Italian Literature

Italian literature, writings in the Italian language, as distinct from earlier works in Latin and French.

The Thirteenth Century

The first Italian vernacular literature began to take shape in the 13th cent. with the imitation of Provençal lyric poetry at the court of Frederick II in Sicily. The Sicilians are credited with inventing the sonnet, which became the most widely used form of Italian poetry and later flourished throughout Europe. The Sicilian style was dominant in the north until c.1260, when Guido Guinizelli, a Bolognese poet and jurist, moved from the Provençal conception of courtly love to a more mystical and philosophical spirituality.

The poets who took Guinizelli as their model originated the "sweet new style" (dolce stil novo)—so named by Dante Alighieri in canto 24 of his Purgatorio. The group included Guido Cavalcanti, Cino da Pistoia, Lapo Gianni, Dino Frescobaldi, and Dante himself, whose youthful La vita nuova, part prose and part poetry, recounts the poet's love for Beatrice in terms of the transcendental view of love typical of the stil novo. Dante's other works, of which the Divine Comedy is a masterpiece of world literature, go beyond the themes and manner of stil novo and embrace the whole of contemporary knowledge and experience. Dante invented the difficult terza rima (iambic tercets) for his epic journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.

The 13th cent. also produced folk poetry, doctrinal poetry, imitations of the chansons de geste in various dialects, and a magnificent flowering of religious poetry in the laudi of Jacopone da Todi and in the Hymn to Created Things of St. Francis of Assisi. Laudi in dialogue form represent the beginning of dramatic literature, the sacre rappresentazioni. Prose works included translations from the Latin and French as well as collections of tales, anecdotes, and witty sayings.

The Fourteenth Century

The two great writers of the 14th cent., Petrarch and Boccaccio, sought out and imitated the works of antiquity and cultivated their own artistic personalities. Petrarch achieved fame through his collection of poems, the Canzoniere, in which he gave Provençal and stil novo themes a peculiarly intimate and personal expression. Petrarch's poetry served as the model for European lyricism until the Romantic period and later. Equally influential was Boccaccio's Decameron, a collection of 100 novellas within a framework, which founded the short-story genre. Giovanni Sercambi and Franco Sacchetti in the 14th cent. and Matteo Bandello and Agnolo Firenzuola in the 16th cent. were among the numerous writers who continued the tradition of vivid, realistic, and often licentious storytelling in prose.

The Renaissance

The Tuscan vernacular that had been established by Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio was inhibited by a strong return to Latin in the 15th cent. among humanist writers and philosophers. Coluccio Salutati, Lorenzo Valla, Marsilio Ficino, and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola were among the writers and scholars who sought to return to the fonts of classical antiquity for inspiration and guidance in matters of language, literary style, moral instruction, and simply a new vision of the relation of humanity to its surroundings and to God. When the vernacular began to be used again in the late 15th cent., poetic language and tastes had been refined by the values of humanist learning.

In the circle of Lorenzo de'Medici, Tuscan vernacular was used in popular, Petrarchan, and pastoral poetry and in a return to medieval subject matter. Luigi Pulci's grotesque Morgante (c.1480) recounts the adventures of Orlando (Charlemagne's Roland) and other paladins with great comic verve. Boiardo's Orlando innamorato (3 parts, 1483–1494) adds Breton subject matter to the Carolingian and introduces motifs from classical mythology and contemporary society. The great masterpiece of Italian Renaissance poetry is Ariosto's Orlando furioso (1516, rev. 1521 and 1532), in which varied and improbable adventures are worked into an aesthetic whole. The great lyric poet Tasso in Gerusalemme liberata (1581) wrote a Christian epic, making use of the same form (ottava rima), with attention to the Aristotelian canons of unity.

Other Renaissance genres brought to a high level of perfection by outstanding writers were the pastoral poem (Poliziano, Tasso, and Guarini); the pastoral romance (Sannazaro); the Petrarchan lyric (Bembo, Michelangelo, Gaspara Stampa); imitations of classical tragedy (Trissino) and classical comedy (Ariosto, Machiavelli, Aretino); dialogues in the Platonic manner (Castiglione's The Courtier); treatises on a variety of topics (Leonardo's Della pittura;Alberti's Della famiglia; Bembo's Prose della volgar lingua, which established the principle of linguistic purism for Italian literature; and Machiavelli's The Prince); biographical and autobiographical writings (Vasari, Machiavelli, and Cellini); and history (Guicciardini and Machiavelli).

The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

In the early 17th cent. philosophic and scientific prose (Campanella, Galileo) continued and surpassed the achievements of Giordano Bruno. But the new literary style, secentismo, or marinismo (from Giambattista Marino), aimed at dazzling the reader by the opulent use of rhetorical devices. At the end of the century the Arcadians began a movement to restore simplicity and classical restraint to poetry, as in Metastasio's heroic melodramas. The mock-heroic epic (Tassoni), the opera, and commedia dell'arte were other genres cultivated in the 17th cent.

