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Survey of Italian Literature 101: ‘Il Seicento’ and ‘Il Settecento’/Baroque and Enlightenment


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 seven chapters:

  1. Survey of Italian Literature 101: The Origins and 'il Duecento'/ The Origins and the 13th Century

  2. Survey of Italian Literature 101: 'Il Trecento' / The Three Crowns

  3. Survey of Italian Literature 101: 'Il Quattrocento' and 'Il Cinquecento'/ Humanism and Renaissance

  4. Survey of Italian Literature 101: 'Il Seicento' and 'Il Settecento'/ Baroque and Enlightenment

  5. Survey of Italian Literature 101: 'L'Ottocento'/ Romanticism, Realism and Decadentism

  6. Survey of Italian Literature 101: 'Il Novecento'/ Futurism and Neorealism

  7. Survey of Italian Literature 101: Italian Literature Today

Survey of Italian Literature 101: ‘Il Seicento’ and ‘Il Settecento’/ Baroque and Enlightenment

The Italian panoramic culture of the 17th century marked a continuation of the literary innovation and creativity that characterised the previous century. With its ornate and dramatic style, the Baroque movement had a profound impact. The influence of the Enlightenment also began to be felt, exploring themes of reason, liberty, and social justice. The century witnessed the continuation of the Baroque style from the previous century, as well as the rise of new forms of expression, such as the novel and the epistolary form. Notable figures include Galileo Galilei, Giambattista Marino, and Daniello Bartoli. The period's literature reflected Italy's political, social, and cultural changes and paved the way for future literary movements. Overall, the 17th century was a period of great artistic and intellectual ferment, marked by the emergence of new literary forms and styles and the continuing evolution of Italian culture embraced during the 18th century.

Il Settecento, in fact, was marked by a renewed interest in classical themes and growing awareness of the nation's cultural heritage. This period witnessed the rise of many prominent writers who contributed to the country's literary revival. Among these writers, we find Ugo Foscolo, Vittorio Alfieri, Giuseppe Parini, and Carlo Goldoni, each of whom developed a unique style and approach to writing. Through their works, they played a crucial role in shaping Italian literature in the 18th century by drawing on classical themes, highlighting the nation's cultural heritage, establishing the Italian vernacular as a common language, and exploring new literary genres and styles. This article will focus on Italian literary giants and their contributions to the cultural scene of the 17th and 18th centuries, covering poetry, prose and theatre.

Figure 1: A view of Piazza del Popolo, Rome. (van Wittel,1718)
‘Il Seicento’

The Baroque artistic movement emerged simultaneously throughout Europe from the 16th to the 17th century. The socio-economic challenges of the preceding era influenced this artistic style. These challenges sparked an unrelenting quest for novelty and a persistent display of ingenuity by poets who experienced a waning influence within courtly circles, yielding to other societal figures. Furthermore, the Baroque movement was marked by the crisis of certitude that accompanied the scientific revolution and the rise of modern astronomy and physics. The artists of this era sought to create works that reflected this sense of instability and transformation. The movement was characterised by grandiosity and opulence and aimed to overwhelm the viewer's senses. Baroque art often featured dramatic lighting, intense emotion, and intricate detail.

Catholic countries, like Italy, exhibited the most prominent manifestations of Baroque culture and art. This is attributable to the Catholic Church's endeavour to reassert its influence on European society by controlling artistic production and subjugating intellectuals. The Baroque movement was entrenched in the cultural milieu of the 16th century, incorporating elements from both Renaissance and Mannerism. The movement accentuated poetic motifs from these preceding eras to an extreme degree, in an attempt to propose a modern culture appropriate for the contemporary epoch. This included a repudiation of Petrarchism, a concerted effort to rejuvenate various artistic forms, and a novel approach to perceiving reality (Panebianco et al., 2021; Genesini, 2022; Fontana et al., 2022).

