Literature


Literature
   Modern Italian literature can best be summarized by an account of its principal literary movements. In the period covered by this dictionary, the first important movement is Romanticism, which in Italy at least was associated with the Risorgimentoand passionate national feeling. The most famous Romantic poets are Ugo Foscolo and, of course, Giacomo Leopardi, who nevertheless returned to classicism in his later works. Alessandro Manzoni, the author of I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed, 1827), was both a great novelist and an ardent evoker of Italianita. In poetry, a neoclassical reaction to Romanticism emerged in the work of Giosue Carducci, who was the first Italian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. At the end of the 19th century Verismo (naturalism), with its photographic realism and commitment to picturing life objectively, produced two significant writers, the Sicilian Giovanni Verga and the Sardinian Grazia Deledda, who also won the Nobel Prize. Both are fine writers, but their work is less powerful than that of their French contemporary, Emile Zola. Acontemporary writer working in the tradition of Verismo is Elsa Morante. Her novels, with their child protagonists acting as the voice of innocence and imagination in the face of the horrors of history and the adult world, have yet to be fully discovered outside Italy and France. In general, the post-1945 tradition of neorealism, though more overtly political, shares some core features of Verismo. Cesare Pavese, Beppe Fenoglio, and Vasco Pratolini are well-known neorealist writers. But for stark depictions of the realities of everyday life, no Italian novelist has matched the brilliance of the film directors working in this genre. The classic neorealist novel is really Vittorio De Sica’s film Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief, 1948).
   Decadentism, whose exponents included the poet and novelist Gabriele D’Annunzio, the poet Giovanni Pascoli, and the novelist Italo Svevo, was an early 20th-century literary movement whose writers were fascinated by the decay of European society; their work was much more subjective and concerned with their protagonists’inner states and emotions than naturalist writers. Once again, Italy’s writers, while important, do not match the finest French writers (Baudelaire, Rambaud, Proust) of this genre. The exception is Luigi Pirandello, who can be associated with decadentism but whose work transcends any individual school. There is no doubt of Pirandello’s status, despite his political leanings toward Fascism, as one of the most profound writers in any language in the 20th century. Futurism was another literary and artistic current that had Fascist leanings. The movement glorified war and violence and delighted in the power and dynamism of modern life. In addition to the movement’s founder, Filippo Marinetti, the most gifted writer associated with the movement is probably the poet Aldo Palazzeschi. Italian literature in the 20th century fared well in two of literature’s main fields, poetry and the novel. There were three main poetic movements: the crepuscular movement, which was allied in spirit to decadentism; futurism; and hermeticism, which was characterized by a rejection of D’Annunzian bombast and by the use of simple words in dense, allusive, complex phrases. Mario Luzi and Giuseppe Ungaretti are the most famous writers in this last school, but both have to bow to Eugenio Montale, who is unquestionably one of the great poets of the last century. The work of Salvatore Quasimodo, who, like Montale, also won the Nobel Prize, is perhaps less venerated today. This short account can only hint at the richness of the Italian literary tradition and the wealth of styles it has produced. Ignazio Silone was a politically sophisticated writer with deep roots in the Abruzzi countryside whence he came; Italo Calvino was a master of favole (fables); Leonardo Sciascia wrote about both Sicily and the sophistication of human depravity in beautiful, subtle prose; Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa’s Gattopardo (The Leopard, 1958) must be one of the richest pictures of decadence written in recent times. Umberto Eco’s Il Nome della Rosa (The Name of the Rose, 1980) is a philosophical mystery story of great intellectual power. The plight of Jewish Italians after the 1938 racial laws is the political background to the works of Giorgio Bassani and Primo Levi. The theatrical tradition is much less strong. Pirandello aside, only Dario Fo, who is a remarkable clown and satirist but probably not a great writer, and the Neopolitan playwright Eduardo De Filippo have achieved an international reputation.
   Italian literary life remains varied and challenging in style and content today. One reason may be that Italy is exceptionally open to works in translation. The best English, French, and German novels are instantly translated into Italian. American models exercised a large influence on Italian writing in the post-1945 period. Latin American “magical realists” have also left their mark. Translated works are often more “popular” than Italian writers. Popular writing does exist in Italy—its outstanding exponent was Giovanni Guareschi—but there is no Italian equivalent of John Grisham, Agatha Christie, or Tom Clancy. The lack of children’s writers is striking. Italian children fed up with reading either dated fables or filastrocche (nursery tales) have taken enthusiastically to the stories of Harry Potter.

Historical Dictionary of Modern Italy. . 2007.

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