A History of Italian Literature/Chapter VIII

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A just remark of Coventry Patmore's on the contrast between Dante and Shakespeare in their relation to their respective literatures might be extended to the Italian literature of the fourteenth century in general: it has lofty peaks, but little elevated table-land. Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio tower above their contemporaries, who, viewed from such eminences, are almost indiscernible. It might have been expected, nevertheless, that the example of surpassing excellence, which could complain of no want of popularity or recognition, would have powerfully stimulated contemporaries and successors, and that, as Homer gave birth to the Cyclic poets, and Alcaeus followed in the wake of Alcman, the great Italians would have appeared as the immediate progenitors of epicists, lyrists, and novelists of kindred if inferior power. On the contrary, the century from the death of Boccaccio to the appearance of Lorenzo de' Medici as a poet is the most barren in Italian literary history. It produces no vernacular writer of genius, and but few of eminent talent. It is indeed no reproach to it to have brought forth no second Dante, or to have failed, like all other ages, to reproduce the inimitable perfection of Petrarch. But it might have been anticipated that the new ways opened out by Boccaccio alike in metrical epic and in prose narrative would have been followed up, and that history and allied branches of literature would have assumed a classic form.

Little of the kind occurred, and classical study itself ceased to produce a vivifying effect upon letters. This may have been partly owing to excessive admiration for the ancient writers, degenerating into pedantic imitation; partly from the great demand for Latin translations from the Greek, and Latin official correspondence, encouraging Latin composition at the expense of the vernacular; but cannot be wholly explained by any cause peculiar to Italy, for the same phenomenon manifested itself over Europe. Chaucer, who had carried the poetry of England so high, had no successors; and it would be difficult to point to a work of genius anywhere, except the Imitatio Christi, which might have been produced in any Christian age, and the Amadis of Gaul, the parent of the romances of chivalry, composed in Portugal or Spain about the beginning of the fifteenth century. How far this is to be ascribed to the Black Death, which, in sweeping away so much of the existing generation, blighted so much of the hope of the future; how far to calamities like the Great Schism and the Jacquerie; how far to causes unfathomable by the human intellect, will always be a question.

Certain it is that, while material civilisation continued to develop, and Leonardo Bruni, thinking only of the cultivation of Greek, is able to say, "Letters at this time grew mightily in Italy," creative genius received a check; and the standard of public virtue in most countries fell lower than it had ever been, or has been again. We can only note the few who in Italy, otherwise than as classical scholars, did anything to vindicate their age from the imputation of intellectual barrenness. Two didactic poems with epic affinities, produced, one shortly before, the other shortly after the death of Boccaccio, attest more than pages of panegyric the power with which Dante controlled the imaginations of his countrymen. Fazio degli Uberti, a Florentine of whose life little is known, except that he spent most of it in exile, and died about 1367, seems to have thought that if Dante had appropriated heaven, hell, and purgatory, the earth at least remained for himself. He undertook to describe, in a number of cantos in terza rima, his perlustration of it under the escort of a singular guide, the Latin topographer Solinus. What Solinus is to Virgil, Uberti is to Dante; yet, though an uninspired, he is not a contemptible writer. His geographical epic the Dittamondo (Discourse of the World) may be unduly prejudiced in the eyes of English readers from Rossetti's rendering of a canto in blank verse. It would indeed have been a waste of time to have striven to reproduce the original metre, yet Uberti's tercets glide with an ease and fluency of which the blank verse gives no notion. The poem is not altogether destitute of poetical spirit; one conception, that of the forlorn Genius of Rome herself guiding the poet to her ruins, is truly fine, but force was wanting to work it out. Otherwise it is chiefly interesting as a repertory of the geographical knowledge and fancies of the age. The canto on England has been translated by Rossetti, and is entertaining from its naïveté. Uberti must have been an accomplished man, for he intersperses French and Provenςal verses with his Italian. He is more truly a poet in his lyrical than in his epic performances, if, at least, the sonnets and canzoni which pass under his name are really his. One, translated by Rossetti, has so much poetical merit as to have been frequently ascribed to Dante:

"I look at the crisp golden-threaded hair
Whereof, to thrall my hearty Love twists a net;
Using at times a string of pearls for bait,
And sometimes with a single rose therein.
I look into her eyes, which unaware,
Though mine own eyes to her heart penetrate;
Their splendour, that is excellently great,
To the sun's radiance seeming near akin,
Yet fro fn herself a sweeter light to win.
So that I, gazing on that lovely one,
Discourse in this wise with my secret thought:
'Woe's me! why am I not,
Even as my wish, alone with her alone,—
That hair of hers, so heavily uplaid,
To shed down braid by braid,
And make myself two mirrors of her eyes
Within whose light all other glory dies?' "

