A History of Italian Literature/Chapter II

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It was inevitable that the light thus kindled at the Sicilian Court should spread to other parts of Italy, those especially where the vernacular tongue had already obtained the greatest degree of refinement, and had developed most aptitude for the purposes of literature.

Dante, examining the dialects of Italy about the beginning of the fourteenth century, affirms, indeed, that none of them can be identified as the ideal or pattern language, which is the common property of educated Italians everywhere. But he evidently regards Tuscany and Bologna as greatly in advance of other parts of Italy; and speaks of the impediments offered by the local speech of Ferrara, Modena, and Reggio to the acquisition of pure Italian, in consequence of which, he says, these cities have produced no poets. Evidently, therefore, some districts of Italy were more congenial than others to the Court poetry transplanted from Sicily; and we find it flourishing exactly where, on Dante's principles, this might have been expected, that is, in Tuscany and the Romagna. About the same time, Antonio da Tempo, a Paduan, writing on vernacular poetry, admits that "Lingua Tusca magis apta est ad literam sive literaturam quam aliae linguae, et ideo magis est communis et intelligibilis." Almost the same words are employed by an anonymous contemporary translator of the excerpts from the gospels read as lessons for the day, with the addition that the Tuscan speech is also the most agreeable. It is no wonder, therefore, that many of the so-called Sicilian poets should have been Tuscans, or that Tuscans at home should have been the first and chief cultivators of Italian poetry, so soon as this began to be written elsewhere than in Sicily, where the destruction of the Hohenstaufen dynasty put an end to it shortly after the middle of the thirteenth century. The transfer of literary composition from a Court circle to a republican community was of high importance as a substitution of freer influences for those by which it had hitherto been moulded, and we speedily see the new literature ceasing to be a mere amusement, and becoming in some measure an organ of thought and opinion. Political poems, satires, didactic pieces, moral exhortations in verse become frequent. The literary worth of these, indeed, is not in general comparable to that of the amorous strains which had formerly monopolised the field of poetry, but they show that literature was beginning to lay hold of the national life, and bear within them the germs of better things.

The most remarkable representative of the new tendency, who had previously been a leading representative of the old, the most influential and the most conspicuous figure, indeed, among Dante's forerunners, though far from the best poet, was Guittone di Arezzo, born probably about 1235. In his youth Guittone had been a love poet, after the manner of the troubadours, and obtained sufficient distinction in the sonnet—to which, indeed, he seems to have first given what was to prove its durable form—to be afterwards regarded as the precursor of Petrarch; but towards middle age, under the influence of religious emotion, he renounced the world, including his wife and family, and entered the military, not monastic, order of the Cavalieri di Santa Maria, known, from the free-and-easy deportment of some of the brethren, as the Jolly Friars, Frati Gaudenti. Guittone, however, seems to have been perfectly serious in the step he took. He condemned his former course of life, renounced poetical pursuits, and dispensed prescriptions against secular lore and poetry in all their branches. He continued, nevertheless, to write in verse, and employed the Provençal metrical forms as of old; but the themes of his muse are now morality, religion, and, occasionally, politics. His sentiments entitle him to respect, but his verse is dreary: Rossetti has been able to find only one piece of his to repay translation, and this, even in Rossetti's hands, does not repay it. He was, nevertheless, much admired in his own day, and many contemporary poets were much influenced by him, especially by his Latinisms; for Guittone was acquainted with such of the classical writers as were then accessible, and imitated their constructions with servility and without judgment. He has a claim to priority as one of the first writers of Italian prose, on the strength of his epistles. They are otherwise only remarkable for the Latinised affectation of their style.[1]

