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Survey of Italian Literature 101: ‘Il Novecento’ Part I/ Crepuscolarism, Futurism and Hermeticism


Foreword


The Survey of Italian Literature 101 series aims to offer readers a complete overview of the rich and diverse Italian literary tradition. Through summary and description, this series will provide readers with an understanding of the works from different literary periods and from diverse regions of Italy. It will cover both the classics and works by contemporary authors as well as those from lesser-known areas, providing a broad introductory survey to those who are interested in learning more about Italian culture and the country’s literary works.

The Survey of Italian Literature 101 series is divided into eight chapters:


Survey of Italian Literature 101: ‘Il Novecento’ Part I/ Crepuscolarism, Futurism and Hermeticism


Italian literature underwent a significant transformation throughout the first half of the 20th century, marked by new literary movements and the rise of influential writers. This period was characterised by a search for new forms of artistic expression and a departure from traditional literary styles. The Futurist and Crepuscolarism movements, in particular, played a crucial role in shaping Italian literature during this period. However, these movements were not immune to criticism, as writers like Umberto Saba and Giuseppe Ungaretti rejected the conventions of the times and developed their own unique styles. The discussion of "Il Novecento" will be divided into two parts. The first part will examine the literary movements and the works of the most relevant authors through their distinctive contributions to Italian literature of the early 20th century. The second part will focus on the post-war 20th century and the novel's resurgence.

Figure 1: Massacro (Guttuso, 1942)
The First Part of the 20th Century/Primo Novecento

The early 20th century witnessed a proliferation of avant-garde movements across Europe. These artistic movements sought to distance themselves from traditional forms of literature. As a result, artistic production was influenced by the crisis of ideals and certainties that emerged towards the end of the preceding century, both in the philosophical and scientific fields.

La Voce, a weekly literary magazine established in 1908 and circulated until 1916, was a pivotal moment in Italian intellectual history, exerting a profound influence on the country’s cultural scene by covering controversial topics such as administrative decentralisation, family code reform, suffrage, women’s voting rights, the southern question, irredentism, schooling, and modern psychology, including early mentions of Freud’s work. During the first half of the century, several major literary currents emerged, including Crepuscularism, which gave rise to a new generation of poets. Additionally, Futurism, Pirandello’s novels and plays, Svevo’s introspective and psychoanalytic novels, which renewed the novel and connected to European culture, and the extensive current of Hermeticism all occupied a prominent position in the literary landscape of the era (Genesini, 2022).


Figure 2: La Voce (Prezzolini, 1914)
Luigi Pirandello

Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936) is widely recognised as the founder of the literary movement known as humour, which features the liberation of individuals from societal constraints. Genesini (2022) offers an account of how the author further expanded this concept to include the notion of becoming a nobody, enabling his characters to be shaped by their life experiences. Additionally, Pirandello formulated a system of person-characters and masks to emphasise the fluidity and malleability of identity within his literary universe. The publication of Il fu Mattia Pascal in 1904 marked the inception of the humour and Pirandellian literary style. The novel features the protagonist, Mattia Pascal, living a less-than-fulfilling life in his village, trapped in an unwanted marriage. He flees to Monte Carlo to escape his troubles through gambling and, upon his return, reads about the death of a man named Mattia Pascal. He takes the opportunity to visit various Italian cities, adopting the name Adriano Meis. At this point, the novel delves into themes of the protagonist’s rejection of the vastness of the world, which he deems impossible to understand and instead chooses to ignore. However, this rejection leads to a series of paradoxical situations, including the loss of Mattia’s own identity. According to Sambugar and Salá (2004), Pirandello’s exploration of an individual’s identity, uncertainty, and desire to escape mediocrity continues to resonate with readers, making him one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.


Figure 3: Cover of the seventh edition of Il fu Mattia Pascal (1919)

In his analysis of Luigi Pirandello’s Novelle per un anno (1937), Genesini (2022) highlights the significance of this collection of 225 novellas for their unique blend of realism and humour. The collection contributes to developing the Pirandellian style, characterised by a fascination with curious, strange characters and tragicomic and bizarre situations that arise unintentionally. Furthermore, it serves as a testament to Pirandello’s immense writing skill and ability to imbue his writing with a unique and enduring sensibility. The collection remains an essential milestone within the Italian literary canon and continues to captivate readers with its wit and insight.


