Italian Romanticism Origins And Overviews - Essay

Origins And Overviews

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Kenneth McKenzie

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 which followed the collapse of Napoleon's empire.

By creating the Regno d'Italia in 1805, Napoleon had intended to make northern Italy a dependency of France; but in spite of himself he gave the Italians an object lesson which showed the possibility of national unity. When his empire came to an end in 1814, the former rulers returned to their possessions. The problem then was not only to achieve unity, but to end foreign domination. The nucleus from which grew the Italian nation was the small kingdom of Piedmont; but this fact was not recognized in the early years of the nineteenth century, and the movement toward unity and independence centered in Milan. There a reaction against the classicism which had flourished during the Napoleonic period was fused with the revolutionary political movement. Romanticism had its political aspect in other countries, but nowhere to the same degree as in Italy. It follows that Italian romanticism was practical, altruistic, and patriotic. With these circumstances in mind, some critics1 have denied that the term romantic can properly be applied to this period of Italian literature.

The explosion of the spirit of revolt, as Farinelli expresses it, began in northern Europe; but the spiritual movement which arose in all nations is not to be judged by doctrinaire criticism. It is absurd, he says, to identify romanticism with Germanism, and classicism with Latinity. It is true that the Italian romanticists, like the French, believed that literary art has its practical use, while the Germans emphasized its inactive side; but this does not mean that either aspect is more authentic than the other. In fact, cosmopolitanism is one feature of the Romantic movement.2 It became Italian in the sense that it undertook to liberate classicism from conventional academic restrictions, not to abolish it. The distinction between classic (or classicist) on the one hand and romantic on the other hand was never very clear in Italian literature, in spite of critical discussions. But the elements of development from ancient to medieval and modern were present in Italy as well as in France, where also the classic spirit was still powerful; whereas in Germany, England, and Spain literature had long shown traits which afterwards were called romantic, and classicism was foreign to the national character.

Some critics find the foundation of romanticism in eighteenth-century Italy, believing that the importance of foreign influences on Italian writers was on the whole superficial. De Sanctis in his Storia della Letteratura Italiana declares that the romantic school in Italy, while connected with German traditions and French methods, in essence remained Italian in its purposes and its forms. Certain it is that eighteenth-century Italy experienced an intellectual awakening which perpetuated itself in the following century. Gravina and Vico, with their interpretations of history, anticipated Herder, Hegel, and other Germans. Muratori published documents and studies which revived interest in the national history. Goldoni turned comedy from imitation of conventional models to realistic representation of the life of the people. Parini had in his satire a moral and educational motive; while he himself was satisfied with moderate social progress, he prefigured the Revolution. Alfieri was always an aristocrat and a classicist, yet no one contributed more than he to spreading the germs of revolt. All these men seem to have exercised less influence on literature than their importance as authors would lead us to expect; but in stimulating a spirit of independence their influence was immense. Thus the awakening of the Italian spirit, conditioned by the classic tradition, while it was helped, was not caused, by foreign influences.3

The leading Italian poets during the Napoleonic period were Vincenzo Monti and Ugo Foscolo. Monti was influenced by all types of literature, but attachment to antiquity formed the unity of his art. Foscolo began his career with the ultra-romantic Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis (1796-1802), in which he lamented both his personal misfortunes and the unhappy condition of Italy. This combination of motives gives the key to Italian romanticism. In his Sepolcri he was still interested in the condition of his country, but in his later poem Le Grazie he reverted to Greek mythology. After the romanticists had condemned the use of classical mythology, Monti wrote a "sermon" in defence of it. Monti and Foscolo, both classicists at heart, belong to the period of pre-romanticism.

