A History of Italian Literature/Chapter IX

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A History of Italian Literature  (1901)  by Richard Garnett
Chapter IX. The Poetical Renaissance of the Fifteenth Century



In characterising the original authors, apart from critics and commentators, whom Italy produced during the first half of the fifteenth century, we have omitted the men who really exerted the most important influence upon literature. These form a group by themselves—not one of Italian authors, for they rarely wrote in the vernacular; scarcely one of authors at all, for they worked chiefly as philologers. They are, however, much too important to be passed over without notice, representing as they did the Renaissance in its aspect as the rebirth of free thought and inquiry, a resurrection no less momentous than the revival of art and letters, and preparing the literary development which they were unable to effect. Few of them were men of extraordinary mental power, but all were passionate for the study of antiquity, and while, perhaps, intending to restore Latin to its rank as the sole literary language, set forces at work which deprived it of this primacy for ever. Even though Lorenzo de' Medici might apologise for writing in a language condemned by men of good judgment, and Varchi's schoolmaster might punish him for reading Petrarch, when men like Alberti took to cultivating the vernacular speech in emulation of the Latin, it was clear that the latter had already lost its monopoly.

The humanists had nevertheless in their own domain the great advantage of being first in the field. They could hardly advance in any direction without initiating some movement momentous in its effect upon culture, Emanuel Chrysoloras brought the Greek language to Florence; his son-in-law, Filelfo, voyaged to Constantinople, and returned with a Greek library. Poggio Bracciolini, a most elegant Latinist and epistolographer—unfortunately best remembered by his virulent invectives, and by a book of facetiæ which does more credit to his gaiety than to his morals—rendered the greatest service by his assiduity in the collection of manuscripts. Leonardo Bruni accomplished even more by the simple step of making accurate translations of Plato and Aristotle, and thus delivering Western science from bondage to the Arabians, through whose paraphrases these writings had hitherto been chiefly known. Lorenzo Valla, an acute and intrepid critic and original thinker, enthusiastic for truth in the abstract, but not generally actuated by high principle, became the father of modern negative criticism by his overthrow of the scandalous Papal imposture of the Donation of Constantine. Gemistus Pletho, though a visionary, introduced Plato to Italy, and powerfully stimulated thought through the controversies aroused by his writings. Flavio Biondo was the first scientific archæologist, describing the monuments of pagan and Christian Rome, and investigating the topography of ancient Italy, Vittorino da Feltre showed practically by his school at Mantua what education ought to be, and Vespasiano da Bisticci wrote the lives of his fellows. Even men like Filelfo, whose restless pens produced no work of real importance, kept the intellectual life alert by their incessant activity. For the time the age found what it needed in such men, and scholars enjoyed the consideration awarded to poets under Augustus, rhetoricians in the later Roman Empire, jurists under Justinian, and the founders of religious orders in the days of St. Dominic and St. Francis.

The deference shown to scholars is sufficiently attested by the honourable offices conferred upon them, the competition of princes and republics to obtain the most distinguished Latinists for their secretaries, and the throngs that attended their lectures and other public displays, vapid and empty as these frequently appear to us. The prevailing current of taste proved highly advantageous in raising the standard of university education. Bologna, in a former age the herald of Italian academic culture, latterly in a condition of decay, revived and asserted her supremacy, and her sister seats of learning competed vigorously with her and each other. The triumph of humanism seemed complete when in 1447 erudition made a Pope in the person of Nicholas V., the founder of the Vatican Library, whose love of erudition was such that it absolved in his eyes even Lorenzo Valla's exposure of pious frauds. Two great events favourable to culture succeeded—the fall of Constantinople, which brought a fresh flight of learned Greeks into Europe; and the invention of printing, of which, however, Italy did not reap the benefit until 1464, The tardiness of so simple an invention, upon the verge of which antiquity had continually been hovering, is one of the most surprising facts in the history of the human mind; the indifference with which it was at first received is hardly less so; and the stimulus it imparted to literature long fell below reasonable expectation. It is remarkable, however, that two complete versions of the Bible appeared at Venice in 1471, and significant that no vernacular Bible was allowed to be printed anywhere else. The general character of the productions of the Italian press is distinctly academical and utilitarian. Classics and classical commentaries, theology, canon and civil law, medicine, form the staple; imaginative vernacular literature, even of the past, is scanty; contemporary literature might hardly have existed so far as the early records of the press indicate. Apart from the studies which conduced to a livelihood, the period all over Europe was one of intellectual barrenness. But young men of lively genius were growing up, and one of these was in a position to be as serviceable to modern belles-lettres as Nicholas V. had been to the study of antiquity.

