Italian literature


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Italian literature,

writings in the Italian language, as distinct from earlier works in Latin and French.

The Thirteenth Century

The first Italian vernacular literature began to take shape in the 13th cent. with the imitation of Provençal lyric poetry at the court of Frederick II in Sicily. The Sicilians are credited with inventing the sonnetsonnet,
poem of 14 lines, usually in iambic pentameter, restricted to a definite rhyme scheme. There are two prominent types: the Italian, or Petrarchan, sonnet, composed of an octave and a sestet (rhyming abbaabba cdecde
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, which became the most widely used form of Italian poetry and later flourished throughout Europe. The Sicilian style was dominant in the north until c.1260, when Guido Guinizelli, a Bolognese poet and jurist, moved from the Provençal conception of courtly lovecourtly love,
philosophy of love and code of lovemaking that flourished in France and England during the Middle Ages. Although its origins are obscure, it probably derived from the works of Ovid, various Middle Eastern ideas popular at the time, and the songs of the troubadours.
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 to a more mystical and philosophical spirituality.

The poets who took Guinizelli as their model originated the "sweet new style" (dolce stil novo)—so named by Dante AlighieriDante Alighieri
, 1265–1321, Italian poet, b. Florence. Dante was the author of the Divine Comedy, one of the greatest of literary classics. Life
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 in canto 24 of his Purgatorio. The group included Guido CavalcantiCavalcanti, Guido
, c.1255–1300, Italian poet; friend of Dante, whose work was greatly influenced by Cavalcanti's style. He belonged to the White faction in the struggle of the Guelphs in Florence and was exiled to Sarzana.
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, Cino da Pistoia, Lapo Gianni, Dino Frescobaldi, and Dante himself, whose youthful La vita nuova, part prose and part poetry, recounts the poet's love for Beatrice in terms of the transcendental view of love typical of the stil novo. Dante's other works, of which the Divine Comedy is a masterpiece of world literature, go beyond the themes and manner of stil novo and embrace the whole of contemporary knowledge and experience. Dante invented the difficult terza rima (iambic tercets) for his epic journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.

The 13th cent. also produced folk poetry, doctrinal poetry, imitations of the chansons de geste in various dialects, and a magnificent flowering of religious poetry in the laudi of Jacopone da Todi and in the Hymn to Created Things of St. Francis of Assisi. Laudi in dialogue form represent the beginning of dramatic literature, the sacre rappresentazioni. Prose works included translations from the Latin and French as well as collections of tales, anecdotes, and witty sayings.

The Fourteenth Century

The two great writers of the 14th cent., PetrarchPetrarch
or Francesco Petrarca
, 1304–74, Italian poet and humanist, one of the great figures of Italian literature. He spent his youth in Tuscany and Avignon and at Bologna.
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 and BoccaccioBoccaccio, Giovanni
, 1313–75, Italian poet and storyteller, author of the Decameron. Born in Paris, the illegitimate son of a Tuscan merchant and a French woman, he was educated at Certaldo and Naples by his father, who wanted him to take up commerce and law.
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, sought out and imitated the works of antiquity and cultivated their own artistic personalities. Petrarch achieved fame through his collection of poems, the Canzoniere, in which he gave Provençal and stil novo themes a peculiarly intimate and personal expression. Petrarch's poetry served as the model for European lyricism until the Romantic period and later. Equally influential was Boccaccio's Decameron, a collection of 100 novellas within a framework, which founded the short-story genre. Giovanni Sercambi and Franco SacchettiSacchetti, Franco
, c.1330–1400, Italian author. He held a number of public offices in Florence and wrote lyric verse and moral discourses. He is best remembered for his Novelle (c.1378–c.1395), a collection of tales in the manner of the Decameron.
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 in the 14th cent. and Matteo BandelloBandello, Matteo
, 1485–1561, Italian storywriter, a Dominican priest. He is famous for his novellas, short tales in imitation of Boccaccio, that provided themes for several 17th-century plays. Often coarse, they have considerable vitality and occasional tragic force.
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 and Agnolo Firenzuola in the 16th cent. were among the numerous writers who continued the tradition of vivid, realistic, and often licentious storytelling in prose.

