Letteratura Italiana – Italian Literature

La letteratura italiana is the literary tradition of Italy, beginning in the 13th century with writers like Dante and Boccaccio.

La letteratura italiana, Italian Literature, is usually discussed by the century in which the works were produced. This allows scholars to analyze literary trends on a timeline to observe the evolution of the art from period to period, regardless of the geographical location, or the regional dialect, of the authors.

The discussion usually begins in the “duecento,” the 1200s (13th century) with Dante, then progresses to the likes of Petrarca and Boccaccio soon after. 

However, the roots of Italian literary traditions actually goes even further back to the reign of Federico II of Sicily. As part of out Italian-American Culture and Heritage, it’s important to understand where we came from so that we better understand where we are today.

Here are some summaries of the literary trends according to the century. 

Duecento (The 1200s)

A polycentric and experimental century, full of works and protagonists: from the philosophical poetry of Guido Cavalcanti to the first, very important, poetic tests of Dante Alighieri, from the amorous lyric of the Sicilians and the stilnovisti to the religious poetry of the laude, up to the beginnings of short story prose.

The poets of the cosmopolitan Sicilian court of Frederick II start the first homogeneous lyric production in the vernacular, referring to the model of the troubadours Provençal and their courtly culture.

Franco-Provençal literature is in fact the oldest of the Romance literatures, and the love poetry of the Provençal poets constitutes the starting point for the birth of a cultured poetry in the Italian vernacular, especially Sicilian.

The texts of the Sicilian school, however, are handed down by fourteenth-sixteenth-century codices written by Tuscan copyists, who have partially altered the Sicilian linguistic form by superimposing a Tuscan imprint on them.

The most significant poet of the Sicilian amorous lyric of the thirteenth century is Giacomo da Lentini, to whom the invention of the sonnet is attributed; the short lyrical form that will be dominant in all Italian poetry.

Trecento (The 1300s)

The fourteenth century is the golden age of Italian literature, because the production of the “three crowns” takes place in it: Dante (allegorical-didactic poetry), Petrarch (intellectual poetry) and Boccaccio (novelling tradition), which bring the literary vernacular to maturity in poetry and prose and become the essential models of all subsequent literature.

As a short story writer, we should mention Franco Sacchetti, a Florentine merchant and politician, best known for his work Il Trecentonovelle.

Alongside them, the tradition of religious literature continues with Passavanti and Santa Caterina da Siena (Dialogue of Divine Providence).

Quattrocento (The 1400s)

The fifteenth century was the century of humanism, a new culture that profoundly transformed the vision of the medieval world and the attitude of the intellectual.

The nucleus of this cultural movement is the rediscovery of the classical Latin and Greek texts in their autonomy of values. This rediscovery takes place in the research of ancient texts and in the birth of philological work to reconstruct them in their authentic completeness and correctness, through an in-depth study of the classical Latin language and the comparison between the various manuscripts.

The revaluation of classical culture also determined a push towards civil commitment and the affirmation of the political function of literature.

The other peculiar trait of humanism is the importance recognized to man in his active life in the earthly world, in contrast with the contemplative vision of life, aimed at the divine and the supernatural, typical of medieval culture.

The first phases of this movement see an absolute centrality of Latin as a literary language, and have as representative figures Leonardo Bruni and Poggio Bracciolini, the latter responsible for the discovery of numerous unique manuscripts of classical works otherwise lost.

Leon Battista Alberti is the first humanist to advocate the excellence of the vernacular and its ability to compete with Latin.

In the second half of the century literature in the vernacular therefore developed, especially at the Medici court of Lorenzo the Magnificent, himself a writer and patron of great poets who created a synthesis between classical culture and the Florentine tradition, such as Angelo Poliziano, author and chancellor of the court, Marsilio Ficino, scholar of Platonism, and Luigi Pulci, heir to the burlesque and popular Florentine tradition.

Outside the Medici court, humanism spread in the court of Milan, which hosted Leonardo Da Vinci, and in that of the Estensi of Ferrara, where Matteo Maria Boiardo, author of the epic-chivalric poem Orlando innmorato, worked in particular, the first literary development of the popular singers of the square, inspired by French literature on the loves of King Arthur and the deeds of Charlemagne.

Cinquecento (The 1500s)

With the sixteenth century, humanistic-Renaissance values asserted themselves in Italy, by now almost entirely subjugated by foreign powers. Italian literature thus becomes, despite the political and spiritual turmoil (marked by the Reform and Counter-Reformation), an undisputed model to be imitated for the whole of Europe.

In the first half of the sixteenth century the philosophical and artistic reflection of humanism reached its maximum expression giving rise to the cultural phase of the Renaissance. In this period, the flourishing of the arts and studies was greatly boosted by the patronage of the noble courts.

