The Poetics of Decadence in Fin-de-Siècle Italy

Degeneration and Regeneration in Literature and the Arts

by Stefano Evangelista (Volume editor) Valeria Giannantonio (Volume editor) Elisabetta Selmi (Volume editor)
Edited Collection VIII, 312 Pages


In the 1880s and 1890s, materialism in art was counterbalanced by attention to the subjective individual experience, expressed in the new modes inaugurated by Symbolism, Decadence and Aestheticism. In particular, Decadent artists and writers inspired the lasting name of an age fascinated by the contemplation of luxury and decay: the fin de siècle. Notions of decadence and degeneration were not limited to aesthetic experience but were regarded as sociological phenomena and attained pseudoscientific status.
This volume explores the themes of degeneration and regeneration in fin-de-siècle Italian culture, collecting together essays by recognized experts as well as younger scholars. The book begins by reflecting on the poetics of decadence, before turning its focus to significant figures of the period and their literary, critical and artistic work, providing analysis from both national and comparative perspectives. Subjects examined include the turn towards idealism of Anna Zuccari, the mysticism and ethics of Fogazzaro, Pascoli and Tolstoy, the influence of German philosophy and European symbolism on Gabriele D’Annunzio’s literary works, the art criticism of Enrico Panzacchi, and the aesthetic regeneration of divas in early Italian cinema.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • 1. Introduction: Decadence and regeneration in fin-de-siècle culture (Stefano Evangelista)
  • 2. La letteratura della crisi: riflessioni e riformulazioni nelle riviste italiane di fine secolo (Linda Garosi)
  • 3. Regenerating at the turn of the century: Ibsen’s, Tolstoy’s, and Zola’s metaphors of (re)birth in fin-de-siècle Italy (Sara Boezio)
  • 4. ‘Scrivo così come leggo, con l’anima e cercando l’anima’: Fogazzaro e la ‘mistica ebbrezza’ dell’arte (Giulia Brian)
  • 5. ‘Lo sguardo dell’anima’: appunti di lettura sul ‘Modernismo mistico’ nel ‘dialogo mancato’ tra Fogazzaro e Boine (Elisabetta Selmi)
  • 6. Panzacchi e le arti figurative (Valeria Giannantonio)
  • 7. Fuori dal realismo: Anna Zuccari e il progetto del romanzo simbolista (Patrizia Zambon)
  • 8. Taming desire: Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in Gabriele D’Annunzio’s novels (1889–1900) (Elena Borelli)
  • 9. Alcyone e il simbolismo europeo (Aldo Putignano)
  • 10. Diva decadence: Conflicted modernity from death to regeneration (Michael Subialka)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

← vi | vii →


The idea of a miscellany on The Poetics of Decadence in Fin-de-Siècle Italy was conceived by us during the SIS biennial conference held in 2015 at the Taylor Institution in Oxford. On that occasion, where I was chair of a panel with the same title, we discussed the possibility of a book that could gather together the contributions of various scholars on the issue of degeneration and regeneration in fin-de-siècle poetics. Special thanks, therefore, to Valeria Giannantonio and Elisabetta Selmi for their invaluable help in the realization of this volume. I also thank the contributors whose essays have expanded the horizons of scholarship through a comparative perspective (with other literatures and/or artistic forms) on an issue that goes beyond merely Italian literature. I would also like to extend my appreciation to the editorial staff of Peter Lang Oxford (Alessandra Anzani, Hannah Godfrey, Christabel Scaife, Emma Clarke and Laura Shanahan) for their invaluable support and for believing in this project. Finally, we are all grateful to the Department of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences of the University of Chieti-Pescara and to the Department of Linguistic and Literary Studies of the University of Padua for their contribution to this publication.

S. E. ← vii | viii →

← viii | 1 →


1   Introduction: Decadence and regeneration in fin-de-siècle culture

The late nineteenth century witnessed not only social, scientific and industrial revolutions but an upsurge of new creativity in various fields of the arts. If scientific determinism favoured the spread of Naturalism, a literary movement with the aim of depicting reality in objective terms, materialism in art between the 1880s and the 1890s was counterbalanced (thanks to the crisis of positivist values) by an attention to subjective individual experience, expressed in the new modes inaugurated by Decadence,1 Symbolism2 and Aestheticism. Decadent artists and writers, whose eccentric habits were combined with an anti-traditionalist attitude, inspired the name of an age fascinated by the contemplation of luxury and decay: the fin de siècle. In their revolt against artistic conventions, the Decadents contested positivism, rationalism, materialism and faith in progress. The term ‘decadence’, which designates both a literary movement and a historical and literary period, as noted by Alex Marray and Jason David Hall, ‘derives from the Latin decadēre, a “falling down” or “falling away”’, and the Oxford English Dictionary gives the following definition: ‘The process of falling away or ← 1 | 2 → declining (from a prior state of state of excellence, vitality, prosperity …)’.3 The Decadent writers and artists derived their visions of degeneration from the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer and the literary works of writers such as William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and Charles Baudelaire, who helped to connect the themes and images of Romanticism with those of Symbolism and Decadence. Expression of an age characterized by cosmopolitism and internationalism through its eclectic cultural productions, the ‘Decadent Republic of Letters’ was, as Matthew Potolsky writes, ‘fundamentally international in origin and orientation’. Potolsky adds the following details:

The various names artists and critics have applied to fin-de-siècle literary movements tend to be identified with a single national tradition. Aestheticism was largely a British movement; Symbolism developed in France. Decadence, by contrast, was an international movement from the beginning, and had a lasting impact around the world well after the turn of the century.4

Although Decadence has rarely been perceived as a structured and unified movement, even by contemporary critics, in 1886 the Decadent poets found their main organ of diffusion in a newspaper founded by Anatole Baju, Le Décadent. In their revolt against existing artistic conventions they entered into polemical debate with proponents of Positivism, Rationalism and Materialism. In the fin-de-siècle culture, the concepts of decadence5 ← 2 | 3 → and degeneration were not applied solely to the aesthetic experience; they began to be regarded as sociological phenomena and attained a pseudoscientific status in the medical treatises of psychiatrists and doctors such as Bénédict Augustin Morel and Cesare Lombroso, who sought to define more or less scientifically the symptoms and manifestations of the pathology of individual and collective degeneration. According to Federica Adriano, ‘l’equazione modernità-decadenza era un topos condiviso da Baudelaire, dai naturalisti e dai simbolisti, fino a ritrovarsi presso i decadenti della fin de siècle’,6 while for ‘i positivisti la nozione di decadenza si colorava di implicazioni fisiopatologiche che l’approssimavano al concetto di degenerazione, sminuendone le componenti storiche a favore di quelle biologiche: l’uomo moderno è decadente perché ha perduto l’armonia biomorfologica’.7 What worried scientists was the potential disintegration of the unity of the subject; of the human synolon perceived as a fundamental principle of positivist culture. In Italy, Turin was one of the main centres for the dissemination and consolidation of psychological studies, which were regarded with more interest after the spread of Spencer’s The Principle of Psychology (1885). During the last decades of the nineteenth century, the intersection of the comparative psychology of human races with craniology and psychiatry favoured the development of a branch of psychiatry called phrenology, to which Lombroso devoted numerous studies. His psychiatric and criminological theories were disseminated in works such as La medicina legale delle alienazioni mentali studiata col metodo sperimentale (1865)8 and ← 3 | 4 → L’uomo delinquente (1876),9 but were widely disputed in subsequent decades. In addition, the anthropologist Paolo Mantegazza popularized the term ‘neurosis’ in Italy in his book Il secolo nevrosico (1887), from which the following extract is taken:

[M]alattie del sistema nervoso, delle quali si ignora la natura intima e l’alterazione materiale, che deve senza dubbio accompagnarle. […] chiamiamo nevrosi l’ipocondria, l’isterismo, l’eretismo nervoso ed altre affezioni consimili che si confondono colla salute e con certe forme di costituzione individuale, arrivando però spesso a toccare le frontiere delle alienazioni mentali.10

Even at the end of the century, it was difficult to achieve an unambiguous definition of the term ‘neurosis’, which described a sine materia disease characterized by disorders not accompanied by organic lesions of an appreciable type. However, nerve diseases were linked with the typical Decadent taste in art, as in the book Degeneration (1892) by the Austro-Hungarian physician and sociologist Max Nordau. Dedicated to Cesare Lombroso, this book analysed the art and literature of the Decadents as a pathological threat to a well-ordered society. Nordau devoted an entire chapter to chastising Decadence and Aestheticism for encouraging pessimism, mysticism ← 4 | 5 → and sensual passions. At the beginning of the third chapter, in a section entitled ‘Diagnosis’, he showed how scientists engaged in the study of mental and neurological diseases recognized the following characteristics ‘in the fin de siècle disposition, in the tendencies of contemporary art and poetry, in the life and conduct of the men who write mystic, symbolic, and “decadent” works’.