The restoration of the former rulers in Italy after the fall of Napoleon disappointed the patriots who had hoped for a united country. Since the restored governments were reactionary, the promoters of a romantic revolt were under suspicion and were opposed by the classicists, who generally supported the existing political system. Thus romanticism inevitably came to be one aspect of the political Risorgimento. In purely literary matters the romanticists were not particularly unconventional. However, they studied the modern literature of their own and other countries, condemned imitation of the ancients, and aimed to put literature at the service of national education, an ideal scarcely known in previous ages. The two greatest Italian writers of the first half of the nineteenth century—Manzoni, who became the acknowledged leader of the romantic movement in so far as it was literary and educational, and Leopardi, who was at heart more romantic than Manzoni—kept aloof from the political polemics of the day; but their works nevertheless made an important contribution to the regeneration of the country.

It is usual to take as the beginning of the definite romantic movement in Italy the publication in 1816 of Mme de Staël's article exhorting the Italians to rouse themselves from their complacency and learn what was going on in other countries. But already in the previous year Manzoni had published his Inni Sacri, which De Sanctis has called "the first voices of the nineteenth century"; and in August, 1815, enormous enthusiasm had been aroused by the performance in Milan of Silvio Pellico's Francesca da Rimini. This tragedy, based on the best-known passage in Dante, is classical or at least Alfierian in form, with only four speaking characters and with observation of the rule of the unities; but its plot is medieval and national, and it is filled with romantic passion. It speedily became known all over Italy, although not printed until 1818. The passage that attracted particular attention was the monologue in which Paolo laments having fought in foreign wars when he should have reserved his sword for Italy; this speech was an anachronism in a play of the thirteenth century, but it seemed extraordinarily timely in the nineteenth, when in everyone's mind were the Italians in Napoleon's army who had laid down their lives in Germany and Russia. Pellico later wrote tragedies which in many ways departed from the classic rules, but none met the same success as Francesca da Rimini.

In 1816, under the patronage of the Austrian authorities in Milan, a periodical, Biblioteca Italiana, was established, which continued publication for many years. It soon became the organ of the classicists, since the Austrians used it for propaganda against the liberal movement. In the beginning, however, it was impartial and objective in its attitude, and not averse to introducing German ideas in northern Italy. The first number contained the famous article written by Mme de Staël especially for the Biblioteca and translated into Italian with the title "Sulla maniera e sulla utilità delle traduzioni." Her work was already well known; in 1807 she had published Corinne ou l'Italie, a story containing descriptions of Italian scenes. An Italian translation of De l'Allemagne appeared in 1814. The main point of the article in the Biblioteca was that Italians would do well to study foreign literature, in translation if necessary, not to imitate it but to broaden their outlook. Mme de Staël's article alarmed the classicists, who feared the corruption of their fixed ideals, and it angered nationalistically minded critics who chose to believe that she was belittling Italian genius. A furious debate arose; Mme de Staël was violently attacked and valiantly defended. In the same year (1816) there appeared a work which is spoken of as a manifesto of Romantic doctrines comparable to the "Préface de Cromwell" in France. This was the Lettera semiseria de Grisostomo by Giovanni Berchet. The author pretended to advise his son to write according to the dictates of his heart and the spirit of his country, abandoning the academic rules and standards of the prevailing classicism; as an example, he accompanied the letter with a translation of two ballads from the German of Bürger. Berchet knew English and German literature better than most of his Italian contemporaries, and the Lettera semiseria, as well as the patriotic ballads which he afterwards wrote in exile, contributed to the development of a national spirit by suggesting that Italians could do for their own country what other races were doing for theirs. As a matter of fact, a knowledge of foreign literatures was no new thing to the Milan of 1816, for that had begun half a century before. Thus both native and foreign elements combined to form the outlook of the intellectuals who were in revolt against the classicist restrictions on literary production and at the same time against the political impotence of Italy.

