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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 Seicentoand ‘Il Settecento’/Baroque and Enlightenment

  5. Survey of Italian Literature 101: LOttocento’/Romanticism, Realism and Decadentism

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

  7. Survey of Italian Literature 101: ‘Il Novecento’ Part II/Post-war and the Novel

  8. 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 (1995) among other critics, this work has been acclaimed as the first Italian "bildungsroman" (a long novel about events and experiences in the life of the main character as they grow up and become an adult), which distinguishes itself from Promessi Sposi for its use of everyday language that reflects the common vernacular, albeit with courtly and cultured accents that draw from older literature, particularly in its first-person narrative.

Moreover, the novel's themes articulate a sweeping fresco of Italian society during the late 18th and mid-19th centuries, a period of profound political change that saw the definitive decline of the feudal regime, the old noble class, and the first stirrings of popular uprisings for equal rights. The novel's patriotic theme resonates with a religious sense of duty expressed in the sacrifice of youth and life. The portrayal of love in the novel is characterised by the transport of the senses and sublime passion (Sambugar & Salà, 2004). Despite his untimely death at a young age, Nievo's contributions to Italian literature and history remain vital.

Figure 8: Le confessioni d'un italiano (Nievo, 1937)


Verismo was the name given to the literary movement of Italian Realism due to its focus on depicting the harsh realities of everyday life, opposing Romanticism's classical trends. Starting in the late 19th century, it was influenced by French Naturalism, but placed within a unique historical context: Italy was only in the early stages of industrialisation, and political unity had not yet resolved existing regional and social problems. Verismo aimed to address these issues by introducing southern society and regional realities into the national literary canon, focusing on an objective and realistic representation of human and social reality, almost like a photographic document. To convey this objectivity, the narration is impersonal, without authorial intervention. The language is direct and simple, incorporating regional dialects to reflect how humble people express themselves.

Verismo's central theme was pervasive pessimism about the human condition, particularly the enduring caste system in post-unification Italy. Despite the emphasis on brotherhood and social rules, there was a ruthless struggle for wealth and fortune. The movement sought to preserve the social balance of the masses and oppose the social and economic changes that threatened to destroy it through positivism and economic universalisation (Sapegno, 1973).

Figure 9: The fourth estate (Pelizza da Volpedo, 1901)

Giovanni Verga

The most relevant representative of Verismo is Giovanni Verga, whose literary work marks the resurgence of Sicilian literature in Italian culture and society. The portrayal of Sicilian reality is presented with an unadulterated and raw realism, where no detail is omitted, including the living conditions of the poor and the rich as well as their idiosyncratic speech which is often challenging to comprehend. The author's writing technique is demonstrated not only through the characters' behaviors, but also through the narrator who adjusts their style based on the subject-matter at hand (Genesini, 2022).

Rosso Malpelo (1878) portrays the story of a young boy who is deemed responsible for all the accidents that occur in the mine due to his red hair, which is associated with evil in popular belief. This story allows Giovanni Verga to convey a bleak, uncompassionate and realistic account of the life of an underprivileged teenager in Sicily, facing marginalisation and toilsome labour in the sand quarries, ultimately leading to a tragic end. The novel highlights the poverty and exploitation experienced by the disadvantaged classes in Sicily during the late 19th century, a reality that Verga not only knew but also investigated as part of the recently formed Kingdom of Italy (1861). Through Rosso Malpelo, Verga experiments with various literary techniques, such as the artifice of estrangement, regression, and the author's point of view, as well as the antiphrastic structure of the narrative to convey the long-pursued literary objectivity, which he later employs extensively in his novel I Malavoglia (Sambugar & Salà, 2004).

Figure 10: Field life (Verga, 1897)

As mentioned by Genesini in his lessons on Letteratura italiana 123 (2022), the novel I Malavoglia (1881) focuses on the Malavoglia family while simultaneously placing the entire town in the spotlight. The Malavoglia family stands out from the rest of the town's inhabitants by upholding values such as respect for home, work, solidarity among family members, honesty, and keeping one's word. The story unfolds in the aftermath of Italian unification and is situated within the broader context of national history. The village's way of life is disrupted by new taxes, duties, military service, and governmental decisions. The novel's grammar and syntax seek to accurately reproduce the cultural and psychological mindset of the characters, and effectively convey their experiences. I Malavoglia can be viewed as Verga's Verismo manifesto, in which he posits that social conditions and class stratification cannot be altered, exemplified by the Malavoglias' desire to become successful fish traders but their failure to achieve it due to their lowly status. Verga argues that such a situation must remain immutable, representing the harsh reality of life.