Figure 2: Saint Luke Displaying a Painting of the Virgin. (Guercino, 1652-53)

The themes of Baroque poetry encompass three distinct areas of exploration. Firstly, the Baroque movement illuminates the reality of everyday life, imbuing daily gestures and the routine activities of women with poetic significance. The origins of the word ‘Baroque’ come from the Portuguese barroco, which means ''a rough or imperfectly shaped pearl'' (Collins Dictionary, n.d.). In this context, Baroque poets celebrate the imperfections and idiosyncrasies of women, embracing the ugly, the dirty, the bizarre, the strange, and the unusual in their verse. Secondly, Baroque poets sought to revolutionise poetry's language and rhetorical devices. They frequently conveyed their ideas through wordplay, conceptualism, witticism, and metaphor. Words were often used for their polysemic or ambiguous nature, while witticisms highlight the poet's abilities and skills, culminating in a final inventive flourish. Conceptism involves drawing connections between two dissimilar realities, using the first to describe the second. Meanwhile, metaphors emerge as a favoured tool for exploring reality, allowing the poet to uncover previously unnoticed aspects, relationships, and similarities.

Finally, the Baroque movement consciously cultivated a "poetics of wonder" and emphasised the importance of engaging with the audience. The poets sought to inspire amazement and awe in their readers, prompting them to marvel at the world around them. This emphasis on wonder is closely intertwined with a concern for actively involving the audience in the poetic experience. The Baroque poets strived to create works that captivated, intrigued, and delighted their readers (Samburgar & Salà, 2004; Panebianco et al., 2021; Genesini, 2022; Fontana et al., 2022).

Figure 3: Finding of Moses. (Sirani, 1665)

Giambattista Marino, a prominent court poet in Italy and Paris, is widely regarded as the foremost representative of the Italian Baroque movement. Known for his ornate language, wordplay, and exploration of love and nature, he wrote in various genres and is celebrated for his innovative use of rhetorical devices. Marino's work remains significant in Italian literature and is studied by scholars worldwide. He demonstrated the ideal of the courtly writer, who used his literary production to gain recognition and advantages, making public acclaim the measure of his work's artistic merit. His obsession with metaphors and intricate witticisms made him a revered figure among 17th-century lyricists (Samburgar & Salà, 2004; Genesini, 2022).

Giambattista Marino's most significant work, L'Adone (1623), is an extensive poem consisting of 20 cantos and 5,113 octaves, which narrates the love story between Adonis and Venus. However, despite its central theme, the poem frequently deviates from it, spanning a staggering 40,904 lines, nearly three times the length of the Divine Comedy (1308-21). Marino incorporated all the traditional motifs of poetry, and surpassed his predecessors in the process, evidencing his ambitious goal to create the "poem of poems" (Samburgar & Salà, 2004; Genesini, 2022).

Figure 4: Venus and Adonis. (Rubens, 1610)

In the late 17th century, Gabriello Chiabrera emerged as a prominent poet known for his inclination to proportion and classical rationality, in opposition to the conceptualism of Marino. He was particularly celebrated for his metric sensitivity, and his greatest achievements can be seen in the structure of the canzonetta, which was modelled on the lyrical style of Anacreon and featured short verses with a light and fluid musicality. Chiabrera is widely considered the most significant representative of 17th-century classicism and one of the most renowned authors of his time. Like Marino, he sought to rejuvenate artistic forms and content, but his approach was grounded in traditional learned literature (Samburgar & Salà, 2004; Genesini, 2022).

Figure 5: Frontpage of Delle Opere by Gabriello Chiabrera. (Chiabrera,1757)

The 17th century witnessed a trend towards blending genres, transforming the epic narrative into a grand lyrical edifice. This anti-classical tendency was exemplified by Alessandro Tassoni, a scholar known for his irreverent approach. Tassoni created the model for the heroic-comic genre with his work La Secchia Rapita (1622), combining serious and comic elements in a continuously varied alternation. Despite its parodic intentions, this poetic form became an influential genre in literary expression (Samburgar & Salà, 2004; Panebianco et al., 2021; Fontana et al., 2022).

