in Italian literature. In his secluded home he made himself a classical scholar, and then, schooled by his translations of Greek and Latin poetry, emerged as a poet of deep feeling. His first compositions were patriotic, such as “To Italy” and “On the Monument of Dante.” Later a pessimistic strain pervaded his work. His poems were published singly or in partial collections. The first complete edition, I canti (Songs), appeared in 1831 and was translated in 1962. His pessimism was expressed also in his prose writings, notably Operette morali (1827; trans. in Essays, Dialogues, and Thoughts, 1893 and 1905), Zibaldone (Miscellany, 7 volumes, 1898-1900), and his masterly letters. He did not look kindly on romanticism, yet his introspection, his desolation, and his nostalgia for the unattainable link him with the romantics. On the other hand, the aristocratic purity and elevation of his literary style, his use of classic forms, and his rationalism link him with the classicists.

Outstanding among the political writers of the Risorgimento was the patriot Giuseppe Mazzini, whose political activities cost him imprisonment and exile. He ranks with the statesman Camillo Benso di Cavour and the soldier Giuseppe Garibaldi among the fathers of Italian liberty. Mazzini’s impassioned yet polished political writings continue to be read with interest.

Nationalism gave rise to two other strains in 19th-century Italian literature. One was a new regional feeling that manifested itself in a realistic presentation of regional life, often in the dialect of the region. The other rose out of the conflict over the temporal power of the papacy. A major obstacle to the unification of Italy had been the Papal States, which the foreign powers, notably France, had supported in their own national interests. On this issue Italian nationalism came into conflict with religion, and the conflict was resolved variously by different writers. The more nationalist or revolutionary writers expressed antagonism to the church; other writers withdrew to what they considered the more serene values of the pre-Christian classical civilization; still others reaffirmed the Christian faith.

Foremost among the last-named group of writers is Alessandro Manzoni, the author of the famous 19th-century masterpiece of Italian romantic fiction I promessi sposi (1825-27; The Betrothed, 1834). It is basically the story of two humble lovers struggling against oppression and a hostile fate in 17th-century Italy, then under Spanish domination. Safeguarded by historical accuracy, Manzoni was able to ridicule and attack foreign oppression of any kind in any period, and to his fellow patriots the parallel with the contemporary domination by Austria was clear. The universal message of the work, however, which with its masterly style has gained it world renown, is the need for people to trust to divine providence rather than to human plans for the eventual triumph of good over evil. His Inni sacri (Sacred Hymns, 1810) revealed Manzoni’s preoccupation with religious thought, and his later work is imbued with a strong pietistic spirit. Manzoni acquired European fame with an ode written on the occasion of Napoleon's death and translated into German by Goethe. Manzoni’s two plays—Il conte di Carmagnola (1820; Count of Carmagnola, 1868), about a Renaissance condottiere, or commander of mercenaries, and Adelchi (1822; trans. 1868), about the heir of the last king of the Lombards—anticipate the religious and patriotic themes of The Betrothed.

Manzoni’s clear and effective prose has none of the classical embellishments found in the works of Foscolo and Monti. His search for a mystic order in history, his preoccupation with the Middle Ages, and his sense of the imperfection and incompleteness of mortal life link him with the romantics. Manzoni’s Lettera sul romanticismo (Letter on Romanticism, 1823) defends romanticism as opposed to the conventions of classicism.

Manzoni was also deeply concerned with the Italian language. In the course of the centuries the basically Tuscan Italian vocabulary had been enriched by contributions from other regional vernaculars. This development, in Manzoni’s opinion, had resulted in a swollen, confusing, repetitive vocabulary, and he advocated a return to the Florentine vernacular as spoken by the cultivated classes.

Toward the middle of the 19th century the influence of Manzoni and romanticism in general provoked a reaction accompanied by a classicism more aggressive than that of Monti. The reaction culminated in the work of the poet Giosuè Carducci, who extolled Italian hope and Roman glory. His work was an assertion of classic reason as opposed to romantic mysticism and Roman Catholic piety. Among his outstanding writings are Levia gravia (1861-1877; trans. in Political and Satiric Verse of Giosuè Carducci, 1942), Rime nuove (1861-87; New Rhymes, 1916), Odi barbare (1877-1889; Pagan Odes, 1950), and Rime e ritmi (1899; Lyrics and Rhythms, 1942). Carducci was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1906.

