A History of Italian Literature/Chapter III

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Creditable as were their essays in the new literary instrument of thought, Dante's predecessors can be regarded as his forerunners only in so far as they had helped to create an intellectual atmosphere congenial to the special bent of his genius. The general character of this may be defined as an alliance of the chivalrous and impassioned sentiment which had come down from the troubadours with the science of Aristotle and the thought of Aquinas. Guido Cavalcanti had shown how these might be combined, and Dante followed in his steps without, perhaps, any clear consciousness of his own infinite superiority; of which, however, a well-known passage in the Inferno seems to intimate that he eventually came to entertain a sufficient notion.

Dante (Durante) Alighieri was born at Florence in 1265, in the later part of May. The origin of his family is variously attributed to Rome, Ferrara, Parma, and Verona. The first of his ancestors whom he mentions, Cacciaguida degli Elisei, a crusader in 1147, had bestowed his wife's surname of Alighieri upon his son, and it had continued in the family. Dante's relatives belonged to the Guelf party, and had had their share in the turmoils which for half a century had distracted Florence no less than most other Italian cities. Of his boyhood we know nothing, except that he lost his mother at an early age, and that he profited by the instructions of the most learned of the Florentines, Brunetto Latini. He appears to have taken part in several military expeditions in his youth, and the glimpses of his personal circumstances which he allows us in the Vita Nuova exhibit him as a man of means, mingling on equal terms with the wealthy and polished society of prosperous Florence.

If our knowledge of Dante's outer life at this period of his history is imperfect, it is otherwise with his spiritual life, which he has revealed as no other could, in the above-mentioned Vita Nuova, written probably about 1292. This alone would have immortalised him as the author of the earliest modern book of its class— though it had a prototype in the Confessions of Saint Augustine—and of the first book of genius, or indeed of any real importance, written in Italian prose. Nothing can more forcibly proclaim the superiority of Dante's mind than the uniqueness of his first production, unless it be the fact that, high as is its place in literature, its chief interest for us is its concern with the man. It is simply the record of his attachment to a young lady whom he calls Beatrice, and whom Boccaccio enables us to identify with one whom we know from other sources to have actually existed, Beatrice de' Portinari. The notion that Beatrice is but an abstraction is utterly refuted, to adduce no other testimony, by Cino's consolatory poem on her death, quoted in the preceding chapter, and can only be entertained by those who know little of love, or are entirely possessed by the passion for allegorising. If ever intense affection was conveyed in intense language it is here, while at the same time the passion is purely Platonic, and there is no proof that it was in any degree shared by its object, who appears to have been already married.

Dante's biographers, except the late and untrustworthy Filelfo, cast no doubt on the real existence of Beatrice, and it would require very strong evidence to overthrow the testimony of the chief among them, Boccaccio, who lived near Dante's age, whose veneration for him was boundless, and who was personally acquainted with his daughter. We can perceive no adequate reason for the scepticism of Scartazzini and others respecting Boccaccio's trustworthiness. It is true that the use which he made of his opportunities falls sadly below the modern standard. Not only is he careless in collecting and verifying authorities, but he makes no attempt to think himself back into the period of his hero. "Between him and the enthusiasms of the Middle Ages," says Symonds, "a ninefold Styx already rolled its waves." Yet his faults are offences of defect, not of excess in statement, though he sins by introducing many useless disquisitions. His work exists in two shapes, a longer and a shorter recension. The latter is undoubtedly an unauthorised abridgment of the former, and the novel statements which it occasionally introduces can claim no authority from Boccaccio. It seems to have been made by some Florentine who was offended by the severity of Boccaccio's strictures upon his city for her ingratitude to Dante.

The biography by Filippo Villani, one of his Lives of Illustrious Florentines, written about 1400, is mainly taken from Boccaccio, but is important for its vindication of Dante from the charge of profligacy, and for its particular details of his last illness. The valuable life by Leonardo Bruni (1369–1414) is avowedly designed as a supplement to Boccaccio, who in Brum's opinion had neglected weighty matters for love stories and such-like frivolities. He therefore, while omitting all mention of Beatrice and the Vita Nuova, gives a much fuller account than Boccaccio of Dante's share in the affairs of Florence, and even cites an autograph letter of his, now lost like all others. He is entitled to much respect as a sensible and impartial writer, who took pains to obtain information; while the later mediaeval biographers, Manetti and Filelfo, have some literary merit, but no historical value. Of the other three it may be said that a statement in which any two of them agree may usually be received, and that the assertion of any one is entitled to a fair amount of credit when it is not contradicted by another's. The absolute trust-worthiness of the chronicle long attributed to Dinoi Campagni must now be given up; it is, nevertheless, most probably of sufficient antiquity to have preserved some authentic notices.

