Literature has been an established tradition in Italy for many centuries now; one could even argue that some of the best classics worldwide are Italian; better said, written on the Italian peninsula while Italy was divided in many states, from city states to regions. An example, possibly the most famous one, is Dante Alighieri who wrote The Divine Comedy, amongst others. The book was written in Florence under the Medici family while the civil war between guelfi and ghibellini was at its beginning and Dante even describes the conflict in the novel.
Another critical aspect of literature is that it is always closely connected to the historical moments the authors are facing at that time. This is not only true for Dante’s Divine Comedy, but it is also true for another book we will delve into, The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni. At the time, the northern part of Italy was subject to the control of the Austrian Empire. Alessandro Manzoni wanted to publicly share his outrage for the domination, but he could not simply write against the Austrians; so, he used the Spanish domination of northern Italy in the 17th century as the background for this novel denouncing his hatred for the conquerors.
Read on to discover some of our picks and then tell us in the comments below if there are any others you would add!
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri | Goodreads
Written in the early 14th century, mostly between 1307 and Dante’s death. This is a work of art as it is the pinnacle of Dante’s life and political experiences with his ideals and his thoughts are embedded in the work.
The Divine Comedy is by no means an easy book to read. Not only it is written in an archaic Italian wording, but it is also written as a poem divided in three canticas (Hell, Purgatory and Paradise) each consisting of three cantos. Overall, The Divine Comedy has 100 cantos though because Dante added an introductory canto. It also is based on Catholic principles, religion being a key aspect of the story and the structure of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise.
The story itself is fairly simple: in seven days, Dante walks around Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise with a chaperon, Virgil for the first two and Beatrix for the last one.
Dante begins his trip as a middle-aged man who loses his way in a forest and meets Virgil. First in Hell, in which sinners are divided into ten circles depending on two elements, one being the more serious the sin so the deeper the sinner is placed and the other being the punishment is proportional to the sin (called, in Italian, la legge del contrapasso).
The same law applies for Purgatory where sinners are temporary placed to atone from the relevant sin. A soul in Purgatory will have to go through all the seven terraces—representing the sins—to be able to access Paradise. Dante goes through a similar journey and he is purified by an angel before accessing Paradise when Virgil leaves—he is not allowed to reach Paradise because he was not Catholic—and Beatrix, the ideal woman for Dante, joins in the last third of the journey.
Paradise is represented by concentric circles of skies when Dante meats beatified souls, where he meets several saints, including Saint Peter, and then finally meets God and becomes part of the harmony of the world.
Two additional fun facts: Dante did not live through the Copernican Revolution; therefore, he believed that the Earth was the center of the universe—and so the Paradise’s circles are built around the Earth. The second is that, if you are looking for great images representing The Divine Comedy, check Gustave Doré, a French illustrator who lived in the 19th century.
L’Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto | Goodreads
The Frenzy of Orlando is the best known work, in the form of a poem, of Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533) who is considered the most important author of the Italian renaissance. Yet, since his father died and left the family finances in disarray, Ludovico Ariosto served for the Duchy of Este and had to work on political matters despite wanting to focus on his art; despite Ariosto’s dedication to managing political and others affairs, he was a prolific author and he was able to work on several poems, comedies, lyrics and satires.
The Frenzy of Orlando is based on the war between Charles Magne paladins against the Saracens that are successfully conquering Europe.
It is a story about love, war, and chivalry. It follows several story lines, including the story of Orlando who goes mad when Angelica decides to fall in love with a Saracen knight. Then there’s the storyline of the knight Astolfo who needs to find the cure for Orlando’s madness (it is interesting to read that love is considered the cause for Orlando’s madness—how contemporary is that?). When Orlando is cured from his madness, there is the fight against the king of the Saracens and Orlando kills him. There is another story line of the female paladin Bradamante and the Saracen knight Ruggiero. They have many adventures—which include magic!—and, not surprisingly, are described as the ancestors of the House of Este, Ariosto’s patrons!
This poem is made to be recited yet, Ariosto brings a more elevated version to the popular aspects of recitals. Also, considering how popular are retellings these days, it is interesting to note that The Frenzy of Orlando was a retelling of French traditional stories to which Ariosto added his own spin and approach. This made the story telling easier, since the audience were usually familiar with the content, but the stories were vague enough to allow an author to mould the creation and talk about new aspects of the stories that were unheard of before.
by Alessandro Manzoni | Goodreads
Originally published as Fermo e Lucia, the novel is an incredible piece, and a first in Italy, of historical fiction, with it based in northern Italy around 1630, first published in 1827, and republished in 1840 after a thorough linguistic review. This aspect is not insignificant: At the time, there was a debate on the Italian peninsula to determine what to base the Italian language on and Manzoni really invested significant effort to create the Italian language, basing it on the Tuscan dialect, a language Manzoni himself was not able to speak initially—he was proficient in French and in the Milanese dialect but he studied the language on his own and this aspect makes his linguistic review of The Betrothed more significant just yet.
It is interesting to note that Manzoni also read Sir Walter Scott’s books, starting from Ivanhoe (in their French translation); this is an inspiration for Manzoni to tackle historical fiction, a story structure that allowed Manzoni to both explore the historical events and to create characters that would live and survive through the Spanish domination of Milan and the area around the city. This actually ties in into another first in Italian literature: For the first time, an author focuses the story on regular people, not focusing on the nobles and/or the rich.
It is the story of Renzo and Lucia, a young couple who are supposed to get married but their wedding is forbidden by the local lord. This will trigger an incredible journey from Lecco, where Renzo is from, to Milan and back. It will force Lucia to go into hiding in a nunnery. It is also incredible the amount of details Manzoni is able to add in connection to the pest outbreak in Milan in 1630—his major source of information for the time was Giuseppe Ripamonti’s chronicles of Milan at the time.
There are many other aspects that are relevant into Manzoni’s planning of the story; one of them, and one the biggest triggers, is Providence, a clear indication that there is evil yet, God will help those who keep believing in Him.