[D]egeneration (degeneracy) and hysteria, of which the minor stage are designated as neurasthenia […] The conception of degeneracy, which, at this time, obtains throughout the science of mental disease, was first clearly grasped and formulated by Morel. In his principal work […] the following definition of what he wishes to be understood by ‘degeneracy’ [is provided]: a morbid deviation from an original type.11

For Nordau, one of the major manifestations of degeneration was unhealthy mysticism. Indeed, in the second chapter of his book, entitled ‘Mysticism’, he defined this phenomenon as ‘a state of mind in which the subject images that he perceives or divines unknown and inexplicable relations amongst phenomena, discerns in things hints at mysteries, and regards them as symbols’.12 At the same time, referring to the theories proposed by Legrain in Du dèlire chez les dégénérés (1890), Nordau observed that mystical thoughts occur frequently in states of epilepsy and hysterical delirium. Unsurprisingly, Nordau’s study, which audaciously associated all or most of the artistic and literary events of the century with forms of mental illness, caused uproar and controversy. Among the first to distance themselves from his theories was the psychologist William James, who described Degeneration as ‘a pathological book on a pathological subject’.13 However, this clamour also demonstrated the strength of the interest elicited in European scientists and readers more generally by the concept of degeneration during the 1890s. ← 5 | 6 →

In 1895, Egmont Hake and Nicholas Murray Butler wrote a reply to Max Nordau entitled Regeneration, in which they subjected Nordau’s theories to detailed investigation not primarily to refute his conclusions but to point out his national and professional bias. They focused on the contradiction between the content of Nordau’s fourth chapter, ‘Etiology’, which deals with the degeneration of the mass classes, and Nordau’s argument at the beginning of Degeneration that only the upper classes are affected by fin-de-siècle diseases. Hake concluded Regeneration with the optimistic claim that in his own nation ‘there are unmistakable signs that the period of skepticism, selfishness, and rant will end with the century’.14 Nevertheless, the idea of a rebirth became to spread in the literary context. The French intellectual Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé spoke of ‘la renaissance latine’ in a critical essay published in the Revue des deux mondes in 1895. In this essay, referring to M. Jules Lemaître’s prophecy regarding an ‘imminent réaction du génie latin’, de Vogüé claimed that a new literary upwelling had begun in Italy during the last few years of the century, redeeming Italy’s decades of absence from the international literary scene, during which Romance literature had been dominated by northern European literature. Northern European writers were responsible for most of the Romantic genius, whereas Italy had remained at a standstill since the contributions of Foscolo, Leopardi and Manzoni. According to de Vogüé, Italy’s literary resurgence could be attributed to Gabriele D’Annunzio,15 ‘nom célèbre à Paris et dans tous les cercles Lettres d’Europe’, to whom we must, at least, add the name of Antonio Fogazzaro, who was establishing himself in the international arena. Both D’Annunzio and Fogazzaro relied on the same translator, the French Georges Hérelle, to disseminate their works in France. In the second half of the century, France and especially Paris (which Pascale Casanova defines as the fin-de-siècle capital of The Republic of Letters) became a centre for the propagation of fashion and literary movements and the self-promotion of artists and writers who sought to assert ← 6 | 7 → themselves on the international scene. From France, Decadence16 began to spread to northern European countries (although the possibility of a bidirectional process should not be excluded, as in the case of England, due to the mutual influence between Decadence and Aestheticism) where the ground had already been prepared by the Romantic sensibility, as well as to ← 7 | 8 → countries more affiliated with classical culture, such as Italy. The following observations by Walter Binni on Italy’s literary tradition are relevant here:

L’Italia si trova in una posizione specialissima rispetto alla Francia, all’Inghilterra, alla Germania, in quanto manca di un diffuso e sfrenato romanticismo, di tentativi romantici che possano paragonarsi a quelli di un Novalis o di un Coleridge. Manca di uno sfogo romantico, di una tradizione d’avventura e di rivolta, di cui i nuovi poeti potessero valersi […] Mancano alla nostra letteratura romantica sensibilità del tipo […] di un Keats e magari di uno Chateaubriand.17

