1902 Encyclopedia > Italy > The Origins of Italian Literature

(Part 46)


The Origins of Italian Literature

There is one characteristic fact that distinguishes the Italy of the Middle Ages with regard to its intellectual conditions, and that is the tenacity with which the Latin tradition clung to life. At the end of the 5th century the northern conquerors invaded Italy. The Roman world crumbled to pieces. A new kingdom arose at Ravenna under Theodoric, and there learning was not extinguished. The liberal arts flourished, the very Gothic kings surrounded themselves with masters of rhetoric and of grammar. The names of Cassiodorus, of Boetius, of Symmachus, aree enough to show how Latin thought maintained its power amidst the political effacement of the Roman empire. And this thought held its ground through out the subsequent ages and events. Thus, while elsewhere all culture had died, there still remained in Italy some schools of laymen, and some really extraordinary men were educated in them, such as Ennodius, a poet more pagan than Christian, Arator, Fortunatus, Venantius, Jovannicius, Felix the grammarian, Peter of Pisa, Paulinus of Aquileia, and many others, in all of whom we notice a contrast between the barbarous age they lived in and their aspiration towards a culture that should reunite them to the classical literature of Rome. The Italians never had much love for theological studies, and those who were addicted to them preferred Paris to Italy. It was something more practical, more positive, that had attraction for the Italians, and especially the study of Roman law. This zeal for the study of jurisprudence furthered the establishment of the mediaeval universities of Bologna, Padua, Vicenza, naples, Salerno, Modena, and Parma; and these, in their turn, helped to spread culture, and to prepare to groundin which the new vernacular literature was afterwards to be developed. The tenacity of classical traditions, the affection for the memories of Rome, the preoccupation with political interests, particularly shown in the wars of the Lombard communes against the empire of the Hohenstaufens, a spirit more naturally inclined to practice than the theory – all this had a powerful influence on the fate of Italian literature. Italy was wanting in that combination of conditions from which the spontaneous life of a people springs. This was chiefly owing to the fact that the history of the Italians never underwent interruption, - no foreign nation having come into the change them and make them young again. That childlike state of mind and heart, which in other Latin races, as well as in the Germanic, was such a deep source of poetic inspiration, was almost utterly wanting in the Italians, who were always much drawn to history and very little to nature; so, while legends, tales, epic poems, satires, were appearing an spreading on all sides, Italy was either quite a stranger to this movement, or took a peculiar part in it. We know, for example, what the Trojan traditions were in the Middle Ages; and we should have thought that in Italy – in the country of Rome, retaining the memory of Aeneas and Virgil – they would have been specially developed fort it was from Virgil that the mediaeval sympathy for the conquered of Troy was desired. In fact, however, it was not so. A strange book made its appearance in Europe, no one write knows when, the Histroia de excidio Trojae, which purported to have been written by a certain Dares the Phrygian,an eye-witness of the Trojan war. In the Middle Ages this book was the basis of many literary labors. Benoit de Sainte-More composed an interminable French poem founded on it, which afterwards in its turn became a source for other poets to draw form, such as Herbort of Fritzlar and Conrad of Wutzburg. Now for the curious phenomenon displayed by Italy. Whilst Benoit de Sainte morw wrote his poem in French, taking his material from a Latin history, whilst the two German writers, from a French source, made an almost original work in their own language, - Italian, on the other hand, taking Benoit for his model, composed in Latin the Historia destructionis Trojae; and this Italian was Guidodelle Colonne of Messina, one of the verncacular poets of the Sicilian school, who must accordingly have known well how to use his own language. Guido was an imitator of the Provencals; he understood French, and yet wrote his own book in Latin, nay, changed the romance of the Troubadour into serious history. Much the same thing occurred with the other great legends. That of Alexander the Great gave rise to many French, German, and Spanish poems, - in Italy, only to the Latin distichs of Qualichino of Arezzo. The whole of Europe was full of the legend of Arthur. The Italians contented themselves with translating and with abridging the French romances, without adding anything of their own. The Italian writer neither appropriate the legend nor color it with his own tints. Even religious legend, so widely spread in the Middle Ages, and springing up so naturally as it did from the heart of that society, only put out a few roots in Italy. Jacopo di Voragine, while collecting his lives of the saints, remained only an historian, a man of learning, almost a critic who seemed doubtful about the things he related. Italy had none of those books in which the Middle Age, whether in its ascetic or its chivalrous character, is so strangely depicted. The intellectual life of Italy showed itself in an altogether special, positive, almost scientific form, in the study of Roman law, in the chronicles of farfa, of Marsicano, and of many others, in translation fromAristole, in the precepts of the school of Salerno, in the travels of Marco Polo, - in short, in a long series of facts which seem to detach themselves from the surroundings of the Middle Age, and to be united on the one side with classical Rome and on the other with the Renaissance.