The Renaissance

The Tuscan vernacular that had been established by Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio was inhibited by a strong return to Latin in the 15th cent. among humanist writers and philosophers. Coluccio Salutati, Lorenzo VallaValla, Lorenzo
, c.1407–57, Italian humanist. Valla knew Greek and Latin well and was chosen by Pope Nicholas V to translate Herodotus and Thucydides into Latin. From his earliest works, he was an ardent spokesman for the new humanist learning that sought to reform
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, Marsilio FicinoFicino, Marsilio
, 1433–99, Italian philosopher. Under the patronage of Cosimo de' Medici, Ficino became the most influential exponent of Platonism in Italy in the 15th cent.
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, and Giovanni Pico della MirandolaPico della Mirandola, Giovanni, Conte
, 1463–94, Italian philosopher and humanist. To many in the age of the Renaissance, Pico was the ideal man, whose physical beauty reflected his inner harmony. He appears in Il Cortegiano of Baldassare Castiglione.
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 were among the writers and scholars who sought to return to the fonts of classical antiquity for inspiration and guidance in matters of language, literary style, moral instruction, and simply a new vision of the relation of humanity to its surroundings and to God. When the vernacular began to be used again in the late 15th cent., poetic language and tastes had been refined by the values of humanist learning.

In the circle of Lorenzo de'Medici, Tuscan vernacular was used in popular, Petrarchan, and pastoral poetry and in a return to medieval subject matter. Luigi PulciPulci, Luigi
, 1432–84, Italian poet. Of an impoverished literary family, he became a protégé of Lorenzo de' Medici and a friend of Poliziano. The most noted work of his large literary production is Morgante Maggiore (1483).
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's grotesque Morgante (c.1480) recounts the adventures of Orlando (Charlemagne's Roland) and other paladins with great comic verve. BoiardoBoiardo or Bojardo, Matteo Maria
, 1441?–1494, Italian poet, count of Scandiano. A favorite at the Este court in Ferrara, he served on diplomatic missions and became ducal captain of Modena and later of Reggio.
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's Orlando innamorato (3 parts, 1483–1494) adds Breton subject matter to the Carolingian and introduces motifs from classical mythology and contemporary society. The great masterpiece of Italian Renaissance poetry is AriostoAriosto, Ludovico
, 1474–1533, Italian epic and lyric poet. As a youth he was a favorite at the court of Ferrara; later he was in the service of Ippolito I, Cardinal d'Este, and from 1517 until his death served Alfonso, duke of Ferrara.
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's Orlando furioso (1516, rev. 1521 and 1532), in which varied and improbable adventures are worked into an aesthetic whole. The great lyric poet TassoTasso, Torquato
, 1544–95, Italian poet, one of the foremost writers and a tragic figure of the Renaissance. Educated in Naples by Jesuits, he later studied law and philosophy (1560–1562) at the Univ. of Padua.
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 in Gerusalemme liberata (1581) wrote a Christian epic, making use of the same form (ottava rima), with attention to the Aristotelian canons of unity.

Other Renaissance genres brought to a high level of perfection by outstanding writers were the pastoral poem (Poliziano, Tasso, and Guarini); the pastoral romance (SannazaroSannazaro, Jacopo
, 1456?–1530, Italian humanist. He lived briefly (1501–4) in France, a follower of the exiled Frederick III of Naples. On Frederick's death, he returned to Naples and a life of study and literary fame.
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); the Petrarchan lyric (BemboBembo, Pietro
, 1470–1547, Italian humanist, cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. A favorite of the Medici, he was secretary to Pope Leo X and was made a cardinal by Paul III.
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, MichelangeloMichelangelo Buonarroti
, 1475–1564, Italian sculptor, painter, architect, and poet, b. Caprese, Tuscany. Early Life and Work

Michelangelo drew extensively as a child, and his father placed him under the tutelage of Ghirlandaio, a respected artist of the day.
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, Gaspara StampaStampa, Gaspara
, c.1523–1554, Italian poet. Plunged at an early age into the dissipated life of Venetian society, she became renowned for her brilliance and beauty. Her verse, which recounts an unhappy love affair, reflects her feelings of passionate tenderness and anguish.
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); imitations of classical tragedy (TrissinoTrissino, Gian Giorgio
, 1478–1550, Italian poet and philologist. His play Sofonisba (written 1515, produced 1557) introduced classical Greek dramatic techniques to Italian drama. Also well known is his epic poem Italia liberata dai Goti (1547).
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) and classical comedy (Ariosto, MachiavelliMachiavelli, Niccolò
, 1469–1527, Italian author and statesman, one of the outstanding figures of the Renaissance, b. Florence. Life

