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Reviewed by:
  • Italian Modernism: Italian Culture between Decadentism and Avant-Garde
  • Lucienne Kroha (bio)
Luca Somigli and Mario Moroni , editors. Italian Modernism: Italian Culture between Decadentism and Avant-GardeUniversity of Toronto Press.xxviii, 460. $45.00

As the editors of this volume themselves say, 'in the Italian tradition modernism remains at best a vague and undetermined concept.' In fact, as in France, modernism was a term associated with movements in the Catholic church attempting to adapt religious dogma to changing times. This of course does not mean that Italian culture did not go through a modernist phase. However, Italian critics used categories, Decadentism and Avant-garde, the parameters of which frequently limited their capacity to grasp the ramifications of the phenomena in question as partaking of a broad and far-reaching shift in the social, cultural, economic, and epistemological landscapes. Decadentism was an extremely value-laden concept and was seen as embodying 'the most extreme aspects of Romantic [End Page 353] individualism and superomismo,' while Avant-garde was used for movements which 'sought to break openly with the conventions of literary traditions.' These categories not only reflected the values and preoccupations of a critical discourse largely conditioned by Crocean aesthetics, but also failed to account for certain phenomena that did not fit into them. Artists and writers, as is frequently the case, were far more innovative and prescient than their critics and interpreters, and never received the full understanding they deserved.

These are the premises on which this very welcome and overdue volume rests. It attempts to remove the critical strait-jackets of Decadentism and Avant-garde and to examine writers of the period straddling approximately the years 1890-1930, from the perspective of the much broader, weaker, and more neutral category of modernism, capable of containing the contradictions and complexities of the period (for example, the essay on Futurism points out F.T. Marinetti's own fascination with the past, notwithstanding his apparent wholesale rejection of it) and of illuminating the works from new angles, not only in their relation to European modernism but also in relation to each other. The editors identify four 'thematic itineraries that cut across the volume': a reconsideration of the historiographic and critical debates on the period; the relationship between modernism, the literary tradition, and memory; the gradual breaking down of the 'universal subject'; the notion of modernism and its relationship to postmodernism. Nor is this project without its prestigious endorsements: a provocative foreword by Paolo Valesio and an essay by Remo Ceserani which attempts to contextualize and account for the specific characteristics of Italian modernity. Particularly interesting is Ceserani's focus on the role of Giacomo Debenedetti as an important reader and interpreter of modernism in Italy. The section on Decadence and Aestheticism (Gabriele D'Annunzio, Antonio Fogazzaro, Aestheticism, Guido Gozzano) opens with an essay by Mario Moroni on the construction of Italian Decadentism, which suggests that decadentismo was constructed in the last decade of the nineteenth century as a concept which indicated a crisis of values rather than a critique of those values, in other words as a backward rather than forward-looking notion. The Avant-garde is represented by essays on Florentine Modernism: Marinetti, Giuseppe Ungaretti and Luigi Pirandello. 'The Return to Order: Metafisica, Novecentismo' contains essays on Massimo Bontempelli, Georgio de Chirico, and Paola Masino, while the last section, 'Towards the Postmodern' returns to de Chirico as both subject and object of appropriation.

The volume does lack a treatment of Italian modernist novels, at least of the more significant writers, such as Italo Svevo, Pirandello, Federigo Tozzi, Giuseppe Antonio Borgese and even Alberto Moravia, all of whom are perhaps seen as compromised, to varying degrees, by their relationship to naturalism or realism. Also somewhat mystifying is the editors' decision [End Page 354] to maintain the very divisions they are attempting to break down, in the sections entitled Decadentism and the Avant-garde. A third observation concerns its intended audience: this is more a volume for Italianists already familiar with these works than a real introduction to Italian modernism for non-Italianists, though the introductory essays by Valesio, Ceserani, and the editors themselves are valuable for any reader. This is...


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