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Ovi Symposium; Nineteenth Meeting
by The Ovi Symposium
2014-02-13 12:00:47
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Ovi Symposium:

“A Philosophical Conversation on the Nature of Art within Modernity
and the Envisioning of a New Humanism”

between Drs. Abis, Nannery, Paolozzi, Paparella and Vena
Nineteenth Meeting: 13 February 2014



Direct participants (in alphabetical order):

alessadraDr. Alessandra Abis is a graduate of the Department of Foreign and Classical Languages and Literatures at the University of Bari. She, with her husband Arcangelo, founded the Adriani Teatro in 1992 in Italy. She has performed in Greek-Latin plays, among others: “Voyage in the Greek World” (Andromaca), “Miles Gloriosus” (Plauto), “The Last Temptation of Socrates (from Plato’s Ione Minor). Also from the Commedia dell’Arte: “Harlequin Doctor Flyer,” and “Without Makeup” (Chechov), “Four Portraits of Mothers,” Lady Madness (Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly).


nannery01Dr. Lawrence Nannery has studied at Boston College, Columbia University and at The New School for Social Research where he obtained his Ph.D. He founded The Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal and authored The Esoteric Composition of Kafka’s Corpus. Devising Nihilistic Literature, 2 vols. Lewiston: the Edward Mellen Press, 2006.


enDr.Ernesto Paolozzi teaches history of contemporary philosophy at the University Suor Orsola Benincasa of Naples. A Croce scholar and an expert on historicism, he has written widely and published several books, especially on aesthetics and liberalism vis a vis science. His book Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom was printed as an e-book in Ovi magazine in June 2013.


papDr. Emanuel Paparella has a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism with a dissertation on Giambattista Vico from Yale University. He currently teaches philosophy at Barry University and Broward College in Florida, USA. One of his books is titled Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of G. Vico, Mellen Press. His latest e-book Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers was printed in Ovi magazine in June 2013.


venaDr. Michael Vena is a former professor emeritus at Southern Connecticut State University. He has a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism (with a dissertation on Leon Battista Alberti) from Yale University. He has published a book on Italian theater titled Italian Grotesque Theater (2001). Recently he has published an English collection of modern Italian plays by well known playwrights such as Pirandello, Fabbri and De Filippo.


Table of Content for the 19th Session of the Ovi Symposium (2/13/2014)
Main Sub-theme: “The Arts’ Genres within Modern Aesthetics”

Preamble by way of an Abstract by the Symposium’s Coordinator Emanuel L. Paparella

Indirect Participants at this meeting within the “Great Conversation” across the Ages (in the order of their appearance in this session): Nietzsche, Gross, Levitt, Snow, Pound, Yeats, Lewis, Heidegger, Leavis, Shakespeare, Trilling, Brockman, Obama, Aristotle, Copernicus, Descartes, Boyle, Newton, Locke, Kant, Orwell, Kierkegaard, Arnold, Huxley, Eliot, Gramsci, Anceschi, Vico, Kant, De Sanctis, Croce, Della Volpe, Banfi, Formaggio, Manzoni, De Saussurre, Vossler, Spitzer, D’Annunzio, Assunto, Vattimo, Trione, Stella, Fanizza, Ragghanti, Zevi, Russo, Fubini, De Mauro, Gentile, De Ruggero, Bergson, Heidegger, Sartre, Popper, Cavacchioli, Marinetti, Marinari, D’Amico, Chiarelli, Antonelli, San Secondo, Freud, Pirandello, Cantoni-Gilbertini, Sartre, Schumann, Craig, Mitschke, Ricci, Goddard, Esslin, Bruno, Tilgher, Angelini, Tessari, Goddard, Abis.

Section 1: “The Problem of the Two Cultures and how to Bridge them: a Revisiting.” A presentation by Emanuel L. Paparella

Section 2: “Aporias of Italian aesthetics after Croce: Autonomy and Universality of Art: the Arts and their genres.” Second concluding part of a presentation by Ernesto Paolozzi as translated from his book Vicende dell’Estetica.

Section 3: “Enrico Cavacchioli and  the Meta-theater.” A presentation by Michael Vena by way of an essay from his book Italian Playwrights from the Twentieth Century (2013).

Section 4: A response by Paparella to Vena’s presentation on Enrico Cavacchioli.

Section 5: A warm welcome from the Ovi Symposium’s team to Dr. Alessandra Abis as a new member.


Preamble by way of an Abstract by the Symposium’s Coordinator E. Paparella

In this 19th session of the Ovi symposium we continue the general exploration of the issue of aesthetics within modernity or in a more focused mode the previously introduced problematic of the two cultures (i.e., the scientific and the liberal arts cultures) and how to bridge them.  

In section one Paparella announces the issue of aesthetics vis a vis science and modernity by revisiting the problem of the two cultures which goes back to the 19th century’s debates between T.H. Huxley and Matthew Arnold: the former defending scientism and positivism and the latter defending the Liberal Arts and Humanities, then resurrected by C. P. Snow in mid-twentieth century in his by now famous book The Two Cultures. Ultimately, the question that the symposium as a whole is grappling with is this: is a new humanism necessary and possible within modernity?

In section two Paolozzi continues his presentation on aesthetics in post war Italy after Croce’s aesthetic grappling with the issue of the universality and the autonomy of the various artistic genres. He asserts that indeed Croce’s aesthetics is more relevant than ever in our confused and confusing modern and post-modern era. He does this by re-tracing the roots and the origins of several modern trends in the philosophy of aesthetics.

In section three Vena puts together a portrait of one of the modern Italian playwrights, Enrico Cavacchioli, whose aesthetics he has examined and analyzed in his book Italian Playwrights from the Twentieth Century (2013), via an essay titled “Enrico Cavacchioli and Meta-theater.” After a previous general introduction, this time around, he presents to us a very interesting Sicilian playwright, a contemporary of the fellow Sicilian and Nobel winner Pirandello. Unlike Pirandello Cavacchioli is not well known outside of Italy but as Vena shows us, he certainly deserves to be better understood and appreciated. What is very interesting in Vena’s presentation is his underlying assumption that the theater functions as the bridge between lofty abstract theories of aesthetics and quotidian practical daily life; a powerful idea this already present in Aristotle’s Poetics and to a certain extent in Boccaccio’s Decameron: that is to say, the idea of the story within a story, of life as a frame for art and vice versa  so that at times life ends up imitating art as in that great film Il Postino ending with the death of both its protagonist (Mario Ruoppolo) and its interpreter (Massimo Troisi).

In section four Paparella comments on Vena’s interesting presentation on Enrico Cavacchioli.

Finally in section five the symposium announces and welcomes a new member to its team: Dr. Alessandra Abis, an expert in ancient Greek-Latin theater and Commedia dell’Arte who has performed in various Greek, Latin and Italian plays. She will be contributing her expertise in these fields of theater to the Ovi symposium. We are happy to have her considerable talent and commitment to our program and welcome her on board looking forward to a productive and mutually beneficial cooperation.



The Problem of the Two Cultures: How to Bridge them—A Revisiting
A Presentation by Emanuel L. Paparella

It is not a question of annihilating science, but of controlling it. Science is totally dependent upon philosophical opinions for all of its goals and methods, though it easily forgets it.
Friedrich Nietzsche 

If one peruses the history of philosophy in the West, it will not take very long before one realizes that there is from its beginnings an irrationalism that regularly manifests itself in anti-scientific biases of one sort or another. Certain varieties of 19th century romanticism fit here. One discerns it immediately in the writings of Nietzsche, perhaps the best known philosopher to first point out the Dionysian and the Apollonian in ancient Greek culture.

