During his times, Giovanni Battista Niccolini was acclaimed in Italy as a great tragedian, particularly for Arnold of Brescia. His most popular work, Giovanni da Procida, produced in Florence in January of 1830, was received with great enthusiasm but, as a result of its political content, was banned until 1847. The play encapsulates the theme of Niccolini’s lifework: patriotism and liberty in opposition to tyranny—both the neo-Guelfic tendencies of the period and the imperial ones. As Mario Sansone noted, however, Niccolini’s plays, lacking realism and psychological insight, have not withstood the “corrosive work of time.” A work such as Arnold of Brescia was very popular during Niccolini’s day because the title character represented the ideal libertarian—an enemy of papal and imperial tyranny and an advocate of the popular republic, a system also favored by Niccolini. These time-bound concerns are expressed in several of Niccolini’s other plays as well.
Stylistically, Niccolini is a transitional figure, representing the shift from classicism to Romanticism, as can be seen in Matilde (adapted from John Home’s Douglas of 1757), whose plot, set in medieval times, is typically Romantic, and in Nabucco. The historical and nationalistic themes of both plays reverberate with passionate political eloquence.
Niccolini is thus important more as a representative of the ideals and trends of his age than for his individual plays. He used the theater as a social and political weapon to awaken the conscience of the Italian people against foreign invasion and tyranny.