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Contemporary Italian Poetry



October 1, 2004
In this overview of modern Italian poetry, Franco Buffoni distinguishes six major different directions: Post Neo-avant-garde; Neo-Orphic and/or Neo-Hermetic; Civil Poetry; Mannerisms; Heirs of the Lombard line; and Dialect Poetry.

During the 1990s many critics manifested the growing tendency, already present in the previous decade, to overturn the idea that the hermetic-avant-gardist line was at the centre of 20th century Italian poetry, with the absolute aesthetic pre-eminence of Giuseppe Ungaretti and Eugenio Montale.

Umberto Saba is now unanimously considered to be on the same level as Montale and to some critics he is even superior. Poets like Camillo Sbarbaro, Delio Tessa, and Clemente Rebora are being re-evaluated more and more, naturally to the detriment of Montale. In the meantime, Ungaretti is discussed less and less, while critics prefer to keep silent on Quasimodo, despite his Nobel prize.

The unequivocal affirmations of critics like Luigi Baldacci and Cesare Garboli – who respectively depict Carlo Betocchi and Sandro Penna as the greatest Italian poets of the 20th century (always naturally to the detriment of Montale) – allow us to close the dispute between Novecento and Anti-Novecento. This controversy pitted the group of major poets (with Ungaretti, Montale, the hermetics, and Luzi) against the ex-minor group of the Anti-Novecento tradition (with Palazzeschi, Govoni, Saba, Diego Valeri, Penna, and Caproni.) The two groups are at this point considered to be equally important.

A critical reassessment of such magnitude could not help but be reflected in the stylistic choices of younger poets and of those well-known poets who have published successfully in the past two or three decades.

As a matter of fact, it should be noted that the age gap between poets currently working has widened significantly in recent years. Along with first works by authors in their thirties, these years have seen new works by Mario Luzi (1914), Andrea Zanzotto (1921), Luciano Erba and Maria Luisa Spaziani (1922), and Giovanni Giudici (1924).

On the other hand, in addition to Caproni, Bigongiari and Fortini, during this decade we have also lost younger and splendidly active poets such as Margherita Guidacci, whose work is characterized by a delicately mystic vein, Amelia Rosselli, a multilingual and extremely sensitive interpreter of the music of poetry, and Dario Bellezza, heir to the tradition of "poet maudit" crossed with Catholic issues, a tendency that had a valid interpreter in Giovanni Testori.

In order to propose an outline of the major schools or tendencies in Italian poetry of the last few decades, one could empirically indicate six different spheres: Post Neo-avant-garde; Neo-Orphic and/or Neo-Hermetic; Civil Poetry; Mannerisms; Heirs of the Lombard line; Dialect Poetry.


When one uses the term avant-garde, it is necessary to distinguish between the ‘historical’ avant-gardes of the beginning of the century and the Neo-Avant-garde of the sixties and seventies. The writers who created the "Gruppo 63" – with the exception of Antonio Porta who died prematurely – are all still active: from Edoardo Sanguineti to Elio Pagliarani to Nanni Balestrini. The critics who supported the movement, from Alfredo Giuliani to Renato Barilli, are also still active. They, in fact, actively favoured the birth of the so-called Gruppo 93, to whom many experimental poets of the nineties turned to either directly or indirectly: from Biagio Cepollaro to Tommaso Ottonieri, from Gabriele Frasca to Lello Voce. These poets had the external support of Giancarlo Majorino, a poet who was rather eccentric with respect to this tendency, and who managed to involve even younger authors such as Andrea Raos, Andrea Inglese and Flavio Santi in a hypothesis of experimentalism.

The aim of these poets – more or less directly – remains that of protesting against ideological conditionings of the word with the subsequent decision to use it only in transgressive terms.


