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CHAPTER XX

THE POETRY OF THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY

The blight that fell upon Italian literature near the close of the sixteenth century was in the main to be ascribed to tyranny, temporal and spiritual. Yet there was another source of ill for which neither monarch nor priest was responsible: this was the malady which necessarily befalls every form of literature and art when the bounds of perfection have been reached, the craving to improve upon what is incapable of improvement; first, perhaps, distinctly evinced in this age by the Spanish bishop Guevara, author of the Dial of Princes (1529), who invented what he called the estilo alto, which, if not absolutely the predominant, had by the end of the century become a conspicuous element in every European literature. The true course would have been a new departure like that made by the Spanish and Dutch masters when Italian art had fulfilled its mission; but this requires not only genius, but the concurrence of favourable social and political circumstances, without which nothing is possible but servile repetition or preposterous exaggeration. Genius born amid inauspicious surroundings is more prone to elect the latter than the former alternative, and the greater the natural gift, the more outrageous the abuse likely to be made of it. Such epidemics are of no unfrequent occurrence in the history of every literature; but at the beginning of the seventeenth century the plague was common to all, and it was but natural that none should suffer so severely as that which had hitherto been the model of good taste. There seems no good reason for attributing this particular affliction to Spanish influence. Spain had her Gotigora, as Italy her Marini, but there is no evidence that either taught the other. It was a prevalent malady, which left Italian prose by no means unaffected. Cardinal Bentivoglio, himself a model of pure and simple composition in prose, though in verse an admirer of Marini, says of the poet Ciampoli, redactor of briefs under Clement VIII., that his style would have been in place if he had been inditing an heroic poem. Ciampoli's poetry was not likely to be more chastened than his prose; and in truth the determination to dazzle and astonish at any cost was inevitably most conspicuous in the branch of literature where a divine transport, when real and not simulated, is rightly held to excuse many lapses from absolute purity of diction; and where, as was also to be expected, the arch offender was a man of genuine gifts, who with more natural refinement and moral earnestness might have regenerated the literature of his country, but whose false brilliancy only served to lure it further astray.

It is the best apology of Giovanni Battista Marini (1569–1625) to have been born a Neapolitan. From the days of Statins till now, these vehement children of the South have been great improvisers. Could we look upon Marini in this light, we should find little but his voluptuousness to censure, and should be compelled to admire him in some measure as a remarkable phenomenon, only lamenting that his contemporaries should have mistaken a lusus naturæ for an inspired genius, a calculating boy for a Newton or a Galileo. It might indeed have been better for Marini if he had trusted more to his natural faculty for improvisation. "His first strokes," says Settembrini, "are sometimes beautiful, and if he left them as they were all would be well, but he touches and retouches until they are quite blurred." This refers to the descriptions in his Adone (1623), a poem which is nothing but description. Adonis does nothing, but is carried involuntarily through a series of situations contrived to display the pictorial power of the poet. The showman makes the puppet dance, and the puppet returns the compliment. There is no story, no moral, no character, no inner unity, nothing but forty-five thousand lines of word-painting, rich and brilliant indeed, but commonplace in so far as the poet sees nothing invisible to ordinary eyes, and evinces no originality in his manner of regarding man and nature.

Such merely verbal beauty must inevitably satiate, and Marini has experienced more neglect, and even contempt, than many men of far inferior faculty. In his own day he carried all before him, and was even more admired in France than in Italy. It is at least to his credit not to have undertaken his gorgeous but empty Adone until he had convinced himself of his inability to vie with Tasso in a nobler form of epic. He also composed one really dignified poem on the deplorable condition of Italy (attributed, however, by many to Fulvio Testi), and poured forth a flood of idyllic and bucolic, marine, erotic, and lyrical poetry, not devoid of striking beauties, but so disfigured by conceits as to be necessarily condemned to oblivion upon the revival of a purer taste. In some respects he might be compared to the Cowleys and Crashaws of Charles the First's time; but he is physical, while they are metaphysical; his conceits are less far-fetched and ingenious than theirs, and few of them either could or would have produced his licentious, but, in an artistic point of view, admirable Pastorella. Marini's influence on the contemporary poetry of his own country was very great; but the two or three men of genius remained unaffected by him, and the names of his multitudinous imitators are not worth preserving. His life, though chequered by scrapes and quarrels, was on the whole prosperous, and the patronage of the French court made him independent of the petty princes of Italy. He had bitter enemies in Gasparo Murtola, a poet who would be forgotten but for his and Marini's mutual lampoons, and Tommaso Stigliani, a more considerable personage, who had enjoyed the great honour of being run through the body by the historian Davila, and whose early promise had drawn a sonnet from Tasso, remarkable for the hint it affords that Tasso himself had projected an epic upon Columbus:

"Thy song Orphean, able to placate
The Stygian thrones, and wailing shades appease,
Stiglian, doth so upon my spirit seize,
Mine own in its compare I humbly rate.
And if like Autumn with thy April mate
As promised by such harbingers as these,
Thou'lt pass the pillared bounds of Hercules,
And safe to utmost Thule navigate.
Now, parted from the crowds intrepid go,
Scaling steep Helicon, thy high desire,
No more in dread to wander to and fro.
There swaying from a cypress hangs my lyre;
Salute it in my name, and bid it know
That Time and Fortune for my ill conspire."

The peculiar appropriateness of Tasso's compliment arises from the fact that Stigliani was then engaged upon an epic on the discovery of America, which was far from justifying Torquato's predictions.

The style of Marini, however, was not allowed to bear unchallenged sway. The first place in lyrical poetry was boldly claimed by, and by many accorded to, another bard, whose personal and poetical idiosyncrasies stood in strong contrast to the Neapolitan's. Gabriello Chiabrera (1552–1637), a native of Savona, was a man of antique mould, haughty, aspiring, and self-sufficing. His youth was spent at Rome. Jealous of his honour, he found himself, as he tells us in his autobiography, necessitated to wash out sundry affronts in blood, which he accomplished to his satisfaction, but whether in single combat or in other fashion he does not explicitly say. Retired for safety to his native Ligurian town, and digesting the large assortment of ideas which he had brought away with him from the literary circles of Rome, he hit upon the great discovery of his life, that the Italian canzone needed to be reformed upon a Greek model. It really was a discovery which changed the whole course of his literary activity—of no such importance as that of the need of a closer observation of nature which Wordsworth deduced from noticing the blackness of a leaf outlined against a sunny sky, but still a genuine discovery. Its value lay not so much in its abstract worth or in any real assimilation of the spirit of Greek poetry by Chiabrera, but in an endeavour after a high standard, which, even when misdirected, proved the best corrective of the inanity and effeminacy to which the Italian canzone had become prone.

Chiabrera might be somewhat conventional in style and barren in thought: he was all the more a precious antidote to the dissolute lusciousness of a Marini, and his example exercised a salutary influence throughout the whole of the seventeenth century. So late as 1740, Spence, travelling in Italy, was told that the Italian lyrical poets of the day were divisible into Petrarchists and Chiabrerists. The popularity of so bold an innovator, and the honours and distinctions showered upon him by princes and potentates, are creditable to the age. He wrote his brief autobiography at eighty, and died at eighty-five, exulting to the last in his sanity of mind and body; distinguished also, according to Rossi (Nicius Erythræus), as the ugliest of the poets: "Quis enim qui ejus faciem aspexisset, arbitiatus asset, ex illius ore subnigro, tetrico, invenusto, tam candidula, tam vinula, tam venustula carmina posse prodere?" A man congenial to Wordsworth, who has translated some of his stately metrical epitaphs with corresponding dignity.[1] |He has many traits of those great modern masters of form, Landor and Platen, but, though no mean sculptor of speech, falls much behind them in perfection of classic mould, as he surpasses them in productiveness.

Chiabrera wrote several epics, dramas, poems on sacred history, and other pieces, and the mass of his poetry is of formidable extent; but apart from his Sermoni, felicitous imitations of Horace, he lives solely by his lyrics. These fall into two classes, which he would have described as Pindaric and Anacreontic. The former are set compositions of great pomp and magnificence; not like Marini's poems, depending upon verbal beauty alone, but upon a real if formal grandeur of style. They are less like the notes of Apollo's lyre than orchestras of all sorts of instruments, "flute, violin, bassoon," but more particularly bassoon. They are splendidly sonorous, and exhibit great art in heightening ordinary ideas by magnificent diction. Of the wild, untutored graces of the woods and fields they have absolutely nothing; their sphere is the court, save for the feeling which Chiabrera, as becomes a Ligurian, occasionally manifests for the sea; and the ideas are seldom absolutely novel, though they often seem so. But there is true elevation of thought and majesty of diction: a lyrical afflatus seems to descend upon the poet and whirl him on, sped, in the absence of a really inspiring subject, by his own excitement, as a courser is urged along by the thunder of his own hoofs. Yet there is no factitious emotion, the theme is really for the moment everything to the poet, while he remains sufficiently master of himself to turn every strong point to the best account.