As a result, a new poetics,18 meant as the ‘consapevolezza critica che il poeta ha della propria natura artistica, il suo ideale estetico, il suo programma’ [critical awareness that the poet has of his artistic nature, his aesthetic ideal, his programme],19 took shape during the era of Romantic Decadence. The Italian author of La poetica del decadentismo (1936) distinguishes between the Decadence of the Romantic era (or the final stages of Romanticism) and Decadentism.20 The former consists in ‘esteriorizzamento di atteggiamenti ← 8 | 9 → e schemi romantici’, whereas the latter is a new conception of poetry ‘fondata su un preciso senso della vita’. In Italy, the transition between these two moments occurred more slowly, with overlaps between the two approaches, as in in the first novels written by Antonio Fogazzaro or in the poetic movement of scapigliatura. Here, as stated by Walter Binni, ‘una vera coscienza decadente non sorge che tardi’ [a decadent true awareness arises later]. Therefore, we can identify signs of Decadence coloured by the waning influence of Romanticism in some passages of Fogazzaro’s literary works, such as certain elegiac verses of Miranda or scenes full of mystery and morbid sensuality in Malombra and Piccolo mondo moderno. At this point in his career, Fogazzaro made a decisive turn towards Decadence, influenced by the evolution of Capuana’s narrative art from Giacinta to the Marchese di Roccaverdina. Capuana’s writings sharpened Fogazzaro’s interest in psychopathology and paranormality, as evidenced by the publication of the essay ‘Spiritismo?’ (1884), written in the form of a letter addressed to Salvatore Farina, or by the account of a séance in the editorial office in the Corriere di Napoli, which ← 9 | 10 → was published in the literary journal Aprutium. Although Fogazzaro’s interest in the paranormal, unlike Capuana’s, was never sufficiently ardent to come into direct conflict with his religious faith, it was a symptom of the peculiar climate during those years of firm reaction to positivist scientism. More specifically, as claimed by Valeria Giannantonio, ‘l’evoluzione della poetica fogazzariana si innesta[va] in un quadro nazionale di autenticazione tanto della narrativa, quanto del pensiero più generale sull’arte, che la svolta decadente arginò in forme di equilibrio tra lo spiritualismo e il realismo’ [the evolution of Fogazzaro’s poetics fitted itself into a context of national authentication both of fiction and of general thoughts on art, so that the turn towards Decadence maintained a form of balance between spiritualism and realism].21 The authenticated fiction still had much to offer in the form of the so-called ‘contemporary psychological and social novel’, as Fogazzaro had already made clear in a speech entitled ‘Dell’avvenire del romanzo in Italia’ delivered at the Olympic Academy of Vicenza in 1872, in which his preference for the novel was already evident. He became concerned with characters’ mystery, dream lives and psyches in the novel Malombra. As stated by Robert Dombrosky, ‘whereas the purpose of naturalism was to make unfamiliar realities accessible by means of art, the symbolism and decadence […] sprang from the belief that the reality of the outside world is in itself unknowable; that its objects are nothing but material signs of some hidden and mysterious essence of life’.22 Unsurprisingly, in the supplement to the Neapolitan newspaper Il Mattino on 8 July 1894, Matilde Serao published an article entitled ‘I cavalieri dello Spirito’, which, as Elena Landoni emphasizes, addresses the ‘existence of a new spiritual current in the art, that rises to stem the dryness and emptiness of the prevailing naturalism’. Serao also praised Fogazzaro’s ability ‘di riaprire le anime dei suoi ascoltatori e dei suoi lettori a un senso più alto e più nobile della vita interiore’ [to reopen the souls of his listeners and his readers to a higher ← 10 | 11 → and more noble sense of the inner life], as if responding to the public’s existing spiritual needs.23 In parallel, in France during the 1880s, a spiritualist comeback found full confirmation in the publication of ‘Le roman russe’ by Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé, which also marked the beginning of the so-called neo-Christian or mystical age. The essay highlighted the capacity of Russian writers for the ‘total comprensión intérieur de l’homme’. Only a few years later, in an 1887 article entitled ‘La banqueroute du naturalisme’ appeared in the Revue des deux mondes, Ferdinand Brunetière summarized the climate of revolt against the last novels by Émile Zola, and in particular against La terre, which had been deplored in the ‘Manifeste des Cinq’ published on 18 August 1887 in Le Figaro and blasted by Brunetière on the grounds that it contained ‘nulle conscience et nulle observation, nulle vérité, nulle exatitude’ [a total absence of morality, psychological depth or realism]. At first glance, one might think that idealism was automatically replacing materialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially in Italy; in fact, as we will see, the two cultural trends intersected within the intellectual itineraries of many writers of the time.

