1902 Encyclopedia > Italy > Italian Literature - The Renaissance

(Part 48)


Italian Literature - The Renaissance

A great intellectual movement, which had been gathering for a long time, made itself felt in Italy in the 15th century. A number of men arose, all learned, laborious, indefatigable, and all intent on one great work. Such were Niccolo Niccoli, Giannozzo manetti, palla Strozzi, Leonardo Bruni, Francesco Filelfo, Poggio Braccioloni, Carlo d’Arezzo, Lorenzo Valla. Manetti buried himself inhis books, slept only for a few hours in the night, never went out of doors, and spent his time in translating from Greek, studying Hebrew, and commenting on Aristotle. Palla Strozzi sent into Greece at his own expense to search for ancient books, and had Plutarch and Plato brought for him. Poggio Bracciolini went to the council of Constance, and found in monastery in the dust-hole Cicero’s Oratiuons. He copied Quinitilian with his own hand, discovered Lucretius, Plautus, Pliny, and many other Latin authors. Guarino went through the East in search of codices. Giovanni Ausrispa returned to Venice with many hundreds of manuscripts. What was the passion that excited all these men? What did they search after? What did they look to? These Italians were but handing on the solemn tradition which, although partly latent, was the informing principle of Italian mediaeval history, and now at length came out triumphant. This tradition was that same tenacious and sacred memory of Rome, that same worship of its language and institutions, which at one time hadretarded the development of Italian literature, and now grafted the old Latin branch of ancient classicism on the flourishing stock of Italian literature. All this is but the continuation of a phenomenon that has existed for ages. It is the thought of Rome that always dominates Italians, the thought that keeps appearing from Boetius to Dante Alighieri, from Arnold of Brescia to Cola di Rienzi, which gathers strength with Petrarch and Boccaccio, and finally becomes triumphant in literature and life, - in life, because the modern spirit is fed on the works of the ancients. Men come to have a more just idea of nature; the world is no longer cursed or despised; truth and beauty join hands; man is born again; and human reason resumes its rights. Everything, the individual and society, are changed under the influence of new facts.

First of all there was formed a human individuality, which was wanting in the Middle Ages. As Burckhardt has said, the man was changed into the individual. He began to feel and assert his own personality, which was constantly attaining a fuller realization. As a consequence of this, the diea of fame and the desire for it arose. A really cultured class was formed, in the modern meaning of the word, and the conception was arrived at (completely unknown in former times) that the worth of a man did not depend at all on his birth but on his personal qualities. Poggio in his dialogue De Nobilitate declares that he entirely agreed with hisinterlocutorsNiccolo Niccoli and Lorenzo de Medici in the opinion that there is no other nobility but that of personal merit. External life was growing more refined in allparticualrs; the man of society was created; rules for civilized life were made; there was an increasing desire for sumptuous and artistic entertainments.

The mediaeval idea of existence was turned upside down: men who hitherto turned their thoughts exclusively to heavenly things, and believed exclusively in the divine right, now began to think of beautifying their earthly existence, of making it happy and gay, and returned to a belief in their human rights. This was a great advance, but one which carried with it the seeds of many dangers. The conception of morality became gradually weaker. The "fay ce que vouldras" of Rabelais became the first principle of life. Religious feeling was blunted, was weakened, was changed, became pagan again. Finally the Italian of the Renaissance, in his qualities and his passions, became the most remarkable representative of the heights and depths, of the virtues and faults, of humanity. Corruption was associated with all that is most ideal in life; a profound skepticism took hold of people’s minds; indifference to good and evil reached its highest point.

Besides this, a great literary danger was hanging over Italy. Humanism threatened to submerge its youthful national literature. There were authors who laboriously tried to give Italian Latin forms, to do again, after Dante’s time, what Guittone d’Arezzo had so unhappily done in the 13th century. Provincial dialects tried to reassert themselves in literature. The great authors of the 14th century, Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, were by many people forgotten or despised.

