According to travelationary, the Italian literature of the new century inherits from the previous two problems that will influence its development: the absence of a prose of invention comparable to that of the great English or French eighteenth-century novels and the persistence of a poetic language too tied to the tradition of lyric poetry. As for invented prose, the now inevitable confrontation with the main genre of modernity (the novel) cannot make use of either a common language or a habit of observing and enhancing reality, regardless from the anomalous model constituted by Goldonian comedies. We must not forget that, of the masterpieces of our eighteenth-century fiction, not surprisingly all attributable to the autobiographical genre, those of Goldoni himself and of G. Casanova are written in French, while that of Alfieri is identified with a personal idiosyncrasy and with a brilliant irregularity that excludes any revival, at least in the short term. As for poetry, the experience of neoclassicism postpones any radical revision of the lyrical language. The unprecedented cultural and intellectual tension that sustains literary activity throughout Europe, founded in the philosophical terms of German Idealism, remains unexpressed in Italy, and not only in comparison with the most characteristic and sensational manifestations of the great romantic literature.
Precisely due to the peculiarity of this situation, which involves only a partial and delayed acceptance of the new European requests, it is possible to assign a precise initial date to Italian romantic literature, 1816, when an article by Madame de Staël in the first issue of the Italian Library, which exhorts Italians to study foreign literatures, starts the controversy during which various potentially innovative and not just literary trends acquire in the word romantic a banner around which to rally. It is G. Berchet who in the same year provided, in his half-serious Letter of Grisostomo, to specify the needs of the new poetic direction. Despite the scarce originality of Berchet’s aesthetic thought (less aggressive, for example, than that of one of his battle mates, L. di Breme), the clarity and simplicity of his polemical position mean that the Letter gives the floor. order, immediately collected by a large group of Lombard and Piedmontese writers.
From Milan, its first center, Romanticism soon spreads everywhere. The objective of that first battle is the rejection of every imitation, of every pre-established and traditional rule, and in particular of the most rooted custom, the use of mythology; the poet must draw his poetry only from himself, and must allocate it not only to writers, but to the ‘people’; therefore, poetry must respond to current ideas, feelings, needs and, to be immediately understandable, must renounce excessive literary and linguistic refinement. Unlike their Nordic predecessors, who focus on the mystical, strictly individual nature of poetry, the Italian romantics start from the principles of eighteenth-century reasonableness. Wanting to reconcile ancient and modern (and Conciliatore their newspaper is called), they endeavor to show that even the classical poets had transgressed the rules of their times, and that their greatness did not consist in having observed them anyway. Mythology was justified in the Greek and Latin poets, because those beliefs were spiritually alive in them. What must be rejected is imitation, not the study of the classics. The recipients of the poem are not the overly civilized, but neither the savages or the ignorant: that is, the ‘people’ we are talking about is essentially nothing other than the bourgeoisie, the ‘third state’.
An antinomy is inherent in the very premises of Romanticism: on the one hand, the conception of poetry as an authentic and irreducibly individual expression; on the other hand, its destination to the people, whose needs it must interpret. Our first romantics are already aware of the contrast; unlike foreigners, if they cannot reconcile the two duties, they obey the civil imperative, heirs as they are of the Illuminists of the Café and Parini. They want to educate, and above all with the aim of forming a conscience of free men in their contemporaries. This does not at all legitimize the widespread equation between Romanticism and the Risorgimento, since liberals and patriots are also many of those who proclaim themselves classicists (eg P. Giordani), and indeed at first the romantics seem less patriotic than the classicists, as they disown the literary supremacy of the Italians. For many reasons, moreover, romantics tend, with a few rare exceptions and with different nuances of thought, towards the ideals of independence.