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A Brief Dialogue between Drs. Nannery, Paparella and Paolozzi on Low and High Culture in Italian Literature and Philosophy  vis a vis Benedetto Croce, Alessandro Manzoni and Antonio Gramsci A Brief Dialogue between Drs. Nannery, Paparella and Paolozzi on Low and High Culture in Italian Literature and Philosophy vis a vis Benedetto Croce, Alessandro Manzoni and Antonio Gramsci
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2013-04-17 10:27:10
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 A Brief Dialogue between Drs. Nannery, Paparella and Paolozzi

on Low and High Culture in Italian Literature and Philosophy

vis a vis Benedetto Croce, Alessandro Manzoni and Antonio Gramsci

With an Introductory Note by Dr. Emanuel L. Paparella

A note to the readers: what follows is a brief discussion between Dr. Nannery who originally wrote an insightful article for Ovi on High and Low Culture titled “Art, High and Low”  (April 11, 2013) followed by some relevant comments by yours truly on the same day and then by an article inspired by it by Leah Sellers two days later (4/13/2013) and finally by some private but brilliant comments in Italian by Dr. Paolozzi. He has given me permission to translate his comments in English for possible publication in Ovi. I have done so and sent the whole to Thanos to be published at his earliest convenience. I thought it would be unfortunate if in the midst of various diatribes and tempest in a tea cup that have raged recently in Ovi we ended up losing the insights gathered by this spirited discussion within the context of free speech on some of the most influential philosophers and literary men of Italian culture. I trust that the readers, after surveying once again the original articles by Dr. Nannery and Leah Sellers, will enjoy, and perhaps even join the discussion. If nothing else, it will make Dr. Paolozzi, a new arrival at Ovi, a bit better known to the Ovi readership.

Comments by Dr. Paparella: (as posted on 4/11/2013, under the original article by Dr. Nannery):


Thanks Larry for this informative and insightful excursus into the world or art and high and low culture. Both Karl Marx and Antonio Gramsci, no to speak of Leo Tolstoy, expressed the hope that art would become more egalitarian and be at the very least made more available to the poor as a sort of spiritual realm open to all. As you hint at, they must have been disappointed. I suppose, that makes their theory of the inevitable almost deterministic advent of socialism a bit problematic, to say the least, but that is another story pertaining to political science or philosophy.

You are correct in pointing out that the solution to egalitarianism does not lie in the suppression of high culture which would be quite barbaric but in identifying the reasons for the confusion between the two as your excursus well exemplifies. The Literary critic De Sanctis and Gramsci for instance, in his famous work “Literature and National Life” (Letteratura e Vita Nazionale) point out that in Italian literature we have to wait till the 19th century and Manzoni to have two farmers as protagonists of a great novel (I Promessi Sposi), thus revealing a certain elitism and exclusion of the poor from the world of high literature. It is therein, I suppose, that lies the confusion, in the fact that it was felt that the poor did not have a rich spiritual life worthy of great literature, or as you put it, they could not be “aristocrats in taste.”

As professor Paolozzi has well pointed out recently in the pages of Ovi in his book Benedetto Croce: History and the Duty of Freedom as translated by professor Verdicchio, this confusion could have been easily avoided had Italian culture not jettisoned Croce after World War II to opt for Gramsci. This is an issue to be further explored.

Talking of great literature which surely belongs within high culture, it is intriguing to me that an actor like Roberto Benigni now goes around the world reciting Dante, but he does not go in the universities and the classrooms of the academic world where one will find at best a dozen graduate students taking a class on Dante but in the public squares where he recites the poem to thousands upon thousands of common people, the people for whom Dante’s Divine Comedy was written, in Italian, to the chagrin of university professors, humanists and Dante specialists who could only dream of getting that kind of audience in a university setting. So the problem may be the problem of the two cultures: that of scientism and logical positivism vs. that of the humanities and the liberal arts.

Which brings us to your excellent elucidation on comedy and tragedy. As you know, the reason Dante calls his poem a comedy is that it ends well with the vision of God. I suppose it can be said that Christianity in some way alters the very concept of tragedy by proclaiming the good news that even a great tragedy such as the human condition and its ultimate destiny which begins with a tragic journey via hell eventually turns out well and is therefore a comedy, thus making a Dante and a Shakespeare possible, poets who vie with Homer and Virgil. Which is to say, the way up is the way down...This is another theme that, in my opinion, needs further exploration. In any case, thanks for bringing in a breath of fresh air among some inane diatribes that have been raging in the magazine lately.

