A Fresh Assessment of Italian Baroque Literature: Poets and Dramatists

Article excerpt

The volume examined here represents a welcome contribution to the study of seventeenth-century Italian literature together with an overview of Baroque culture. (1) It is welcome because the century in question is the least understood Italian artistic expression, especially in the American academy. Scrupulously edited by Albert N. Mancini and Glenn Palen Pierce, the volume, Seventeenth-Century Italian Poets and Dramatists, (2) offers a comprehensive Introduction by Mancini, forty articles by twenty-four knowledgeable scholars, and three valuable Appendices devoted to "The Arcadian Academy" (279-285); "Poetry and Music" (286-293); "Theater and Spectacle" (294-302) contributed respectively by Paul Colilli, Maria Galli Stampino, and Glenn Palen Pierce. The relatively short articles that make up most of the volume are arranged in alphabetical order and follow the format of the Dictionary of Literary Biography series, namely a deluxe hard cover and high-quality paper, large pages with two columns, and numerous illustrations of the frontispieces of chosen works, often the image of the authors and autographs of letters. Each contribution begins with a list of the author's publications, followed by a summary and a brief discussion of his or her works. The second pronoun is appropriate here because the volume includes seven women writers. Every entry ends with a listing of critical sources and, when appropriate, biographies, letters and papers pertaining to the writer in question.

Mancini's Introduction offers the reader a dense and essential overview of the Italian seventeenth century, lending clarity and substance to the major cultural institutions of the Baroque age, setting the date of its prominence from about 1580 to 1660, the earlier date marking the end of the Renaissance. Mancini singles out the fact that "[w]hile the preeminence of seventeenth-century art and music is a matter of common acceptance, the literary term secentismo [...] retains pejorative connotations that reflect a negative attitude of 18th and 19th century critics and historians" (xv); truly a shame, he adds, because such attitude "risks ignoring one of the most intriguing periods in modern Italy's literary and cultural history" (ibid.). Thanks to the interest of Benedetto Croce and later that of Giovanni Getto, Carlo Calcaterra and Giovanni Pozzi, among others, the fortunes of Baroque letters improved considerably in the postwar era. In more recent times, the change of attitude on the part of literary critics and historians has not been accidental. Mancini points out that today "the seicento has come to be regarded as an essential chapter in the long annals of Italian literature, worthy of being studied rather than abused" (xv-xvi). The reason is said to stem from a distinct similarity between the Seicento and our times. Mancini writes: "The seicento has a particular resonance in the postmodern critical climate: students of seventeenth-century Italian culture contend that the two periods share an epistemological instability, a distrust of universal and absolute truths and a search for alternative accounts of scientific knowledge" (xvi).

To prepare the reader for a fuller appreciation of the writers included in the Dictionary, Mancini examines the major literary forms and cultural institutions, including the opera and the commedia dell'arte. He also points to the mixed genres fashioned in the Seicento as a reaction to an "exhausted humanism"--such forms as "the mockheroic and burlesque poems that offered the authors greater freedom for innovation" (xviii). A specular example in this regard is Alessandro Tassoni's La secchia rapita (1624). The work deals with a thirteenth century war between two political parties, the Guelphs of Bologna and the Ghibellines of Modena caused, if one can believe it, by the theft of a bucket. Translated into English as The Trophy-Bucket: A Mock-Heroic Poem, the First of the Kind, it was well received abroad. In fact, Mancini tells us that it "exercised a considerable influence on the development of the mock-heroic epic throughout Europe in the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries" (xviii). …