A History of Italian Literature/Chapter XVI

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The novel presents one of the most remarkable examples in literary history of arrested development, and of all departments of literature is perhaps the only one which failed to attain perfection in the hands of the ancients. Great progress is indeed observable from its first artless beginnings under the Pharaohs, so recently recovered for us; but having advanced far along several lines, it becomes stationary upon all. The germ of the picaresque novel is clearly discernible in Petronius, of the novel of adventure in Apuleius, of erotic fiction in Longus; but these examples apparently remain ineffectual. Either the path is not prosecuted at all, or it leads to mere repetition. No new element appears until we encounter the chivalric romance, which in Spain produced an extensive prose literature, but in Italy ran almost entirely to verse. The more elaborate romances of Boccaccio, indeed, disclose influences from this quarter; but their reputation was slight in comparison with those short and familiar tales, commonly founded upon some anecdote and dealing with scenes and personages of real life, which prescribed the form for the national novelette. A more distinctively national type never existed. The extraordinary thing is that the nation never got beyond it. It should have seemed an obvious advance to lengthen the stories; to stimulate surprise and suspense by greater intricacy of plot; to embellish by elaborate description; to depict character with fulness and exactness; to employ fiction for the ventilation of ideas. Precedents for all these improvements, except the last, might have been found in the classical romances, and it might have been expected that fiction would have experienced the same development as other branches of literature. On the contrary, the last Italian novelette is as far from the novel of the nineteenth century as the first, and the most powerful literary agent of good or evil, next to the equally modern newspaper, remained to be created in recent times. Whatever the defects of the Italian novel of the sixteenth century, it was nevertheless, unlike the drama, a thoroughly national form of composition, it was far in advance of anything of the kind existing elsewhere, and it exerted great influence on the literature of other countries as the general storehouse of dramatic plots.

It is no doubt to the credit of Italian novelists as artists that they did not overload their stories with didactic purpose; but this was an error which, writing mainly to amuse, they lay under little temptation to commit. None of them were endowed with creative imagination; none transcended the sphere of ordinary experience, or showed the least inclination to effect for prose fiction what Boiardo and Ariosto had accomplished for narrative poetry. Their notti piacevoli were not Arabian Nights. Their object of amusing could consequently only be achieved by keeping close to actual manners, and we may depend upon receiving from them a tolerably accurate picture of Italian society in so far as it suited them to present it; although the portion that best lent itself to their objects was the most licentious and corrupt, and the loose women and salacious priests who recur in their tales from generation to generation, though by no means creatures of imagination, are still far from typical of the entire society of Italy. Like the masks of the Greek comedy, like the rakes and topers of the English comedy of the Restoration and Revolution, they are in a certain degree traditional and conventional. Modern fiction is encyclopaedic: no class of the community is outside its scope. Italian fiction was eclectic, restricted by a tacit convention to what was deemed its appropriate sphere. The history of pictorial and plastic art has been reproduced in modern fiction; the property of the connoisseur has become the possession of the nation. Hence, whatever the literary merits of the Italian novelists of this period, whatever the fidehty with which they reproduce the social atmosphere of the time, their works all taken together count for less in the history of the human mind than those of a single first-class modern novelist such as Dickens or Balzac.

Boccaccio's immediate successors as novelists are Franco Sacchetti and Giovanni Fiorentino, already mentioned as poets of the fifteenth century. Sacchetti (1335–1410) had in his youth been a merchant, and had travelled much both in Italy and in Slavonian countries. After his return he became a Florentine magistrate, and filled some important public offices. He was a man of solid and humorous wisdom, who instructed his times, partly by religious and moral discourses, which frequently display great liberality of feeling, partly by his stories, which, apart from their literary merits, afford a valuable picture of a society half-way on the road from barbarism to civilisation. The majority are founded on real occurrences, generally humorous, though the humour is not always as visible to us as to his contemporaries; but sometimes tragic. Some, as with Boccaccio, are derived from folk-lore in the Gesta Romanorum or the Fabliaux. All are recounted with extreme simplicity and brevity. The art of working up a single incident into a long story by subtle delineation of character, elaborate description, and ingenious plot and underplot, was then unknown.[1] Sacchetti is the straightforward raconteur and nothing more, but he deserves as much praise for the ease of his narrative as for the purity of his style. He can hardly be considered as an imitator of Boccaccio, who is always the poet and man of letters, while Sacchetti rather produces the impression of an ordinary Florentine gentleman telling stories after dinner with no special care for artistic effect, which nevertheless he attains by the plain good sense which bids him go straight to his subject and subordinate minor details to the really essential. His tales are single, not set in a framework like Boccaccio's.