Verist Literature

A reaction against classicism and romanticism as unrealistic marked the second half of the 19th century. It was a revolt against a literature obsessed by the past and its own past achievements, and with its roots in books rather than in life. Shunning conscious lyricism and rhetoric, leaders of this reaction advocated everyday speech and a simple style. The poets exalted reality as the truth and named the movement verismo (Italian, “realism”).

The verist trend imparted a new significance to the regional dialect poetry that characterizes this period as well as the beginnings of the 20th century. Earlier poets had written in dialect, notably Giambattista Basile, who wrote Lo cunto de li cunti (1634; The Tale of Tales, 1932) in Neapolitan; and Porta, who wrote in Milanese. The 19th-century dialect poets included a master of even greater significance, Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli, who wrote more than 2,000 descriptive sonnets in Roman dialect depicting the Roman populace grumbling humorously at social conditions and at the mismanagements of the pontifical administration.

The verist movement affected drama and fiction as well as lyric poetry. The one great novelist of this movement is Giovanni Verga, a leader of the Sicilian realists. His major works include the novels I malavoglia (1881; The House by the Medlar Tree, 1890) and Mastro-don Gesualdo (1889; trans. 1923). Two of his collections of short stories have been translated as Little Novels of Sicily (1925) and Cavalleria Rusticana and Other Tales (1928). The latter inspired an opera of that name by Pietro Mascagni. Verga presented realistic pictures of the humble and often miserable lives of the Sicilian peasantry.

Opposed to and yet influenced by the verist trend was the poet Giovanni Pascoli. His lyrics have an idyllic note and in their evocations of rustic life come close in spirit to the Georgics of Virgil. His classicism contained no anti-Catholicism; on the contrary, he hailed Dante for his Christian spirituality. Pascoli’s style is marked by loose metrics and avoidance of rhetoric. His work prepared the way for Italian free verse. Another antagonist of realism was the poet and novelist Antonio Fogazzaro. Although a sincere Roman Catholic, he campaigned for acceptance of the theories of British scientist Charles Darwin, and in Il santo (1905; The Saint, 1906) he espoused a form of religious modernism that brought him condemnation by Roman Catholic authorities. His novels see a way out of the moral crisis resulting from social revolution and advances in science. Fogazzaro’s novels include Malombra (1881; The Woman, 1907), Daniele Cortis (1885; trans. 1887), and Piccolo mondo antico (1896; The Patriot, 1906). The latter, also translated as Little World of the Past (1962), is generally considered his best work.

Several other Italian writers are not associated directly with the literary trends of the period. Edmondo De Amicis is noted for his novels and travel books. His best-known work is Cuore (Heart, 1886), written in the form of a journal kept by an Italian schoolboy. Carlo Collodi wrote the famous children’s story Le avventure di Pinocchio (1883; The Adventures of Pinocchio, 1892).

Francesco De Sanctis was the foremost critic of the period and the founder of modern Italian literary criticism. Such works as Saggi critici (Critical Essays, 1881), La letteratura italiana nel secolo XIX (Italian Literature in the 19th Century, 1897), and especially Storia della letteratura italiana (1871; History of Italian Literature, 1931) apply sociological and psychological perceptions to literary evaluations with great judgment and skill.


Italian literature of the 20th century displays a rich variety of forms and concerns. Much of it reflects the experiences of the years of fascist rule under Benito Mussolini; after World War II (1939-1945) a concern for social realism dominated, to be succeeded by deeply introspective poetry and prose.

Transitional Writers

At the turn of the 20th century, as the attempt to expand Italy’s colonial empire became dominant in politics, a preoccupation with individual rather than social concerns began to be reflected in literature. Several writers may be grouped together as representative of the modes of thought of those who bridged the gap between the 19th and 20th centuries.

The 19th-century Italian writer whose influence carried over most strongly into the 20th century was Gabriele D’Annunzio. He broke through the limitations of romanticism, realism, and classicism in his aspiration to be the modern example of the Renaissance universal man. His writings include poetry, fiction, drama, and opera librettos. D’Annunzio claimed recognition also as a soldier and political leader and as a philosopher influenced at different times by the German philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche. Some of D’Annunzio’s best writings are the collection of poetry Laudi (Hymns of Praise, 3 volumes, 1903-1912), the novel Il trionfo della morte (1894; The Triumph of Death, 1896), and the play La figlia di lorio (1904; The Daughter of Jorio, 1907), as well as political works and patriotic addresses.

Another important transitional figure was Italo Svevo. Svevo’s work was neglected completely until it was discovered by the French journalist and novelist Valéry Larbaud and the Irish writer James Joyce and was brought to the attention of Italian critics. Svevo’s strength lies in his realistic portrayal of psychological motivations. His fame rests on the novels Una vita (1893; A Life, 1963), Senilità (1898; As a Man Grows Older, 1932), and La coscienza di Zeno (1923; The Confessions of Zeno, 1930).

