Monday, January 5, 2015

The strength and valor of Italianness - early modern Italian literature, a reading list

In 2015, I am concentrating on Italian literature.  Unlike some other reading projects I have pursued here – Yiddish, Scottish, and Austrian, and to some arguable extent Portuguese and Scandinavian – there is a substantial and, why deny it, superior early modern literature available in English that I have already explored and do not plan to reread right now.

I decided to make a list of the Italian books I think of as the best, or most instructive, from the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, when Italian literature was the glory of Europe, the literature that writers in other languages imitated.  I have made a vague resolution to make more lists.  I love lists.

1.  Dante Alighieri, Inferno (c. 1320).  I have read this book several times in several translations, but the entire Divine Comedy only once.  Inferno is so rich, in characters, imagination, and ideas.

2.  Francesco Petrarca, Canzoniere (complete by Petrarch’s death in 1374), a selection, not necessarily a long one.  Many of Europe’s greatest poets will spend the next three hundred years modifying Petrarch.  It is hard to imagine what English, French, or Spanish poetry would have been like in his absence.  Perhaps this is a bad thing, but it is what happened.

3.  Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (c. 1353 – 14th century dating is an aggravation).  My Musa and Bondanella translation has a page describing possible abridgments, but I say read it all.  A hundred little stories, plus that extraordinary prologue about the Black Plague.

4.  Ludivico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso (1532 for the final version).  A crazy fantasy epic in eight-line stanzas, “a poem that refuses to begin and refuses to end” as Italo Calvino wrote*, but despite its length who would want less of it?

5.  Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (c. 1532).  A great piece of satire, the foundation of political science, and more.  The Norton Critical Edition put together by Robert M. Adams is the greatest critical edition I have ever come across.  Stated so baldly, that sounds like a silly thing about which to have an opinion.

6.  Niccolò Machiavelli, The Mandrake (1524).  A play, a comedy, not the sort of thing associated with Machiavelli now, but a little masterpiece.

7.  Gaspara Stampa, Poems (complete by 1554).  The greatest woman poet in Italian, perhaps; a Petrarchan; in her best poems as good as Petrarch.

8.  Michelangelo Buonnaroti, Poems (complete by 1564), a selection.  In a handful of poems, another rival of Petrarch (and Stampa); in bulk, rough and repetitive, although he does have the advantage of original subject matter, since who else could write a credible poem about painting the Sistine Chapel?  The ideal translation of Michelangelo’s poems would be an anthology by many different translators.

9.  Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters (1568), some reasonable selection of the best parts, which by chance or design would include the most famous artists.  I believe Penguin Classics publishes a good one.

10.  Benvenuto Cellini, Autobiography (1558-63).  A crazy genius tells his crazy adventures.  Astounding, funny, ridiculous, irritating.  I’m not sure why this book is not more commonly encountered on book blogs.  I understand that for many readers, poetry is akin to poison, and half of this list is poetry.  That I get.  But Cellini’s book is so much fun.

It is by chance that this list has ten entries.  The next set of books I would list (Castiglione, Tasso, more Dante, etc.) are more – not more advanced – more work, or are helped by more context.  I have not read all that many more Italian books from the Renaissance than I am listing – another dozen – which makes this list absurd.  But that’s all right.

As usual, I plan to invite those interested to read along with me, but, honestly anyone who has not read the above should read the above, which I am not planning to read, and not, with a couple of exceptions, what I do plan to read, lists of which are forthcoming.

The post’s title is from “To Angelo Mai on His Finding the Manuscript of Cicero’s De re publica,” the third poem of Giacomo Leopardi’s Canti, lines 24 and 25 of Jonathan Galassi’s 2010 translation.  Leopardi is one of the exceptions.

*  “The Structure of Orlando Furioso” in The Uses of Literature (1980), tr. Patrick Creagh, p. 162.


  1. More than a quarter of the books I read this past year were Italian, including Inferno and Orlando furioso, the last certainly the most delectable book I read in 2014. No one could want less of that poem. I'm tempted to learn Italian so I can read it in the original and also read Italo Calvino's two volume retelling of its stories.

    In short, I'm very much looking forward to this year's iteration of the Wuthering Expectations challenge.

  2. Il Buonnaroti's letters are his best writing, so full of complaints and clinical depressions; he was the first tortured artist; Van Gogh and the others don't even come close.

  3. That's a good list. I need to get busy!

    My personal list would also include some Bruno and Campanella, as well as some of the early Franciscan writings, like the "Little Flowers," and Francis's own prayers. That Franciscan stuff was far weirder and more intense than I expected.

  4. I've been reading bits of Canzoniere already; and will read Orlando Furioso. I read that Machiavelli play last year, but didn't think so much of it (it seemed a bit simple up against Jonson and Middleton - doesn't even have multiple, interweaving plots).