In the sixteenth century the secular vision of the world definitively asserted itself, the idea of the centrality of man in the universe and of his possibility of making himself the architect of his own fortune thanks to reason. These convictions are strengthened by the sensational events that characterize this era: the Protestant reform, the geographical discoveries, the invention of printing, the wars and political upheavals that make Italy a land of conquest, disputed by France and the Habsburg Empire.

From an artistic-literary point of view, the rediscovery of classical culture imposes beauty and nature as guiding values, and leads to the definition of a precise linguistic-expressive model, based on the ideal of classicism. This provides for the imitation of the refinement and harmony of classical literature even in the vernacular. The desire to establish a precise canon to which imitation can be adapted brings the problem of the codification of the Italian literary language to the fore, opening the debate on the “language question” in sixteenth-century Italian literature

The main protagonist of this debate is Pietro Bembo, philologist and writer in Latin and vernacular. He argues for the need to define precise grammatical rules, derived from authoritative models, to establish and disseminate a unitary Italian literary language, above the various local vernaculars.

Bembo exposes his theory in the treatise Prose della volgar lingua, considered by many authors to be the birth certificate of the Italian language. In it, Bembo establishes the fourteenth-century literary Tuscan of Boccaccio and Petrarch as the national language and dictates the grammatical rules based on the texts of these authors, established as classics.

Bembo includes Dante in the triad of the great writers of the fourteenth century, but considers him unsuitable as an expressive model for the experimentalism and hybridity of his language, which do not reflect the ideal of harmony and refinement.

Seicento (The 1600s)

The seventeenth century is the century of the Baroque, of literature as marvel, as imaginative, metaphorical extremism: the extremism, above all, of Marino and his great poetic school. But it is also the century of the union between literature and experimental sciences.

One of the most important authors and works of this period include Galileo Galilei, Galileo a scientist and philosopher who played a major role in the Scientific Revolution. His “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” (1632) compared the geocentric and heliocentric models of the universe, and led to his trial by the Inquisition.

Giambattista Basile was a poet and courtier who wrote “The Tale of Tales” (1634), a collection of 50 fairy tales that influenced the work of later writers such as the Brothers Grimm.

Giambattista Marino was a poet who wrote in the Baroque style, with complex metaphors and elaborate language. His most famous work is “L’Adone” (1623), an epic poem about the love of Adonis and Venus.

Alessandro Tassoni was a satirist who wrote “La Secchia Rapita” (The Stolen Bucket) in 1622, a mock-heroic poem about a battle between the cities of Modena and Bologna over a stolen bucket.

Torquato Tasso was a poet who wrote “Jerusalem Delivered” (1581), an epic poem about the First Crusade that was praised for its lyrical beauty and psychological depth.

Giuseppe Giusti was a poet who wrote political and social satire, criticizing the corruption and hypocrisy of Italian society. His most famous work is “The Song of the Shirt” (1840), a poem about the plight of poor workers in England that was widely translated and inspired social reform movements.

Overall, the seventeenth century in Italian literature was a time of great creativity and experimentation, with writers exploring new forms and styles of expression.

Settecento (The 1700s)

Eighteenth-century literary civilization went through various phases, often interconnected, first Arcadia, then the Enlightenment and Neoclassicism, but also carrying out explorations that are anticipations of the future, with nocturnal, sepulchral, ruinous writing, in a word “pre-romantic.”

The eighteenth century was a time of intellectual and artistic growth in Italy, known as the “Enlightenment” period. Some of the most important authors and works of this period include:

Carlo Goldoni: Goldoni was a playwright who is considered one of the most important figures in the history of Italian theater. He wrote over 150 plays, including the popular comedy “The Servant of Two Masters” (1746), which featured a clever and resourceful servant named Truffaldino.

Pietro Metastasio: Metastasio was a poet and librettist who wrote over 20 operas, which were performed throughout Europe. His works were known for their emotional intensity and lyrical beauty, and were a major influence on the development of Italian opera.

Giuseppe Parini: Parini was a poet who wrote social satire, criticizing the aristocracy and advocating for the rights of the common people. His most famous work is “The Day” (Il Giorno, 1763), a mock-heroic poem that portrays a day in the life of an Italian nobleman.

Ugo Foscolo: Foscolo was a poet and writer who was known for his romantic and patriotic themes. His most famous work is “The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis” (Le Ultime Lettere di Jacopo Ortis, 1802), a novel about a young man who commits suicide because of unrequited love and political disillusionment.

Vittorio Alfieri: Alfieri was a playwright and poet who wrote in the neoclassical style, with an emphasis on moral and political themes. His most famous play is “Oresteia” (1783), a trilogy about the House of Atreus that was praised for its dramatic power and psychological depth.