Guglielmo Ferrero was outstanding as a sociological historian and an opponent of fascism. His principal work is Grandezza e decadenza di Roma (1902-1907; The Greatness and Decline of Rome, 1907-1909). The philosopher Giovanni Gentile, on the other hand, was a proponent of fascism, noted for his Origini e dotrina del fascismo (Origins and Doctrine of Fascism, 1929) and La filosofia dell’ arte (1931; The Philosophy of Art, 1972). Matilda Serao was a notable psychological novelist. Among her works are Il paese di Cuccagna (1891; The Land of Cockayne, 1901) and La ballerina (2 volumes, 1899; The Ballet Dancer, 1901). The dramatist Sem Benelli became famous as the author of La cena delle beffe (1909; The Jester’s Supper, 1924-1925; produced in New York City as The Jest, 1919) and L’amore dei tre re (1910; The Love of Three Kings, 1923). Grazia Deledda was known for naturalistic novels about the Sardinian peasantry, such as Elias Portolu (1903) and La madre (1920; The Mother, 1923). She received the Nobel Prize in 1926.

Literature Before World War II

Partly through the influence of foreign literary trends, various movements developed at the beginning of the 20th century in opposition to rhetoric and lyricism in poetry. The most effective and extremist of these movements, which advocated a simplification of syntax and metrics, was futurism. The founder of futurism, the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, used language stripped to essentials. Insisting that 20th-century literature should express the characteristic dynamism of industry, he advocated a type of writing that would emulate the speed and tension of machines. He also became a leading proponent of Italian intervention in World War I (1914-1918) and was later an advocate of fascism.

The most important thinker in early 20th-century Italy was the philosopher, statesman, literary critic, and historian Benedetto Croce, whose influence became worldwide. His bimonthly periodical La Critica (1903-1944) and his literary and philosophical works developed the ideas of the 18th-century philosopher Giambattista Vico and stressed the importance of intuition in art and of freedom in the development of civilization. His position of idealism was in strong opposition to the positivistic thinking then current in Italy. Croce believed that the intellectual should participate in public life and was himself openly opposed to fascism. His major philosophical work, Filosofia come scienza dello spirito (1902-1917; Philosophy of the Spirit, 1909-1921), consists of four volumes, one each devoted to aesthetics, logic, practical thinking, and history. His autobiography, published in 1918, is the record of a rich and varied life.

Besides La Critica, two other periodicals acted as the forum of different groups of Italian writers. Voce (1908-16), directed by the writer Giuseppe Prezzolini, helped to modernize Italian culture and introduce into Italy significant French, British, and American ideas. Outstanding among Prezzolini’s collaborators were the painter and writer Ardengo Soffici and the philosopher and writer Giovanni Papini. The other important periodical, Ronda (1919-1923), was reactionary in tendency and classical in inspiration. From its circle came the writers Antonio Baldini and Riccardo Bacchelli.

A unique figure throughout the first three decades of the century was the novelist, short-story writer, and playwright Luigi Pirandello, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1934. He introduced into his plays original dramatic devices that tended to bring actors and the audience into closer relation. Many of his plays are dramatizations of earlier stories, and most of them treat philosophical problems, such as relativism and multiple personality, with subtle psychological insight illuminated by graceful wit. The most famous of Pirandello’s plays include the following: Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore (1921; Six Characters in Search of an Author, 1922), Enrico IV (1922; Henry IV, 1922), and Come tu mi vuoi (1930; As You Desire Me, 1931). His novels include Il fu Mattia Pascal (1904; The Late Mattia Pascal, 1923) and I vecchi e i giovani (1913; The Old and the Young, 1928).

The emergence of fascism in Italy under Benito Mussolini endangered the vitality of Italian literature. Fascism failed to create a type of literature congenial to the government in power. The outstanding authors of the time reacted variously to the stifling intellectual conditions and to the contempt for human freedom contained in the Fascist political philosophy. Many were outspoken in their opposition, among them the writer and scholar Giuseppe Antonio Borgese. He realistically appraised the political situation in Goliath, The March of Fascism (1937), which was written in English, but which was not translated into Italian until ten years later. The novelist Ignazio Silone, who went into exile, became more famous abroad than in Italy for his searching political novels, notably Fontamara (1933; trans. 1934) and Pane e vino (1937; first published in English as Bread and Wine, 1936). Croce was forced into retirement under fascism; the journalist and diplomat Curzio Suckert, who wrote under the pseudonym Malaparte, served the government in an official capacity but ended by repudiating Mussolini. His most powerful work, Kaputt (1944; trans. 1946), depicts the moral and cultural degeneration of Europe under fascism.

