A History of Italian Literature/Chapter XVII

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Alone among the great nations of the modern world, Italy stands in the unenviable position of possessing no drama at the same time national and literary. From one point of view three classes of the drama may be distinguished, (1) The rude popular play entirely a creation of the people, such as the buffooneries of the Dionysiac festival, out of which the Athenian drama grew, or the dramatic exhibitions at fairs of itinerant actors barely distinguishable from mountebanks, like those whose puppet-plays originated Faust. Performances of this nature have probably existed in every nation endowed with the rudiments of culture. (2) These crude beginnings elevated by men of genius into the sphere of art, and become literary without ceasing to be popular. This is the true national drama, when the pulses of the poet and the people beat in full unison, and of which Greece, England, and Spain have given the world the most brilliant examples. (3) The artificial drama, written by men of culture for men of culture, but neglecting, or at least failing to reach the heart of the people. With the exception of the musical drama of which Metastasio affords the type, and of the comedies of Goldoni and Gozzi, all of which belonged to a more recent period than that with which we are now engaged, the whole of the Italian drama possessing any literary pretensions belongs to this class. It is true that, as in England and elsewhere, it is accompanied by a lower order of dramatic composition which may be regarded as popular. In the early days of the Italian drama we have the Rappresentazioni, at a later period the Commedia dell' Arte, of both of which some notice must be taken. But neither is, strictly speaking, literature.

It appears at first exceedingly surprising that a nation, not only so gifted as the Italian, but so dramatically gifted, should not merely never have achieved a national drama, but should have no dramatic writer meriting to be ranked among the chief masters of the art. Lively, emotional, capable of being worked up to the most violent degrees of passion; at the same time observant, sagacious, reflective; members of a society comprising every variety of character and profession, and inheritors of a history replete with moving and tragic incidents, Italians should seem to have wanted no requisite for the creation of a flourishing stage. Prolific they were indeed: more than five thousand plays were written between 1500 and 1734. Perhaps there are not five which enjoy any considerable reputation out of Italy, or which, whatever their literary merit, can be considered characteristically Italian. The most potent of probable causes will be adduced in its place, but no single explanation, or any accumulation of partially satisfactory explanations, will entirely account for so remarkable a circumstance. One reason was probably the great development of Italian culture at an early period, compared with that of other European nations. The ablest men had become fully acquainted with Seneca and Terence, and looked upon them as painters looked upon Raphael, or sculptors upon Phidias. They deemed them the norm of excellence, and condemned themselves to a sterile imitation, which might and often did possess high literary merit, but which was entirely estranged from popular sympathies. Men like Politian and Pontano, who really could have created a national drama if they could have trusted their own instincts, were deterred from producing anything at variance with the canons in which they themselves believed. It must be said in extenuation of their error, that the classical school, with all its defects, was vastly in advance of the rude, amorphous beginnings of the romantic drama in every country but one. One little corner of Europe alone possessed in the early sixteenth century a drama at once living, indigenous, and admirable as literature. Nothing in literary history is more surprising than the gap between Gil Vicente and his contemporaries, whether classical or romantic. Had he been born an Italian instead of a Portuguese, the history of the Italian stage might possibly have been different. It nevertheless remains to be explained why no such person arose among so gifted a people, and why throughout their entire history, with one or two marked exceptions in particular departments, Italians have never had a drama that they could justly call their own.

In its first beginnings, notwithstanding, the Italian drama was as national as any other. As with all other modern European dramas, its origin was religious. Christianity found the need of replacing the heathen shows and spectacles it had suppressed, and amused the people with representations of Scriptural subjects, or of incidents in the lives of the saints. For centuries these were never written down, but improvised or exhibited in dumb show. Gradually the miracle-play came into being, a more advanced development, compelling learning by rote and much drilling of the performers, and therefore of necessity committed to writing. In Italy this assumed a more polished form than elsewhere, the Rappresentazione Sacra, rude in construction, but composed frequently in elegant, sometimes in excellent octave verse. This was a development of the fifteenth century, the earliest of which the date is known being the Abraham and Isaac of Feo Belcari, 1449. It became exceedingly popular in the later part of the century, especially at Florence. No less distinguished a person than Lorenzo de' Medici is enumerated among its authors. Numbers of such pieces were printed, down even to the end of the seventeenth century, and usually set off with wood-engravings, sometimes of great elegance. The materials were usually drawn from ecclesiastical legend. Constantine is represented as giving his daughter to his successful general Gallicanus, on condition of his becoming a Christian. Julian, marching to wage war with the Persians, is slain by an invisible saint. The histories of Tobit, of St. Agnes, of St. Cecilia, and numbers of similar legends, form the staple subjects. Sometimes romance is laid under contribution, as in the instance of the Emperor Octavian, but always with a religious motive. Dramatic force does not seem to have been much considered, the stately octave being better adapted for declamation than for dialogue; but the stage directions are very precise, and every effort seems to have been made to impress the spectators, so far as permitted by the rudeness of the open-air theatre, a mere scaffold with perhaps a curtain for a background, yet often very splendidly decorated.

