The Cantico delle Creature (Song of All Creatures) written by St. Francis of Assisi in 1225 is the earliest known literary work written in the Italian language.
The roots of Italian literature date back to the 13th century in Sicily and a number of writers who belonged to the court of Frederick II. They drew inspiration from the troubadour poetry in Langue d’Oc from the south of France and they produced more than three-hundred poems chiefly dealing with courtly love.
In the XIVth cent. lived and worked three of the greatest figures in Italian literature: Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio, father of the novel, whose Decameron is a mirror of merchant-class life of the times and characterises single individuals by focussing on the things they do; this work became a genre model for centuries that followed. In the XVth and XVth cents. poems of chivalry were much in vogue, comprising epic tales of heroic deeds in faraway times: Torquato Tasso in his Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Freed) of 1575 revived the genre into a veritable masterpiece of its kind. Treatises also abounded during these two centuries and Niccolò Machiavelli in his Principe (The Prince) of 1513 describes this role figure in a realistic manner: his political merits are his strong point, along with cynicism and resolution. Machiavelli is famed for paving the way towards politics as a separate branch of learning conceived of as a skill to be acquired for solving practical problems. The XVIIIth cent. saw the reform of the theatre with Goldoni, and also the tragedies of Vittorio Alfieri who staged the tale of a “tyrant” fired by vehement bursts of passion, torn between moral duty and the desire for power that leads to his final self destruction. There then followed the extraordinary flowering of Romanticism that permeated the literature of the early XIXth century.
A new language soon emerged, epitomised in Manzoni’s Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) of 1840, whose style was no longer literary but featured everyday language that was comprehensible to the masses; the story genre was new as well, dealing with reality as seen and lived by humble folk. So it was that Manzoni wrote the first great novel in Italian literature, setting a precedent for Italian realism with writers focussing on the present moment and on aspects of everyday life. The idea of making reality jump out from the page “as if it appeared by itself” can be seen for example in the Malavoglia (Reluctance) written in 1880 by Giovanni Verga with very precisely chosen linguistics and form. In the late XIXth cent., in a context of existential unrest better known as Decadentism, new artistic tendencies began to take shape: for forty years D’Annunzio dominated Italian literary tastes and the disquieting, contradictory charms of his works still appeal to many to this day. Andrea Sperelli, the lead character in Piacere (Pleasure) of 1889, is a humane yet cynical, dissolute type, a dandy fired by aspirations to beauty who swears by elegance and outward appearances as ends in themselves, shunning all that is mediocre and banal; this “Superman” hero’s provocative, amoral behaviour and sentimental, erotic and intellectual adventures are told in an elaborate, refined style of language that reflects the settings they describe.
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