The second novel by Giovanni Verga, Mastro-don Gesualdo (1889), depicts the life story of the protagonist Mastro Gesualdo Motta, a mason who travels to Catania to marry the disgraced noblewoman Bianca Trao. The novel underwent an extensive drafting process spanning eight years, featuring a particularly complex linguistic operation on account of the heterogeneous social classes represented, each with its own distinct lexicon. Mastro-don Gesualdo comprises twenty-one chapters, organised into four parts, corresponding to the most critical phases of the protagonist's life. The novel not only depicts the decline of the aristocracy but also contrasts economic and social success with familial affection. The protagonist is a social climber whose prominent characteristics include bourgeois resourcefulness, individualism, materialism, and the abandonment of ideals. The frantic pursuit of material gain and social status ultimately leads to alienation and hopeless loneliness, a portrayal that emphasises the novel's themes of social mobility and the price of success (Sambugar & Salà, 2004).

Figure 11: First page of Mastro-don Gesualdo (Verga, 1907)

Giosuè Carducci

Giosuè Carducci (1835-1907) is still considered one of the most relevant poets of the late 19th century, a vocal advocate for Italian unification and critic of the Catholic Church's influence on Italian society. In recognition of his achievements, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1906 for his lyrical and vigorous poetry that celebrated the history and traditions of Italy. In fact, one of the main themes in Carducci's works is his lamentation about Italy's abandonment of traditional values. Furthermore, the poet often incorporates memories and recollections of his childhood in contrast with his use of language, characterised by a sophisticated, rigid style closely tied to the Latin tradition. Despite this formality, the poet's work remains accessible as he conveys emotions through the vivid imagery that he evokes (Sapegno, 1973).

The primary motivation behind Carducci's poetry can be traced to three ideals. Firstly, his work is driven by the idea of a strong, virile man, influenced by the Roman world. Secondly, he advocates for the ideal of direct democracy, which has its roots in the free medieval communes. Finally, his poetry is also inspired by the idea of science and progress, derived from the contemporary world. Throughout his life, Carducci sought to revolutionise the Italian meter by adapting the Greek and Latin metric. Additionally, his poems are infused with formal language intermingled with archaic words, further enhancing his poems' elevated character. Le Rime Nuove, published in 1887, is the most extensive collection of Carducci's poetry and includes some of his most well-known pieces (Genesini, 2022).

Figure 12: Portrait of Giosuè Carducci (Borghi, 1900)

"San Martino" (1833), is a celebration of the Italian victory at the Battle of San Martino during the Second Italian War of Independence. It has become an iconic patriotic work in Italy, describing the country's fight for unification and independence. The poem's vivid imagery and strong emotional tone still resonate with Italians today:

La nebbia a gl’irti colli

The fog to the steep hills

piovigginando sale,

amid the rain ascends,

e sotto il maestrale

and under the mistral

urla e biancheggia il mar;

the sea screams and whitens:

ma per le vie del borgo

but through the alleys of the village

dal ribollir de’ tini

from the bubbling vats

va l’aspro odor de i vini

goes the sour smell of wine

l’anime a rallegrar.

the souls to rejoyce.

Gira su’ ceppi accesi

Turns on burning logs

lo spiedo scoppiettando:

the spit, sputtering;

sta il cacciator fischiando

stands the hunter whistling

sull’uscio a rimirar

on the door to gaze

tra le rossastre nubi

among the reddish clouds

stormi d’uccelli neri,

flocks of black birds

com’esuli pensieri,

as exiled thoughts,

nel vespero migrar.

in the twilight migrating.

(Genesini, 2022)

Le Odi Barbare (1873-93), a collection of poems by Giosuè Carducci, reflects the poet's effort to apply the quantitative metric of the Greeks and Latins to the Italian accentual system. This task was not without precedent, as other poets had attempted to do so since the 15th century. However, the term "barbarous," which Carducci uses to describe his own work, refers not only to the foreignness of the metric to the Italian language but also to its potential strangeness to contemporary Italian readers. As stated by Sapegno (1973), in Le Odi Barbare Carducci achieves a unique fusion of classical and contemporary influences, while challenging the dominant poetic conventions of his time.

Figure 13: First edition of Odi Barbare (Carducci, 1877)


Genesini (2022) explains that Decadentism emerged in response to society's perceived moral and cultural decline during the late 19th century. The movement's principles were based on Greco-Roman classicism, which aimed to restore classical Italian poetry. Decadentism had two opposing directions: one that emphasised individual introspection and despair, and another the pursuit of beauty and pleasure. Both shared a fascination with the decline of civilisation, morbidity, death, and a critique of bourgeois society. Decadentism was influential not only in literature but also in visual arts, music, and fashion. The movement's poets and writers sought to break free from the limitations of contemporary society and to comprehend the mysteries of existence through intuition and sensitivity, rather than reason and logic. This resulted in poetry characterised by rich symbolism and meaning.

