views updated May 29 2018


The rediscovery of classical drama and the flourishing of popular comedic forms in the fifteenth century contributed to the exponential growth of theater in sixteenth-century Italy. Interest in theater was also fed by the many social and political problems facing Italian states and their citizens, especially a series of wars that they eventually lost. Theater served both as an instrument of catharsis for powerful emotions and as a laboratory in which to experiment with solutions. With the second half of the century, tragedy grew in importance, and restraints were placed on comedy. Aristotelian norms were developed that called for clearly defined genres and character types. Toward the close of the century, as audiences tired of predictability, mixed genres grew in popularity, as did the pastoral. Seventeenth-century theater saw the predominance of the commedia dell'arte and of melodrama. During the eighteenth century, plays participated in the conflict between the old hierarchical system of social authority and the growing recognition of the value of each member of society.


In the early sixteenth century, a new genre took shape: the erudite or regular comedy. Inspired by Roman comedy, this genre was also influenced by Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron (13481353). Written in Italian, erudite comedy focused on contemporary issues and characters, chiefly conflicts between the generations about money and love. Important plays include La cassaria (The coffer), I suppositi (The pretenders), and Il negromante (The necromancer or The magician) by Ludovico Ariosto; La mandragola (The mandrake root), Andria (Woman from Andros), and Clizia by Niccolò Machiavelli; and Calandria (The follies of Calandro) by Bernardo Dovizi (Il Bibbiena).

Comedy soon departed from strict erudite norms. In the works of Sienese playwrights and those of Angelo Beolco (Il Ruzante), who wrote between about 1516 and 1536, Arcadian shepherds mingled with real peasants who spoke rural dialects. When wars, famine, and plague ravaged Italy in the late 1520s, Beolco's plays depicted the terrible sufferings inflicted on peasants. Ariosto's Lena (1528), which was probably influenced by Beolco, presents a bleak picture of lower-class urban life, while Pietro Aretino's comedies La corte Giana (1525; The courtesan) and Il marescalco (15261527; The stablemaster) satirize courtly life. The anonymous La veneziana (The Venetian woman) explores the hidden and transgressive amorous activities of Venetian patrician women.

The rediscovery of Aristotle's Poetics, first translated into Latin in 1498 and into Italian in 1549, sparked a lively debate about comedy and tragedy. From Aristotle's observations on art as imitation and on appropriate plot, character, sentiment, and diction choices for each genre, theorists derived laws about dramatic form. These laws included the famous unities of time, place, and action (plot) that confined the play to a single action occurring in one location on a single day and, adding Roman theories of dramatic structure, the division into five progressive acts. Gian Giorgio Trissino's Poetics began the debate with the first part (1529) and closed it with the second part (1563).

Respect for tragedy was fostered by Aristotle's belief that its subject matter (rulers) and the emotions it generated (horror and compassion) made it superior to comedy. Comedy's purpose was to reform behavior by showing the undesirable consequences of ridiculous actions; comic characters were from the lower classes. While observing the strict rules governing tragedy prescribed by classical theoreticians, Renaissance authors incorporated contemporary life into their plays. The first regular tragedies were written during the War of the League of Cambrai (15091517): Gian Giorgio Trissino's Sophonisba (1515), depicting the suicide of a queen defeated by the Romans, and Giovanni Rucellai's Rosmunda. The first vernacular tragedy, Giambattista Giraldi Cinzio's Orbecche, was staged at the Este court in Ferrara in 1541. The 1542 performance of Sperone Speroni's Canace was postponed by Beolco's death and eventually abandoned because of the controversy it generated. In the first generation of staged tragedy much blood was shed, and rulers and their families were depicted as depraved tyrants who committed murder and incest, causing distress among tragedy's aristocratic audiences.

At the same time that plays acquired fixed structures, theatrical presentations acquired fixed venues, with a permanent theater becoming a necessary feature of a signorial palazzo.


