Mapping The Reception Of English Novels In Italy During The Long 18th Century (2/3): a transcultural enquiry into the early shaping of the modern Italian literary and cultural identity


As we explained in the previous post, beyond episodic and geographically limited areas of enquiry, the reception of English novels in Italy in the long 18th century is still an open field of research, waiting to be addressed and thoroughly studied. From the 18th through the early 19th century a fully-fledged inter-European cultural dialogue developed on the continent, thanks to the wide dissemination of knowledge granted by the so-called “second printing revolution”. The periodical press was instrumental in such dissemination and its popular appeal reflects the perception of “other” European cultures and of European cultural diversity like no other medium. The Italian literary press acted as a vehicle for the propagation of English novels through announcements and reviews, and played a key role in the propagation of new ideas and moral values, together with new stylistic and narrative features. The research will outline specific readers’ response to the English novels, related to the revolutionary social ideas and the new narrative features they spread, according to geo-political areas. The study will trace different characteristics of the Italian reviews (concerning style, language, authors, objectives), and will delineate the particular function they played in the Anglo-Italian intercultural dialogue.

As stated before, the corpus consists of 600 critical reviews and editorial advertisements published in the literary journals of the time across the Italian peninsula in the pre-unitarian states, which have been collected in recent years during archival research. Particular emphasis will be given to the Venetian Republic, which at that time was the most active publishing hub in Italy (1/3 of all books published in Italy were printed in Venice). Among the 66 journals that have been examined, all published within the years 1700-1830, some of the most relevant are Giornale de’ Letterati d’Italia (1710-40); Giornale de Letterati di Europa (1727); Giornale Enciclopedico di Liegi (translation with additions of the Belgian journal Journal encyclopédique de Liège, 1756-60); Biblioteca antica e moderna di Storia Letteraria (1766-1768); La Frusta letteraria (1763-65), which is an example of the English influence on Italian culture: the model of the English journal Spectator (1711-12) is in fact the basis of its structure and concept; Il corrier letterario (1766-1768); L’Europa Letteraria (1768-1773); Giornale Enciclopedico (1774-83) founded by the most important female journalist of the time, Elisabetta Caminer Turra; Antologia Romana (1774-1796); Gazzetta Letteraria (1774); Nuovo Giornale enciclopedico d’Italia (1787-1794); Nuovo Giornale letterario d’Italia (1788-1792); Giornale bibliografico universale (1807-1810); Giornale italiano (1811-1812); Annali di Scienze e Lettere (1810-12); and the main issues of Biblioteca italiana (1815-1840). Venice’s thriving international book trade left in its archives many periodical publications from the Venetian Republic, Italian and international cultural centres. This material is nearly completely inaccessible in digitized form and it represents an untapped source of intellectual debates, trends in reader reception and popular culture, and in the transcultural dimension of intellectual exchanges in an increasingly cosmopolitan Europe. To carry on the research on the corpus effectively, the research team will create an open access, annotated and searchable digital repository (in the form of a dedicated website which will include a relational database) on the reception of English novels in Italy during the long 18th century. The repository with the encoded reviews will allow the application of modern DH tools. The project has three primary objectives:

  1. To explore the transcultural dimension of the corpus of data relative to the information about the English novels, their translation and their diffusion in the Italian literary press during the long 18th century. The preliminarily created digital database will allow in-depth textual and spatial analysis and visualizations of popular reading trends in 18th and early 19th century Italy, thanks also to a tagging process which will help to categorize not only the thematic aspects but also the lexicon of the corpus, allowing both a stylistic and linguistic analysis. A stylometric analysis will provide understanding of the specific features of Italian literary journalism at the time, unveiling the communication strategies that were adopted to disseminate knowledge and information.
  2. The interpretation of the content of the reviews. This critic work will lead: 1) to understand its relevance when compared to reviews of Italian and French novels (which were published in the same journals); 2) to comprehend the extent to which the Italian press was receptive to the innovative nature of English fiction; 3) to outline the debate it sparked and how this played a role in the definition of Italy’s discourse about modern cultural identity (i.e. in which sense and by what means the Italian process of cultural and, in the aftermath, political unification was influenced by the reception of the English novel). The research will uncover how the English novels were introduced to the Italian readership, censored and translated. A preliminary reading suggests that the questioning of social hierarchies in the English novel, its examination of moral ambiguity, its interplay of gender roles, and its scrutiny of the ethical, religious, and psychological foundations of social norms, are in fact more shocking to the Italian cultural milieu than, for example, the clichéd ‘looseness of morals’ of French literature, whose dissemination had been structural in the construction of the 18th century social fabric. The controversial nature of English novels started a debate on their moral values, which in Italy was carried on under specific circumstances (i.e. the Catholic groundings of ethics and the predominance of Cartesianism in philosophy of knowledge and psychology). The study of the readers’ response to the contents, spread by the novels via the reviews, is deeply connected to the stylistic analysis of the reviews the research team will achieve with the work related to “Objective a”. In fact, the outlining of the reviews’ stylistic features is crucial to understanding in which ways the contents were revealed to the public, and how the audience was influenced in the perception of the moral values and the social messages of the novels (see below in “Methodology” the details concerning the approach to this aspect of the research).
  3. To create a methodological paradigm to examine the reception of English novels in the literary press of other Western European countries during the long 18th century. Even though the phenomenon of the reception of the English novels presents particular aspects for each country (e.g. morality was different in each nation, the importance of religion varies from country to country etc.), there are well defined functional aspects that can be studied with the same methodology that will be developed with the project: the reviews’ stylistic characteristics, their geographical distribution and the sociological impact of the divulgation of the novels are only a few of a series of important aspects that can be considered as constant features of this cultural phenomenon.

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