There is nowadays a widespread suspicion of the achievements of science coming close to an outright rejection of the idea of factual truth. This applies to academic circles too; to radical movements and “theories” such as cultural constructivism, deconstruction, radical feminism, and various other politically correct anti-empirical ists and isms. Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt have already ably analyzed this thorny issue in their book in Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, the Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. They show that this new hostility to science is part of a more general hostility to Western values and institutions, an anti-Enlightenment hostility that “mocks the idea that … a civilization is capable of progressing from ignorance to insight.”


And then of course there is The Two Cultures of C.P. Snow. Few literary phrases have had as enduring an after­life as “the two cultures,” (1959) coined by C. P. Snow to describe what he saw as a dangerous schism between science and literary life. More than 50 years ago Snow, an English physicist, civil servant and novelist, delivered a lecture at Cambridge called “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” which was later published in book form. Snow’s famous lament was that “the intellectual life of the whole of Western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups,” consisting of scientists on the one hand and literary scholars on the other. Snow largely blamed literary types for this “gulf of mutual incomprehension.” These intellectuals, Snow asserted, were shamefully unembarrassed about not grasping, say, the second law of thermodynamics — even though asking if someone knows it, he writes, “is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”


The deeper point of “The Two Cultures” is not that we have two cultures, that is quite obvious. It is that science, above all, will keep us prosperous and secure; culture is merely frosting on the cake. Scientists, he argues, are morally “the soundest group of intellectuals we have,” while literary ethics remain suspect. Literary culture has “temporary periods” of moral failure, he argues, quoting a scientist friend who mentions the fascist proclivities of Pound and Yeats and Wyndham Lewis and Heidegger, and asks, “Didn’t the influence of all they represent bring Auschwitz that much nearer?” Obviously, the table is being turned around here.

Snow’s essay provoked an ad hominem response from the Cambridge critic F. R. Leavis — who called Snow “intellectually as undistinguished as it is possible to be” — and a more measured one from Lionel Trilling, who nonetheless thought Snow had produced “a book which is mistaken in a very large way indeed.” Snow’s cultural tribalism, Trilling argued, impaired the “possibility of rational discourse.”

For the past two decades, John Brockman has promoted the notion of a “third culture” to describe scientists — notably evolutionary biologists, psychologists and neuroscientists — who are “rendering visible the deeper meanings in our lives” and superseding literary artists in their ability to “shape the thoughts of their generation.”  So why did Snow think the supposed gulf between the two cultures was such a problem? Because, he argues in the latter half of his essay, it leads many capable minds to ignore science as a vocation, which prevents us from solving the world’s “main issue,” the wealth gap caused by industrialization, which threatens global stability.


Some of this sounds familiar; for decades we have regarded science as crucial to global competitiveness, an idea invoked as recently as in Barack Obama’s second presidential campaign. But in other ways “The Two Cultures” remains irretrievably a cold war document. This is, I think, why Snow’s diagnosis remains popular while his remedy is ignored. We have spent recent decades convincing ourselves that technological progress occurs in unpredictable entrepreneurial floods, allowing us to surf the waves of creative destruction.  Yet “The Two Cultures” actually embodies one of the deepest tensions in our ideas about progress. Snow, too, wants to believe the sheer force of science cannot be restrained, that it will change the world — for the better, and it will happen naturally, without human guiding hand. The Industrial Revolution, he writes, occurred “without anyone,” including intellectuals, “noticing what was happening.” But at the same time, he argues that 20th-century progress was being stymied by the indifference of poets and novelists. That’s why he wrote “The Two Cultures.


C.P. Snow (1905-1980) and his mimesis F.R. Leavis (1895-1978)
Leavis was at the time the most creative and influential literary critic since Matthew Arnold

This question is the aspect of The Two Cultures that speaks most directly to us today. Your answer — and many different ones are possible — probably determines how widely and deeply you think we need to spread scientific knowledge. Do we need to produce more scientists and engineers to fight climate change? How should they be deployed? Do we need broader public understanding of the issue to support governmental action? Or do we need something else?  The Two Cultures initially asserts the moral distinctiveness of scientists, but ends with a plea for enlisting science to halt the spread of Communism. In this sense it is a Cold War document. Nevertheless some scholars have pointed out that contrasting scientific and humanistic knowledge is a repetition of the Methodenstreit of 1890 German universities. In the social sciences it is also commonly proposed as the quarrel of positivism versus interpretivism. Snow takes the philosophical position of scientism in conflating the complex fields of knowledge of the humanities.

As soon as it appeared, the brief work became a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. By 1961, the book was already in its seventh printing. I personally read it while I was in college in 1965. Its fame got an additional boost in 1962 when the critic F. R. Leavis published his attack on The Two Cultures in The Spectator. Leavis derided what he considered the “embarrassing vulgarity of style,” his “complete ignorance” of history, literature, the history of civilization, and the human significance of the Industrial Revolution. He can’t be said to know what a novel is, so continues Leavis, he is “utterly without a glimmer of what creative literature is, or why it matters.”

The extreme reaction was partly a response to Snow’s own extremity. But the questions raised by The Two Cultures—and by Leavis’ criticisms  remain. There is little doubt that since Galileo and beyond the gulf between scientists and literary intellectuals has grown wider as science has become ever more specialized and complex and seems unbridgeable. The more pressing issue concerns the fate of culture in a world increasingly determined by science and technology. Leavis described C. P. Snow as a “portent” revealing modern society’s tendency to trivialize culture by reducing it to a form of diversion or entertainment. For him, it was not surprising that The Two Cultures so captured the public imagination: it did so precisely because it pandered to the debased notion of culture championed by established taste.  As we look around it is hard not to notice a civilization and its culture bent on cultural suicide: the triumph of pop culture, the glorification of mindless sensationalism, the attack on the very idea of permanent cultural achievement—in the West. All this in tandem with unprecedented material wealth and  profound cultural and intellectual degradation. C. P. Snow may be the canary in the mine. He is a symptom of something deeply troubling.  

The tone of The Two Cultures is intriguing in itself. It swings between the anecdotal and the apocalyptic. In some “afterthoughts” on the two-cultures controversy that he published in Encounter in 1960, Snow refers to his lecture as a “call to action.” But what is the problem? And what actions does Snow recommend  given the gulf of  mutual incomprehension of which he talks? On one page the problem is reforming the schools so that “English and American children get a reasonable education.” A bit later the problem is mobilizing Western resources to industrialize India, Africa and Southeast Asia, and Latin America, and the Middle East, in order to forestall widespread starvation, revolution, and anarchy. The Soviet Union, as far as Snow is concerned. It all appears as a  terrible muddle. It would be nice if “literary intellectuals” knew more science, the gulf as described by Snow seems unbridgeable. Snow uses “literary intellectual” interchangeably with “traditional culture.” This fusion yields the observation that there is “an unscientific,” even an “anti-scientific” flavor to “the whole ‘traditional’ culture.” What can this mean? Aristotle, Galileo, Copernicus, Descartes, Boyle, Newton, Locke, Kant: are there any more “traditional” representatives of “the whole ‘traditional culture’”?

