CHAPTER XIII. THE SIXTEENTH AND SEVENTEENTH CENTURIES: ITALY
Poets: Ariosto, Tasso, Guarini, Folengo, Marini, etc. Prose Writers: Machiavelli, Guicciardini, Davila.
THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY.—Italy, after Dante and Petrarch, possessed literary strength and much literary glory in the sixteenth century. She produced an admirable pleiad of poets and prose writers of high merit. These were Ariosto, Tasso, Berni, Sannazaro, Machiavelli, Bandello, Guicciardini. Below them were a hundred distinguished writers, among which must be cited Aretino, Folengo, Bembo, Baldi, Tansillo, Dolce, Benvenuto Cellini, Hannibal Caro, and Guarini.
ARIOSTO.—Ariosto wrote Orlando Furioso, which is not the epic in parody, as has been too often observed, but the gay and joyous epopee of Orlando and his companions. The principal characters are Orlando, Charlemagne, Renaud, Agramant, Ferragus, Angelica, Bradamante, Marphisa. The tone is extremely varied and the author is in turns joyous, satirical, pathetic, melancholy, and even tragical. Ariosto is the superlative poet of fantastic imagination combined with a foundation of good sense, reason, and benevolence. Goethe has said of him very aptly: “From a cloud of gold wisdom sometimes thunders sublime sentences, whilst to a harmonious lute, folly seems to riot in savage digressions yet all the while maintains a perfect measure.” Ariosto was well read in the classics, but fundamentally his master was Homer.
TASSO.—Torquato Tasso, whose life was characterised by a thousand trials and who was long the victim of a mental malady, wrote a poem on the crusade of Godfrey de Bouillon. The poem is full of the supernatural; the chief characters are Renaud, Tancred, the enchantress Armida, Clorinda. The inspiration of Tasso is specially mystic and lyrical; his facility for description is delicious. The repute of Jerusalem Delivered in the seventeenth century was immense, and all the literatures of Europe have innumerable references to the personages and episodes of the poem. In Italy there were fervid partisans of the superiority of Tasso over Ariosto or of Ariosto over Tasso, and many duels on the subject, the most bellicose being, as always happens, between those who had read neither.
BERNI.—Berni, like Ariosto, was half burlesque in the diverting portions of his works. He wrote satires which were often virulent, paradoxes such as the eulogy of the plague and of famine, and an Amorous Orlando which is quite agreeable. The Bernesque type, that is, the humoristic, was created by him and bears his name.
SANNAZARO.—Sannazaro wrote both in Latin and Italian. His chief claim to fame lies in his Arcadia, an idyllic poem of bucolic sentiment, destined to evoke thousands of imitations. He also produced eclogues and sonnets in Italian which give sufficient grounds for regarding him as one of the chief masters of that language.
MACHIAVELLI.—Great thinker, great politician, great moral philosopher, Machiavelli possessed one of the most powerful minds ever known. He wrote The Prince, Discourses upon Livius, an Art of War, diplomatic letters and reports, for he was at one time secretary to the Florentine Republic, a History of Florence, a comedy (The Mandrake), romances and tales. The Prince is a treatise of the art of acquiring and preserving power by all possible means and more particularly by intelligent and discreet crime. Machiavelli emphasised the separation, at times relative, at times absolute, which exists between politics and morals. His Discourses upon Livius are full of sense, penetration, and profundity; his light works show a singular dexterity of thought united to a fundamental grossness which it would be impossible to misunderstand or excuse.
BANDELLO.—Bandello is the author of novels in the vein of those of Boccaccio or of Brantome. His voluntary or spontaneous originality consists in mixing licentious tales with sentences and maxims which are most austere and moral. He also wrote elegiac odes that were highly esteemed. His very pure style is considered in Italy to be strictly classical.
GUICCIARDINI.—Guicciardini wrote with infinite patience, severe conscientiousness, and imperturbable frigidity in a style that was pure, though somewhat prolix, that History of Florence, virtually a history of Italy, which from its first appearance was hailed as a classic and has remained one. His history is altogether that of a statesman; he passed his life among prominent public affairs, being Governor of Modena, Parma, and Bologna, a diplomatist involved in the most important negotiations; this historian is himself a historical personage.
FOLENGO.—Folengo wrote a macaronic poem: that is to say, one in which Latin and Italian were mixed, called Coccacius (which must be remembered because when translated into French it became the earliest model for Rabelais), as well as Orlandini (childhood of Orlando), which is amusing. Other serious works did not merit serious consideration.
