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).