Della Volpe’s Critique of Taste (1960) represented the first attempt in Italy at what its author describes as ‘a systematic exposition of a historical-materialist aesthetic’.footnote1 Previous Italian Marxist aesthetics had been sketchy and, apart from a very few cases, compromised with the idealist aesthetics of Croce or Gentile, despite intentions and claims to the contrary. Gramsci’s notes on literature, although a more problematical case, also fall into this category. Gramsci posed an entirely fresh set of questions about art, in particular about the distribution and readership of literature and about the function of literary intellectuals in the national culture, but he continually slid back into a Crocean perspective when he dealt with aesthetics as a distinct sphere of inquiry.footnote2 Della Volpe’s early work on aesthetics, predating his active interest in Marxism in the 1940’s, both opposed and was influenced by Croce and Gentile, and Critique of Taste itself shows some traces of Croce’s system in its rejection of differences between literary genres and in its general empirical approach. Yet Della Volpe made a significant break with the dominant tradition of literary criticism in Italy, and to grasp his innovation fully, this tradition should be briefly examined.

Many of the critics prominent on the post-war literary scene had been liberals nurtured in Croce’s aesthetics and, as Luigi Russo remarked in 1942, those others who opposed Croce ‘still have to pass through Croce’s thought, and delaying the experiment is an illusory escapism’.footnote3 If they gravitated to the political left at the end of the war, these critics attempted to shear off the more overtly idealist elements in Croce’s system: the distinction between the history of poetry and history proper, the conception of art as disinterested and opposed to the practical. However, the historicism of the dominant Marxist tradition, Labriola–Croce–Gramsci–Togliatti, in fact facilitated a graft between their old and their new presuppositions. They now conceived of works of literature as historically determined but they also regarded them as expressions of the spirit. They talked of them as expressions, not as texts, because the literary text had been seen by Croce as the shadow of a substance, the material trace left by an ideal intuitive-expressive act. Witness the Socialist critic Giuseppe Petronio outlining a ‘social aesthetics’ able to mediate between the extremes of ‘individualist’ and ‘determinist’ aesthetics. Social aesthetics will seize the dialectical connection between subject and object in its view of ‘a man operating freely yet conditioned by his environment’ and of the work of art as ‘the expression of a society and at the same time of an individual, bound to reality and yet original, unforeseen and unpredictable’.footnote4

These critics tried to construct a bridge across Croce’s distinction between history and the work of art by using the notion of the ‘poetic’. The term in this specific usage referred simply to an artist’s conscious system of ideas.footnote5 In the work of one Communist critic, Carlo Salinari (but his case is exemplary), the poetic was effectively identified with the authorial ideology. The act of criticism became focused on the poetic, showing how it was generated by historical conditions and in turn generated a poem. To criticize a writer’s poetic, it was sufficient to point out its class basis and compare it with a more advanced ideology rooted in the consciousness of the historically privileged class of the time. A poet’s ideology could be paradoxically retarded and yet advanced, a fact Salinari explained by adducing a contradictory world view embodied in a complex poetic. Criticism produced according to this method was naturally fixated upon ideological content, in the sense of the ideas in a work of literature, and the literary text was arrived at in the last step of a genetic–ideological explanation. Regarding the aesthetic level of the work, two possibilities then lay open. Either to isolate the work’s spiritual values from its historical ones, to separate the ‘poetry’ in Croce’s sense from the ‘non-poetry’ or ‘structure’ or ideological content. Or to conflate aesthetic with ideological values, to consider as the best poetry that which embodied the best, most progressive, content.footnote6

The keynote of this trend in criticism was precisely its progressivist conception of realism. History was seen as a process whose protagonists gradually acquired a consciousness of their own actions. Each cut made by the critic into history would therefore reveal a slice of its progress. Realism, wrote Salinari, ‘seizes the direction in which things are moving’.footnote7 This view of realism complemented the progressivism of Togliatti’s Marxism: the idea of providential historical development and the view that socialism could grow within capitalism. It was also one of the main obstacles to the influence of Lukács as literary critic in Italy during the 1950’s. Valentino Gerratana for instance, while accepting Lukács’s critique of formalism in art, opposed him for not considering naturalistic tendencies as part of the struggle for a new realism.footnote8 Similarly, the provocative formulas of Gramsci’s notebook entries on literature—the struggle for a new culture and national-popular literature—became adapted to the needs of a pci cultural policy which encouraged the formation of organic writer-intellectuals producing a progressive national literature (neo-realism) with a correct ‘ideological axis’.footnote9

In this critical theory, then, aesthetics and the text were displaced from the centre of the picture and poetic language or poetic style was consequently treated as a kind of embellishment, refractory to the theory’s historical and ideological concerns. Petronio, in two articles published in Societ` in 1958–9, attacked stylistic criticism on the grounds that it paid undue attention to the language of texts at the expense of their historical content.footnote10 He employed Gramsci’s slogan of a ‘return to De Sanctis’ to legitimize the adoption of a 19th century type of overview of the literary work rooted in its historical context, and to reject élitist critical specialization. Della Volpe’s break with this aesthetic tradition can be well illuminated if we insert him here, in the context of this discussion of style criticism. Gianfranco Contini, a non-Marxist textual critic, had dissented from Petronio’s articles by arguing that any serious Marxist criticism must undertake an analysis of linguistic data, an analysis ‘whose clamorously anti-democratic nature is in reality a maximum adhesion to the extreme complexity of the real, as can be seen in the techniques of what are called the natural sciences’.footnote11 Della Volpe intervened in the exchange, taking, with certain reservations, Contini’s side against Petronio.footnote12 Against Petronio’s return to De Sanctis and against the fixation upon generic content it involved, Della Volpe argued that the task of the Marxist critic was to point out the historically specific nature of poetic language, to examine texts instead of reflecting upon them in crude paraphrases. In its outlines, Della Volpe’s break consisted of nothing less than a reversal of the process of literary analysis adopted by the progressivist critics. Instead of moving from the ideology to the poem via the poetic and tacking on the aesthetic, formal level of the text at the end of the analysis, Della Volpe proposed to start with the language of the text, with the form and the poetic images which constituted the traditional home of the aesthetic in poetry, moving out from there to general historical concepts.