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Italian Literature In Two Parts , From the…

Italian Literature In Two Parts , From the Beginnings to the Late…

by John Addington Symonds

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“The intellectual medium formed in Italy upon the dissolution of the middle ages was irreligious and indifferent: highly refined and highly cultivated; instinctively aesthetic and superbly gifted, but devoid of moral earnestness or patriotic enthusiasms, of spiritual passions or political energy.”…….The men who made this literature and those with whom they lived, for whom they wrote, were well bred, satisfied with inactivity, open at all pores to pleasure, delighting in the refinements of tact and taste, but at the same time addicted to gross sensuality of word and deed”

John Addington Symonds writing in the 1880’s grits his teeth and plunges into the realms of these dissolute Italians. Symonds was a poet and literary critic who died in Rome in 1893. He produced a 7 volume history of Renaissance Italy; two volumes of which are devoted to literature. His passion for the Italian Renaissance shines through as he takes his readers on a guided tour of all that is worth reading from the period. This is much more than just biographical details of the famous as he uses his critical faculties to the full and along the way delves into much of the social history. He succeeds in producing a well rounded portrait of the literature and the life and times.

His two volumes start with providing an introduction to the romances of the middle ages and the struggle to find an acceptable national language with Latin rapidly becoming a dead language. He moves on to what he calls the Triumvirate of Italian literature; Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio and the influence they had on all those that followed them. There are chapters on popular secular and religious poetry before the excellent chapter on Lorenzo De Medici and the cult of the carnival and the pageant in Florence. The lesser known writers of epic romances are then covered before an excellent critique of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. There are good chapters on the Novellieri and the bawdy short stories that they produced, followed by the even more bawdy secular dramas. Another good chapter on Burlesque poetry, before a chapter on Pietro Aretino the ultimate perhaps in satire and bad taste. Politics and Philosophy are covered with reference to Machiavelli and Pomponazzi and there are chapters on Pastoral and Didactic poetry and a critique on the Purists.

There were many new names to me to explore further; Matteo Bandello, Giovanni Pontano, Salernitano Massucio, Teofilo Polengo, Francesco Berni and Niccolo Franco. It all got a bit dangerous for my bank balance leading to the purchase of seven more books with many other extracts downloaded from google books. John Addington Symonds writes clearly and well and in spite of what he says I get the impression he enjoyed the obscenity of the burlesque writers as much as he did the Pastoral and Religious poetry; he saves his most damming criticism for work that he finds dull. Of course he was writing from a Victorian perspective but I did not find this got in the way of my enjoyment of his book.

The full set of Symonds Renaissance Italy is available for free download at the Gutenburg Project. His critique of literature is contained in volumes four and five. Some of his examples and extracts remain in the original language and many of the translated pieces I found to be incomplete, however this was not a serious problem as the flow of his writing is not seriously disrupted. This is really a very good introduction to the literature of the period with enough context provided to enable the reader to make his own judgements on what to follow up.

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