At the beginning of his lecture, Snow affects a generous even-handedness in his attitude toward scientists and literary intellectuals. There’s a bit of criticism for both. But this show of even-handedness soon evaporates. The “culture” of science, Snow tells us, “contains a great deal of argument, usually much more rigorous, and almost always at a higher conceptual level, than the literary persons’ arguments.” Literary intellectuals are “natural Luddites”; scientists “have the future in their bones.” This is a formulation that Snow likes enough to repeat: “If the scientists have the future in their bones,” he writes, “then the traditional culture responds by wishing the future did not exist.” To clinch his argument that literary intellectuals (“the traditional culture”) “wish the future did not exist,” Snow holds up … George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four—as if that harrowing admonitory tale could have been written by anyone who did not have a passionate concern for the future!

Snow is especially impatient with the politics of “the traditional culture.” He indicts “nine-tenths” of the great literary figures of the early twentieth century (1914–1950) as politically suspect. Scientists, too, appreciate the tragic nature of human life—that each of us “dies alone.” But they are wise enough to distinguish between the “individual condition and the social condition” of man. As Leavis notes, the second law of thermodynamics is a piece of specialized knowledge, useful or irrelevant depending on the job to be done; the works of Shakespeare provide a window into the soul of humanity: to read them is tantamount to acquiring self-knowledge. Snow seems oblivious to this distinction as are most professors selling capitalism and entrepreneurship nowadays. A similar confusion is at work in Snow’s effort to neutralize individuality by assimilating it to the project of “social hope.” But what is the “social hope” that transcends, cancels or makes indifferent the inescapable tragic existential condition, the angst of choosing one’s destiny of each individual as pointed out by a Kierkegaard? Where, if not in individuals, is what is hoped for … to be located?  This is for Leavis the central philistinism and, the deeply anti-cultural bias, of Snow’s position. For him, a society’s material standard of living provides the ultimate, really the only, criterion of “the good life”; science is the means of raising the standard of living, ergo science is the final arbiter of value. Culture— literary, artistic culture—is merely frosting on the cake. It provides us with no moral challenge or insight, because the only serious questions are how to keep increasing and effectively distributing the world’s wealth, and these are not questions culture is competent to address. “The upshot” of Snow’s argument, Leavis writes, “is that if you insist on the need for any other kind of concern, entailing forethought, action and provision, about the human future—any other kind of misgiving—than that which talks in terms of productivity, material standards of living, hygienic and technological progress, then you are a Luddite.”

The progress of science may be inexorable but Leavis is not prepared to accept that science represents a moral resource or that there is such a thing as a culture of science. Science may tells us how best to do things we have already decided to do, not why we should do them. Its province is the province of means not ends. That is its glory and its limitation. In this sense the statement by Albert Einstein makes perfect sense: our age is characterized by perfection of means and scarcity of goals.

One word that is missing from Snow’s essay the editors of The Spectator note in an unsigned editorial, is “philosophy”—“that effort to impart moral direction that was found in the best nineteenth-century English writers.” Chief among them Matthew Arnold whose Rede lecture delivered in 1882—the same as Snow’s lecture, and titled “Literature and Science”—was itself a kind of “two cultures” argument. But his point was essentially the opposite of Snow’s. Written in response to T. H. Huxley’s insistence that literature should and inevitably would be supplanted by science, Arnold argued that, “so long as human nature is what it is,” culture would continue to provide mankind with its fulcrum of moral understanding.”


The Poet Matthew Arnold (1822-1888): a Champion of the Liberal Arts

Arnold, like Leavis is concerned with “the cultural consequences of the technological revolution.” He too argues passionately  against the trivialization of culture, against “a superficial humanism” that is “mainly decorative.” And both looked to culture to provide a way of relating the “results of modern science” to “our need for conduct, our need for beauty.” This is the crux: that culture is in some deep sense inseparable from conduct—from that unscientific but ineluctable question, “How should I live my life?” Leavis’ point was the same. It is exactly the  upheavals precipitated by the march of science and technology that has  rendered culture—the arts and humanities—both more precarious and more precious. So the preservation of culture as a guide to “conduct” is now more crucial than ever. For Arnold, if mankind was to confront the moral challenges of modern science “in full intelligent possession of its humanity” and maintain “a basic living deference towards that to which, opening as it does into the unknown and itself immeasurable, we know we belong,” then the realm of culture had to be protected from the reductive forces of a crude scientific rationalism.


T.H. Huxley (1825-1895), friend of Charles Darwin whose scientific
concerns were Physiology, Paleontology, Geology, and Natural History

The temptation to reduce culture to a reservoir of titillating pastimes is all but irresistible nowadays. Rock music, “performance art,” television, video games (not to mention drugs, violence, and mindless sex): since Descartes we are everywhere encouraged to think of ourselves as complicated machines for consuming sensations—the more, and more exotic, the better. Culture is no longer an invitation to confront our humanity but a series of opportunities to impoverish it through diversion. We are, as Eliot put it in Four Quartets, “distracted from distraction by distraction.” C. P. Snow and his entrepreneurial cohorts represents the smiling, jovial face of this predicament. Critics like Arnold and Leavis offer us the beginnings of an alternative. Let those who have ears, let them hear.



Aporias of Italian Aesthetics after Croce: Autonomy and Universality
of Art: the Arts and their genres—Part two

A presentation by Ernesto Paolozzi


The Arts and their genres

Having cleared this fundamental and preliminary point, we need to point out that beyond a general critique against philosophic aesthetics, all the concepts of modern aesthetics, which had laboriously arrived at some kind of order and coherence through the works of Vico, Kant, De Sanctis and Croce were debated and in not a few cases refuted.

We do not wish to enter the labyrinthine paths of the small or big particular issues caused by a critical reading of those great philosophers, that of Croce in particular, but we’d like to attempt an outline of a philosophical design which is still visible today within the vast panorama of Italian culture.

The two in depth concepts which no longer seem to satisfy the exigencies of modern philosophy and criticism are that of the autonomy of art and the other, in so many ways connected to the first, is that of the universality of artistic activity. While Luciano Anceschi, following the methodology described in part one of this essay, discovers a law, which was both historic and philosophic and typical of modern contemporary era, the law of autonomy and heteronomy of art and their constant interacting, on the Marxist side the issue of “content” was vigorously reinstated; which is to say, of the nexus between art and society and the dependency of the former to the latter. Not only the autonomy but the universality of art was placed on the table again since, as it is obvious, what depends from something that is not itself is neither autonomous nor universal, and because, to the contrary, if an activity happens to be universal, it is also distinct and autonomous from all other, and vice-versa.


Luigi Pareyson (1918-1991)


Problemi dell’Estetica di Luigy Pareyson (from his University lectures of 1945).
The companion volume II is titled “Storia”

Antonio Gramsci, in his Quaderni del carcere [notebooks written in jail], which came to the Italian public’s attention after the war by those who did not intend to obliterate the whole European philosophical tradition, one could trace back the origins which even if in a confused way could heal the dissidence between the Crocean exigency to distinguish art from the other categories of history, and the other opposite exigency to “immerse,” as they used to say, art into history. And in fact, in his notes which were never fully reviewed and systematized, Gramsci repeatedly returns to the problem of art’s originality, opposing, in a famous page, the creativity of the great artist, whatever his ideological stance, to the mediocrity of the little authors. But the dissidence could not be healed because it was struggle that was not just practical but deeply philosophical. To distinguish what is art from what is not art, does not mean, within the rigorous Crocean terms, to separate art from history, but to understand the particular function it exercises within history. Therefore either Gramsci had to say what Croceans already well knew, that art even if autonomous, and as art to be judged only by the criterion of beauty, can also be utilized as expressive source of a particular era; or it ended up with the vulgar materialistic determinism which many Italian intellectuals could not adhere to.


Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937)


Gramsci’s Quaderni dal Carcere (1926)

At the same time, the problem is not solved by the different way of posing the problem given by another Marxist scholar, Galvano Della Volpe, who in his Critica del gusto [The Critique of Taste] of 1960 attempted to distinguish art from thought and from praxis, even if he considered the distinction semantic, or full of logic. How the two could be reconciled, Della Volpe does not tell us, since one does not resolve the aporia by affirming that art is specifically a particular technical language through which one expressed the only logical category, which in turn is the expression of the pathos of a particular historical epoch. In fact, what is the exigency which urges man to technically diversify an expressive mode, if such an exigency did not go back at its roots in a profound motive of autonomous existence? Obviously the specification of artistic language as distinct from philosophical language (a language which in reality does not exist in as much as philosophy always expresses itself through artistic language) is due to a substantial diversity and it is useless to qualify this diversity with different names.


Galvano della Volpe (1895-1968)

Thus, both in the phenomenological and the Marxist field ultimate concepts of modern existence remain within a general environment of hostility for philosophy as a whole, and therefore for aesthetics too. Structuralists, sociologists and psychoanalysts, utilizing art for their own purposes, would subject her to a kind of cutting  which for those who maintained the death of art became a macabre necroscopy by which the organism is subdivided into parts and little parts all separated and placed in naphthalene.

This attack to philosophical aesthetics, to the autonomy and the universality of art together with the new scientific vogue, made it possible that in the years between 1965 and 1975 the theories of genres and of the distinction among the arts would return to prominence; theories these that seemed to have been relegated to the far away past of philosophy.

To paraphrase a well known Dostoyevskyan motto, if there is no aesthetics, then all is permitted. If it is permitted to break-up verses into phonemes, or to discover in some metaphors the evident sign of a the Oedipus complex, which is to say, to evaluate a work of art exclusively on the basis of the quality of its public, in the manner of an operator of an ideologized market; then the re-proposing of the theories of genres, or the subdivision of the arts, could not possibly give scandal.


Critica del gusto (1960)

And so from many quarters came accusation against classical aesthetics of not having taken into account the richness and the concreteness of the world of art, of having undervalued the precise techniques which apply to the different genres or the different artistic languages, all in the name of the unity of artistic expression and language. While on one hand there was a request to abandon the principle of the categorical distinction, on the hand a plethora of distinctions were claimed and not always those who so claimed were different persons.

As things stood, if the phenomenologists of the school of Banfi, Anceschi and Formaggio, all tending to the description of artistic phenomena, in an attempt to find among them some historical or philosophical ties, could reconsider the genres as one of the many aspects of the “world of art. A della Volpe, after denying to art an authentic categorical autonomy, having reduced it to just another genre (a genre of thought), could also re-confirm the theory of the genres. In his essay of 1960 titled Laocoonte 60, which he inserted in the already mentioned Critica del gusto, he could, among other things, have recourse to the test of the incontrovertibility of the genres (for example the sculptural is not translatable in the pictorial, and vice versa), as if this was a demonstration of their logical validity, and not simply a statement of fact which takes nothing away from the empiricism and the “relativity” of genres. Once more, as in many other fields of knowledge, the particular and specific sense of some philosophical theories which became popular at the turn of the 20th century were no longer understood. Just as the evaluation of the function of sciences and abstract concepts in general, was confused for “devaluation” of the sciences, the position by which it was attempted to take away aesthetic values to the genres (for example, that of evaluating the beauty of I Promessi sposi according to its adhesion or non adhesion to the genre of historical novel) was considered on the whole a devaluation of the use of genres, a use that indeed is wholly legitimate in the empirical-pragmatic field.

A similar discourse can be conducted on the problems that arise from the function that technology exercises on art and the distinctions of the various arts, all problems which ultimately can be reduced to one: in fact the distinction of art in various arts (music, painting, poetry, etc.) is the same as that of technology, given that such a distinction can only be founded on the identification of the various technologies which preside at the formation of each single art.

The question has been raised: how is it possible that an artist could be painter or musician without acquiring a particular  pictorial or musical technique, or, with greater respect for the complexity of the problem, if in the concrete realization of a work of art, a formation to which one arrives after a laborious process, one needs to utilize a technique or various techniques, especially if to this term we allow a very general significance. Confer in this respect the problematic essay by L. Pareyson, The Artistic Process in Problems of Aesthetics (1973) or more generally the whole aesthetic production of the scholar. Simplifying to the extreme, there are those who have ironically asked if a painter can paint without a brush and a canvas, or if an architect can construct anything without stones.

But in this case also, rather than critiquing a specific theoretical position, what was being critiqued was its ghost, given that nobody criticized the utility of technology and the specificity of the various artistic languages (the Arts), but the improper use in rendering an aesthetic judgment of those instruments. Technology cannot by itself constitute the artistic phenomenon, and it needs to be absorbed by art; otherwise it remains a product of ingenuity but not of artistic activity. It would be enough to repeat the banal but convincing example of two individuals who are both endowed with the same technical capacity, are not both equally artists. Which of course does not take away the fact that from the beginning of the twentieth century, on both the issue of the genres and that of technology and the Arts, there has been further progress or at the very least clarifications of great interest. So today we can say that the function of the genre is not that assigned by Croce at the beginning, that is to say that of uniting, cataloguing and placing in groups works of art with clear resemblances for mnemonic or didactic purposes. The genre can indeed be useful to the critic for an orientation without determining his judgment, allowing for an evaluation which is more sure and meditated of the single work of art being examined. Confer the interpretation and analysis of the concept of genre in Croce done by Mario Fubini in his book Critica e Poesia (1956).

Even for technology, now that the debate on anti-positivism at the turn of the 20th century has subsided or at least changed, it is necessary to recognize that it is not simply useful to communicate artistic creation already beautiful and complete even before it was exposed exteriorly on a canvas, in a bloc of marble, or on the stage of a theater. Technology can also be interpreted, and the same Croce in later years so understood it, as the result of all that historical tradition which cannot be ignored. Styles, poetics, precepts,


Critica e Poesia of Mario Fubini (1956)

cultural traditions, the influence of great artists, are all elements which which come together in the creation of a new artistic creation, consciously or unconsciously.  A critic who takes seriously his work cannot ignore them but at the same time he ought no overvalue them, since, and this is the essential point, aesthetic judgment may take advantage of other judgments on the technical or historical level but it cannot identify with them. If this were not so, we would arrive at the paradox (about which for some reason or other not many think about) so that those who do not know well the entire history of literature and the various artistic techniques, could not understand and enjoy poetry. This is obviously false and it is contradicted even by common experience.


