Italian Poetry to 1800 Analysis

From Latin to Italian

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

During that long period of time, Italy developed a literature that, on one hand, was no longer in Latin but, on the other, was not yet in Italian. This language maintained the appearance of Latin but was quite different from classic Latin; it was the Latin used by the Roman Catholic Church and by educated people, a language that, after the fall of the Roman Empire, spread throughout Europe as the cultured language and remained as the official language of science until the modern age. Medieval literature, however, was not developed extensively, and its quality, from an artistic point of view, was rather limited.

During the Middle Ages, the Church had become the major source of knowledge and culture, and it had inherited from Rome its characteristic of universality. The major documents of medieval Christian thought profoundly shaped the values of the new vernacular literature; particularly influential were the works of the Scholastic philosophers, among whom towers Saint Thomas Aquinas and in which one can find the vital roots of Dante’s writings.

Italian vernacular poetry began in the thirteenth century with the simultaneous flowering of written literature in several of Italy’s competing dialects. In the twelfth century, it had appeared that the Sicilian dialect was going to acquire the status of a national language; Sicily, at the time of Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250), had become an important center of cultural life and art. This Sicilian superiority was ephemeral, however, vanishing after the death of the emperor. It was instead the Florentine tongue that, for several reasons, became the national language. The Florentine dialect prevailed primarily because, during the period of assertion of the vernacular, some of the greatest masterpieces of Italian literature were written in that dialect.

Early vernacular works

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The earliest extant poetic compositions in the vernacular are religious works intended for doctrinal instruction; typical examples of this genre are Bonavesin della Riva’s Libro delle tre scritture (c. 1300; book of the three scriptures) and Fra Giacomino da Verona’s De Jerusalem celesti (c. 1230) and De Babilonia civitate infernali (c. 1230). In the field of specifically religious poetry, which contains a clear and pure effusion of spiritual feelings, there is the Laudes creaturarum (c. 1225), by Saint Francis of Assisi, and the oeuvre of Jacopone da Todi, which includes 102 laudes. Though the majority of these religious poems narrate the deep mystical experience of the author, there are also several that are of a moral and satiric nature.

Of greater importance from an artistic and cultural point of view is the development in Italy of alyric poetry of Provençal origin, which reflected a courtly concept of love that was conceived as an homage to “the lady” according to the principles dictated by the codes and rules of feudal society. The courtly content of this poetry and the very elaborate style rarely offered the possibility of expressing truly sincere and deep feelings. The poetry created by this style gave more importance to the artifice of the form than to the originality of the inspiration and was therefore characterized by a certain coldness.

The poetic genre had some success in northern Italy as a result of the troubadours, who traveled from court to court from Provence into northern Italy. The most consistent achievement of this lyric style, however, took place in Sicily at the court of Frederick II, where it assumed the status of a school. Among its most celebrated poets were Frederick himself and his sons, Enzo and Manfredi. In addition, there were resident courtiers such as Jacopo da Lentini and Giacomino Pugliese. The aesthetic value of the poetry of theSicilian school is minimal; there, the worst traits of Provençal poetry were accentuated. Nevertheless, the historical significance of the Sicilian school is great: It constituted the first attempt to use the vernacular with a clear artistic intention. At this historical moment, as earlier mentioned, Sicilian could have become the national language. Historical events, however, prevented that. Frederick II died in 1250, and with his demise the power of his court soon disappeared and the cultural and literary effort which he so strongly supported collapsed.

Dolce stil nuovo

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The poetry of the Sicilian school had, nevertheless, already found a fruitful development in Tuscany, where its poetic themes were enriched with political and religious elements—particularly in the works of Guittone d’Arezzo and in the amorous poetry of Chiaro Davanzati. Furthermore, the Sicilian experience was instrumental in suggesting a new development, a new conception of love poetry that was proposed by the advocates of the dolce stil nuovo (“sweet new style”). In this new style, feelings are based on a bourgeois experience—the culture of the communes—not on a feudal one as was the case with Provençal poetry. Supported by a mystical consciousness, the new poetry exemplified a greater sincerity of expression and was supported by deeper sensitivity and more ardent feelings. Guido Guinizzelli’s lyric poem “A cor gentile ripara sempre amore” (“Love Seeks Its Dwelling Always in a Gentle Heart”) established what could be considered the schematic structure of the new school. Originating in Bologna, this innovative way of creating verses reached Florence, where Guido Cavalcanti further developed it in his poem “Donna mi prega” (“A Lady Asks Me”). Cino da Pistoia brought to the dolce stil nuovo a new psychological concept of love, substantively humane, with a potential that Dante was to explore in La vita nuova (c. 1292; Vita Nuova, 1861; better known as The New Life), written shortly after 1292. The New Life narrates the spiritual unfolding of his pure love for Beatrice, a girl whom he met early in his life and who died young in 1290, leaving the poet grief-stricken. Under the influence of the stilnovisti, Dante cultivated his love for Beatrice as a pure—almost religious—feeling through which he might be led to spiritual perfection. This concept would be developed extensively in his masterpiece.


