The Eternal City in Writing
By Marlena Giannone
Oh Rome! my country! city of the soul!Lord Byron
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’–that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. – Ode to a Grecian Urn, John Keats
I’ve always loved literature. An avid reader since I was a child, I have come to know many authors both old and new. My passion for writing also started early on and hasn’t stopped since. Italy has been a place for many literary figures to emerge and others to gain inspiration from, especially in the city of Rome.
On one of the first days of class Julia described to us this concept of “lasagna” in Rome, how the city is built upon layers and layers of history. The Spanish Steps are a good representation of layers since on them you can see three different cultures coming together. They are Spanish, but located in the city of Rome, and at the top there is a French church (plus, fun fact, I’m Hispanic and Italian so two out of the three cultures represented).
Rome is a beautiful city on the outside but is also filled with layers of a darker past. In Don Carlo’s class we’ve seen it portrayed in a plethora of ways, a city of romance, love even fairytale-like, and as a city of corruption with people just barely getting by. It’s a city that, like its inhabitants, often puts on a “bella figura” so that people believe it is as beautiful as it looks. This part illusion, part reality has worked as for centuries many famous writers have come through, or even lived there, thriving off of the aura and inspiration it gives them. It is “The Eternal City,” living on through its own writers and through its portrayal from writers outside of Italy.
Italian literary history wouldn’t be complete without Dante Alighieri. Dante was a famous Italian poet and philosopher, heavily influenced by Aristotle, who was an ancient Greek philosopher. Some ancient Roman traditions and architecture were borrowed from the Greeks. In many monuments, or just ancient ruins in general, you can see three layers, the Egyptian, the Roman/Pagan, and finally Christian. The layers are a part of Rome’s cultural history, but also add to the aesthetic which is important for reasons I will discuss later. Dante wrote about man’s place in this world. Though Dante himself wasn’t extremely religious, he relied a lot on the cosmos and believed that souls were placed into categories based on astrological principles of the universe. He managed to give prestige and prominence to the Florentine dialect of Italy and he, along with other famous writers of his time, led it to become the national language. He was exiled from Florence at a young age, but this was after he published some of his first works, all of which were inspired by the woman he was in love with, Beatrice.
His most famous work was The Divine Comedy, and more specifically, the Inferno (the first section of The Divine Comedy) which was completed in 1314. It is an epic poem composed of 100 cantos and structured in three line stanzas called “terza.” The first line of each stanza rhymes with the third and the middle one is the first rhyme for the next stanza, so: aba, bcb, cdc, and so on (“History of Italian Literature”). In fact, the number three is repeated in various forms throughout the Comedy as it is a holy number (represented in the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit). In The Divine Comedy, Dante goes through the “three tiers of Christian afterlife” hell, purgatory, and heaven (“Dante”). Another Roman poet, Virgil, guides Dante through hell and purgatory. The Inferno is the most well-known section of The Divine Comedy due to its brutal and detailed descriptions of hell. There are nine circles of hell (and equally nine circles of heaven) that are reserved for those who commit specific sins. In the ninth circle, Satan is chewing on the three greatest treacherers in history: Judas, Cassius, and Brutus. Next, he is taken through purgatory and its seven terraces, each connected to one of the seven deadly sins (“History of Italian Literature”). Finally, Dante is led into Paradise by Beatrice, his lover, and meets God. “The journey ends here with true heroic and spiritual fulfilment” (“Dante”).
Dante’s legacy lives on, especially after another famous Italian writer, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a biography of him in 1373. In the Western part of the world, T.S. Elliot was greatly influenced by Dante. He claimed that Dante belongs in a “class with only one other poet of the modern world, Shakespeare, saying that they ‘divide the modern world between them. There is no third,’” and that pretty much sums up how influential Dante was for his time (“Dante”).
Literary movements, or just novels in general, tell more than the story on paper, they tell the story of the times. Italy has had many notable literary figures that do just that. One was Alessandro Manzoni who wrote The Betrothed in 1827. It was seen as a “patriotic symbol of Italian unification,” or the Risorgimento, and helped with the unification of Italy (Lombardi). Il Vittoriano was a monument built to represent that unification and is one of the biggest monuments in Rome. Italo Calvino was another famous author. One of his most famous novels is Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler).
It is a story about the reader of the book, with several different beginnings provided. He wanted to bridge spoken communication with written and was infatuated with the idea that everyone had a story to tell. Another famous author was Umberto Eco, best known for his book Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose). He focused on “the meaning and interpretation of communication.” These are just some of the other influential Italian writers of the times that have come up in class or otherwise. Just hearing about their works has helped me better understand the times of their writing and what people’s mindsets were like.