It rarely happens that Augustus is also Virgil; enough if he is also Mæcenas. Lorenzo de' Medici (1448–92) united all these characters. A prince by position if not by descent, he was not only a patron of literature, but a highly intelligent and discriminating patron; nor only a favourer, but himself the producer of some of the best literature of his day. In character, in circumstances, in the bent of his policy and the general result of his activity, he might not unfairly be termed a miniature Augustus; like him he confiscated the liberties of his country as the sole alternative to anarchy, and repaid her by prosperity and peace. All the great qualities of Augustus were his, and few of the defects which history chiefly censures in his prototype. Both were stronger in the self-regarding than in the self-forgetting virtues, but Lorenzo once rose to heroism. History records no action of Augustus comparable to Lorenzo's placing himself in the power of the treacherous and unscrupulous King of Naples for the sake of his country. Nor had Lorenzo, like Augustus, ever occasion to pass the sponge over an abortive tragedy. His compositions are of different degrees of merit, but all are fluent and graceful.

We have entered a different period from that of the Uberti and Frezzi; the tree of poetry, so long stiff and dry, now swells with sap, and buds with the prophecy of a coming summer. Two distinct impulses are observable in Lorenzo and his literary mate, Politian: in one point of view the artistic, in the other the poetical spirit predominates. As artists, they strove successfully to attain perfect elegance of expression, and to improve the metrical forms which had descended from the fourteenth century. As poets, they seized upon the songs and catches current in the mouths of the people, and elevated them by judicious treatment into the region of art. This could be possible only to men of great poetic sensitiveness. Had Lorenzo and Politian been less refined by culture, had the one been no scholar and the other no prince, either might have been an Italian Burns; as it is, their work as lyric poets is more nearly comparable to Goethe's. They made the popular Muse acceptable to men of breeding, while gratifying their own tastes by work marked with the stamp of study and erudition, and yet not beyond the intelligence of the average educated man.

Lorenzo's part as the patron of art and letters is so considerable, that his writings, important as they are, appear almost insignificant in comparison. The most elaborate of his poems might be classed as idylls. They comprise the Ambra, a graceful and fanciful Ovidian allegory on the metamorphosis of the nymph Ambra into a rock to escape the pursuit of a river-god; La Caccia col Falcone, a lively description of this aristocratic sport; and La Nencia di Barberino, no less vivid in its portraiture of the humours of plebeian love-making. Lorenzo's own love poetry consists chiefly of canzoni, more remarkable for elegance than depth of feeling, but perfectly in the character of a man of pleasure who is also a refined gentleman. The spirituality of Dante and his contemporaries, the romantic passion of Petrarch, no longer suited the age. The temple of Love, like the temple of the Church, had been secularised; in everything men habitually lived at a lower level. Yet this declension is compensated in a great degree by the enhanced feeling of reality: there can be no such controversy over Lorenzo's innamorata as over Beatrice and Laura. The following is a fair example of his erotic style:

"Thy beauty, gentle Violet, was born
Where for the look of Love I first was fain,
And my bright stream of bitter tears was rain
That beauty to accomplish and adorn.
And such desire was from compassion born,
That from the happy nook where thou wert lain
The fair hand gathered thee, and not in vain,
For by my own it willed thee to be borne,
And, as to me appears, thou wouldst return
Once more to that fair hand, whence thee upon
My naked breast I have securely set:
The naked breast that doth desire and burn,
And holds thee in her hearts place, that hath gone
To dwell where thou wert late, my Violet."

If there is more gallantry than passion in compositions of this nature, they show at least that the lute of Love had received a new string since the time of the troubadours.

Love of a sensuous kind is a chief ingredient in Lorenzo's Canti Carnascialeschi, which are sometimes highly licentious. He is accused of having composed them with a special view of diverting the minds of the young Florentines from politics; but it seems unnecessary to go beyond the temptation to licence afforded by the general relaxation of the carnival. The gay and the serious Lorenzo were very different people, as remarked by that acute observer Machiavelli. His epistle to his own son Giovanni, afterwards Leo X., on his elevation to the Cardinalate at fourteen, is a model of wisdom and right feeling. His spiritual poems, Laudi, moreover, frequently speak the language of true religious emotion.