A much more important writer, in a purely literary point of view, and the first Italian who can be esteemed a poet of high merit, is Guido Guinicelli of Bologna 1220-1276), of whom little is known, except that, like most men of light and leading in those unquiet times, he was banished from his native city. His rank in Italian poetry is prominent, he gave it a more serious and philosophical character than the troubadours had been capable of imparting, and his amorous sentiment is more spirited and impressive. The masterpiece among Dante's sonnets—Tanto gentil e tanto onesta pare—is undoubtedly adumbrated in one of Guinicelli's. Dante calls him "the Sage," and the canzone of the Gentle Heart, to which the great Florentine is alluding, justifies his admiration. The following is the first of six beautiful stanzas:

"Within the gentle heart Love shelters him,
As birds within the green shade of the grove.
Before the gentle heart, in Natures scheme,
Love was not, or the gentle heart ere Love.
For with the sun, at once,
So sprang the light immediately, nor was
Its birth before the sun's.
And Love hath his effect in gentleness
Of very self; even as
Within the middle fire the heafs excess."


Much might be said of many other precursors of Dante, but space admonishes us to restrict ourselves to two—Guido delle Colonne, a Sicilian, chiefly known for his Latin romance on the Fall of Troy, but also a vernacular lyrist of considerable merit; and Rustico di Filippo ( 1200–1274), eulogised by Brunetto Latini as a man of great worth, but whose place among poets is mainly that of a satirist. Very biting are his lines on a certain Messer Ugolino, a member by anticipation of what Carlyle called "the Heaven and Hell Amalgamation Society," "who has good thoughts, no doubt, if they would stay," and

"Would love his party with a dear accord
If only he could once quite care for it."

One other writer among Dante's predecessors may be mentioned, not for his claims as a poet, but as a man so illustrious that he honoured poetry even by attempting what he was unqualified to perform. He is no less a man than St. Francis of Assisi, whose Song of the Creatures is pronounced by Renan "the most perfect expression given by the modern world of its feeling for religion."

Some way past the middle of the century (1265) the greatest poet of Italy was born, and ere his eyes were closed Italian literature, in virtue of his works alone, had taken place among the great literatures of the world. The distance between Dante and his immediate contemporaries is much wider than usual in the case of similar groups of intellectual and gifted men, even if, leaving Dante's great poem and his prose works out of sight, we consider him simply as a lyrist. Yet they do constitute a group around him, and evince a general development both in thought and command of language, testifying to the upheaval which made a Dante possible. Many might be noticed did space permit, but it will be necessary to restrict ourselves to two typical instances, with an additional section on the cultivators of humorous and satirical poetry, whose writings perhaps afford surer testimony than those of more ambitious bards that poetry had actually entered into the life of the people. The two men who, but for the existence of Dante, wouldhave stood forth as the poetical representatives of their age, are Guido Cavalcanti and Cino da Pistoia. By the time of their appearance, about 1290, Italian literature had become for the time entirely concentrated in Tuscany, and the phenomena which had attended the similar isolation of Greek literary talent in Attica were destined to reproduce themselves.

Guido Cavalcanti would be memorable if only for his youthful friendship with Dante, celebrated in many poems of both, and more especially in the sonnet, so well known in England from Shelley's more poetical than accurate version, in which Dante wishes for his company, along with Lapo Gianni and their respective ladies, on a voyage with him and his Beatrice. Vanna, Cavalcanti's lady-love in those days, is mentioned in another sonnet as the chosen companion of Beatrice:

Beside the other seemed a thing divine."

Cavalcanti had the reputation of a free-thinker, and the charge seems hardly refuted by his having made a pilgrimage to Compostella, even if he ever arrived there, which may be questioned. It is supposed to have been on this journey that he made the acquaintance of the pretty Mandetta of Toulouse, the theme of much of his verse. He was a leading personage in the Florentine republic, and his strifes with inimical factions eventually led to his exile to Sarzana, where he contracted a disease which carried him off after his return to his native city.