No biographer of Dante, however, could possibly have compared with Dante himself, and it is much to be lamented that the entire disappearance of what must have been for his time an extensive body of correspondence has deprived us of all autobiographic record except the Vita Nuova, which, almost devoid of incident, paints the inner man with lively force. Except Shelley's Epipsychidon the world has nothing to set beside this dithyrambic of purely Platonic passion. We must recur to it, and need only here fix the death of Beatrice, one of the great landmarks of Dante's life, at June 9, 1290. Somewhat more than a year afterwards we find Dante moved, as a noble soul might well be, not by the attractions but by the spiritual sympathy of a compassionate lady. It is impossible to entertain the least doubt of the reality of an episode described by himself with such tenderness of self-excuse and poignancy of self-reproach, but to admit it is to admit the actuality of all the rest of the Vita Nuova:

"The salt stream that did sorrowfully flow,
Speeded, ye Eyes, from your deep springs apace,
Gave marvel unto all who such long space
Beheld you weeping, as yourselves do know.
Now fear I that all such ye would forgo,
If I upon my own part would be base,
And not all shift and subterfuge displace,
Reminding you of her who made your woe.
Your levity lays load of heavy thought
Upon me, sore disquieted with dread
Of her who looks on you in wistful wise.
By nothing less than Death should you be wrought
E'er to forget your Lady who is dead;
Thus saith my heart, and afterward it sighs."

Dante appears to say that he entirely overcame this rather regrettable than reprehensible lapse from his ideal, and we believe him. If so, the pitiful lady cannot be identified with Gemma Donati, whom, at latest in 1293, if she had really borne him seven children by 1300, he married by the persuasion of his friends. The Vita Nuova was in all probability written by this time, and from its conclusion we learn that Dante was even then preparing to celebrate Beatrice in the Divina Commedia, It is therefore exceedingly improbable that he would have wedded one at all likely to impair or efface the freshness of her image in his soul; and though his union with Gemma was apparently untroubled by discord, it probably lacked all consecration but the ceremonial. It was brought to a close by Dante's exile from his native city in 1301. Gemma and the children did not accompany him, and he never saw them more. The reason is not difficult to discover: it prefigured the case of Milton. Gemma's family, the Donati, had come to belong to a party opposed to Dante. The interests of her numerous children, mostly of very tender age, undoubtedly counselled Gemma to cleave to the winning side, and she can scarcely be blamed if she declined to forsake her blood relations for a husband whom she had probably found unsympathetic. Whether Dante approved her course, or rejoiced in his liberty (Short-sighted Devil, not to take his spouse!), or was simply choked by indignation, he never honours or dishonours her by a single word. Gemma Donati's portrait hangs in the gallery of poets' wives, like Marshal Marmont's in the gallery of French marshals, covered by a veil of crape.

Few of the more distinguished Italian men of letters have been able to keep themselves clear of public employment. Dante's wealth and social eminence in the days of his prosperity did not allow him to decline the invidious office of Prior, to which he was raised in 1300. It was only tenable for two months, but this was long enough for his ruin. Florence was then rent by dissensions between two factions, the Whites and Blacks. The Government, by Dante's courageous and probably wise advice, resolved to banish the leaders of both. As the chiefs of the Guelfic Blacks were Dante's own connections, the Donati, while the Ghibelline Whites included Guido Cavalcanti, his most intimate friend, his counsel must have been patriotic and disinterested. Unfortunately, it was not unflinchingly carried out, some of the Whites being shortly afterwards allowed to return. Pope Boniface VIII., fearing that the Ghibelline or Imperialist party would thus obtain the upper hand in the city, incited Charles de Valois, brother of the French King, Philip the Fair, whom he had allured into Italy to attack the King of Naples, to make himself master of Florence. This he accomplished, and the consequent return of Dante's adversaries led to the sacking of his house, the ruin of his fortune, and his life-long exile from his native city. He was at the time absent on an embassy at the Papal Court, from which he retired to Arezzo, where the other exiles had assembled, and must henceforth be reckoned among the Ghibellines.

