In many ways, the history of Italy is one of a nation searching for its own identity, always one step behind when it comes to cultural advances. The often glorified Roman Empire stole its art and literature from the Greeks, and much later Benito Mussolini (purportedly following in the footsteps of the Caesars) plunged his country into Fascism on the heels of Adolf Hitler's lead. For the several hundred years between both regimes, the history of the area was largely one of political fracture and conquest.
The one era (and arguably the most important) in which Italy led the rest of the world was the Renaissance. Italy was less unified back then, existing as a series of independent city-states rather than a single nation, but the cultural forces that emanated from places like Florence, Sienna and Venice were very much of a piece. Even with the Renaissance, however, the Italian humanists borrowed from their own Roman heritage to build a complex of progressive architecture, literature, painting and sculpture, philosophy, political theory, and religion.
Most Roman literature centered around the one thing the Romans were really, really good at: warfare. A lot of the extant manuscripts are nonfiction accounts of Roman conquest, wars, civil wars, and other military ventures throughout Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa. These are some of the most valuable historical documents we have, actually: the accounts of Julius Caesar and Agricola concerning the early Celtic tribes are the best among the limited documentation we have about ancient Britain.
Of course, Rome had her poets and philosophers as well—Ovid wrote love poems and mythology, Catullus wrote love poems and polemics, Propertius just wrote love poems; Epicurus and Marcus Aurelius were philosophers; Apuleius wrote the first novel (The Golden Ass, which also happened to be the first dirty novel); Livy, Tacitus and Suetonius wrote history; Cicero and Seneca wrote oratory; and Virgil wrote one of the greatest works of all literature of all time: The Aeneid, which simultaneously managed to codify the Roman preoccupation with war ("I sing of arms and the man") and pay homage to the Roman debt to Greece for all things cultural and refined.
Then came a long period in which not much was written of lasting value. The English historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) said the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire was marked by a single event: when Constantine had to borrow from existing buildings to construct an ornamental victory arch because there were no competent artisans to be found. The same situation had settled on the literary realm as well, inaugurating a particularly dry period only reversed during the Middle Ages by prolific Churchmen.
It wasn't till Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) that things really began to reverse. On the cusp of the Renaissance he wrote and published a massive presentation of both theology and philosophy in which he defended the idea that man could know God through nature itself, and that while the Bible was useful for particulars, specific written revelation wasn't a necessary element of salvation. This set the stage for the Renaissance (by shifting authority away from Scripture) and the Reformation (by putting in place ideas about the Church's authority against which Luther would react).
If a greater epic poem than The Aeneid exists, it is Dante's The Divine Comedy. In it, the author imagines himself touring Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven (in that order), all the while commenting on what he finds there. Its imaginative elements, its flawless construction, and Dante's attention to the four standards of interpretation (literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical) all contributed to make The Divine Comedy the representative work of the Renaissance. Perhaps better than any other human literary effort, it combined the spiritual and physical realms through aesthetic grandeur.
The term "Renaissance" means "rebirth," and for the Italians that's exactly what it was. In many ways a rejection of the Church's authority, the movement began as a rediscovery of the Classical world, through archeology and scholarship primarily, and a reinventing of the current milieu through imitation of the older forms. Man's reason was seen as ultimate, and thus the seeds of the Enlightenment were sown. The literature of the era reflected this attitude, not least in the suddenly acute interest writers took in bawdy humor (none so wantonly as Giovanni Boccaccio in The Decameron).
After the Renaissance, things died down again from a literary perspective. It wasn't really till the Postmodern Era that things really took off again, with writers like Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino writing some of the great contemporary novels like The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum (by Eco) and If on a winter's night a traveler and The Baron in the Trees (by Calvino).
Whatever one's opinions are concerning the literature produced in the narrow strip of Mediterranean territory known as Italy, the fact remains that it has continued to exert a powerful influence over both Western and Eastern writers for two and a half thousand years. It's also true that the forms observed by the Classical and Renaissance writers were very much not their own, that they borrowed and even stole from neighboring cultures to produce a body of work at once unique and derivative. But then, isn't that the story of every country's literature?
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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