Although D’Annunzio did not appreciate Fogazzaro’s literary works, describing his characters as sentimentalists who ‘shed a bad scent of sanctity’, he had since his youth – like Fogazzaro – been attentive to medical and scientific research findings and innovations, seeking a link between the figure of the scientist and that of the man of letters. In the commentary (‘Per una festa della scienza’) appended to the inaugural speech given by the physiologist Moleschott at the University of Rome in 1887, D’Annunzio advised writers to follow Moleschott’s physiology lessons to find the ‘method’, and remarked that ‘ormai anche in materia di letteratura il critico ha da essere scienziato’ [nowadays the literary critic must also be a scientist]. In addition, D’Annunzio ascribed the crisis of the Naturalist novel to the inability to align the descriptions of locations with the descriptions of characters’ ← 11 | 12 → intellectual and psychological traits.24 Accordingly, within his so-called Cycle of the Rose, the abruzzese writer proposed an anthropological model based on the most recent developments in psychological science. The influence of inspirational models such as À rebours (1884) by Huysmans and the novels by Paul Bourget and the de Goncourt brothers, whose protagonists were refined and neurotic aesthetes, is visible from the first novel in the series, Il piacere [The Child of Pleasure] (1889), which was drafted by D’Annunzio while he was a guest at Francesco Michetti’s ‘Convent’. The protagonist, Andrea Sperelli, is the typical dandy of Umbertine Rome, ‘edonista e superficiale, condannato all’impotenza creatrice – nonostante il suo mistico culto della Bellezza – dalla conformazione stessa del suo carattere’ [hedonistic and shallow, condemned to creative impotence – despite his mystic cult of beauty – by the same conformity of his character]. In later novels, D’Annunzio developed his idea of a superman, particularly in Le vergini delle rocce [The Virgins of the Rocks] (1895), the first and only novel of the anticipated but never completed Cycle of the Lily, in which a new poetics, anti-realistic and dreamlike, is experienced; and in Il fuoco [The Flame] (1900), published by Treves, which provides something of an artistic manifesto of the superman. The protagonist of Le vergini delle rocce is Claudio Cantelmo, an aristocrat and musician guided in his actions by the Nietzschean ideal of redemption of a few ‘superior men’. In pursuit of this redemption, Claudio chooses one of three young noblewomen to give birth to a son who embodies the ‘ideal Latin type’, a superman capable of controlling the masses. Il fuoco, however, the first novel in what was to be the Cycle of Melograno, is full of autobiographical allusions, beginning with the love affair between Stelio Effrena and the actress Foscarina, which ← 12 | 13 → echoes the real-life relationship between D’Annunzio and Eleonora Duse. This novel of ideas was based on the ideal of an aesthetic revival of Greek tragedy, conceived as a total work. Through his new writerly art, Stelio would communicate to the masses a regeneration of the glorious Latin race.

D’Annunzio’s superman, Fogazzaro’s saint and Pascoli’s child were different expressions of the crisis of bourgeois and positivist values in fin-de-siècle Italian culture, and particularly of the political and cultural crisis of the liberal world that characterized the Risorgimento season, and it’s quite obvious that, if on the one hand, D’Annunzio’s ideology was imbued with pagan mythology (a byzantinism blended with the superomistic dream of a Latin rebirth), on the other hand Fogazzaro and Pascoli were more concerned with mystical and/or ethical issues. As claimed by Linda Garosi in her chapter ‘La letteratura della crisi: riflessioni e riformulazioni nelle riviste italiane di fine secolo’, the period between the last decades of the nineteenth century and the dawn of the following century was a transitional cultural phase with its own artistic values, marked by the overcoming of Positivism through spiritualist and mystical reactions. During these years, under the influence of a new kind of evolutionism, diagnoses were made of a present in decline, together with the emergence of a new form of art. Garosi analyses the texture of the ideological and literary discourse in Italy during the Humbertinian Age, focusing on what Gino Tellini describes as a ‘cultura della crisi’ [culture of crisis]. She considers some of the writings published in the newspapers of the period, chosen for their evidentiary value and for their inclusion of representative elements of the historical framework of fin-de-siècle Italian culture, such as social changes and artistic experimentation directed towards the renewal of national letters. The scene is set in Rome, the capital of the new Kingdom of Italy. Here, new cultural forces and publishing houses led the regeneration of Italian culture into modernity. A significant contribution was made by the birth of literary journalism, which provided a place for intellectual discussion of the new Italy (and its corollaries: the new Italian art and the new Italian language) and published important reviews of foreign novelties. Within a few years, many newspapers had been founded in the cities of the new Italy, such as Naples, Rome, Palermo, Milan, Turin and Bologna, which become powerful centres of literary journalism. However, in the late second and early ← 13 | 14 → third decades after unification, the new capital of the Kingdom emerged as the avant-garde centre of the nascent modern publishing industry. Here, two of the fin de siècle’s most important editorial figures established their cultural business: Ferdinando Martini and Angelo Sommaruga. The former created a foundation for the development of literary journalism with the publication of the first literary supplement, Fanfulla della domenica, founded in July 1879. The purpose and structure of the magazine, its combination of tradition and innovation and the choice of amateur journalists and prestigious authors as contributors all supported the magazine’s assigned role in stimulating a literary renewal and fostering the country’s cultural unification. The aim of the journal was to disseminate Italian and foreign news in line with the ideal of de-provincialization, which, according to de Sanctis, was expected to hold back the ‘decay of ages’. Rome’s second major editorial figure, Sommaruga, founded the combative and polemical Cronaca Bizantina in 1881. The new literary journal was eclectic in content and elegant in appearance. The polemical attitude of Cronaca Bizantina was based on the consciousness of a crisis and fed anxiety concerning the perceived imminence of a radical renewal. For Giulio Salvadori, however, the ‘Byzantine’ attribution described a movement that – although born in the shadow of Carducci – took a barren path, unable to engage in the programmatic renewal controversially announced by the magazine. The later Roman magazine Convito, founded by Adolfo De Bosis in 1895, was most representative of the character of Italian Decadence, coinciding with the fin-de-siècle Aestheticism of Gabriele D’Annunzio. The evolution of D’Annunzio’s poetics reflected the programmatic orientation of the second series of Cronaca Bizantina (directed by D’Annunzio himself). This programme was inspired by the Aestheticism of Angelo Conti, and among its contributors were old- and new-generation writers (Scarfoglio, Nencioni and Panzacchi), art critics (Venturi and Angeli) and illustrators (Sartorio, Michetti, Cellini and Colemann).