Once Aristotelian norms had been established, it was no longer acceptable to laugh at upper-class characters. A new comic genre was born, the commedia dell'arte, performed by professional troupes rather than courtiers. These troupes worked not with scripts but with nonaristocratic typed characters and plot devices. Only Venice and Florence, with their republican traditions, maintained a robust written comedy, in the works of playwrights such as Andrea Calmo and Anton Francesco Grazzini. The pastoral, epitomized by Tasso's Aminta (1573), offered an acceptable courtly alternative, and erudite plays written early in the century continued to be staged.

Rigid Aristotelian distinctions, which audiences did not favor, were later softened. Comedy returned, written in a vernacular that was both subversive and deformed and with more lower-class and female characters. Exemplifying these developments are the comedies (15891601) of Giambattista Della Porta and The Candlebearer (1582) by Giordano Bruno. After a short hiatus, tragedy developed in more moderate directions, including the new genre of the tragedy with a happy ending. In these plays, kings owed their ill deeds to councillors rather than their own defects, and unpalatable actions occurred offstage. The pastoral reappeared in Ferrara with Giovanni Battista Guarini's Faithful Shepherd, written in a tragicomic style. Other blended forms such as the melodrama and the serious or dark comedy enjoyed popularity.


Theatrical activity flourished in the seventeenth century, with the commedia dell'arte, mixed genres, and melodrama dominating the stage. To make performance a profitable enterprise, large theaters were built and the public was charged an entrance fee. The leading family acting troupes such as the Andreini received public acclaim.


During the eighteenth century much literary energy was directed toward the stage. These achievements were epitomized in the works of the great Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni, born in 1707. Although he began his career when the commedia dell'arte was dominant, Goldoni soon followed his audiences' interests and his own inclination toward realism. His plays increasingly included worthy characters of the middle and lower classes who spoke in dialect, and an unusually large number and variety of roles for women, including economically powerful women of the working classes. Goldoni's reform provoked an attack by Pietro Chiari, a Venetian cleric and playwright; their dispute resulted in the censure of the theater by Venetian authorities, who on a number of occasions required Goldoni to rewrite plays. Carlo Gozzi, an impoverished member of the upper class, led aristocrats in criticism of Goldoni for supposedly inverting the social order. Gozzi created a dramatic alternative that audiences favored: exotic tales set in a world of wealth and privilege. In 1762 Goldoni left for Paris, where he worked with the commedia dell'arte and wrote his memoirs in French.

A desire to overthrow the tyranny of outside powers over the states of the Italian peninsula inspired the tragedies of Vittorio Alfieri. After extensive travels abroad, Alfieri settled in Florence, dedicating himself to exposing the defects of tyrannical rule in his plays and his 1777 treatise Of Tyranny. Yet Alfieri showed signs of a lingering attachment to the old order, choosing the most conservative, aristocratic genre and never showing a ruler deposed. In his masterpiece, Saul, King Saul maintains his dignity despite his struggle with the knowledge that the mantle of leadership will soon pass to David.

See also Commedia dell'Arte ; Goldoni, Carlo ; Italian Literature and Language .


Primary Sources

Alfieri, Vittorio. Of Tyranny. Translated by Julius A. Molinaro and Beatrice Corrigan. Toronto, 1961. Translation of Della tirannide (1777).

Aretino, Pietro. The Marescalco. Translated by Leonard G. Sbrocchi and J. Douglas Campbell. Ottawa, 1986. Translation of Il Marescalco (1533).

Ariosto, Lodovico. The Comedies of Ariosto. Translated and edited by Edmond M. Beame and Leonard G. Sbrocchi. Chicago, 1975. Translations of The Coffer [in prose], The Pretenders, The Necromancer, Lena, The Coffer [in verse], The students, The scholastics (15081533).

Beolco, Angelo (Il Ruzante). La Moschetta. Translated by Antonio Franceschetti and Kenneth R. Bartlett. Ottawa, 1993. Translation of La Moscheta (15281530).

. Ruzzante Returns from the Wars. In The Servant of Two Masters and Other Italian classics, edited by Eric Bentley. New York, 1958. Translation of Il Parlamento (Il Reduce) (1529).