A member of the impoverished branch of a distinguished family, he entered (1498) the political service of the
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, AretinoAretino, Pietro
, 1492–1556, Italian satirist. He led a life of adventure and wrote abusive works for hire. His derisive wit was so feared that the gifts of those who sought either to buy him or buy him off made him very wealthy.
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); dialogues in the Platonic manner (CastiglioneCastiglione, Baldassare, Conte
, 1478–1529, Italian soldier, author, and statesman attached to the court of the duke of Milan and later in the service of the duke of Urbino. His famous Libro del cortegiano (1528, tr.
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's The Courtier); treatises on a variety of topics (LeonardoLeonardo da Vinci
, 1452–1519, Italian painter, sculptor, architect, musician, engineer, and scientist, b. near Vinci, a hill village in Tuscany. The versatility and creative power of Leonardo mark him as a supreme example of Renaissance genius.
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's Della pittura; AlbertiAlberti, Leone Battista,
1404–72, Italian architect, musician, painter, and humanist, active at the papal court, Florence, Rimini, and Mantua. Alberti was the first architect to argue for the correct use of the classical orders during the Renaissance.
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's Della famiglia; Bembo's Prose della volgar lingua, which established the principle of linguistic purism for Italian literature; and Machiavelli's The Prince); biographical and autobiographical writings (VasariVasari, Giorgio
, 1511–74, Italian architect, writer, and painter. He is best known for his entertaining biographies of artists, Vite de' più eccellenti architetti, pittori e scultori italiani (1550, rev. ed. 1568).
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, Machiavelli, and CelliniCellini, Benvenuto
, 1500–1571, Italian sculptor, metalsmith, and author. His remarkable autobiography (written 1558–62), which reads like a picaresque novel, is one of the most important documents of the 16th cent.
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); and history (GuicciardiniGuicciardini, Francesco
, 1483–1540, Italian historian and statesman. He represented (1512–14) his native Florence at the court of Spain, held offices in the Florentine government, and in 1516 entered the service of Pope Leo X.
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 and Machiavelli).

The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

In the early 17th cent. philosophic and scientific prose (CampanellaCampanella, Tommaso
, 1568–1639, Italian Renaissance philosopher and writer. He entered the Dominican order at the age of 15, and although he was frequently in trouble with the authorities, he never left the church.
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, GalileoGalileo
(Galileo Galilei) , 1564–1642, great Italian astronomer, mathematician, and physicist. By his persistent investigation of natural laws he laid foundations for modern experimental science, and by the construction of astronomical telescopes he greatly enlarged
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) continued and surpassed the achievements of Giordano BrunoBruno, Giordano
, 1548–1600, Italian philosopher, b. Nola. The son of a professional soldier, he entered the Dominican order early in his youth and was ordained a priest in 1572, but he was accused of heresy and fled (c.1576) to take up a career of study and travel.
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. But the new literary style, secentismo, or marinismo (from Giambattista MarinoMarino, Giambattista
, 1569–1625, Italian poet. His florid, highly elaborated style, called Marinismo, which was akin to euphuism, was much admired and imitated in his time. He had a strong influence on writing in all European literature.
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), aimed at dazzling the reader by the opulent use of rhetorical devices. At the end of the century the Arcadians began a movement to restore simplicity and classical restraint to poetry, as in MetastasioMetastasio, Pietro
, 1698–1782, Italian poet and librettist, whose original name was Antonio Bonaventura Trapassi. A prodigy at poetic improvisation, he became court poet at Vienna in 1729.
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's heroic melodramas. The mock-heroic epic (TassoniTassoni, Alessandro
, 1565–1635, Italian poet. He spent much of his life in the service of Charles Emmanuel I of Savoy and Francesco I of Modena. His sharp letter (1602) of defense against accusations by the Italian Inquisition revealed him as a polemist of high order, as
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), the opera, and commedia dell'artecommedia dell'arte
, popular form of comedy employing improvised dialogue and masked characters that flourished in Italy from the 16th to the 18th cent. Characters of the Commedia Dell'Arte
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 were other genres cultivated in the 17th cent.

