Classic and modern clash in Italy

Giambattista Vico

Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), by Giuseppe Fusitani (1836).

In recent years, groups of Italian students protesting against governmental cuts to education funding and the rise of university fees have gained some popularity in the international media due to their highly original form of opposition. They made padded shields shaped as book covers, and used them as a symbol of literary and cultural resistance to the draconian cuts imposed by Italy’s successive governments.

The canon of works chosen for this very unique form of public protest – ranging from Plato’s Republic to Machiavelli’s The Prince to Marquez’s One hundred years of solitude – has raised immediate attention. With only a couple of exceptions, all the selected ‘book shields’ can be considered canonic books, ancient and modern classics, works whose value has matured over time. Professor Luca Serianni from La Sapienza University in Rome commented that it looked like a second-hand canon, closer to the reading matter of students rioting in the late sixties and seventies. In other words, a canon inherited from today’s students’ parents.

The image of protesters resisting undesired changes in public education policies by raising classical books as shields is a powerful image of Italy’s approach to tradition, change and permanence in culture and education. Italian culture is characterized by a perceived continuity of tradition, both the Greco-Roman classical and that of the so-called modern classics. The metaphor of these book shields further confirms that there is a complex connection between literary canon, tradition and resistance.

Giacomo Leopardi

Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837). Drawing by Luigi Lolli, engraving by Gaetano Guadagnini (1830).

Other European philosophical traditions were born instead out of a rupture with the past. Descartes’ ideas can be viewed as an example of modern thought grounded in a fracture with tradition – as Hegel said, Descartes is one of those who ‘restarted philosophy from zero’. Descartes’ thought is grounded in doubting the philosophical foundation of various fields of knowledge, particularly the humanities. Additionally, Descartes doubted that the study of classical sources, rhetoric and history adds anything to human knowledge. Giambattista Vico’s enquiry started from a critique of Descartes’ viewpoint: Vico’s speculation claims that there is a modern, ‘scientific’ method of studying the humanities. Vico’s legacy consists in a new way (a New science) to look at the ancient world and classical authorities, which, in Vico’s view, should preserve their legacy and guarantee their survival in an increasingly scientific world.

A century later, Italy’s continuity with classicism is again endangered in the field of literature with the so-called classic-romantic quarrel, which is also in some respects a quarrel between tradition and modernity. In this context, Giacomo Leopardi, with his 1818 Discourse on Romantic poetry, embodies an attempt to resist the rise of modernity and to preserve continuity with the innocence of origins, guaranteed by the traditional forms of poetry.

I start from this position in my book Rebuilding post-Revolutionary Italy: Leopardi and Vico’s ‘New science’, in which I identify continuity between these two moments and figures. Vico and Leopardi, almost a century apart, renegotiated Italy’s role, identity, and tradition in a modern world and raised the authority of established classics as a shield in an attempt to resist or to negotiate change. In a time that had witnessed large-scale historical transformation with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, within a community that had ‘grown old in Revolutions’, as Pietro Colletta, a reader of Vico, put it in 1815, Italy cultivated its own, distinctive approach to modernity.

– Martina Piperno