ARETINO.—Aretino was a satirist and a poet so fundamentally licentious that he has remained the type of infamous author. He wrote comedies (The Courtesan, The Marshal, The Philosopher, The Hypocrite), intimate letters that are extremely interesting for the study of the customs of his day, religious and edifying books, replete with talent if not with sincerity, as well as an innumerable mass of satires, pamphlets, statements, diatribes which caused all the princes of his day to tremble, and through making them tremble also brought gold into the coffers of Aretino; he had raised blackmail to the height of a literary department.
BEMBO; BALDI.—Cardinal Bembo, a devout Ciceronian to the verge of fanaticism, wrote more especially in Latin, but left Italian poems of much elegance and charm; he ranks among the most brilliant representatives of the Italian Renaissance.
Baldi, a very widely versed scholar, sought relaxation from his erudition in writing eclogues, moral poems, and a very curious didactic poem on navigation.
TANSILLO; DOLCE.—Tansillo, a very fertile poet, composed a rather licentious poem entitled The Vintager, and a religious poem called The Tears of St. Peter (which the younger Malherbe thought so beautiful that he partially translated it), The Rustic Prophet and The Nurse, wherein he showed himself the pupil of Tasso, comedies, a bucolic drama, etc.
Dolce, not less prolific, produced five epic poems of which the best is The Childhood of Orlando, many comedies, for the most part imitations of Plautus, tragedies after Euripides and Seneca, and then one which seems to have been original and was the celebrated Mariamna, so often imitated in French. He was also an indefatigable translator of Horace, Cicero, Philostrates, etc.
BENVENUTO CELLINI.—The great sculptor and chaser, Benvenuto Cellini, belongs to literary history because of his Treatise on Goldsmithing and Sculpture and his admirable Memoirs, which are certainly in part fictitious, but are a literary work of the foremost rank.
HANNIBAL CARO; GUARINI.—Hannibal Caro, by his poems, his letters, his literary criticism, his comedy, The Beggars, and his metrical translation of the Aeneid, acquired high rank in the judgment both of Italy and Europe.
Guarini, the friend of Tasso, whom he helped in the labour of revising and correcting Jerusalem Delivered, was unquestionably his pupil. Tasso having written a bucolic poem, Aminta, Guarini wrote a bucolic poem, The Faithful Shepherd, which has been one of the greatest literary successes ever known. It was a kind of irregular drama mingled with songs and dances, highly varied, poetic, pathetic sometimes in a rather insipid way. All the pastorals, whether French or Italian, and later the opera itself, can be traced to Guarini, or at least the taste for the eclogue may be derived from the dramas Guarini originated. This was a man whose influence has been considerable not only on literature, but also on manners, customs, and morals.
DECADENCE OF LITERATURE.—In the seventeenth century Italian literature indisputably was in decadence. In verse more especially, but also in prose, it was the period of ability without depth and even without foundation, of elegant and affected verbiage or burlesque lacking alike in power, thought, and passion. Marini loomed large with his Adonis, an ingenious mythological epic, sometimes brilliant but also lame, sometimes full of points, but also with trifles. Great as was his reputation in Italy, it was perhaps surpassed in France, where he was welcomed and flattered by Marie de' Medici and hyperbolically praised by Voiture, Balzac, Scudery, etc.
SALVATOR ROSA; TASSONI; MAFFEI.—The great painter Salvator Rosa devoted himself hardly less to literature; he left lyrical poems and particularly satires which are far from lacking spirit, though often destitute of taste. Satiric, too, was the paradoxical Tassoni, who scoffed at Petrarch, and who in his Thoughts, long prior to J.J. Rousseau, was the first, perhaps (but who knows?), to maintain that literature is highly prejudicial to society and humanity, and who achieved fame by his Rape of the Bucket: that is, by a burlesque poem on the quarrel between the Bolognese and the inhabitants of Modena about a bucket.
Maffei (intruding somewhat on the eighteenth century), good scholar and respected historian, produced in 1714 his Merope, which was an excellent tragedy, as Voltaire well knew and also testified.
HISTORIANS AND CRITICS.—In prose there are none to point out in the eighteenth century in Italy except historians and critics. Among the historians must be noted Davila, who spent his youth in France near Catherine de' Medici, served in the French armies, and on his return to Padua devoted his old age to history. He wrote a History of the Civil Wars in France which was highly esteemed, and which Fenelon recollected when writing his Letter on the Pursuits of the French Academy. The foregoing are what must be mentioned as notable manifestations of literary activity in Italy during the seventeenth century, but let it not be forgotten that the scientific activity of the period was magnificent, and that it was the century of Galileo, of Torricelli; of the four Cassini, as well as of so many others who were praised, as they deserved to be, in the Eulogies of the Learned of Fontenelle.