Comments by Dr. Paolozzi (translated into English by Dr. Paparella)

Dear Dr. Nannery and Emanuel,

Thanks for the deep reflections on high and low culture. Let me say, first of all that Croce is a fundamental reference as regards method. One can talk of rich or poor, of noble damsels and maids; what counts that one talks about them artistically. This is preliminary. Had I written the Promessi Sposi it would have had precious little artistic value. Were I to read Dante in the public square I would probably be booed; probably also in a university setting.

Once we have established this concept which is quite simple but for some reason rather difficult for university professors, then we can discuss it within the context of cultural dissemination or cultural industry and speak about culture as a social phenomenon. Within this context I am in full agreement on the point that it is possible to disseminate high culture as Benigni well teaches us. I too think that culture destroys itself when it debases itself or when it is confused with snobbish intellectualistic sophistications which are really pseudo-post-modern. I would go as far as saying that great art is almost always high and popular at the same time, to wit Benigni which you admire so much, the second half of Life is Beautiful is undoubtedly culturally sophisticated and popular at the same time. I myself, on my mother’s side come from an ancient family involved with the theater, to wit my aunt Olimpia di Maio who takes on the role of the mother in Scusate il ritardo of Massimo Troisi.

Since I was a child, I learned from the theater that in every representation one can discern poetry and trade, the sophisticated and the popular, the authentic and the artificial. Only a critical taste is able to distinguish the two levels which are intertwined inexorably. Both De Sanctis and Croce had helped us to keep those distinction well in mind. We need to return to those distinctions without despising them.

For example, a film that is not artistic is a film that has failed aesthetically. But it can be worth while; such is a A Fistful of Dollars by Sergio Leone. He is even an artist in some segments of Once Upon a Time in America. The problem arises when the two are confused. We criticize the firs film because it is not artistic and an aesthetic failure; we criticize the second film because it is boring for the masses. Italian literature is born with a poem which is authentic and sophisticated on an aesthetic level and popular at the same time: The Canticle of the Creatures of St. Francis of Assisi.

I hope that in the future I will be able to contribute with more such reflections for Ovi magazine.



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Publius2013-04-17 16:52:20
Short note on Benigni. The Communist comedian recently failed on State TV in his renewed attempt to entice Italians. Though paid millions of euros (out of the People's pockets via TV tax) for a few hours of performance, he attracted an audience "share" of less than 8%. The post-modern "shine" appears to have worn off. Nor has Benigni's tight collaboration with a notorious American "Dantist" academician saved the day.

Question: could someone kindly define "pseudo-post-modern"?

M. Andreacchio2013-04-17 17:12:39
Dr Paparella,
you write: "In Italian literature we have to wait till the 19th century and Manzoni to have two farmers as protagonists of a great novel (I Promessi Sposi), thus revealing a certain elitism and exclusion of the poor from the world of high literature."

Concerning the above: what are we to make, e.g., Dante's Convivio or Boccaccio? (Assuming that by "novels" we not mean merely 19th century inventions; for then the cited statement would be a mere truism.)

There is a simple explanation for the fact that great literature draws its "heroes" from wealthy families (even the heroes of Manzoni's "The Betrothed" are in no guise farmers). The children of the rich are blessed with the leisure necessary for the cultivation of the mind/soul. This of course does not mean that "the poor" are excluded from great literature. Some of the best Italian writers were financially poor from birth onward (Gianbattista Vico is a perfect example).

Leah Sellers2013-04-18 06:38:13
Welcome, to Ovi, dear Dr. Paolozzi.
Thank you for your most recent Writings and Insights.
Noble efforts, Brother Emanuel.
Thank you, as well, dear Sir.

Publius2013-04-19 01:11:28
Benigni Update: his TV audience share in Italy has gone down to 4.5%. If sheer popularity had been invoked as index of B's virtue, it is time to either find a different index or find a better interpreter of Dante.

Emanuel Paparella2013-04-19 18:10:41
You missed the point, Publius, I am afraid. Benigni still attracts more people than the college professors who wish a large audience but also wish to be elitists; like having the cake and eating it too. Could Publius be a Roman stranger of sorts?

Emanuel Paparella2013-04-20 01:04:54
P.S.S. Boccaccio's Decameron is not a novel but a collection of 100 short stories. Neither is Dante's Convivium a novel.

M. Andreacchio2013-04-21 23:26:16
Dr. Paparella, do heed my earlier parenthesis concerning truisms.

At least in Italy, prior to the XIX century there is NO "certain elitism and exclusion of the poor from the world of high literature" (again, unless by "high" YOU mean merely "pertaining only to aristocrats"--thereby begging the question).

Note that Boccaccio's "short stories" are and always have been great NOVELLE (English: NOVELS).

