Literary Criticism of Lodovico Castelvetro

Lodovico Castelvetro (1505–1571) is best known for his stringent reformulation of Aristotle’s unities of time and place in drama, his rigid approach being subsequently endorsed by neoclassical writers. Also important in his writings, however, are his treatment of imitation, plot, the distinction between poetry and history, and his views of the purpose and audience of poetry. Indeed, many of his views went against the grain of contemporary critical orthodoxy. As against a long critical tradition, deriving in part from Horace, that the function of poetry was to be “useful” as well as to entertain, Castelvetro insisted, in a strikingly modern pose, that the sole end of poetry was to yield pleasure. He also dismissed the long-held notion, arising most influentially with Plato, of poetry as somehow divinely inspired and the poet as possessed by a divine furor or madness. The poet, he insisted, is made, not born: his creations are the product of study, training, and art.1 Unlike most of his predecessors and contemporaries who had written commentaries on Aristotle’s Poetics, Castelvetro saw Aristotle’s text as merely the unfinished draft of an uncompleted work (PA, 19). His own commentary, Poetica d’Aristotele vulgarizzata e sposta (The Poetics of Aristotle Translated and Explained, 1570, 1576), purports not only to elucidate and often refine or even controvert Aristotle’s views, but also to provide a comprehensive guide for the aspiring poet.

482_5Among Castelvetro’s major heterodoxies is his insistence that pleasure, not instruction or usefulness, is the sole end of poetry, and further, that the appropriate audience for poetry is the common people (PA, 19). Critical orthodoxy until the Renaissance and beyond had accepted Horace’s formulation of the dual function of the poet as he who combines usefulness with pleasure (qui miscuit utile dulci). This formulation had been repeated by classical rhetorical theorists such as Cicero, as well as Renaissance theorists such as Julius Caesar Scaliger. In various parts of his text, Castelvetro does concede that poetry may have a salutary effect on its audience, but such an effect is not essential to the nature of poetry (PA, 150, 171).

Castelvetro denies the title of poet to those who have written history or science or art in verse form; the true poet, according to him, is “essentially an inventor” (PA, 105). True invention is the product of great labor, a point often repeated by Castelvetro. Poetry must be verisimilar in two respects: it must imitate objects that are real, not fantastic; and its manner of imitation must appear probable or at least possible to the audience (PA, 48, 92); however, Castelvetro qualifies this by urging that the poet’s portrayal of events must be marvelous, since “the marvelous is especially capable of giving pleasure” (PA, 254). Nonetheless, the marvelous cannot include the impossible (PA, 290).

Castelvetro’s views of tragedy usually agree with Aristotle’s, though often for different reasons: like Aristotle, he considers plot the most important element, on the grounds that it requires more labor than the other elements (PA, 66). He ranks tragedy above epic on the grounds that the former requires a greater exertion of the poet’s genius (PA, 321). The unities of time and place were first formulated by Castelvetro and it was his authority that underlay their popular dissemination. His formulation of these unities, mistakenly thought to be based on Aristotle, endowed the doctrine with high authority for over two hundred years. Both this specific doctrine and Aristotle’s authority in general were eventually undermined by the Romantics. Castelvetro’s conception reached the height of its influence in the seventeenth century, on French classical drama. Yet in the spirit of his theories, he was a precursor of the realism and naturalism that flourished in the nineteenth century.

Taking Aristotle as his starting point, Castelvetro asserts that history and the arts and sciences are not fit subjects for poetry, for a number of reasons. The subject matter of history is not furnished by the author’s genius but by “the course of earthly events or by the manifest or hidden will of God.” In contrast, the matter of poetry “is invented and imagined by the poet’s genius” (PA, 18). The true office of the poet is to exert his “intellectual faculties to imitate human actions . . . and through his imitations to provide pleasure for his audiences.” The final reason given by Castelvetro for the poet’s avoiding treatment of the arts and sciences is perhaps the most integral to his own conception of poetry: “poetry was invented for the sole purpose of providing pleasure and recreation . . . to the souls of the common people and the rude multitude.” And, in Castelvetro’s eyes, the common people are “incapable” of understanding, and therefore impatient of, the subtle arguments and rational proofs employed in the arts and sciences. The subjects of poetry should be suited to the common understanding, consisting of “the everyday happenings that are talked about among the people”  (PA, 20). Aristotle, in stark contrast, had held that appropriate subjects of poetry were the fortunes of noble families.