Mario Fubini (1900-1977)

Be that as it may, in our opinion technique also fulfills another function. If one considers the concrete artistic creation one has to admit that technique conditions such a creation: in some way it guides it. On the other hand the contrary is also true. The artist chooses a Particular technique because he believes that he thus fulfills his intuition and his sentimental world. If an artist chooses to express himself through the typical dialogic form of the theater, one cannot say that it was a casual choice, rather it was guided by an interior vision of reality, by a particular mode of experiencing and express life. Hence, it is the creative force that bends technique to its will, but on the other hand it also contaminates itself. The poetical image, in some way, in its creation is conditioned by that series of extraneous factors which it has determined. However, the fact that technique does not possess a substantial value is also proven by the fact that “techniques” create themselves capriciously. As it is by now clear, between technique and art there is strict nexus wherein the parts can only be distinguished under analysis, since in the concrete artistic creation they are indissolubly tied to each other in a synthesis that is even more than dialectical. The same Croce while in one of his essays radically denied to technique any relationship to artistic creation, would then write that “it means that an artist never conceives his work from in a vacuum, rather he conceives it in its fullness, with determinate conditions and assumptions, among which one finds (at least in those works of a certain complexity) economic necessities which are his and of the society in which he lives and where the work is created which become his. The work of the artist is not and cannot be prevented by those assumptions, since between matter and form there is no contradiction.” A bit later Croce would assert even more clearly that “The poet imagines with the presupposition of the words of his people, knowing the predispositions of his environment, and similarly the architect imagines with certain given stones, with a given land, a given space and the exigencies of life.” The same reasoning can be applied to the various arts whose expressive means conform to or modify the artist’s inspiration.


I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) of Alessandro Manzoni (1827)

This having been said, we need to confirm that in its essence, the debate conducted against all the attempts to repress the freedom of art (because to negate its autonomy, or subjugate it to technique or genres, poetics or precepts means exactly that) is indeed a debate which even today has not lost its value, nor will perhaps ever lose it, if it be true that Giordano Bruno in his fight against “rules” when he spoke of art could say that those rules “are useful to those who have more of a propensity to imitate than to create.”

Success and decline of the human sciences:

When we try to conclude this brief review of the most important problems arising out of the modern debate on aesthetics, one has to admit that the clash is between two visions of the world: one tied to classical philosophy, the other to a renewed positivism which has assumed characteristics of particular ideological forms. And even if our era has been crossed by forms of irrationality more or less obvious, we must admit that the two opposite positions, the empirical-rationalistic positivism on one side, and the metaphysical  irrationalism on the other, have found a common polemical target within modern philosophy. But there is no doubt that the greater success has been achieved by the neo-positivistic world, if it be true as in fact it is, that in the 60s and the 70s there have come to the fore disciplines such a psychoanalysis of art, the sociology of art and linguistic structuralism.

Even in this case confusion of terminology has often prevailed over the substance of the issue. The tempestuous diffusion of all the so called human sciences; the massive importation of French structuralism, provoked a natural reaction by those who did not discover in those sciences rigorous and well founded presuppositions; but it also provoked the reaction of those beginners who saw in philosophy the greatest obstacle to the diffusion of the new methods and the new ideas.


Giordano Bruno (1548-1600)

But let us return to our specific problem. A constructive dialogue had in fact been established between Croce and those scholars who came from the experience of the critique of style, first and foremost among them Vossler and Spitzer, while those who followed structuralism were of the opinion that they needed to  cut all ties with historicism aesthetics. At first the discovery of Ferdinand de Saussurre motivated a few (such as T. De Mauro who wrote Introduzione alla semantica in 1980) to confront his linguistic proposals with the classical one of Italian aesthetics, later on the discussion became more radical privileging the least historicist aspects found in the “father’s” of structuralism.

Instead of attempting a solution to the problem of the nexus between creative language (langage o parole in structuralist jargon) in which each element is conditioned and only within it communication and expression is possible, the problem was simply abandoned and what was privileged was the second term of the nexus. Consequently, literary criticism was conceived as a descriptive analysis of components and the various linguistic forms which were present in an artistic text, and thus the attack on the judgment about value (that is, the aesthetic judgment) began provoking a deep detachment of the young from the poetical, not to mention the crisis of the same structuralism.

The exercise of criticism begins to look like a very complicated game whose utility was hard to discern, and live poetry became a corpse which had to be dissected; all of which could not arouse any interest in the general public. Those who had a philosophical sense asked themselves how a structuralist could possibly identify a work of art if not by judging it as artistic, which is to say, by pronouncing, even if implicitly, a judgment of value. Then there was the abuse of a chatty language which looked complicated but was ultimately banal, the dilettante mode of many who followed structuralism as a fashion of sort and not because of its theories; the attempt to amalgamate Marxism, psychoanalysis and structural linguistic, ended up with a profound and general uneasiness which soon enough became a fierce debate and later in sheer indifference. Today, after the ideological diatribes, there is an attempt to recover what was most valid in the structuralist movement both in the philosophical and the linguistic field, picking cautiously certain concepts without taking firm positions.

The same discourse can be made for sociology and psychology, were it not necessary to remember that those disciplines never found favor with the major Italian philosophers and even the European ones. Not only Croce, Gentile and De Ruggero had considerable difficulties vis a vis with Freudian psychoanalysis, but also philosophers from different schools such as Bergson, Heidegger, Sartre and the positivist Popper who considered psychoanalysis unscientific in as much as it could not be subjected to the criterion of falsification.  

In our opinion one cannot even speak of an interrupted dialogue, but of a dialogue that never began. In any case, even here, we ought to avoid false debates. Beyond the specific or even philosophical value that one wished to credit those disciplines with, it is certain that the psychologist or the sociologist can use art as an historical document (haven’t the great historians after all, not operated thus from time immemorial?), and the psychoanalyst uses it to prove some of his theories. But it is equally true that all of this has nothing to do with aesthetic and literary criticism. Beyond the discussion of the truth of sociology and psychoanalysis (in our opinion there is a practical utility of some sociological investigations, and there is also therapeutic utility in part of modern psychoanalysis), what needs to be condemned is pan-sociologism and pan-psychologism, just as we ought to condemn pan-philosophism.

Whenever the sociologist or the psychoanalyst, instead of merely a specific social situation or a particular psychological condition, pretend to place as foundational the social “factor” or the psychic “factor” to all other human actions, they end up in a form of philosophical determinism, which can be refuted not only at a philosophical level, but has almost always been proven false even at an empirical level.

This deterministic and relativistic metaphysical aspect of these doctrines needs to be rejected. To exemplify, one thing is to search the motives why in some places or in certain societies, Dannunzinism could spread so easily, another thing is to explain the poetry of D’Annunzio on the basis of social and economic structures which are assumed to have generated and determined it. In this sense determinism leads to relativism (the work of art is relative to the  historical condition in which it was born) and metaphysics and, even if it is a “materialistic” metaphysics, given that it assumes a first cause which generates all other human manifestations.

Admittedly we have here broadly outlined the road which was followed by Italian aesthetics after W.W. II and still ongoing. We need not mention that the Italian cultural panorama is far richer than any single personality which in the field of philosophical aesthetics (it would be enough to mention Rosario Assunto, Gianni Vattimo, Aldo Trione, Vittorio Stella, Franco Fanizza) or that of criticism (Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti, Bruno Zevi, Luigi Russo), have offered and continue to give notable contributions. Croce’s school, which today is being revalued under various opinions, has for many years produced valuable studies, especially in militant criticism and literary historiography.

However this consideration remains: generally speaking, even studies of aesthetics have felt the general milieu of a theoretical and ideal disorientation. The dictatorship of banality and of the idees recues, which still pervades cultural awards is rendered even more grievous, arrogant and uneasy, which does not mean invincible, from the tyranny of the industry of culture.


