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Introduction from Classicism and Romanticism in Italian Literature

Introduction from Classicism and Romanticism in Italian Literature

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Introduction from Classicism and Romanticism in Italian Literature, published by Pickering & Chatto
Introduction from Classicism and Romanticism in Italian Literature, published by Pickering & Chatto

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Published by: Pickering and Chatto on Jan 29, 2013
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– 1 –
My paradise lies ‘in the shadow o my sword’. At bottom, all I had done was to put oneo Stendhal’s maxims into practice: he advises one to make one’s entrance into society by means o a duel. And how well I had chosen my opponent!Friedrich Nietzsche,
 Ecce Homo
(1888)a génération est née d’un événement qu’elle n’a pas connu. (Your generation is bornout o an event that it did not experience.)Olivier Rolin,
igre de papier 
1. In 1818, rom Weimar, Johann Wolgang von Goethe happened to commentupon a striking phenomenon:
Romantico! questa voce strana per le orecchie italiane, sconosciuta nora in Napolie nella elice Campania, in Roma usata tutt’al più ra gli artisti tedeschi, muove daqualche tempo gran romore in Lombardia e particolarmente in Milano.(Romantic! this term, a strange one to the Italian ear, thus ar unknown in Naples andin happy Campania, and used in Rome or the most part by German artists, raisessince quite a while much clamour in Lombardy, and particularly in Milan.)
In restricting the uses (and abuses) o the term ‘Romantic’ to Milan andLombardy, Goethe individuated one o the most crucial eatures o ItalianRomanticism, which would denitely have a deep impact on its later devel-opments. Te rst group o writers and intellectuals labelling themselves as‘Romantics’ were all based in Milan, which at the time was part o the kingdomo Lombardy-Venetia that had been created as a constituent state o the AustrianEmpire at the Congress o Vienna. Tis coincidence may sound quite obviousonce we consider how, in many ways, everything had begun precisely a ew milesrom Milan, at a bridge in Lodi, exactly twenty years beore:
On 15 May 1796, General Bonaparte made his entry into Milan at the head o the youthul army which had just crossed the bridge at Lodi and let the world know that aer all these centuries, Caesar and Alexander had a successor. Te miracles o  valour and o genius o which Italy was the witness within a ew months reawokea slumbering people … In the Middle Ages, the republican Lombards had given proo o a valour equal to that o the French, and deserved to see their town razed
Classicism and Romanticism in Italian Literature
to the grounds by the emperors o Germany. Since they had become ‘loyal subjects’,their main business was printing sonnets on little pink tafeta handkerchies when-ever a girl belonging to some noble or wealthy amily happened to get married … Which efeminate customs were a ar cry rom the proound emotions aroused by the unoreseen arrival o the French army. Soon new and passionate customs arose.An entire people realized, on 15 May 1796, that everything it had respected hitherto was supremely ridiculous and sometimes odious.
At least this – in 1838, while draing the much-celebrated incipit o 
Te Char-terhouse o Parma
– was Stendhal’s opinion, namely the point o view o someone who had both experienced lie under the French revolutionary army and thecomplexity o Italy as a political battleeld during and aer the Napoleonic Wars. At the time when Stendhal was writing these pages, the quarrel pitting ‘Classicists’ against ‘Romantics’ that had monopolized the Italian literary scenein the late 1810s and early 1820s had already begun to die out, and many o its protagonists had been scattered and dispersed. Madame de Staël, who had rstlaunched the dispute through an article published in January 1816 in the jour-nal
 Biblioteca italiana
, had died in 1817.
Tree years later, at the age o orty,Ludovico di Breme passed away. Silvio Pellico (1789–1854), Federico Cona-lonieri (1785–1846) and Pietro Borsieri (1788–1852), who between 1818 and1819 had animated the literary and scientic journal
 Il Conciliatore
