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Metastasio’s reform of the operatic libretto was paralleled in the mid-18th century by Goldoni’s reform of comedy. Throughout the 17th century the commedia dell’arte—a colourful pantomime of improvisation, singing, mime, and acrobatics, often performed by actors of great virtuosity—had gradually replaced regular comedy, but by the early 18th century it had degenerated into mere buffoonery and obscenity with stereotyped characters (maschere, “masks”) and mannerisms. The dialogue was mostly improvised, and the plot—a complicated series of stage directions, known as the scenario—dealt mainly with forced marriages, star-crossed lovers, and the intrigues of servants and masters.
Goldoni succeeded in replacing this traditional type of theatre with written works whose wit and vigour are especially evident when the Venetian scene is portrayed in a refined form of the local dialect.
Perhaps because of his prolific output his work has sometimes been thought of as lacking in depth. His social observation is acute, however, and his characters are beautifully drawn.
La locandiera (1753; “The Innkeeper”; Eng. trans. Mirandolina), with its heroine Mirandolina, a protofeminist, has things to say about class and the position of women that can still be appreciated today. Goldoni’s rival and bitter controversialist, fellow Venetian Carlo Gozzi (the reactionary brother of the more liberal journalist Gasparo), also wrote comedies, satirical verse, and an important autobiography. His Fiabe teatrali (1772; “Theatrical Fables”) are fantastic and often satirical. Among them are L’amore delle tre melarance (The Love for Three Oranges), later made into an opera by Sergey Prokofiev, and the original Turandot, later set to music by Giacomo Puccini.
The world of learning
Giambattista Vico, Ludovico Antonio Muratori, Apostolo Zeno, and the already mentioned Scipione Maffei were writers who reflected the awakening of historical consciousness in Italy. Muratori collected the primary sources for the study of the Italian Middle Ages; Vico, in his Scienza nuova (1725–44; The New Science), investigated the laws governing the progress of the human race and from the psychological study of man endeavoured to infer the laws by which civilizations rise, flourish, and fall. Giovanni Maria Mazzuchelli and Gerolamo Tiraboschi devoted themselves to literary history. Literary criticism also attracted attention; Gian Vincenzo Gravina, Vico, Maffei, Muratori, and several others, while advocating the imitation of the classics, realized that such imitation should be cautious and thus anticipated critical standpoints that were later to come into favour. The Enlightenment (Illuminismo)
With the end of Spanish domination and the spread of the ideas of the Enlightenment from France, political reforms were gradually introduced in various parts of Italy. The new spirit of the times led men—mainly of the upper middle class—to enquire into the mechanics of economic and social laws. The ideas and aspirations of the Enlightenment as a whole were effectively voiced in such organs of the new journalism as Pietro Verri’s periodical Il Caffè (1764–66; “The Coffeehouse”). A notable contributor to Il Caffè was the philosopher and economist Cesare Beccaria, who in his pioneering book Dei delitti e delle pene (1764; On Crimes and Punishments) made an eloquent plea for the abolition of torture and the death penalty. More than anyone else, Giuseppe Parini seems to embody the literary revival of the 18th century. In Il giorno (published in four parts, 1763–1801; “The Day”), an ambitious but unfinished social satire of inherited wealth and nobility, he describes a day in the life of a young Milanese patrician and reveals with masterly irony the irresponsibility and futility of a whole way of life.
His Odi (1795; “Odes”), which are imbued with the same spirit of moral and social reform, are among the classics of Italian poetry. The satire in the Sermoni (1763; “Sermons”) of Gasparo Gozzi (elder brother of Carlo) is less pungent, though directed at similar ends, and in his two periodicals—La Gazzetta veneta and L’Osservatore—he presented a lively chronicle of Venetian life and indicated a practical moral with much good sense. Giuseppe Baretti—an extremely controversial figure who published a critical journal called La Frusta letteraria (“The Literary Whip”), in which he castigated “bad authors”—had learned much through a lengthy sojourn in England, where his friendship with Samuel Johnson helped to give independence and vigour, if not always accuracy, to his judgments. The Viaggi di Enrico Wanton (1749–64; “Travels of Enrico Wanton”), a philosophical novel by the Venetian Zaccaria Seriman, which tells of an imaginary voyage in the manner of Jonathan Swift and Voltaire, was the most all-embracing satire of the time. Anthony Oldcorn
Literary trends of the 19th century
The 19th century was a period of political ferment leading to Italian unification, and many outstanding writers were involved in public affairs. Much of the literature written with a political aim, even when not of intrinsic value, became part of Italy’s national heritage and inspired not only those for whom it was written but all who valued freedom.
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