BORN: 1707, Venice, Italy
DIED: 1793, Paris, France
The Good Wife (1749)
The Arcadia in Brenta (1749)
The Hostess (1753)
The Boors (1762)
Carlo Goldoni. Goldoni, Carlo, engraving.
Known as the reformer of Italian drama, Carlo Goldoni introduced elements of naturalism to the Italian stage. His innovative comedies, including The Hostess (1753) and The Boors (1762), placed a new emphasis on realistic representation in drama. The importance of Goldoni’s contribution to Italian literature lies in his substitution for an outworn dramatic tradition with a new kind of comedy that has been called the comedy of character.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood on the Move. Goldoni was born in Venice in 1707 to an upper-middle-class family. Throughout Goldoni’s childhood, changing family fortunes and his father’s medical practice necessitated frequent travel around the Italian peninsula, with the result that Goldoni obtained his early education at several different schools. At the time, Italy was not a unified country but a group of principalities, territories, and city-states that were sometimes hostile to each other. Political and military conflicts were on the rise, and the region was in the midst of an economic decline.
Tumultuous Early Life. Goldini’s fascination with the theater manifested itself early. At the time, commedia dell’arte, an improvised type of comedy originating in medieval Italy, was in decline but still the leading theatrical form in what would become Italy. There were also some popular farces, and opera was still in its infancy. At the age of fourteen, while unwillingly studying medicine in Rimini, Goldoni became acquainted with the members of a traveling theater troupe. So entranced was he by their company that when the troupe left Rimini, Goldoni ran away to spend three days with the actors before returning to his family.
Goldoni’s life was one of frequent upheavals, including a series of unsuitable love affairs. At age sixteen, he entered Ghislieri College in Pavia, from which he was expelled three years later for writing an unflattering satire of several young women of prominent Pavia families. He returned to the study of law in Udine, but due to another illicit romance was obliged to remove to Modena for further study. Here he developed and pursued an interest in religion and would have become a monk had his father not intervened.
After holding a number of jobs, Goldoni completed his law degree at the University of Padua in 1731 and because of a clerical error was admitted to the Venetian bar without serving the mandatory two-year apprenticeship. However, Goldoni never fully applied himself to the practice of law. He interrupted his legal career several times to accept various temporary government posts. His propensity for financial and romantic indiscretions also disrupted his career, frequently forcing him to move abruptly.
Launched Career as a Dramatist. Goldoni’s efforts in serious opera had an inauspicious beginning. By his own account he brought a new drama, Amalasunta, to Milan in 1732 in hopes of selling it to an opera director. During an informal gathering of a group of friends, including the great singer Caffarelli, he gave the drama its first public reading—and it was laughed to scorn—at least partially because he had ignored most of the conventional ‘‘rules’’ of the genre. In the years to come, however, his willingness to ignore the ‘‘rules’’ would eventually mark his work as unique and influential.
It was in comedy that Goldoni truly excelled. In the 1730s and early 1740s he merely dabbled in theatrical poetry, while otherwise practicing law. It was only after 1748 that his career in the theater was assured. Contracted to write six spoken comedies for Venice, he simultaneously began a long and fruitful opera collaboration with the composer Baldassare Galuppi. Their first effort, The Arcadia in Brenta (1749), was an enormous success. In this work, which satirizes the summer retreats of the Venetian aristocracy and the affectatious behavior of cultivated society, Goldoni’s elegant poetry and witty, fastpaced dialogue was ideally matched with Galuppi’s comic musical pacing, his facile, tuneful melodies and lucid orchestration. Over the ensuing years, a long stream of collaborative works followed.
Redefined Drama. It was not until 1747 that Goldoni at last found his niche as dramatist for the Teatro Sant’Angelo in Venice. It was for this theater that he made good his boast to write sixteen comedies in one year. Goldoni’s gradual attempts to redefine drama inspired emphatic and widely divergent reactions. Those who preferred the old commedia dell’arte style were unsparing of their censure, while those who welcomed Goldoni’s changes were equally lavish in their praise. Voltaire pronounced Goldoni the ‘‘painter and son of nature.’’
Ended His Life in France. Goldoni left the Teatro Sant’Angelo to work for other theaters in Venice and Rome until 1762 when he journeyed to Paris to accept a position at the Comedie-Italienne where he was expected to write plays in the commedia dell’arte tradition. After a short while, he left the Comedie-Italienne and became the tutor of the illegitimate daughter of Louis XV of France.
Pensioned by the French king, Goldoni eventually settled in Paris, where he spent the remainder of his life writing memoirs and plays, which included the critically acclaimed The Beneficent Bear (1771). Unfortunately, his pension was discontinued in the wake of the French Revolution which began in 1789. The revolution saw the French monarchy removed from power, and after a bloody conflict, a republican form of government was put in its place. Following Goldoni’s death in 1793, the court reversed its decision and ordered the monies reinstated and given to his widow.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Goldoni's famous contemporaries include:
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790): One of the founding fathers of the United States of America, Franklin had many talents, including those of a politician, a scientist, an inventor, and a writer.
Thomas Paine (1737-1809): The English political writer who influenced both the American and French revolutions through such pieces as ''Common Sense'' (1776).
Stanislaw Konarski (1700-1773): A Polish author whose work inspired the Polish Enlightenment. His writings include Effective Way of Debating (1760-1763).