, experienceda bitter imprisonment in the Špilberk ortress in Brno, Moravia. Tey were laterorced into exile – to the United States, France or Belgium – like their ormercompanion Giovanni Berchet (1783–1851). Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837), who had entered the quarrel with its most complex and radical contribution,the
 Discourse on Romantic Poetry
(which, however, remained unpublished until1906), had died in Naples one year beore, in 1837. In 1838, while Stendhal was writing 
Te Charterhouse o Parma
, the problem o Italian Romanticism hadthereore been pushed into the background. Te Austrian repression had in any case shown well, and since the beginning, how the question, rom the point o  view o imperial censorship, was essentially a political one. As late as 1825, thelo-Romantic clergyman and scholar Giuseppe Montani (1789–1833) wrotethat ‘In Italia … si cominciano a stampar libri … ove si asserisce che un romanticonon può essere che un uomo torbido e nemico del buon ordine sociale’ (in Italy books have started to appear in which it is asserted that a Romantic cannot helpbut to be a wrongdoer and an enemy to the proper social order), thus associating ‘l’idea di romantico a quella di malattore’ (the idea o the Romantic and thato the criminal).
And yet Stendhal explicitly pointed out how, aer the battleso Valmy, Austerlitz and Marengo, even the act o writing could no longer bethe same: and that i a diferent kind o literature had been possible in Italy –diferent, namely, rom the occasional sonnets printed on handkerchies – the
ultimate reason had to be ound in that date o 15 May 1796, which had openedan irremediable ssure between a ‘beore’ and an ‘aer’.From Stendhal’s perspective, the Italians o the
Ancien Régime
were a‘slumbering people’ who, having orgotten their ormer glory, had welcomedthe triumphal arrival o Napoleon’s army with a sort o astonished wonder. Agerontocratic and motionless society, which had been numbed by centuries o oreign domination, had suddenly had to ace a new kind o army whose soldiers‘laughed and sang all day long; they were not yet twenty-ve and their com-manding general, who was twenty-seven, passed or being the oldest man in hisarmy’.
Quite interestingly, Stendhal located Italy’s past ‘miracles o valour and o genius’ in the political ghts or independence o medieval communes, whereasthe legacy o the Roman Empire was implicitly transerred to the French one.By presenting the commanding general as the only legitimate successor o Alex-ander the Great and Julius Caesar, Stendhal rea rmed nothing but Napoleon’sintentional sel-construction o authority, meticulously pursued in his writingsand speeches through the conscious employment o quotations and rhetoricalstructures borrowed rom classical sources, such as Plutarch’s
 Parallel Lives
Te welve Caesars
. Trough revolutionary and Napoleonic propa-ganda, revolutionary Europe was thereore made into the venue o a rebirth o antiquity, in turn grounded in mutability, energy and enthusiasm rather than inthe melancholic regret or lost ormer glory.
Te shock caused by the Napoleonic army had also impacted Italy’s literary scene, suddenly transorming, to the eyes o reawakened Italians, all o the litera-ture they had been producing up to that point into something ‘ridiculous andsometimes odious’. Stendhal made the conventional sonnets printed ‘on little pink tafeta handkerchies’ into the ironic emblem o a certain kind o literary produc-tion that we could abstractly label as ‘Classicist’: a literary praxis grounded in therepetition o stereotyped ormalisms and preconceived structures, which was notmeant to convey ‘proound emotions’, but was rather directed towards the celebra-tion o mundane events; an occasional, rivolous and mawkish kind o literature, prooundly detached rom reality and thereore quintessentially articial. Hav-ing as its oundational principle the Classicist precept o imitation (
), this practice o poetry-making proposed a relationship with classical antiquity that wasradically antithetical to the Neoclassical inspiration o revolutionary aesthetics,grounded instead in the emulation o the ancients (
) and in the acknowl-edgement that ‘doing like’ the ancients (and even outdoing them) was possible. Whereas the latter was identied by Stendhal with a propulsion directed towardsnewness and change, Classicism epitomized the inactivity o pre-revolutionary Italy, which Napoleon denitively dissolved in the Battle o Lodi.

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