The other contributions to the current volume focus on the protagonists of this age and analyse their literary, critical and artistic productions from a national or comparative perspective. In ‘Regenerating at the turn of the century: Ibsen’s, Tolstoy’s, and Zola’s metaphors of (re)birth in fin-de-siècle Italy’, Sara Boezio explains that whereas the motif of death in literary ← 14 | 15 → works of the late nineteenth century has been investigated at length, its opposite, rebirth, has been largely overlooked. Her chapter compares several European works on this topic and scrutinizes their reception within Italian culture. She focuses on a series of literary works that illustrate a faith in progress and a positive view of the future: the public speech L’Èra nuova by the Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli, the play When We Dead Awaken by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, the novel Resurrection by the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy and the novel Fécondité by the French novelist Émile Zola. This optimism was shared by the Italian writer Fogazzaro. In the essay collection Asciensioni umane (1899) in particular, Fogazzaro sought to reconcile evolutionism and creationism, science and faith, suggesting that humankind can elevate itself from brutality along an ascensional path. Boezio also examines the antithesis between these ideas of rebirth and progress and the motif of decadence peculiar to fin-de-siècle culture. If the end of the nineteenth century was regarded by intellectuals with apocalyptical fear, the beginning of the twentieth century was welcomed as the dawn of a new age of human redemption.

The opposition between Fogazzaro’s poetics and the Byzantine style of the aesthetes is central to Giulia Brian’s chapter ‘“Scrivo così come leggo, con l’anima e cercando l’anima”: Fogazzaro e la “mistica ebbrezza” dell’arte’. Quoting a letter sent by Enrico Morselli to Fogazzaro, Brian identifies two reactions to the crisis of nineteenth-century certainties: that of the aesthete, whose greatest exponent was D’Annunzio; and that of Fogazzaro, an intellectual figure who sought to use poetics to overcome the problem of fracture between art and philosophy, art and science. In response to the fin-de-siècle crisis, Fogazzaro explored the potential of human souls, considering evolutionism, occultism and science to be valid means of studying the irrationality of the human psyche. In the appendix, Brian transcribes an interview granted by Fogazzaro to Luigi Ambrosini, a young journalist of La stampa, which reveals Fogazzaro’s attitude towards mysticism and his experimentation with non-verbal forms of communication. Brian cleverly recognizes the importance of silence in conveying messages to characters as well as to the reader, noting that in the novel The Saint, silence allows characters to listen to the voices of nature and to the innermost feelings emerging in their souls, and ultimately to achieve contact with ← 15 | 16 → God. Especially in the last novels, communication occurs only through the characters’ unspoken words, and the word ‘silence’, variously declined, repeatedly recurs. As a result, this ‘scrittura dell’anima’ [writing of the soul], can rightly be called ‘scrittura del silezio’ [writing of silence]. The interview is followed by two unpublished letters sent by Maud MacCarthy to the Italian writer, reproaching him for having, in his novel, improperly defined Madame Blavatsky as a ‘spirit’ who had revealed some information on the Santo to a spiritualist (the details of spiritualism, MacCarthy argued in her letter, had nothing to do with Theosophy). MacCarthy also rebuked Fogazzaro for having satirized the ‘vecchia nobildonna inglese, famosa per la sua ricchezza, per le sue toilettes bizzarre, per il suo misticismo teosofico e cristiano’ [old English noblewoman, famous for her wealth, for her bizarre toilets, for her theosophical and Christian mysticism], who, at the end of the fifth chapter of the novel, speaks to Benedetto. Fogazzaro intentionally made this theosophist an object of mockery because, as he stated in a letter to the bishop of Cremona, Geremia Bonomelli, ‘teosofia e santità cristiana non possono andare insieme’ [Theosophy and Christian holiness cannot go together].