How near Italy came to creating a national drama is shown by the frequent representations of public events upon the stage, quite in the spirit of Shakespeare's historical plays. Two types may be discriminated—one adhering very closely to that of the Rappresentazioni, and composed in the vernacular; the latter following classical models, and in Latin. To the latter belongs the very tedious play of Carlo Verardi on the fall of Granada, performed before Cardinal Riario in 1492; but the very remarkable and unfortunately lost dramatic chronicle of the usurpations and downfall of the house of Borgia, acted before the Duke of Urbino on the recovery of his states in 1504, seems rather to have belonged to the former class. To this type also is allied the first Italian drama of genuine literary merit, the Orfeo of Politian, where the dialogue is mostly in octave stanzas, as in the Rappresentazioni, and the object is evidently rather to delight the spectators by a rapid succession of scenes admitting of musical accompaniment than to "purge the soul by pity and terror." Slight as this juvenile work of Politian's is, it is the work of a poet, and written with a swing and rush which recall the lyrical parts of the Bacchæ of Euripides. ' It indicates what the Rappresentazioni might have become but for the competition of the more classical type of drama, and seems a prelude to the thoroughly national species of composition which arose in the seventeenth and prevailed in the eighteenth century, the opera.

The Italian stage had thus made a respectable beginning with the drama a hundred years before any drama worthy of the name existed in England. The disappointment of such auspicious promise is justly ascribed by Symonds, in great measure, to the want of a representative public and a centre of social life. The emulation of a number of independent cities, so favourable to the development of art, prevented the development of the national feeling essential to a national drama. The political circumstances of these communities, moreover, were inimical to the existence of a popular stage. Theatrical representations remained the amusement of courts; and when the general public was allowed to participate in them, the play itself was so enveloped in show and spectacle as to appear the least part of the entertainment. It was not possible that under such circumstances the drama could deviate far from conventional models. Tragedy continued to be composed after the pattern of Seneca, an imitation of an imitation. Comedy, though also in bondage to classical precedents, could not avoid depicting contemporary manners, and hence displays far more vitality and vigour.

Latin plays had been written by Italians from the beginning of the fifteenth century, and had included comedies, now lost, by persons of no less account than Petrarch and Æneas Sylvius. The first vernacular tragedies worthy of the name were composed for the entertainment of the court of Ferrara, and were written in the octave stanza or terza rima. No genius could have adapted this form to the exigencies of the stage, and a great step was taken when in 1515 Trissino, whose epic on the Gothic wars has been previously noticed, wrote his tragedy of Sophonisba in blank verse, retaining nothing of the lyrical element but the chorus. The piece marks an era, and as such remains celebrated, notwithstanding its total want of poetry and passion. It would have been a good outline for an abler hand to have clothed with substance. Trissino had abundance of successors and imitators, most of whom had more poetical endowment, but few more genuine vocation, and all of whom are devoid of any impulse except the ambition of literary distinction. This could only be reached by the prescribed path; and no vestige of originality appears in any of them except Sperone Speroni's innovation, not laudable in a tragedy, although a fruitful suggestion for the pastoral drama, of mingling lyrical metres with the regulation blank verse. The subject of his play, the incest of Macareus and Canace, infinitely overtaxed his elegant talent. Of the other tragedies of the time, the best known are the Rosmunda of Rucellai, the Mariamne of Lodovico Dolce, and the Orbecche of Cinthio the novelist, whose Epitia contains the rude germ of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure.[1] At a later date tragedy was attempted by a true poet of great genius, who would assuredly have produced something memorable under favourable circumstances. But the composition of Tasso's Torrismondo, commenced in his youth, was long interrupted, and the play was completed in 1586 under the depressing circumstances of his Mantuan exile. It thus wants energy; and, as Carducci remarks, Tasso is too much of an eclectic, striving by a combination of the advantages of all styles to supply the one indispensable gift of poetical inspiration, which misfortune had all but extinguished.

