Italian Literature: The Foreign Influence

A play by Carlo Goldoni

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.

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.

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.