Leaving aside the classical roots of the term ‘Orphism’, in Italian poetry of the Novecento we must remember at least I canti orfici by Dino Campana, an author who managed to create a prelude to Hermetism, by breaking from tradition thanks to the metric liberties that he was capable of taking. Trust in the evocative capacity of the word was fundamental for Campana and also for the Neo-Orphics: that which the word can suggest in a particular emotional state, rather than what it literally means.

Though in ways and forms that differ markedly among themselves, this group includes poets like Cesare Viviani, Silvio Ramat, Eugenio De Signoribus, Elio Pecora, Milo De Angelis, Biancamaria Frabotta and Roberto Mussapi.

Among the youngest poets we point out Anna Maria Farabbi, Antonella Anedda, Paolo Del Colle, Giovanna Sicari, Giancarlo Pontiggia, Marco Molinari, and – albeit with many distinctions – Nicola Vitale, Roberto Deidier and Stefano Dal Bianco (whose latest work, however, could also place him among the ‘Mannerists’).

The Neo-Orphic and Neo-Hermetic experience, which developed in Italy during the past thirty years, also gave rise to the Mytho-modernist movement among younger poets in the nineties. For these poets "myth is the language that transcends the personal and the temporal, with which the universe speaks to itself. It is not the past, but the future, the cosmic conscience of humanity." Among these poets we remember Rosita Copioli, Tomaso Kemeny (who actually came from Neo-Avant-garde positions), and Mario Baudino. Among the youngest poets we find the Bolognese author Maria Luisa Vezzali.


There is a great tradition of civil poetry in Italy, especially during the Risorgimento and post-Risorgimento periods. Pier Paolo Pasolini was a master of civil poetry from the early sixties (after a stupendous phase in Friulano dialect) until his premature death in the mid-seventies. This writer and intellectual is still at the centre of furious ideological as well as aesthetic and poetic disputes. Toward the end of the eighties, this line of poetic expression was taken up again by Gianni D’Elia, in particular in the trilogy published by Einaudi and culminating in 1997 with Congedo della vecchia Olivetti. The poet (born in 1953) explicitly or implicitly refers to other authors of the civil tradition, from Franco Fortini (who in 1994 published his latest book with Einaudi, Composita solvantur) to Roberto Roversi. Among the youngest poets we can mention the Tuscan Guido Mazzoni, who nonetheless can also be placed among the heirs of the Lombard line (obviously understood stylistically and as a category of the spirit rather than a mere geographical coordinate).


In this category we can observe at least three experiences of poetic quests. The first – which could be defined as a return to of closed metric forms – already manifested itself fully in the eighties with authors like Alda Merini, Patrizia Valduga and Antonello Satta Centanin. This last decade has been characterized by the reclaiming of the sonnet with a rigid rhyme scheme, as well as of traditional Italian metres such as the septenary and the octosyllabic verse. Curiously, this return to traditional metrical forms has interested authors who are already established in other traditions like Giovanni Raboni, as well as young poets like Federico Condello.

More recently, Antonello Satta Centanin, who has also established himself as a novelist with the pseudonym Aldo Noce, has become the promoter of a new poetic movement called ‘Nevroromanticismo’ ("Neuro-Romanticism"), to which other young poets such as Rosaria Lo Russo and Luca Ragagnin have adhered. The goal of this movement seems to be to put post-Neoavant-garde, Neo-Orphism and other closed metrical forms in dialectic perspective.

Another type of poetry that can be placed within the sphere of mannerism to a certain degree can be linked to the ex-minor group of the Italian Novecento of Betocchi, Saba and Penna. It has roots in Rome – in the so-called Roman school of poetry, and particularly in the experience of magazines such as Prato pagano and Braci – as well as in Milan where the outcomes of this tendency are most recognizable in the work of the poet Vivian Lamarque. Its objective seems to be to cancel the distance between word and object, so as to make the literary, on-paper aspect of poetry disappear, so as to substitute it with a singsong or nursery rhyme. The most significant contributions to this type of poetry are represented by the latest books by Gabriella Sica, Giselda Pontesilli, Paolo Febbraro, Claudio Damiani, Umberto Fiori as well as Vivian Lamarque herself.