Bruno, Giordano. The Candlebearer. Translated by Gino Moliterno. Ottawa, 1999. Translation of Il candelaio (1582).

Della Porta, Giambattista. Gli duoi fratelli rivali. Edited and translated by Louise George Clubb. Berkeley, 1980.

Dovizi, Bernardo (Il Bibbiena). The Follies of Calandro. Translated by Oliver Evans. In The Genius of the Italian Theater. Edited by Eric Bentley. New York, 1964. Translation of La Calandria (1513).

Goldoni, Carlo. Four comedies [by] Goldoni. Translated by Frederick Davies. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1968. Translation of I due gemelli Veneziani (1750), La vedova scaltra (1748), La Locandiera (1753), and La casa nova (1761).

. Villeggiatura Trilogy. Translated by Robert Cornthwaite. Lyme, N.H., 1994. Translation of Le smanie della villeggiatura, Le avventure della villeggiatura, and Il ritorno dalla villeggiatura (1761).

Guarini, Battista. The Faithful Shepherd. Translated by Thomas Sheridan. Edited and completed by Robert Hogan and Edward A. Nickerson. Newark, Del., and Cranbury, N.J., 1989. Translation of Il pastor fido (1589).

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Comedies of Machiavelli. Edited and translated by David Sices and James B. Atkinson. Hanover, 1985. Translations of Mandragola (15041518), Andria (15171518), and Clizia (15241525).

Poliziano, Angelo. A Translation of the Orpheus of Angelo Politian and the Aminta of Torquato Tasso. Translated by Louis E. Lord. Reprint. Westport, Conn., 1986. Translation of Orfeo (1480).

Secondary Sources

Angelini, Franca. Vita di Goldoni. Rome, 1993.

Asor Rosa, Alberto. Storia della letteratura italiana. Florence, 1985.

Attolini, Giovanni. Teatro e spettacolo nel Rinascimento. Rome, 1988.

Baratto, Mario. La letteratura teatrale del Settecento in Italia: studi e letture su Carlo Goldoni. Vicenza, 1985.

Carroll, Linda L. Angelo Beolco (Il Ruzante). Boston, 1990.

Di Maria, Salvatore. The Italian Tragedy in the Renaissance: Cultural Realities and Theatrical Innovations. Lewisburg, Pa., 2002.

Ferroni, Giulio. Storia della letteratura italiana dal Cinquecento al Settecento. Milan, 1991. Vol. 4 of Storia della letteratura italiana.

Fido, Franco. Guida a Goldoni. Teatro e società nel Settecento. Turin, 1977.

. Nuova guida a Goldoni. Teatro e società nel Settecento. Turin, 2000.

Oreglia, Giacomo. The Commedia dell'Arte. Translated by Lovett F. Edwards. London, 1968.

Radcliff-Umstead, Douglas. The Birth of Modern Comedy in Renaissance Italy. Chicago, 1969.

Siciliano, Enzo. La letteratura italiana. 3 vols. Milan, 19861988.

Linda L. Carroll


views updated May 18 2018

ITALIAN A ROMANCE LANGUAGE, the official language of Italy and an official language of Switzerland, also spoken by Italian communities in Argentina, Australia, Britain, Canada, the US, Venezuela, and elsewhere. The term refers to both the STANDARD and literary language in contrast to the many DIALECTS and the entire complex of standard language and dialects, some of which are mutually unintelligible. In addition, some regional varieties, such as Friulian and Sardinian, are regarded as more or less distinct languages. Standard Italian is based on the medieval Tuscan dialect.