For an overview of notorious pre-XIX century Italian NOVELS, see:

One excellent collection of novels (whence drew writers as notable as Cervantes and Shakespeare) is the ECATOMMITI, the XVI century collection of great (by-no-means "elitist") novels (NOVELLE) by Giambattista Giraldi Cinzio. The work is available free online (for those interested), here:


Emanuel Paparella2013-04-22 10:08:31
The word novella is usually translated as "short story" in English not novel. The word for novel in Italian is "romanzo." Two words that look alike but mean different things in different languages are said to be cognate: false relatives. So we can play semantics all day, but the fact remains that De Sanctis and Gramsci had it on target when they lamented rhetorical flourish and elitism in the Italian novel up to Manzoni.

M. Andreacchio2013-04-22 16:44:47
Dr. Paparella, egregious dictionaries read "novella" as "short novel".

You appear to ignore the fact that IF by "novel" you mean a XIX century invention, THEN *no novel at all*--whether elitist or not--was ever written prior to Manzoni's times.

Given your narrow understanding of "novel," I really see no point in your asserting that,

«In Italian literature we have to wait till the 19th century and Manzoni to have two farmers as protagonists of a great novel».

M. Andreacchio2013-04-23 00:28:26
N.B. Folks at Harvard *still* read Boccaccio as author of novels:

Communists such as A. Gramsci and G. De Sanctis are dead wrong in their haughty assessment of early modern Italian literature.

On Boccaccio's novels, see further (inter alia):




Emanuel Paparella2013-04-23 16:27:32
De Sanctis was a communist? So that explains why he was wrong? Where did you learn your logic? What De Sanctis was getting at, but you don't know or ignore is that the whole of Italian literature, never mind the novel, has a propensity toward the oratorical and the flourishing form and smelled of elitism, the elitism of the arrogant academic sophists, at the expense of the content and in defiance of the vast majority of Italians who did not read it, at least until we get to Manzoni and Verga and Silone and many others.

M. Andreacchio2013-04-23 23:36:23
Paparella, please name even only one notorious elitist writer from the Italian Renaissance and who was not a priest.

But perhaps you have in mind writers from Baroque times--such as Giambattista Vico.

The chronologically-first great "flowery" Italian elitists I know of were Romantics--narcissists by faith.

Your ad hominem insinuation about "my" logic finds no support in my earlier notes.

Emanuel Paparella2013-04-24 04:03:24
Your ad hominem insinuation that the literary critic De Sanctis was a communist and did not know what he was talking about remains a false and egregious statement. De Sanctis was certainly a liberal but he was no communist and even if he had been one, it wouldn’t logically follow that he was wrong in his deep analysis of Italian literature which remains one of the most brilliant ever written. If you wish to take that as an ad hominem statement, that is your problem not mine and neither is it De Sanctis’.

M. Andreacchio2013-04-24 15:43:18

your ad hominem insinuations notwithstanding, my suggestion was NOT that De Sanctis & Gramsci were wrong *because* of their Marxist leanings (as much as these may be a *sign* of underlying errors), but because great Renaissance Italian (non-priestly) literature is--at least in the absence of proofs to the contrary--NOT elitist in the least. Not Latini; not Dante; not Petrarca; not Boccaccio; not Michelangelo; not Tasso; not Cinzio; not Vico. And the list could go on and on.

My further suggestion is that De Sanctis projected onto the Renaissance XIX century byproducts of the modern Enlightenment.

Again, I ask you to TRY SUPPORTING the lofty claim you profess--in the wake of Marxist and Marxist-like historical criticism--that Renaissance and Baroque Italian literature was prevalently elitist in spirit. To begin with, your claim would require at the very least NAMING some of the culprits.

Falling short of your adequately supporting your lofty claim, I must consider it DEFAMATORY.

The burden of proof weighs on he who wages the attack.

Emanuel Paparella2013-04-25 10:15:04
You have still not retracted the false defamatory claim, that De Sanctis was a communist. Moreover, if you pick up his voluminous writings on Italian literature and read them carefully you will there "the lofty" claim on Italian literature you impugn. He is and will remain one of the most brilliant critics of Italian literature.

Emanuel Paparella2013-04-25 10:33:29

For readers who may be following this thread and wishe to read an in depth treatment of this subject of rhetorical flourish and the claims of Italian literature vis a vis other European literatures, as critiqued by De Sanctis, see Dina Aristodemo’s essay on European studies (above linked) titled Nation Building and Writing Literary History (especially p. 220)

M. Andreacchio2013-04-25 17:04:26

1. The burden of proof weighs on the accuser. De Sanctis stands as a midget against the giants I mentioned already (and many others).

2. All modern literary-historical criticism is communistic in nature, insofar as it co-opts past literary works into a genealogy that points to a future universal uniformity (a "community" in which alone is the meaning of all past works supposed to be actualized and thereby fully-manifested).

