Italian Literature: The Renaissance

machiavelli
Niccolò Machiavelli

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.