Italian Literature: Classicism and Romanticism

Alessandro Manzoni
Alessandro Manzoni

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.

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.