Italian in English

. The influence of Italian on English is almost entirely lexical and has continued over many centuries. Since medieval times, Italian has had a strong influence on FRENCH, as a result of which many borrowings into English have had a distinctly Gallic aspect, as with battalion (16c: from bataillon, from battaglione), caprice (17c: from caprice, from capriccio the skip of a goat, a sudden sharp movement), charlatan (16c: from charlatan, from ciarlatano, from ciarlare to chatter), frigate (16c: from frégate, from fregata), picturesque (17c: from pittoresque, from pittoresco, with assimilation to picture), tirade (c.1800, from tirade, from tirata volley, from tirade to pull, fire a shot). Direct borrowings fall into four broad categories: (1) Terms from the centuries-old pan-European tradition of using Italian to discuss and describe music: for example, adagio, alto, andante, arpeggio, bel canto, cello, coloratura, con brio, concerto, contralto, crescendo, diminuendo, divertimento, fortissimo, libretto, mezzosoprano, pianoforte, pizzicato, scherzo, solo, sonata. (2) Comparable literary, architectural, artistic, and cultural terms, such as canto, conversazione, cupola, extravaganza, fresco, intaglio, novella, palazzo, stanza, tarantella. (3) Internationalized culinary terms, such as lasagne, minestrone, mozzarella, pasta, pizza, ravioli, spaghetti, tagliatelle, vermicelli. (4) A variety of social words, including alfresco, bimbo, bordello, bravo, condottiere, confetti, fiasco, ghetto, gigolo, graffiti, imbroglio, mafia, piazza, regatta. Some loans have adapted spellings, as with macaroni (Italian maccheroni, earlier maccaroni), seraglio (Italian serraglio, ultimately from Persian). In addition, some words have moved to a greater or less extent from their original area of application into wider use, as with crescendo, extravaganza, piano, solo. Italian singular/plural inflections usually apply among terms restricted to musical, cultural, and culinary registers (concerto/concerti, scherzo/scherzi), but English inflections apply in general use (concerto/concertos, scherzo/scherzos).

English in Italian

. The influence of English on Italian is essentially lexical and relatively recent. Noticeable in the 1930s, it has accelerated greatly since the 1960s, encouraged not only by the growing international use and prestige of English, but also by the adoption after the Second World War of English (to replace French) as the first foreign language in schools. Recent borrowings, often described as contributions to Itangliano (highly Anglicized Italian), include: baby, boom, boy, budget, cartoon, catering, ceiling, club, control system, deadline, dee-jay, designer, egghead, fifty-fifty, flash, girl, happiness, identikit, killer, lady, leader, life-saver, market, partner, shop, shopping, show, spray, staff, standard, stop, style, target, trekking, trend. The assimilation and use of many borrowings resemble the processes by which English is absorbed into French, including: (1) The adaptation of words to fit the gender and inflectional systems: un bluff a bluff, bluffare to bluff; uno snob a snob, snobbare to snub; handicappati the handicapped. Compounds may be reversed to conform to Italian norms, a pocket radio becoming un radio-pocket. (2) The restriction and adaptation of senses: un flirt an affair; look used only as a noun; un mister a sports coach. (3) The clipping of compounds: un full a full hand (of cards); un night a night club.



views updated May 11 2018

I·tal·ian / iˈtalyən/ • adj. of or relating to Italy, its people, or their language.• n. 1. a native or national of Italy, or a person of Italian descent.2. the Romance language of Italy, also one of the official languages of Switzerland.DERIVATIVES: I·tal·ian·ize / -ˌnīz/ v.


views updated May 29 2018

Italian Language of Italy, where it is spoken by most of its 57 million inhabitants, and of the canton of Ticino, Switzerland. It is one of the Romance languages descended from spoken Latin, and so belongs ultimately to the Italic group of Indo-European languages. There are many Italian dialects, and the official language is based on those of central Italy, particularly Tuscan. During the 20th century, broadcasting and the cinema standardized the language greatly, but most Italians continue to use a regional dialect for everyday communication.


views updated Jun 08 2018

Italian XV. — It. italiano, f. Italia Italy; see -IAN.
So Italianate XVI. — It. italianato. Italic pert. to a school of philosophy founded in Magna Graecia XVI; pert. to ancient Italy or its tribes; (i-) of printing type introduced by Aldo Manuzio of Venice XVII. — L. Italicus — Gr. Italikós: hence italicize print in italics XVIII. Italiot(e) pert. to Gr. colonies or colonists in ancient Italy. XVII. — Gr. Italiṓtēs. Italo-, used as comb. form of Italian. XVIII.