Italian Baroque Literature

Instructor: Adrienne Nicholson
This lesson will provide an overview of the Italian Baroque age of literature. We will look at the characteristics of this literary age, as well as some prominent poets and dramatists to illustrate the styles and themes of the time.

The Foundation of Opera

Imagine yourself at the opera, listening as the words and music flow together to captivate you in a story. The age of Italian Baroque literature marks the beginning of opera in the 17th century. The convergence of music and poetry - in the form of the madrigal, a poetic genre set to music in the late 16th and early 17th centuries - became the foundation for opera as we still know it today.

Composers made use of these poetic madrigals and other poetic forms such as canzones, sonnets and ballads to form the basis of their operatic performances. Because of this the literary forms of the Baroque age set the stage, almost literally, for the emergence of opera in the 17th century.

The Seicento

The Italian Baroque age, known in Italian as the seicento, found prominence from about 1580, around the end of the Renaissance, to 1660. It is the least understood period of Italian literary history, having been dismissed by 18th- and 19th-century critics and historians as being morally corrupt and an affront to civilized literary forms.

The major literary forms and cultural institutions of the seicento, including the opera and the commedia dell'arte (translated to the 'theatre of the professional'), were marked by mixed genres. These were fashioned in reaction to the poverty of writers' subject matter and the feeling that the epics and pastoral style were modeled after the feudal hierarchy and were, therefore, unrelated to the common person.

These new mixed genres came in the forms of mock-heroism and satiric and burlesque poems. Italian literature in the 17th century had a profound influence on the emergence of mock-heroic epics throughout Europe. The mock-heroic poems possessed the same meter, vocabulary, and rhetoric of the epics. However, these mock-heroic poems reversed the meanings of the old epics, setting the stories in more familiar situations to ridicule the traditional epics.

Along with the formation of these new genres came the rise of regional dialects as a means of expression. These regional narratives exposed local social conditions, used satire to expose corrupt customs and offered a realistic representation of life in the writers' native cities. For example, La Vaiasseide by Giulio Cesare Cortese in 1612 is an example of a mock-heroic epic in the Neapolitan dialect, and the Romanesco dialect is represented by Giovanni Camillo Peresio's Il maggio romanesco (1688).

Important Figures

So who are some of the prominent literary figures of 17th-century Italy? Here we will examine a very small sample of the poets and dramatists of the Baroque age.

Giambattista Marino
giambattista marino

Giambattista Marino (1569-1625) is considered the most important Italian poet of the 17th century. He is the principal exponent of the Italian Baroque style called marinismo, an ornate, witty style of poetry and verse drama. This style is characterized by sensuality, extreme metaphors and mythology. Marino's masterpiece is a work called L'Adone, considered the perfect example of the Italian Baroque. L'Adone is a mythological poem written in ottava rima (a rhyming stanza form) and divided into twenty cantos.

Battista Guarini (1538-1612) was a popular Baroque dramatist. Guarini made a strong assertion that literature teaches nothing, and that his combination of tragedy and comedy was necessary because it was what the public expected from dramatic entertainment. His collection of poems consists of approximately 200 madrigals, which are characterized by the sexual nature and high praise for the subject. Guarini's poems were set by madrigal composers more often than any other poet, making him the most prolific poet in the emergence of the operatic style.

Isabella Andreini on stage
isabella andreini

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