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18th century: enlightenment, rise of neoclassicism
a quick history of italian literature

By Roberto Simmarano

Cultural Revival in the 18th Century: Arcadia and Pietro Metastasio
Italian art experienced a revival in the 18th century, particularly in the latter half with the spread of the Enlightenment. The process was begun, however, in 1690 with the founding of the Arcadia - a literary academy set up with the aim of replacing the extravagance and artificiality of the 17th century with a more serious and rational poetry expressing true emotions. The major writer was Pietro Metastasio (1698-1792), author of a number of melodramas in which the main characteristic is a dream-like idyllism, expressed in a highly musical language.

Philosophical and Historical Research: Giovanni Battista Vico and Lodovico Antonio Muratori
The cultural revival of the early 18th century also caused an increase of interest in philosophical and historical research where the most important figure was Giovanni Battista Vico (1668-1744). Vico rejected the prevalent Cartesian rationalism and scientific interest in favour of an investigation of mankind, the progress of human history and psychological development. The historical studies of Lodovico Antonio Muratori (1672-1750), with their critical analysis of Italian civil and literary history, are also worthy of note.

The Spread of Enlightenment
Italian culture and literature experienced a revival in the second half of the 18th century as a result of the spread of the ideals of the Enlightenment. Italian writers felt the need for contact with the rest of European culture and were convinced that this was the only way Italy could play any role in the progress of civilization. The Enlightenment to them meant the search for a literature tied more closely to contemporary issues and directed at a general social improvement. The new ideas spread to Naples and especially Milan where the periodical Caffè, the Verri brothers and Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794) inquired into literary, economic and civil problems with a modern approach.

Giuseppe Parini (1729-1799)
Giuseppe Parini best embodies the intellectual and spiritual revival that took place in Italy in the second half of the 18th century. Parini is particularly notable for his moral dignity and for his commitment to the spread of Enlightened, progressive and humanitarian ideals through his public life and writing. Parini's major work is Il Giorno, a satirical poem in which he exposes the idleness, frivolities and spiritual emptiness of contemporary nobility.

The Eearly 19th Century and Neoclassicism
The Napoleonic period was characterized by the rise of Neoclassicism, a cultural trend that spread widely from the figurative arts to literature and the minor arts. The basic tenet of Neoclassicism was that Classical art, with its calm and balanced simplicity, expressed a perfect human and spiritual harmony. Art should therefore be the expression of an ideal and timeless beauty and a harmony of form, colour and sound. The major Italian poet of the period was Vincenzo Monti (1754-1828) whose elegant and passionate verse was intended to escape the problems of the time, harking back to the Classical and mythological world and its ever-present ideal beauty.

Ugo Foscolo (1778-1827)
The works of Ugo Foscolo, one of Italy's major 19th-century poets, fully express the poet's personal occupation with the difficult years of mutation from the Enlightenment to Romanticism, the French Revolution to the Restoration, 18th-century materialism to the Romantic religious angst. They give voice to a lay earthly faith based on the highest human values of truth, justice, beauty, patriotism and liberty. These themes appear in his juvenilia Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis, an autobiographical story in the form of letters, two odes and Le Grazie (of clear Neoclassic influence), but reach their fullest and most poetic expression in the sonnet sequence and his most successful poem, I Sepolcri.

Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837)
One of the great Italian poets of the 19th century was Giacomo Leopardi for the depth of his thought, his acute understanding of psychology and the power of his poetic expression. Leopardi's characteristic existential anguish reflects the general European spiritual and philosophical crisis that marked the end of the Enlightenment and the rise of Romanticism. The sceptical concepts of 18th-century rationalism could not preclude Romantic angst about the infinite, the eternal, a reason for life beyond ennui, universal sorrow and inevitable death. Leopardi's lyrical poems sing of illusion, love, beauty and the noble human emotions as a comfort against the agonizing process of living and an affirmation of Man's inherent dignity.

Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873)
Alessandro Manzoni's life and writings display a balance between Enlightened ideals (justice, freedom and democracy), Romanticism and Catholicism. Manzoni's inner strife led to an abandonment of rationalist ideals in favour of Catholicism but without renouncing Enlightened values.This spiritual evolution can be seen in the Inni Sacri - five poems which describe human affections within the scope of the Catholic faith - the odes, the tragedies (Il Conte di Carmagnola and Adelchi) and particularly in I Promessi Sposi, a historical novel set in the 17th century. Manzoni aims to present life with all its injustices and surprises, where only the constant presence of God can bring relief and meaning to human existence.

Our journey next month will take us in to the Risorgimento


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