Lorenzo's court, as is universally known, was the chosen abode of artists and men of letters. A twin star with Lorenzo himself, but even brighter in his literary aspect was Angelo Ambrogini (1454–92), known as Poliziano from his birth at Montepulciano. Politian, the most brilliant classical scholar of his age, was perhaps the first professed philologist whose scholarship was entirely divested of pedantry. With him classical studies were a vivifying influence, pervading and adorning his literary exercises in the vernacular, but implying no disparagement of the latter. There is little to choose between his Latin and his Italian poetry: the same poetic spirit inspires both, and each is an exemplar of the charm of a choice, yet not too ornate diction. He was accused of writing his Latin verses "with more heat than art"; but this is only another way of saying that while composing them he felt as an ancient, and might very well be taken for a poet of the Silver Age. His lyric tragedy or opera, Orfeo, will be treated along with the Italian drama, of which it was the first meritorious example. His Giostra, a poem on the tournament exhibited by Lorenzo's brother Giuliano in 1475, and incidentally introducing its hero's passion for the lovely Simonetta, remained unfinished in consequence of Giuliano's untimely death. It is full of beauties, and is memorable in Italian poetry as the first example of the thoroughly successful employment of the octave stanza. Boccaccio had been too diffuse; but Politian exemplified the perfect fitness of this form for the combination of narrative poetry with an inexhaustible succession of verbal felicities, many of which, indeed, are appropriated from earlier poets, but all, old and new, seem fused into a glowing whole by the passion for classic form and sensuous beauty. But Politian and his successors did not emulate the classical poets' accurate delineation of Nature. The materials of their descriptions are drawn from storehouses to which every scholar has a key. They bespeak reading and memory rather than actual observation.

This, in Miss Ellen Clerke's version, is Politian's rendering of the vision of perpetual Spring, first seen by Homer, after him by Lucretius, and in our time by Tennyson. Like Ariosto and Tasso, he places his enchanted garden on earth.

"A fair hill doth the Cyprian breezes woo,
And sevenfold stream of mighty Nilus see,
When the horizon reddeneth anew;
But mortal foot may not there planted be.
A green knoll on its slope doth rise to view,
A sunny meadow sheltering in its lee,
Where, wantoning 'mid flowers, each gale that passes
Sets lightly quivering the verdant grasses.
A wall of gold its furthest edge doth screen,
Where lies a vale with shady trees set fair,

Upon whose branches, 'mid leaves newly green,
The quiring birds chant love songs on the air.
The grateful sound of waters chimes between,
By twin streams cool and lucid shed forth there,
In the wave sweet and bitter of whose river
Love whets the golden arrows of his quiver.
Nor the perennial garden's foliage green
Doth snow new-fallen blanch, or rime frost hoar.
No vernal blight dare come these walls between.
No gale the grass and shrubs e'er ruffles o'er.
Nor is the year in fourfold season seen;
But joyous Spring here reigns for evermore,
Shakes to the breeze her blonde and rippling tresses,
And weaves her wreath of flowers as on she presses."

In Politian's own eyes and those of his contemporaries his achievement as a poet was less important than his labour as a classical scholar. Nor, as respected the needs and interests of his contemporaries, was this judgment wholly mistaken. "Knowledge in that age," says Symonds, "was the pearl of great price; not the knowledge of righteousness, not the knowledge of Nature and her laws, but the knowledge of the wonderful life which throbbed in ancient peoples, and which might make this old world young again," Politian's chief merits as a classical scholar were to have known how to excite a living interest in antiquity, and to have been the first to attempt a scientific classification of MSS. His translations from the Greek were admirable. So long as Lorenzo presided over Florence, Politian's lot, though embittered by some violent literary controversies, had been brilliant and prosperous: his patron's death exposed him to the general unpopularity of the supporters of Lorenzo's incapable successor, the French invader stood at the doors. Savonarola's followers began to assail culture in its representatives, and within little more than two years Politian escaped the gathering storm either by a broken heart or a voluntary death.

