A History of Italian Literature/Chapter I

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A History of Italian Literature  (1901)  by Richard Garnett
The Beginnings of Italian Literature





Great literatures, like great rivers, seldom derive their origin from a single fountain, but rather ooze from the soil in a multitude of almost imperceptible springs. The literature of Greece may appear an exception, but we know that the broad stream of Homeric song in which we first behold it must have been fed by a number of rills which it has absorbed into itself, and whose original sources lie beyond the range of scrutiny. In no literature is this general maxim better exemplified than the Italian, if, at least, as the economy of this little history demands, we restrict this appellation to its modern period. It might be plausibly contended that the Latin and Italian literatures, like the Roman and Byzantine empires, are, in truth, a single entity, but the convenience of the student precludes a view in support of which much might be adduced by the critic and philologist. Defining Italian literature, therefore, so as to comprise whatsoever is written in any dialect of that "soft bastard Latin" which bears the Italian name, and to exclude all compositions in a language which a Roman would have called Latin, we find none among great literatures whose beginnings are more humble and obscure, or, which at first seems surprising, more recent. The perfection of form which the literature of Italy had attained while all others, save the Provencal, were yet devoid of symmetry and polish, the comparative intelligibility of the diction of "Dante and his circle" at the present day, while the contemporary writers in other tongues require copious glossaries, lead to the tacit and involuntary assumption of a long antecedent period of development and refine- ment which did not in fact exist. In truth, the earliest literary compositions definable as Italian are scarcely older than the thirteenth century.

There is, perhaps, no other such example in history of the obliteration of literary taste and method as that which in Italy befell one of the most gifted peoples of the world for nearly six hundred years. After Boethius (about 530 A.D.) the little that is left of literature becomes entirely utilitarian, and is, with rare exceptions, restricted to theology, jurisprudence, and monkish chronicles. There is still much evidence that the Latin classical writers had not passed out of the knowledge of men; but—except when like Virgil they became heroes of popular legend—little that they exercised any appreciable influence upon men's ideas and imaginations. One unfortunate precursor of the Renaissance, indeed, Vilgardus of Ravenna (about A.D. 1000), was led by his admiration for the classics to disparage Christianity, and suffered death in consequence. As a rule, however, the Latin poets merely served as a magazine of commonplace quotations and an arsenal of metrica rules, which some of the least degenerate writers of the period apply with considerable skill. The explanation of this paralysis of Latin literature in Italy, while Greek was still an efficient organ of thought in the Eastern Empire, is no doubt to be found in the fact that it had never been a robust national growth. The property of the learned and cultivated, it had taken no deep hold upon the mass of the people; and when culture and learning perished amid the vicissitudes of barbarian conquest, it was only preserved, apart from the services of the Church, by the absolute necessity of maintaining some vestiges of law, physic, and divinity, and the impossibility of conveying instruction in the debased dialects into which the old Latin language was resolving itself.

It might have been expected, nevertheless, that these dialects would have become the vehicles of popular legend and poetry, and that, as anciently in Greece, a literature would at length have been evolved from the tales of the story-tellers and the songs of the minstrels. The very existence of vernacular minstrels and story-tellers is but matter of inference, the little which we possess in any sense referable to this department being in Latin. The instances laboriously accumulated by Rubieri to prove the existence of popular poetry throughout the Dark Ages seem to be all in this language; and centuries pass without any indication that the ancestors of Dante thought it possible to write in any other, and scarcely any that they cared for written composition at all, except as a medium for instruction in such knowledge as the age possessed, and the transaction of the ordinary business of life. The symptoms of vitality became more evident after the Christian world had turned the corner of its first millennium. The eleventh century was in Italy an age of eminent theologians; it also beheld the musical reforms of Guido of Arezzo; and towards its conclusion poets of some note arose to chant in Latin hexameters the triumphs of Genoa and Pisa over the Saracens. Still, although, as has been well remarked, the enthusiasm for the Crusades excited by itinerant preachers goes far to prove that public addresses were delivered in the popular dialects, there is not a trace of any written Italian language, or a hint of any such vernacular literature as existed, if it hardly flourished, among the Germans, the French, and the Anglo-Saxons. When at length in the twelfth century Poetry unmistakably presents herself in the songs of the wandering students (Goliardi), her attire is still Latin. But it was much that any class of society should now be making its own songs, and the transition to a vernacular lyric was not long or difficult, although, instead of taking birth among the people, it was fostered into life by the patronage of Courts.

The first of the Latin nations to acquire a cultivated vernacular literature was the Provencal. Many reasons, singly insufficient, but cumulatively of great force, may be adduced for this unquestionable priority. The language, which may be roughly but accurately described as a connecting link between French and Italian, as its Catalan and Valencian congeners form one between French and Spanish, is better adapted for poetical composition than French; while, the Latin influence being less oppressively overwhelming than in the land of the Romans, it escaped the ban of provinciality which so long prohibited serious literary composition in the vernacular speech of Italy. Before the demon of religious persecution was unchained by the Popes, the country enjoyed remarkable prosperity and tranquillity; the harsher features of the feudal system were mitigated by industry and commerce, while the aristocratical organisation of society ensured literature that patronage without which it could hardly have flourished in the absence of a reading class.

The early poets of Provence were almost without exception the favourites of princes and noblemen, whose exploits they celebrated, whose enemies they satirised, whose own political course they sometimes inspired, and for whose gratification they vied with each other in improvised poetical cantets (tenzons). Their strains, though occasionally lighted up by some bright thought which Petrarch subsequently did not disdain to appropriate, appear to us in general artificial and constrained. This is partly owing to the exaggeration of a virtue, that attention to "strictest laws of rhyme and rule," in which, as an English poet truly declares, the bard finds "not bonds, but wings." But the cultivation of form is carried too far when it becomes the end instead of the means, and the Provengal poets allowed themselves to be seduced by their language's unequalled facilities for rhyming into an idolatry of the elaborate, which offered great impediments to the simple expression of feeling. Some of their strophes contain no fewer than twenty-eight verses, the same set of rhymes being carried through the whole stanza, and very frequently through the entire poem. Out of four hundred pieces in a single manuscript collection Ginguené found only two in the simple quatrain. It was fortunate for the Italians that their language, fluent and supple as it is, is incapable of such feats, and that, while adopting their lyrical measures from the Provençals, they could not, had they wished, cramp themselves by the reproduction of the latter's tours de force.

It is in the last quarter of the twelfth century that we find Provençal troubadours established at the Courts of the North Italian princes, writing exactly such poems as they would have written at home, and apparently just as well understood and equally popular, a proof that neither in Provence nor in Italy had the culture of belles lettres progressed beyond the highest circles. One or two of them occasionally mingled an Italian strophe with their Provencal substance, and at a somewhat later date Bonvesin da Riva and others wrote in a curiously mixed dialect of French and Italian. There is, however, no proper Italian literature until, about 1220, we suddenly find a school of vernacular poetry flourishing at Palermo under the patronage of Frederick II., Emperor of Germany, an Italian on his mother's side, and by his tastes and sympathies more of an Italian than of a German prince. The character of its productions is in general wholly Provençal, but the language is Italian of the Tuscan type, and it is a highly interesting question whether this was the case from the first, or whether the pieces as we possess them are adaptations from the Sicilian dialect, which appears from contemporary prose monuments to have existed at the time nearly in its present form. We cannot atempt to decide the controversy, which does not affect the position of the pieces as the earliest undoubted examples of vernacular Italian literature. Their poetical merit cannot in general be rated very highly, and they contain hardly anything which might not have been written in Provence as well as in Sicily. Frederick himself was one of the principal writers, and his canzone on his Lady in Bondage might appear to the English reader to possess considerable merit, but for the suspicion that the great poet who translated it infused more poetical inspiration than he found. It would gain considerably in significance if Rossetti could be proved right in conjecturing that the immured lady is a symbol of Frederick's empire in captivity to the Pope :

"'Each morn I hear his voice bid them
That watch me, to be faithful spies
Lest I go forth and see the skies;
Each night to each he saith the same;—
And in my soul and in mine eyes
There is a burning heat like flame.'

Thus grieves she now; but she shall wear
This love of mine whereof I spoke
About her body for a cloak.
And for a garland in her hair.
Even yet: because I mean to prove.
Not to speak only, this my love."


Of the few really Sicilian poets whose verses remain, the most remarkable is Cielo dal Carno, more commonly known from the misreading of an ill-written text as Ciullo d'Alcarno. The mention of Saladin has till recently caused his Dialogue between Lover and Lady to be ascribed to the close of the twelfth century, but more unequivocal indications prove that it cannot have been written before 1241. It is a piece of rare merit in its way, exempt from the insipid gallantry of the typical troubadour or minnesinger, and full of humour at once robust and sly at the expense of slippery suitors and complacent damsels. Nothing can be more delightfully naive, for instance, than the knight's unsolicited confession that he has stolen his Bible :

"Then, on Christ's book, borne with me still
To read from and to pray
(I took it, fairest, in a church.
The priest being gone away)."


Some of the nearly contemporary Tuscan poets may have belonged to Frederick's circle, but it will be convenient to treat of them in the next chapter among the precursors of Dante. Of the undoubted Sicilian poets the most remarkable is Jacopo , the notary of Lentino, depreciated by Dante on account of the rusticity of his style, a defect which disappears when he is rendered into another language. Rossetti, speaking from Lentino's mask, frequently thrills with strokes of true magic, as when he names

"the song,
Sweet, sweet and long, the song the sirens know."

In some of Lentino's sonnets also the germs and groundwork of Dante's lyrical poetry are manifestly to be discovered.

Something should be said here of the lyrical forms used by the Italian poets of the best ages. The principal are the canzone, the sonnet, and the ballata. The canzone admits of several varieties of structure, but usually commences with three unrhymed lines of eleven syllables each, followed by three similar lines rhyming to their predecessors, a seventh of a discretionary number of syllables rhyming to the third and sixth, and five or six lines on a different rhyming system, short or long at the poet's discretion, yet generally having the last rhyme of the preceding system once repeated. The following stanza from Guido Cavalcanti may serve as an example:

"But when I looked on death made visible,
From my heart's sojourn brought before mine eyes,
And holding in her[1] hand my grievous sin,
I seemed to see my countenance, that fell,
Shake like a shadow: my heart uttered cries.
And my soul wept the curse that lay therein.
Then Death: 'Thus much thine urgent prayer shall win:—
I grant thee the brief interval of youth
At natural pity's strong soliciting.'
And I (because I knew that moment's ruth
But left my life to groan for a frail space)
Fell in the dust upon my weeping face."


By this highly intelligent system the vagrant overgrowth of the Provencal stanza was pruned, and a lyrical form constituted, which was unsurpassed for the combination of dignity with melodious grace. The sonnet, unmatched as the most appropriate form for the harmonious development of a single thought, is one of Italy's most precious gifts to the world of letters. It is too thoroughly naturalised in this country to need detailed description; but the caution is not superfluous that a Shakespearian sonnet, a sonnet on the French model, or a very irregular sonnet, are strictly speaking not sonnets, but quatorzains; and that, although it would be pedantic to insist upon unvarying conformity to one of the four legitimate Italian structures of the sestet, they will seldom be widely departed from without injury to the music and architecture of the poem. The name sonnetto—a little sound—(cf. sonnette) admirably expresses the pealing effect of a well-manipulated sestet. The ballata is less confined by strict rules. "It is properly a lyric of two or more stanzas, in the first of which is set out the theme to be amplified in the following" (Boswell). It often terminates with an envoy or quasi summing-up, as is frequently the case with the canzone also. The octave, familiar to English readers as the metre of Don Juan, was generally reserved for narrative poetry, but was also converted by the Sicilian poets into a lyrical form by merging the final couplet in the preceding sestet, as described and exemplified by an English imitator:

"To thee, fair Isle, Italians satellite,
Italian harps their native measures lend;
Yet, wooing sweet diversity, not quite
Thy octaves with Italians octave blend.
Six streaming lines amass the arrowy might
In hers, one cataract couplet doth expend.
Thine lakewise widens, level in the light.
And like to its beginning is its end."

The sestine, a favourite form with the Provençals, and frequently used by Dante and Petrarch, is too complicated to be well understood without an example.

The same phenomenon is observed in Italian literature as in English—the decay, after the language had begun to receive a high scholastic cultivation, of the simple spontaneous melody which had originally characterised it. Italian prose probably never possessed the majestic rhythm and sonorous cadences which came unsought to English poets of the time of Elizabeth and James ; but Italian verse had its Campions, and these, like ours, left no successors. Without disparaging the tunefulness of late writers like Chiabrera, it must still be owned that this is in a measure artificiai, and that the cause is the divorce of poetry and music. "It seems," says Panizzi, "that the art of writing lines in which so much simplicity, smoothness, and strength were united to so delicate a proportion of sounds, is lost; and the reason is that in our days canzoni and sonnets have nothing but the name of a song." The most melodious modern poetry, accordingly, is the portion of Metastasio's plays which was actually written to be sung.

It is too early to speak as yet of Italian prose, of which no important example will be found until we reach Dante's Vita Nuova, near the end of the thirteenth century. It need only be remarked that the grace of diction and the intricacy of metrical form which Italian poets had attained by the middle of the thirteenth century, show that the language was already capable of fine prose, and that it was only needful to dispel the superstition that serious subjects must be treated in a learned tongue. Poetry prospered in the vernacular for the obvious reasons that the bards were in general ignorant of Latin, and that if they had been acquainted with it their accomplishment would have been wasted upon the lords and ladies for whom they principally wrote. The historical or philosophical writer, however, best reached the classes he addressed through the medium of Latin. Hence, though for different reasons, we observe in early Italian literature the same phenomenon as in early Greek—a brilliant poetical activity in the almost total absence of prose composition. Yet, when Tuscan prose fairly begins, its productions are the purest examples of diction—testi di lingua. This element testifies at once to the innate refinement of the people and to the continuous operation of intellectual influences latent in the obscurest deeps of the Dark Ages.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

  1. Death (La Morte) being feminine in Italian.