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The Oxford Companion to Italian Literature

Letizia Panizza


From classical Latin literature to the end of the 18th c., pastoral occupied a significant position on the Italian literary scene, though its forms—eclogue, narrative poem, novel, favola pastorale, and drama—altered from century to century. Italian pastoral has bequeathed at least three masterpieces of European dimensions: Sannazaro's Arcadia, Torquato Tasso's Aminta, and Battista Guarini's Il pastor fido. It was also a genre where, late in the Renaissance, women writers made their mark.

Two classical Latin poems laid the foundations for the pastoral, and provided enduring features: Virgil's Eclogues, and the frame story from Ovid's Metamorphoses. The former gave pastoral the timeless landscape of woodlands, meadows, and streams; names of poet-shepherds such as Mopsus, Tityrus, and Meliboeus, and their beloveds such as Galatea and Amaryllis; the recurring themes of vehement passion, unrequited love, loss and melancholy; covert political references; and the self-conscious celebration of lyric poetry as the means to alleviate personal sorrow. Ovid gave Italian pastoral the four ages of mankind in their moralized form: the Golden Age of bliss, justice, and communal living in harmony with nature without the need for law, followed by the Silver, Bronze, and finally Iron Ages. Most pastoral is set in or yearns nostalgically for the lost Golden Age. In the Iron Age there is greed, conflict, violence, and private property. The law of cyclical transformation holds out the hope, however, that disintegration and decay will lead on to harmonious renewal. Christians soon equated the Golden Age with the Garden of Eden before the Fall, and read a prophecy about the Saviour into the lines of Virgil's fourth Eclogue about justice returning to earth and a New Age, thus adding to pastoral a theological dimension. Virgil had located his shepherds in Sicily; when the Greek pastoral poet Theocritus was read and translated in the 15th c., the more distant Arcadia in Greece became the ideal locus amoenus.

Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio all wrote Latin eclogues so densely allegorical that commentaries were needed to unravel them. But the vernacular poetry of Petrarch and Boccaccio also spread pastoral along different paths, especially in the later 15th c. Petrarch's brooding over past memories, his sense of death and of ephemeral beauty, and his love of wild natural settings far away from city life were all seen as typically pastoral. Boccaccio, on the other hand, heightened the erotic element of pastoral, especially in stories recounted by the nymphs in the Ameto, and introduced a new element of coarseness and violence in the rape scene in the Ninfale fiesolano. Many Florentines in Lorenzo de' Medici's circle wrote pastoral poetry, both serious and satirical; Poliziano created the first pastoral drama, Orfeo, which he called a favola, with choruses and mixed poetic forms. Like the shepherds, his Orpheus sang lyrics of lost love, pointing to the power of poetry to hold death itself in abeyance, at least temporarily.

The Neapolitan Iacopo Sannazaro weaves together classical and vernacular motifs and genres in the first pastoral novel of international renown, Arcadia, a mixture of traditional lyric verse forms and prose narrative. When Sannazaro claimed that he was reviving pastoral after a thousand years, he set himself apart from and above all earlier vernacular pastoral, abandoning religious and moral allegory as well as chases of nymphs by satyrs, and satirical parody. Sannazaro's tone is melancholic; one finds solace for unrequited love, painful separation, and death through poetry performed out loud with friends. In Arcadia, furthermore, rank, money, and political power have no place. His refined laments found favour in Italy, where sixty editions were printed from 1504, as well as with imitators and translators in other major European countries, such as Sir Philip Sidney, whose Arcadia appeared late in the century.

In the second half of the 16th c., the court at Ferrara became the focus of new developments in pastoral. Short, loose episodic performances of pastoral myths gave way to dramas conforming to Aristotelian unities. It is in this century that pastoral and musical drama also combine, leading to opera. Niccolò da Correggio's long narrative poem, Fabula Psiches et Cupidinis, continues the fondness for mythological subject matter in pastoral. Far more distinguished were the two most celebrated pastorals of the century, both written by courtiers at Ferrara and performed there: Tasso's Aminta (first performed in 1573) and Guarini's Pastor fido (first published in 1589). The novelty in both these pastoral dramas was in the intermezzi or choruses, borrowed from classical drama and woven into plots following Aristotelian unities. The result was a new hybrid genre, tragicomedy.

Guarini deliberately rivalled and strove with reforming zeal to surpass Tasso's Aminta, with the result that although few years separate the dramas chronologically, an abyss separates them ideologically. In Aminta the law of nature, operating according to pleasure and instinct, is exalted over laws designed to control fallen humankind. The ‘golden law’ is ‘S'ei piace ei lice’ (‘Whatever brings pleasure is right’). Guarini denies his Golden Age the supremacy of pleasure: souls of the Golden Age were accustomed to doing good; the law of honour, not Nature, was a happy one, and its rule was ‘Piaccia, se lice’ (‘Let it give pleasure, if it is right’). Significantly, the shepherds and nymphs are strictly monogamous, both in love and in marriage. The Golden Age and the ideals of Counter-Reformation Italy coincide. Guarini's interpretation of Arcadia and the Golden Age is heavily coloured by religious overtones and metaphors of blindness applied to the human condition. Only after suffering does the heaven-ordained wedding at the end bring joy, and even then the joy is born of virtue. For the entire 17th c. and beyond, Il pastor fido was a theatrical reference point. Both plays, however, focus on the moral aspects of shepherds' lives and loves, marginalizing Sannazaro's sense of pastoral as the lyric poet's special province, expressing mood.

Although the pastoral drama involved women playing equal roles in the unfolding and resolution of erotic conflicts, the first dramas written by women were late in the 16th c. Isabella Andreini Canali, a poet and leading actress, composed and performed in Mirtilla (1588); and in the same year, Maddalena Campiglia composed her Flori. In their plots' complexity, unreciprocated loves, misunderstandings, and final resolutions, the two dramas are related to Tasso and especially Guarini; Mirtilla, the leading nymph, is the literary sister of Mirtillo, Guarini's ‘faithful shepherd’ and male lead. Like Guarini, Andreini Canali announces her intention to celebrate ‘true’ love which leads to marriage, and condemns sensual passion as a blind mistake killing reason. But comic elements abound, with nymphs playing games with satyrs, and Andreini gives herself plenty of set soliloquies. The female character, Flori, explores a range of dramatic emotions, from extremes of grief to erotic yearning to madness—the latter quality frequently found in female pastoral drama.

The third main woman writer of the period, Lucrezia Marinella, seems to have drawn inspiration not just from Sannazaro, but from Virgil's Eclogues and Georgics, and a long tradition of poets celebrating nature and natural philosophy, including Tasso and his Mondo creato. In her pastoral novel, L'Arcadia felice (1605), composed in a mixture of prose and verse, her shepherds and nymphs are enlightened agriculturalists bent on understanding nature's secrets. The central character, Erato (named after the Muse of scientific poetry), tends a magic garden and enjoys prophetic powers—the most remarkable role of any woman in pastoral. No erotic complications trouble her or the band of nymphs she supervises.

[Letizia Panizza]


See E. Carrara, La poesia pastorale (1905);Find this resource:

    P. V. Marinelli, Pastoral (1971);Find this resource:

      L. G. Clubb, Italian Drama in Shakespeare's Time (1989).Find this resource: