Italian Literature 101
Italian literature (as in literature written in Italian as opposed to literature being written in Latin) has a shorter history than the literature of countries like German, Greece, and England as Italian was seen as the language of the common people and thus not used for literary purposes until Dante Alighieri wrote his famous “Divine Comedy” in Italian and also wrote about using the common language for writing (this happened in the early 14th century). Even today, over 700 years after its first appearance, the “Divine Comedy” still counts as one of the masterpieces of world literature. And from then on, Italy gave us quite a few good writers. On this page, we will introduce some of the old and modern masters of Italian literature.
Dante is one of the three Italian writers who are generally referred to as the “Three Jewels” or the “Three Fountains”. He is also often called the father of the Italian language because he dared to write in Italian while most others preferred to use Latin for their works. Dante was born in Florence, but later on exiled (and never returned to the city of his birth). His most famous work is, as mentioned above, the “Divine Comedy”.
Petrarch, often called the father of humanism, and known for his rediscovery of Cicero's letters, is the second Italian writer of the “three jewels”. As a writer, Petrarch was mainly popular because of his poetry. In the 16th century, the body of work of Petrarch was used to create a model for the Italian language. Works of others were also used (Dante only to a minor extent though – which is surprising), but Petrarch's works were quite important for this model.
The third writer of the “Three Jewels”, Giovanni Boccaccio is famous for his works the “Decameron” and “On Famous Women”. One thing that made him stand out from other writers of his time was that his dialogues were more realistic and closer to real life than the writing of other authors. This might also have been one of the reasons why his writing turned out to be popular with all sorts of people.
Torquato Tasso was an Italian writer with plenty of imagination, and he was very popular throughout Europe. His best known literary work is “Jerusalem Delivered”. Torquato Tasso was so popular that the pope wanted to crown him as the King of the Poets. Unfortunately, Tasso was not very stable mentally, and he died just a few days before he was to receive that honour.
Machiavelli is mainly known for his politic writings, and usually is standard reading for people who study ethics, philosophy or politics. His best known works include “The Prince” and “The Art of War”. While Machiavelli did write some fictional works and also poetry, he is most popular for his political and philosophical works – up to today.
Umberto Eco is a modern Italian writer whose books are popular all over the world and thus translated into many different languages. His most popular book is “The Name of the Rose” which has been turned into a successful movie, and most likely is one of the reasons why millions of people started to read other books of the author, too. His books are often historical in nature and include long, vivid descriptions. If you enjoy fiction, history, a bit of mystery, and good writing, then Umberto Eco is definitely an author you should have a look at.
This author was born in Italy but also spent part of his life in America. He died in 1985, and left the world stories like “Invisible Cities”, “If on a winter's night a traveler”, and “The Baron in the Trees”. Critics of his work often struggle with finding a good description of his writing style. It seems like he is not easy to put into a drawer. Some writers are romantic, some write fantasy, some write realistic. With Italo Calvino, you get all in one. This can be enjoyable or confusing. It is up to you to judge whether you like the different styles one man can use.
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
This writer, who died in 1957, is known for works like “The Leopard” (which was turned into a movie in 1963) and “The Professor and the Siren”. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa did not write a lot, but if you have a serious interest in the literature of Italy, then you should give “The Leopard” a try as it is an important piece of literature for Italy.