Like the surviving lyrics of his model Pindar, his odes are usually addressed to particular persons or prompted by some event. Among the best are the long series he poured forth on occasion of the trifling victories gained by the Italian galleys over the Turks, which prove how fine a patriotic poet he might have been if his age had given him anything better to celebrated. His Anacreontics precisely correspond to his Pindarics, brilliant effusions with more glitter than glow, but ingenious, felicitous, and transcending mere rhetoric by the exquisite music of the versification. Chiabrera is not an Italian Pindar or Anacreon, and his natural gift for poetry was inferior to Marini's; but he is entitled to the great honour of having barred out by a strong dike the flood of false taste, and having conferred dignity upon a most unpropitious age of Italian literature.

(i Chiabrera's mantle fell upon Count Fulvio Testi (1593–1646), in some respects a more genuine poet, though his inferior in splendour of language and harmony of versification, and like him infertile in ideas and contracted in his outlook upon the world. Testi was nevertheless an interesting personage, picturesque in the style of Rembrandt or Caravaggio, an unquiet spirit, haughty, moody, vindictive. Under a free government he might have been a great citizen, but the circumstances of his age left him no other sphere than court or diplomatic employment. He was not the man to run easily in harness, and spent his life in losing and regaining the favour of the Este princes, now come down to be Dukes of Modena, but still with places and pensions in their gift, and died in prison, just as, if the Duke may be believed, he was on the point of being released. If so, the cause of his disgrace was probably nothing graver than his wish to quit the Duke's service. In any case, the tale of his having been secretly decapitated to appease the resentment of Cardinal Antonio Barberini, satirised in his famous canzone, Ruscelletto orgoglioso, seems to be a mere legend.

This canzone is undoubtedly one of the finest lyrics in the Italian language, magnificent alike in its description of the swollen rivulet and in its application to the inflated upstart. The rest of Testi's better compositions resemble it; they are odes stately in diction and sonorous in versification, fine examples of the grand style in poetry, and proving what dignity of style can effect even without any considerable opulence or striking novelty of thought. They are usually on subjects personal to himself, sometimes depicting the miseries of court life with the feeling that comes from experience, sometimes affecting a philosophical tranquillity to which he was really a stranger. One stands out from the rest, the poem which he addressed in his youth to the Duke of Savoy, exhorting him to deliver Italy from the Spaniards. Testi was not alone in the prophetic foresight that the redemption of Italy would come from Savoy. Campanella, Chiabrera, and others of the best Italians of the day shared it with him, but no other has given it such direct and eloquent expression. The genius of Italy appears in vision to the poet, enumerates her wrongs, denounces her oppressor, and calls for vengeance in a series of most animated octaves, equally impressive and persuasive.

Marini's school continued to dominate literary circles, although Rossi assures us that Testi's simplicity was more acceptable to readers at large. "The sun," says Vernon Lee, "cooled itself in the waters of rivers which were on fire; the celestial sieve, resplendent with shining holes, was swept by the bristly back of the Apennines; love was an infernal heaven and a celestial hell, it was burning ice and freezing fire, and was inspired by ladies made up entirely of coral, gold thread, lilies, roses, and ivory, on whose lips sat Cupids shooting arrows which were snakes." Poetry worthy of the name seemed extinct after Testi's death, and the literature of England being then unknown beyond her own borders, the sceptre over every department of intellectual activity except science passed into the hand of France. After a while, however, signs of revival became apparent. The writers who restored to Italy some share of her ancient glory were all strongly influenced by Chiabrera.

The first of these in order of time was a man who would have been famous if he had never written a verse, Francesco Redi (1626–99), the illustrious physician and naturalist. One would scarcely have expected this eager scrutiniser of nature to have come forward as a Bacchanalian laureate; but certain it is that, neglecting the more imposing side of Chiabrera's poetical work, Redi applied himself to develop the dithyramb in its strict sense of a Bacchic song. Chiabrera had given excellent examples of this on a small scale; but Redi completely distanced him with his Bacchus in Tuscany, where the jolly god, returned from his Indian conquest, for the benefit of Ariadne passes in review literally and figuratively all the wines of Tuscany, with such consequences as is reasonable to expect. The literary character of the piece cannot be better described than by Salfi, the continuator of Ginguené, as "consisting in the enthusiasm which passes rapidly from one theme to another, and, seeming to say nothing but what it chooses, says, in effect, nothing but what it should." Dryden evidently had it in mind when he wrote Alexander's Feast, and the difficulties of translation have been surprisingly overcome by Leigh Hunt. Redi's sonnets are also remarkable, occasionally tame in subject or disfigured by conceits, but in general nobly thought and nobly expressed, with a strong Platonic element. They nearly all relate to Love, and fall into two well-marked divisions, one upbraiding him as the source of perpetual torment, the other celebrating him as the symbol of Divinity, and the chief agent by which man is raised above himself. The latter thought has seldom been more finely expressed than in the following pair of sonnets, the first of which is translated by Mr. Gosse:

"Love is the Minstrel; for in God's own sights
The master of all melody, he stands,
And holds a golden rebeck in his hands,
And leads the chorus of the saints in light;
But ever and anon those chambers bright
Detain him not, for down to these low lands
He flies, and spreads his musical commands,
And teaches men some fresh divine delight
For with his bow he strikes a single chord
Across a soul, and wakes in it desire
To grow more pure and lovely, and aspire
To that ethereal country where, outpoured
From myriad stars that stand before the Lord,
Love's harmonies are like aflame of fire."
 
"If I am aught, it is Love's miracle,
He to rough mass gave shape with forming file;
He, as youth bloomed in April's sunny smile,
Came through the eyes within the heart to dwell.
My Lord and Master he, who bade expel
All sordid thought and apprehension vile,
Sweetness bestowed on rude unmellowed style,
And melody that shall be memorable.
My spirit at his call her pinions bent
To wing the heavenly realm where Time is not;
From star to star he beckoned, and she went:
By him my heart hath chosen for her lot
True honour whose renown shall ne'er be spent;
If aught my soul hath borne, 'twas he begot."

Poets are often found to be gregarious. Redi had two chief friends at the Tuscan court—Menzini, of whom we shall have to speak, and Filicaja, who in an unpoetical age raised the Italian lyric to as great a height as it had fever attained in the Cinque Cento. Vincenzo Filicaja (1642–1707) is one of the highest examples the world has seen of the academical poet, the man who is rarely hurried away by the god, but who seriously and perseveringly follows poetry as an art, in whose breast the sacred fire is always burning, but always needing to be stirred up. A grave, just magistrate, and a deeply religious man, he was well constituted to sing events of such importance to the Christian commonwealth as the deliverance of Vienna by Sobieski, and, from his point of view, the conversion of Queen Christina. Tender, affectionate, and carrying with him the life-long wound of an unfortunate passion, he was no less qualified to be the laureate of domestic sorrow, while his elevation of mind lent uncommon dignity to many of his occasional pieces, especially his sonnets. If only his scrolls smelt less of the lamp he might deserve Macaulay's exaggerated praise as the greatest lyrist of modern times, supposing this expression to denote the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The great qualities of Filicaja are majesty and tenderness. The non bene conveniunt nec in una sede morantur majestas et amor only applies to him in so far as these gifts, though dwelling in the same breast, are not often found united in the same poem. His canzoni possess amplitude of form and pomp of diction, seldom or never bombastic, or transgressing the limits of good taste. From this the poet was preserved by his deep seriousness, to which anything like tinsel was utterly abhorrent. He strongly felt the obligation to exert his utmost strength when writing on an important theme, as he usually did when he wrote at all. It is his manner to approach his subject from a variety of sides, and make each the topic of a separate poem. Thus his great cycle of odes on the relief of Vienna, perhaps the finest of his works, consists of six separate productions, constituting a grand whole, but any one of which could have stood perfectly well by itself. Such a method of composition implies great deliberation, and Filicaja rarely conveys the impression of a seer or a bard. His thoughts are sometimes trite, but the feeling which gives them birth is always deep and sincere. The same is true of the best of his numerous sonnets, some of which rise to grandeur. By far the finest is the famous Italia, Italia, a cut feò la sorte, which is to Italian literature what Milton's sonnet on the massacre of the Vaudois is to English:

"Italia, O Italia, doomed to wear
The fatal wreath of loveliness, and so
The record of illimitable woe
Branded for ever on thy brow to bear!
Would that less beauty or more vigour were
Thy heritage! that they who madly glow
For that which their own fury layeth low,
More terrible might find thee, or less fair!
Not from thine Alpine rampart should the horde
Of spoilers then descend, or crimson stain
Of rolling Po quench thirst of Gallic steed:
Nor should'st thou, girded with another's sword,
Smite with a foreign arm, enslanvement's chain,
Victor or vanquished, equally thy meed."

Filicaja, however, did not always compose in this majestic style. He could be light and playful. Some of his sonnets, like those of Tansillo and other writers of the Cinque Cento, strongly bring out the characteristic distinction between the Italian and the English sonnet, which is entirely in favour of the former. The English sonnet, even when dealing with a light theme, is apt to be ponderous. The Italian, even when serious, is tuneful, and buoyant on the wing.