Dante (1265-1321) was born in Florence into a Guelph family that claimed ancient noble origins. He received his early education from the Franciscan friars of Santa Croce Church in his native town and, from the poetry of the Sicilian school that had spread into central Italy, he learned to write verses in the vernacular. Like many other citizens of Florence in his social condition, Dante participated in the tumultuous political life of the commune. As a consequence of these activities, he was exiled when the Black faction of the Guelph party, which was supported by Pope Boniface VIII, won political dominance over the White faction, to which Dante belonged. The Blacks banished the leaders of the Whites from Florence and its territory. Military attempts to regain power organized by the White faction failed. Dante resigned himself to the life of an exile and stayed at several courts in northern Italy, finally settling down in Ravenna at the court of Guido da Polenta. In Ravenna, he devoted his attention to completing his sacred epic, La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802). He died in Ravenna in 1321.

It is significant that Dante composed his masterpiece in exile. After a long period of tumultuous events, the moment for deliberation had come. On the one hand, the recent past appeared to him as a forest of mistakes; on the other hand, he could visualize the possibility of a transcending order, embracing Heaven and Earth. Dante believed that the misled and corrupt humanity of his time could organize itself into a new order which could reach the goal of temporal and eternal happiness. This empire would be universal and divinely ordained, and the emperor would be independent in his temporal power, his authority granted directly to him by God and not by the pope. Other motives that certainly influenced the composition of the poem were Dante’s love for Beatrice and the desire to glorify her, his desire for justice, and his need to express his aesthetic insight and creative imagination.

In The Divine Comedy, Dante describes being lost in “una foresta oscura,” a dark forest which represents the confusion of life. As a result of his experience, he acquires a consciousness of the sad condition of his spirit. He wants to free himself from this anguished state, but with human resources alone the soul cannot save itself. If a man with a soul in distress shows good intentions, however, he deserves the help of God; the Holy Virgin, representing “Divine Mercy,” comes to his aid. She calls on Lucia (Saint Lucy), the “Enlightened Grace,” who, in turn, goes to Beatrice, the symbol of knowledge in divine matters. Beatrice—who is also the human woman loved by Dante—descends into Limbo and begs Vergil, who represents “right reason,” to bring help to Dante. Reason tells Dante that he cannot go suddenly from a sinful life to one of perfection; he must first face the dreadful consequence of sin by visiting Hell. He must then continue to Purgatory to make amends for his sins. Only then, after having reached the condition of natural perfection (the Terrestrial Paradise), will Dante be able to go to the Celestial Paradise and therefore reach the supreme reward, undergoing the beatific Vision of God. In this last part of Dante’s mythical voyage, Vergil, “right reason,” will not be a sufficient guide, and Dante will visit Paradise with the help of Beatrice.

The Divine Comedy is an epic poem of one hundred cantos. These cantos are collected into three parts, each of which is dedicated to one of the kingdoms of the life...

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Italian Renaissance

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Between the end of the fourteenth century and the beginning of the fifteenth century, there appeared in Italy the first signs of a profound change in Western culture. The typical representative of this period, which would be later called the Renaissance, sought above all the full and balanced development and enjoyment of his human potential. Transcendence was not explicitly denied but was simply neglected. The Renaissance person did not feel the need of divine grace to achieve these goals, and the ideal of the ascetic, who runs away from the world so that the spirit will thrive, was completely foreign—indeed, almost incomprehensible.

At the beginning of this period, there was a great interest in the studies of...

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Late sixteenth century

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In the second part of the sixteenth century, the great magnificence of the Renaissance faded, perhaps because of the natural exhaustion of the intense fervor of life, both elegant and merry, that had charmed the Italian courts. Politically, the change was particularly severe. The Spanish domination of Italy drastically changed life in the courts of several states. From a literary point of view, artistic production was tightly controlled and dominated by the rules and suggestions of several learned societies, especially the Accademia della Crusca (“academy of the chaff”), founded in 1583 with the intention of purifying the literary language.

There was, however, in the late sixteenth century an interesting ferment of...