The poetic quest of Roman poet Valerio Magrelli, born in 1957, is completely different. It can be said that his work is inspired by a post-Montalian line of clarity and tied to the tradition of Leopardi, both in the reflective prose as well as the unfolding of lyric, which often alternates hendecasyllable and septenary. Magrelli gathered together all his poetry in a single, significant volume published by Einaudi in 1997. His last book, by the same publisher, is a captivating little volume of poetic prose, as readable as a ‘novel’: Condominio di carne.


The poetics of the Lombard Line were identified and theorized in 1952 by the critic and aesthetic philosopher Luciano Anceschi, editor of the prestigious review il Verri, in the introduction to an anthology of six poets, three of whom (Luciano Erba, Nelo Risi and Giorgio Orelli) are still active.

The fundamental trait of this poetics was and is a ‘Nordic’ post-hermetism (obviously with reference to the Italian pensinsula), which is lacustral, quietly desperate and realistic-elegiac: "It was all about rains, lakes and speeches in a great, green park," wrote Anceschi. The undisputed leader of the movement was Vittorio Sereni (1913-1983), who has inspired numerous poets throughout the years, from the already mentioned Giancarlo Majorino and Giovanni Raboni to Giampiero Neri, Maurizio Cucchi and Tiziano Rossi.

Such poetics, which became eclipsed at the end of the sixties and in the seventies during the Neo-Avant-garde’s period of primacy, came forcefully back into the limelight in the eighties. Even in the nineties it can be said that Vittorio Sereni – independently of the Lombard line – is together with Caproni and Penna one of the new generation of poets’ most quoted authors of reference.

Aspects of the poetics identified by Anceschi remain, though they are closely linked to a profound transformation of ethical and linguistic codes – in authors of the latest generations such as Franco Buffoni (Il profilo del Rosa, Mondadori), Fabio Pusterla (Le cose senza storia, Marcos y Marcos), Antonio Riccardi (Il profitto domestico, Mondadori), Massimo Bocchiola, and Guido Mazzoni.


The nineties were characterized by a great flourishing of dialect poetry as had never been seen before. The reasons for this are numerous and range from the specifically linguistic (many ‘dialects’ – like Sardinian and Friulano – are actual languages) to the socio-political: the great reappraisal of regional autonomy that is underway in Italy.

Precisely because dialects are growing weaker and weaker as privileged instruments of oral communication, poets seem to want to leave written traces for the future. There is a surprising recourse to dialect in the written verses of cultured and cosmopolitan authors in their thirties who sometimes are not even oral dialectophones. Among these are the English literature scholar Edoardo Zuccato, who in 1996 published a collection in high-Milanese (Tropicu da Vissevar, Crocetti), the Germanist Giovanni Nadiani (who publishes in Romagnolo dialect), the humanistic philologist Flavio Santi (already mentioned among the experimental writers) and the Italianist Gian Mario Villalta who publishes in Friulano.

Literary and poetic interest in dialects, which was marginalized during the fascist period, was revived during the 1950s thanks to the intellectual farsightedness of Pasolini, who dedicated a famous anthology to dialects. In the 1970s and 1980s interest in dialects increased thanks to the work of several great poets: Albino Pierro of Lucania, Franco Loi of Milan, Amedeo Giacomini of Friuli and Raffaello Baldini from Romagna, who in 1998 even published two theatrical monologues in dialect (Carta canta. Zitti tutti!, Einaudi).

We believe that the profound reason for the reawakening of dialects can be attributed, among other things, to poets’ need to have at their disposal a linguistic instrument that is ductile, heavily accented, rich in the possibilities of elisions and apocopations, as well as full of brief (monosyllabic and bisyllabic) terms and stinging idiomatic expressions. This is exactly what the Italian language has difficulty offering, since it is becoming, after all, more and more cumbersome and polysyllabic.

Translated by Berenice Cocciolillo

© Franco Buffoni  
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