The most distinguished letterato of his generation, Giangiorgio Trissino was a grammarian, critic, poet, and diplomat as well as a dramatist. His most serious literary endeavor stemmed from his desire to break the romance tradition in Italian literature and to replace it with the epic. Scorning Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (1516, 1521, 1532; English translation, 1591), he worked for twenty years on his national epic, La Italia liberata da Gotthi (1547-1548; Italy liberated from the Goths), in twenty-seven books. He took his story from Procopius’s history of the war of Belisarius against the Goths in order to recapture Italy for the Byzantine Empire, and he strove to imitate Homer according to Aristotle’s De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705). The epic, written in the blank verse of a medieval chronical, encumbered by intricate subplots and fulsome passages of praise for noble Italian families, and full of Lombardisms, failed to interest the Italian public, whose enthusiasms were more religious than heroic and would await Torquato Tasso’s epic Gerusalemme liberata (1581; Jerusalem Delivered, 1600) some thirty years later. The fact that Trissino admitted pagan deities into the Christian hierarchy (such as the “Angel” Neptune) seemed to offend everyone. The topic lacked relevance for Italians: Italy delivered from the Goths was only Italy delivered to...
Giangiorgio Trissino’s La Sofonisba, which was highly praised by his contemporaries, is considered by scholars to be the first tragedy of modern European literature and provided a model for many succeeding writers. The tragedy was imitated by Pierre Corneille and Voltaire in France, by Vittorio Alfieri in Italy, by Emanuel Geibel in Germany, and notably by Étienne Jodelle in Cléopâtre captive (1553). La Sofonisba was rendered into French prose in 1559 by Mellin de Saint-Gelais. Jean Mairet, whose Sophonisbe (1634; English translation, 1956) was the first tragedy written in French in accord with the neoclassical unities. This work followed more closely the rules of unity of time, place, and action than Trissino’s had and owed much to the inspiration of Trissino’s work. Trissino introduced the formal pattern of versification in Italian tragedy, and Giraldi Cinthio confirmed it in both practice and theory: unrhymed verse for the greater part of the dialogue and rhyme for the chorus and the most important passages of the dialogue. This Italian legacy of blank verse reached as far as England and became the primary medium of Elizabethan tragedy.
By attributing so much importance to the love affair of the character Sofonisba, Trissino helped establish the importance of women in Renaissance tragedy; Giraldi Cinthio’s emphasis on the cult of the feminine soul was an outgrowth of the example set in La Sofonisba.
La Poetica, in which Trissino reduced Horace and Aristotle to Italian prose and set down literary laws for poets and dramatists, had a lasting influence on his successors. Trissino formulated a more emphatic unity of time than had Aristotle; this he conceived as precisely the artistic principle that would help rescue the new dramatic poetry from the chaotic directions of medieval drama. Henceforth this unity was not only a dramatic law but also one whose observance could serve to distinguish the accomplished dramatic artist from the crude compiler of plays.
He maintained a friendly rivalry with Giovanni Rucellai, who dedicated his didactic poem “Le api” (“The Bees”) to his friend Trissino and who inserted a tribute to him within the poem itself. Following Trissino, Rucellai wrote parts of his own plays Rosmunda (1525) and Oreste (wr. 1515-1520, pb. 1723) in blank verse. The gothic subject matter of Rosmunda was doubtless influenced by Trissino’s interest in the role of the Goths in Italian history. When Rucellai died in 1525, he bequeathed the manuscript of “The Bees” to Trissino, and it was Trissino who had the poem published at Venice in 1539.
Trissino’s epic poem La Italia liberata da Gotthi, though dull and unread in modern times, exhibits a thorough knowledge of Roman tactics and topography. It was in the spirit of Trissino’s title that Tasso’s Il Goffredo was retitled (without the consent of Tasso) Gerusalemme liberata in 1581. Trissino’s short poems are imitative of Petrarch; yet, significantly in an age so slavishly devoted to the Petrarchan ideal, Trissino also did much to revive interest in Dante and to establish him as equal with Petrarch. His attempts to reform Italian spelling by the addition of certain Greek letters met with derision, but he is credited with establishing the “x” and “z” of the Italian alphabet and with...
Brand, Peter, and Lino Pertile, eds. The Cambridge History of Italian Literature. Rev. ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Covers Italian literature from early to modern times. Discusses the development of theater in Italy. Bibliography and index.
Di Maria, Salvatore. The Italian Tragedy in the Renaissance: Cultural Realities and Theatrical Innovations. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2002. Examines the early history of Italian theater. Bibliography and index.
Migliorini, Bruno. The Italian Language. Rev. ed. Boston: Faber, 1984. Migliorini examines the development of the Italian language, touching on Trissino’s part in its development. Bibliography and index.
Mulryne, J. R., and Margaret Shewring, eds. Theatre of the English and Italian Renaissance. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. This collection of essays from a seminar held at the University of Warwick in May, 1987, covers, among other subjects, the early Italian theater. Bibliography and index.
Wilkins, Ernest Hatch. A History of Italian Literature. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974. Examines the history of Italian literature, including the early theater. Bibliography and index.