It was Florence that saved literature by reconciling the classical models to modern feeling, Florence that succeeded in assimilating classical forms to the "vulgar" art. Still gathering vigor and elegance from classicism, still drawing from the ancient fountains all that they could supply of good and useful, it was able to preserve its real life, to keep its national traditions, and to guide literature along the way that had been opened to it by the writers of the preceding century. At Florence the most celebrated humanists wrote also in the vulgar tongue, and commented on Dante and Petrarch, and defended them from their enemies. Leon Battista Alberti, the learned Greek and Latin scholar, wrote in the vernacular, and Vespasiano da Bisticci, whilst he was constantly absorbed in Greek and Latin manuscripts, wrote the Vite di Uomini Illustri, valuable for their historical contents, and rivaling the best works of the 14th century in their candor and simplicity. Andrea da Barberino wrote the beautiful prose of the Reali di Francia, giving a coloring of "romanita" to the chivalrous romances. Beclari and Benivieni carry us back to the mystic idealism of earlier times.

But it is in Lorenzo de’ Medici that the influence of Florence on the Renaissance is particularly seen. In forming an opinion of him many people are led away by political preconceptions. Even as a stateman, Lorezno has a conspicuous place in the history of his time, and in our day it will not be deemed reasonable to expect that in the age of lordships and principalities he alone should stand out from his time, and not feel the influence of the general condition of Italy. With this, however, we have nothing to do. We have to consider Lorenzo de’ Medici as a man of letters; and as such he is oen about whom tradition and reality best agree. His mind was formed by the ancients; he attended the class of the Greek, Argyropulos, sat at Platonic banquets, took pains to collect codices, sculptures, vases, pictures, gems, and drawing to ornaments the gardens of San Marco and to form the library afterwards called by his name. In the saloons of his Florentine palace, in his villas at Careggi, Fiesole, and Ambra, stood the wonderful chests painted by dello with stories from Ovid, the Hercules of Pollajoulo, the Pallas of Botticelli, the works of Filippino and Verrocchio. Lorenzo de’ Medici lived entirely in the classical world; and yet if we read his poems we only see the man of his time, the admirer of Dante and of the old Tuscan poets, who takes inspiration from the popular muse, and who succeeds in giving to his poetry the colours of the most pronounced realism, as well as of the loftiest idealism,- who passes from the Platonic sonnet to the impassioned triplets of the Amori di Venere, from the grandiosity of the salve to Nencia and to Beoni, from the Canto Carnascialesco to the Lauda. The feeling of nature is strong in him, - at one time sweet and melancholy, at another vigorous and deep, as if an echo of the feelings, the sorrows, the ambitions of the that deeply agitated life. He liked to look into his own heart with a severe eye, but he was also able to pour himself out with tumultuous fullness. He described with the art of a sculptor he satirized, laughed, prayed, sighed, always elegant, always a Florentine, but a Florentine who read Anacreon, Ovid, and Tibullus, who wished to enjoy life, but also to taste of the refinements of art.

Next to Lorenzo comes Poliziano, who also united, and with greater art, the ancient and the modern, the popular and the classical style. In his Rispetti and in his Ballate the freshness of imagery and the plasticity of form are inimitable. He, a great Greek scholar, wrote Italian verses with dazzling colors; the purest elegance of the Greek sources pervaded his art in all its varieties, in the Orfeo as well as the Stanze per la Giostra.

As a consequence of the intellectual movement towards the Renaissance, there arose in Itraly in the 15th century three academies, mthose of Florence, of Naples, and of Rome. The Florentine academy was founded by Cosmo I. de’ Medici. Having heard the praises of Platonic philosophy sung by Gemistus Pletho, who in 1439 was at the council of Florence, he took such a liking for those opinions that he soon made plan a for a literary congress which was especially to discuss them. Marsillius Ficinus has described the occupations and the entertainments of these academicians. Here, he said, the young men learnt, by way of pastime, precepts of conduct and the practice of eloquence; here grown-up men studied the government of the republic and the family; here the aged consoled themselves with the belief in a future world. The academy was divided into three classes; - that of patrons, who were members of the Medici family; that of hearers, among whom sat the most famous men of that age, such as Pico della Mirandola, Angelo Poliziano, Leon battista Alberti; that of disciples, who were youths anxious to distinguish themselves in philosophical pursuits. It is known that the Platonic academy endeavored to promote, with regard to art, a second and a more exalted revival of antiquity. The Roman academy was founded by Giulio Pompnio Leto, with the object of promoting the discovery and the investigation of ancient monuments and books. It was a sort of religion of classicism, mixed with learning and philosophy. Platina, the celebrated author of the lives of the first hundred popes, belonged to it. At Naples, the academy known as the Pontaniana was instituted. The founder of it was Antonio Beccadelli, surnamed II Panormita, and after his death the head was II Pontano, who gave his name to it, and whose mind animated it.

Romantic poems were the product of the moral skepticism and the artistic taste of the 15th century. Italy never had any true epic poetry in its period of literary birth. Still less could it have any in the Renaissance. It had, however,, many poems called Cantari, because they contained stories that were sung to the people; and besides there were romantic poems, such as the Buovo d’Antona, the Regina Ancroja, and others. But the first to introduce elegance and a new life into this style was Luigi Pulci, who grew up in the house of the Medici, and who wrote the Morgante Maggiore at the request of Lucrezia Tornabuoni,mother of Lorenzo the Magnificent. The material of the Morgante is almost completely taken from an obscure chivalrous poem of the 15th century recently discovered by professor Pio Rajna. On this foundation Pulci erected a structure of his own, often turning the subject into ridicule, burlesquing the characters, introducing many digression, now capricious, now scientific, now theological. Pulci’s merit consists in having been the first to raise the romantic epic which had been for two centuries in the hands of story-tellers into a work, of art, and in having united the serious and the comic, thus happily depicting the manners and feelings of the time. with a more serious intention Matteo Boiardo, count of Scandiano, wrote his Orlando inamorato, in which he seems to have aspired to embrace the whole range of Carlovingian legends; but he did not complete his task. We find here too a large vein of humor and burlesque. Still the Ferrarese poet is drawn to the world of romance by a profound sympathy for chivalrous manners and feelings, - that is to say, for love, courtesy, valor, and generosity. A third romantic poem of the 15th century was the Mambriano by Francesco bello (Cieco of Ferrara). He drew from the Carlovingian cycle, from the romances of the Round Table, from classical antiquity. He was a poet of no common genius, and of ready imagination. He showed the influence of Boiardo, especially in something of the fantastic which he introduced into his work.

The development of the drama in the 15th century was very great. This kind of semi-popular literature was born in Florence, and attached itself to certain popular festivities that were usually held in honor of St John the Baptist, patron saint of the city. The Sacra Rappresentazione is in substance nothing more than the development of the mediaeval Mistero ("mystery-play"). Although it belonged to popular poetry, some of its authors were literary men of much renown. It is enough to notice Lorenzo de’ medici, who write San Giovanni e Paolo, and Feo Belcari, author of the San Panunzio, the Abramo ed Isac, &c. From the 15th century, some element of the comic-profane found its way into the Sacra Rappresentazione. From its Biblical and legendary conventionalism Poliziano emancipated himself in his Orfeo, which, although in its exterior form belonging to the sacred representations, yet substantially detaches itself from them in its contents and in the artistic element introduced.

From Petrarch onwards the eclogue was a kind of literature that much pleased the Italians. In it, however, the pastoral element is only apparent, for there is nothing really rural in it. Such is the Arcadia of Jacopo Sannazzaro of Naples, author of a wearisome Latin poem De partuy Virginis, and of some piscatorial eclogues. The Arcadia is divided into ten eclogues, in which the festivities, the games, the sacrifices, the manners of a colony of shepherds are described. They are written in elegant verses, but it would be vain to look in them for the remotest feelingof country life. On the other hand, even in this style, Lorenzo de’ Medici was superior. His nencia da Barberino, as a modern writers says, is as it were the new and clear reproduction of the popular songs of the environs of Florence, melted into one majestic wave of cotave stanzas. Lorenzo threw himself into the spirit of the bare realism of country life. There is a marked contrast between this work and the conventional bucolic of sannazzaro and other writers. A rival of the Medici in this style, but always inferior to him, was Luigi Pulci in his Beca da Dicomano.

The lyric love poetry of this century was unimportant. In its stead we see a completely new style arise, to Canto Carnascialesco. These were a kind of choral songs, which were accompanied, with symbolical masquerades, common in Florence at the carnival. They were written in a metre like that of the ballate; and for the most part they were put into the mouth of a party of workmen and tradesmen, who, with not verychaste allusions, sand the praises of their art. These triumphs and masquerades were directed by Lorenzo himself. At eventide there set out into they city large companies on horseback, playing and singing these songs. There are some by Lorenzo himself, which surpass all the others in their mastery of art. That entitled Bacco ed Arianna is the most famous.

Girolamo Savonarola arose to fight against the literary and social movement of the Renaissance. He was a Ferrarese friar, born in 1452, and he came to Florence in 1389. Some have tried to make out that Savonarola was an apostle of liberty, others that he was a precursor of the Reformation. In truth, however, he was neither the one nor the other. In his struggle with Lorenzo de’ medici, he directed his attack against the promoter of classical studies, the patron of pagan literature, rather than against the political tyrant. Animated by mystic zeal, he took the line of a prophet, preaching against reading voluptuous authors, against the tyranny of the Medici, and calling for popular government. This, however, was not done from a desire for civil liberty, but because Savonarola saw in Lorenzo and his court the greatest obstacle to that return to Catholic doctrine which was his heart’s desire; while he thought this return would be easily accomplished if, on the fall of the Medici, the Florentine republic should come into the hands of his supporters. There may be more justice in looking on Savonarola as the forerunner of the Reformation. If he was so, it was more than he intended. The friar of Ferrara never thought of attacking the papal dogma, and always maintained that he wished to remain within the church of Rome. He had none of the great aspirations of Luther. He only repeated the complaints and the exhortations of St Catherine of Siena; he desired a reform of manners, entirely of manners, not of doctrine. He pre pared the ground for the German and English religious movement of the 16th century, but unconsciously. In the history of Italian civilization he represents retrogression, that is to say, the canceling of the great fact of the renaissance, and return to mediaeval ideas. His attempt to put himself in opposition to his time, to arrest the course of events, to bring the people back to the faith of the past, the belief that all the social evils came from a Medici and a Borgia, his not seeing the historical reality as it was, his aspiring to found a republic with Jesus Christ for its king,- all these things show that Savonarola was more of a fanatic than a thinker. Nor has he any great merit as a writer. He wrote Italian sermons, hymns (laudi), ascetic and political treatises, but they are roughly executed and only important as throwing light on the history of his ideas. The religious poems of Girolamo Benivieni are better than his, and are drawn from the same inspirations. In these lyrics, sometimes sweet, always warm with religious feeling, Benivieni and with him Feo Belcari carry us back to the literature of the 14th century.

History had neither many nor very good students in the 15th century. Its revival belonged to the following age. It was mostly written in Latin. Leonardo Bruni of Arezzo wrote the history of Florence Gioviano Pontano that of Naples, in Latin, Bernardino Corio wrote the history of Milan in Italian, but in a rude way.

Leonardo da Vinci wrote a treatise on painting. Leon Battista Alberti one on sculpture and architecture. But the names of these tow men are important, not so much as authors of these treatises, but as being embodiments of another characteristic of the age of the Renaissance, - versatility of genius, power of application along many and varied lines, and of being excellent in all. Leoanrdo was an architect, a poet, a painter, an hydraulic engineer, and a distinguished mathematician. Alberti was a musician, studied jurisprudence, was an architect and a draughtsman, and had great fame in literature. He had a deep feeling for nature, an almost unique faculty of assimilating all that he saw and heard. Leonardo and Alberti are representatives and almost a compendium in themselves of all that intellectual vigor of the Renaissance age, which in the 16th century took to developing itself in its individual parts, making way for what has by some been called the golden age of Italian literature.

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