To appreciate Politian's services in imparting literary form to popular poetry, it will be necessary to bestow a glance on this poetry as it existed in Tuscany in his day, and in a measure exists still. We have previously remarked upon the absence of national ballad poetry at a very early period; and when at length we find traces of popular song, little resembling Chevy Chase is to be discovered, the staple being carols and love catches. Some of these may be as old as the thirteenth century, and the mass continued augmenting as one anonymous singer after another added something svifficiently attractive to be propagated from hamlet to hamlet, and treasured in the memory.

Similar lyrical production went on over most parts of Italy; the Sicilian songs, after the Tuscan, being the most numerous, or at least the best preserved. These ditties fall generally into two divisions, rispetti and stornelli: the former consisting of four or six verses, rhyming alternately, followed by a couplet; the latter of three lines only, the last rhyming with the first. These soon developed into the madrigal, a form affected by persons of culture and professional musicians, but the people continued to carol as of old. Thus, spontaneous births of the instinct for love and song, undergoing countless modifications in passing from mouth to mouth, until the right form has been found at last, and sifted by the taste of generation after generation, these little songs have formed a really beautiful collection of verse, reflecting in their ardour, graceful fancy and purity of sentiment, the best characteristics of the race from which they sprung. How good they are may be seen from a few of the specimens so admirably rendered by John Addington Symonds:[1]

"The moon has risen her plaint to lay
Before the face of Love Divine;
Saying in heaven she will not stay,
Since you have stolen what made her shine.
Aloud she wails with sorrow wan;—
She told her stars, and two are gone:
They are not there; ye have them now;
They are the eyes in your bright brow.
Think it no grief that I am brown;
For all brunettes are born to reign:
White is the snow, yet trodden down;
Black pepper, kings do not disdain:
White snow lies mounded in the vales;
Black pepper's weighed in brazen scales.
O Swallow, Swallow, flying through the air,
Turn, turn, I prithee, from thy flight above.
Give me one feather from thy wing so fair,
For I will write a letter to my love.
When I have written it and made it clear,
I'll give thee back thy feather, Swallow dear;
When I have written it on paper white,
I'll make, I swear, thy missing feather right;
When once 'tis written on fair leaves of gold,
I'll give thee back thy wings and flight so bold."

Two other leading poetical figures of the fifteenth century, Matteo Maria Boiardo and Luigi Pulci, authors of the Orlando Innamorato and the Morgante Maggiore, will be best treated along with the writers of chivalrous romance in epic form. It is not quite clear how far Pulci had a share in the poems ascribed to his elder brother Luca (1431–70); but the latter's verses on Giuliano de' Medici, his crusading epic, Ciriffo Calvaneo, and his pastoral, Driadeo, undoubtedly owe much to Luigi. The heroic epistles in verse which pass under his name are no doubt by him. Another poet, Girolamo Benivieni, shines amid the Platonic circle of Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola. His verses might have given him no inconsiderable distinction if he could have attained to lucidity of diction; but his powers of expression are inadequate to the abstruseness of his themes. He does best when his idealism is embodied in an objective shape, as in the following sonnet, clearly suggested by the first in the Vita Nuova:

"In utmost height of Heaven I saw the choir
Of happy stars in their infinity
Attending on the Sun obediently,
And he was pasturing them with his own fire.
And, wealthy with my spoils I saw Desire
Unstring his bow and lay his arrows by,
And proffer Heaven, with all humility,
My heart, which golden drapery did attire.
And, of this disarrayed, not half so fair
Smiles Earth to Sun when by his crescent light
The ivory horn of vernal Bull is smit
As in this glory did my heart appear,
Which now my mortal breast doth scorn and slight,
Abandoning, nor will return to it."

The Italian writings of Benivieni's friend Savonarola are chiefly theological. Their fervour gained them great influence at the time, but the celebrity which they still enjoy is due rather to the fame of the writer than to their literary qualities. Savonarola nevertheless affected the literature of his day, partly by his war against classical and Renaissance culture, and partly by the impulse which he gave to the pamphlet, precursor of the newspaper press. Cristoforo Landino's Camaldolese Dialogues would have been important contributions to the national literature if they had been written in Italian.