Enrico Cavacchioli and the Meta-theater
A Presentation by Michael Vena

(By way of an Essay from his book Italian Playwrights of the Twentieth Century)


Professor Michael Vena


Enrico Cavacchioli (1885-1954)


L’Uccello del Paradiso of Enrico Cavacchioli (1918)

Enrico Cavacchioli was born in 1885 at Pozzallo in the province of Ragusa, Sicily. Information about his personal and family life has been scarce. It is known however that Cavacchioli received his early education in Sicily and had had written a number of lyrics by the time his family moved to Milan in 1905, where he continued his studies and managed to become acquainted with avant-guard literary circles and the world of journalism. During the 1906-1907 period Cavacchioli joined the futurist movement and, under the auspices of that group published two collections of poetry. But his involvement with theater wouldn’t be long delayed. As early as 1909 a three-act play, I Corsari (the Buccaneers) and a second one act play were staged, while he signed along with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and others the Manifesto of Futurist Playwrights (1909), as it firs appeared in Le Figaro of Paris. These activities mark the beginning of a long association with various literary journals and newspapers by way of articles and interviews as a drama critic.


Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944)
Founder of Futurism

Cavacchioli moved gradually to his theatrical activity. While the first of his texts for the stage goes back to 1909, only during the war period did he bring his full attention and energy to the theater. La Campana d’argento (Silver Bell, 1914), his first significant play, gave an unexpected boost to the theater of the grotesque. Staged in 1914, this comedy came as a surprise to all those expecting a futurist synthesis; it carries instead the emblematic subtitle of “sentimental grotesque” and is based on one of the classic themes of the “triangle of adultery.” The plot centers around Luca Zardo, a distinguished scientist on his way to important medical discoveries, his wile Anna and her cousin Francis. Anna and Francis were lovers in their youth and a son, Baby, was born from that relationship. Suspicious of the two lovers, Luca denies Francis a serum to cure his tuberculosis. Francis, in shock, reveals that the boy is not Luca’s child before he drops dead on the floor. Luca forces his wife out of the house and keeps the child, with no questions asked.

The play’s novelty is that Cavacchioli seeks to introduce on stage a spokesman for the author in the character of Flori. Admittedly, Flori is hardly developed as a character, remaining a projection of the ego of the author while the rest of the cast is the object of that ego. Flori’s role in the action of the play is indicated within the text itself: “…My role?...I never sleep…I am everywhere…with the sould of a metteur en scene. And I aways find myself where I shouldn’t be.” (Act 1, Mariani, 90). Cavacchioli outlines through Flori the grotesque poetics of man’s alienation: as a start Flori says that: “In life we are all characters outside of our own role. When a farce is recited we assume the role tragedy, and vice versa. If you want to be convinced of this, go to the theater. There you have a proof. You’ll come out of it disgusted but convinced.” (Act 1, Marinari, 91) The introduction of raisonneurs on the scene signals a new beginning for the theater, and their specific role opposing what is generally taken for granted is meant to generate a revolutionary effect leading to an awakening or consciousness desired by the author. Flori in fact operates outside the “triangle” and disappears the moment the play fall back on the old adultery trio. This drama, labeled by some critics as a failed attempt at grotesque, must be seen instead as a transitional work containing “in nuce” the ingredients for a meta-theater to be further developed in future plays and leading to existential situations codified much later as theater of the absurd.

The Bird of Paradise continues the important first cycle of grotesque drama and poetics. This particular work, written as a “confession in three acts” in 1918 is widely regarded as the most important play by Cavacchioli. It deals with a theme of anguish and frustration over the mechanical nature of its characters or a tragically farcical theater where the split between life and art is dramatized by a symbolic intruder referred to as Him, who places all the others on trial. Eventually Him concedes his failure to introduce them to the magic world of art and to give from and purpose to the existence of such characters who are thus reduced, by his assessment, to the condition of human puppets. To register his disapproval he withdraws into a world of his own, and for Him the performance is over, while the characters carr on the play at the existential level only to confirm their interpretation or preconceived notions of what it’s supposed to be.

As the curtain rises, we view the studio of an artist, Giovanni Ardeo, and hear his wife, Anna Corelli, who has abandoned the household to romantically search for a new lover, leaving behind even her daughter Donatella. Complications begins with Anna’s love affair with a younger man, Mimotte, as her suffering becomes intolerable with the arrival of her daughter and Mimotte intimates his love for young Donatella. At this point Cavacchioli drops among his characters the symbolic intruder to direct the action of the play. Him manipulates the characters like a puppeteer the strings of the action. In fact, the playwright stresses Him’s importance in a prefatory note to the first act: “This stage setting revolves around Him.”


Italian Playwrights from the Twentieth Century
Edited by Michael Vena (2013)

Him moves from the premise that truth is multifaceted, that is, subjective, pluralistic, and infused with a Pirandellian relativism. Yet, in spite of his questioning, none of the characters seem to resolve their existential woes as they remain firmly set in their unresolved conflicts, and Him can justifiably conclude: “The story has come to an end. It’s necessary to change subject because catastrophe is near and the knot is untied.” (Act 3, 47) This mocking, ironic comment has led at least some critics to theorize on the passive, mechanical nature of the characters, but at the same time it starts to formulate the poetics of Cavacchioli that people are mere puppets incapable of true and deep feelings, creatures with lost ideals and, worse yet, unable to create new ones.

The playwright aims now for a new direction by way of Quella che t’assomiglia (The Lady Who Resembles You, 1919), a play that carries the seeds of an absurdist split personality, along with a typically Pirandellian mirror reflection. Outside of the love triangle (Gabriella, Gabriele and Leonardo), there is a manipulator named The Mechanic, who seeks to get the other characters to see themselves “reflected” in their own world. The intrigue presents a wife who becomes unfaithful after her husband enlists as a volunteer during WWI; but the moment he is blinded, she has a conversion and henceforth remains loyal to him: good for her because Leonardo, the lover and a fortune-teller, is an adventurous illusionist. Yet the key player and mastermind will be the Mechanic, who stands for the expediency of existence with his “two wheels in place of his eyes,” that make him look more device of levers (and small mechanical parts) than like a man. In contrast with Him (from The Bird of Paradise) who seeks to give a “soul” or consciousness to his living characters, the Mechanic—more cynically—creates real ‘puppets’ opposite each character, and so he introduces Leonardo’s Puppet, Gabriella’s Puppet, Gabriele’s Shadow and Narcissus, “to whom he insisted on giving some words instead of a soul,” in response to the action of the play. The latest quote indicates what little faith the author lends to the words of a puppet. Of course ‘words’ become inadequate whenever language is reduced to conventional forms of expression, and in setting where the individual feels anxious to communicate but is incapable of doing so. Thus, Cavacchioli remains consistent with the major discovery of his theater by his conclusion that characters are frequently reduced to puppets, masks, mannequins that embody different personalities—a practice carried over in may performances of the grotesque theater, between the second and third decades of the twentieth century. No surprises then if Teatro dei fantocci (“Puppets’ Theater”) was the title of a well known book written about these playwrights by their contemporary theater critic and historian, Silvio d’Amico, who certainly knew the importance of Chiarelli, Antonelli, Rosso di San Secondo and Cavacchioli, as well as Pirandello’s early works and treatise On Humor.