The necessary consequences of all this was that the Latin language was most tenacious in Italy, and that the elaboration of the new vulgar tongue was very slow, - being in fact preceded by two periods of Italian literature in foreign languages. That is to say, there were many Italians who wrote Provencal poems,such as the Marchese Alberto Malaspina (12th century), maestro Ferrari of Ferrara, Cigala of Genoa, Zorzi of Venice, Sordello of mantua, Buvarello of Bologna, Nicoletto of Turin, and others, who sang of love and of war, who haunted the courts, or lived in the midst of the people accustoming them to new sounds and new harmonies. At the same time there was other poetry of an epic kind, written in a mixed language, of which French was the basis, but in which forms and words belongings to the Italian dialects were continually mingling. We find in it hybrid words exhibiting a treatment of sounds according to the rules of both languages, - French words with Italian terminations, a system of vocalization within the words approaching the Italo-latin usage, - in short, something belonging at once to both tongues, as it were an attempt at interpenetration, at fusion. Such were the Chanson de Geste, Macaire, the Entrée en Espagne written by Niccola of Padua, the Prise de Pampelune, and some others. All this preceded the appearance of a purely Italian literature.

In the Franco-Italian poems there was, as it were, a clashing, a struggle between the two languages, the French, however, gaining the upper hand. This supremacy became gradually less and less. As the struggle continued between French and Italian, the former by degrees lost as much as the latter gained. The hybridism recurred, but it no longer predominated. In the Bovo d’Antona and the Rainardo e Lesengrino the Venetian dialect makes itself clearly felt, although the language is influenced by French forms. Thus these writings, which Ascoli has called "miste" (mixed_, immediately preceded the appearance of purely Italian works.

It is now an established fact that there existed now writing in Italian before the 13th century. It was in the course of that century, and especially from 1250 onwards, that the new literature largely unfolded and developed itself. This development was simultaneous in the whole peninsula, only there was a difference in the subject-matter of the art. In the north, the poems of Giacomino of Verona and Bonvecino of Riva were specially religious, and were intended to be recited to the people. They were written in a dialect partaking of the Milanese and the Venetian; and in their style they strongly bore the mark of the influence of French narrative poetry. They may be considered as belonging to the popular kind of poetry, taking the word, however, in a broad sense. Perhaps this sort of composition was encouraged by the old custom in the north of Italy of listening in the piazzas and on the highways to the songs of the jongleurs. To the very same crowds who had been delighted with the stories of romance, and who had listened to the story of the wickedness of Macaire and the misfortunes of Blanciflor, another jongleur would sing of the terrors of the Babilonia In fernale and the blessedness of the Gerusalemme celeste, and the singers of religious poetry vied with those of the Chansons de Geste.

In the south of Italy, on the other hand, the love-song prevailed, of which we have an interesting specimen in the Contrasto attributed to Ciullo d’Alcamo, about which modern Italian critics have much exercised themselves. This "contrasto" (dispute) between a man and a woman in Sicilian dialect certainly must not be considered as the most ancient or as the only southern poem of a popular kind. It belongs without doubt to the time of the emperor Frederick II., and is important as a proof that there existed a popular poetry independent of literary poetry. The Contrasto of Ciullo d’Alcamo is the most remarkable relic of a kind of poetry that has perished or which perhaps was smothered by the ancient Sicilian literature. Its distinguishing point was it possessing all the opposite qualities to the poetry of the rhymers of what we shall call the Sicilian school. Vigorous in the expression of feelings, it seems to come from a real sentiment. The conceits, which are sometimes most bold and very coarse, show that it proceeded from the lowest grades of society. Everything is original in Ciullo’s Contrasto. Conventionality has no place in it. It is marked by the sensuality characteristics of the people of the South.