In addition to his contributions to the genre of the novel, Luigi Pirandello excelled with his contributions to theatre. Authors and critics Sambugar & Salà (2004) explain that his work Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore (1921) garnered international acclaim and cemented Pirandello’s reputation as a leading figure in modern theatre. The play explores the themes of identity, illusion, and reality through its innovative and complex structure. The characters’ struggle to find their identity and purpose reflects Pirandello’s interest in the complexities of the human condition and the relationship between fiction and reality. The play’s unconventional narrative structure, which blurs the line between reality and illusion, challenged the traditional conventions of theatre and paved the way for developing modernist and postmodernist drama. Additionally, Pirandello introduced the concept of metatheatre, which involves theatre that comments on itself and its theatricality, thus expanding the possibilities for self-reflection and self-awareness within the theatrical form. For his achievements in literature, especially in theatre, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1934.


Figure 4: An exotic performance (Bertieri, 1900-30)

Italo Svevo

Italo Svevo (1861-1928) was a prominent figure for his enigmatic style and subject matter, positioning him as a precursor to Freud’s psychoanalytical theories in his literary production. In contrast to the glorification of the superman or the aristocrat dedicated to an aesthetic lifestyle that can be found in D'Annuzio's work, Svevo introduced the inept character. This antihero embodies indecisiveness, procrastination, and passivity in the face of life’s unexpected events, plagued by a sense of inadequacy, unable to fully engage with the world because of a lack of values, direction, and purpose. As a result, the inept struggle to find their place in society and derive no meaning from their existence despite their best efforts. Svevo’s portrayal of the inept is pivotal, as it challenges traditional notions of heroism and highlights the complexities of human nature in the modern age, as noted by Sapegno (1973).


In Svevo’s La coscienza di Zeno (1923), the protagonist embodies the quintessential inept individual, leading a life characterised by perpetual irresponsibility and devoted solely to analysing and studying his illness and its symptoms. However, the novel does not merely narrate the story of an ”illness,” but reveals his refusal to heal. Through the recollection of his life’s events, often grotesque and paradoxical and frequently plagued by various illnesses, Zeno gains insight into the hypocrisy of society's pursuit of health and well-being. Through his experiences with illness, Zeno comes to see how society values conformity over individuality and how individuals often feign health and normalcy to fit in. This indicates that not only the individual but also life itself is plagued with sickness, leading to a chaotic world characterised by the self-destructive madness of war and the creation of unprecedented catastrophes brought about by human-made “devices,” such as atomic bombs. Any attempts to cure or heal are thus deemed futile since no one can escape the neurosis of civilisation, money and consumption. Svevo’s novel suggests that only a huge explosion, be it a technological catastrophe or the creation of a new world inhabited by inept “healthy” individuals immune to the squalid present, can permanently alleviate the fear of disease (Sambugar & Salà, 2004).


Figure 5: Cover of the second, posthumous edition of La coscienza di Zeno (1930)

Crepuscolarism or “Twilight”

Twilight, a period of the day following sunset, is characterised by a soft, diminishing light. The crepuscular or “twilight” poets were known for their appreciation of the penumbra and their affinity for the mundane and commonplace, emphasising life’s less glamorous and sunny aspects. Their works often feature everyday objects, environments, habits, and intimacies of life without grandiose ideals, rejecting societal commitment and yearning for a return to childhood while upholding traditional values. These poets consider themselves heirs to the poetics of Giovanni Pascoli, who pioneered the celebration of little things and intimate verses. As evidenced by Guglielmino (1971), Crepuscular poets were characterised as lacking drive and passion, which ironically hindered their ability to achieve the ideals of quiet, modest happiness as a form of nostalgia and withdrawal from the world. Nevertheless, their melancholic introspection served a polemical purpose, opposing the lyricism of Gabriele D’Annunzio. Through language modulations towards prose and discursiveness, Crepuscolari highlighted their rejection of the superman and aesthetic ideals (Guglielmino, 1971).


Figure 6: San Giorgio Maggiore at dusk (Monet, 1908)

Guido Gozzano

Guido Gozzano (1883-1916) is recognised as the pioneer and primary exponent of Crepuscularism, distinguishing himself from his contemporaries by his ironic and dispassionate approach to the human condition. In terms of poetics, he adopts a familiar, vernacular style that closely resembles prose, in stark contrast to the flamboyant style of D’Annunzio. Gozzano’s oeuvre has garnered considerable acclaim and has profoundly influenced later poets, particularly those of the Hermetic movement (Genesini, 2022).


