Italy Literature – Renewal of Thought and Literary Art in the 18th Century Part I

By | February 24, 2022

First, Alfieri wished with profound intimacy to hear the training of his art for political purposes, and yet his importance was also great in civil history. But the purpose of giving poetry the substance of doctrine was of the time in which he lived. In fact, the eighteenth-century fable in verse of the Aesopian type, which moralized and satirized through Passeroni, Pignotti, Clasio, and, expanded to an animal epic, wittily bit the vices of the courts, the injustices of governments, duplicity of politics and all the other flaws of contemporary social life in the  Talking Animals  by Giambattista Casti, who also beat the whip of satire in the  Tartar poem, lashing out at the corruption and barbarism of the Russian court of Catherine II. And characteristic of the eighteenth century was also the abundance of didactic poems, which for the most part in loosened readers greedy for science, not only Virgilian precepts of agriculture, but any more arid, more rough, more abstruse matter, theories of ancient philosophers and modern, economists, sociologists, jurists, reports of new physical astronomical physiological discoveries, aesthetic doctrines, feebly, modestly, with no other adornment than a certain graceful stylistic dress and some clumsy invention. Miserable and presumptuous poetry, of which it can be said that today only the Invitation to Lesbia by Lorenzo Mascheroni survives, which shows to feel poetically the facts and natural phenomena.

According to TRAVELATIONARY.COM, the emptiness of the melica and of all the colluvium of the occasional rhyming and the fatuous artificiality of a prose and poetic literature concerned with the form as a garment to be superimposed on the thought, had tired the minds, educated by the new science and addicted by the foreign examples to taste less insipid nourishment. A certain disdain for so-called formal ornaments grew gradually: rhetorical refinements, mythological images, purity of language; and on the other hand, as we have just seen talking about satirical and didactic poetry, there was an effort to make the so-called content bleed through the new scientific, philosophical and social doctrines, indigenous or that came from France. Aspiration, that since the mid-sixteenth century had manifested itself in spontaneous and unconscious flashes of souls and in isolated and reasoned violations of the prevailing rules, to the full autonomy of Italian literature freed from any need for classical authentication, it had become more and more widespread and intensifying; but the tenacity of a venerated tradition, to which the rationalistic abstractions consequent to the English and French sensism gave reinforcement, and the topical sanction of the French literary works of the great century, still kept alive the classical aesthetic doctrines that the late Renaissance had discussed and formulated; hence that the aesthetic and critical thought of the century XVIII was a curious mixture of old and new and struggled in uncertainties that could not have ended if not an idea that changed the basis of speculation on the concept of art. The Gravina in the Reason poetic  instead proposes to find “the principles of pure and simple reason” from which to deduce the rules of ancient and modern poetry and manifests here and there new and daring ideas on literary genres and on the irrational precepts of rhetoricians, but it does not know how to free itself from traditional concepts of the art of imitating nature and of the didactic goal achieved through pleasure. And Muratori also remains faithful to those concepts, who in the treatise  On Perfect Poetryalthough he attaches great importance to fantasy in the formation of the work of art, he is unable to consider it other than as a reproductive faculty of truth. The sloppiness and the Frenchism of style and language, which spread for a large part of the philosophical and philosophical literature of the second half of the century. XVIII, are theorized by the compilers of the  Caffè , a combative Milanese periodical, who imagine they are making a renunciation of “the alleged purity of the Italian language” by the hand of a notary, and with greater temperance of ideas and intentions by Melchiorre Cesarotti in  the Essay on philosophy of languages; but those and this imbued with French rationalism and contractualism, and therefore faithful to the concept of the agreed sign language of thought, believe they can free it from the crusty shackles with an overturning of rules, and Cesarotti with the institution of a new Bran (Council italico della lingua), as if language were not thought itself and could otherwise renew itself only with the renewal and reinvigoration of thought and culture.

A certain spirit of novelty was already circulating in literary criticism, which although it was nourished by common sense or the love of paradox rather than meditated theories, and not infrequently spent in excesses and rash judgments, nevertheless corrode the solidity of the doctrinal tradition. Francesco Algarotti fought against the academic vanities and the pedantic continuation of certain literary forms and manners that no longer correspond to the character of modern civilization, lamented the lack of a lively prose and wished that the tired poetry of the time would be renewed and Italy would have its own poet philosopher. Devoted to the rigid canons of classical poetics, Saverio Bettinelli in their name fought his reckless battle against the cult of Dante ( Lettere virgiliane ; English letters ) and to them he informed his art in the tragedies he composed for the theaters of the Jesuit colleges; but in his transmodating opposition to the habit of imitating the ancient Italian writers, and in his assiduous hopes for a noble, strong poetry, nourished by ideas, he expressed a spiritual unease that was not long in referring to novelties of doctrine and art. Gaspare Gozzi, multifaceted genius of journalist and polygraph, could not defend Dante against the assault of Bettinelli, other than by resorting to Aristotle and his interpreters; yet with many good observations on individual problems he approached a better reasoned understanding of the divine poem. On the other hand, Giuseppe Baretti, combative and not always a fair censor, in the  literary Whip, of the literature of his time, did not rise beyond the rules of classical rhetoric to Dante’s historical conception of greatness; but defending Shakespeare against Voltaire’s censures, he showed that he was able to consider and judge art in history, and a spirited rebel against the constraints of the Latin-based rhetorical tradition, he tried to freely claim Italian prose in theory and practice.

Italy Literature - Renewal of Thought and Literary Art in the 18th Century 1