Guido's merits as a poet were highly estimated by his contemporaries. Dante mentions him in his treatise De Vulgari Eloquio among the masters of Italian literature, and declares that he has eclipsed Guido Guinicelli, whom also he greatly admired. Benevento da Imola, the commentator on the Divine Comedy, names him along with Dante as one of the two great lights of the age. That these praises were not undeserved will appear from a comparison of his lyrics with Dante's, remembering that he was the older man and that the obligation was entirely on the side of the younger. Dante, especially in his sonnets, is continually borrowing thoughts which, whether original with Cavalcanti or not, had been previously expressed by him. The expression is indeed greatly improved, but even Cavalcanti's comparatively rude form is full of charm. In his ballate he has the great merit of having exalted a popular carol to the dignity of literature with little injury to its simplicity. Of the canzoni ascribed to him only two are recognised as undoubtedly genuine. Both are instinct with the philosophical spirit which he imported into poetry. The objections to the genuineness of the others derived from external evidence do not always appear very conclusive; but it must be admitted that there is an almost entire lack of external testimony in their favour. Four of them, from one of which we have already borrowed a quotation, have been translated by Rossetti, The most celebrated of Guido's genuine compositions, the beginning "Donna mi prega; perch' io voglio dire," was considered by his contemporaries the ne plus ultra of poetry, but rather for its erudition than its strictly poetical merits : it had eight separate commentaries, which indeed were by no means superfluous.

Guittoncino de' Sinibuldi, commonly called Cino da Pistoia, a poet of somewhat later date (1270-1336), possessed less originality than Guido Cavalcanti, but having a better standard of taste, is perhaps more generally pleasing. Like Cavalcariti, he was a man of varied accomplishments, and it is his special renown to have been among the first jurists of his time. Like Dante, he was exiled from his native city, and went to Paris; he subsequently professed law in several of the chief cities of Italy, and was eventually restored to his own. His verse, like Cavalcanti's, bears a strong affinity to Dante's lyrical poetry, and, in the opinion of so accomplished a judge as Lorenzo de' Medici, is even more completely divested of primitive rudeness. His most celebrated composition is the canzone consoling Dante for the loss of Beatrice, from which we quote a stanza in Rossetti's version:

"Why now do pangs of torment clutch thy heart,
Which with thy love should make thee overjoyed,
As him whose intellect has passed the skies?
Behold, the spirits of thy life depart
Daily to Heaven with her, they so are buoyed
With thy desire, and Love so bids them rise.
O God! and thou, a man whom God made wise,
To nurse a charge of care, and love the same!
I tell thee in His name
From sin of sighing grief to hold thy breath,
Nor let thy heart to death,
Nor harbour death's resemblance in thine eyes.
God hath her with Himself eternally,
Yet she inhabits every hour with thee."

Here, and in the remainder of the poem, there is a clear prefiguration of Petrarch, who admired Cino, and wrote a sonnet on his death. The following is a favourable example of Cino's own sonnets:

"Descend, fair Pity, veiled in mortal weed;
And in thy guise my messengers be dight,
Partakers to appear of virtuous might
That Heaven hath for thy attribute decreed

Yet thou, ere on their errand these proceed,
If Love consent, I pray recall and cite
My spirits all astray dispersed in flight,
That so my songs be bold to sue and plead,
Then, hast thou sight of ladies' loveliness,
Thither accede, for I would harm thee there,
And audience with humility entreat;
And charge my envoys, kneeling at their feet,
Their Lord and his desirings to declare:
Hear them, sweet Ladies, for their humbleness."

