It is astonishing to see the genius of Italy bubbling over in every field, even in this period of supposed decline. In abundance and fervor this was a fruitful age in the literature of Italy. Only a lack of time, space, and knowledge keeps us from doing it justice here.
Italian scholarship naturally declined after the exhaustion of the Renaissance afflatus; one could not go on rediscovering Greece and Rome forever. The care of letters was now left to literary academies, whose very organization made them conservative. Almost every city in Italy had such a society, dedicated to the cultivation of literature and the mutual toleration of poetry. The Accademia della Crusca (i.e., of Chaff), founded in Florence in 1572, anticipated the French Academy by compiling a dictionary of the language (1612f.) and attempting to regulate literary style and taste.
Italian historians were the best of the age. We have noted Sarpi’s passionate History of the Council of Trent. Cardinal Guido Bentivoglio produced a remarkably sympathetic account of the revolt in the Netherlands. He might have done more, but he died in conclave just as he seemed about to be chosen pope—done to death, said Nicius Erythraeus, by the snoring of a cardinal in the next cell, which deprived him of sleep for eleven successive nights.65 Cardinal Caesar Baronius compiled a massive history of the Church(Annales ecclesiastici, 1588–1607) in twelve folio volumes, which later scholars extended to thirty-eight; Ranke pronounced them quite free of charm,66 but Gibbon found them helpful, and the Cardinal made a laudable effort to be fair. “I shall love with a special love,” he wrote, “the man who most rigidly and severely corrects my errors.”67 Isaac Casaubon undertook to do this, but desisted after writing an introductory fragment of eight hundred folio pages.
The theater prospered, while drama declined. Few memorable plays were composed, but many were produced, and with a scenic lavishness and histrionic skill that made Inigo Jones marvel and learn. Italian actors were in demand throughout the Continent. While in England female parts were taken by boys, in Italy they were played by women. Actresses were already deified; Tasso indited a sonnet to Isabella Andreini, who was not only a beautiful performer but a passable poetess and a good wife.
Two plays stand out in this period, partly because they established a new genre on the stage—the pastoral drama. Tasso gave it impetus with his Aminta (1573); Giovanni Battista Guarini produced the classic example in Il pastor fido (1585). “If he had not readAminta” said Tasso, “he had not excelled it.”68 Cardinal Bellarmine rebuked Guarini for the licentiousness of the play, saying that it had done more harm to Christendom than all the heresies of Luther and Calvin; however, a sedulous search has found no saucier scene than the pretty Corisca offering the “two apples” of her breast to the unappreciative Silvio, a hunter who “takes more joy in one beast caught … than in the love of all the nymphs that are.”69 Barring Silvio, the play, like nearly all the Italian poetry of the time, has a sensual temperature, fusing all life into love. The action transpires in a pastoral Arcadia, in that “fair Golden Age when milk was the only food,” no vice or grief stained humanity, and love was free from all censures and chains.70 What withAminta and thisFaithful Shepherd, and Montemayor’s Diana enamorada, and Sidney’s Arcadia, and Fletcher’s Faithful Shepherdess, half the reading population of Europe was sent out to pasture.
Crescimbeni listed 661 sonneteers who in the Italy of the sixteenth century had no trouble finding resonant rhymes for their variations of Petrarch.71 Some of the finest sonnets of the time were thrown off by Campanella and Bruno as sparks from their philosophic fire. Alessandro Tassoni satirized the sonneteers and the idolators of Petrarch, Marini, and Tasso in one of the most famous of Italian poems, La secchia rapita (The Stolen Bucket). As its victim was a powerful noble, no one would publish it; but the demand was so great that scribes prospered by copying it and selling it at eight crowns per manuscript; finally it was printed in France and smuggled into Italy. What charmed Italian readers was not only the aptness and sharpness of the barbs, but the episodes of pure poetry that interrupted the hilarity—the love story of Endymion delicately told, almost side by side with the picture of a senator traveling to heaven on a toilet stool.
Only two Italian poets surpassed Tassoni’s acclaim in this epoch—Tasso and Giovanni Battista Marini. Born at Naples and bred for the law, Giovanni abandoned pleading for rhymes, and for a time enjoyed a vagabond life. The Marquis Manso, forgiving the licentiousness of Marini’s lyrics, gave him a room in his palace, where, at a respectful distance, the youth could look upon the somber decaying Tasso. For helping a friend to abduct a girl, he was thrown into prison. Released, he went to Rome, where the genial Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandino made him his private secretary. The Cardinal took him to Turin and there lost him to Charles Emmanuel, Duke of Savoy. For a while Marini sipped the wine and vinegar of court life. He made fun of a rival poet, Gasparo Murtola, who waylaid him, shot at him, missed him, but wounded a servant of the Duke. Murtola was sentenced to death; Marini had him pardoned, and won his rival’s warmest ingratitude. Imprisoned for satires too personally pointed, Marini accepted an invitation from Marie de Médicis to adorn her court at Paris (1615). The Italians in her retinue welcomed him as their voice in France; he was idolized, and he received fat sinecures; lords and ladies paid him well for pre-publication copies of his epic Adone. One such copy reached Cardinal Bentivoglio, who appealed to Marini to purge the poem of its lascivious passages; we do not know how far the author tried. Adone was published in Paris in 1623, was put on the Index, and became the rage and the theme of Italy. When Marini returned to Naples (1624) highwaymen pelted his coach with roses, noblemen came out to escort him, and beauties melted toward him from their balconies. A year later he died, aged fifty-two, at the apex of his wealth and fame.
The Adone is an outstanding poem even in a country where poetry is almost as congenital as song. Its size deters us—a thousand pages, 45,000 lines. Its style indulges in all those tricks of speech that delighted Lyly in England, Guevara and Góngora in Spain, and some précieuses ridicules of the Hôtel de Rambouillet in France; marinismo was part of a European plague. The clever Italian had an almost sensual passion for words; he tossed them about in crackling antitheses, fanciful conceits, artful circumlocutions, even facile puns. But the Italian public of the sixteenth century, itself bubbling with hot speech, took no offense from this love of the wiles and jugglery of words. And what did such verbal conjuring matter in an epic that was a paean to sex in all its forms—normal, bestial, homosexual, incestuous? Here were the love myths of Hellas elegantly told; Mars and Vulcan sport with Aphrodite, and Zeus seduces Ganymede. The charms of the male body are the running theme, and the sense of touch is praised as the astonishing source of man’s keenest delights. The hero, Adonis, dowered with all the beauty of a girl, is courted by women, men, and beasts. Venus woos him with her smoothest arts; a bandit chief seeks to make him his mistress; at last the helplessly lovable lad is mortally wounded in the groin by a boar with the most amorous intentions. Was this effeminate concentration on sex a relief and escape from too much religion and too much Spain?