ITALIAN VERNACULAR LITERATURE
During the Middle Ages, the language of learning had been Latin, but alongside this international tongue there existed in each country the popular spoken language, the vulgar tongue or vernacular. Literary works in the vernacular came into being from an early date: Beowulf, forexample, in Anglo- Saxon England; the Song of Roland, the mostfamous of the poems of chivalry, in France about the end of the eleventh century.
It was medieval France from which the most powerful cultural influences radiated throughout western Europe, including Italy. In the field of poetry, there were two traditions from France that had particular importance for Italian literature. One was the tradition of epic poetry, with stories based on the real and legendary feats of Charlemagne and his knights. Roland, the heroic follower of Charlemagne who died fighting the Moslem infidels, was to appear in Italian literature as Orlando. The other influential French tradition was that of courtly love, spread by the troubadours. There were troubadours in the feudal courts of northern Italy in the later years of the twelfth century.
These traditions came to Italy originally in the French language, although there was some literary work in the Italian dialects in the twelfth century. By the following century, the Italian dialects had won out, and the thirteenth has been called the first century of Italian literature. One of the first important poets in Italian was St. Francis of Assisi@.
A significant literary influence was exercised by the court of the emperor Frederick II (1220-50) in Sicily. The emperor himself probably wrote poetry and had at his court a number of poets. From this circle there developed forms that were to set the pattern for Italian lyric poetry. One of these forms was the sonnet, which was to have not merely an Italian but an international importance. The sonnet is normally a fourteen-line poem, divided into an eight-line section (or octave) followed by a six-line conclusion (or sestet).
In Italy, as in other countries, the beginning of vernacular literature found the language broken up into dialects, one of which eventually became the basis for the common written language. In spite of the importance of Sicily and some other areas in the production of Italian literature, the predominant dialect in Italy came to be Tuscan, the form of the language that was used in Florence. By the second half of the thirteenth century the most important Italian writing was being done in that dialect. The influence and prestige of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, who all used Tuscan as the basis for their Italian writing, fixed the form of the Italian literary language. It was a language that was different from any actually spoken in Italy, but Tuscan was its basis, though modified by Latin and by other Italian dialects. It is also true that there were still some parts of Italy where it was not used, but for all practical purposes it can be said that Italy had a common written language by the end of the fourteenth century. Some of the late thirteenth-century poets developed a theme that was to be of immense importance: the combination of love for a lady with virtue and nobility. Only the good can feel love; service to a lady exalts the lover; the lady is a being of wondrous beauty and nobility. Not all the love poems were so idealistic; some were more down to earth, containing qualities of sensuousness, realism, and humor that were to play a part in later Italian work. There was also religious and even political poetry, and there was work in Italian prose, though mostly in the form of translations from other languages.
Though Dante had predecessors, to whom he acknowledged indebtedness, he towered above them all in both prose and verse. When he was still a young man probably before he reached thirty he wrote La vita nuova in verse and prose. It consists of a number of poems written in praise of Beatrice, with prose commentaries. It forms a sort of record of his relationship to his lady, a relationship that seems to have existed largely in the mind and heart of the poet. There is no way of knowing what feelings, if any, Beatrice had for him or indeed whether they actually had much contact with one another. What is revealed in the book is Dante's poetic genius and the depth of his feeling and intellectual power. Some of the poems are sonnets. The book ends with the death of Beatrice, which transforms the poet and gives him the "new life" of the title. Beatrice is now in Heaven, and Dante, at the end of his book, expresses his hope of writing about her what has never been written of any woman. This hope was fulfilled in the Divine Comedy@. Among his other contributions to Italian literature was the Convivio or Banquet, which he did not finish. Like La vita nuova, it is made up of poems with prose commentary, and its subject is philosophy. Even in its incomplete form it covers a wide range of topics. At that time the word philosophy had a less specialized meaning than it bears today; it referred to all secular knowledge, as distinguished from divine knowledge, or theology. One of the topics discussed in the Convivio is a justification for writing in Italian rather than in Latin. Dante devoted a whole treatise to this subject De vulgari eloquentia written in Latin and never completed. In the part he finished he upholds the use of the vernacular language for poetry. In connection with the Italian language, he claims that none of the existing dialects is worthy of being used for literature, and that, therefore, a common language must be created.