The houses of two Milanese aristocrats, Luigi Porro Lambertenghi and Federico Confalonieri, not themselves literary men, were centers where many forward-looking Italians and foreign visitors gathered to discuss questions of the day. So much dissatisfaction was felt with the growing conservatism of the Biblioteca Italiana that the project arose of establishing a journal to give voice to the ideas of the liberal group. After several abortive attempts, the semi-weekly Conciliatore was started in September, 1818. Silvio Pellico, Porro's secretary, had charge of seeing the journal through the press, and was the most regular contributor. His task was far from easy, for at the last moment the censor frequently required him to cut or rewrite articles, or to substitute new material. The various contributors differed among themselves in many matters, but were a unit in their devotion to the romantic movement in literature and in their determination to change the political situation. Although the romantic tendency of the articles published was confined to literary questions and perforce avoided politics, the connection between the two orders of ideas was clear to the Austrian authorities. Pellico was several times warned to be more careful, and finally in October, 1819, the attitude of the police became so threatening that it was decided to cease publication. The diffusion of the journal was slight; but its influence, both literary and political, was considerable. Finally, several of the Conciliatore group were arrested and condemned for high treason; others escaped from Italy and lived for years in exile. Pellico's Le mie Prigioni, written in 1832 after his release from prison, became one of the most famous books of the century. Patriotism continued to express itself in the theory and practice of romanticism until in 1859 Italy began in fact to free herself from foreign domination. During all this period, literature was employed in the service of the fatherland. But at the same time we may consider the ideas expressed in the Conciliatore from a purely literary point of view.

In the prospectus which Pietro Borsieri wrote for the first number the words romantico, romanticismo do not occur, but they appear in many of the later numbers. An article by the eminent economist Gian Domenico Romagnosi begins:

Are you romantic?—No.—Are you classicist?—No.—What then?—I am ilichiastico, to say it in Greek; that is, adapted to the present age . . . Every age must find principles which obey only the laws of taste, reason and morality . . . We are always the children of the age and the place in which we live . . . To maintain among us the exclusive dominion of the classics is to wish a dead Italian poetry and a dead Italian language.4

A long article by Ermes Visconti, entitled "Idee elementari sulla poesia romantica," begins as follows:

If the discussion for and against romanticism were in style only here in Milan, it would perhaps be well to let the style pass. But beyond the Alps the new literary system is discussed and will continue to be discussed, because it opposes many old errors and offers opportunity for many useful observations. True it is that its usefulness is diminished by the disagreement of various German writers as to the phrase poesia romantica. This phrase was invented to Germany to distinguish the proper characteristics of the art of modern poets from the qualities belonging exclusively to the ancient classics, so as to give due praise to the originality of the former in contrast to the pedantic partisans of those who merely copy antiquity.

In a "Dialogue on the dramatic unities of time and place," Visconti anticipates many of the arguments used later by Manzoni and Hugo; this was written and published in January, 1819—before the publication of Manzoni's tragedies or of his celebrated letter on the unities. The discussion of romantic principles also appears in private letters of the time. Thus in 1819 Pellico wrote to his brother:

From the way in which you speak of Romanticism you seem to think of it as a party into which I have been dragged. You are wrong. The word was not well chosen; but the doctrine is held by everyone who has clear-sighted intelligence. You know how Monti and Foscolo appreciated Shakespeare and Schiller before the word Romantic was used. Now perhaps they would call themselves Classicists. Time will clear away these uncertainties.

The connection of the literary movement with the political situation comes out clearly in a letter from Pellico to Porro: "At Turin, as in our cities in Lombardy, to say 'liberal' one says 'romantic'; no distinction is made. And 'classic' has become the synonym of reactionary, of spy."

