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THE 18TH & 19TH CENTURIES: At a time when French playwrights ruled the stage, the Venetian Carlo Goldoni (1707-93) attempted to bring Italian theatre back into the limelight. He combined realism and a certain literary discipline with a popular feel rooted in the commedia dell'arte (the tradition of improvisational theatre based on a core of set characters).

The heady winds of Romanticism that prevailed in Europe in the first half of the 19th century did not leave Italy untouched. In the small town of Recanati in Le Marche, Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) penned verses that are heavy with longing and melancholy, but equally erudite (although he was largely self-taught). The best of then, the Canti,  constitute a classic of Italian verse.

Poetry remained the main avenue of literary expression for  much of the century but Milan's Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873) changed all that with his Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), a historical novel on a grand scale. Manzoni laboured hard to establish a narrative language accessible to all Italians, lending the manuscript a barely disguised nationalist flavour lost on on-one when it appeared in the 1840s. In 1881 Giovanni Verga (1840-1922) ammounced the arrival of the realist novel in Italy with I Malavoglia, which follows the trials and tribulations of a poor fishing family around the time Italy was unifed.

THE 20TH CENTURY & TODAY: The turbulence of political and social life in Italy throughout most of the 20th century produced a wealth of literature, much of it available in translation for English speakers. Many literary critics lament that the golden days of modern Italian literature are a thing of the past but some bright lights still shine!

THEATRE In Sicily, the playwright Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936) began his career writing novels and short stories along realist lines but soon moved to theatre. With such classics as Sei Pesonaggi in Cera D'Autore (Six Characters in Search of an Author), he threw into question every preconception of what theatre should be. A Novel-prize winner in 1934, Pirandello's genius continues to assert itself in the west; from Brecht to Beckett, few modern playwrights could claim to have escaped his influence.

Morden Italian theatre is very much the junior member of Italy's literary family. Its most enduring contemporary representative is Dario Fo (born 1926), who has been writing, directing and performing since the 1950s. Often in the form of a one-man show but also in company (most often with Franca Rame), his work is laced with political and social critique. He has had a number of hits in London's West End, including Accidental Death of an Anarchist (Morte Accidentale di un Anarchista), Can't Pay, Won't Pay (Non Si Paga, Non Si Paga) andMistero Buffo. Much to the consternation of the Italian literary establishment, Fo won the 1997 Nobel Prize for Literature.

POETRY Gabriele D'Annunzio (1863-1938) is in a class of his own. An ardent nationalist, his often virulent poetry is perhaps not of the highest quality but his voice was a prestige tool for Mussolini's Fascists.

Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888-1970), whose creative and personal baptism of fire took place on the battlefields of WWI, produced a robust, spare poetry, far from the wordy complexity of his predecessors, The sum of his work is contained in Vita d'un Uomo.

Two other poets stand out, both Nobel-prize winners. The work of Eugenio Montale (1896-1981), who devoted uch of h is time after WWII to journalism, is less accessible than that of Ungaretti. Sicilian Salvatore Quasimodo (1901-68) reached a high point after WWII when he believed poetry could and should empathise with human suffering, The myth exploded; his later work is heavy with melancholy and nostalgia.

FICTION Italy's richest contribution to modern literature has been in the novel and short story. Turin especially has produced a wealth of authors. Cesare Pavese, born in a Piedmont farmhouse in 1908, took Walt Whitman as his guiding light. Involved in the anti-Fascist circles of pre-war Turin, this greatest novel, La Luna e Il Falo' (The Moon and the Bonfire), was published in 1950, the year he took his life.

Like Pavese, Carlo Levi (1902-75), a doctor from Turin, experienced internal exile in southern Italy under the Fascists. The result was a moving account of a worked oppressed and forgotten by Rome, Cristo si e' Fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli).

Primo Levi, a Turin Jew, ended up in Auschwitz during the war. Se Quest'e' Un Uomo is the dignified account of his survival, while La Tregua recounts his long road back home through Eastern Europe. Born in 1919, Levi committed suicide in 1987.

Palermo-born Natalia Ginzburg (1916-90) spent most of her life in Turin. Much of her writing is semi-autobiographical. Tutti I Nostri Ieri, Valentino and Le Voci della Sera are just three novels from her range of fiction, plays and essays. Her particular gift lies in capturing the essence of gestures and moments in everyday life.

A writer of a different ilk is Italo Calvino (1923-85), who was born in Cuba. A resistance fighter and then Communist Party member until 1957, Calvino's works border on the fantastical, thinly veiling his main preoccupations with human behaviour in society. I Nostri Antenati (Our Ancestors), a collection of three such tales, is perhaps his greatest success.

Alberto Moravia (190790)n describes Rome and its people in his profile writings. Such novels as  La Romana (A Woman of Rome) convey the details of place and the sharp sense of social decay, making his storytelling compelling.

Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) is the only work of lasting importance by Sicily's Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957). Set at a time of Italian unification, it is a moving account of the decline of the virtually feudal order in Sicily, embodied in the slow ruin of Prince Fabrizio Salina (later played by Burt Lancaster in Luchino Visconti's 1963 film of the same name).

Loenardo Sciascia (1921-89) dedicated most of his career to his native Sicily, attacking all facets of its past and present in  novels and essays. His first great success was  Il Giorno della Civetta (The Day of the Owl), a kind of whodunit illustrating the extent of the Mafia's power.

The novels of Rome's Elsa Morante (1912-85), characterized by a subtle psychological appraisal of her characters, can be seen too as a personal cry of pity for the sufferings of individuals and society. Her 1948 novel Menzogna e Sortilego brought her to prominence. In it she recounts the slow decay of the southern Italian noble family.

Italian literature if the 1980s was briefly dominated by Bologna intellectual Umberto Eco (born 1932), who shot to popularity with his first and best-known work, Il Nome della Rosa (The Name of the Rose). It was made into a successful film starring Sean Connery.

Pisa-born Antonio Tabucchi (born 1943) is a writer of some stature, with ore than a dozen books to his credit. Possibily one of his most endearing works remains Sostiene Pereira, set in pre-war Lisbon and made into a film starring Marcello Mastroianni.

One of the most prolific and respected women writing today is the Rome-based Florentine Dacia Maraini (born 1936), columnist and outstanding feminist novelist. She has also had success as a poet and playwright, Her all-women theatre company, Teatro dela Maddalena, has staged many of her 30-plus plays, some of which such as the 1978 Dialogo di una Prostituta con un Suo Cliente, have played in theatres abroad as well. Author of 10 novels and several collections of stories, she sometimes treats some tough subjects. Her latest book,Buio, is a collection of 12 stories of children neglected or abused. Drawn from crime reports, she has created hard-hitting narrative. Holding it all together is the central character, a woman detective by the name of Adele Sofia, who also appeared in an earlier novel, Voci.

The 2000 Strega Prize (the Italian equivalent to the UK Booker Prize) went to Ernesto Ferrero for his N, an engaging historical novel about Napoleon's exile to the island of Elba, which with characteristically restless energy he converted into a mini-kingdom.

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