3. I am well familiar with De Sanctis' work and find utterly unconvincing his penchant for genealogical projections.


As things stand, Dante, Petrarca, Boccaccio, Buonarroti, Cinzio, Tasso, Vico (etc.) have won the case you recycled against them, and early-modern ITALIAN LITERATURE has won in them.

De Sanctis, Gramsci and yourself have lost and are reprehensible for defamation against many of the best writers the world has ever seen.

M. Andreacchio2013-04-25 17:10:46
just checked the Aristodemo link you proposed, Paparella. It confirms my earlier assessment.

Emanuel Paparella2013-04-25 22:42:16
Mr. Publius, we are still waiting, in vain alas, for your retraction of the false statement that De Sanctis, like Gramsci, was a Communist. Given that falsehood still not retracted the readers can well figure out for themselves what to make of your egregious anonymous negative assessments of the literary criticism of De Sanctis and of your ad hominem slur that he was an intellectual pigmy. I will not respond any longer to this travesty which wishes to pass as an objective dialogue but has all the appearances of a diatribe with an ax to grind. We have seen too much of this reprehensible behavior already in Ovi.

Emanuel Paparella2013-04-26 04:27:39
For those readers who may still be following this thread, if indeed there are any, here verbatim is Dina Aristodema’s passage I referred to which Mr. Andreacchio says confirms his shabby opinion of De Sanctis and Gramsci. The readers can decide for themselves.

“…[De Sanctis] looks around and compares the status of Italian literature with that of other European literatures, and he looks to the future, wondering what specific characteristics modern Italian literature in a European context should have. In the conclusion to the Storia, De Sanctis sets out in a way reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s ‘six memos for the next millennium’ the task facing Italian literature for the coming century, which is ‘to transform the modern world into our world, by studying it, assimilating it and changing it for our own lives, ‘our own work do not yet exist. And in our boasts people detect our awareness of our inferiority. Thus instead of hanging on to the past and plagiarizing other people’s work, instead of the continuing threat of academicism, Arcadia, Romanticism and classicism, instead of rhetoric and emphasis, in Italy too modern poetry, the modern novel and modern drama could flourish.”

Emanuel Paparella2013-04-26 09:51:52
I apologizes for confusing Publius with Andreacchio in one of the above comments. It was an oversight perhaps explainable by the fact that they sound so much alike.

Emanuel Paparella2013-04-27 04:11:03
P.S. Again, for the benefit of the readers and to demonstrate how false, absurd and deceitful is the claim that Francesco De Sanctis was an “intellectual pigmy” I’d like to quote verbatim from a book which appeared in 1993 (Cambridge University Press) with the Title Society and Politics in the Age of Risorgimento, in chapter 10 titled “Francesco De Sanctis: the politics of a literary critic” the English historian of modern Italian culture and politics Denis Mack Smith says this about De Sanctis:

“According to Benedetto Croce, Francesco De Sanctis was one of the truly great intellectuals of Italian history. Gaetano Salvemini [a professor of Italian at Harvard University for a while] placed De Sanctis among the four Italians of his century who could be called a genius: the others were Leopardi, Cavour, and Cattaneo. Those four in Salvemini’s judgment took predecence over Manzoni and Verdi…and ahead of Mazzini and Garibaldi. De Sanctis is known for his critical studies of individual writers—among them Dante, Petrarch, Foscolo, Manzoni and Zola—but above all for a general history of Italian literature published in 1870…Education, he used to say, would one day redeem the country after three centuries of intellectual decadence. Education was not just instruction but must also be the molding of character. Italians had to be changed ‘physically and morally.’ They had to be cured of what he called the desease of having too much Machiavelly and too much of St. Ignatius Loyola in their intellectual inheritance. They still had far too much affection for rhetoric and rhetorical exaggeration, and he once called this the most damaging predisposition of Italians…his conclusion was that the tendency to rhetoric and over-emphasis was a main reason why Italy remained in the second rank among nations…Pasquale Villari [a great Italian historian]could call him ‘the true voice of our national conscience’…

It would seem from the above documented references that those who brand De Sanctis an intellectual pigmy are simply projecting on him their own dysmal condition.

M. Andreacchio2013-04-28 17:00:51
>"why Italy remained in the second rank among nations"

So what ranks as "first"? The league of imperialist colonizers?


De Sanctis must certainly have been a giant. How else could we explain his propensity to look down upon the dwarfs of the Italian Renaissance!

Dr. Bob Griffin2013-06-06 18:34:41
This is a very complex, time-bound topic. As Ernst Cassirer stated in his "Essay on Man," "Man is history."
Perhaps the best philosophical suggestion on art and culture is Goethe's: Wer den Dichter will verstehen muss im Lande Dichter's gehen;" i.e., Whoever wants to understand an artist needs to go live in the country of the artist."

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