This is not the case with his contemporary Ser Giovanni Fiorentino, author of the Pecorone (Great Stupid), who has exposed himself to ridicule by the quaintness of his introductory machinery. A friar and a nun are supposed to meet weekly in the parlour of a convent, and console themselves for the insuperable obstacles to their attachment by telling stories, upon the merits of which they compliment each other extravagantly. The tales, however, are interesting, well told, and greatly esteemed for the excellence of their style. Like Sacchetti's, they are mostly genuine anecdotes, or at least founded upon fact or popular tradition; some are taken with little alteration from Villani's Chronicles. Nothing is certainly known of the author, except that he began to write his tales in 1378 at the Castle of Dovadola, in compulsory or voluntary exile from his native city. He is believed to have been a notary, and a partisan of the Guelf faction.

Giovanni da Prato, author of Il Paradin degli Alberti (about 1420) also deserves mention here, on account of the short stories inserted into his ethical dialogues; but the first novelist of much importance after Giovanni Fiorentino is Massuccio of Salerno, a Neapolitan, who seems to have been a man of rank, and to have been for some time in the service of the Duke of Milan. He wrote about 1470, and his tales were first printed in 1476. The celebrity which he continues to enjoy is, it may be feared, mainly owing to his character as the most licentious of the Italian novelists in fact, although, if we may trust his own assurance, the most virtuous in intention. His tales are divided into five parts, each of the first three of which has what the writer considers to be a distinct moral purpose. In the first, in Dunlop's words, "the scope of the stories is to show that God will sooner or later inflict vengeance on dissolute monks." The second "proves that the monks of those days invented many frauds." The third "is intended to show that the greatest and finest ladies of Italy indulged in gallantries of a nature which did them very little honour." All these propositions might have been thought susceptible of demonstration without the Novellino, and much better established than Massuccio's claim to a place among moralists or reformers. He protests that his tales are "ower true," and for the most part founded on recent transactions; and, in fact, he appears less indebted than any predecessor to folk-lore and the French fabliaux. The last two sections of his work, however, contain love adventures of too exceptional a nature to be founded upon actual incidents. Some of these manifest, not merely ingenuity of invention, but considerable tragic power. The style is somewhat barbarous; and the same remark applies to the lighter fiction, generally of the nature of anecdote, of his contemporary Sabadino degli Arienti, a native and historian of Bologna. Sabadino's tales are much less objectionable than Massuccio's, though no less than his in the author's opinion moralissimi documenti. They are entitled Porrettane, from their having been composed for the amusement of the visitors to the baths of Porretta, which gives them some importance as an index to the taste of the more opulent and leisured classes of society.

The novels of the following century are exceedingly numerous, but in general too much upon one pattern to deserve especial notice until we arrive at those of Bandello, Cinthio, and Grazzini, each of whom is eminent for some special characteristic. Of Firenzuola , one of the most typical writers of his day, we have already spoken, his novelettes being generally interwoven with his other prose works. Two single novelettes by separate authors deserve special notice as world-famous, though not by the genius of their authors. The Romeo and Giulietta of Luigi da Porto, a gentleman of Vicenza who died in 1529, is a powerful and well-told story, although it would have been little heard of but for Shakespeare, who nevertheless seems to have been unacquainted with it, having founded his tragedy upon the inferior version made by Arthur Brooke after the French of Boistuau. The other story which has become a portion of the world's repertory of fiction is the Belphegor of Giovanni Brevio, a subject also treated by Machiavelli, and revived in our own day by Thackeray. The idea of the devil's aversion to matrimony, not as a divine ordinance, but as a nuisance inconsistent with his own peace and comfort, is so irresistibly comic that one is surprised to find it originally Slavonian.

The celebrity of Pietro Aretino requires the mention of his novels, which, however, possess no very distinctive features. To find these we must turn chiefly to Straparola, whose genre requires a distinct notice; and, among those who diverged less from the beaten track, Bandello, Cinthio, and Grazzini. Bandello, says Settembrini, depicts the Italian, Grazzini the Florentine, Cinthio humanity at large.

Matteo Bandello (1480–1561) was a Lombard and a Dominican, who resided successively at Mantua and at Milan, the latter city in his time one of the most uncomfortable places in Italy from the oppressions and depredations of the Spanish soldiery. Popular commotions concurred to drive him to France, where Henry II. made him Bishop of Agen. His novelettes had been composed before this distinction befell him, but his episcopacy was no obstacle to their publication in 1554. Though frequently licentious, his stories indicate a considerable advance upon his forerunners in the power of depicting character and in seriousness of tone. He prefers historical narration to invention, and usually bases his tales upon some actual occurrence, often revolting for its cruelty or indecency. The story of Violante, analysed in No. 380 of the Edinburgh Review, is a good example of his tragic force, and many others might be given. The pathetic grace of the opening of his Gerardo and Elena, analysed in the same essay, is no less excellent in its more romantic and delicate way. He was a prolific writer, producing no fewer than eighty-nine novelettes, more esteemed by foreigners than by his own countrymen, who were offended by his Lombardisms. Settembrini, however, not in general favourable to the productions of the Cinque Cento, pronounces him the first Italian novelist after Boccaccio.