The 17th century witnessed a significant shift in literary tastes as the popularity of the verse epic declined in favour of the prose novel. The novel emerged as a new literary form and became widely popular, often depicting recognisable contemporary settings and incorporating erotic and sensual themes. These works often included scenes in exotic or fantastic locations, such as the New World or the Far East. They were frequently structured as a series of interconnected stories or episodes. An example of such a novel is Pace Pasini's Historia del Cavalier Perduto, first published in 1634 (Samburgar & Salà, 2004; Panebianco et al., 2021). It follows the adventures of a knight who is sent on a perilous journey to rescue a lady from captivity. Along the way, he encounters various obstacles, including battles with giants and other mythical creatures. The novel is notable for its fantastical elements, as well as its use of poetic language and intricate narrative structure (Samburgar & Salà, 2004; Panebianco et al., 2021).

Figure 6: Frontpage of La Secchia Rapita. (Cacciatore di libri, 1743)

Italian novelists flourished and gained recognition beyond national borders, writing in supra-regional Italian. The novel became a popular genre that contributed to the growth of readership. One notable figure of 17th-century prose was Father Daniello Bartoli, author of the Istoria della Compagnia di Gesù (1650), an account of the Jesuit order. In addition, he wrote several works focused on religious devotion. Bartoli's works exemplify some of the finest achievements of 17th-century Italian prose (Samburgar & Salà, 2004; Panebianco et al., 2021; Fontana et al., 2022).

During the 17th century, numerous historiographical works emerged, primarily inspired by political and diplomatic events. L’Istoria del Concilio Tridentino by Friar Paolo Sarpi, published in London in 1619, is a relevant prose production of the century. However, due to its inclusion in the Index of Prohibited Books, it was not published in Italy until 1689-90. In fact, Sarpi fiercely critiqued the Council's outcome, which he believed had divided Catholics and Protestants permanently, strengthening the power of the Roman Curia. Sarpi's work is biased because he had a clear agenda and viewpoint that he wanted to convey through his writing. Sarpi's work reflects his strong anti-Curial and anti-Papal opinion, and he used the l'Istoria del Concilio Tridentino to criticise the Church's institutional structure and its political manoeuvring (Samburgar & Salà, 2004; Panebianco et al., 2021).

Figure 7: Pope Paulus III has a vision of the Council of Trento. (Ricci, 1687-1688)

During the Baroque, a literary treatise emerged to explore the theoretical and rhetorical aspects of the new artistic movement. The most significant work in this regard is Emanuele Tesauro's Il Cannocchiale Aristotelico (1654), which used metaphor as an infinite tool to celebrate the richness of reality and the supremacy of the present over the past. His work contributed to the development of Baroque poetics and guided many writers and intellectuals of the time (Samburgar & Salà, 2004; Panebianco et al., 2021; Fontana et al., 2022).

Galileo Galilei played an essential role in the history of literature by introducing the Florentine vernacular in scientific treatises and opposing the anthropocentric world view of Aristotle and the humanists. Despite the Inquisition, in 1623, Galileo published a controversial work in vernacular language titled Il Saggiatore in response to the first accusations of heresy made by Jesuit Orazio Grassi, who was himself knowledgeable about science. The polemical starting point concerned Brahe's conciliatory attempt between the Copernican and Ptolemaic systems regarding the movement of the stars, which he based on his observations of the phases of Venus. Galileo observed that Venus went through a full range of phases, like the Moon, which could only be explained if it orbited the Sun and not the Earth. This observation provided strong evidence for the heliocentric model and the Earth's rotation, challenging the traditional Aristotelian view that the Earth was the stationary centre of the universe (Samburgar & Salà, 2004; Genesini, 2022).