Overall, the eighteenth century in Italian literature was marked by a diversity of styles and themes, reflecting the intellectual and cultural trends of the time. The works of Goldoni, Metastasio, Parini, Foscolo, and Alfieri continue to be studied and appreciated for their literary merit and historical significance.

Ottocento (The 1800s)

In the dispute between classicists and romantics, great figures of poetry and prose emerge: Foscolo, Manzoni, Leopardi. The dialectical poetry collects the instances of realism, while a new civil literature is affirmed thanks to the ferments of the Risorgimento that lead to the Unification of Italy. The nineteenth century was a time of great change and upheaval in Italy, and this was reflected in the literature of the period.

Alessandro Manzoni: Manzoni was a novelist and poet who wrote one of the most famous works of Italian literature, “The Betrothed” (I Promessi Sposi, 1827). This historical novel tells the story of two young lovers who are prevented from marrying by a cruel and powerful nobleman, and their struggle to be reunited against the backdrop of war and social upheaval.

Gabriele D’Annunzio: D’Annunzio was a poet, novelist, and playwright who was known for his highly stylized and decadent writing. His most famous works include “The Triumph of Death” (Il Trionfo della Morte, 1894), a novel about a group of decadent aristocrats, and “The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian” (La Martyre de Saint Sébastien, 1898), a play about the Christian martyr.

Luigi Pirandello: Pirandello was a playwright and novelist who is known for his innovative use of stream-of-consciousness and multiple perspectives. His most famous plays include “Six Characters in Search of an Author” (Sei Personaggi in Cerca d’Autore, 1921), which explores the relationship between art and reality, and “Henry IV” (Enrico IV, 1922), which is about a man who believes he is the Holy Roman Emperor.

Giosuè Carducci: Carducci was a poet who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1906. His poetry was known for its classical themes and rigorous formal structure, and he was an important figure in the development of Italian literary language. Some of his most famous poems include “Hymn to Satan” (Inno a Satana, 1865) and “The Dead City” (La Città Morta, 1895).

Overall, the nineteenth century in Italian literature was a time of great artistic and cultural ferment, with writers and artists grappling with the challenges and opportunities of modernity. The works of Manzoni, D’Annunzio, Pirandello, and Carducci continue to be studied and appreciated for their enduring literary and historical value.

Novecento (The 1900s)

The historic avant-gardes undermine certainties. Original paths in theater and prose are affirmed, experimentation proposes new forms of poetry. The 20th century in Italian literature was marked by a diverse range of styles and themes, reflecting the social and cultural changes of the time. Some of the most important authors and works of this period include:

Italo Calvino: Calvino was a writer who was known for his imaginative and experimental approach to fiction. His most famous works include “Invisible Cities” (Le Città Invisibili, 1972), a series of interconnected stories about imaginary cities, and “If on a winter’s night a traveler” (Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore, 1979), a novel about a reader’s search for a missing book.

Umberto Eco: Eco was a philosopher and writer who is best known for his novel “The Name of the Rose” (Il Nome della Rosa, 1980), a murder mystery set in a medieval monastery. His other works include “Foucault’s Pendulum” (Il Pendolo di Foucault, 1988), a novel about a group of editors who create a conspiracy theory.

Primo Levi: Levi was a writer and Holocaust survivor who wrote extensively about his experiences in Nazi concentration camps. His most famous work is “Survival in Auschwitz” (Se questo è un uomo, 1947), a memoir that describes the brutal reality of life in the camps.

Overall, the 20th century in Italian literature was a time of innovation and experimentation, as writers explored new forms and themes. The works of Calvino, Eco, and Levi continue to be studied and appreciated for their literary and historical significance.

Modern Times and Italian-American Writers

Meanwhile, in the last century, many Italian-Americans have written books that have become known world-wide.

La Letteratura Italiana

Here are some of the most important Italian authors by century, along with some of their most famous works:

13th century:

  • Guido Cavalcanti
  • Giacomo da Lentini

14th century:

  • Dante Alighieri: “The Divine Comedy”
  • Giovanni Boccaccio: “The Decameron
  • Francesco Petrarca: “Canzoniere”

15th century:

  • Niccolò Machiavelli: “The Prince”
  • Giovanni Pico della Mirandola: “Oration on the Dignity of Man”

16th century:

  • Torquato Tasso: “Jerusalem Delivered”
  • Ludovico Ariosto: “Orlando Furioso”

17th century:

  • Galileo Galilei: “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems”
  • Giambattista Basile: “The Tale of Tales”

18th century:

  • Carlo Goldoni: “The Servant of Two Masters”
  • Pietro Metastasio: “Artaserse”

19th century:

  • Alessandro Manzoni: “The Betrothed”
  • Giuseppe Verdi: “Rigoletto”

20th century:

  • Italo Calvino: “Invisible Cities”
  • Umberto Eco: “The Name of the Rose”

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