Cavacchioli continues his experimenting in theater in La danza del ventre (Belly Dancing, 1921). There is a married woman, Pupa, estranged from her husband, and a duo sharing the role of the lover Nadir-Arlecchino. Pupa stands out as attractive and interested, her name in fact equals Dolly as a proper noun, and as a common noun it is linked to the popular medieval tradition of the Sicilian puppet theater—teatro dei pupi’, which Cavacchioli and other playwrights of the grotesque movement carry into their own productions, with the benefit of present tips from Freud, and psycho-analysis. Here Pupa stands for the provocative woman determined to have her way with the opposite sex.

The play takes place in a ballroom within a jet-set society. Pupa lives fully as a liberated woman as she meets a dancer name Nadir, a charming uninhibited Oriental described as a follows: “Dancing is his life. Music is an infinite kingdom where he moves like a king. He stirs tempests of desire.” (Act 1, 104). This mysterious man mesmerizes Pupa, but her repeated advances induce him to confess that in his homeland he was a eunuch in the sultan’s harem. As Nadir calls on his servant to satisfy her wish, a division of the self is thus actualized.: Nadir is the spirit, Arlecchino the flesh. Now Pupa seeks Arlecchino as lover and attempts to transform him from a mask into a real man by changing his multicolored costume into coattails, just as Nadir explain that creatures like him cannot live without poetry (that is, without a sentimental life) andhe would die without it. (Act 3, 139). Having said so, Nadir, wrapped in “the golden green of his mantle” (stage directions, Act 3), begins his belly dancing and, following a few steps, drops dead on the floor as if in a poetic expression of emptiness and frustration. But Arlecchino runs to help: Master! Master! It’s me, your devoted servant Arlecchino (Act 3, p. 141). But Arlecchino is consistent in his original role as an old mask: indeed his words echo Nadir’s: “Don’t go away Pupa! Don’t go away… Can you hear? He is still calling you through my desolate voice.” But Pupa is no longer interested and disappears quickly as if “swallowed by the doorway” (stage directions, Act 3, 141).

The unusual ending suggests that the duo Nadir/Arlecchino have become ‘real protagonists’ in the play. Cavacchioli introduces through this pair the ideal and the instinctual, a very significant variation from previous works, as we get here a splitting of the ‘figure’ of the lover, Arlecchino, who symbolizes the body without the spirit, cannot make it without Nadir (the spirit) who would charge him with will and energy. On the other hand, Nadir originally operated under a mask of his making, which he strips off for re-entry to his native Orient and potential heaven. This type of subversion suggests how hopelessly pessimistic Cavacchioli has become about human nature in a world populated by split personalities and divided loyalties, and other sorts of conflicts that prelude to absurd experiences started in life and dramatized on stage: in Silver Bells and Belly Dancing characters drop dead on the floor in a gesture of emptiness and renunciation, recalling acts of self-immolation as in a dance macabre from a medieval Europe.


Arlecchino Costume and mask from Commedia dell’Arte

Pierrot impiegato del lotto (Pierrot, the Lottery Clerk, 1925) characterized as a “grotesque fantasy,” follows the dramatic pattern and theme of Belly Dancing but with a different twist and end result. Pierrot is introduced as a lottery agent who helps his clients win by relying on numbers from the occult sciences; but the wins are so frequent that revenue officer sent to inspect the agency recommends that the agent be removed. Indeed as he prepares to quit, Pierrot makes the acquaintance of Russian princess with the suggestive name of Luba, along with her husband, Wladimir, and her lover, Rigoli, who had come to meet the talented occultist. Upon leaving, Pierrot is invited by Luba to her hotel where she seeks to turn him (as in the parallel case involving Pupa) from a night mask into a “man” by instigating Rigoli’s murder. The ensuing duel is resolved in an equally grotesque fashion: by ridiculing Rigoli, Pierrot earns the invitation to a night of love where he discovers the rule of her “dream shop”: but in so doing Pierrot shakes up the love triangle as a second lover. Pierrot becomes thus counter-productive as he turns into one of the last puppet variations in the cycle of Cavacchioli’s plays. Such puppets stand as a metaphor for the modern individual when all else is stripped away, a metaphor that defines the concern of theater, and of Cavacchioli in particular about the nature of the contemporary man. Puppets become the embodiment of the consciously created self, who allow different layers of manipulation, of one’s own masks and those of others. Going beyond Cavacchioli, Osvaldo Cantoni-Gilbertini re-affirms the metaphor in an even bolder play by the very title of Fantoccio (Puppet) where a man will engage two followers, a puppet as projection of his good self and a moor reflecting his bad side, with the aim of opening up one’s subconscious buried beneath reality. In such regard, Adriano Tilgher’s comments are even more telling about the period; he has this to say about Him as an example of ‘epic’ characters: “[…] with Him the author insisted on representing the Bubconscious, the Superconscious, the subliminal ego, the deep ego […], various names indicating […] the part of our self that escapes the mirror of our consciousness […]” (from “Il teatro del grottesco,” Studi sul teatro contemporaneo, Rome: Libreria di Scienze e Lettere, 1923).


Costume of Pierrot from the Commedia dell’Arte


Adriano Tilgher (1887-1941)

A recurrent peculiarity of Cavacchioli’s artistic activity is his criticism of middle-class mentality. He portrays people pursuing false ideals, and how in the end they fall victim to their own masks and inner prejudice. Grotesque playwrights tackled such problems both in a fanstastic mode (Antonelli) and in an ironic vein. One can reconnect to the latter vein Cavacchioli’s rebellions, crazy puppets, sometime driven by a puppeteer/manipulator who descends among them to lead each one through their woes and conflicts. Practically the plays introduced bear witness to a meta-theatrical function the author fulfills by dealing with questions of theater that also reflects on ways of life. More importantly, the dates of such productions tell us that Cavacchioli was at the forefront of such developments.

The puppeteer generally is in conflict with the characters, and this conflict holds the tension and the interest of the spectator. In the works discussed here we come across one character appearing as a superman, yet his abstract and mechanical nature turns him into a marionette: Him, Flori, The Mechanic, Nadir, Arlecchino, Pierrot, Pinocchio. Not by coincidence some of the titles given by Cavacchioli (and others) to such works suggest (polemically) mechanical devices which translate into over-simplifications if not distortions: puppets, masks, mannequins, tools, even a Pinocchio in love being still a piece of pine—a whole series of cases which prompt Cavacchioli to believe that people just keep on simulating, on acting out their parts, until he concludes: “I have tried to give a soul (consciousness) to all these puppets (characters)” (Act 3, 47), and he stops right there.


Pinocchio: a puppet without a soul?

As for the setting and other technical aspects of these plays, new stage design and scenery based on visual imagery (bright lights, hidden lights, color and mirror effects), are common stock of this period, carried over from the futurist synthetic theater. Also, the choice of enclosed spaces continues to be popular (a private study, a sensuous bedroom, an intimate den)—a pattern that will be continued by the existentialist theater of “closed doors” (e.g., J.P. Sartre’s drama Huis clos)—and of other unlikely places hosting chance or temporary encounters (lottery booth, hotel vestibule, etc.). The action itself of the old love triangle is broken up and purposely mismatched as the plot unfolds to reflect Cavacchioli’s view of man as a superficial entity, with theater reflecting that desolation in the spectacle and all the visual perceptions of showbiz, where the actor is last seen as a marionette who disappears into dark and total silence. (for more detail on this aspect of theater see Franca Angelini, Il teatro italiano del Novecento, 1978, or Roberto Tessari, Teatro italiano del Novecento, 1996).