Literature After World War II: 1945 to 1980

After World War II a number of Italian writers came into international prominence.


Giuseppe Ungaretti, who ranks with Eugenio Montale among the foremost European poets of the 20th century, published his first book of verse, Il porto sepolto (The Buried Harbor), in 1916, marking the beginning of a period of great revival in Italian poetry. His works, the most important of which are Allegria di naufragi (Gaiety of the Outcasts, 1919), Sentimento del tempo (Feeling of Time, 1933), Il dolore (The Pain, 1947), and La terra promessa (The Promised Land, 1954), have been collected under the title Vita di un uomo (Life of a Man, 1958). His poetry is characterized by a sparing use of words and by his power to create illuminating images of unusual lyric intensity.

Montale’s major poems are found in three books: Ossi di seppia (1925; The Bones of Cuttlefish, 1983), Le occasioni (1939; The Occasions, 1987), and La bufera e altro (1956; The Storm and Other Poems, 1978); these were published in a collected edition, Poesie (1958; Poems, 1964). His lyric verse, often highly compressed and hermetic, contains a harsh and intellectual criticism of life and is at times deeply pessimistic in tone. In 1975 Montale was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.

Poems by Salvatore Quasimodo reveal a passionate lyrical awareness of tragedy in modern life. Collections of these poems include Ed è subito sera (And Suddenly It Is Evening, 1942), Giorno dopo giorno (Day After Day, 1947), La vita non è sogno (Life Is Not a Dream, 1949), and Il falso e vero verde (The False and True Green, 1953). Quasimodo was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1959. The Selected Writings of Salvatore Quasimodo (1960) and To Give and to Have and Other Poems (1969) are English editions. His Complete Poems were published in English translation in 1983.


A few years after the war a new type of realism appeared in the Italian cinema, which enjoyed a period of unique creativity, and simultaneously critics began to speak of an Italian literary neorealism. Among the outstanding figures were Carlo Levi, who exposed the plight of farmers of southern Italy in his best-seller Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (1946; Christ Stopped at Eboli, 1947); Elio Vittorini, the author of Conversazione in Sicilia (1941; In Sicily, 1949); and Vasco Pratolini, who wrote Cronache di poveri amanti (1947; A Tale of Poor Lovers, 1949). Other major figures are Mario Soldati, noted for his Lettere da Capri (1954; Affair in Capri: The Capri Letters, 1957); Cesare Pavese, whose works include Tra donne sole (1949; Among Women Only, 1959), Il diavolo sulle colline (1949; The Devil in the Hills, 1959), and La luna e i falò (1950; The Moon and the Bonfires, 1950); and Vitaliano Brancati, a keen critic of contemporary Sicilian society as shown in Il bell’ Antonio (1949; Antonio the Great Lover, 1952). A novel that earned acclaim internationally, Il gattopardo (1958; The Leopard, 1960), by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, is set against the background of Sicilian life; it was made into an acclaimed film.

Besides Pirandello, the best-known Italian writer of the postwar period, especially in the United States, was Alberto Moravia, a prolific author notable for his novels and short stories of contemporary human situations. He wrote in a spare, realistic prose style about the moral dilemmas of men and women trapped in social and emotional circumstances. His most popular work is La ciociara (1957; Two Women, 1959), a novel about a mother and her daughter in war-torn Italy. The story was made into a successful motion picture. Another acclaimed motion picture was based on a haunting novel by Giorgio Bassani, Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini (1962; The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, 1965). The story of the plight of an Italian Jewish family under fascism, it is set in the author’s native Ferrara.

Other notable postwar novelists are Dino Buzzati, Elsa Morante, Natalia Ginzburg, Primo Levi, and Italo Calvino. Buzzati’s allegorical writings, which owe a debt to Austrian writer Franz Kafka, include the novel Il deserto dei Tartari (1940; The Tartar Steppe, 1952), his most highly regarded work, and the play Un caso clinico (A Clinical Case, 1953). The Tartar Steppe is a surreal tale of life at a frontier military post, where a soldier waits for something to happen. The fiction of Elsa Morante has an epic, mythic quality—as in Menzogna e sortilegio (1948; House of Liars, 1951), the saga of a southern Italian family, and La storia (1974; History, 1977). The latter, which enjoyed great popularity and critical success during the 1970s, is about a half-Jewish schoolteacher living in Rome during World War II.