For some years Dante participated in their endeavours to reinstate themselves by force; but eventually, well-nigh as disgusted with his friends as with his enemies, scorning the ignominious terms on which alone return would have been permitted, and especially discouraged by the failure of the Emperor Henry VII., whose advent to Italy he had welcomed with enthusiasm, he became a wanderer among the courts of the princes and nobles of Northern Italy, generally finding honour and protection, which he frequently repaid by diplomatic services. There seems no doubt of his having visited Paris and studied in the University. The alleged extension of his journey to Oxford is unsupported by convincing evidence, but is not impossible or improbable. A writer near his own day seems to assert that he had been in England. During all this time, like his ancient prototype Thucydides, he was devoting himself to his immortal work, which, published as the respective parts were completed, brought him celebrity and wondering reverence even in his lifetime. His most distinguished patron in his later years was Cane della Scala, surnamed the Great, Lord of Verona, from whose court he retired, in 1320 to that of Guido Novello da Polenta, at Ravenna. In the following year he undertook a mission to Venice, and there contracted a fever, which, aggravated it is said by the inhospitality of the Venetians in compelling him to return by land, carried him off on September 14, 1321, shortly after he had completed his great epic. His funeral obsequies were celebrated with magnificence; but political troubles delayed for a hundred and sixty years the erection of the monument ultimately raised by the piety of Cardinal Bembo's father, then governing Ravenna for the Venetians, and inscribed with six rhyming Latin verses attributed without adequate evidence to Dante's own pen, but sufficiently ancient to have been expanded by Boccaccio into a noble sonnet:

"Dante am I, of deepest lore in song
Hierophant, elected to combine
Inheritance in Art with Natures sign,
Accounted miracle all men among.
Wings of Imagination sure and strong
Bore me through worlds infernal and divine,
And gave to verse immortal to consign
What doth to Earth or doth to Heaven belong.
Bright Florence brought me forth, but her fond son
To bitter exile drove, step-mother made
By guile of tongues malevolent and base.
Ravenna sheltered me; in her is laid
My dust; my spirit thitherward has gone
Where Wisdom reigns, and Envy hath not placed."

It is usual to commence a review of an author's productions by his most important work; but the Divina Commedia requires a chapter to itself, and precedence must consequently be given to Dante's minor writings. Of these the Vita Nuova stands first both in time and in importance. It is epoch-making in many ways, as the first great example of Italian prose, the first revelation of the genius of the greatest mediaeval poet, and the incarnation of that romantic conception of ideal love by which the Middle Age might fairly claim to have augmented the heritage bequeathed by antiquity. The main note of Dante's genius here is its exquisite and unearthly spirituality, which, indeed, is visible in much of the poetry and art of the time, but attains its most intense expression in him. Something like it has occasionally been seen since, as in John Henry Newman; but it is in our day too much out of keeping with the legitimate demands of a busy and complicated society to occur except as a temporary and individual phenomenon.

Nothing is more remarkable in a composition apparently so fanciful than the entire sincerity and straight-forwardness of the Vita Nnova: grant that Beatrice was a real person, and it is impossible to doubt the literal truth of the entire narrative. This is the more extraordinary in consideration of the impersonality alike of the enamoured poet and of the object of his passion. Dante, indeed, speaking throughout in his own character, cannot help portraying himself in some measure, though our conception of him is probably largely made up of involuntary associations with the more palpable Dante of the Divina Commedia. But Beatrice remains what he meant her to be, a spiritual presence, visible but intangible. No heroine of fiction conveys a stronger impression of perfection; but we see her as Andromeda saw Medusa, merely reflected in the mind of her lover.