La Signorina Felicita, also known as La Felicità, is a hallmark of Gozzano’s poetic legacy and Crepuscularism. This literary work encapsulates the principal themes of this artistic current, ranging from anti-Dannunzianism and illness to the repudiation of the poet’s role and the allure of mundane everyday life, while maintaining a persistent tendency towards irony and self-parody. This poem belongs to the lyric genre, written in the first person, employing sextuplets hendecasyllables, and was published as part of the I colloqui (1911) collection. Comprised of eight parts, the imaginary tale narrates a commonplace middle-class affair: the protagonist, Gozzano himself impersonating a lawyer on holiday in Canavese (Piedmont), falls in love with Felicita, a simple girl who no longer places much emphasis on her outward appearance. In this literary work, the author intentionally challenges the traditional portrayal of aristocratic women, actresses, and princesses by highlighting the naturalness and genuineness of women from the working class (Genesini, 2022).


Figure 7: Market Scene (Raimondi, 1933-67)

Futurism

Italian literature at the turn of the 20th century was marked by two contrasting literary movements, Crepuscularism and Futurism, as noted by the Italian critic Sapegno (1973). While the Crepuscular poets retreated into themselves and used colloquial language to evoke nostalgia for the past, the Futurists embraced the future. They experimented with new forms of writing to create poems full of dynamism and freedom. The Futurists eschewed traditional syntax, modified words, and arranged them on the page to suggest the images they sought to portray. Interestingly, the Futurists supported Italy’s intervention in the First World War and later allied themselves with the Fiume enterprise and the initial developments of fascism.

The literary scene in Italy during this half of the century was heavily influenced by socio-political and cultural factors, particularly during the Fascist regime (1922-1943). As a result, the free circulation of ideas was severely limited, if not entirely prevented, which strongly impacted the literary debates of the time. This impact was felt even more strongly at the end of the Second World War. One of the most noteworthy characteristics of Italian literature during this period was the interaction between the national language, which gained traction only towards the end of the 19th century and after unification (1861), and the many dialects that existed in the country. This interaction often led to the use of bilingualism, which was evident in the works of many poets of the early twentieth century (Sapegno, 1973).


Figure 8: The City Rises (Boccioni, 1910)

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti

Widely recognised as the originator of the Futurist movement, Marinetti (1876-1944) participated in the First World War as a volunteer. He turned his attention to politics after the war, founding the Futurist Political Party. Later, the party merged with the National Fascist Party, indicating Marinetti’s allegiance to the ideology of fascism. However, this alignment with the regime proved to be a double-edged sword for Marinetti and his movement. With fascism's rise to power in 1922, the Futurists became a disruptive force in the process of normalisation initiated by the regime. Consequently, Marinetti’s influence waned in the years following the Fascist takeover. Despite this, Marinetti received a significant honour in 1929 when he was appointed academician of Italy by Mussolini (Genesini, 2022).


He issued the first Manifesto del Futurismo in February 1909 in Paris. The Manifesto proclaims an unwavering faith in the future and extols the virtues of modern technology and machinery. It exalts the values of strength, motion, vitality, dynamism, and momentum, urging writers to compose new works inspired by a sense of aggressive and overbearing joy for life. Furthermore, the Manifesto expresses the hope for the emergence of revolutionary literature that would be emancipated from all traditional rules, including grammar, spelling, and punctuation. In the Manifesto del Futurismo, the author celebrates danger, courage, audacity, rebellion, physical force, and the beauty of modern civilisation’s omnipresent speed, enhanced by the automobile. On the contrary, he idealises war, militarism, patriotism, and destructive acts by libertarians as the only way to cleanse the world while rejecting all forms of past art, including museums, libraries, and academies, and opposing moralism, feminism, and cowardice driven by opportunism. Additionally, Marinetti finds value in crowds agitated by work, pleasure, and revolt, as well as in technology, including arsenals, workshops, bridges, and steamers (Genesini, 2022).


Figure 9: First page of the English version of Il Manifesto del Futurismo (Marinetti, 1909)

Hermeticism

The critic Francesco Flora (1940) coined the term hermetic poetry, characterised by a language often difficult, ambiguous, and mysterious. Hermetic poets aimed to express fragments of truth through poetic revelation rather than reasoning, resulting in highly concentrated texts with intense allusive, analogical, and symbolic charges. They strived for hermetic poetry as pure poetry. The use of essential terms and simplified syntax was predominant, while rhetorical expressions, excessive lexical richness, and sentimentality were avoided. White spaces and frequent pauses also contributed to this essentiality. According to Floras’s (1940) research, Hermetic poets’ disengaged from their time’s social and political reality, often feeling alienated and morally isolated for their experiences of the First World War and fascism.