Another writer of mark, nearer than Fazio to Dante both in style and subject, is Frederico Frezzi, citizen and bishop of Foligno, who died at the Council of Constance in 1416. His Quatriregio, a moral poem describing the author's progress through the realms of Love, Pluto, the Vices and Virtue, so close an imitation of Dante as to border upon servility, is, notwithstanding, not a mean performance, Frezzi has considerable rhetorical, if not much poetical power, and many passages are really impressive. The diction also is good; but the book's chief repute at this day is among artists, on account of the remarkable designs adorning the edition of 1506, which present an affinity to Botticelli's illustrations of Dante, and have been attributed, although on insufficient authority, to Luca Signorelli. The poem was republished at Foligno in 1725, with a learned commentary, of which it was in great need. Matteo Palmieri's poem, Città di Vita, probably much in Frezzi's style, arouses interest from its having been suppressed as heretical, but its poetical merit has never yet sufficed to allure a publisher. "The object," says Symonds, who read it in MS., "is to show how free-will is innate in men." It is founded upon an actual vision, according to the assertion of the author.

Many other poets might be mentioned, but they are now mere names, except Senuccio del Bene, chiefly renowned as Petrarch's friend, but himself a graceful writer, and two of considerably later date, of one of whom it may be truly if paradoxically said that he is chiefly remembered for being forgotten. This is Domenico Burchiello, a standing example of the fickleness of popular taste. He was a Florentine, who lived from about 1400 to 1448, and composed numerous burlesque sonnets alla coda (with a tag of three lines), which retained sufficient vitality to go through thirty editions soon after the invention of printing, but are now inevitably neglected. Inasmuch as the Florentine slang in which they are mainly composed has ceased to be amusing, or even intelligible. The other poet of the period, Giusto de' Conti, a jurist, who lived at the court of Sigismondo Malatesta, Prince of Rimini, and died there about 1452, is remarkable as the chief contemporary imitator of Petrarch, whom he followed with such servility as greatly to impair the credit otherwise due to him for the sweetness of his verse and the occasional dignity of his style. His collection of sonnets, entitled La Bella Mano, from its perpetual refetence to the beauties of his lady's hand, stands out at all events, as even an inferior work might have done, from the almost total poetical barrenness of the middle of the fifteenth century, otherwise only relieved by the elegant sonnets of another Petrarchist, Bonaccorso da Montemagno, and the popular carols which gained Leonardo Giustiniani deserved reputation.

More genuine poetry is to be found in the occasional lyrics of two writers near the end of the fourteenth century, chiefly eminent in a different species of composition, the novelette. Franco Sacchetti and Giovanni Fiorentino are artists in words, and men of true poetic feeling. A canzonet of Sacchetti's (the earliest Italian poet, says Rossetti; with whom playfulness was a characteristic), O vaglie montanine pastorelle, was so popular as to have bdeti transmitted for some generatidns by oral recitation, while his novelettes, until printed in the eighteenth century, existed only in a single mutilated manuscript. This is the conclusion of Rossetti's translation of this charming lyric:

" 'I think your beauties might make great complaint
Of being thus shown ever mount and dell;
Because no city is so excellent
But that your stay therein were honourable.
In very truth now does it like you well
To live so poorly on the hill-side here?'

'Better it liketh one of us, pardie,
Behind her flock to seek the pasture-stance,
Far better than it liketh one of ye
To ride unto your curtained rooms and dance.
We seek no riches, neither golden chance,
Save wealth of flowers to weave into our hair!

'Ballad, if I were now as once I was,

I'd make myself a shepherd on some hill,
And, without telling any one, would pass
Where these girls went, and follow at their will,
And "Mary," and "Martin," we would murmur still,
And I would be for ever where they were. '"

This exquisite poem, however, rather belongs to the late fourteenth than to the early fifteenth century, as do other songs of equal beauty by Sacchetti and his contemporaries, which contrast favourably with earlier Italian lyrics by their brevity and simplicity. This is partly attributable to their having been in general written for music. Some of the most charming examples have been collected in Carducci's Studi Letterari.

Sacchetti and Giovanni mark the termination of the Trecentisti period. Many writings of their contemporaries have been printed as models of pure diction, but are otherwise too unimportant to deserve independent notice In a literary history.[1] After the beginning of the fifteenth century Italian prose for a while declined, mainly from the false standard of excellence produced by exaggerated enthusiasm for the newly recovered classics. Neglecting the spirit, though only too attentive to the letter, of these models, writers corrupted their diction with Latinisms. The best books were histories, and the best of these were written in Latin. It might have been said that to find a really good vernacular historian we must go back to the fourteenth century, were it not for the doubts which beset the alleged chronicle of Dino Compagni, which professedly details events at Florence from 1286 to 1318. The question of its genuineness has aroused the sharpest controversy, which cannot be regarded as even yet absolutely determined: the prevailing opinion, however, seems to be that it is a fabrication dating from about 1450. It is so entertaining that one would wish it trustworthy.

