Italian Literature: Verism and the 20th Century

pinocchio
Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi

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.

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). Matilde 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.