The reverse of all this happened in the Siculo-Provencal school, at the head of which was Frederick II. Imitation was the fundamental characteristic of this school, to which belonged Enzio, kind of Sardinia, Pier delle Vigne, Inghilfredi, Guido and Odo delle Colonne, Jacopo d’Aquino, Rugieri Pugliese, Giacomo da Lentino, Arrigo Testa, and others. These rhymers never moved a step beyond the ideas of chivalry; they had no originality; they did not sing of what they felt in their heart; they abhorred the true and the real. They only aimed at copying as closely as they could the poetry of the Provencal troubadours. The art of the Siculo-provencal school was born decrepit, and there were many reasons for this, - first, because the chivalrous spirit, from which the poetry of the troubadours was derived, was now old and on its death-bed; next, because the Provencal art itself, which the Sicilians took as their model, was in its decadence. It may seen strange, but it is true, that when the emperor Frederick II., a philosopher, a statesman, a very original legislator, took to writing poetry, he could only copy and amuse himself with absolute puerilities. His art, like that of all the other poets of his court, was wholly conventional, mechanical, affected. It was completely wanting in what constitutes poetry, ideality, feeling, sentiments, inspiration. The Italians have had great disputes among themselves about the original form of the poems of the Sicilian school, that is to say, whether they were written in Sicilian dialect, or in that language which Dante called ‘volgare, illustre, aulico, cortigiano"; and the question is not yet settled. But now the critics of most authority hold that the primitive form of these poems was the Sicilian dialect, modified for literary purposes with the help of Provencal and Latin; the theory of the "lingua illustre" has been almost entirely rejected, since we cannot say on what rules it could have been founded, when literature was in its infancy, trying its feet, and lisping its first words. The Sicilian certainly, in accordance with a tendency common to all dialects, in passing from the spoken to the written form, must have gained in dignity; but this was not enough to create the so-called "lingua illustre," which was upheld by perticari and others on grounds rather political than literary.

In the 13th century a mighty religious movement took place in Italy, of which the rise of the two great orders of Saint Francis and Saint Dominic was at once the cause and the effect. Around Francis of Assisi a legend has grown up in which naturally the imaginative element prevails. Yet from some points in it we seem to be able to infer that its hero had a strong feeling for nature, and a heart open to the most lively impressions. Many poems are attributed to him. The legend relates that in the eighteenth year of his penance, when almost rapt in ecstasy, he dictated the cantico del Sole. Even if this hymn be really his, it cannot be considered as a poetical work, being written in a kind of prose simply marked by assonances. As for the other poems, which for a long time were believed to be by Saint Francis, their spuriousness is now generally recognized. The true poet who represented in all its strength and breadth the religious feeling that had made special progress in Umbria was Jacopo dei Benedetti of Todi, known as Jacopone. The story is that sorrow at the sudden death of his wife had disordered his mind, and that, having sold all the possessed and given it to the poor, he covered himself with rags, and took pleasure in being laughed at, and followed by a crowd of people who mocked him and called after him "Jacopone, Jacopone." We do not know whether this be true. What we do know is that a vehement passion must have stirred his heart and maintained a despotic hold over him, the passion of divine love. Under its influence Jacopone went on raving for year and years, subjecting himself to the severest sufferings, and giving vent to his religious intoxication in his poems. There is no art in him, there is not the slightest indication of deliberate effort; there is only feeling, a feeling that absorbed him, fascinated him, penetrated him through and thought. His poetry was all inside him, and burst out, not so much in word as in sighs, in groans, in cries that often seem really to come from a monomaniac. But jacopone was a mystic, who from his hermit’s cell looked out into the world and specially watched the papacy, scourging with his words Celestine V. and Boniface VIII. He was put in prison and laden with chains, but his spirit lifted itself up to God, and that was enough for him. The same feeling that prompted him to our out in song ecstasies of divine love, and to despise and trample on himself, moved him to reprove those who forsook the heavenly road, whether they were popes, prelates, or monks. In Jacopone there was a strong originality, and in the period of the origins of Italian literature he was one of the most characteristic writers.