The first Italian comedies, like the tragedies, were written in rhyme. One early example is entitled to notice, both on account of the subject and as the work of an excellent poet, the Timone of Boiardo. It is little more than a translation of Lucian's Dialogue, yet was, we feel confident, the channel through which Shakespeare gained the acquaintance with that work revealed in his Timon of Athens. The history of Italian comedy as a recognised form of art should, however, be dated from the Calandra of Cardinal Bibbiena, first performed about 1508. It hardly attempts delineation of character, but, as Symonds remarks, "achieved immediate success by reproducing both the humour of Boccaccio and the invention of Plautus in the wittiest vernacular." The plot is taken from the Menæchmi of Plautus, the source of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors; but Bibbiena's idea of making the indistinguishable twins brother and sister enhances the comic effect at the expense of morality, little considered by cardinals in those days.

The great success of Bibbiena's comedy was calculated to encourage rivalry, and it chanced that two of the first men in Italy of the day possessed the dramatic instinct, combined with a decided gift for satire. In the year following the exhibition of the Calandra (1509), Ariosto gave the Cassaria, a comedy of intrigue on the Plautine model. The same description is applicable to his other comedies, the Suppositi, the Lena, the Negromante, and the Scolastica. In all except the Negromante the action turns upon the stratagems of a knavish servant to obtain for his master the money indispensable for the gratification of his amorous desires. This style of comedy requires a well-contrived plot, and the maintenance of the interest throughout by a series of ingenious surprises and unforeseen incidents. In these Ariosto fully attains his object. Writing for the amusement of a court, he does not care to stray from the conventions which he knows will satisfy, and his pieces afford no measure of the success he might have attained if he had appealed to the public and essayed to depict Italian society as it existed. One of the characters is exceedingly lifelike, the accommodating Dominican in the Scolastica, who, armed with all imaginable faculties from the Pope, is ready to commute the fulfilment of an inconvenient vow into the performance of some good work profitable to his order. This play was left unfinished, but was written before the Lena and the Negromante, which probably appeared about 1528.

The other Italian comic writer of genius was one of more powerful intellect and more serious character than Ariosto, if less richly endowed as a poet. Released from prison after the overthrow of his party and the loss of his political position in 1512, Machiavelli found solace in the composition of the Mandragola (Mandrake), a piece acted before the Pope in that day, and which could hardly be represented anywhere in this. Its cynicism is worse than its immorality, the plot consisting in the stratagem by which an innocent young wife is persuaded to admit a lover; all the personages, including the husband, who is nevertheless himself deceived in a material point, co-operating for so laudable an end. Disagreeable as the situation is, it is probably founded upon fact; and at all events the play is no pale copy of Plautus or Terence, but full of consistent and strongly individualised characters, and scenes of the most drastically comic effect. The portrait of the rascally father confessor is particularly vigorous, and proves of itself how ripe the times were for Luther. A dozen more plays of equal merit would have raised the Italian stage very high. But no successor to Machiavelli appeared; and his other play, the Clizia, is deficient in originality, being little more than a paraphrase of the Casina of Plautus.

Many comedies of considerable merit succeeded Machiavelli's, among which may be particularly mentioned those of Firenzuola, who followed Roman precedents, and of Cecchi, and Gelli, and Grazzini, who to a considerable extent disengaged themselves from tradition. Angelo Beolco, called Il Ruzzante, struck upon a new vein in the delineation of rustic life, involving the employment of dialect; and, near the end of the century, the life of the people was represented with extreme vividness by Buonarotti, nephew of Michael Angelo, in his Fiera and Tancia. One other comic dramatist takes an important place, the repulsive and decried Aretino. His claim to permanent significance is grounded, not on the scanty literary merits of his works, but on the unique characteristic thus expressed by Symonds, "They depict the great world from the standpoint of the servants' hall." They are the work of a low-minded man, who could see nothing but the baser traits of the society around him, but saw these clearly, and also saw no reason why he should not blazon what he saw. Hence his usefulness is in the ratio of his offensiveness.