Dante's greatest work, the Divine Comedy@, remains the greatest work of Italian literature and one of the supreme poetic and intellectual achievements of our civilization. The attitude of Dante's great successor, Petrarch, to the Divine Comedy is interesting. When questioned about it by his friend Boccaccio, who revered Dante's memory, Petrarch expressed grave reservations. For one thing, it was in the vernacular, which meant it appealed to common, unlearned folk. But Petrarch objected above all to the fact that Dante had discussed great philosophical and theological subjects directly in his poem, and this he condemned. In Petrarch's opinion, poetry should deal with such matters indirectly, covering them with a comely veil: in other words, figuratively rather than literally. Since Petrarch was an excellent judge of literature as well as a great Italian poet, it is conceivable that his criticisms of Dante are not without an element of jealousy, possibly unconscious; he may well have known that Dante's poem was an achievement that stood by itself. Petrarch claimed that his own Italian poems were trifles and meant little to him in comparison with his Latin works. This disclaimer cannot be taken at face value, because surviving manuscripts show he never ceased to work on these "trifles," polishing and improving them. He also arranged them in the order he wanted them to have. The collection, known usually as the Canzoniere, therefore, meant a good deal more to him than he chose to admit publicly. The Canzoniere established Petrarch as one of the greatest of all lyric poets.
If he had never written a word of Latin, he would still occupy a permanent place in literature although his historical importance would be much reduced. Most of the poems are sonnets addressed to Laura, and he divided the collection as a whole into two parts, before and after her death. There are poems in the collection on other subjects, such as friendship and the corruption of the papal Curia at Avignon. Most of the work, however, is made up of poems celebrating his love for Laura. In these he gives meaning to the changes on love in all its aspects of joy and sorrow, hope and despair. Laura's feelings toward the poet are never made clear, but he does admit that she kept their relationship pure. After her death she serves as an inspiration to higher virtue, calling him to Heaven. Laura is somewhat more concrete than Dante's Beatrice, who is never described in any concrete terms. In the case of Laura, the poet mentions her hair, her eyes, the way she walks. It is to be inferred that his feeling for her had elements of passion and desire, yet there prevails the concept of the beloved as a holy and exalted being, and to love her is an ennobling experience. Some of the longer poems, which do not deal with Laura, are of great beauty and significance. The Italia mia (My Italy) is a great patriotic poem, calling on the Italian princes to end their strife and get rid of their foreign mercenaries who are defiling the beautiful land of Italy. In this magnificent poem, Petrarch writes not as a Florentine but as an Italian, and expresses a fervent and heartfelt love for Italy. It is one of the greatest of all patriotic poems, and was quoted by Machiavelli in the concluding passage of The Prince. The last poem in the collection is a noble invocation to the Virgin, "Vergine bella," addressing the Mother of God. The poet confesses his transgressions, admits his unworthiness, and pleads to be received graciously.
While much of this was traditional, Petrarch was at the same time an initiator. His influence on later poets in many countries was incalculable. It was he who gave the sonnet its vogue during the Renaissance; in his hands it became an admirable medium for the disciplined, highly concentrated expression of a feeling or idea. Many poets after him addressed sonnet-sequences to their ladies, stressing thoughts and emotions for which he had shown the way. An example is the boast, made by him and poets after him, that it was his verse that would make the object of his devotion live for future ages. Ronsard and Du Bellay in France; and Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare in England are just a few of the more outstanding Renaissance poets who, while preserving their own original voices, owed something to their great predecessor. Also in the vernacular are Petrarch's Triumphs: The Triumphs of Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time, and Eternity. Although unfinished, these poems also became famous and often formed the subjects of works of visual art.