From the period of which we have been speaking until after Rome had become the capital of united Italy, there lived in Milan a greater literary genius than any of the Conciliatore group, who sympathized with their purpose without sharing their activities. This was Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873). In 1818 Manzoni began the historical studies on which were based his two tragedies, Il Conte di Carmagnola (1820) and Adelchi (1822), dealing with Italian history of the fifteenth and the eighth centuries respectively. These tragedies, like Alfieri's, are in blank verse, but, unlike them, employ many characters and do not observe the unities of time and place. They were adversely criticized in France by a certain Chauvet, whose name is now remembered only on account of the reply which Manzoni made to his criticism: this "Lettre à M.C. . . . sur l'unité de temps et de lieu dans la tragédie," together with Claude Fauriel's translation of the tragedies, was published in Paris in 1823. Victor Hugo can hardly have failed to see this publication; in any case, many of Manzoni's ideas reappear in the "Préface de Cromwell" (1827). It is true that some of these ideas were already more or less current both in France and in Italy; but it should be noted that Manzoni's thoroughly romantic tragedies antedate the French romantic drama. However, they did not lead to a development of a new dramatic form in Italy. On the other hand, Manzoni's great historical novel, I Promessi Sposi (1827), was followed by a host of imitations in the second quarter of the century, many of which are still read with interest. Later, fiction turned to realism but toward the close of the century in the novels of Fogazzaro it reverted to the moralizing romanticism of Manzoni.

If Berchet's Lettera semiseria may be called the militant manifesto of the Italian romanticists in their "Sturm und Drang" period—namely, from 1815 to the breaking up of the Conciliatore group by imprisonment and exile—a letter which Manzoni addressed in 1823 to Cesare d'Azeglio is to be regarded as the serene, carefully pondered statement of the principles of the school as understood and practised by the greatest Romantic writer of Italy.5 Manzoni's central idea was that literature should be useful; in his famous phrase, "che la poesia, e la letteratura in genere, debba proporsi l'utile per iscopo, il vero per soggetto, e l'interessante per mezzo." This principle was to him more important than any consideration of school; when asked if romanticism would last, he replied that the name was already being forgotten, but that the influence of the movement would continue. The negative doctrines of the school were easy to define: to abandon imitation of the classics (they should be studied, as Mme de Staël had said of modern foreign literature, but not copied); to reject ancient mythology, which seemed to Manzoni idolatrous and contrary to Christianity; to base rules for writing not on arbitrary decisions, but on the human mind. The positive side of romantic doctrine was less easy to specify, and the romantic writers had been criticized for not agreeing among themselves. The basis of romanticism is individuality; yet all should agree, and according to Manzoni in general they do agree, in believing that literature must be useful, and must have as its source historical and moral truth. Just what is meant by "il vero" is, to be sure, open to discussion; but by excluding the false, the useless, the harmful, romanticism defines the truth. In Italy, Manzoni concludes, with an eye to the German models that were sometimes proposed, romanticism does not consist of a confused crowd of ghosts and witches, of search for the extravagant, of negation of common sense—such a romanticism Italians have good reason to reject and forget. In regard to the linguistic problem which had been debated with heat ever since the time of Dante, Manzoni rejected the arbitrary rules which tended to impede growth and make Italian a dead language: he based his style on the best contemporary usage, particularly that of Tuscany.

It should be evident from what precedes that the Italians were not ignorant of the methods of romantic writers in other countries, and that in adopting the principle of liberalism in art they restricted it with rules based on the conditions which confronted them in their own country at the moment. Manzoni did not advance the need for political revolution as a guiding principle in the literary movement; but nevertheless he aided the revolution, both by his insistence on strength of character and morality and by his picture, in I Promessi Sposi, of the abject condition of Lombardy under the Spanish dominion in the seventeenth century—a picture which drew attention, perhaps more pointedly than he intended, to the evils of the Austrian rule in his own day. The combined efforts of the romantic-minded Italians, whether or not they formally espoused romanticism, finally made the political Risorgimento a reality. In this process the purely literary contribution of the generation of 1815 must not be overlooked, even though the contributions of the less gifted members of the group now have in many cases little intrinsic interest. This generation did in fact produce significant literary works: noble lyric poetry, keen critical discussions, important tragedies, and splendid historical fiction.