The renewal of Italian culture in the 18th cent. produced major works of journalism (Gaspare Gozzi, Giuseppe Baretti, and the Milanese Caffè), philosophical and historical erudition (Vico, Muratori, and Tiraboschi), and translations from classical antiquity and from contemporary European writers. The outstanding Italian representatives of the Enlightenment were Carlo Goldoni, whose comedies of character drew upon contemporary life, Vittorio Alfieri, whose classical tragedies exalted freedom, and Giuseppe Parini, whose satirical poetry attacked the social abuses of the privileged.

The Napoleonic Era and the Risorgimento

The Napoleonic period was both classical and romantic. The poetry of Vincenzo Monti typifies the first direction, and the work of Ugo Foscolo belongs to the second. A distinguishing feature of Italian romanticism was its political involvement in the struggle for Italian independence, the Risorgimento. Poems, historical novels, and political works, such as Giuseppe Mazzini's, attest to this.

Alessandro Manzoni's literary conversion included the rejection of classical mythology in favor of Christian subject matter, and of classical tragedy for romantic drama. His historical novel, I promessi sposi (1827), which introduced the genre to Italy, combined social and psychological realism with Roman Catholic doctrine and established a new Italian linguistic norm and prose style. Giacomo Leopardi rejected the program of romanticism but wrote lyric poetry in which the romantic themes of despair predominate.

The Late Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

In the second half of the 19th cent. Francesco De Sanctis, literary critic and historian, laid the theoretical and aesthetic foundations of modern Italian criticism, later elaborated by the philosopher Benedetto Croce. Giosuè Carducci brought to poetry a virility and classicism long absent. But Pascoli and D'Annunzio had a more lasting influence. Gabriele D'Annunzio, poet, novelist, and dramatist, employed sensuous, musical, and precious language. Giovanni Pascoli is Italy's great symbolist poet of the subconscious. The naturalistic, the irrational, and the decadent are also revealed in the work of the playwright and novelist Luigi Pirandello. Pirandello's prose roots are in Sicilian verismo, the impersonal, objective regionalism of Fiovanni Verga's works.

Major 20th-century novelists of note include Italo Svevo, Alberto Moravia, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Elio Vittorini, Cesare Pavese, Italo Calvino, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Carlo Gadda, Leonardo Sciascia, and Natalia Ginzburg. Their work is variously marked by psychological analysis, social consciousness, and formal and linguistic experimentation. The outstanding poets are Giuseppe Ungaretti, Eugenio Montale, Umberto Saba, and Salvatore Quasimodo.


See J. H. Whitfield, A Short History of Italian Literature (1964); F. de Sanctis, History of Italian Literature (tr., 2 vol., 1968); E. Donadoni, A History of Italian Literature (tr. 1969); C. Foligno, Epochs of Italian Literature (1920, repr. 1970); P. M. Riccio, Italian Authors of Today (1970); J. A. Molinaro, ed., Petrarch to Pirandello (1973); E. H. Wilkins, A History of Italian Literature (rev. ed. by T. G. Bergin, 1974); S. Pacifici, The Modern Italian Novel (1979).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Italian Literature: Selected full-text books and articles

A Short History of Italian Literature By Robert A. Hall Jr Linguistica, 1951
A Guide to Contemporary Italian Literature, from Futurism to Neorealism By Sergio Pacifici Southern Illinois University Press, 1972
The Modern Italian Novel: From Manzoni to Svevo By Sergio Pacifici Southern Illinois University Press, 1967
Dante and the Origins of Italian Literary Culture By Teodolinda Barolini Fordham University Press, 2006
An Anthology of New Italian Writers By Marguerite Caetani New Directions, 1950
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
FREE! An Anthology of Italian Authors from Cavalcanti to Fogazzaro: (1270-1907) with Biographical Sketches By The National Alumni National Alumni, 1907
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
FREE! Twelve Stories Selected and Done into English with a Memoir of the Author By Matteo Bandello; Percy Pinkerton J.C. Nimmo,, 1895
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
20th-Century Italian Women Writers: The Feminine Experience By Alba Amoia Southern Illinois University Press, 1996
FREE! The Italian Poets since Dante By William Everett Charles Scribner's Sons, 1904
Italian Pulp Fiction: The New Narrative of the Giovani Cannibali Writers By Stefania Lucamante Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001
Italian Grotesque Theater By Michael Vena Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
Italian Futurist Theatre, 1909-1944 By Günter Handler Berghaus Clarendon Press, 1998
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