Figure 14: The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania (Paton, 1847)

Giovanni Pascoli

Originally from Romagna, Pascoli is considered the pioneer of Italian Decadentism. Pascoli's poetry presents a plethora of innovative content and style. He incorporates various motifs in his work, including the landscape and nature, analogies, symbolism, and correspondences between reality and moods, the autobiographical motif, death, and the mysteries surrounding things. Additionally, Pascoli often draws inspiration from the classical Greek, Latin, and Christian world and its myths. Furthermore, he systematically experiments with long-forgotten metric schemes of the literary tradition, and language, which are also frequent themes in his poems (Genesini, 2022).

Pascoli believed that the poet should be a sort of seer, capable of communicating the mysteries of nature and decoding its visual language with the words of poetry. Pascoli frequently uses ornithological language in his writing, a technique that allows him to give voice to the animals he describes. He also uses terms that mimic the sound of thunder, the gurgling of the sea and rivers, and words that evoke impressionist-level visuals, such as lightning, glimpses in the sky, and nocturnal fireflies (Sapegno, 1973).

Figure 15: The Sacred Elephant (Moreau, 1882)

Myricae (1891, 1903) represents Giovanni Pascoli's first and most renowned collection of poems, which he continuously expanded throughout his career. The collection features several recurrent themes in Pascoli's poetry, such as death, pain, mystery, the nest, symbolism, and pessimism. In addition, the work is dedicated to Pascoli's father, which adds a biographical and personal element to the poetry. Through the themes explored in Myricae, Pascoli delves into the complexities of human emotions, while using rich and innovative language to create vivid images that often relate to the natural world. The collection is a testament to Pascoli's poetic prowess and represents a milestone in Italian Decadentism (Genesini, 2022).

The poem "X Agosto" (1896), is one of the most famous poems of Italian literature and a masterpiece of Pascoli's poetic production. It was written after the tragic murder of Pascoli's father and brother and it reflects the poet's personal grief and sense of loss. The poem also represents an example of Pascoli's use of language and imagery, with its vivid descriptions of nature and the evocation of childhood memories. It has become a symbol of the fragility of life and the beauty of existence, and is considered a classic of Italian symbolism:

San Lorenzo, io lo so perché tanto

St Lawrence, I know why so many

di stelle per l’aria tranquilla

stars through the still air

arde e cade, perché sì gran pianto

burn out and fall, why so many tears

nel concavo cielo sfavilla.

glitter in the dome of the sky.

Ritornava una rondine al tetto:

A swallow was returning to her roof

l’uccisero: cadde tra i spini;

when they killed her. She fell among thorns.

ella aveva nel becco un insetto:

She had an insect in her beak:

la cena dei suoi rondinini.

dinner for her brood.

Ora è là, come in croce, che tende

Now she is there, as on a cross, offering

quel verme a quel cielo lontano;

that worm to that distant sky;

e il suo nido è nell’ombra, che attende,

and her nest is in the shadows, they are waiting,

che pigola sempre più piano.

peeping softer and softer.

Anche un uomo tornava al suo nido:

A man was also returning to his nest when

l’uccisero: disse: Perdono;

they killed him. He said: I forgive,

e restò negli aperti occhi un grido:

a scream remaining in his open eyes.

portava due bambole in dono.

He was bringing a gift of two dolls.

Ora là, nella casa romita,

Now there, in the lonely home,

lo aspettano, aspettano in vano:

they’re waiting, waiting in vain;

egli immobile, attonito, addita

he, motionless, astonished, offers

le bambole al cielo lontano.

the dolls to the distant sky.

E tu, Cielo, dall’alto dei mondi

And you, Heaven, from on high

sereni, infinito, immortale,

above all worlds, serene, infinite, immortal,

oh! d’un pianto di stelle lo inondi

oh! with the weeping stars will you flood

quest’atomo opaco del Male!

this opaque atom of Evil!

(Genesini, 2022)

Figure 16: Myricae book cover (Pratella & Tommasi, 1905)

Gabriele D'Annunzio

As Genesini outlines in his Letteratura italiana 123 (2022), while Giovanni Pascoli focused on the ordinary aspects of life and the beauty found in nature, his contemporary Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938) was known for his highly rhetorical and elaborate style, keenly aware of his bourgeois and petty-bourgeois audience and their desire for self-affirmation. Thus, he crafted an exceptional and scandalous persona, with an exceptional life that fulfilled the secret aspirations of his readers. D'Annunzio's literary career was characterised by the construction of various myths, which he presented to his readers chronologically. The first was the myth of vitalism, followed by the myth of the absolute aesthete, the myth of the superman, the myth of the poet-poet, and finally the myth of the poet-soldier. These myths were designed to appeal to his audience's aspirations for individualism, aestheticism, and heroic masculinity, all seen as necessary for self-fulfilment in a society that placed a premium on respectability and decorum.