Cavacchioli’s contribution to theater is to be found in at least two or three major areas: the first is the role of the so called raisonneur or puppeteer who generally embodies ideals of the author but often lose control over the strings of the action and thus becomes powerless. In the second area, Cavacchioli introduces puppets animated as ‘alter ego’ to specific characters; while this may not be new in the theatrical world (think of the Sicilian and other European traditions both ancient and modern), here we have instances of


Giorgio Pullini (1928-    )

actors who bring to bear their “alter ego” on the face of the puppet, a phenomenon that tells a lot about human nature: Cavacchioli rejuvenates in modern times an old puppet tradition and fashions it into a new theatrical and literary mode that reflects concerns of his time. Puppet theater, originally apropos for children, has since diversified greatly within the twentieth century through performing laboratories of “bread and puppet”, thanks to leaders like Peter Schumann, Gordon Craig, Michael Metschke, Mario Ricci, with theater taken as ‘play’ as well as ‘ritual’. These schools have captivated vast new audiences and introduced


Pullini’s Teatro Italiano tra due secoli:
1850-1950 (1958)

spectacular productions like Sesame Street, Anenue Q, etc. Indeed, the raisonner, the puppet, the character with a split personality bring together peculiar topics Cavacchioli elaborates in his production. His later plays produce characters who dissolve themselves in mysterious practices, typical of the theater of the absurd that Cavacchioli practiced from the second decade of the century to the mid-twenties, clearly before the nineteen sixties indicated by Martin Esslin as the beginning of a theater of the absurd.


Il Teatro del Novecento: From Pirandello to Fo
of Franca Angelini (1978)

To conclude, Cavacchioli’s production ought to be viewed within the context of an unrepeatable era enjoyed by Italian theater (1908-30), when some of the most significant plays of the twentieth century were brought on stage, with the involvement of a remarkable number of great actors, actresses, and directors. Along with other innovative playwrights of the group as Chiarelli, Antonelli, Rosso, Pirandello and Bontempelli, Cavacchioli lived through a profound intellectual revolution that marked the second and third decade of the twentieth century. In such regard, their theater reflects the polemics as well as philosophical positions taken by a number of intellectuals who gave character and direction to that brief but highly significant movement known as grottesco (“grotesque”), wherein the passions and tragedies of life are


Teatro italiano del Novecento: Phenomena e Strutture
of  Roberto Tessari (1996)

mechanically simplified and shockingly distorted. It’s a theater that incorporates positivistic disenchantment, social criticism, and an unusual concept of ethics that deny traditional values and lean toward a relativistic philosophy. These playwrights mock what they see as a miserable mode of existence and indeed leave their protagonists in the midst of unresolved conflicts. Cavacchioli follow suit and introduces on stage a practice that will be much later be identified with the theater of the absurd, by creating characters with a split personality or mind and spirit, immersed in an aura that often is turned into acts of self immolation, as in Silver Bell (1914) and Belly Dancing (1921). Even the last play discussed in this essay, Pierrot, The Lottery Clerk (1925) may well have been carried into Jean-Luc Goddard’s film that deals with a crazy 1965 character called Pierrot le fou, in a period indicated by Martin Esslin as starting point for the theater of the absurd. Given the nature and content of Cavacchioli’s plays and of Pirandello’s treatise On Humor as well as his early novel The late Mattia Pascal and other productions, it becomes clear that a theater of the absurd was well in the making way before the date indicated by Martin Esslin. Also, it’s known that Cavacchioli was not a stranger in France regarding theatrical matter: he was, according to F.T. Marinetti, the first signer of the futurist manifesto of 1909, which was published in Le Figaro of Paris, and obviously an integral part of that group of innovative playwrights from the futurist and grotesque movement known in France at the time as “La Nouvelle École Italianne.”




A Response by Paparella to Vena’s Presentation on Enrico Cavacchioli: Thank you Mike for this enlightening introduction to the Grotesque theater of Enrico Cavacchioli. Upon reading your essay I was made acutely aware that the theater can provide to us not only the proverbial Aristotelian catharsis but also a bridge between the quotidian of practical life and a rarefied aesthetic theory. Your presentation allows us to understand that the theater (which could encompass the genre of Opera and Ballet under the umbrella of “performing arts” or “performed narration”) is the closest one can get to life itself; it can even manage to have life imitate art, while theory by itself often comes across as abstract and even sterile. Your insight seems to be that only the theater can truly bridge the abyss between the theoretical and the practical, the universal and the particular. If I am not mistaken we can hear echoes here not only of Aristotle’s poetics but also of Vico and Croce’s aesthetics derived from the poetical. Both Neapolitan philosophers would probably agree that by its own nature a play worthy of that name must be endowed with a vision of life that is poetical for it is via the poetical that it becomes able to transform even the banal, the ugly and the perverse into a thing of awe and beauty. To be sure Art in general performs that kind of alchemy, but, as you point out, especially the theater. I for one am grateful for your strenuous endeavors to make the Italian theater better know around the world, for without knowledge of the Italian theater one will understand precious little of the Italian Renaissance or of the history of Italian Opera or even of the outstanding achievement represented by modern Italian cinema. Thank you Mike for your brilliant elucidation on this issue and always ad majorem.  


A warm welcome to Dr. Alessandra Abis:


Dr. Alessandra Abis, actress and choreographer

The Director of the magazine Thanos Kalamidas and we of the team of the Ovi Symposium would like to warmly welcome Dr. Alessandra Abis as a new member of the same. She is a graduate of the department of Foreign and Classical Languages and Literatures at the University of Bari. In 1992 with her husband Arcangelo she founded the Adriani Teatro in Bitonto, Italy. In future sessions of the symposium she will describe to us the vision and the mission of such a theater in both Italy and the USA where she and her husband now reside and work. She too conceives of the theater as a sort of bridge between the technological scientific positivistic culture of America and the more humanistic culture of Italy. She has been active in the building of those needed bridges of understanding and has performed in Greek-Latin plays in Madrid and Seville (1998-1999); among various others, the following can be enumerated: “Voyage in the Greek World” (Andromaca), “Miles Gloriosus” (Plauto), “The Last Temptation of Socrates (from Plato’s Ione Minor). Also from the Commedia dell’Arte: “Harlequin Doctor Flyer,” “Harlequin, the Dentist,”  “Without Makeup (Chechov), “Four Portraits of Mothers” and “Lady Madness” (from Erasmus’ “In Praise of Folly”). We welcome her initial generous commitment to the Symposium and look forward to her future contributions on such fascinating field as the ancient Greek and Roman theater.




Intro - P. 1 - P. 2 

2nd Meeting - 3rd Meeting - 4th Meeting - 5th Meeting - 6th Meeting - 7th Meeting - 8th Meeting -

9th Meeting - 10th Meting - 11th Meeting - 12th Meeting - 13th Meeting - 14th Meeting - 15th Meeting -

16th Meeting - 17th Meeting - 18th Meeting - 19th Meeting - 20th Meeting - 21st Meeting -

22nd Meeting -23rd Meeting - 24th Meeting - 25th Meeting -


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Emanuel Paparella2014-02-13 13:39:07
Errata: there is a typographical error in the word "choreographer" under Dr. Abis' photo in the last section. Moreover, her name has been left out from the heading of the symposium. I apologize to the readers for the two oversights.

Ovi editors2014-02-13 14:28:58

Emanuel Paparella2014-02-13 15:04:39
Thanks Thanos.

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