What is Italian literature? I ignored the question; it is an important one for this literature. These judgments are always retrospective: Italian literature is what people interested in the subject treat as Italian literature. But I am not only working with a conventional contemporary idea, but a central question going back to Dante, at the least. What is the Italian language? What is Italy?
Yesterday I glanced at some of the highlights of almost three hundred years of arguing about these questions, the extraordinary run from Dante Alighieri to the visionary poet Tommaso Campanella, who gets us into the 17th century. Something happens to the literature then; the life sputters out of it. My glib explanation is the Counter-Reformation. But around 1609, Claudio Monteverdi perfected and popularized the form of musical theater we for some reason call opera, and if anything the cultural prestige of Italian music only increased. There was no obvious lack of, to use a dubious metaphor, cultural energy in northern Italian kingdoms and cities.
I don’t know what happened to Italian literature. Spanish literature caught the same flu about fifty years later and took two hundred years to recover.
My next Italian landmark is the Venetian comic playwright Carlo Goldoni in the mid-18th century, author of The Servant of Two Masters (1743) and dozens of other comedies. I read a couple over the weekend, including the recent adaptation by Richard Bean, One Man, Two Guvnors (2011) that was such a big hit in London. That is one funny play. I’ll write about these soon.
Then there is the proto-Romantic Count Vittorio Alfieri, founder of Italian tragedy, possibly the only Italian tragedian of consequence. He is a giant in Italian but not in English, and I can guess why – first, English barely has room for its own tragedies, and second, Alfieri’s almost singular dramatic theme was the overthrow of tyrants, which may have more juice in Italy and France than in England or the United States.
I’ve read his best known play, Saul (1782), about the overthrow of a tyrant, and am now reading his posthumous (1806) Autobiography, about the triumph of a tyrant. I have gotten to some good stuff, but not to the good stuff, e.g.:
… claiming to be a democrat because he never struck his servants with anything but his open hand, yet stretching out his valet with a bronze candlestick because the valet pulled his hair slightly while combing it… and then sleeping – or claiming to sleep – with his bedroom door always open so that the valet might come in and, in revenge, murder him in his sleep. (Ford Madox Ford on p. 655 of The March of Literature, first italics mine, second his)
A big personality. It might make similar sense to read a couple more autobiographies contemporary with Alfieri, the Memoirs of Mozart’s librettist Lorenzo da Ponte or more temptingly the massive Story of My Life of Giacomo Casanova, but I doubt that will happen.
Finally, the 19th century. I plan to revisit to major figures from Italian Romanticism. One if Ugo Foscolo, a genuine revolutionary and fine poet although with a lyrical gift that has perhaps defeated his translators. I remember many years ago running across a website with some lovely versions of Foscolo’s Graces (1803-1822) but I cannot find it now. Foscolo also wrote The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis (1802), a novella that is a conceptual politicized Italianization of The Sorrows of Young Werther. I hope to revisit it and see if it is as clever as I remember. Or impassioned, or propagandistic, or whatever it is.
And then there is Giacomo Taldegardo Francesco di Sales Saverio Pietro Leopardi. The title quotation is again from Leopardi, from the same poem I used yesterday (p. 39), and is a description of Alfieri.
He was the first to go
down into the ring alone, and no one followed,
for idleness and brutal silence now own us most of all.
The idea that Leopardi can be described as idle or silent is hilarious. But look how long I have gone on. I will start with Leopardi tomorrow. I gotta pick up the pace. At this rate – well, pretty soon I’ll get to books I haven’t read. My ignorance should constrain the babble.