Equally divergent from Aristotle is Castelvetro’s view that the species of poetry is determined not by the moral qualities of men but rather by their social rank. Aristotle had said that the persons imitated by poetry must be good or bad and that they must be better or worse than ourselves or like us. Tragedy, according to Aristotle, imitates better men and comedy, worse. Castelvetro, taking Aristotle’s statement to be incomplete and inconsistent with his later comments, cites these factors as proof that the text of Aristotle’s Poetics “is no more than an accumulation of notes” intended to serve as the basis of a more complete and consistent text (PA, 22). Given that poetry imitates men in action, its species, says Castelvetro, are determined not by the moral nature of men but by “whether they are royal personages, burghers, or peasants.” And the purpose of poetry is not to increase knowledge of good and bad in human character but “to offer the common people the greatest possible pleasure in their representations of actions never before seen” (i.e., actions which are invented rather than taken from history) (PA, 23).

Where Aristotle had distinguished three types of imitation, the first being narrative, the second dramatic, and the third a combination of these two, Castelvetro suggests an alternative catalogue of types: narrative, dramatic, and similitudinary. The narrative mode, he suggests, uses words only to represent both words and things: it recounts both what people say and the entire range of their interaction with the physical world. The dramatic mode uses both words and things (i.e., material objects, people, scenic backgrounds) to represent words and things. The dramatic mode differs from the narrative in that it is more restricted in space and time, it can only represent things that are audible and visible, and its actions must take place in real time (i.e., the actual duration in which the events portrayed would occur) (PA, 31–33). The similitudinary mode, which is Castelvetro’s own invention, either uses direct quotation or substitutes words that are similar to those originally used. This third mode, however, is not usually found alone but embedded within a narrative (PA, 33–35).

On the subject of pleasure, Castelvetro has some interesting insights. Aristotle had asserted that men obtain pleasure from the learning that is entailed in imitation: imitation involves an intellectual process of observing similarities and differences among objects. Again, Castelvetro does not deny this; he merely adds that there are other reasons, ignored by Aristotle, why man finds imitations pleasurable. He derives pleasure from imitating other human beings, from imitating animals, from imitating nature or fortune; in all of these cases, his pleasure lies in the fact that “his imitations seem to him to constitute a new order of nature or of fortune or a new course of earthly affairs and to partake somehow of creations transcending human capabilities” (PA, 45–46).

We now come to what Castelvetro was renowned for: the unities. In general, he agrees with Aristotle’s doctrine of the unities, and even extends their application, but offers a different rationale for them. Concerning the magnitude or duration of the plot, he agrees that a tragic plot – that is apprehended by both sight and hearing – must not exceed “one revolution of the sun,” which Castelvetro takes to be twelve hours. However, he argues that the plot in epic (narrative) poetry, which appeals to the hearing only, can last longer than twelve hours, provided that no one of its sections exceeds twelve hours (for this would tire an audience at one sitting) (PA, 82–83). However, Castelvetro rejects Aristotle’s reason for this time constraint, namely, “the limited capacity and retentiveness of the audience’s memory.” The real cause, suggests Castelvetro, is that “since the imaginary action from which the plot is formed represents words directly with words and things with things, it must of necessity fill as many hours on the stage as the imaginary action it represents would have filled . . . if it had actually occurred” (PA, 82, 87). Castelvetro accepts Aristotle’s definition of the unity of a plot as consisting of a “single action of a single person” or, at most, two actions which are closely interrelated (PA, 87, 89). Castelvetro finds no justification for this position in Aristotle’s text beyond an appeal to the authority of Homer and the tragic poets (PA, 89). The reasons offered by Castelvetro himself are, firstly, that the temporal limitation of twelve hours on tragedy will not allow the representation of many actions; and, secondly, that the epic poet who restricts his representations to one action will all the more exhibit his “judgment and skill” (PA, 89–90). Moreover, Castelvetro argues that Aristotle’s criterion of unity – that actions should have a probable or necessary relationship among themselves – is too narrow; actions can also be related, he suggests, by pertaining to one person or one place or one nation (PA, 91). Indeed, he appears to extrapolate the Aristotelian unity of time to extend to space: the action “must be set in a place no larger than the stage on which the actors perform and in a period of time no longer than that which is filled by their performance” (PA, 243). As this last sentence indicates, Castelvetro reformulates Aristotle’s notion of the unities into a prescription for detailed realism. However, his general discussion of the probable accords with Aristotle’s requirement that the poet represent the probable and the necessary, allowing for certain improbable events provided that these are excluded from the plot as such.


1. Castelvetro, On the Art of Poetry: An Abridged Translation of Lodovico Castelvetro’s Poetica d’Aristotele vulgarizzata e sposta, trans. Andrew Bongiorno (Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1984), pp. 42–43. Hereafter cited as PA.

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