The renewal of Italian culture in the 18th cent. produced major works of journalism (Gaspare GozziGozzi, Gasparo
, 1713–86, Italian critic and poet; brother of Carlo Gozzi. Struggling to support a large family, he wrote plays, stories, articles, and poems. He founded the literary journals Gazzetta veneta (1760) and Osservatore veneto
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, Giuseppe BarettiBaretti, Giuseppe Marc'Antonio
, 1719–89, Italian writer and lexicographer. Baretti held various official positions in several Italian cities while making regular contributions to periodicals.
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, and the Milanese Caffè), philosophical and historical erudition (VicoVico, Giovanni Battista
, 1668–1744, Italian philosopher and historian, also known as Giambattista Vico, b. Naples. In 1699, Vico became professor of rhetoric at the Univ. of Naples, and in 1734 he was appointed historiographer to the king of Naples.
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, MuratoriMuratori, Ludovico Antonio
, 1672–1750, Italian historian, a Roman Catholic priest. One of the foremost scholars of his age, he was long archivist and ducal librarian at Modena. He discovered the Muratorian Canon, a scrap of early Christian literature (c.A.D.
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, and Tiraboschi), and translations from classical antiquity and from contemporary European writers. The outstanding Italian representatives of the Enlightenment were Carlo GoldoniGoldoni, Carlo
, 1707–93, Italian dramatist. He was enamored of comedy from childhood, having sketched his first comic drama at eight. He took a degree in law at Padua but thereafter devoted himself to the theater.
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, whose comedies of character drew upon contemporary life, Vittorio AlfieriAlfieri, Vittorio, Conte
, 1749–1803, Italian tragic poet. A Piedmontese, born to wealth and social position, he spent his youth in dissipation and adventure. From 1767 to 1772 he traveled over much of Europe but returned to Italy fired by a sense of the greatness of his
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, whose classical tragedies exalted freedom, and Giuseppe PariniParini, Giuseppe
, 1729–99, Italian poet, a priest and teacher. He was a professor and a superintendent of schools in Milan; a liberal, Parini became (1796) a government official in the Napoleonic occupation.
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, whose satirical poetry attacked the social abuses of the privileged.

The Napoleonic Era and the Risorgimento

The Napoleonic period was both classical and romantic. The poetry of Vincenzo MontiMonti, Vincenzo
, 1754–1828, Italian poet and dramatist. Under French rule he became official historiographer of the Italian kingdom and later accommodated himself to Austrian rule as well.
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 typifies the first direction, and the work of Ugo FoscoloFoscolo, Ugo
, 1778–1827, Italian poet and patriot. His name was originally Niccolò Foscolo. A devoted Venetian, he pinned his hope of a restored republic on Napoleon and fought under him against the Austrians, even after Napoleon's political untrustworthiness had
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 belongs to the second. A distinguishing feature of Italian romanticism was its political involvement in the struggle for Italian independence, the RisorgimentoRisorgimento
[Ital.,=resurgence], in 19th-century Italian history, period of cultural nationalism and of political activism, leading to unification of Italy. Roots of the Risorgimento
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. Poems, historical novels, and political works, such as Giuseppe MazziniMazzini, Giuseppe
, 1805–72, Italian patriot and revolutionist, an outstanding figure of the Risorgimento. His youth was spent in literary and philosophical studies. He early joined the Carbonari, was imprisoned briefly, and went into exile.
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's, attest to this.

Alessandro ManzoniManzoni, Alessandro
, 1785–1873, Italian novelist and poet. Taken in his youth to Paris by his mother in 1805, Manzoni embraced the deism that he was later to discard for an ardent Roman Catholicism. He returned to Italy in 1807 and in his later years was a senator.
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's literary conversion included the rejection of classical mythology in favor of Christian subject matter, and of classical tragedy for romantic drama. His historical novel, I promessi sposi (1827), which introduced the genre to Italy, combined social and psychological realism with Roman Catholic doctrine and established a new Italian linguistic norm and prose style. Giacomo LeopardiLeopardi, Giacomo
, 1798–1837, Italian poet and scholar, considered Italy's outstanding 19th-century poet. An intellectual prodigy, he taught himself Hebrew and ancient Greek and was devoted to the study of the classics and philosophy from early childhood.
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 rejected the program of romanticism but wrote lyric poetry in which the romantic themes of despair predominate.

The Late Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

In the second half of the 19th cent. Francesco De SanctisDe Sanctis, Francesco
, 1817–83, Italian historian and literary critic. He was one of the founders of modern Italian literary criticism. He suffered imprisonment for his political views and was exiled to Malta.
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, literary critic and historian, laid the theoretical and aesthetic foundations of modern Italian criticism, later elaborated by the philosopher Benedetto CroceCroce, Benedetto
, 1866–1952, Italian philosopher, historian, and critic. He lived mostly in Naples, devoting himself to studying and writing. He founded and edited (1903–44) Critica, a review of literature, history, and philosophy, which in 1944 became
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. Giosuè CarducciCarducci, Giosuè
, 1835–1907, Italian poet and teacher. He was professor of literature at the Univ. of Bologna from 1860 to 1904. He was a scholar, an editor, an orator, a critic, and a patriot, although his defection from republicanism and his anti-Catholicism
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 brought to poetry a virility and classicism long absent. But Pascoli and D'Annunzio had a more lasting influence. Gabriele D'AnnunzioD'Annunzio, Gabriele
1863–1938, Italian poet, novelist, dramatist, and soldier, b. Pescara. He went to Rome in 1881 and there began his literary career. Considered by some to be the greatest Italian poet since Dante, he expressed in many of his works the desire to live in
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, poet, novelist, and dramatist, employed sensuous, musical, and precious language. Giovanni PascoliPascoli, Giovanni
, 1855–1912, Italian poet. Pascoli's childhood was marked by a series of tragedies: the deaths of his parents and of five of his brothers and sisters. A radical in his student days at the Univ.
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 is Italy's great symbolist poet of the subconscious. The naturalistic, the irrational, and the decadent are also revealed in the work of the playwright and novelist Luigi PirandelloPirandello, Luigi
, 1867–1936, Italian author, b. Sicily. One of the great figures in 20th-century European theater, Pirandello was awarded the 1934 Nobel Prize in Literature.
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. Pirandello's prose roots are in Sicilian verismo, the impersonal, objective regionalism of Fiovanni VergaVerga, Giovanni
, 1840–1922, Italian novelist, b. Sicily. He abandoned the study of law for literature and wrote several novels of passion in the style of the French realists. His later works, written in a different style, are marked by simplicity and strict accuracy.
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's works.