To sum up: In the eighteenth century Germany brought to a focus a movement which had long existed in different parts of Europe; the movement spread to Italy and France, where classicism was strongly entrenched, and there, as well as in England and Spain, it assumed forms peculiar to each country. It ran its course as a definite school, but its influence pervades all modern literature. The need for a renewal of vitality was characteristic of all countries, both those which were normally and fundamentally classic and those which were already romantic in a general sense. It is evident, then, that even though romanticism as a school originated in Germany, one of its important elements is its cosmopolitan and general European character. Manzoni's masterpiece is one of the great novels of world literature. The sublime poems of Leopardi, classical in their perfection of form, are filled with the spirit of romanticism; his "noia" is as significant in modern literature as the "sorrows" of Werther and the "ennui" of René. The critic Carducci observes that Manzoni was attracted more by the art of Goethe and Schiller than by that of men like Novalis, Tieck, and the Schlegels, and reduced to a clear expression of reality the nebulous spirit of German romanticism; while Leopardi romanticized the purity of the Greek attitude toward life and renewed the classic expression of the conflict of modern thought. Both these writers, by representing two different psychological states that were common to all Europe, became more universal than their immediate Italian predecessors. Both kept aloof from political agitation, yet their writings were transformed into battle-cries and Italy responded with the will to fight; with astonishment Europe saw this nation, which had been called the land of the dead, rise to throw off the shackles of foreign domination and affirm its independence. In 1902 the popular dramatist Rovetta produced a play dealing with the revolt against the Austrians in northern Italy in 1854; and the title of this play is appropriately Romanticismo,


1 See a book with the provocative title Il Romanticismo Italiano non esiste, by Gina Martegiani (Firenze, 1908); and Guido Calgari, Il Romanticismo in Germania e in Italia (Milano, 1929).

2 In the eighteenth century Baretti and Bertòla spread in Italy a knowledge of English and German literature. The influence of Rousseau, of Richardson, Young, and Gray, and of the poems ascribed to Ossian was especially significant. But we have only to mention the names of Goethe, Mme de Staël, Stendhal, Musset, and Byron to show that the influence was far from being all in one direction.

3 Natali maintains that even without foreign influences romanticism would have developed in Italy simultaneously with its appearance elsewhere.

4 This recalls Stendhal's famous definition: "Le romantisme est l'art de présenter aux peuples les œuvres littéraires qui, dans l'état actuel de leurs habitudes et de leurs croyances, sont susceptibles de leur donner le plus de plaisir possible." The articles in the Conciliatore here cited, with a complete index of the 118 numbers of the journal, may be found in P. A. Menzio, Dal "Conciliatore" (Torino, 1921).

5 The letter was not intended for publication. In 1846 it was printed without Manzoni's permission; later he was induced to revise it and in 1871 he published it with the title "Sul Romanticismo." It may be found, both in the original version with the title "Sopra i diversi sistemi di poesia" and in the revised version, with notes and bibliography, in Scritti Postumi di Alessandro Manzoni a cura di G. Sforza (Milano, 1900), vol. 1. For the relations of Manzoni to Fauriel, Stendhal, and Hugo, see R. Bray, Chronologie du Romantisme (Paris, 1932), Chap. v.

Harry Hearder

SOURCE: "Literature and the Opera," in Italy in the Age of the Risorgimento, 1790-1870, Longman, 1983, pp. 254-71.

[In the following essay, Hearder surveys the major works of poetry, fiction, and drama produced by Italian artists in the period 1790-1870.]

Italian nationalism in the nineteenth century was one aspect of the romantic movement. Yet to make such a generalization at once creates difficulties, since development of Italian literature in the period 1790-1870 involved the purifying and simplifying of an Italian national language, which can be seen as an essentially classical movement operating against the diversities of provincial dialects. The purification of the language can perhaps best be considered within the context of a study of the writing of Manzoni's masterpiece I Promessi Sposi, and will therefore be postponed until the novels of the period are surveyed. The creation of a genuinely national Italian literary language certainly owed more to creative writers than to grammarians or philologists. Yet the creative writers themselves were usually more concerned with politics than with linguistics, and the broad generalization can be made that liberals and nationalists in the early nineteenth century were products of the romantic movement in literary as well as political terms, while conservatives still wrote in the classical tradition. In the last decade of the eighteenth century, however, Italian classical writers were still identified with the Enlightenment and were far from being reactionaries in a political sense.