The first writer of prose who presents us with a perfect example from which the new period may be dated is Jacopo Sannazaro, as much as Politian the nursling of a court; to whom we are also indebted for the first example of the pastoral romance, and the first proof that excellent Italian prose could be written outside Tuscany. Sannazaro, born in 1458, was a Neapolitan of Spanish descent, as it is said, and the statement seems to be corroborated by the peculiar independence and dignity of character which distinguish him from the supple literati of his time. Even Pontano, whose obligations to the royal house of Naples were so extreme, played an ambiguous part upon the ephemeral French conquest of 1495. Sannazaro's loyalty not only sustained that brief ordeal, but when four years later the cause of the Neapolitan dynasty was irrevocably lost, he accompanied his fallen master to France, and spent several years in exile. Returning to Naples, he inhabited a beautiful villa at Mergellina, and devoted himself to the poetry of which we shall have to speak in another place. After witnessing the destruction of his retreat in the French war (1528), he died in 1530 in the house of Cassandra, Marchesa Castriota, whom he had vainly defended against her husband's attempt to repudiate her. Few of his contemporaries deserve equal respect as a man; and although as a writer but of the second rank, it was granted to him, alike in prose and verse, to mark an era in literature signalising the triumph of Petrarch and Boccaccio over the pedantry of the fifteenth century, but at the same time the deliberate preference of form to matter, and the discouragement of irregular originality.

Sannazaro's Arcadia, historically the most important of his writings, is comparatively a youthful performance, having been substantially completed by 1489, though not published in a correct edition until 1504. It would in any case mark an epoch as the first perfect example of the pastoral romance, which Boccaccio had foreshadowed in his Ameto, but which Sannazaro enriched by elements derived from Theocritus and Virgil. His landscape and personages are entirely classical; the shepherds contend with each other in song precisely as in the Greek and Latin eclogues, and no attempt is made to represent rustic manners as they really are. The descriptions, whether of nature or of humanity, on the other hand, are graceful and vivid, and informed by a most poetical sentiment; and it may be said that Sannazaro's work would be more esteemed at this day if it had had fewer imitators. The style admits of but little variety, and pastoral fiction easily became insipid in the hands of a succession of followers who did not, like Shakespeare in the Winter's Tale, resort to Nature for their delineations. Sannazaro himself is not exempt from the charge of monotony. More serious defects, however, are those of excessive Latinisation in the construction of sentences, and rhetorical exaggeration, arising from his too close adherence to the immature style of Boccaccio's early writings, instead of the simple elegance of the Decameron. The resolution to achieve poetry in prose at any cost, causes a crabbed involution and overloads the diction with adjectives; while there is yet enough of true feeling to overcome even the wearisomeness of the perpetual laments of the shepherds over the unparalleled cruelty of their innamoratas. Sannazaro had a mistress to whose memory he remained faithful all his life, and most of his fictitious characters veil actual personages. When this is understood, the romance loses its apparent artificiality; and Settembrini's remark is justified, "Anche oggi si sente una dolcezza d' affetto a leggere quel libro."

The main literary interest, however, of the Arcadia is that it marks an epoch and carries the reform which Lorenzo de' Medici and Politian had initiated in verse into the domain of prose. It is perhaps the sole Italian prose composition of the fifteenth century which can be said to wear a classic stamp; and being received with enthusiasm and read by all, it fixed a standard which subsequent writers were compelled to maintain. It prescribed the rule for pastoral romance in all languages: not only did Sidney borrow its spirit and many of its episodes as well as its name for his own work, more, however, of a romance and less of a pastoral than Sannazaro's; not only did the two great Portuguese pastoralists, Bernardim Ribeiro and Montemayor, model themselves upon it; but Shakespeare took from it the name of Ophelia, and traces of it may be found, not only in the pastoral part of Keats's Endymion, but even in his Hyperion.

By Sannazaro's time, then, it may be said that Italian literature was fairly despatched on the route which it was to follow throughout the golden Cinque Cento. Elegance, finish, polish were to be the chief aims; form was to be esteemed at least on a par with matter; the mediæval elements, as we find them in Dante, were to be kept in abeyance. The classical tradition was to be taken up, and Italy was to appear as the literary heiress of Rome; but not to the extent of corrupting her own language with Latinisms. Such a tacit resolution was admirable for raising and maintaining the standard of literary composition, but was hostile to the development of transcendent genius.

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. The best collection of popular Italian belletristic literature is the Canti e Racconti del Popolo Italiano, in eight volumes, edited by E. Comparetti and A. D'Ancona.