Giovanni Battista Niccolini Critical Essays


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Giovanni Battista Niccolini began his career as a dramatist under the influence of Greek tragedy and using its subjects and themes. Niccolini admired Aeschylus, whose Hepta epi Thbas (467 b.c.e.; Seven Against Thebes, 1777), Agamemnn (458 b.c.e.; Agamemnon, 1777), and Chophoroi (458 b.c.e.; Libation Bearers, 1777) he translated into Italian; Sophocles, whose Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715) he adapted as Edipo nel bosco delle Eumenidi; and finally Euripides, whose Mdeia (431 b.c.e.; Medea, 1781) he also adapted for the Italian stage. The influence of Seneca can also be seen in Niccolini’s works.

Although Niccolini will not be remembered as a great dramatist, his contribution to the Italian theater holds dual significance: First, he was, during his lifetime, the dramatic voice for the unification of Italy; perhaps more important to the modern student of drama history, he stood at the crossroads of the classical and Romantic traditions, and both benefited from and advanced the latter by using its techniques to further his cause.


Polissena, Niccolini’s first tragedy, deals with the main character’s torn soul and mind. She was given to Pyrrhus, Achilles’ son, as war booty. She loves him, but with remorse, because he killed her father. The Greeks, who have defeated Troy, are led to believe that the gods will not allow them to leave Troy unless Achilles’ ghost is placated by the sacrifice of one of Priam’s daughters at the hand of someone dear to them. Polissena, caught between filial piety and love for her man, throws herself on Pyrrhus’s sword. This tragedy, though eloquent and elegant in its verses, lacks dramatic power and the force of psychological anguish. It is far superior, however, to the subsequent Edipo nel bosco delle Eumenidi and Ino e Temisto, whose only distinction lies in their refined style and eloquence, a trademark of Niccolini.

Matilde and Nabucco

In 1815, Niccolini wrote Matilde, based on John Home’s Douglas, and succeeded in transposing the events surrounding a Scottish woman to the setting of feudal Sicily. This play is important, not so much for its artistic content, but because it represents Niccolini’s abandonment of classical and mythological themes and the acceptance of a new, Romantic subject matter. Niccolini had come to believe (as evidenced in a letter he wrote to Cesare Lucchesini in 1824) that mythology was no longer viable in an antipoetic era. During the same year, 1815, he wrote Nabucco, which, although set in Babylon and Assyria, is a thinly disguised political allegory for events that were taking place in Paris. Nabucco (Napoleon) refuses to grant freedom or peace to his subjects, and as his enemies overcome him, he throws himself into the Euphrates, uttering the words, “May the waves submerge my lifeless body and every king await me tremblingly.” (This is the same Nabucco who, earlier, says, “I on earth and God in Heaven!”) Both Matilde and Nabucco, despite their weakness of plot and characterization, therefore can be seen as inaugurating a new, more Romantic, and more political trend in Niccolini’s theater, the basis of which is a patriotic and civil commitment to freedom and rebellion against tyranny.

Giovanni da Procida

Giovanni da Procida was written in 1817 but staged only in 1830, after several modifications. Again, the theme is political liberty. The plot revolves around Giovanni’s daughter Imelda, who, during the time of the Sicilian Vespers, secretly marries one Tancredi. Tancredi, reared in Italy, has not told her that he is really French by birth, revealing this fact only after the marriage. Giovanni enters, announcing his wish that Imelda marry his friend and fellow patriot Gualtiero, with whom he...

(The entire section is 1688 words.)