The third member of the great triumvirate, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75), was the illegitimate son of a Florentine merchant and banker. Boccaccio spent much of his youth in Naples, where his father represented the great Florentine banking house of Bardi. Though he studied business and law, he was always interested primarily in literature, and from an early age was writing both verse and prose. He wrote a good deal about his love affair with a lady he called Fiammetta (Little Flame). Nothing is known of her except that her name was Maria, and it is not clear how much of what he wrote about their relationship is true, and how much is fiction. In any case, his conception of love is much more earthy and far less spiritual than that of Dante and Petrarch. Boccaccio later lived in and near Florence and was employed by the Florentine government in various capacities. In 1373, the city established a lectureship on the Divine Comedy and invited Boccaccio, who had long revered Dante, to be the first lecturer. Because of failing health, he was unable to finish the lectures. He died in 1375.
Although Boccaccio owes his place in Italian literature primarily to his work in prose, he also wrote a great deal of verse. In both mediums, he used a wide range of literary forms and broke new ground in a number of fields. His Fiammetta, which tells the story of a woman jilted by her lover, concentrates on the heroine's mental and emotional state, and is the earliest Italian psychological romance, a precursor of the psychological novel. Among his poetic works is the Filostrato, which tells the story of Troilus and Cressida, later taken up by Chaucer and Shakespeare. His Teseida was an epic poem. Boccaccio is also responsible for introducing into Italian literature the pastoral element, derived from antiquity, emphasizing the lives and loves of nymphs and shepherds in the setting of fields and forests.
His work had an enormous influence, not only in Italy but also in other countries. The number of outstanding authors who followed him in one way or another is amazing. But of all his works, the most important and influential is the Decameron.
The Decameron was probably finished in about 1353. Its setting is the plague year of 1348. Ten young people seven women and three men meet in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, and decide that they will escape the plague by going out into the surrounding countryside. They spend their time in lovely villas, provided with every form of natural beauty and with all the amenities that can make their lives agreeable. To while away the time, they decide to tell stories; each one will tell a story a day, and for each day a different member of the group will be in charge. The result is one hundred stories that make up the body of the work.
The setting is not without its importance. There is a vivid description of the plague, which is one of the best sources available for the nature of the epidemic. The gardens in which the storytellers meet express Boccaccio's love of nature, his delight in those things that appeal to the senses the colors and fragrance of the flowers, the songs of the birds, the taste of the choice fruits and wines. The orderliness of the gardens attests to his adherence to reason. As the setting expresses the ideals of nature and reason, the stories exalt love. The love that Boccaccio celebrates is not the spiritual flame that illuminated the mind and heart of Dante and, perhaps to a lesser degree, of Petrarch. It is a more down-to-earth passion, with frankly physical elements. It has rights that are not to be denied. Boccaccio seems to be saying that any obstacles that stand in the way of love are to be overcome and set aside. If a young woman has been married off to an old man who cannot satisfy her, she is perfectly justified in finding a young man who can. For a woman to refuse her love to a man who loves her is a grave offense, for which she deserves to suffer. To be a monk or a nun and take a vow of celibacy, is against nature; some of the most hilarious stories concern themselves with nature's revenge on these unnatural restrictions. Other stories aim their shafts at hypocritical, lazy, lustful monks and priests, like Brother Onion who fleeces the yokels with his collection of spurious relics. (Sixth Day, Tenth Story). Abraham the Jew, who had decided to become a Christian, goes to Rome. A Christian friend is sure that the corruption he sees there will change his mind, but he returns more firmly convinced than ever that Christianity is the true faith; to survive the conditions which prevail at Rome Christianity must have divine support. (First Day, Second Story). Through these one hundred stories the whole panorama of fourteenth-century society moves. There are kings and nobles, merchants and soldiers and rustics. There is Giotto the painter, who "brought painting back to life." There are men and women, old and young, good and not-so-good. Boccaccio was a master storyteller; the stories move with verve and gusto, and in spite of their large number they do not become monotonous. They are frank and often scandalous, but they are told by a man with such a wholehearted love of life and such a broad acceptance of human nature that no fair-minded reader, even in ages more easily shocked than our own, could take offense at them. Most of the stories are happy and lighthearted, but some are serious, even sad. Sometimes, there is an important point made; in the story of the three rings (third story, first day), later used so effectively by the German writer Lessing in Nathan the Wise, is an impressive case for religious toleration.