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Seventeenth century mannerism

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Poetry in seventeenth century Italy was characterized by a phenomenon that is usually identified as secentismo or Marinismo, from the name of the poet Giambattista Marino (1569-1625), who, more than anyone, was responsible for the vogue of this new poetic style throughout Europe. This new poetry gave an extraordinary importance to form, partly in consequence of slavish imitation of classical authors, a practice that gradually gave the impression that form was something detached from content. Artists used style as a means of attracting the attention of the reader. To generate a sense of wonder and amazement, poets tended to emphasize oddity, a characteristic that typified the literary production of the seventeenth century.

The most daring and applauded representative of this style was Marino himself, who was born in Naples. After a restless and adventurous youth, Marino, who had distinguished himself as a gifted and brilliant writer of verses, spent some time at the pontifical court in Rome and then was a guest in Turin at the court of Duke Carlo Emanuele I of Savoy, where he found glory and honor. Soon, however, he fell out of favor and was imprisoned. As soon as Marino was free, he left Italy for France, where he resided for many years in Paris, honored and admired at the court of Marie de Médicis. His reputation, especially after the publication of his major work the L’Adone (1623), was immense. When Marino returned to Italy, he was received with great celebration in Rome and Naples. He died in Naples shortly after his return in 1625.

Marino’s lyric poems, which present various subjects, are collected in a book titled La lira (1615). Other compositions are La galeria (1619), a group of iconographic poems; La sampogna (1620), a pastoral idyll; and the sacred epic La strage degli innocenti (1632; The Slaughter of the Innocents, 1675), which enjoyed widespread and popular success.

L’Adone is by far Marino’s most important work. It embodies both the strengths and the shortcomings of his art, and it stands as the most representative expression of the spirit of its epoch. L’Adone is a mythological poem, conceived at first as a short idyllic poem and then enlarged, with extraordinary richness of digressions and episodes, to reach the impressive size of five thousand verses. These five thousand verses were then subdivided into twenty long cantos which center on the love of Venus and Adonis.

Other poets

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Although secentismo was predominant in this period, a number of other poets wrote according to the principles of more orthodox forms, those classical writers who opposed the group represented by Marino and his followers. They cannot, however, be separated from the previous group, because they, too, followed the same abstract conception that form and style are completely separate from content.

Among these poets, the best known is Gabriello Chiabrera (1552-1638), who lived at the courts of the Medici in Florence, the Gonzagas in Mantua, and the Savoias in Turin, and who was rewarded for his services and his art with honors and generous stipends. Chiabrera acquired his reputation through his canzonette,...

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Eighteenth century neoclassicism

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Toward the end of the seventeenth century, fourteen scholars and men of letters in the circle of Christina, queen of Sweden—who, after her abdication and conversion to Catholicism, resided in Rome—founded a literary academy, the Accademia dell’Arcadia, whose purpose was to exterminate the bad taste of secentismo and to return to Italian poetry the qualities of natural candor, simplicity, and classical purity. The members of the Accademia dell’Arcadia took names that were supposed to be of pastoral inspiration, and branches of the academy were soon established in every major Italian town.

The simplicity which the Accademia dell’Arcadia was planning to set against the despised mannerisms of...

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The Enlightenment

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In the second part of the eighteenth century, a crisis began in Europe that would eventually find its resolution in the French Revolution. In only a few years, this revolution would cause a deep transformation in people’s ways of thinking, of living, and of expressing themselves, through the demolition of all the surviving forms of the Renaissance and of the period that followed. A new philosophy developed that had its precedents in the works of the Frenchman René Descartes, the German Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and the Englishman John Locke—a philosophy that placed humans at the center of the universe. Humans were regarded as the supreme judge of reality, capable of subjecting any question to strictly rational analysis.


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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Monti’s oeuvre is characteristic of the period during which the ground was being prepared for Romanticism. At this time, art, literature, and public life in Italy were inspired by classical culture to a degree unprecedented even in the Renaissance. For the most part, this was a rather superficial and gaudy phenomenon fostered by the caesarism of the Napoleonic age and, perhaps, by an instinctive reaction of the Latin world against the surging German Romanticism. Thus, Italian neoclassicism, as this movement was called, bore the seeds of a Romantic sensibility. There was in Romanticism a torment and restlessness, an unsatisfied aspiration toward a perfected beauty—an unreachable region symbolized for the Romantics by classical...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Barnes, John C., and Jennifer Petrie, eds. Dante and His Literary Precursors: Twelve Essays. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2007. A publication of the Foundation for Italian Studies, University College, Dublin. Scholarly essays on Dante’s political and intellectual environment and on new ways of reading his works. Bibliography and indices.

Brand, Peter, and Lino Pertile, eds. The Cambridge History of Italian Literature. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. In this new, definitive volume, the first of its kind in four decades, leading scholars provide information about a wide range of writers, their works, and their...

(The entire section is 503 words.)