David Hume (1711-1776): This Scottish philosopher wrote about theories of knowledge and is known as an important empiricist—a philosopher who holds that knowledge is based on experience. He wrote Essays Moral and Political (1744).
Marie Antoinette (1755-1793): Queen of France and wife of Louis XVI, she was executed by guillotine during the French Revolution.
Denis Diderot (1713-1784): The French philosopher and encyclopedist whose many fields of study included the subject of free will and the conventions that defined the novels of his time. His works include Rameau's Nephew (c. 1761).
Works in Literary Context
Goldoni is most widely known as the ‘‘father of Italian comedy.’’ From the 1730s to the 1760s, he revolutionized Italian spoken theater, purging many of the most affected, stylized traits of the commedia dell’arte and developing characters of more natural expression with believable and identifiable personalities.
Realism in Drama. Goldoni has often been called the ‘‘Italian Moliere,’’ because he, like the French dramatist, drew his characters and plots from his observations of real life. Goldoni is also credited with increasing the significance of characters in his plays and decreasing the role played by the plot and plot twists. In turn, his characters have often been cited as being extremely realistic. In this, Goldoni defied the dramatic tradition of the commedia dell’arte, established in the sixteenth century and still dominant in Goldoni’s day. The commedia dell’arte—almost entirely improvisational in nature, creative and spontaneous at its inception—had degenerated into a stagnant formula by the eighteenth century, relying increasingly on ‘‘lazzi,’’ outrageous and often indecent interludes of buffoonery. In The Beneficent Bear, for example, Goldoni deals with the superficial aspects of humanity in an imaginative, spontaneous way. He is genial and more kindly in his judgments, and, while lacking none of Mohere’s keenness of observation, is devoid of his bitter satire.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Goldoni is lauded for his realism. Here are some more works considered prime examples of literary realism:
Middlemarch (1871-1872), a novel by George Eliot. This novel by Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans) is considered a landmark work of realism in English language literature. It focuses on the details of everyday people in 1830s England.
Madame Bovary (1857), a novel by Gustave Flaubert. French writers are credited with originating the realism movement, and Flaubert was chief among French realists. Madame Bovary centers on the adulterous affair of a bored provincial doctor's wife.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), a novel by Mark Twain. Considered one of the greatest American novels ever written, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is also a masterwork of American realism.
Works in Critical Context
Goldoni’s role as a reformer of the Italian stage is a significant one. He was the first dramatist in Italy to provide an alternative to the standardized roles and stale scenarios of the commedia dell’arte. He has never been called a literary genius, but his innovations broke new dramatic ground and made possible the development of naturalism in Italian drama. Though his works are often conventionally structured around trivial incidents and employ morally traditional characters who speak plain language, it is his humor that, critics contend, never fails to delight and spark his audiences.
Goldoni’s Comedies. The author of more than 250 works, Goldoni wrote in a variety of dramatic genres— comedy, tragedy, melodrama, and opera bouffe—but his comedies are universally acknowledged to be his most important contribution to Italian literature. Commentators often claim that Goldoni’s greatest attribute as a comic dramatist was his engaging naturalism. They have preferred those comedies that portray worlds similar to Goldoni’s own, in which the characters speak the Venetian dialect and represent members of the Italian middle class. The comedies, in particular, also display the inventiveness that critics have characterized as ingenious and intuitive, though Goldoni’s naturalism is faulted for being unenlightening, as it operates like a photographic rather than an interpretational device.
Goldoni’s realistic depiction of families was specifically praised by critics. Joseph Spencer Kennard wrote in his book Goldoni and the Venice of His Time, ‘‘The distinctive quality of Goldoni’s work, the trait that sets him entirely apart from every other modern playwriter, is his insight into painting family groups. Compared with even the greatest, Goldoni better understood the psychology of the family, more subtly investigated the bonds that unite the members of a household and give it the unity of a living organism.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Read The Good Wife (1749). In what ways would you say this play is ‘‘realistic’’? In your written response, cite specific examples.
2. Watch a few action and horror films. Then, read a couple of Goldoni’s plays. Action and horror films are generally plot driven, while Goldoni’s plays are often described as being more concerned with character than with plot. Based on the films you watched and the plays you read, what would you say is the difference between plot-driven literature and film and character-driven literature and film? Write a paper in which you share your findings. Support your response with examples from the films and plays you examined.
3. Goldoni’s work is considered realistic in its representation of its characters. In order to practice your ability at accurately representing the lives of those around you, write a short paragraph describing in appearance a person or animal you love. Try to choose those aspects of the person or animal that you think represent the personality of the described. For instance, maybe your dog is a bumbling, blundering, sloppy animal, so you might describe in greater detail your dog’s long, slimy, textured tongue.
4. Goldoni has been quoted as saying, ‘‘The world is a beautiful book, but of little use to him who cannot read it.’’ What do you think Goldoni meant by this? How do you think one learns to ‘‘read’’ the world? Consider these questions while responding to the Goldoni quote in a short essay in which you engage with the idea it expresses.
Browning, J. D., ed. The Stage in the 18th Century. New York: Garland, 1981.
Howells, W. D. My Literary Passions. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1895.
Kennard, Joseph Spencer. Goldoni and the Venice of His Time. New York: Macmillan, 1920.
Nicoll, Allardyce. World Drama from Aeschylus to Anouilh. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1950.
Perry, Henry ten Eyck. Masters of Dramatic Comedy and Their Social Themes. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1939.
Wilkins, Ernest Hatch. A History of Italian Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974.