Figure 8: Frontpage of Cannocchiale aristotelico. (Tesauro et al., 1670)

Dialogo sopra i Due Massimi Sistemi del Mondo, published in 1632, represents a pivotal moment in the history of science, and is one of Galileo Galilei's most famous works. The dialogue, written in the vernacular, is set in Venice over four days and retakes the anticipated concepts in Il Saggiatore. It features three protagonists discussing the differences between the old, erroneous Aristotelian system and the new, truthful one introduced by Copernicus. Galileo employed the classic form of dialogue, which he took over from Plato, to communicate the new universal discovery to a broader audience. The dialogue demonstrates the importance of embracing scientific discovery, unencumbered by preconceived theories and erroneous dogma held by ancient philosophers and the Church. The character of Simplicio, who embodies the old Ptolemaic-Aristotelian culture, is used by Galilei to demonstrate the fallacies of the old system. At the same time, the Florentine protagonist Filippo Salviati, who represents Galilei's alter-ego, stands in opposition to the outdated ideas of Simplicio. Overall, Dialogo sopra i Due Massimi Sistemi del Mondo is a work of great significance in the history of science and reflects Galileo's dedication to scientific truth and the importance of empirical observation in the face of entrenched beliefs (Samburgar & Salà, 2004; Genesini, 2022). The book caused a major controversy, and in 1633, Galileo was brought before the Inquisition and forced to reject his views. He was placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life, and his works were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books. It was not until the 19th century that the Catholic Church lifted the ban on his writings and recognised the scientific validity of the heliocentric model.

Figure 9: Frontpage of Dialogo sopra i Due Massimi Sistemi del Mondo. (Galilei, 1632)

The Baroque period is characterised by a sense of theatricality of life and the realisation of its vanity. This led to the development of theatre and its techniques, with new genres that departed from the classical forms. These new genres include tragicomedy, melodrama, and Commedia dell'Arte, among others. The baroque theatre was marked by the use of elaborate stage machinery and illusion, and spectacle to enhance the dramatic effect. Performers were skilled in gesture, voice, and movement, often employing improvisation to adapt to the changing situations on stage. The baroque theatre reflected the broader cultural and social context of the time, emphasising the dramatic and the spectacular and its celebration of the transitory nature of life (Samburgar & Salà, 2004; Panebianco et al., 2021; Fontana et al., 2022).

The Commedia dell'Arte, a profane form of theatre popular in the Baroque period, is characterised by its emphasis on the body and the mask. This form of theatre was practised by professional actors who formed itinerant companies, using their technical skills and expressive bodily gestures to improvise scenes based on typical plots and themes. The actors employed masks to embody their characters' psychological or regional traits, and the language used in their performances was often a mix of regional dialects from the surrounding areas, resulting in a stylised form of multilingualism. The Commedia dell'Arte was a significant departure from traditional theatre, featuring new genres that no longer adhered to the classical forms. It played a vital role in developing theatre techniques and paved the way for creating new theatrical forms in subsequent centuries (Samburgar & Salà, 2004; Quazzolo, 2014).

Figure 10: Pulcinella and Harlequin masks. (Sand, 1860)

In the 17th century, drama per musica emerged as a new form of theatre, later known as melodrama. Its origins can be traced back to the experimentation of the Camerata de' Bardi in the late 17th century. Ottavio Rinuccini's Daphne, performed in Florence in 1598, is considered the first melodrama. In addition to melodrama, literary comedy continued to evolve in the 17th century with new forms and plots intended for moralising purposes. Naples, Florence, and Rome emerged as this genre's most important production centres. In these cities, a type of simple comedy developed at the end of the sixteenth century, which reproduced the narrative schemes of the Commedia dell'Arte in literary forms (Samburgar & Salà, 2004; Quazzolo, 2014).