Gabriele D'Annunzio's novel Il Piacere (1889) marked the beginning of his success as a writer, exemplifying his program of Aestheticism. When compared with works such as Giovanni Verga's I Malavoglia and Oscar Wilde's The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1890), Il Piacere celebrates the aesthetic life of the noble or wealthy, who devote themselves to pleasure and glorify excess, sensuality, and indulgence (Genesini, 2022).

Figure 17: Gabriele D'Annunzio reading (Nunes Vais, 1932)

D'Annunzio's aesthete is always a nobleman who venerates the principle of art for art's sake, posing art as something insurmountable and unattainable, worth more than human life itself, and to be celebrated with refined style and dignified, rare words. Furthermore, he seeks a companion to share his love for living and art. However, this relationship is ultimately doomed to fail since, for the D'Annunzio aesthete, no woman (unless she is a femme fatale) can compete with his artistic passions (Sapegno, 1973).

In 1894, Gabriele D'Annunzio published Il Trionfo della Morte, a novel set in the wild Abruzzo of the 19th century. The work features enriched peasants, impoverished nobles, and witches who deceive superstitious people. Through Il Trionfo della Morte, D'Annunzio portrays the figure of the Nietzschean superman which he combines with the figure of the aesthete, as previously announced in Il Piacere. The superman aesthete embodies the ultimate worshipper of art in D'Annunzio's vision, always seeking a companion, but seeing the people and the bourgeoisie as a threat to his golden world. The masses are portrayed as a negative, ugly, and horrifying entity that ultimately prevails against the intentions of the superman-aesthete, as fashion has changed and the possibility of expression has been granted to them (Sapegno, 1973).

Figure 18: An aesthete in Rome (1801-1900)

Le Laudi del Cielo del Mare della Terra e degli Eroi published in 1903, represents the pinnacle of D'Annunzio's poetic maturity. This cycle of five books aims to celebrate the poet's communion with nature, the historical deeds of Italian heroes, and the entire universe.

The first book Maia mythologises D'Annunzio's trip to Greece as the starting point for a Pandean exaltation of nature. The main theme revolves around the perfect superman and artist, embodied in the poet himself, who serves as the prophet of a new myth. The second book Electra, dedicated to the myth of superman in art and universal heroism, was composed between 1899 and 1902 and published in 1903. It marks the birth of D'Annunzio's nationalism (Genesini, 2022). The third book Alcyone was published together with the second and is regarded as the poet's finest work. It highlights the complete merging of the superman with nature, resulting in what is known as "D'Annunzio Panism". The fourth book Merope is a collection of songs celebrating the conquest of Libya and the Italo-Turkish war in the Dodecanese. It represents a new digression on the patriotic and nationalist theme, as well as the myth of Rome. The fifth book Asterope was included in the Laudi after D'Annunzio's death but was actually conceived as part of the cycle. It recounts the poet's experiences during the First World War, and the heroic exploits carried out by the Italians to complete the unification of Italy against Austria (Genesini, 2022).

Figure 19: Book 1 of Laudi del Cielo, del Mare, della Terra e degli Eroi (D'Annunzio, 1908)

As demonstrated by this literary overview above, the 19th century proved to be a time of movements and changes in Italian literature, coinciding with the historic and political tumult of the Risorgimento. Romanticism emerged in response to such political and social upheaval and the struggle for unification. Later, Verismo aimed to introduce regional realities into national literature, while Italian Decadentism reflected a fascination with morbidity and a critique of bourgeois society. Despite their differences, these movements aimed to explore Italian society's realities. Overall, the 19th century was a critical period of change for Italian literature, characterised by a range of literary movements and new approaches to writing. These movements and their authors contributed to the formation and consolidation of Italian literary identity through one common language, and continue to inspire and influence writers and readers alike. The upcoming three articles in this 101 series will look into movements like Futurism and will end with contemporary literature. As a result, a deeper understanding of Italy's literary evolution can be achieved by examining the works and contributions of the authors discussed in the entire survey.

Bibliographical References

Asor Rosa, A. (1995). Letteratura italiana. Le opere, III : Dall’Ottocento al Novecento. Einaudi.

Cambridge Dictionary. (n.d.). Bildungsroman. In Cambridge Dictionaries. Retrieved on 9 March 2023, from

Genesini, P. (2022). Letteratura italiana 123. Lectures notes retrieved from:

Gibellini, P. (2000). La religiosità di Belli, in Roma, città del Papa. Annali Einaudi.

Giovanni Pascoli X agosto (The 10th of August) – Italian Art Society.

Leopardi’s L’Infinito. (n.d.).

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1 Comment

Hi! I'm researching how Romanticism promoted an Italian identity and wonder which page you used when Sapegno, N. (1973). Disegno storico della letteratura italiana. La Nuova Italia. ? Is it possible that you can send an image of the page? I have tried to find the book in Australia but it's impossible.

All the best,


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