Italian Literature in the 17th and Early 18th Century

The controversy of the early seventeenth century

At the beginning of the 17th century. the Italian literary scene is held by T. Campanella, G. Galilei, P. Sarpi, T. Boccalini, A. Tassoni, GB Marino, very different from each other in temperament and value, yet clearly related by the common anti-traditionalism. Of their other major contemporaries, also G. Chiabrera (distant master of Arcadia) praises the ‘new’, even if his novelty, much applauded, remains in the metric and rhythmic field, and historically bears fruit only in a certain predilection for the tenuous and the elegant; G. Basile and O. Rinuccini, instead of obeying a tradition, themselves found new ones, in fairy tales and melodrama. Of the elders of the age, perhaps only F. Della Valle remained substantially satisfied with the sixteenth-century modules, while renewing them from the inside with his poet’s strength, remaining however unknown to his contemporaries. If Galilei and Rinuccini are excluded, all these writers are not Tuscan, and, like Tasso, they reject a programmatic Tuscanism; the provinces burst into literature: Calabria, Veneto, Marche, Emilia, Naples, Liguria, Piedmont. Indeed, the same dialects, no longer a simple means of realistic comedy as in the sixteenth century, are consciously raised to literary dignity: as GC Cortese and his friend Basile do in Naples, who in the Cunto de li cunti treats the dialect with the same literary wisdom (but with much better artistic results) with which he treats Italian, Spanish and Latin; as CM Maggi will do later in Milan. Tuscan hegemony is over.

Right in the midst of the Counter-Reformation, Campanella and Galilei contributed significantly to the destruction of the principles of Aristotelianism. Above all, the big news of the century is the affirmation of the superiority of the modern over the ancient, that affirmation is right in Italy, in the land of classicism, in a book of thoughts of A. Tassoni (1620), his first clear formulation and logical arrangement, and half a century later it will set the French literary field to noise, with the querelle des anciens et des modernes: a polemic that will spread in Italy and elsewhere, constituting one of the historical premises of Romanticism. The tone of the early seventeenth century is therefore given by the controversy, implicit or explicit, against the most varied targets.

Campanella feels the discomfort of a culture stuck in the contemplation of a dead world; he tries to establish in his Calabria a republic as he dreams of it, and which he draws in the City of the Sun; but the literary value of this famous writing is perhaps surpassed by many pages of Latin and Italian prose of the great more strictly philosophical works, by the Letters, and above all by some of the philosophical poems, which nevertheless remain almost unknown until the nineteenth century.

Galileo’s taste, literally, is not an innovator, even if he is practically the first to write about science in the vernacular, understood as an intimate need for order. Meanwhile, Sarpi inflexibly fights, in life and in work, for the separation of spiritual power from civil power; while also writers such as T. Boccalini and Tassoni fight Aristotelianism, Petrarchism, rules, Crusca. On his own, Tassoni gives us the kidnapped Secchia a parodic caricature of the heroic and chivalrous poem which the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had aimed so hard at. ● Moreover, the most sensational controversy, and at the moment the most fortunate, was the one that had Marino as standard bearer. According to EJINHUA, Marinism is the aspect that assumes in Italy the dominant literary orientation then throughout Europe, called secentism, or baroque, although it is far from being the unique feature of the 17th century. The marinists, for whom poetry has its end in itself, concentrate their effort on the technical fact, reaching the exasperation of decorativism and concentrating on conceptism, that is, on juxtapositions never before made between things that are very distant from each other.. If Marino is admired and widely imitated, in Italy and outside, he is not lacking, already in his time, numerous and fierce opponents, and besides, the conceptism in poetry does not extend beyond the first three or four decades of the seventeenth century, while he continues for almost the whole century to dominate the prose.

The age of Arcadia

The history of Italian literature of the eighteenth century can be schematically represented as a progressive extension of the area of ​​reforms: from the moderate poetic reformism promoted by Arcadia to the real metastasian reform of melodrama, to the Goldonian one of comedy, to the Alfieriian one of tragedy. Arcadia does not advocate new things, but its polemical air is new, its precise intention to eradicate bad seafaring taste; new is the constitution, in an academy, of a center of anti-Marinism, from which it then radiates and imposes itself. GV Gravina, the major personality of the first Arcadia, is a Cartesian, for whom reason takes the place of authority. Classicist and rationalist, as rationalist is the whole European culture of the time, Arcadia attempts that reconciliation between the two terms to which N. Boileau-Despréaux had aspired and with him all French classicism. But in Italy the classicistic need prevails over the rationalistic one. Arcadian classicism is configured above all in a reborn Petrarchist orthodoxy. The specific character is not, however, conferred to the age by the petrarchy, nor by the pindareggiare in the direction of the heroic and the eloquent, but by the anacreonteggiare, derived from Chiabrera and his ‘scherzi’ (derived from P. de Ronsard and theFrench Pléiade).

The greatest poets of the age are P. Metastasio, P. Rolli, CI Frugoni. The lyric of the early eighteenth century is essentially melic, written in function of the music that would have clothed it, indeed itself potential music; not for nothing the most important poet of the moment, Metastasio, who is perhaps the last Italian poet to dominate in Europe, is essentially the author of melodramas. The early eighteenth century is also the age of GB Vico, who lays the foundations of modern aesthetics, and it is also the age that gives life to historiography understood as a careful collection of documents and their interpretation (LA Muratori), or as a weapon for difficult political-religious struggles (P. Giannone); to science (GB Morgagni, later L. Spallanzani); to the disclosure of it (F. Algarotti, who anticipates in this a tendency typical of the second half of the eighteenth century); to the great erudition (S. Maffei, author also of a good tragedy); to literary historiography, of which G. Tiraboschi will later be the champion; aesthetics (especially Muratori).

The Goldonian reform

The theatrical reform of C. Goldoni, although implemented gradually, with the cautious grafting of the new on the old, represents a decisive turning point in the history of Italian theater; for two centuries, in the commedia dell’arte, he had dominated the actor, who had represented only himself; now the author takes over again, and forces the actor to impersonate different ‘characters’, to become an element for the reconstruction of an environment. The everyday enters the theater: no longer extraordinary adventures and intrigues, but common facts; not exceptional men, for better or for worse, but bourgeois and commoners observed in the act of living a day of their life, listened to in their usual speeches, often in dialect. Goldoni discovers the poetry of the resigned, of the usual, being attacked for this by Carlo Gozzi (brother of the writer Gasparo.

Italian Literature in the 17th and Early 18th Century

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