More extraordinary works than the Vita Nuova have been composed at even an earlier age, but there is perhaps no other book in the world in which a young man appears as asserting by his first attempt so unchallenged a superiority over predecessors and contemporaries, with whom he has nevertheless much in common. The evolution of Italian poetry has up to this point proceeded gradually and systematically; all of a sudden it makes a bound, and seems as it were to have sprung across a chasm. The prose is of more equable desert than the interspersed poetry, some of which is inferior; while, on the other hand, the best poetry far transcends the prose. The finest among the sonnets and canzoni, if sometimes rivalled, have not hitherto been surpassed in Italian literature, while the most famous of the former still stands at the head of its own class:

"So goodly and so seemly doth appear
My Lady, when she doth a greeting bring,
That tongue is stayed, silent and quivering,
And eye adventures not to look on her.
She thence departeth, of her laud aware,
Meek in humility's apparelling;
And men esteem her as a heavenly thing
Sent down to earth a marvel to declare.
Whoso regardeth, so delightedly
Beholds, his eyes into his heart instil
Sweet only to be known by tasting it;
And from her face invisibly doth flit
A gentle spirit Love doth wholly fill,
That to the soul is ever sayings Sigh."

The length of Italian canzoni renders it extremely difficult to do them justice in a work of necessarily contracted limits. Two stanzas, however, of Dante's canzone on the death of his lady are, as it were, a little poem complete in themselves, and may be cited in Rossetti's matchless version:

"I was a-thinking how life fails with us
Suddenly after such a little while;
When Love sobbed in my hearty which is his home.
Whereby my spirit waxed so dolorous
That in myself I said, with sick recoil:
' Yea, to my Lady too this Death must come. '
And therewithal such a bewilderment
Possessed me, that I shut mine eyes for peace;
And in my brain did cease
Order of thought, and every healthful thing.
Afterwards, wandering
Amid a swarm of doubts that came and went,
Some certain women's faces hurried by,
And shrieked to me, ' Thou too shall die, shall die! '
Then saw I many broken, hinted sights
In the uncertain state I stepped into.
Meseemed to be I know not in what place.
Where ladies through the streets, like mournful lights,
Ran with loose hair, and eyes that frightened you
By their own terror, and a pale amaze:
The while, little by little, as I thought,
The sun ceased, and the stars began to gather,
And each wept at the other;
And birds dropped in mid flight out of the sky,
And earth shook suddenly,
And I was 'ware of one, hoarse and tired out,
Who asked of me, ' Hast thou not heard it said?
Thy lady, she that was so fair, is dead. '"

Although the Vita Nuova is essentially true history, the same cannot be said of a later work preferred to it by the author himself, albeit posterity has reversed his judgment. This is the Convito, or Banquet, in which Beatrice appears as an allegory of divine philosophy. The process of this mutation is not difficult to discover. Not long after her death, Dante, as he tells us at the end of the Vita Nuova, had resolved, under the influence of a wondrous vision, "di dire di lei quello che mai non fu detto d'alcuna." The mortal maiden thus necessarily becomes a type of supernatural glory and perfection, as we see her in the Divina Commedia, and the metamorphosis inevitably extends to the lyrics in which Dante celebrates her. She is no longer Beatrice de' Portinari, but Philosophy, and unfortunately in too many instances Dante's poetry has become philosophy also. The nobility of the form still assures it pre-eminence over all contemporary verse but the author's own; but the substance is often mere reasoning in rhyme. Two canzoni, however, are of distinguished beauty, "Voi ch' intendendo il terzo ciel movete" (translated by Shelley), and "Tre donne intorno al cor mi son venute," which Coleridge says, in 1819, he is at length beginning to understand after reading it over twelve times annually for the last fourteen years. "Such a fascination had it in spite of its obscurity!"

The former of these pieces is shown by internal evidence to have been written as early as 1295, and the latter was composed after Dante's banishment, to which period most of the other canzoni and the prose commentary probably belong. This commentary constitutes the substance of the work. It was intended to have expounded fourteen canzoni, but treats only of three, apart from a general introduction. More remarkable, perhaps, than the philosophical subtleties of which it consists, is Dante's appeal to a new public. He writes no longer for literary circles, but for the world of persons of worth wherever found, especially persons of rank. Hence the treatise is necessarily composed in Italian, which has the good effect of drawing from Dante a spirited vindication of his native tongue. It was probably completed up to the point where the author left it by 1308 or 1309. The exceedingly corrupt text has been revised by the last editor, Dr. Moore, upon the authority of two manuscripts in England.