Figure 10: The Melancholy of Departure (de Chirico, 1916)

Salvatore Quasimodo

Genesini’s (2022) analysis highlights the relevant position of Salvatore Quasimodo (1901-1968), who significantly contributed to translating classical poetry, particularly Greek lyrics and plays by Molière and William Shakespeare. His literary achievements culminated in the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1959:


“for his lyrical poetry, which with classical fire expresses the tragic experience of life in our own times” (Nobel Prize Outreach AB, n.d.).

Quasimodo’s poetry collections evoke memories of his childhood in Sicily and reflect on the distant figures of loved ones. They also convey a palpable sense of displacement caused by living in a society tainted by the effects of post-industrialisation in northern Italy.


In 1942, Salvatore Quasimodo published Ed è Subito sera, a collection of poems that included approximately 20 new pieces and those featured in his previous works. According to Genesini (2022), Quasimodo revised the existing texts, emphasising concision and essentiality, incorporating hendecasyllables and other long lines, contributing to a more relaxed rhythm. Despite the continued presence of memories of his childhood in Sicily, the poet conveys a new sense of restlessness and the desire to break out of his solitude and engage with the places and people of his current life.


Ed è subito sera, 1930

Ognuno sta solo sul cuor della terra

Everyone is alone at the heart of the earth,

trafitto da un raggio di Sole:

pierced by a ray of sunshine;

ed è subito sera.

and suddenly it's evening.

​(Genesini, 2022)


Figure 11: The Evening (Friedrich, 1821)

Umberto Saba

Rejecting the established canons of 20th-century poetry, such as Futurism, Hermeticism and Crepuscularism, Umberto Saba (1883-1957) was an anti-Novecentismo poet. In fact, he returned to classical poetry, taking Francesco Petrarca as a model, employing a spontaneous and accessible language, and striving for clarity throughout his life (Sambugar & Salà, 2004).


Il Canzoniere, initially published in 1919, has undergone various republishing and significant expansions, ultimately becoming a three-part composition, focusing on his personal life shaped by the traumatic experience of his mother’s repressive upbringing. According to Genesini (2022), Il Canzoniere, can be seen as a personal journey of the poet's life. It chronicles his path towards purification from childhood to old age, highlighting the theme of his traumatic separation from his nurse at the age of three. This element is common and evident in his production, where he refers to his nurse as the Mother of Joy and his mother as the Mother of Sadness. Saba assigns these two figures to every woman he encounters in his life, as demonstrated in the first volume, where he compares his wife Lina to the obscure maternal figure.


Figure 12: Portrait of Umberto Saba (Patellani, 1946)

In the poem A mia moglie (1911), Saba compares Lina to various forms of docile domestic animals yet attributes to them harsh and severe attitudes that resemble those of the poet’s mother. Notably, this portrayal contrasts sharply with later works, where Lina is depicted more positively as a figure of comfort and support (Genesini, 2022).

Tu sei come una giovane

You are like a young woman

una bianca pollastra.

a white chick.

Le si arruffano al vento

They ruffle them in the wind

le piume, il collo china

the feathers, the bowed neck

per bere, e in terra raspa;

to drink, and rasp on the ground;

ma, nell’andare, ha il lento

but, in going, he is slow

tuo passo di regina,

your step as a queen,

ed incede sull’erba

and walks on the grass

pettoruta e superba.

pectoral and superb.

È migliore del maschio.

It is better than the male.

È come sono tutte

That's how they all are

le femmine di tutti

the females of all

i sereni animali

the serene animals

che avvicinano a Dio,

that bring you closer to God,

Così, se l’occhio, se il giudizio mio

So, if the eye, if my judgment

non m’inganna, fra queste hai le tue uguali,

do not deceive me, among these you have your equals,

e in nessun’altra donna.

and in no other woman.

Quando la sera assonna

When the evening sleeps

le gallinelle,

the hens,

mettono voci che ricordan quelle,

they put out voices that remember those,

dolcissime, onde a volte dei tuoi mali

sweetest, sometimes waves of your evils

ti quereli, e non sai

you complain, and you don't know

che la tua voce ha la soave e triste

that your voice is sweet and sad

musica dei pollai.

chicken coop music.