    Am just embarking on Casanova's autobiography, but imagine he's a bit outside your period. Interested, if you're largely going to be reading c19th lit, to see what you come up with. I've a few ideas of my own, but most of my Italian reading will probably c20th.

  5. I cannot recommend Baldo (1517) by Teofilo Folengo (AKA Merlin Coccaius) enough. Rabelais created pale reflections of Baldo's magnificence. Lazarillo de Tormes (and by extension the entire Picaresque novel genre) came out of just one chapter from that neglected, towering, macaronic gumbo that is Baldo.

  6. I might join in on the Furioso. Often I read the start, the middle; and then the library wants it back.

  7. The danger of writing this list, and your even more dangerous comments, is that the urge becomes so strong to read these books again, and the surrounding books, and the books about the books, and so on. They are so good. But no, this is not what I am reading now. No Ariosto, no Franciscan texts, no Baldo. Baldo looks so interesting.

    Casanova is a good idea, but for now I have settled on a different enormous folly of a book. Not as big as Casanova.

    I would say that Machiavelli's play is not complex like Jonson but rather complex in a different way. The Goldoni plays I have just read are the simple ones, yet what laughs.

    Campanella almost made this list. He is the end of the road for this amazing period. Bruno I put in the "more work" category, but he is worth the effort. To the uninitiated, I recommend reading some Lucian first. I guess that means I also put Bruno in the "more context" category.

    Buonnaroti is the most amusing kind of tortured artist, the rich, famous kind. That he was such a talented writer is some kind of injustice. Share the talent, Michelangelo, spread it around a little!

    Scott, I'll return to Calvino a bit at the end of the week, I hope. I read the re-tellings a long time ago, when I cannot possibly have known much about Ariosto or his book. How different The Castle of Crossed Destinies would look now, right?

  8. This is funny, because the books on this list that I haven't read are books I intended to read this year. Despite your Anno Italiano, Mr Reader.

    Have you read Castiglione, then? The Art of the Courtier is great fun. One of my novels leans heavily on that book.

  9. I may join in on a couple of these. I have had the Cellini for a while and it is due to be read. The Inferno and Decameron would make interesting re-reads, in part because time has erased much of them from my mind. However at the slow pace at which I get through books I own't commit to too many. But the Cellini, yes.

  10. Well, what do you know! I own all these except 4, 6 & 7. I actually bought #2 on your recommendation and it's sitting here waiting to be read, although I couldn't resist reading a page or two. I may join in but somehow the first part of my year has become overbooked with Ulysses, Persuasion, The Plague, etc. so it would probably be later on.

  11. I agree that Cellini's autobio is great fun, almost as much of the first half of the Decameron (all that I've really read of it, that is) and, why not, Inferno. I hope to finally finish the Boccaccio this year along with a couple of others from your list(s). By the way, are you up for a challenge to read Bruni's History of the Florentine People with me or are you going to chicken out because it was written in Latin and not that vulgar language all these other works by the young whippersnappers were written in!

  12. A lovely list! I do so enjoy a good list. I actually have a books-to-read-translated-from-Italian list, but it's missing some of the titles you have here (and in the comments). After the positive Siglo de oro poetry reading experience last spring, I think I'll have to make the Petrarch/Stampa/Buonnaroti a must-read sooner rather than later.

  13. I might ride along with you with The Inferno, and the Divine Comedy if you go that route, time permitting. I've read the Lawrence Binyon translation several times now, and it's been awhile.

  14. No, no, there is no joining in, there is no riding along. I am not reading these books. I am reading 19th century books, with a little dip into the 18th and some rummaging in the 20th. Not these. Unless perhaps somebody else organizes - no, be firm.

    And no neo-Latin, forget it.

    I love the Laurence Binyon Inferno. My favorite version, easily.

    The Book of the Courtier is brilliant, but I think that book is hard work. It requires a serious imaginative dislocation. I do not believe I have ever come closer to the mentality of the Italian 16th century.

    Amanda, it's a great little grouping of poets, superb in their best poems, mostly interesting in general. And they lead everywhere - into England via Wyatt and Howard, France via Ronsard and Scève, Spain via a century of poets. Petrarch is the point of origin.

    Glad to see so much Cellini praise. Although it is hard to imagine anyone who has read the book being indifferent. Cellini singlehandedly defended the walls of Rome from attackers! He summoned a salamander! He was a lunatic!

  15. I keep meaning to read Dante. Do you have a preferred translation?

  16. There are so many English Dantes. I have hardly even glanced at any of them. Some of the more up-to-date versions, like Clive James, sound ridiculous to me, but who knows.

    The Singleton version is in literal prose, and it works, as if it were a fantasy novel. The Italian is right there, the commentary is extensive and exciting in its own right. A great place to really get to work on the poem.

    My best answer is: read more than one Inferno.