The collection of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Italian drama was assembled by the English antiquarian bookseller Chris Kohler. Since 1964 Kohler has acquired or assembled over 700 collections, particularly literary collections, and sold them to such institutions as the University of California, Stanford University, the National Library of Scotland, the Natural History Museum and the Fisher Library at the University of Sydney. The Italian drama collection was purchased by the National Library in 1980.
The collection comprises 1011 plays and libretti published in Italy between about 1720 and 1900. They include a number of Italian translations of plays written by French, German and other European dramatists.
Of the 118 plays written in the eighteenth century, 41 are works of Carlo Goldoni (1707–1793). Born in Venice, Goldoni turned away from commedia dell’arte, which had flourished in Italy for centuries, and followed the example of Molière in creating comedies based on contemporary society. Together with the tragedian Vittorio Alfieri (1749–1803), Goldoni created a group of plays that formed the basis for an Italian repertoire of spoken drama. Other eighteenth-century writers represented in the collection are Carlo Gozzi, who opposed Goldoni in advocating an older improvised style, the tragedian Scipione Maffei and the prolific opera librettist Pietro Metastasio.
The nineteenth-century plays range from neo-classical, romantic and patriotic plays in the early part of the century to historical plays and later realist dramas towards the end of the century. Most of the plays are by little-known writers, but reflect the concerns and interests of Italian writers and their audiences and readers during the turbulent years of French and Austrian domination, the Risorgimento and the eventual unification of Italy. Many works were never performed on account of political censorship, but were popular in written form. Among the better-known writers whose plays are held are Valentino Carrera, Pietro Cossa, Paolo Ferrari, Paolo Giacometti, Giovanni Giraud, Leopoldo Marenco, Vicenzo Monti, Giovanni Niccolini, Gerolomo Rovetto and Simeone Sografi.
Throughout both centuries, spoken drama was overshadowed by opera and the collection contains a large number of opera libretti. They include works by Cesare Sterbini (who worked with Rossini), Felice Romani (who wrote the libretti for operas of Bellini and Donizetti), and Salvadore Cammarano, Francesco Piave and Temistocle Solera (who were associated with Verdi).
The collection also contains Italian translations of plays by Pierre Corneille, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Henrik Ibsen, August von Kotzebue, Gotthold Lessing, Molière, Jean Racine, George Sand, William Shakespeare and Voltaire.
The Italian Drama Collection is kept together as a formed collection within the Rare Books Collection. The plays have been catalogued individually and the call numbers have the prefix RB ITA.
Bosisio, Paolo, La parola e la scena: studi sul teatro italiano tra Settecento e Novecento, Bulzoni, Rome, 1987.
Carlson, Marvin, The Italian Stage from Goldoni to D’Annuzio, McFarland & Company, Jefferson, N.C., 1981.
Kohler, Chris, Making Collections, in Mandelbrote, Giles (ed.), Out of Print & into Profit: A History of the Rare and Secondhand Book Trade in Britain in the Twentieth Century, British Library and Oak Knoll Press, London, 2006, pp. 165–76.