The history of Italy in the nineteenth century was one of struggle—for unity and for political autonomy as defined by the Risorgimento movement—and of victory, later realized in the democratic successes of 1861 and 1871. These tensions began after the collapse of the Napoleonic hegemony in Europe early in the century, as Austria once again exerted its control over the scattered states of the Italian peninsula. But Napoleon's regime had made the goal of future unification seem possible, and this goal of freedom was embraced by the artists and theorists of Romanticism, a movement that gathered force in the first decades of the nineteenth century and grew to dominance by mid-century. Among the movement's most eloquent proponents scholars number three writers generally considered to be at the forefront of the movement: Ugo Foscolo, Alessandro Manzoni, and Giacomo Leopardi. All of these writers, in their rejection of the slavish adherence to classical forms, in their emphasis on patriotism, Christianity, and humanity, and in their relentless search for truth, defined literature in Italy for more than half a century.
Scholars note that the first inklings of Romanticism in Italy come from the writings of the poet and dramatist Vittorio Alfieri late in the eighteenth century. Although a classicist in style and temperament, Alfieri, who wrote during the waning years of the ancien regime, was one of the first to acknowledge the stifling weight that tradition bore upon the Italian arts. Alfieri was followed by poet, novelist, and theorist Ugo Foscolo, a figure that some scholars rank as a pre-Romantic for rejecting the inherited trappings of neoclassicism in his epistolary novel Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis (1802) and in his poetry, including the verse of his Dei Sepolcri (1807). In both, scholars have observed that Foscolo retained classical forms and subjects, but provided a new, more personal focus.
Foscolo's poetry had anticipated the Romantic sensibility, though the period of Italian Romanticism did not officially begin, according to historians, until 1816 and the publication of Mme. de Staël's essay "De l'esprit des traductions" ("On the Method and Value of Translations") in the Biblioteca Italiana. In her article, de Staël urged Italians to free themselves of their obedience to traditionalism by translating the literary works of the north—the poetry of the French, Germans, and English. Her comments sparked immediate outrage in Italy, though several supporters of her position soon appeared. Among them, the poet Giovanni Berchet responded in his Lettera semiseria di Crisostomo of 1816. Crafted in a fictional idiom and arguing that modern poetry should appeal to the people, whether educated or not, the Lettera became a virtual manifesto of the newborn Romanticismo movement. In 1818 the Romantic literary journal Il conciliatore was formed and printed the thoughts of writers such as abbé Ludovico di Breme and Ermes Visconti. Di Breme gave his support to de Staël by advising Italian poets and novelists to modernize their writings, while Visconti defined the terms of Romanticism in his Idee elementari sulla poesia Romantica (1818). However, the periodical was dismantled by the Austrian government for its liberal political stance after little more than a year of publication, and some of its contributors, including Silvio Pellico, author of the patriotic drama Francesca da Rimini (1815), were later imprisoned. Pellico nevertheless remained an ardent Romantic, his autobiography Le mie prigioni (1832) describes the religious conversion he underwent while incarcerated and attests to the hardships he endured for his beliefs.
At this time perhaps the greatest figure in Italian Romanticism, Alessandro Manzoni—already a well-known poet and playwright—joined in the classico-Romantic debate. In the preface to his 1820 drama Il Conte di Carmagnola, Manzoni denounced the classical unities of time and place; three years later, in a widely circulated letter to the novelist Massimo D'Azeglio, he drafted what was to be his treatise on Romanticism. The work, which outlined what became the central precepts of Italian Romanticism, propelled Manzoni to the forefront of the movement. In it he called for modernity, innovation, and contemporary relevance in poetry. In addition, he declared the chief aim of Romantic poetry to be the quest for truth, and allied his project with historical progress, specifically, the unification of Italy. Manzoni set about achieving the latter in his first and only novel, I promessi sposi (The Betrothed), first published in 1827. The novel opposed the heroic ideals of classical literature, focusing instead on the lives of ordinary people—the Milanese under the domination of Spain in the seventeenth century. Its political commentary was obvious to Manzoni's contemporaries. Yet, in writing the novel, Manzoni undertook a task that no other writer in Italian before him had succeeded in completing: he created a work in the national language of Italy. At the time he began composing the novel—almost half a century before unification—Italy was composed of separate city-states, each with its own dialect, foreign to the others. Manzoni sought to overcome these barriers in the 1827 version of I promessi sposi by creating a new form of Italian, based on literary versions of the language, as well as Latin and French. Although it was a popular success, he thought this first edition stilted and artificial. So Manzoni devoted another decade and a half to the work, infusing it with the living, spoken language of Tuscany. The result is considered a masterpiece of historical fiction, surpassed in critical esteem in Italy only by Dante's Divine Comedy.
The Romantic ideals of Manzoni were further strengthened by the writings of Giacomo Leopardi. While not as well known as Manzoni during his lifetime, Leopardi is now considered among the greatest lyric poets of the era. His Canti (1831), more somber and melancholy than some of the verse of his predecessors, complements the theoretical writings of his journal Zibaldone (not published until 1898-1900). Both have provided twentieth-century scholars with greater insights into the nature of the Romantic project in Italy. Among the later Romantics, Ippolito Nievo, in his Le confessioni di un italiano (1867), continued Foscolo's trend toward heightened personalism, while Vincenzo Gioberti emphasized the political side of the movement. In his Primato morale e civile degli italiani (1843), Gioberti argued forcefully for Italian unity based upon the historical strength of Rome and the contemporary military power of Piedmont. Later, once political unification had become a reality, the composer Giuseppe Verdi celebrated the culmination of the Risorgimento in his opera La Forza del destino (1862).
