Rhetoric has been important for centuries in Italian literary culture. The first development of an Italian literary prose was thanks to a teacher of rhetoric in Bologna, Guido Faba: in the thirteenth century, he provided examples of elaborated prose in rhetorical models of letters and speeches. Other Italian works of the time represented a return to classical theory, with some limited innovation, such as Il fiore di Rettorica (before 1266), attributed to Guidotto da Bologna, or Brunetto Latini’s Rettorica (c. 1260), a vernacular paraphrase and commentary on Cicero’s De inventione. The De vulgari eloquentia (c. 1306) of Dante Alighieri was in part a treatise on rhetoric, in which, next to matters of a historicallinguistic and metrical nature, four stylistic levels of a text are addressed: (1) insipidus, tasteless, grammatically correct, but qualitatively insignificant; (2) et pure sapidus, clear and tasteful, but scholastic, lacking in originality; (3) sapidus et venustus, tasteful and graceful, showing a good understanding of rhetoric; and (4) excelsus, the sublime style of the most illustrious writers, rich in the rhetorical ornaments necessary for perfection.
In the fifteenth century rhetorical knowledge was enriched from recovery of complete texts for Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria (1416) and Cicero’s De oratore (1421). Before this time, Cicero’s De inventione and the pseudo-Ciceronian Rhetorica ad Herennium, preceptive treatises with practical and scholastic aims, had been studied, read, and admired (they continued to attract attention, e.g., in Castelvetro’s sixteenth-century commentary on Rhetorica ad Herennium). An important principle of rhetoric was the “theory of imitation” (imitation of models, thought to be classic and perfect). This principle was cultivated by the most authoritative Italian grammarian and theorist of the sixteenth century, Pietro Bembo, who thought that it was necessary to imitate Cicero and Virgil in order to write well in Latin, and to imitate Petrarch and Boccaccio in order to write well in Italian.
A new interest for Aristotle’s Rhetoric developed also. This work was little known before the sixteenth century, when it received numerous Italian translations, such as those by Bernardo Segni (1549), Annibal Caro (1570), and Alessandro Piccolomini (1571). Rhetoric, with broad reference to Aristotle and Cicero, was made part of the normal course of school studies for any cultivated person. In the university, Aristotelian professors introduced the ideas of the Greek philosopher by means of graphical outlines that synthesized his rhetorical theory. Instruction in classical principles and relevant notions (the types of discourse, the parts of the oration, rhetorical figures, ornamentation) lasted far beyond the Renaissance, prevailing with stability in seventeenth-century Jesuit schools, and by way of continuation, until the first half of the nineteenth century. Rhetoric also had applications to Catholic preaching and its models. Particularly remarkable from this point of view is Il predicatore (1609) of Francesco Panigarola, which is presented as a commentary on Demetrius’ De elocutione. Panigarola here addresses the type of Italian language that must be used by a preacher, and therefore, starting from the special perspective of religious communication, confronts the so-called questione della lingua (language question), a topic much debated in Italy.
The first attempts at a profound renewal in the field of Italian rhetoric arose in the eighteenth century, through French and English influence. One finds traces of the Enlightenment in the works of innovative writers such as Saverio Bettinelli (1718–1808), Melchiorre Cesarotti (1730–1808), and Carlo Denina (1731–1813). The Italian adaptation of the rhetoric of Hugh Blair in the work of Francesco Soave (Lezioni di retorica e belle lettere, 1801–1802) is a product of this climate also. Alongside the thematic concerns of writing and communication, other topics, by now characteristic of the pre-romantic climate, entered into the reflections of scholars: passion, creativity, the rush of enthusiasm, and freedom of style respecting models. Rhetoric was not repudiated, but the simple technique of writing was judged for no more than its sufficiency to guarantee the quality of its results. And the repertoire of technical notions was enlarged. In the Bibliopea (1776), Carlo Denina discusses not only a better way to write, but also the more convenient use of typographical techniques (notes, bibliographies, glosses, indices, print characters, communicative clarity, etc.), in order to reach the public in a more effective way, much like in a modern “manual of style”.
The work of the critic Francesco De Sanctis (1817–1883) favored an overthrow of rhetoric, which turned gradually from a fundamental matter in scholastic education to a synonym for bad literary training, contrary to the values of spontaneity and sincerity. During the nineteenth century, the change of perspective was completed; nonetheless, handbooks on “elocution” and “rhetorical garnishments” were still used in the schools. Their definitive elimination was due to the influence of the philosopher Benedetto Croce, whose thought had much influence in Italy during the 1900s. In Croce’s view, rhetoric simply became a “false concept” to be eradicated. This very negative judgment of rhetoric was widely shared and became common opinion, without opposition.
In the second half of the twentieth century, there was a cautious return to rhetoric, but understood in a way distinct from the tradition. It was no longer viewed as a set of precepts; rather, its study was justified by the fact that it provided an instrument necessary for interpreting literary production in the past. It was the key to penetrating the culture of authors in the Middle Ages, Humanism, and the Renaissance, in order to comprehend their works and understand the principles by which they had been inspired. Rhetoric, therefore, was seen as a necessary element for good historical understanding.
The revaluation of rhetoric, in a cultural context in which its condemnation had been strong, is continuing, then, in the wake of international culture, within the theory of reasoning, within studies of philosophy of language and law, and within studies of linguistics, history, and literary theory (among others, Plebe 1968; Schiaffini 1975). Even preceptive rhetoric is reborn in today’s schools of writing, which are being developed in a way that takes interest in the forms of orality, such as debate (Cattani 2001).
- Cattani, A. (2001). Botta e risposta. L’arte della replica. Bologna: il Mulino.
- Croce, B. (1945). Estetica come scienza dell’espressione e linguistica generale, 8th edn. Bari: Laterza.
- Marazzini, C. (2001). Il perfetto parlare. La retorica in Italia da Dante a Internet. Rome: Carocci.
- Plebe, A. (1968). Breve storia della retorica antica. Bari: Laterza.
- Schiaffini, A. (1975). Italiano antico e moderno. Milan: Ricciardi.