The religious movement in Umbria was followed by another literary phenomenon, that of the religious drama. In 1258 an old hermit, Raniero Fasani, leaving the cavern in which he had lived for many years, suddenly appeared at Perugia. These were very sad times for Italy. The quarrels in the cities, the factions of the Ghibellines and the Guelphs, the interdicts and excommunications issued by the popes, the reprisals of the imperial party, the cruelty and tyranny of the nobles, the plagues and famines, kept the people in constant agitation, and spread abroad mysterious fears. The commotion was increased in Perugia by Fasani, who represented himself as sent by God to disclose mysterious visions, and to announce to the world terrible visitations. Under the influence of fear there were formed "Compagnie di Disciplinati," who, for a penance, scourged themselves till they drew blood, and sang "Lauli" in dialogue in their confraternities. These "Laudi," closely connected with the liturgy, were the first example of the drama in the vulgar tongue of Italy. They were written in the Umbrian dialect, in verses of eight syllables, and of course they have not any artistic value. Their development, however, was rapid. As early as the end of the same 13th century we have the Devozioni del Giovedi e Venerdi Santo, which have some dramatic elements in them, though they are still connected with the liturgical office. Then we have the representation di un Monaco che ando al serviziodi Dio ("of a monk who entered the service of God"), in which there is already an approach to the definite form which this kind of literary work assumed in the following centuries.

In the 13th century Tuscany was peculiarly circumstanced both as regards its literary condition and its political life. The Tuscans spoke a dialect which most closely resembled the mother-tongue, Latin, - one which afterwards became almost exclusively the language of literature, and which was already regarded at the end of the 13th century as surpassing the others; "Lingua Tusca magis apta est ad literan sive literatum": thus writes Antonio da Tempo of Padua, born about1275. Being very little or not at all affected by the Germanic invasion, Tuscany was never subjected to the feudal system. It had fierce internal struggles but they did not weaken its life; on the contrary, they rather gave it fresh vigor and strengthened it, and especially after the final fall of the Hohenstaufens at the battle of Benevento in 1266) made it the first province of Italy. From 1266 onwards Florence was in a position to begin that movement of political reform which in 1282 resulted in the appointment of the Priori delle Arti and the establishment of the Arti Minori. This was afterwards copied by Seina with the Magistrado dei Nove, by Lucca, by Pistoia, and by other Guelph cities in Tuscany with similar popular institutions. In this way the guilds had taken the government into their hands, and it was a time of both social and political prosperity. It was no wonder that literature also rose to an unlooked-for height. In Tuscany, too, there was some popular love poetry; there was a school of imitators of the Sicilians, their chief being Dante of Majano; but its literary originality took another line – that of humorous and satirical poetry. The entirely democratic form of government created a style of poetry which stood in the strongest antithesis to the mediaeval mystic and chivalrous style. Devout invocation of God or of a lady came from the cloister and the castle; in the streets of the cities everything that had gone before was treated with ridicule or bitingsarcasm. Folgore of San Gimignano laughs when in his sonnets he tells a party of Sienese youths what are the occupations of every month in the year, ore when he teaches a party of Florentine lads the pleasures of every day in the week. Cene della Chitarra laughs when he parodies Folgore’s sonnets. The sonnets of Rustico di Filippo are half fun and hald satire; laughing and crying, joking and satire, are all to be found in Cecco Angiolieri of Siena, the oldest "humorist" we know, a far-off precursor of Rabelais, of Montaigne, of jean Paul Richter, of Sydney Smith. But another kind of poetry also began in Tuscany. Guittone d’Arezzo made art quitchivalrous for national motives, Provencal forms for Latin. He attempted political poetry, and, although his work is full of the strangest obscurities, he prepared the way for the Bolognese school. In the 13th century Bologna was the city of science, and philosophical poetry appeared there. Guido Guinicelli was the poet after the new fashion of the art. In him the ideas of chivalry are changed and enlarged; he sings of love and together with it of the nobility of the mind. The reigning thought in Guinicelli’s Canzoni is nothing external to his own subjectivity. His speculative mind, accustomed to wandering in the field of philosophy, transfuses its lucubration’s into his art. Guinicelli’s poetry has some of the faults of the school of guittone d’Arezzo: he reasons toomuch; he is wanting in imagination; his poetry is a product of the intellect rather than of the fancy and the heart. Nevertheless he marks a great development in the history of Italian art, especially because of his close connection with Dante’s lyric poetry.

