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Survey of Italian Literature 101: ‘L’Ottocento’/ Romanticism, Realism and Decadentism


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: ‘L’Ottocento’/Romanticism, Realism and Decadentism

In the 19th century, Italian literature underwent a significant transformation, responding to the political, social, and cultural upheavals of the time, commonly referred to as Risorgimento, aimed to unify the Italian states and establish a modern, democratic nation-state. The emergence of Romanticism, Verismo, and Decadentism marked a departure from traditional literary forms and a shift toward more expressive and critical literature. This essay focuses on the relevant themes and styles of the three movements through the works of prominent writers, such as Manzoni, Leopardi, Verga, and D’Annunzio, among others. By analysing the works of these writers, this essay will provide insights into the historical, cultural, and social issues that shaped Italian literature in the 19th century.

Figure 1: Breaching the Porta Pia (Ademollo, 1880)

Italian Romanticism emerged in the early 1800s, blending classical Greco-Roman culture with a portrayal of non-nobility and historical periods such as 17th-century Lombardy. The movement placed importance on religion, which contributed to modern Italian literature and aesthetics. Inspired by the German Sturm und Drang movement, Romanticism spread throughout Europe, emphasising emotion, passion, and freedom. However, the Romantic movement took longer to develop in Italy. Italian Romanticism was centred on national identity and aimed to reconcile the classical legacy of the past with new impulses of pro-independence will. The movement sought to establish a unique Italian identity by emphasising Italian culture, language, and history to unite the various regions of the peninsula. In this way, Italian Romanticism can be seen as a response to the country’s political and social upheaval and its struggle for unification in the early 19th century (Sapegno, 1973).

Figure 2: The departure of the conscripts in 1866 (Induno, 1878)

Alessandro Manzoni

Widely regarded as the "father of the Italian novel", Manzoni’s Enlightenment background influenced his adherence to the ideals of freedom, fraternity, equality, and the principles of the French Revolution. However, after his conversion to Catholicism, Manzoni (1785-1873) incorporated these values into a more comprehensive vision of life, humanity, and history. The themes of his work are numerous and often intertwined, including the religious theme of faith in God and the presence of evil in history, the political and patriotic theme, the historical novel, the language problem which refers to the fragmentation of the Italian language during his time, and the social function of the intellectual and civil commitment (Genesini, 2022).

Manzoni's novel I Promessi Sposi (1821-23, 1824-27, 1840-42) follows a common storytelling formula popular in England, where real historical events provide the background for an invented but believable storyline. The historical environment is set in seventeenth-century Lombardy (1630-32), marked by Spanish misgovernment. The fictional plot revolves around the main characters, Renzo and Lucia, and their struggle to overcome obstacles in their path to marriage (Sambugar & Salà, 2004).

Figure 3: Front page of the second edition of I Promessi Sposi (Gonin, 1840)

Extensively analysed by the eminent literary critic Natalino Sapegno in his essay Ritratto di Manzoni e Altri Saggi (1962), the author dedicated considerable effort to the linguistic dimension of his literary works. His primary concern was the use of language, given the diversity of Italian dialects, which were classified into four distinct categories: Lombard, Florentine, Neapolitan, and Sicilian. Drawing inspiration from Dante and other prominent Italian writers, Manzoni resolved to employ the Romance prose of the Tuscan vernacular, a language form that was comparatively more coherent and readily comprehensible across the peninsula.

In addition to his linguistic pursuits, Manzoni’s literary works reflect his religious and political convictions. The novel conveys a panoramic depiction of the prevailing social strata, ranging from the nobility to the common populace. Moreover, it advances a model of the Italian language that did not exist at the time and aimed to promote linguistic homogeneity throughout Italy. Such a linguistic standard was deemed crucial for overcoming the fragmentation of Italy, manifest not only in political and economic terms but also in language variation (Sambugar & Salà, 2004).

Figure 4: Portrait of Alessandro Manzoni (Hayez, 1841)

Giacomo Leopardi

A prominent figure in world literature, Leopardi (1798-1837) is renowned as one of the foremost Italian poets of the 19th century and a meaningful contributor to literary Romanticism. As Sapegno outlined in his Disegno Storico della Letteratura Italiana (1973), Leopardi's originality in developing the concept of pessimism is reflected in his evolution from "historical pessimism" to the more encompassing "cosmic pessimism". Historical pessimism is based on the idea that the human condition has deteriorated from classical antiquity, characterised by courage and virtue, to a state of moral and cultural decline that has resulted in the loss of values. According to Leopardi, humans could regain their happiness by pursuing virtuous and passionate acts. Cosmic pessimism, developed after embracing materialism, portrays humans as inherently flawed, distant from God, and unable to attain eternal happiness because of their insatiable craving. It represents a radical and all-encompassing view of human existence, extending beyond historical circumstances and highlighting the metaphysical and irreversible condition of human life.