Two journals were central to the politico-literary history of romanticism in Italy. Il Conciliatore, founded in September 1818 by Luigi Lambertenghi and Federico Confalonieri in Milan, was ostensibly a scientific-literary journal, but its romantic, liberal sentiments became increasingly obvious. It was suppressed by the Austrians in October 1819, but its influence in its short life had been considerable. . . . In the pages of the Antologia ideas and manners inherited from the Enlightenment met the newer ones of the Romantic movement. Especially after Niccolò Tommaseo took over the editorship of the journal in 1827 did it acquire a stronger spirit of romanticism, and with it of Italian nationalism.

The tension caused by the struggle between classicism and romanticism added greatly to the vitality of Italian literature during the period covered by this [essay]. As in the rest of Western Europe, the emergence of the Romantic movement led to remarkable achievements in the writing of lyric poetry. There is also a profusion of plays to be briefly surveyed, but Italian drama of the period has survived the test of time rather less well than has the poetry of Leopardi or Foscolo. As in Russia, France and Britain, the period marks the great age of the novel, although many works of the secondary Italian novelists have dated rather quickly: perhaps only Manzoni and Nievo have retained their freshness and brilliance into the late twentieth century.

The first poet who deserves consideration in a survey of this brevity is Giuseppe Parini. Born in 1729 near Como, into a poor family, Parini was trained for the priesthood in Milan. But he was a child of the Enlightenment, and although he never overtly rejected Christianity, his approach to religion was the abstract, sceptical one of his generation. His father died when he was still young, and he then knew acute poverty. His early life gave him a strength of character which enabled him to feel contempt for the purely pedagogic and academic aspects of the Enlightenment but also, later, to resist the fanaticism of the Jacobins. His integrity enabled him to span the two worlds of eighteenth-century classicism and revolutionary romanticism rather as Goethe did in Germany. Parini's major work, Il Giorno, belongs to an earlier period than that covered by this [essay], and to a civilized tradition of satire more typical of the eighteenth than of the nineteenth century. But by 1790 he had already recognized the need for change in Italy, although he was opposed to revolutionary or violent change. His judgements were always healthy, balanced ones. He rejected the more arid lapses of eighteenth-century classicism, but was determined to preserve its rationality, clarity and ability to compromise. When the French entered Milan in 1796 Parini was eager to receive them. He had no desire for Italy to be united, or even politically independent, but he welcomed the more generous of the ideas of 1789. He opposed the violent methods, rather than the principles, of the Jacobins. He died on 15 August 1799, when the Austrians had already re-entered Milan.

Besides Il Giorno, the Odi are usually considered to be his other major achievement, though they are not in fact a single work, but rather a collection of lyric poems composed between 1757 and 1795. The later of the Odi were written after the French Revolution—the Dono in 1790, La Musica in 1793, and in 1795 A Silvia o sul vestire alla ghigliottina, and Alla Musa. In particular, the Messagio and Alla Musa have a new sense of human tenderness which is beginning to break away from the formalism of Parini's own century, and from the artificial nature of some of his own earlier Odi. An episode often told of Parini can be perhaps repeated here, since it encapsulates the enlightenment and the humanity of the man. During the revolutionary period in Milan a noisy radical, or 'Jacobin' audience in the theatre were shouting 'Long live the Republic. Death to traitors.' An old gentleman stood up in one of the boxes and momentarily silenced the shouting by thundering 'Long live the Republic. Death to no one.' The old gentleman was Parini, and his courage was the measure of his independence of judgement and the surviving vitality of the world of the classical Enlightenment.

An equally courageous, though less balanced and more tormented, poet was Vittorio Alfieri. Born at Asti in Piedmont in January 1749, into a rich family of the nobility, Alfieri frantically desired success for himself as an individual. As a child he attempted suicide, and his autobiography suggests that for long periods of his life he was virtually deranged. His importance lay in the full extent to which he anticipated Italian romanticism and...

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