Italian LiteratureThe modern language of Italy is naturally derived from Latin, a continuation and development of the Latin actually spoken among the inhabitants of the peninsula after the downfall of the Roman Empire. It is still disputed how far this spoken Latin was identical with the classical literary language of Rome, and how far it was a merely popular tongue. Most probably it was a mixture of the two. A small number of words derived from Greek are in part relics of the epoch of Byzantine domination, in part introduced later through the Crusades and through commerce; the Saracenic invasions have left traces in a very few Arabic words, chiefly in Sicily; a certain number of words have come indirectly from the Latin through French or Provençal; even the long centuries of Teutonic conquests and inroads caused only a comparatively slight influx of words of Germanic origin.
The rise of a literature, both written and spoken, in the vernacular began in the 13th century; a period of great political and civil revival in the Italian cities and a lively renaissance in art and culture after the difficult centuries following barbarian domination. There were a great number of trends in 13th-century literature: religious poetry; poetry made popular by the French jongleurs; the comic-satirical poetry of Cecco Angiolieri; chivalric literature (the chansons de geste derived from the French); didactic and moralistic prose in which Brunetto Latini was prominent, and, the most widespread, love poetry.
The Thirteenth Century
Italian literature, strictly speaking, begins with the early years of the thirteenth century. Among the influences at work in its formation must first be mentioned the religious revival wrought by St. Francis of Assisi and his followers bearing lyrical fruit in the Lauda, the popular sacred song, especially in Central Italy. St. Francis himself composed one of the earliest Italian poems, the famous "Cantica del Sole", or "Laudes Creaturarum" (1225), a "sublime improvisation" (as Paschal Robinson well calls it) rather than a strictly literary production. The most important literary movement of the latter half of the 13th century was what Dante called the "dolce stil novo".
Dante alighieri (1265-1321)
The 14th century was a period of gradual change in Medieval life and culture which gave rise to a new concept of existence. It also saw a maturing of the literary tradition which was given its greatest expression by the Florentine Dante Alighieri. Dante's work was the origin to the modern Italian literary and linguistic tradition. The early lyrics are collected in the "Vita Nuova", an idealized autobiography in which the poet sings of his love for Beatrice whilst at the same time transcending that love for a higher one: the love of God. In the other works prior to the "Divine Comedy" ("Convivio","De vulgari eloquentia", "De monarchia"), Dante deals with contemporary themes of the spirit, culture, and politics.
Dante's major work, and the greatest in Italian literature is the "Divine Comedy": a complex and highly poetic work treating a vast subject. The content unites the culture and spirit of the Middle Ages and expresses a religious faith in a universe built and run by God's will.
This century in Italy, as elsewhere, is the golden age of vernacular ascetical and mystical literature, producing a rich harvest of translations from the Scriptures and the Fathers, of spiritual letters, sermons, and religious treatises no less remarkable for their fervour and unction than for their linguistic value.
The prose of the 14th century was characterized by an explosion of religious literature, primarily aimed at the education and religious instruction of the people. The number of sermons, doctrinal treatises, biographies of saints (particularly centered around Saint Francis and Saint Catherine) written at this time are testimony to the degree to which Christianity had become rooted in contemporary conscience and culture. There were also numerous historical works, in both Latin and Italian. These "chronicles" are notable for their liveliness and concrete narration.
The ideals of Humanism culminated in the Renaissance: the most glorious period in Italian art which set the example for the rest of Europe through the work of Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Donatello, Botticelli, Brunelleschi, Bramante etc., and marked the beginning of modern civilization. It was a period characterized by a belief in Man at the centre of the universe, both subject and creator of his destiny, by the ideals of grace, beauty and harmony and by the glorification of individual freedom and the synthesis between Man and Nature.
There are two distinct epochs in the history of the Italian Renaissance: the earlier, including the greater part of the fifteenth century (Il Quattrocento), from the return of the popes from Avignon (1377) to the invasion of Charles VIII (1494); the later, comprising the sixteenth century (Il Cinquecento), from the defeat of the French at Fornovo (1495) to the devolution of the Duchy of Ferrara to the Holy See (1597).
The creative genius of the Italians had been exhausted by the Renaissance, and the life of the nation crushed down by the foreign yoke of Spain, imposed on the peninsula by the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis (1559). Already in the latter part of the sixteenth century the decline had set in; it lasted through the whole of the seventeenth (Il Seicento), and the first half of the eighteenth century (Il Settecento), which together form the least fruitful epoch in the history of Italian literature.
Although the greatest Italian of the epoch, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), belongs to science rather than to literature, his writings are distinguished by the highest literary excellences. Francesco Redi (1626-1698), a distinguished physician, was also a poet and philologist. Three Jesuits are among the chief prose writers of the century, combining devotion and learning with a literary style which, though far less free than Galileo's from the faults of the age, is unsurpassed by any of their contemporaries. Father Sforza Pallavicino (1607-1667) composed the official history of the Council of Trent, in refutation of that of Fra Paolo Sarpi (1552-1623), and ethical and religious treatises, of which the "Arte della Perfezione Cristiana" and the four books "Del Bene", philosophical dialogues held in the villa of Cardinal Alessandro Orsini at Bracciano, are still read; Father Daniello Bartoli (1608-85), a prolific and brilliant author, wrote the history of the Society of Jesus in a style which is typical of the Seicento at its best, Father Paolo Segneri (1624-94) reformed the art of religious oratory and freed it from the corruptions of the times.
Amongst the many successful writers to emerge in the last few decades, some deserve particular mention: Italo Calvino, whose philosophical tales have an original and fantastical twist ("I nostri antenati"); Carlo Emilio Gadda who uses an anti-traditional language to portray contemporary society; Dino Buzzati ("Il deserto dei Tartari") and Elsa Morante ("La storia") who study the psychological workings of man. Umberto Eco's historical mystery novel "Il nome della rosa" (In the Name of the Rose) has enjoyed great international success.