The death of Boccaccio marked the end of a great period of Italian literature, and it was followed by about a century in which little noteworthy work was accomplished in the vernacular. This was no doubt connected with the development of humanism and the practice of most of the best writers and thinkers to devote themselves to Latin and Greek. However, this may not be the sole explanation, because a similar decline is observable in other countries in which humanism had not attained the importance it possessed in Italy. One of the most distinguished men of the fifteenth century, Leon Battista Alberti, stands out in this connection for his advocacy of the Italian language. He not only wrote in Italian, but he also sponsored, with Medici financial backing, a contest for writers of Italian verse. The contest was held in 1441, but apparently did not stimulate any great outburst of creative activity in Italian. During the second half of the century, Lorenzo de' Medici$ became the central figure in a genuine revival of Italian as a literary language. Not only was he a patron of letters but he also was himself an accomplished poet. He and the members of his circle firmly believed in the suitability of the vernacular for poetry. Lorenzo's work reflected not only the influence of Dante and Petrarch but also of the poetry of popular tradition. He aimed at expressing the thoughts and feelings of the people.
Though Lorenzo was an accomplished writer of love poetry, his deepest feelings were for nature. He has been called the pioneer of modern outdoor poetry. For the popular festivals of Florence he wrote songs that exhibit a coarseness and low moral tone, which were probably in keeping with the nature of the occasions. In them can be found the theme of the fleeting nature of youth and happiness. Probably the most famous passage in his poetry deals with this idea, affirming the beauty and impermanence of youth and urging that whoever wishes to be happy should be so now, for we cannot be certain about tomorrow. He wrote in the pastoral tradition as well. One of his works has been called the first Italian pastoral idyll and is a plea of a shepherd to his love. Unlike many other writers of pastoral, who were often highly sophisticated poets adopting what for them was an artificial and unreal tradition, Lorenzo was able to understand and feel the emotions of a peasant.
Many of his best poems are religious and they evidence a deep religious feeling. One theme is the soul searching for God and despairing because it is unable to find Him. Another is that all happiness on earth consists of the knowledge and love of God. There is a vein of disillusionment and bitterness in his poetry, which appears in his reflections on the nature of government. He declares that the ruler must be the servant of servants and that power is not sweet but rather a source of trouble and fatigue.
The humanists in Lorenzo's circle, unlike their predecessors, did some of their writing in Italian, and did not scorn the vulgar tongue. One of his close associates was Angelo Poliziano (1454-94), one of the most accomplished of all the humanists. An outstanding classical scholar, he wrote in Greek as well as in Latin and Italian. In Italian he wrote a great number of lyric poems. Like Lorenzo, he expressed both a love of nature and a consciousness of the fleeting character of youth and beauty. He wrote the first secular play in Italian, entitled Orfeo, dealing with the mythological story of Orpheus and Eurydice. As previously noted, the stories that had grown up around the figure of Charlemagne, and in particular the story of Roland, came into Italy, and in the fourteenth century Tuscan minstrels had written and sung poems on such themes. Roland became Orlando, and one of these poems was entitled Orlando. Among its characters was a giant named Morgante, who is converted by Orlando and becomes his companion.