Several other good poets, such as Lapo Gianni, Dino Frescobaldi, and Gianni Alfani, would deserve notice in a more elaborate history. They all wrought in the spirit of Cavalcanti and Dante himself, spiritualising the earthly passion of the troubadours, and endowing the ladies of their songs with such superhuman perfections as to incur the risk of appearing mere types of ideal virtue. We must, however, pass to a different order of poetry, the gay and satirical. Here Folgore di San Geminiano is the leading figure. His political sonnets are very forcible; but he is better known for two sets of sonnets on the pleasures of the months and the days of the week, celebrating, not without an undercurrent of satire, the luxurious extravagance of a set of wild young men at Siena, who, another poet informs us, reduced themselves to beggary thereby. Another humorous poet, justly defined by Rossetti as the scamp of the Dante circle, is Cecco Angioleri, who is irreverent enough to call Dante himself a pinchbeck florin, and whose favourite theme is his quarrels with his parents:

"My mother don't do much because she can't,
But I may count it just as good as done,
Knowing the way and not the will's her want.
To-day I tried a kiss with her—just one—

To see if I could make her sulks avaunt;
She said, 'The devil rip you up my son!'"


Another class of poetry, forming a connecting link with prose, should be briefly mentioned, the didactic. The Tesoretto of Brunetto Latini (1210-1294), celebrated as an encyclopædist of the knowledge of his time, and still more so as the preceptor or rather entor of Dante, describes a vision in which the poet supposes the secrets of nature to be revealed to him, and is interesting as in some measure prefiguring the machinery of the Divina Commedia. Francesco Barberino, a notary, wrote both in prose and verse on the bringing-up of girls, and although he is an indifferent writer his work is valuable as a picture of manners. He seriously discusses the question whether girls should be taught to read, and decides it in the negative. An anonymous poem entitled La Intelligenzia, treating philosophically of the emanation of Divine Wisdom, a conception resembling that of the Logos, attains a higher grade of poetical merit, but the best passages appear to be translated from the French and Provençal. The religious ly ric of St. Francis of Assisi and of the Umbrian school, more interesting in a psychological than in a literary point of view, culminated about the end of the thirteenth century in the lays of Jacopino di Todi, remarkable examples of impassioned mysticism, and sometimes of satiric force. He is particularly interesting as a popular poet who owes nothing to culture, but derives all his inspiration from the ecstatic devotion which in his day animated a large portion of the Italian common people. The same spirit inspired the Rappresentazioni of a rather later period, which will be more appropriately considered along with the Italian drama.

Dante's prose works demand separate treatment; of earlier examples of prose there is very little to be said. Historians and theologians continued to compose in Latin, and the few writings in the vernacular were chiefly translations from that language. The principal contemporary book in Italian, the Tesoro or great encyclopaedia of Brunetto Latini, is an important monument of culture, but not of literature. It was, moreover, originally composed in French.

Italian literature had sprung up from nothingness and made enormous progress during three-quarters of a century without having produced a poet of the first or even of the second rank. There was no want of singers; rather there seemed reason for apprehension lest, as Tansillo declared with truth in the Cinque Cento,

"The Muses' troop an army had become,
And every hillock a Parnassus grown"—

a complaint anticipated by the anonymous writer of a clever ballata in the thirteenth century:

"A little wild bird sometimes at my ear
Sings his own verses very clear:
Others sing louder what I do not hear.
For singing loudly is not singing well;
But ever by the song that's soft and low
The master-singer's voice is plain to tell.
Few have it, and yet all are masters now,
And each of them can trill out what he calls
His ballads, canzonets, and madrigals.
The world with masters is so covered o'er.
There is no room for pupils any more."


But the great poet was about to arise who may almost be said to have created two literatures—his country's and that specially devoted to himself—and whose own works are such, that if every other production of Italian literature were to perish, it would, on their account alone, continue to deserve a place among the great literatures of the world.

This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

  1. The other prose Italian writings of approximate date are for the most part either translations from the Latin, which do not enter into the plan of this work, or novelettes, which will be more advantageously considered along with other works of their class. The origin of Italian prose would have to be carried considerably farther back if the Carte di Arborea in the public library of Cagliari were genuine, but they are unquestionably forgeries.
  2. "Gin my seven sons were seven rats,
    Rinning over the castle wa',
    And I mysel' were the auld grey cat,
    Full soon would I worry them a'! "
    Old Ballad.