Filicaja fixed the model of the Italian canzone for a long time, for the innovations of his successor Alessandro Guidi (1650–1712), a protégé of Queen Christina, and one of the founders of the "Arcadia," had more admirers than imitators. They consisted in the irregularity and sometimes the disuse of rhyme, interesting as experiments, but unfavourable to the stately march of the most dignified form of lyrical composition. Guidi was nevertheless a fine poet, and manifests a peculiar fire and dignity when hymning the glories and tragedies of Rome. He must have been a very ermine among authors, if it be true that he died of disgust at a misprint in one of his books.

Three other poets who did not aspire to the elevation of Filicaja and Guidi, aided to re-enthrone sound taste, and did honour to the end of the seventeenth century. Benedetto Menzini (1646–1704), another protégé of Christina's, and in some sense a pupil of Redi, wrote caustic satires, graceful Anacreontics, respectable odes, and an Art of Poetry as sound as could be expected from one whose knowledge of modern literature was so limited. To see, more than half a century after Shakespeare, the Solimano and the Torrismondo propounded as the highest modern examples of tragic art certainly inspires cogitation touching the serviceableness of the light within, supposing that light to be darkness. Within his limits, however, Menzini is most judicious, and his own compositions do credit to his maxims; witness the following keen satiric apologue in sonnet form:

"A tender slip of laurel I of late
Implanted in fair soil, and Heaven besought
To prosper till it might, to fulness brought,
Enshade the brow august of Laureate;
And Zephyrus to boot did supplicate
To fan with soothing wing, lest harm in aught
By bitter breath of Boreas should be wrought,
Loosed from the cave where Æolus holds state.
Tardy and difficult, full well I know,
The upward striving of Apolllo's spray,
Matched with frail growths that lightly come and go;
Yet chide we not the fortunate delay,
If, when the bay is worthy of the brow,
Brow there be also worthy of the bay."

Carlo Maria Maggi (1630–99), without soaring high, did excellent work in ode, sonnet, and madrigal. Francesco Lemene (1634–1704) was more ambitious, but his tumid religious poetry has fallen into oblivion, and he only lives by his pretty Anacreontics.

As the great questions which had divided the preceding century became settled, and political interests narrowed more and more, the spirit of the age naturally turned to satire. Menzini is its best satirist; but at an earlier period Chiabrera, Soldani, and the impetuous and unequal Salvator Rosa had exercised themselves in this department of literature, and the century's last literary sensation was the successive appearance of the Latin satires of Sergardi (Sectanus), models of composition, which for nearly a decade kept the reading portion of the Roman public in an uproar. It might have been thought that comedy would have flourished, but some promising beginnings died away, while opera progressed steadily. Tragedies continued to be written on the classical system, but there was no power to breathe life into the old forms, unless the great temporary success of Prospero Bonarelli's Solimano, which we have seen Menzini parallel with Tasso's Torrismondo, may be taken to denote an exception. The Phillis of Scyros of Bonarelli's brother Giudubaldo was the one achievement in pastoral drama. The novelette languished, and chivalric fiction had but one representative in Italy, the Caloandro of Giuseppe Ambrogio Marini, an excellent romance nevertheless, ending with five marriages, where monarchs and warriors play the part of the antiquated knights-errant, and so superior in sanity to the unwieldy fictions of the Clélie type that Caylus thought it worth translating into French in the following century. The Eudemia of J. V. Rossi (Nicius Erythræus), in Latin, is a good specimen of the Argenis class of romances. The same author's Pinacotheca, in three parts, a most entertaining repertory of biographies, chiefly more or less literary, of the early part of the century, is further remarkable as indicative of a perception of the growing needs of the world, and an unconscious foreshadowing of a culture as yet afar off. And this is broadly the character of the seventeenth century in Italy, a poor and barren time if paralleled with the past, but pregnant with the seeds of future harvests, repressed for a time by ungenial circumstances. Comparing the Italian literature of the seventeenth century with that of England and France, we see that all ran through substantially the same stages, but that, while these are vigorous alike in their aberrations and their reforms, Italian literature is languid in both, a circumstance sufficiently accounted for by its absolute enslavement, and their comparative freedom.


This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

 
  1. It is not improbable that the "three feet long and two feet wide," which brought such ridicule upon Wordsworth, may be a reminiscence of Chiabrera's description of his house, "Di cui l'ampiezza venticinque braccia Forse consume."