During the Renaissance, several important poems were inspired by the Charlemagne stories. One of them was written by Luigi Pulci (1432-84) who belonged to Lorenzo's circle. His poem was Il Morgante Maggiore and was a free rewriting of Orlando. In addition to religious and chivalric elements, Pulci adds a great deal of humor. There is also a learned theological discussion. The Morgante, because of its author's humor and mockery, has been called the first modern burlesque poem.
Two other writers of epics based on the story of Roland were in the service of the Este rulers of Ferrara. Matteo Maria Boiardo (1441-94) wrote the unfinished Orlando innamorato (Orlando in Love). This was something new, because it was the first Charlemagne epic in which a love story was the chief element. Boiardo had a rich imagination, and his poem, unfinished though it is, abounds in interesting episodes of his own devising. He too combined chivalrous with humorous elements, but his humor was not so boisterous as that of Pulci.
His work was later completed by another writer of the court of Ferrara, Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533), who served the Este family in numerous official capacities. He wrote poetry in both Latin and Italian until in 1506 he turned his attention to finishing Boiardo's epic. What he created was actually a new work, and it proved to be the greatest of its kind. He called it Orlando furioso (Orlando Mad). He is much more strongly influenced by classical poetry than his predecessors in the field, though he also drew on his familiarity with Italian poetry and the chivalric tradition.
The poem combines the conflict of Christians and Moslems, on the one hand, with the love story of Roland. It is, in fact, Roland's jealousy arising from his thwarted love that makes him mad. The poem leads up to the marriage of the mythical ancestors of the Este family, and throughout the work Ariosto brings in episodes in the history of the family and manages to honor those who ruled in his day. There are a number of love stories and many adventurous episodes. Magical and supernatural forces play an important part. Variety, beauty, vigor, and lifelikeness are among the poem's outstanding qualities. The places are convincing as real places, and the characters recognizable as real people. As in the poems of Pulci and Boiardo, humor is an important part of Ariosto's poetry, with irony the prevailing aspect.
Ariosto's poetry also was technically outstanding. In rhythm and diction he attained great distinction. This reflects his own natural talent, his study of the great Florentine writers, and the pains he took in polishing his work. Through the years he continually revised his poetry; the first edition of Orlando furioso appeared in 1516, but the third and final one was not published until 1532. It was popular and influential; two hundred editions were published in Italy in the sixteenth century, not to mention imitations and translations. Among the many poems it influenced was Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene.
In a discussion of Italian literature of the Renaissance, Machiavelli claims a place. His political and historical works, already discussed, are important from a literary standpoint, because of the vigor, clarity, and eloquence of their prose style. But his genius extended beyond politics and history. He also wrote plays, poems, and stories.
Of these the most important is his comedy Mandragola, the most famous of all Italian plays of the Renaissance. Its subject is not especially elevating, since it deals with a successful seduction. The poetry is cleverly worked out, the dialogue is vivid, and in some of the persons Machiavelli achieves a level of characterization that surpasses all other Italian playwrights of his day. There is some sharp satire on the church; it is a priest who serves to help bring about the seduction, but who also performs his ecclesiastical duties conscientiously. Machiavelli also wrote a dialogue on the Italian language, in which he defended the suitability of the Florentine dialect, as being alone fit for literary use. Thus the Renaissance saw outstanding work in Italian literature, which had an enduring importance not only in the land of its origin but also in many other countries. Dante's Divine Comedy is one of the greatest of all works of literature; Petrarch's love poetry has never been surpassed, and Boccaccio is one of the finest storytellers. Certain literary forms were introduced or reintroduced by Italian writers: The sonnet was to have a remarkable vogue; the pastoral tradition was to be cultivated by many important writers; the chivalric epic had its own imitators. There were, to be sure, areas in which the Italians proved less interested or less successful. As Burckhardt pointed out over a century ago, they did not produce great tragedies. Indeed, the depth of thought and feeling, the austere seriousness of Dante, did not find many echoes. For the same kind of depth and nobility, one may look to the poems of that supreme genius, Michelangelo, who will be dealt with in the next chapter.