This chapter moves away from Rossini’s operas and toward the world in which they first appeared. Historians agree on the cataclysmic impact that the arrival of Napoleon’s armies had on all spheres of human activity in the Italian peninsula: it meant nothing less than the arrival of modernity. The result was confusion, bewilderment, shock. The Italy in which Rossini’s operas emerged can be best described with the word “trauma.” The nature and consequences of this trauma are explored through the writings of two uncompromising interpreters of Italy’s first collision with modernity, Ugo Foscolo and Giacomo Leopardi. For Foscolo and Leopardi reality had ceased to make sense for modern Italians: time and space, history and geography had become undecipherable, unknowable dimensions for a subject who had lost all notions of itself as a separate and unified entity. According to Leopardi, Italians lacked the tools to which other peoples turned to deal with this situation—the novel, for example. They instead embraced spectacle: promenading in public, religious ceremonies, and theatrical entertainments. Theatricality became the defining feature of modern Italian society, and one of the clearest symptoms of its failure to work through the trauma of its encounter with modernity.
Keywords: modernity, trauma, Ugo Foscolo, Giacomo Leopardi, theatricality