It is significant of the difference between the Italian mind and the Spanish, and of the extent to which the former had emancipated itself from mediævalism, that the Rappresentazione, touching so nearly on the confines of the Spanish Auto, never developed into that or any allied variety of the drama. The abstractions of the vices and virtues, so natural to the Spaniard and the man of the Middle Age in general, were uncongenial to the Italian, whose Rappresentazioni were always peopled by definite, tangible persons, even if of the spiritual order. The Adamo of Andreini, early in the seventeenth century, from which Milton undoubtedly derived his first idea of treating the Fall in a miracle play, might have led to a development in this direction, but remained an isolated eccentricity. The true national development lay in quite another path, the pastoral drama. Something like this might be found in Gil Vicente, but we may be certain that his works weretotally unknown in Italy, and that the pastoral play grew out of such romances as the Arcadia, such eclogues as those of Baptista Mantuanus, and the court masques in which the principal parts were taken by shepherds and shepherdesses. Politian's Orfeo is not very far from being such a piece, although it is a good deal more. A pastoral masque was composed as early as 1506 by Castiglione for the amusement of the court of Urbino. Others followed from time to time, and developed into a real pastoral drama by Beccari in 1554; but the literary pretensions of this class of composition continued to be very slender until it was virtually created by Tasso's Aminta in 1573. Few novel experiments in literature have enjoyed a more immediate or more permanent success. Numerous as were the Aminta's imitators, its primacy has never but once been seriously challenged, and its nature and simplicity have in general been justly preferred to the more elaborate artifice of the Pastor Fido. It is indeed deficient in the rich poetry of its English rival, the Faithful Shepherdess, "as inferior, poetically speaking," says Leigh Hunt, "as a lawn with a few trees on it is to the depths of a forest." But Leigh Hunt confesses its superiority in "true dramatic skill, and flesh and blood interest": it is indeed as far as anything can be from the insipidity usually associated with pastoral compositions. It has, moreover, more of the genuine yearning for the golden age, the spirit which inspires Keats's Endymion, than is found in the fanciful dramas of Fletcher, or Milton, or Ben Jonson, "The central motive of Aminta and the Pastor Fido," says Symonds, "is the contrast between the actual world of ambition, treachery, and sordid strife, and the ideal world of pleasure, loyalty, and tranquil ease."

Although the pastoral drama is a legitimate as well as a beautiful kind of composition, it is not capable of very great extension or variety. Tasso's successors might conceivably surpass him as poefs, but could only repeat him as dramatists. His only serious competitor is his contemporary Giovanni Battista Guarini, the author of the Pastor Fido (1537–1612).

Guarini, the descendant of a Veronese family already distinguished in letters, was, like Tasso, attached to the court of the Duke of Ferfara; but, unlike Tasso, was a man of the world, and was employed in several important missions, especially one to solicit the crown of Poland for his master, where he nearly died of a Polish inn. Like most of the Duke's literary protégés, he became estranged from him, and spent the later part of his life in roaming from court to court in quest of employment, and litigating with his children and the world at large. His disposition was quarrelsome; literary disputes had long severed him from Tasso; it is to his honour that when the latter was unable to watch over his own works, he took care of and published his lyrical poems. The most brilliant episode of Guarini's life was the publication of his Pastor Fido in 1590; but not the least troublesome was the literary controversy in which it involved him. These disputes, born rather of the idleness than of the conscientiousness of the Italian literati, are now forgotten, and the Pastor Fido, a direct challenge to the Aminta, is allowed an honourable though a second place. Its relation to its predecessor may be compared to that of the Corinthian order to the Ionic. Guarini has sought to compensate for the lack of natural, spontaneous inspiration by superior artifice of plot: his characters are more numerous, and his action more intricate and ingenious. This would not have availed him much if he had not been a poet, but this he certainly was, though with less of the nascitur and more of the fit than usual. Tasso was conscious of a truer inspiration, and conveys his claim to the virtual invention of a new mode in poetry in the verses which he has placed in the mouth of Love appearing in the disguise of a shepherd, thus rendered by Leigh Hunt:

"After new fashion shall these woods to-day
Hear love discoursed; and it shall well be seen
That my divinity is present here
In its own person, not its ministers,
I will inbreathe high fancies in rude hearts;
I will refine, and render dulcet sweet,
Their tongues; because, wherever I may be,
Whether with rustic or heroic men,
There am I Love; and inequality,
As it may please me, I do equalise;
And 'tis my crowning glory and great miracle
To make the rustic pipe as eloquent
Even as the subtlest harp."

Guarini frequently repeated Tasso's ideas, striving to enhance their effect by careful elaboration. The poetry of one or both has passed into Calderon's Mágico Prodigioso, and originated the scene of the temptation of Justina, an ornament of English literature in the incomparable version of Shelley.

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 novel by Cinthio himself on which this play is founded was dramatised by Whetstone; but that Shakespeare had seen Cinthio's dramatic version also may be inferred from a minute circumstance. Cinthio's play, not his novel or Whetstone's adaptation of it, has a character named Angela, whose name disappears from Measure for Measure, but who bequeaths Angelo as that of her brother, whom Cinthio calls Juristi, and Whetstone Andrugio.