Where to go?
Sicilian literature has evolved in a curious way: nowhere has dialect been used as a literary language for such a long time and in such an uncompromising way as on this island. In fact, it has given rise to two linguistically different parallel streams, often present in the same author: one form being written in Italian, the other in the Sicilian dialect.
The Sicilian School of Poetry’s golden age came to an end with the decline of the Magna Curia of Frederick II. During the 14C–15C, poetry was modelled on Tuscan literature; then it faded gradually, overshadowed by a more popular genre in local dialect.
Humanism and Renaissance
The discovery of Classical texts, in particular the understanding of Ancient Greek which underpinned the emergence of Humanism, resounded strongly in Sicily. Noto, Palermo, Siracusa, Catania and Messina became leading cultural centres. The latter instituted a school for Greek, which achieved international acclaim largely thanks to the teachings of Costantino Lascaris.
The 16C saw a resurgence in the use of Sicilian. Local patriotism and pride swelled, as publishers debuted the first Sicilian-Latin dictionaries and a grammar for the regional dialect. As far as poetry is concerned, the preponderance of the Petrarchan style found expression in dialect through Antonio Veneziano (1543–93). He was in prison with Cervantes in Algiers and was the author of two volumes of poems entitled Celia.
In keeping with the general mood of the Baroque, the 17C witnessed an upsurge of interest and development in the theatre, largely generated by the tragedies of Ortensio Scammacca and by comedies both in Italian and in dialect.
In the course of the 18C, the Age of Enlightenment made its presence felt, as expressed in the History of Sicily written by the abbot G Battista Caruso (1673–1724) and the History of Sicilian Literature edited by Antonio Mongitore (1663–1743). Philosophical reflection inspired various other literary genres: Cartesian thought was voiced by Tommaso Campailla (1668–1740), who wrote a philosophical poem entitled Adamo, ovvero il mondo é creato (Adam, or How the World was Created). Leibniz, meanwhile, was exalted by Tommaso Natale in La filosofia Leibniziana (The Philosophy of Leibniz). Rousseau’s precepts on the Noble Savage and the relationship between morality and the environment were promoted by the great poet, Giovanni Meli (1740–1815), in his bucolic contemplations La bucolica and philosophical satires clearly influenced by the Enlightenment L’origini du lu munnu, Don Chisciotti e Sanciu Panza.
Romanticism encouraged the writing of lengthy histories and research into the origins of regional culture and tradition. Michele Amari (1806–89) initiated a new period of history criticism with his La guerra del Vespro siciliano (War of the Sicilian Vespers) and Storia dei Musulmani di Sicilia (History of the Muslims in Sicily). Giuseppe Pitré (1841–1916) studied folklore, thereby raising the life and traditions of Sicilians to a level worthy of historical consideration.
Realism was formulated as a reaction to Romanticism and became widespread in Sicily towards the close of the 19C. Early foundations were laid by the Positivist poetry of Mario Rapisardi (1844–1912); reinforcements came from the accomplished theorist, Luigi Capuana (1839–1915). He argued that art should embrace a sense of real life and examine the contemporary world and the laws of nature so as to document human life. His masterpieces – Giacinta and Il Marchese di Roccaverdina – reflect these values; furthermore they portray reality in an impersonal way. Even Giovanni Verga (1830–1922), after the Late Romantic tone of his earliest work, shows a move towards Realist poetry. His masterpiece – I Malavoglia, intended as the first part of a cycle of novels entitled I Vinti (The Conquered) – was followed by just one sequel (Mastro Don Gesualdo). Verga’s main theme concentrates on the description of the real Sicily, with the destiny of the humble folk portrayed objectively, yet compassionately. He uses a sombre writing style and a language which, when compared to the Italian mainstream, succeeds in mimicking the cadences and rhythms of the spoken vernacular. Other adherents of the Realist School include Federico de Roberto (1861–1927) – author of I Viceré (The Viceroys) and L’Illusione (The illusion) – and the poets Giuseppe Aurelio Costanzo (1843–1913) and Giovanni Alfredo Cesareo (1861–1937).
Modern Italian literature is indebted to Sicily for one of its greatest protagonists: the 1934 Nobel Prize winner Luigi Pirandello (1867–1946). His early work as a poet and novelist lies in the Realist vein. Later works explore the theme of isolation, painting the individual at sea in a society that is foreign to him (Il fu Mattia Pascal, Novelle per un anno). This idea found its most poignant expression on stage; Pirandello’s masterpieces include Liolà, Pensaci Giacomino! (Think about it, Giacomino), Così é (se vi pare) – That’s How It Is (If You Like) and Sei personaggi in cerca di autore (Six Characters in Search of an Author).
Another figure central to the history of Italian culture is the philosopher Giovanni Gentile (1875–1944), who, as Minister for Education in the Fascist government, promoted the reform of the Italian education system. On the opposing political front, Concetto Marchesi (1878–1957) published studies on the history of Latin literature that are still regarded as classics today.
The decadence of the Sicilian aristocracy during the Risorgimento is poignantly, if bitterly, portrayed in Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), the novel by Prince Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896–1957), published posthumously. The satirical and grotesque storyteller Vitaliano Brancati attacked myths of eroticism and sexual conceit in his novels (Don Giovanni in Sicilia, Il bell’Antonio and Paolo il Caldo). Elio Vittorini (1908–66) played a fundamental role in spreading awareness of contemporary American literature and in revitalising the Italian narrative tradition in the neo-Realist convention (Conversazione in Sicilia, Uomini e no). The rough-and-ready style more often associated with police inquiries animates the novels of Leonardo Sciascia (1921–89), which include Il giorno della civetta (The Day of the Owl), Todo modo, and Candido ovvero un sogno fatto in Sicilia (Candido, or a Sicilian Dream). Gesualdo Bufalino (1920–96) is a huge literary personality, having emerged at the age of 60 with Diceria dell’untore. Both critics and the public alike acclaimed his prose, poetry, memoirs and criticism (Argo il cieco, Il Guerrin Meschino). The baroque prose of Vincenzo Consolo (b. 1933) is full of precise reflections on history. The detective novels of Andrea Camilleri (1925), based on the fictitious character of police superintendent Montalbano, have enjoyed great success both in Italy and abroad. His novels are infused with musical language, rich with Sicilian expressions and vocabulary.
Other works in this genre include the novels of Santo Piazzese (Palermo, 1948), which are based in Sicily’s capital city.
As far as poetry is concerned, Salvatore Quasimodo (1901–68), awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1959, occupies a position of prime importance. His later work sought to draw attention to political and social issues (Ed é subito sera, La terra impareggiabile, Dare e avere). Less well known, but nevertheless of interest, is the metaphorical poetry of Lucio Piccolo (1903–69), cousin of Tomasi di Lampedusa and author of Canti Barocchi and Plumelia. A great sense of social commitment is voiced in the poetry of Ignazio Buttitta (1899–1997), who demonstrated once again that dialect was the best vehicle for expressing the thoughts and emotions of the Sicilian people (Lu pani si chiama pani, La peddi nova).