In her chapter, ‘“Lo sguardo dell’anima”: appunti di lettura sul “Modernismo mistico” nel “dialogo mancato” tra Fogazzaro e Boine’, Elisabetta Selmi analyses two important figures of modern mysticism: Antonio Fogazzaro and Giovanni Boine. In the first part of the chapter the author explains the evolution of Boine’s mystical and philosophical thought, starting with his talk L’Esperienza religiosa (1911) published in L’Anima, a new magazine directed by Papini and Amendola. The article is an account of his restless theoretical and existential wandering towards that ‘ambiguo Dio’ of modern age. Boine’s aim was to criticize the drift of modernity (both the confusing Modernism and the phariseism of Ultramontanism), as well as the philosophical mainstream which had unjustly attributed to God the shape of an Hegelian absolute spirit. Only some years before, in 1900, Antonio Fogazzaro explored, in a conference, the obscure latencies of the creative mind in relation to the unconscious states of the psyche. The author, by referring to the unconscious, began to assimilate it to another ‘religione dell’anima’ in which ‘avvengono I contatti mistici con Dio’. In The Saint, Fogazzaro closed his novel with the silence of a mystical waiting. ← 16 | 17 → After the disillusionment of Modernist hopes, the last literary works prefigured some of the most original developments of the future twentieth-century mysticism.

In a chapter entitled ‘Panzacchi e le arti figurative’, Valeria Giannantonio offers a framework for Panzacchi’s most general aesthetic conceptions of art and literature through examination of his essays on Greek-Roman and Renaissance art. At a conference held in Florence entitled ‘Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519)’, Panzacchi, influenced by fin-de-siècle Leonardism, described the great Italian genius as the quintessential Renaissance man who knew how to blend art with science and thus represented an age of pictorial renewal, faithful to the dictates of nature. Like da Vinci, Panzacchi interpreted art as ‘divine symmetry’; that is, as an interpenetration of the humanization and naturalization of the idea and the spiritual elevation of materiality. In Panzacchi’s writing, the revitalization of the ancient in the modern was influenced by Winckelmann’s neoclassicism but mediated by de Sanctis’s aestheticism, merging the ideal with the real. Panzacchi’s thoughts moved from Aestheticism and historical and ideological instances within a balance of form that did not exclude content but was understood to be refined and purified at the sublime heights of art. Previously Professor of Criticism and History of Art at the Academy of Fine Arts, Panzacchi became Professor of History of Aesthetics and Art History at the University of Bologna in 1895. Unlike D’Annunzio and Pascoli, he certainly never reached a mystical and irrational characterization of art, but his conception of harmony between ideal and real, which led him to appreciate Greek art and that of da Vinci, led to a cult of art not abstractly exalted but interpreted in its interaction with nature and with the real. Panzacchi’s identification of art with the divine departed from primitive Nietzschean interpretations of Greek tragedy and revealed, despite the negative effects of modern scepticism, a more balanced view of the aesthetic credo, reconciling beauty with nature. His encounter with Nietzschean philosophy was more than purely aesthetic: it was affiliated with the doctrine of the eternal return, with concepts of the present and the past fed by the cult of the classical period and the Renaissance. Unlike Winckelmann in his account of ancient art, Panzacchi indulged the idea of eternal return as part of ‘the eternal flow of ← 17 | 18 → life and its two basic components, namely the ideal and the real’. Adherence to late Romantic naturalism prevented Panzacchi from agreeing in full with Winckelmann’s and Pater’s theories, beyond aesthetic or hedonistic formalism. In addition, his moralism prevented him from yearning for sensual art; he favoured a figurative rather than a sensual naturalism. Blending Carducci’s antihistoricism with a purely Romantic sense of the ruins, his critical work appears even more significant if viewed within the historical context of the last decades of the nineteenth century in Italy, which was crosscut by various currents of thought but focused on the ‘renaissance latine’ of contemporary artistic production.