But before we come to Dante, certain other facts, not, however, unconnected with his history, must be noticed. In the 13th century there were several poems in the allegorical style. One of these is by Brunetto latini, who, it is well known, was attached by ties of strong affection to Alighieri. HisTesoretto is a short poem, in seven-syllable verses, rhyming ion couplets, in which the author professes to be lost in a wilderness and to meet with a lady, who is Nature, from whom he receives much instruction. We see here the vision the allegory, the instruction with a moral object, - three elements which we shall find again in the Divina Commedia. Francesco dabarberino, a learned lawyer who was secretary to bishops, a judge,a notary, wrote two little allegorical poems, - the Documenti d’Amore and Del Reggimento e dei Costumi delle Donne. Like the Tesoretto, these poems are of no value as works of art, but are, on the other hand, of importance in the history of manners. A fourth allegorical work was the Intelligenza, by some attributed to Dino Compagni, but probably not his, and only a version of French poems.

While the production of Italian poetry in the 13th century was abundant and varied, that of prose was scanty. The oldest specimen dates form 1231, and consists of short notices of entries and expensesbyMattasala di Spinello dei lambertini of Siena. In 1253 and 1260 there are some commercial letters of other Sienese. But there is no sign of literary prose. Before we come to any, we meet with a phenomenon like that we noticed in regard to poetry. Here again we find a period of Italian literature in French. Halfway on in the century a certain Aldobrando or Aldobrandino (it is not known whether he was of Florence or ofSiena) wrote a book for Beatrice of Savoy, countess of provence, called Le Regime du Corps. In 1267 Martino da Canale wrote in the same "langue d’oil" a chronicle of Venice. Rusticiano of Pisa, who was for a long while at the court of Edward I. of England, composed many chivalrous romances, derived from the Arthuirian cycle, and subsequently wrote the travels of Marco Polo, which may perhaps have been dictated by the great traveler himself. And finally Brunetto Lastini wrote his Tesoro in French.

Next in order to the original compositions in the langue d’oil come the translations or adaptations from the same. There are some moral narratives taken from religious legends; a romance of Julius Caesar; some short histories of ancient knights; the tavola Rotonda; translations of the Viaggi of Marco Polo and of the Tesoro of Latini. At the same time there appeared translations from Latin of moral and ascetic works, of histories, and of treatises on rhetoric and oratory. Up to very recent times it was still possible to reckon as the most ancient works in Italian prose the Cronaca of Matteo Spinelloda Giovenazzo, and the Cronaca of Ricordano malespini. But now both of them have been shown to be forgeries of a much later time. Therefore the oldest prose writing is a scientific book- the Composizione del Mondo by Ristoro d’Arezzo, who lived about the middle of the 13th century. This work is a copious treatise on astronomy and geography. Ristoro was superior to the other writers of the time on these subjects, because he seems to have been a careful observer of natural phenomena, and consequently many of the things her relates were the result of his personal investigations. There is also another short treatise, De Regimine Rectoris, by Fra Paolino, a Minorite friar of Venice, who was probably bishop of Pozzuoli, and who also wrote a Latin chronicle. His treatise stands in close relation to that of Rgidio Colonna, De Regimien Principum. It is written in the Venetian dialect.

The 13th century was very rich in tales. There is a collection called the Cento Novelle Antiche which contains stories drawn from Oriental, Greek, and Trojan traditions, from ancient and mediaeval history, from the legends of Brittany, Provence, and Italy, and from the Bible, from the local tradition of Italy as well as from histories of animals and oldmythology. This book has a distant resemblance to the Spanish collection known as El Conde Lucanor. The peculiarity of the Italian book is that the stories are very short, and that they seem to be mere outlines to be filled in by the narrator as he goes along. Other prose novels were inserted by Francesco Barberino in his work Del Reggimento e dei Costumi delle Donne, but they are of much less importance than the others. On the whole the Italian novels of the 13th century have little originality, and are only a faint reflection of the very rich legendary literature of France. Some attention should be paid to the Lettere of Fra Guittone d’Arezzo, who wrote many poems and also some letters in prose, the subjects of which are moral and religious. Love of antiquity, of the traditions of Rome and of its language, was so strong in Guittone that he tried to write Italian in a Latin style, and it turned out obscure, involved, and altogether barbarous. He took as his special model Seneca, and hence his prose assumed a bombastic style, which, according to his views, was very artistic, but which in fact was alien to the true spirit of art, and resulted in the extravagant and grotesque.

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