No imputation of rusticity can be attached to the diction of Antonio Maria Grazzini, surnamed Il Lasca (1503–83), for here the style is the main recommendation of the work. Grazzini, an apothecary by profession, was one of the chief promoters of the movement for prescribing a standard of pure Tuscan, and as one of the founders of the celebrated Academy degli Umidi, each of whose members was bound to assume the name of some fish, he called himself Il Lasca (the Roach), by which name he is best known. Such toys occupied the thoughts of Italians in an age of decay when great deeds had become impossible. Grazzini's stories are mostly taken from Florentine private life, and as such have their value, apart from the idiomatic Tuscan, which is best apprehended by the writer's countrymen. They are not of enthralling interest, and when tragical are sometimes revolting, but the exposition is easy and artistic.

Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinthio of Ferrara (1504–73) is better known by name to English readers than most of his fellow-novelists, since from him Shakespeare derived the plots of Othello and Measure for Measure. The story on which the former drama is founded is not a bad specimen of Cinthio's usual work. His subjects are frequently tragical, sometimes shocking, but the treatment is generally powerful, the narrative direct and forcible, and he is in great measure exempt from the grossness of his contemporaries. The tales, a hundred in number, whence their title of Ecatomithi, are supposed to be narrated on board a ship bound for Marseilles, and conveying a party of Romans escaping from the sack of the Eternal City. They are divided like Boccaccio's into ten classes, each considered to illustrate some particular point of morals or manners. They are highly respectable performances; but by so much as they surpass Grazzini's in matter they fall below them in style, which, though not incorrect, is devoid of colour and individuality.

Straparola, already briefly alluded to, was a native of Caravaggio, and published his Notti Piacevoli in 1554. He is a good story-teller, although a bad stylist; but what gives him an epoch-making rank among Italian novelists is not his merit or demerit in either capacity, but his having been the first to avail himself of popular folk-lore as a groundwork for fiction. Nothing is more annoying than the almost complete neglect of popular mythology by men of culture in antiquity. Apuleius tells one inimitable tale, without saying where he got it. Synesius spends his evenings listening to the stories of the Libyan peasants, and is not at the trouble to preserve a single one. It is nevertheless clear that such tales must have been as rife in ancient times as in our own. Straparola was perhaps the first man who systematically turned them to literary account: it would have been well if he had gone much further, and proportionately reduced his debt to Hieronymo Morlini, the chief recommendation of whose generally indecent and always ungrammatical Latin stories (Naples, 1520) is their exceeding rarity. Nearly a hundred years afterwards Straparola was completely eclipsed both as concerned the quantity and the quality of his folk-lore fictions, by the Pentamerone of Giovanni Basile, Count of Morone, a collection whose relation to the popular mythology of other nations has occasioned endless discussion. Puss in Boots, and Cinderella, and Rapunzel, and many another favourite owe to Basile their first appearance in literary costume. In narrative he is the breathless, loquacious, exuberant Neapolitan, too much in a hurry to trouble himself about style or art, but carrying all before him by his vigour and vehemence, and betraying, as his German translator has pointed out, strong traces of the influence of Rabelais.

It will be evident from the above brief sketch of the Italian novel that in the sixteenth century the art of novel-writing was nearly identical with the art of narrative. This was fully possessed by most writers of fiction; but characterisation, ingenuity of construction and development of plot, underplot, episode, artful suspension of interest, above all the application of the novelist's art to weighty purposes, were all in the most rudimentary condition. Compared with the modern novel, the ancient story is as a simple air upon a flute to the complicated harmony of an organ. It is true that the old romances abound with hints and germs only needing development, but development was slow in coming, and even when about the beginning of the eighteenth century romance and novelette had grown into the novel, it was still long before the novel became a vehicle of ideas and a potent factor in civilisation. The reason probably is that while the novel may employ the highest human faculties, it is at the same time the best medium for conveying ideas to the less cultivated orders of society. The extension of reading and writing to these classes has called forth a tribe of readers which had no existence in the days of the Cinque Cento, and has invested the only description of literature which powerfully appeals to them with extraordinary significance. The influence of the novel in the modern sense grows, and will continue to grow; but there is still abundant room for the short and simple story, the consistent development of a single incident or situation, compensating in art for what it lacks in variety, yet, now that human life has become so much richer and more complex than of old, at a further remove from mere anecdote than seemed necessary for its Italian prototype.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

  1. The Italian style of novel has been imitated in English in Stories after Nature, by Charles Wells, author of Joseph and his Brethren, with great success, except for Wells's deficiency in humour, and his employment of a more poetical diction than the Italians would have allowed themselves.