Giosuè Carducci

The Italian poet Giosuè Carducci (1835-1907) was awarded the 1906 Nobel Prize in literature. His gradual development from youthful revolutionary idealism to later acceptance of a conservative monarchy closely mirrors the course of 19th-century Italian history.

Born in the Tuscan village of Val di Castello, Giosuè Carducci spent his childhood traveling along the coastal plain, where his father was regional physician. Early studies in Florence, which afforded him a solid foundation in Latin and the Italian classics, prepared Carducci for the Teachers College of Pisa, from which he graduated in 1856. After several years of teaching and editing texts, Carducci was appointed to the prestigious chair in Italian literature at the University of Bologna, a post he held until 1904. During his years at Bologna, he participated fully in the intellectual life of his times as poet, critic, parliamentary deputy (1876), and senator (1890).

A powerfully built man whose prominent jaw accentuated an aggressive appearance, Carducci in his early writings proudly declared himself to be "a shield bearer of the classics," that is, a defender of traditional literary formation. In rejecting romanticism as a betrayal of the Italian artistic heritage and a servile imitation of foreign ideologies, Carducci's first poetry, Juvenilia (1850-1860) and Levia gravia (1861-1871), exalts nationalistic ideals of progress and freedom through satire directed against the political and clerical obstacles to the unification of Italy. Typical of this Risorgimento poetry is his Masonic, antipapal "Hymn to Satan" (1863), in which Satan personifies reason, progress, and rebellion against the oppressive force of religion. Only later, when national unity had been achieved, did Carducci evidence an appreciation for the religious traditions of his country.

The Giambi ed epodi (1867-1879) signals a new direction in Carducci's poetry. While still polemical and satirical, there emerges a freshness, a genuine tone which makes itself heard above "the bold verse which slaps the face" of the discredited past. The 32 poems of this collection champion the ideals of liberty against clerically imposed limitations, but they also reveal the initial traces of introspection and self-contemplation that characterize much of his mature writings. During this period Carducci began his first sympathetic studies of foreign romanticists (Hugo, Shelley, Heine, and others), whose works he had formerly rejected.

The 105 poems of Carducci's three-part Rime nuove (1861-1886; New Rhymes) develop more fully this intimate vein. These barely controlled expressions of his emotions are at times highly personal ("Ancient Lament," written on the death of his infant son) and are often delicately reminiscent of visions from his youth ("The Maremanno Idyl"). Several love poems, which suggest that Carducci frequently strayed beyond the boundaries of his marriage, afford the closest possible view of Carducci's inner self.

The Odi barbare (1873-1889; Barbarous Odes) constitutes his last major poetic achievement. "Barbarous" denotes the non-Italian meters employed in these verses, which are based on Greek and Latin models. This collection of 57 poems derives unity from its form, but its thematic content varies widely, from glorification of Rome's past ("The Springs of the River Clitumnus") to contemplative visions of the author's own experiences ("At the Station").

In addition to his poetry, Carducci made major contributions to literary criticism with several studies written largely during the first 10 years of his professorship in Bologna. His sound, if unsystematic, judgments are reflected in The Development of a National Literature, The Varying Fortunes of Dante, and Essay on Petrarch. Carducci died in 1907. A product of his times, he fulfilled his lofty conception of the civic mission of a poet—the expression and exaltation of the values of his people.

Further Reading on Giosuè Carducci

Relatively little scholarship in English has been dedicated to Carducci. Orlo Williams, Giosuè Carducci (1914), provides a general outline of his life and major writings. See also Ruth Shepard Phelps, Italian Silhouettes (1924), and S. Eugene Scalia, Carducci: His Critics and Translators in England and America, 1881-1932 (1937).