Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 770
When Giovanni Verga was born in Catania on September 2, 1840, into a well-to-do landowning family of aristocratic background, Italy was not yet united, and Sicily belonged to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, governed by Bourbon monarchs from their capital in Naples. Catania remained very distant, therefore, from the...
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When Giovanni Verga was born in Catania on September 2, 1840, into a well-to-do landowning family of aristocratic background, Italy was not yet united, and Sicily belonged to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, governed by Bourbon monarchs from their capital in Naples. Catania remained very distant, therefore, from the cultural centers of Milan and Florence. Verga’s father deserves credit for wanting his son to have the most liberal education possible in his culturally provincial society, and for this purpose, he enrolled him, at age ten, in the private school of Antonino Abate. The teacher, who shared the liberal and pro-Italian sentiments of the younger generation, had the attitude and enthusiasm, if not the talents, of a Romantic poet and as such inspired his pupils, including the young Verga, to try their hands at writing. At age seventeen, Verga wrote his first novel, Amore e patria (1857; love and fatherland), inspired by the American Revolution and full of teenage enthusiasm for patriotic ideals, although not worthy of publication.
In 1858, Verga enrolled in the Faculty of Law at the University of Catania, but instead of studying, he worked on his second novel, I carbonari della montagna, another historical novel imbued with patriotic fervor, which, with his father’s consent, he published, using the money intended for his last two years of university study. Although the second novel was little better than the first, it was given a favorable review in the Florentine periodical Nuova Europa. Encouraged by this success, Verga submitted a third novel, Sulle lagune (1863; on the lagoon), to the same periodical, which published it in serial form (it was published in book form in 1975). In the meantime, he had become involved in various Sicilian journalistic enterprises, but the combination of his publication in Florence and the transfer to Florence of the capital of the now independent and united Italian Kingdom made that city irresistibly attractive to him. After several visits, he established residence there in 1869 and was befriended by the temporary capital’s intellectual, artistic, and social elite. These were Verga’s most intensely lived years, full of the experiences that inspired the series of novels of passion from Una peccatrice (1866; A Mortal Sin, 1995) to Eros, as well as the play Rose caduche (fading roses).
With the exception of Florence’s brief heyday as a capital city, Milan was Italy’s leading center of culture in the nineteenth century, and soon afterward, the capital was transferred to newly annexed Rome. Verga moved to Milan in 1872, where he quickly took up with the leading cultural figures of the Lombard city. In addition to its own traditional culture, Milan has always been the Italian city most receptive to cultural influences originating beyond the Alps, and the most tolerant of unorthodox styles. Thus, it was here that Verga came into contact with both the Scapigliati and French naturalism. The Scapigliati (that is, the disheveled) were a group of young intellectuals and artists who, as the epithet coined by one of their own number suggests, explicitly rejected the high ideals and heroic tension that characterized the Risorgimento, embracing instead all that was abnormal, irregular, and antibourgeois. Most important for Verga, this group attempted to express itself in everyday language, a practice that would become characteristic of Verga’s masterpieces. It was also here that Verga became more familiar with the work of Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and particularlyÉmile Zola. Verga maintained a residence in Milan until 1885, but after the death of his sister in 1877, and his mother in 1878, he spent increasingly longer periods in Sicily.
The period of Verga’s greatest literary production began in 1880 with the publication of Under the Shadow of Etna and ended in 1889 with Mastro-don Gesualdo. In 1884, he enjoyed his only theatrical success with Cavalleria Rusticana. For practical purposes, he made a tactical error by not following it immediately with another Sicilian drama. Instead, he tried a Milanese working-class background in In portineria (the doorkeeper’s house), which had a lukewarm reception in Milan in 1885.
The satisfaction he received from the success of Cavalleria Rusticana was soon spoiled by the litigation that he had to undertake in an attempt to gain a larger share of author’s royalties from the very profitable operatic production of his play. This, and his general disillusionment with society, caused him to lead an increasingly isolated life during his last two decades. On the occasion of his eightieth birthday, he was honored by an official celebration but refused to attend. In the same year, he was named Senator of the Italian Republic. Attended by his lifelong friend Frederico De Roberto, he died on January 27, 1922.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 502
The city of Catania, where Giovanni Verga spent the first twenty-five years of his life, was a cultural center for Sicily and even possessed a university; but it was geographically so remote from the mainstream of Italy’s cultural life and so small a place, that its atmosphere was nevertheless provincial and in some ways even primitive. Verga’s family were well-to-do landowners in a society that was agricultural at its base and still feudal in its organization. Verga was fortunate in his schooling to have come under the influence of a teacher who was a writer and who also encouraged his literary bent; at the age of seventeen, Verga completed his first novel. Although he embarked on the study of law a year later, he quickly found he had no taste for the subject and dropped out of the university to pursue a literary career. He tried founding a journal and published a novel at his own expense, but Catania proved an impossible base from which to launch a literary career. In 1865, he went to Florence, where he became part of a circle of young writers, and a few years later he moved to Milan, which was even more active as a center of the arts.
During the 1870’s, Verga was living in Milan, publishing novels and short stories, winning a small reputation, and seeking a new literary voice for himself which would express his ideal of what fiction should be. Because of illness in his family, he made frequent trips back to Catania during that period. From these factors emerged the Verga who would be recognized as one of Europe’s master storytellers. The decision to write about his native Sicily, and the development of a new, disciplined style, produced in quick succession the short-story collection Under the Shadow of Etna in 1880 and the novel I Malavoglia (1881; The House by the Medlar Tree, partial translation, 1890, 1953; complete translation, 1964). Both volumes won quick recognition as masterpieces and inaugurated the most productive decade of Verga’s career, when he was at the height of his powers and acknowledged as the leader of the new literary aesthetic called Verismo, an Italian version of the realism and naturalism which dominated the writing of fiction everywhere in Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century.
Verga’s success in the 1880’s failed to make him happy. His basic view of life was pessimistic, he was always something of a loner, and while he pursued many love affairs, he always avoided marriage. He grew restless and discontent with life in a great literary center, found himself spending more and more time in his native region, and by 1894 had resettled permanently in Catania. His literary output slowed to a trickle thereafter, and he lived out his years in quiet isolation. His eightieth birthday was officially celebrated in 1920, and honors were bestowed upon him by the Italian government, but he disdained to participate in any of the public ceremonies. He died two years later of a cerebral hemorrhage.