Natalia Ginzburg, a poet and novelist, won renown for her sensitive, spare treatment of modern Italian children and women, isolated within the family setting, in such works as Le voci della sera (1961; Voices in the Evening, 1963) and Lessico famigliare (1963; Family Sayings, 1967). Ginzburg also wrote of everyday life amid the devastating events of the war in Tutti i nostri ieri (1952; originally translated as Dead Yesterdays, 1956, and later as All Our Yesterdays, 1985). The latter comprises memoirs of her early life in Turin. Primo Levi, trained as a chemist, devoted himself to writing in 1977. His works include memoirs of his imprisonment in the concentration camp at Auschwitz during World War II, such as Se questo è un uomo (1947, originally translated as If This Is a Man, 1959, and later as Survival at Auschwitz, 1961). A collection of his short stories was published in English translation as Moments of Reprieve (1985). Levi’s Il sistema periodico (1984; The Periodic Table, 1984) consists of autobiographical essays using chemistry as a metaphor for life.

Italo Calvino, another postwar novelist widely read in England, began as a realist but later turned to fantasy and fable to present his version of modern life. Calvino is noted for creating imaginary worlds of great beauty in novels such as Il barone rampante (1957; The Baron in the Trees, 1959) and Le città invisibili (1972; Invisible Cities, 1974). Other Calvino fiction, such as Le cosmicomiche (1965; Cosmicomics, 1968) and Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (1979; If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, 1981), examines the processes of writing and reading. The theme of his last novel, Palomar (1983; Mr. Palomar, 1985), suggests that any attempt to comprehend the human situation is completely fruitless. Leonardo Sciascia wrote about the problems of his native Sicily in novels, short stories, plays, and essays. He wrote a modern version of Candide, by French satirist Voltaire, titled Candido, ovvero un sogno fatto in Sicilia (1977; Candido, or a Dream Dreamed in Sicily, 1979). This pessimistic novel involves a Sicilian orphan who is an outcast from the world. Sciascia’s short stories, published in translation as The Wine-Dark Sea (1985), provide a glimpse of Sicily’s history.

From the 1980s to the Present

Antonio Porta stands out among Italian poets of the late 20th century. Porta, who also wrote fiction, plays, and criticism, sought meaning and identity through the exploration of language, the imagination, and dreams. His poetic works include L’aria della fine (1982; Kisses from Another Dream, 1987) and Invasioni (1984; Invasions and Other Poems, 1986). Milo De Angelis has drawn on classical literature and psychoanalysis in his poetry. A selection of his poems has been published in English as Finite Intuition (1994).

Italy’s best-known playwright of the late 20th century was Dario Fo, who received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1997. Fo builds his antic plays on contemporary politics and popular culture, and he involves spectators in the productions. Among his better-known plays are Mistero buffo (1969; Comic Mysteries, 1988) and Morte accidentale di un anarchico (1970; Accidental Death of an Anarchist, 1980).

Fiction, however, was the most important literary genre in Italy in the late 20th century. The most prominent novelist of the late 20th-century was Umberto Eco, a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna. Eco gained an international reputation with Il nome della rosa (1980; The Name of the Rose, 1983), a murder mystery set in a medieval monastery. Like Calvino, he unites fantasy with metaphysical speculation. In The Name of the Rose and Il pendolo di Foucault (1988; Foucault’s Pendulum, 1989), Eco used his understanding of semiotics (the study of signs and symbols and their meanings) to deepen the treatment of history and culture in his fiction.

Antonio Tabucchi, a professor of Portuguese literature at the University of Siena, achieved fame through detective thrillers that involve politics and social issues. Sostiene Pereira (1994; Pereira Declares, 1995) takes place in Portugal in 1938 during the dictatorship of António Salazar. A later mystery by Tabucchi, La testa perduta di Damasceno Monteiro (1997; The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro, 1999), takes the reader on a tour of contemporary Portugal. Francesca Duranti won several literary prizes with her dreamlike novel La casa sul lago della luna (1984; The House on Moon Lake, 1986) about a translator who discovers a forgotten masterpiece and confuses his own life with that of the author. Paola Capriolo deals with the dangers of art in such novels as Vissi d’amore (1992; Floria Tosca, 1997), a love story alluding to the opera Tosca by Giacomo Puccini, and La spettatrice (1995; The Woman Watching, 1998), about an actor who becomes obsessed with a woman in the audience.

Reference URL's