In the 17th century, tragedy underwent a transformation that focused on politics and the reasons of the state. It became increasingly grim and violent, inspired by the works of the Latin writer Seneca. Federico Della Valle was one of this genre's most notable and influential writers. Della Valle's most famous tragedy, Bradamante, was first performed in 1640 and is considered a masterpiece of the genre, known for its powerful dramatic impact and exploration of themes of love, honour, and political intrigue (Samburgar & Salà, 2004).

Figure 11: Judith beheading Holofernes. (Gentileschi, 1611-12)
‘Il Settecento’

The Enlightenment was a time of significant change, marked by a moderate tone and a revitalisation of culture and economy. Reforms were initiated from the top, with support from prominent intellectuals. Despite this, the culture of the Enlightenment and its reformist ideals struggled to take hold in Italy, where literature had become stagnant, and there was a conscious desire to escape reality (Samburgar & Salà, 2004; Panebianco et al., 2021; Genesini, 2022; Fontana et al., 2022).

The Arcadia was a literary academy founded in Rome in 1690 to promote classical literary traditions, particularly Petrarchism, as a response to the extravagance of the Baroque era. It aimed to encourage a refined, elegant style with simplicity, clarity, and good taste. The Arcadia had a significant impact on Italian literature, influencing the development of neoclassicism in the 18th century, and it successfully renewed the poetic language and experimented with new metrics. While Arcadian poetry lacked drama and passion, it showcased a romanticised nostalgia for a simpler and more innocent time and evoked an idyllic vision of nature and the countryside (Sapegno, 1973; Samburgar & Salà, 2004; Genesini, 2022; Fontana et al., 2022).

Italy's cultural decline in the second half of the 18th century was a profound and widespread phenomenon, which forced it to import culture rather than produce it. In the preceding centuries, Italy had played a significant role in the dissemination of culture and art throughout Europe, despite losing political freedoms. However, in the 18th century, economic decline further undermined intellectual production. The cultural context of the time profoundly impacted the works of the major intellectuals of the period, who responded to the cultural crisis in different ways (Panebianco et al., 2021; Fontana et al., 2022).

Figure 12: The Battle of Bitonto. (Rocco, 1750)

The leading figure of the 18th-century literary revival was Giuseppe Parini influenced, on the one hand, by the Enlightenment culture coming from France, on the other, by precise political conceptions. Parini's literary style is characterised by rejecting the ornate and elaborate Baroque style in favour of simplicity and clarity. He emphasises the importance of moral values and the need for literature to serve a didactic purpose. His works, including Il Giorno (1763) and other poems and essays, had a significant impact on Italian literature and helped pave the way for the Romantic movement (Sapegno, 1973; Samburgar & Salà, 2004; Genesini, 2022).

Giuseppe Parini's most famous work is the aforementioned Il Giorno, a satirical poem in which he criticises the customs, vices, and corruption of the aristocracy of his time. It is divided into three parts: Mattino (1763), Mezzogiorno (1765) and Sera (later divided into Vespero and Notte, which remained unfinished). The poem is set during a single day in the life of a nobleman. Through various episodes and encounters, Parini exposes the absurdities and moral decay of the aristocratic world. His language is clear and simple, and he uses humour and irony to express his points of view (Samburgar & Salà, 2004; Genesini, 2022).

Figure 13: Portrait of Giuseppe Parini. (Mazzola, 1793)

Ugo Foscolo, an essential figure in Italian literary history, can be regarded as a representative of the pre-Romantic period in Italy. Following his disillusionment with Napoleon Bonaparte, Foscolo was exiled to England. He authored several noteworthy essays on Italian literary giants such as Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Dante to introduce them to an English readership (Samburgar & Salà, 2004; Genesini, 2022). In his sonnets, such as "In Morte del Fratello Giovanni" (1803) and "A Zacinto" (1802-3), Foscolo masterfully channels his profound longing for his distant homeland and the inability to visit his deceased brother's tomb. Nonetheless, a "pre-Romantic" facet of Foscolo's literary identity is palpable, as is his attentiveness to the natural world and the powerful emotions it can evoke in the individual (Sapegno,