Italian Literature You Should Read Pt 1

Bookshelves

This post has been inspired by the Fountains of Carrots episode on expanding the Catholic Literary Imagination. The list is a non-conclusive and highly biased compilation by me and my father, and it includes both Catholic and non-Catholic authors because in many ways even non-religious or other-religion-religious people have to navigate a cultural identity that is somewhat inseparable from the Roman Catholic Church. It also includes anything from children’s literature and folk tales to high literature. 

Medieval and Renaissance
Some of this stuff I mentioned in passing on my podcast because it’s contemporaries or near-contemporaries of Dante.

  • Boccaccio, “Decameron”: it’s a collection of short stories held together by a situation in which a group of young nobles are stuck together for 10 days to escape the Plague in Florence. It’s a very humorous book that has fallen on the wrong side of religious censorship a few times because of its treatment of the noble ideal of liberality as not just about generosity and magnanimity (if you get what I mean…). It brings to light the intellectual context in which the Renaissance happened, and how the laity related to their religion, which can seem surprising from our standards. 

  • Ariosto, “Orlando Furioso” (The Frenzy of Orlando): set against the backdrop of Charlemagne’s conflict with the Saracene, this epic poem is the story of the famous knight Roland and the challenge that came from falling in love with a non-Christian princess. It’s an influential piece of literature, to the point it was (possibly through one such works it inspired rather than directly) one of the influences on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Its exploration of the meaning of love follows some lines that Dante himself followed. 
  • Castiglione, “Il Cortigiano” (The Courtesan): it’s essentially a philosophical treaty in the shape of a dialogue taking place at a salon hosted by duchess Elisabetta Gonzaga which involved the literary minds of her time (including a cardinal). The whole thing revolves around theorising the ideal courtesan and ends up in a way that will shock all those who still try to claim the Renaissance was not a religious age. 
  • Vittoria Colonna and the women’s literature of the 1500s. It’s a whole genre because Italian noblewomen of the Renaissance were highly educated and ballsy. They were active in literary circles and deserve more recognition than they usually get. Colonna was the most prolific poet in the genre, and (as a very devout widow) a spiritual mentor to Michelangelo. If I haven’t managed to sell her as your next favourite thing yet I don’t know if there’s hope for you.
  • Tasso, “Gerusalemme Liberata” (Jerusalem Delivered): I swear I’m not just picking stuff out of my old school books, they’re not even in the same country as me. It’s, I believe, the final epic before the genre turned into parody in the next century, and it’s the most openly religious of the works so far so I thought I’d throw it in. Like most works of the time, it deals with the tension between duty and desire.  

Baroque, Enlightenment and Romanticism
The Council of Trent is a watershed across Europe and, of course, in Italy more than anywhere else. Also, as far as the 1600s go, in my humble opinion theatre is a much more influential art form than written literature.

  • Marino, “L’Adone” (Adonis): I debated whether to add this because it really pushes the boundaries of propriety, but the poem was so influential in Italian literature it’s its own genre named after the author. I also think it’s a good example of how you can’t ever escape Catholicism no matter how hard you try. It fell on the wrong side of Pope Urban VIII, partly because it attacked a cardinal with an ironic dedication and he rightly bit back, partly because of the way it deals with the blend of classical and sacred themes. Perhaps it’s worth picking up selected chapters that are not going to need a trip to the chapel in reparation from an anthology or something. 
  • Tassoni, “Secchia rapita” (The stolen bucket): this is a parody of the epics that we’ve seen so far. It only exists in a 1713 English translation but it’s hilarious.
  • Alfieri, Maria Stuarda (Mary Stuart): Alfieri is probably better known for being the lover of the Duchess of Albany, although I guess that’s some niche Jacobite history that may not be familiar to many at all. An Enlightenment figure in line with his contemporaries, trying to move beyond the old religion towards some form of deism/masonry that would be the main influence on the Romantic era that marks the beginning of the Risorgimento (the period where bored intellectuals pushed the unification of Italy on a country that would have been better off without this vanity project). He wrote a lot of tragedies, some comedies, and plenty of satires. The tragedy in question is not the most historically accurate but it’s some serious literary drama that I’d love to put on the stage one day. 
  • Foscolo, Ultime Lettere di Jacopo Ortis (The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis): I feel the need to put a billion trigger warnings around this one but I was in school in the heyday of emo sooooo…maybe skip the last chapter. I love the sad despairing literature of the Romantics and to date one of a handful of poems I can recite is Leopardi’s Infinito (do read him if you like sad poems. Foscolo has some poems too). It’s around the time when the theme of patriotism becomes prominent, giving us a lot of stuff for which the only possible reaction is “Y’all need Jesus”. It’s not even that I am unsympathetic with the critique of the materialism of Enlightenment society, because I am. It’s precisely because I am that I think they all needed Jesus. 

Risorgimento e ante-guerra
With historical novels, realism, pedagogical romances for children with a clear ideological agenda, and later the supercharged aestheticism of the post-Nietzche intellectual scene, the 1800s are possibly the key century for Italian literature in modern times. 

  • Mazoni, I Promessi Sposi (The Bethroted): apparently Pope Francis suggested this book for engaged couples, and there’s a reason. The story takes place at the time of the plague that struck Milan in 1630 and it’s full of genuinely heoric devout people both in the hierarchy and the laity, as well as the hypocritical figures that you’d expect criticised in a realistic novel on the backdrop of Catholicism at a time of crisis, and relatable characters like the Nun of Monza. I’m half-tempted to either do another podcast on this book in this time of Covid, or some kind of book club if anyone fancies making a Discord channel with me. 
  • De Amicis, Cuore (Heart): are you curious about what it’s like growing up in possibly the most left-wing family in the whole country? Then this is the book for you, my father’s childhood favourite. I love the man, but it’s some saccharine drivel (ok, I’m being cynical here, I have cried hard at the story of the piccola vedetta lombarda). Effectively, this novel comes from another figure in the whole line of civic religion masons trying to build some kind of social unity through non-religious values only to face the reality that 90% of their little socialist ideals rest on the heritage of beliefs from the very religion they are trying to break free from. 
  • Collodi, Le avventure di Pinocchio (The Adventures of Pinocchio): better known as just Pinocchio, this children’s novel has more to offer than total hair goals in the form of the Fairy. It’s a metaphor for the human condition and touches on a lot of serious themes. What’s interesting (to me) is that Collodi himself was a seminary drop-out who left the religious calling to join the fight for the unification of Italy only to end up disillusioned with Italian politics. It’s not a surprise then that his original religiosity shines through compared to his earlier children’s works in which he was doing something similar to what De Amicis did. 
  • D’Annunzio, Il Piacere (Pleasure): literature in Europe has hardly ever been an insular thing that each country had independently, even when not everybody was in Paris at the same time, so it’s no surprise that the 1890s brought the same themes that you find in Wilde et al. to Italy. Disillusioned with the ideals of the previous generations, the end of the century is as decadent and tortuous here as it was elsewhere. The theme is, of course, everything that we can expect from a dandy, and there’s no happy ending (of course). A key theme in the novel is the relationship he has with one of the women, which amounts to a moral crisis because that’s kind of the moral of the story in the genre (whether they realise it or not)

I’m cutting it here and will touch the 1900s and contemporary authors next week. I did mention it’s a biased list, so, of course, there are a billion people from the past and it goes far back as the beginning and I’ll be struggling to pick people other than poets for the next half. 

 

 

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