​(Genesini, 2022)

Figure 13: One of the manuscript pages with part of the poem "A Mia Moglie" (Saba, 1911)

Giuseppe Ungaretti

Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888-1970), was a prominent representative of Hermeticism. The impact of the Great War and the Second World War on his personal life profoundly affected his poetry. He is recognised as an innovator who developed a unique method of poetic expression grounded in exploring archetypes and symbols. This approach led to a refined and purified style that reflected the essence of life and nature in moments of extreme adversity. In his pursuit of an evocative and crystallised language, Ungaretti employed a range of literary devices that aimed to capture the essence of the word. This resulted in both profound and contemplative poetry, displaying sensitivity to the subtleties of language characteristic of hermeticism (Sambugar & Salà, 2004).


Il porto sepolto (1916) is a poignant, poetic reflection on Giuseppe Ungaretti’s experiences as a soldier in the First World War, depicting the brutal conditions and the profound sense of alienation felt by soldiers living in the trenches. The collection is characterised by a strong sense of existential angst and a deep exploration of the human condition. Despite the brutality of war, there is no trace of animosity towards the enemy or anyone else in Ungaretti’s poetry. Instead, his work is marked by an acute awareness of the universal suffering of humanity and the tenuous nature of human existence. Through his unique poetic expression, Ungaretti offers a profound meditation on the human condition that is both timeless and universal (Genesini, 2022).

Figure 14: Foreshortened female nude (Casas, 1894)

As mentioned by Genesini in his lessons on Letteratura Italiana 123 (2022), the collection Lallegria (1916) represents a significant departure from the dark and anguished themes that characterised Ungaretti’s earlier work, particularly Il porto sepolto. Instead, the collection focuses on the transience of life and the ephemeral nature of joy. The poet posits that the momentary exultation of life is all the more precious because it is fleeting and can only be preserved through love which transcends death. The work’s central theme is the rescue of life from the corrosive effects of time. To this end, the poet employs a language marked by lyricism and vitality that reflects the joy he seeks to convey (Genesini, 2022).


Mattina (M'illumino/d'immenso) (1917) belongs to the collection L'allegria, which is one of the most representative works by Ungaretti. Author and critic Carlà (2014) contends that this piece is notable for its brevity, comprising only two words linked through a dense network of sound references. The poem’s central theme is the morning sky’s illumination, which catalyses the poet’s apprehension of the infinite. The most striking feature of the work is its stylistic approach, which leans towards the verticalisation of sentences, the constant use of enjambments, and the inclusion of metaphors and similes, alongside the presence of deictic expressions such as "this" and "that" that serve to emphasise immediacy. The recurring theme throughout the work is war and the poet’s yearning to transcend his earthly existence and attain a profound union with the universe by moving away from his immediate surroundings and ascending to ecstatic communion.


Figure 15: Morning Sunlight (Gercken, 2012)

In conclusion, the analysis of the literary movements and works discussed in this article sheds light on Italian literature’s complex and tumultuous evolution in the first half of the 20th century. From the rejection of traditional forms and the embrace of the avant-garde in Futurism to the exploration of the self and denial of complexity in anti-Novecentismo to the experimentation with language and focus on the metaphysical in Hermeticism, these movements and works showcase the diversity and richness of Italian literature in this period. Furthermore, these literary contributions continue to inspire and influence contemporary Italian writers and serve as a testament to literature’s enduring power and relevance as an art form. Therefore, the following two articles will focus on the post-war 20th century literature and end with contemporary literature.



Bibliographical References

A Mia Moglie by Umberto Saba. (n.d.). AllPoetry. https://allpoetry.com/A-Mia-Moglie


Carlà, M. (2014). Epoche e culture (Vol.2). Palumbo.


Flora, F. (1940). Storia della letteratura italiana. Mondadori.


Genesini, P. (2022). Letteratura italiana 123. Lectures notes retrieved from: http://www.letteratura-italiana.com/pdf/letteratura%20italiana/01%20GENESINI%20Letteratura%20123.pdf


Guglielmino, S. (1971). Guida al Novecento (Vol. 1, 3rd ed). Principato Editore.


Kline, A.S. (2012). Quasimodo, Salvatore (1901–1968) - Selected poems. Poets of Modernity. https://www.poetsofmodernity.xyz/POMBR/Italian/Quasimodo.php#anchor_Toc326417394


Nobel Prize Outreach AB. (n.d.). The Nobel Prize in Literature 1959. The Nobel Prize. Retrieved March 25, 2023, from: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1959/quasimodo/facts/


Sambugar, M., & Salà, G. (2004). GAOT - Generi autori opere temi (Vol. 3). La Nuova Italia.


Sapegno, N. (1973). Disegno storico della letteratura italiana. La Nuova Italia.


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