The chapter ‘Fuori dal realismo. Anna Zuccari e il progetto del romanzo simbolista’ by Patrizia Zambon deals with Neera’s novels and their metamorphosis from well-established realism in Teresa (1886) to the vague, allegorical, imaginative and sometimes even openly dream-channelled Nel sogno (1893). In her first literary productions, Teresa, L’indomani (1889) and the rhetorical Lydia (1887), Anna Zuccari borrowed from northern Italian realism, seeking to build a Cycle of the Young Woman similar to Giovanni Verga’s Ciclo dei Vinti. But if the women, in her novels, seem to want to escape preconceived social roles to find their own identities, critics have noted the contrast between this trajectory and the avowedly anti-feminist theoretical positions of Neera’s novels, as is clear in her essay ‘Le idee di una donna’ (1904). To a certain extent, Anna Zuccari attempted to create a Symbolist novel: yet it constitutes a terminological contradiction, as in its proper sense the great story of symbolism in decadent European literature belongs to poetry, the only field in which the term takes its full meaning. However, Zambon suggests that the power of narrative belonged to figurative and symbolistic painting of the last years of the century; and in Milan (and beyond), Anna Zuccari frequented the pictorial environment of Segantini, Victor Grubicy de Dragon and Previati. To accompany the first edition of Nel sogno, Giovanni Segantini created an original design (which is in the Neera archive).

In her chapter ‘Taming desire: Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in Gabriele D’Annunzio’s novels (1888–1900)’, Elena Borelli reads D’Annunzio’s novelistic productions from 1889 to 1900, such as Il piacere [The Child of Pleasure] (1889), L’innocente [The Intruder] (1892), Il trionfo della morte [The Triumph ← 18 | 19 → of Death] (1894) and Il fuoco [The Flame] (1900), as a series of parables on desire. Borelli investigates the evolution of the male protagonists and shows how they variously embody the failure of the Schopenhauerean approach to the problem of desire – sublimation into art – and embrace Nietzsche’s glorification of desire. Yet neither of these philosophies offers a solution to the problem of male instinct. If Schopenhauer’s doctrine of redemption through aesthetic contemplation provides only temporary satisfaction, the glorification of desire proclaimed by Nietzsche in The Will to Power (read by D’Annunzio at the beginning of the twentieth century) cannot completely eliminate the obscure and primitive nature of desire. The solution offered in one of D’Annunzio’s last novels, The Flame, is to transfer the tremendous effects of desire to the female character, Foscarina, who from a mere object becomes a desiring subject.

The relationship between Alcyone, the third book of Laudi del cielo, del mare, della terra e degli eroi, and European Symbolism is central to Aldo Putignano’s chapter, entitled ‘Alcyone e il simbolismo europeo’. In this collection of poems, D’Annunzio blended old and new, using a symbolic language to gather the fragments of an iconography of Decadent origin. The structure of the book is perfectly organized: after the introductory poems, the lyrical compositions are divided into five sections, each opened by a lyric with a Latin title followed by a dithyramb, the true cornerstone of the poetic structure. The dithyrambs are intended to mark seasonal changes and to introduce the myths that form the real central themes of the entire D’Annunzio poem. For instance, the dithyrambs of ‘Glauco’ and ‘Icarus’ (II and IV) constitute two moments on an ideal path of transformation and metamorphosis that deliberately defies the laws of time and space. The male protagonist is transformed into the sea god Glaucus and returns to human form to immerse himself in the history of man. However, his wanderings are not destined to last forever; rather, they are contained within the short ‘truce’ that art and poetry allow to man as warm relief for his finiteness. This is merely an illusory poetic transformation: only art can save the individual. However, the influence in Alcyone is not only Ovidian: the soft colours of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings are consistent with those used by D’Annunzio in these early poems. The imprint of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, author of the portraits of pale women that fascinated Decadent ← 19 | 20 → culture, is visible in the lyric ‘Beatitudine’, at the beginning of Eleonora’s metamorphic path.


VIII, 312
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (January)
Decadence fin de siècle Italy Decadentism and aestheticism
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2018. VIII, 312 pp.

Biographical notes

Stefano Evangelista (Volume editor) Valeria Giannantonio (Volume editor) Elisabetta Selmi (Volume editor)

Stefano Evangelista has completed a PhD in Italian literature at Durham University, where he is also a postgraduate member of the Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies. He has been a visiting fellow in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University and a visiting PhD student at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa. Valeria Giannantonio is Associate Professor of Italian Literature at the Università degli Studi «G. D’Annunzio» Chieti – Pescara. Her research interests include early modern Italian literature and the literary work of Gabriele D’Annunzio, Ignazio Silone and the crepuscular poets. She is member of the editorial boards of Critica letteraria, Studi medievali e moderni and Studium. Elisabetta Selmi is Associate Professor of Italian Literature and Medieval and Renaissance Theatre in the Dipartimento di Studi Linguistici e Letterari at the University of Padua. Her research interests focus on Renaissance and early modern literature and theatre, nineteenth-century studies, classical poetics and religious literature.


Title: The Poetics of Decadence in Fin-de-Siècle Italy
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322 pages