European education of literature is taught differently than American literature. Students are able, and often sent, to visit the places some of these writings took place in. Italy being so rich in history throughout all of its regions (as we saw by visiting two other regions besides Rome), and closer to each other than the United States, changes the effects is has on people. Visiting the museums and monuments in real life, even after briefly discussing them in class, made the experience so much richer and meaningful than learning about any sort of American history. Europeans are able to consume their culture differently than us because their history still exists. It’s one of the reasons why so many writers came to Italy for long visits or even to stay and work.
There is no way to talk about every famous poet or novelist in Italian history in this short blog, nor is there enough room to mention how many famous writers were inspired by Rome, so I will just mention one briefly and a few others in passing. In a poetry class I took at CSU, my professor was captivated with John Keats, and hence, some of that captivation rubbed off on me. I know hardly anything about him except that he was a famous poet of his time, and I’ve only read a few of his poems. When we walked over to the Spanish Steps on a weekend tour, Julia pointed out the place where John Keats sat and wrote some of his most famous works. I was awestruck. There is an entire museum dedicated to the Romantics right there next to the Spanish Steps, and I bet a lot of people don’t even realize it.
The area around the Spanish Steps, especially during the 19th century, became known as the “er ghetto de l’inglese” (The English Quarter or Ghetto). Famous authors from all over the world like George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Henry James, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hans Christian Anderson, Nickolai Gogol, and Stendhal rented or lived in the apartments (Paulen). They sat and drank their espresso down the street at Antico Caffè Greco, yet another site that we visited. To be able to even be near a place like those is monumental. I already loved the Spanish Steps, but I love them even more now knowing all the literary history surrounding them.
Keats was part of the Romantics, many of whom came to Rome. His reason for coming was the Italian “feeling.” Which feeling he was referring to, I do not know exactly. Maybe it’s the feeling of “allegria,” the “delight in living” and the “joy of being in sunshine and company.” Keats suffered from tuberculosis and lived in sickness for much of his time there, but there were still sunny walks through the parks when he was well. That’s another thing about Rome. The city is bursting with life all the time everywhere. There are also parks and lots of greenery down many streets. On my walk to the hospital the other day (a story for another time and blog), I cut through a beautiful park. Even in poor health, I was happy. The green contrasted with the ancient ruins, old buildings and monuments, and the major city adds to the “aesthetic luxury” of Rome, and all of Italy. Nothing beats wandering through the streets in the middle of the night and coming across the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, or any other famous site.
We literally walk along history every day in Rome. As I have already mentioned, it’s one of the reasons writers stay for long visits. I too came to Rome hoping I’d leave with some beautiful poems and more than a few stories to tell.
Virgil once described Rome as “an empire without end,” and even though the empire has fallen, people still call it “the eternal city.” It is truly eternal in that there is so much it has to offer, with different meanings for every person. The people who live here see Italy in a different light than others. They see beneath the surface of each layer and hence produce different writings. Either way, the city, and the country, has led to the production of great literary masterpieces. Italy is ubiquitous and never ending in many ways, especially in its literature and literary influence, and my memories from here will be too.
About the Author
Marlena Lucia Giannone was born and raised in Thornton, Colorado. She is currently studying Mathematics with minors in Creative Writing and Computer Science. Though she has no idea what she’s going to do with her major, she knows whatever it is will be something she’s passionate about, like writing, traveling, and math. From the moment she traveled alone for the first time she knew it was something she wanted to do as often as possible which is part of why her heart lead her to Rome. When she isn’t solving complex math equations or writing blog posts, Marlena enjoys running and is a part of the CSU Striders running club (they meet at 5:15 outside the rec). She also loves the outdoors and exploring all that the world has to offer.
Words cannot express how grateful she is for this opportunity to visit another country and learn all about its culture, especially one that is a part of her roots. She wants to thank her family and friends for their constant love and support and everyone on this trip who made it even more amazing than she expected it to be. She will have plenty to write about; and she hopes to return to Rome someday to follow in her literary inspirations’ footsteps.
“Dante.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 12 Apr. 2019, http://www.biography.com/writer/dante.
“History of Italian Literature.” HISTORY OF ITALIAN LITERATURE, http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?groupid=2264&HistoryID=ac89>rack=pthc.
Lombardi, Esther. “5 Famous Classic Italian Writers Every Book Lover Should Know.” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 17 Mar. 2019, http://www.thoughtco.com/classic-italian-writers-4132346.
Paulen, Amber Ruth. “Rome and Her Expat Writers.” Italy Travel Guide, http://www.italylogue.com/about-italy/rome-and-her-expat-writers/.
The Divine Comedy- https://images.app.goo.gl/73goYSZLkKcEkz587
The Divine Comedy with Dante- https://images.app.goo.gl/MqR34oCVhpyjxZyM7
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler-https://images.app.goo.gl/4L8LZbDApYWMBqdV6
Audrey Hepburn- https://images.app.goo.gl/XsSVFcWHKptjwisCA