Major 20th-century novelists of note include Italo SvevoSvevo, Italo
, 1861–1928, Italian novelist, whose real name was Ettore Schmitz, b. Trieste. A businessman, he wrote several works of fiction, but remained practically unknown until discovered by James Joyce.
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, Alberto MoraviaMoravia, Alberto
, 1907–90, Italian novelist, b. Alberto Pincherle; husband of Elsa Morante. Moravia is considered one of the foremost 20th-century Italian novelists.
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, Giuseppe di LampedusaLampedusa, Giuseppe di
, 1896–1957, Italian novelist. A wealthy Sicilian prince, Lampedusa drew on his family's history for his internationally acclaimed work, Il gattopardo, published posthumously in 1958 (tr. The Leopard, 1960).
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, Elio VittoriniVittorini, Elio
, 1908–66, Italian novelist, b. Syracuse, Sicily. Between 1934 and 1941 Vittorini translated the works of D. H. Lawrence, Poe, Faulkner, Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and others. His first novel, In Sicily (1938, tr.
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, Cesare PavesePavese, Cesare
, 1908–50, Italian novelist, poet, and translator. A major literary figure in postwar Italy, Pavese brought American influence to Italian literature through his translations. He himself was strongly influenced by Melville.
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, Italo CalvinoCalvino, Italo
, 1923–85, Italian novelist. Calvino was one of the most popular novelists of the 20th cent. Although loneliness is an essential condition in his writings, he imbues his stories with passion and celebrates the human capacity for love and imagination.
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, Pier Paolo PasoliniPasolini, Pier Paolo
, 1922–75, Italian writer and film director. A former Roman Catholic and a Marxist, Pasolini brought to his work a combination of religious and social consciousness. His early works, including the novel A Violent Life (1957; tr.
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, Carlo GaddaGadda, Carlo Emilio
, 1893–1973, Italian novelist. Although trained as an electrical engineer, Gadda devoted his energies to writing. His difficult style, deliberately obscure, precludes a wide audience. A fascination with words led him to use phonetic tricks (e.g.
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, Leonardo Sciascia, and Natalia Ginzburg. Their work is variously marked by psychological analysis, social consciousness, and formal and linguistic experimentation. The outstanding poets are Giuseppe UngarettiUngaretti, Giuseppe
, 1888–1970, Italian poet, critic, and translator, b. Alexandria, Egypt. Ungaretti spent his youth in North Africa, where he was greatly influenced by nomadic culture.
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, Eugenio MontaleMontale, Eugenio
, 1896–1981, Italian poet, critic, and translator. After working as an editor, Montale became chief librarian of the Gabinetto Vieusseux in Florence.
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, Umberto Saba, and Salvatore QuasimodoQuasimodo, Salvatore
, 1901–68, Italian poet and translator, b. Sicily. Quasimodo worked first as a technical designer and civil engineer. His five volumes of verse published between 1930 and 1938, including Acque e terra
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.

Bibliography

See J. H. Whitfield, A Short History of Italian Literature (1964); F. de Sanctis, History of Italian Literature (tr., 2 vol., 1968); E. Donadoni, A History of Italian Literature (tr. 1969); C. Foligno, Epochs of Italian Literature (1920, repr. 1970); P. M. Riccio, Italian Authors of Today (1970); J. A. Molinaro, ed., Petrarch to Pirandello (1973); E. H. Wilkins, A History of Italian Literature (rev. ed. by T. G. Bergin, 1974); S. Pacifici, The Modern Italian Novel (1979).

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