Norma (opera) 1831
Lettera semiseria di Grisostomo (manifesto) 1816
Ettore Fieramosca (novel) 1833
Niccolò de' Lapi (novel) 1841
Lucia di Lammermoor (opera) 1835
Don Pasquale (opera) 1843
Della nazionalità italiana (manifesto) 1846
Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis [Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis] (novel) 1802
Dei Sepolcri (poetry) 1807
Primato morale e civile degli italiani (essay) 1843
Marco Visconti (novel) 1834
Francesco Domenico Guerrazzi
Battaglia di Benevento (novel) 1827
Assedio di Firenze (novel) 1836...
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Origins And Overviews
SOURCE: "Romanticism in Italy," in Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Vol. LV, No. 1, March, 1940, pp. 27-35.
[In the following essay, McKenzie recounts the origins and development of the Romantic movement in Italy.]
Italy, for obvious reasons, always kept closer than other countries to ancient classical literature. There the classic spirit was native, for the Italians were always conscious of being the heirs of the ancient Roman Empire; there Humanism and the Renaissance arose; there the counter-Reformation resisted the Protestant spirit of the northern countries; there Arcadian academies and pseudo-classicism flourished. But the Romantic attitude was present in many Italian writers from the Middle Ages on. Petrarch was romantic in his introspective melancholy, Ariosto was romantic in his love of picturesque adventure; yet both are classic in the perfection of their style as well as in their knowledge of antiquity. Thus the two tendencies existed side by side, frequently in the same man, although in theory Italy remained classicist until the end of the eighteenth century. The pre-romantic literature of France, England, and Germany was modified in Italy by the prevalent classical tradition, but it found there a fertile soil. As a literary movement, Romanticism in Italy is best considered as represented by a group of writers in the period...
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Italian Romantic Theory
Francesco De Sanctis
SOURCE: "The New Literature," in History of Italian Literature, translated by Joan Redfern, 1931. Reprint, Basic Books, Inc., 1959, pp. 833-947.
[In the following excerpt, De Sanctis describes the philosophical underpinnings of Italian Romanticism.]
[At the opening of the nineteenth] century the Abate Monti was still in his zenith, with lesser planets revolving around him. Foscolo in his solitude was planning his Grazie, and Romagnosi was transmitting to the new generation the thought of the vanquished century. And precisely in 1815, amid the clamour of mighty events, there came to the light that little booklet called Inni which nobody bothered about. The eighteenth century was closed by Foscolo's Odes; the nineteenth was opened by Manzoni's Hymns. The first poems of the new century had names such as "Christmas," "The Passion," "The Resurrection," "Pentecost." Now the old literature, as we know, had never been wanting in its Christmases, Jesuses, and Marys, material for insipid canzoni and sonnets that have all fallen into oblivion. The simple and true religious feeling that had inspired the Church Fathers and Dante and Petrarch, and the artists, sculptors, and architects of ancient Italy, was lacking. That sacred material had been traversed by the seventeenth century and Arcadia, to vanish in the end before the mocking laugh of...
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The Language Of Romanticism
SOURCE: "The Centripetal Romantic: Symphonious Discourse in Polyphonous Italy," in The Reasonable Romantic: Essays on Alessandro Manzoni, edited by Sante Matteo and Larry H. Peer, Peter Lang, 1986, pp. 33-45
[In the following essay, Matteo describes the fragmented condition of the Italian language at the time that Manzoni wrote his novel I promessi sposi, calling the work "the first truly Italian discourse" and "the foundation on which modern Italian literature and language have been built.]
American students of Italian literature are often perplexed when they fail to find passages from Dante's Divine Comedy or from Alessandro Manzoni's I promessi sposi (The Betrothed) in Italian literary anthologies, compilations of selected passages from what have been judged to be the great works of Italian literature. Dante and Manzoni, they have learned, are important writers in Italian literature. Why, therefore, are their works not included in Italian anthologies? Curiously enough, the omission of these two books from anthologies, far from being an indication that they are not highly regarded, is a sign of their exalted status.
Dante's poem and Manzoni's novel are seldom anthologized precisely because they are considered the two indisputable masterpieces of Italian literature. It would seem almost sacrilegious to select passages from them...
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Avitabile, Grazia. The Controversy on Romanticism in Italy: First Phase 1816-1823. New York: S. F. Vanni, Publishers, 1959,145 p.
Endeavors "to present the basic ideas governing literary romanticism in Italy" by examining the theoretical writings of its adherents.
Barricelli, Jean-Pierre. "Romantic Writers and Music: The Case of Mazzini." Studies in Romanticism 14, No. 2 (Spring 1975): 95-117.
Discusses music in relation to the philosophical theories of Giuseppe Mazzini, and as the romantic art par excellence.
Biasin, Gian-Paolo. "In the Primordial Origin of Evening." In Italian Literary Icons, pp. 18-47. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985.
Considers the new worldview expounded by the Italian Romantics in light of the theoretical work of Francesco Arcangeli and the poetry of Ugo Foscolo.
Brose, Margaret. "Leopardi's 'L'Infinito' and the Language of the Romantic Sublime." Poetics Today 4, No. 1 (1983): 47-71.
Explores Giacomo Leopardi's aesthetic of the sublime and analyzes his poem "L'Infinito" (1819) as "a self-conscious demonstration of lyric transcendence."
Garnett, Richard. "The Revival," "The Regeneration," and...
(The entire section is 391 words.)