The literary merits of the Italian language are more fully expounded in another work of Dante's, which, however, he composed in Latin, that his arguments might reach those who would not have condescended to read the vernacular. The De Vulgari Eloquio, originally entitled De Eloquentia Vulgari, or Of the Vulgar Tongue, is shown by historical allusions to have been composed by 1304. Like the Convito it is unfinished, only two books of the four of which it was to have consisted having been written. Dante's conception of the capabilities of his native tongue does him honour, even though he restricts the number of subjects adapted to it, and would deny its use to all but gifted writers. It is a still higher honour to have recommended it more effectually by his example than by his reasonings, which, as was inevitable in his age, frequently rest upon entirely fanciful and visionary data. His account, nevertheless, of the Italian dialects as they existed in his day, and his precepts on the metrical structure of Italian poetry, which he seems not to have then contemplated as capable of existing apart from music, retain a substantial value for all time.

The hopes founded upon the appearance of the Emperor in Italy in 1311 probably induced Dante to publish a work written some years previously, his treatise De Monarchia, embodying the best mediaeval conception of the spheres of temporal and spiritual government upon earth. So powerfully had the universality of Roman sway impressed men's minds, that the Roman people were believed to have obtained the empire of the earth by the donation of Heaven, and the Emperor of Germany Was regarded as their lawful representative. This belief, so strange to us, was, nevertheless, salutary in its time, by repressing the champions of universal despotism who made the Pope the fountain of secular as well as spiritual authority. By numerous arguments satisfactory to himself, but which would now be considered entirely irrelevant, Dante proves that universal monarchy is a portion of the Providential scheme, that the Romans possessed by divine appointment jurisdiction over the entire earth. The inheritance of this prerogative by the Emperor of Germany is taken for granted, and it is next demonstrated that the Emperor does not derive his authority from the Church, any more than the Church hers from the Emperor. Yet Caesar is to be reverent to Peter, as the first-born son to his father. There is no trace of religious heterodoxy in the treatise, though nothing can be more uncompromising than its limitation of the Papal authority to its legitimate sphere.

The amount of fugitive poetry ascribed to Dante is inconsiderable. Bruni, in his biography, remarks that there are two classes of poets—those who sing by inspiration and those who compose by art—and that Dante belongs to the second. It cannot be admitted that Dante was devoid of inspiration, but it is certainly true that he was one of those who possess a special power of regulating this divine gift. A Shelley or a Coleridge must write when the impulse seizes him; but a Milton, with the conception of Paradise Lost in his mind can defer putting pen to paper for seventeen years, and, with consummate lyric power, is but unfrequently visited by the lyric impulse. Dante, so marvellously similar to Milton in many respects, also, if we may trust his account of the genesis of the pieces in the Vita Nuova, but seldom found himself under an irresistible impulse to lyrical composition. Something suggests to him that a sonnet or a canzone would be expedient or decorous; he plots it out, and fills up the outline with unerring fidelity to his first conception. The gigantic plan of the Divine Comedy is similarly carried out without interruption or misgiving; and but for the death of Beatrice, it is by no means certain that it would have existed, any more than that Milton would have written Comus if the noble children had never been lost in the wood.

A poet of this stamp was not likely to enrich literature with much fugitive verse. A few occasional poems glitter here and there, to employ Wordsworth's simile, like myrtle leaves in his chaplet of bay. The most remarkable among them is a sestine, the finest example of its artificial and elaborate class, and superbly translated by Rossetti; this and other pieces are supposed to refer to a certain Pietra, otherwise unknown. These poems seem to breathe the language of genuine passion, but are too few and of too uncertain date to contribute much to the solution of the question whether Dante was, as Boccaccio asserts, remarkable for susceptibility to female charms, or a paragon of continence, as Villani will have him. It is at least certain that, after Beatrice, no woman exercised any noteworthy influence upon his writings. He moves through life a great, lonely figure, estranged from human fellowship at every point; a citizen of eternity, misplaced and ill-starred in time; too great to mingle with his age, or, by consequence, to be of much practical service to it; too embittered and austere to manifest in action the ineffable tenderness which may be clearly read in his writings; one whose friends and whose thoughts are in the other world, while he is yet more keenly alive than any other man to the realities of this; one whose greatness impressed the world from the first, and whom it does not yet fully know, after the study of six hundred years.

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