Italian National Character as Seen through the Figure of the Poet-Scribe

By Peterson, Thomas | Annali d'Italianistica, Annual 2006 | Go to article overview

Italian National Character as Seen through the Figure of the Poet-Scribe


Peterson, Thomas, Annali d'Italianistica


If only nations would realize that they have certain natural characteristics, if only they could understand and agree to each other's particular nature, how much simpler it would be.

(D. H. Lawrence, Twilight in Italy 9)

Introduction

The concept and ideal of Italy as it existed for centuries and matured during the 19th century was sustained by the Repubblica delle lettere, the surrogate nation of letters. The vision of Italy that emerged from literature possessed extraordinary longevity and continuity. Though, at times, literature would caricature the country and its customs, lapsing into hyperbole or farce, the parodical or the vitriolic, it also conveyed the vision and aspiration toward a unified state. The preferred language of that literature was the koine that evolved out of Tuscan, the dialect having the greatest affinity with Medieval Latin. This written, but little spoken language was wed to the patria, the fatherland of civil society, politics and trade, which itself existed only as numerous "small fatherlands"--each representing a political entity unto itself--as the Italians could only dream of the single "grand fatherland." (1)

Current debates over literary-geographic definitions in Italy can be traced back to the Romantic movement. In the process of discussions regarding the moderns and the ancients, the importance of translation, the aesthetics of the sublime, the pathetic and the sentimental, Italian intellectuals were also formulating a new social thought in the fields of economics, jurisprudence, and linguistics. The movement, however, which centered around the Milanese journal Il Conciliatore (shut down by the Austrian occupiers after barely a year in October, 1819), was elitist and focused on "conciliation." (2) Pietro Borsieri, for example, sees the Italians as too factious to be trusted with their own independence. Other voices, such as Mazzini, Garibaldi, and D'Azeglio, raised the cry for increased literacy. Italian Romanticism, in fact, shares little with the conventional view of that movement as rebellious, irrational, a-historical or melodramatic. (3) Each of its major figures--Foscolo, Manzoni, Leopardi--persisted in a rational, historically based appraisal of the country's needs, and did so through the dual "scribal" practice of literature and criticism. It is in this context that one must commence a study of the Italian national identity as a function of its literary self-images, in particular the impressions of poets who describe the civil society. Most of the responses to Madame De Stael's 1816 "Sulla maniera e l'utilita delle traduzioni" (published in the Biblioteca italiana) were polemical in nature; only Leopardi's Discorso di un italiano intorno alla poesia romantica, written in 1818 but not published until 1909, defended the national identity intrinsically as something recoverable in the primitive sentiments and chastity of form of the Italian classical culture. For Leopardi the one suitable object for imitation was nature; only there could one recover the purity of sentiment and pathos of the ancients. Thus, in order to move forward as a nation one needed to emulate the paragons of the past whose heroism had been tragically supplanted in the contemporary world by a "universal egoism." (4) While the debates in the Conciliatore were stimulating, it required an outsider like the young Leopardi to connect the emerging social consciousness with the primacy of poetry in the Italian literary edifice. In 1824 he would write his daring analysis of Italian culture and customs, the Discorso sopra lo stato presente dei costumi degl'Italiani, a work that combines psychological subtlety and anthropological precision in damning the current Italian status quo. Leopardi draws the distinction in this work between proper "customs," which the country lacks, not possessing a civil society as was found in the North of Europe, and the "habits" and usages which plague it. …

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