Italian literature: what it is, history, literary development, characteristics, authors and more


What is Italian literature?

We call Italian literature to all literary production that has been developed in Italian language and by Italian writers inside or outside the country, but especially includes works developed in times prior to the creation or constitution of the state. In particular, Italian literature is one of the most important in world literature, since its participation and invention in literary currents and movements will be the source of important changes in world literature.

On the other hand, it should also be considered that Italian literature also includes an important religious content, especially because during the 13th century a series of sermons that had been preserved in the Italian language and that had been written by many of its members increased and began to be observed. This will be seen mainly in poetry, so that the religious movement will bring with it a movement in the literature of this area, emphasizing religious drama.

History and origin of literature in Italy 

The Italian territory was also permeated by Latin, however from the 13th century, with the Sicilian school, writers begin to write in the Italian language. Latin was widely used for the writing of all kinds of texts, including religious poems, historical poems, heroic legends, chronicles, among others. In addition to Latin, many other writers also wrote in French or in the language of Provence, in France, thus taking other languages for their compositions.

What is Italian literature

With the passage of time, new languages and dialects began to appear that had Latin roots but with nuances of the area, which generated the birth of a hybrid language that included the previous Latin with the emerging Romance language. At the same time, a poetic movement appeared in the Italian peninsula that implemented rhythms and that would be the first format in which the vernacular Italian language appeared. However, it was not until the middle of the same century that in Sicily, for the first time, Italian was written in what was considered standard Italian.

From this moment on, many more texts began to be written, varying in content, so that not only literary works were written, but also political and jurisdictional treatises in the oldest universities of the continent. Thus, after that, the use of Italian appeared in poetry, prose and in the most important works, such as “The Divine Comedy” written by Dante Alighieri.

Development of literature in Italy

Let us now look at the development of the first literary manifestations in Italy:


Prose is considered to be one of the most productive fields of Italian literature, dating back to 1231. At first they were short notices, so the first prose manifestations were not exactly literary. However, in the middle of the 13th century, a man known as Aldobrando wrote a book about the Countess of Provence, Beatrice of Savoy, entitled “Le Régime du corps”. Subsequently, another series of works began to be known, including authors such as Martino da Canale, Rustichello of Pisa, Brunetto Latini, among others.

Later, with the advances of previous writers, they began to produce tales and fables that contained themes related to traditions from Greece and Asia, as well as stories from antiquity, medieval times, legends with biblical content, stories from local Italy, mythologies, among others. This subgenre will also be permeated by the expression of feelings guided by the inspiration of the poet.

The Commedia dell’Arte 

Also known as the Italian Commedia dell’arte, it was a type of traveling theater of popular character that began in the 16th century and mixed a great variety of elements, such as carnival traditions, Renaissance literary theater, acrobatic skills, mime, among others. The plot of his plays was based on the adventures of different characters according to the inclination of the play, which were determined according to their social role, position, work, etc.

Among the most important characters, we find the servants or zanni, comprising archetypes such as the Harlequin and his partner, Colombina, there is also the clumsy represented by Polichinela or Truffaldino, Brighella, the cunning, the lovers, characters with power such as the Captain, the Dottore and the Pantaleon, who are always mocked, among others. It is known that many of these characters were used by great writers, such as Shakespeare, Moliére and Lope de Vega.

Characteristics of Italian literature

Characteristics of Italian literature

Among the main distinctive features of the literature developed in this territory, we find the following:

Content: especially during the emergence and advancement of Italian literature, the most frequent themes will be all those related to the exploits of heroes of classical or ancient times.

Foreign influence: unlike other areas of the world, Italy did not have ancient legends, satires, epic poems and other literary antecedents on which it could base its own production, which is why, as we saw in the content, it will take themes coming from abroad to start its literary creations. In this way, ancient and foreign works become a source of inspiration for the first writers, especially.

Language: as we mentioned, one of the most relevant aspects of Italian literature has to do directly with the language, since the Italian language comes directly from Latin, being considered a continuation adopted by speakers of the peninsula and that was recognized after the fall of the Roman Empire, including French or Provençal. Some consider that it was a mixture with the classical language of Rome, but the truth is that it was also influenced by the invasions of the Saracens with Arabic words in Sicily.

Revolutionary thought: during the Renaissance, Italy became the seat of revolutionary thoughts, becoming one of the main referents of the time that will give rise to the recognition of important authors that will be key to the literary development of posterity, among which are Machiavelli, Umberto Eco, among other thinkers who transform thought.

Most important works and authors 

Among the most important and representative authors of Italian literature are Dante Alighieri, one of the most renowned poets with his work “The Divine Comedy”, Francesco Tetrarch, Niccolo Machiavelli, philosopher, politician and writer, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco with works such as “The Name of the Rose”, “Foucault’s Pendulum”, “Kafkaesque Parable” and “The Island of the Day Before”, among others. There is also the “Decameron” by Giovanni Boccaccio, “Canzoniere” by Francesco Petrarca, “The Courtier” by Balthasar Castiglione, “Morgante” by Luigi Pulci, “Orlando in Love” by Matteo Maria Bolardo, “The Liar” by Carlo Goldoni.

Other authors are: Cesare Pavese, Elsa Morante, Natalia Ginzburg, Eugenio Montale, Giovanni Pascoli, Giacomo Leopardi, Ugo Foscolo, Alberto Moravia, among others.

To learn more about the development of literature in other regions and areas of the world, as well as its evolution, genres, history by periods and more, don’t forget to check out our section dedicated to this type of art, where you will find a wealth of information.