Leopardi's poetry reflects this belief in cosmic pessimism, arguing that true happiness can only be achieved after death and that nature is inherently cruel. He rejects the idea of progress and advocates the acceptance of suffering and joining forces with others against nature to find happiness. His collection of poems I Canti (1818-36) delves into cosmic pessimism through different themes, such as nature, love, suffering, and nostalgia, and is divided into three phases. But it is the second phase where he expounds on his belief in the total unhappiness of life and the futility of man's pursuit of illusions and progress. In the third phase, Leopardi further deepens the tragedy of human life, offering a complex and deeply philosophical exploration of the human condition and the role of nature within it (Genesini, 2022).

Figure 5: Portrait of Giacomo Leopardi (1820)

"L'Infinito" (1819) is one of Leopardi’s most famous poems, epitomising cosmic pessimism and his poetic relevance in Italian literature. It is powerful for its exploration of the theme of human limitation and the desire for transcendence. The poem is seen as a representation of the human condition and a reflection on the nature of existence:

Sempre caro mi fu quest’ermo colle,

Always dear to me was this lonely hill,

e questa siepe, che da tanta parte

And this hedge, which from so much part

dell’ultimo orizzonte il guardo esclude.

Of the ultimate horizon the view excludes.

Ma sedendo e mirando, interminati

But sitting and gazing, boundless

spazi di là da quella, e sovrumani

Spaces beyond that, and more than human

silenzi, e profondissima quïete

Silences and profoundest quiet

io nel pensier mi fingo, ove per poco

I in thoughts pretend to myself, where almost

il cor non si spaura. E come il vento

The heart is overwhelmed. And as the wind

odo stormir tra queste piante, io quello

I hear rustle through these plants, I such

infinito silenzio a questa voce

Infinite silence to this voice

vo comparando: e mi sovvien l’eterno,

Go on comparing: and come to mind the eternal

e le morte stagioni, e la presente

And the dead seasons, and the present

e viva, e il suon di lei. Così tra questa

And the living, and the sound of it. So through this

immensità s’annega il pensier mio:

Immensity is drowned my thoughts:

e il naufragar m’è dolce in questo mare.

And being shipwrecked is sweet to me in this sea.

(Genesini, 2022)

Meticulously maintained from 1817 until 1832, Lo Zibaldone is a voluminous personal diary collection of Leopardi's thoughts and reflections on various philosophical issues, such as religion, pleasure, pain, pride, imagination, despair, and more. He discusses the origins of language, the fall from Paradise, and the relationship between ancient and modern cultures. Overall, the diary covers a broad range of philosophical topics that influenced his poetry (Genesini, 2022). Of all the topics discussed in Lo Zibaldone, Leopardi seems to have evinced a particular fascination with pain and memory. For Leopardi, pain is the source of all suffering and the quintessential manifestation of the human condition. However, he also contends that pain impels humans to reflect and contemplate, generating the desire for happiness. Memory, in turn, is the repository of all our past joys, and it is through our capacity to recall them that humans are able to confront the inevitability of suffering (Genesini, 2022).

Figure 6: Zibaldone of thoughts (Leopardi, 1900)

Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli

An author that deserves to be included in the Italian Literary survey is Giuseppe Giocacchino Belli (1791-1863), whose poetic production is known for his satirical sonnets, which exposed the hypocrisies and injustices of Roman society in the early 19th century. His works were not widely recognised during his lifetime but are now considered essential to Italian literature.

I Sonetti Romaneschi, published posthumously (1864-65), is a collection of 2279 sonnets written in the Roman dialect during the 19th century. Its extensive body of work serves as a commentary on the contradictions and complexities of the Roman plebs, with characters that are both instruments and targets of satire. The sonnets portray a range of human, psychological, and social types that vary in tone from comic to ironic and serious, providing a vivid representation of the diversity of a single microcosm and expressing the individual, group, or choral opinions of the subjects (Gibellini, 2000).

The sonnets can be classified into two categories. The first category depicts daily life in papal Rome, portraying real sketches of the city with ironic and contemptuous critical commentary on the popular inability to overcome power. This strand accepts the existing system as the true emblem of Rome, which is immutable over the centuries. The second category deals with political and religious topics, exhibiting fierce criticism of politics, the various emperors, and even the Pope himself (Genesini, 2022).

Figure 7: I sonetti romaneschi (Belli, 1832)

Ippolito Nievo

Ippolito Nievo (1831-1861) was a notable Italian writer, patriot, and soldier, who authored Le Confessioni di un Italiano, a semi-autobiographical novel published in 1867 after his death, which explores the struggles of Italy during the Risorgimento movement. The novel follows the life of its protagonist Lorenzo as he grows up in Venice and becomes involved in the Italian Risorgimento movement. Through Lorenzo's experiences, Nievo explores the struggles of Italy during this period, including the social and political conflicts that hindered its unification. The novel is regarded as a masterpiece of Italian literature and a powerful contribution to the Risorgimento literary movement (Sapegno, 1973).

As analysed by Asor Rosa in Letteratura Italiana (1