Gino Capponi, a leading Florentine citizen of the latter fourteenth and earlier fifteenth century, has left valuable memoirs of some of the transactions in which he was engaged. The great Florentine historian of the age, however, is Giovanni Villani, a characteristic embodiment of all the better qualities of his city, who, inspired by ardent patriotism, wrote its history, including a review of the contemporary transactions of the world, from the Tower of Babel to 1346, on the verge of the Black Death of 1348, by which he was himself carried off. His work was continued by his brother Matteo and his nephew Filippo to 1368. Villani possessed every qualification which experience of public business could afford, having filled several important offices, among them those of Prior and Master of the Mint. His language is exceedingly pure, his fidelity and impartiality are beyond suspicion, and he is peculiarly valuable from his preservation of financial and economical details, and other matters affecting ordinary life. He would have been a model historian if he had lived when the spirit of critical inquiry was awake, and historians had learned the delineation of character and the artistic construction of narrative; he must, however, in this case have forfeited the golden simplicity which renders his narrative so delightful. His nephew Filippo, who lived far into the fifteenth century, wrote in Latin the Lives of Illustrious Florentines, already cited as an authority on Dante. His memoir of Boccaccio has been frequently reprinted.

No place having hitherto occurred suitable for mention of the Travels of Marco Polo, they, although belonging to the thirteenth century, may find mention here. From the purely literary point of view they are of no great importance, but as the first book that opened the knowledge of the East to Europeans, their significance cannot be overrated. Mention should also be made of another traveller, Ciriaco di Ancona, the first archaeologist, who, in the second quarter of the fifteenth century, set the example of collecting inscriptions and works of antiquity.

The next prose author whom it is necessary to mention, Enea Silvio Piccolomini, afterwards Pope Pius the Second (1405–64), writing solely in Latin, has no place in the literary history of the Italian language, but is perhaps the most typical example of fhe fifteenth-century man of letters, accomplished, versatile, adroit, imperfectly restrained by principle, but inspired by a genuine zeal for culture and humanity. No literary personage since Petrarch had displayed such various activity, or, by his controversial, no less than by his diplomatic ability, had exerted an equal influence in the affairs of Church and State. Apart from the substantial merits of his writings, Æneas is a typical figure as indicating that the pen was beginning to govern the world, and that literary dexterity could make a Pope of a struggling adventurer. As an author he has come down to our day by his Commentaries of his own times, one of that valuable class of histories whose authors can say, "Pars magna fui"; and by his Euryalus and Lucretia, a romance founded on an actual occurrence, and noteworthy as a precursor of the modern novel.

In Leone Battista Alberti (1404–72) we at length encounter a humanist accomplished alike in the learned and the vulgar tongue; while, like Leonardo da Vinci, to whom he offers a strong resemblance, less remarkable for any particular work than for the universality of his genius. An architect and mathematician, an engineer and the inventor of the camera obscura, he was almost the first of the moderns to treat these subjects scientifically, and extended his researches to painting and sculpture. His literary celebrity, however, arises rather from his treatise Della Famiglia, a model of practical wisdom, couched in the clear and cheerful spirit of a Goethe, and affording a pleasing insight into the Italian family life of the period, as yet unspoiled by luxury. "What he says about the beauty of the body is worthy of a Greek, what he says about exercise might have been written by an Englishman" (Symonds). The third book, superior to the others in diction, has been attributed to Agnolo Pandolfini, a distinguished Florentine statesman of an earlier date, but Alberti's claim to it seems satisfactorily established. His Iciarchia, a treatise on the ideal prince, is also a remarkable work; and his novelette, Ippolito and Leonora, founded on a Florentine tradition, is distinguished by pathos and simplicity. Alberti was the natural son of a Florentine exile, and was born at Genoa. His early years were years of hardship. Restored to his ancestral city, he there executed important architectural and engineering works, and subsequently metamorphosed into a splendid temple the old church at Rimini, which Sigismondo Malatesta dedicated in its altered form to the memory of his mistress Isotta. He was afterwards abbreviator of Papal briefs at Rome. Deprived of this office, along with sixty-nine other eminent scholars, by the Philistine but practical Pope Paul II., he devoted himself to architecture at Florence and Mantua, and died at Rome in 1472.

The excellent Vespasiano da Bisticci (1421–98), almost alone among his literary contemporaries, followed a trade, being a bookseller at Florence. He formed the great library of the first Duke of Urbino, and has left particulars of his zeal in the preparation of illuminated manuscripts, and a vigorous expression of his disesteem for printed books in comparison with them. We are indebted to him for no fewer than 105 biographies of contemporaries, most of wbom were personally known to him, A few, of considerable length and elaboration, record the lives of popes, kings, and cardinals; the great majority are brief and simple notices of scholars and literary men, some of whom, but for Bisticci, would be almost unknown. All are charming from their unaffected simplicity and geniality, and the curious traits of the age which they preserve.

Had Giovanni Pontano (1426–1503) written in the vernacular, he would have won a place equal to any contemporary's as a poet, and a place prose-writers entirely his own. Though a statesman and diplomatist, the confidant oi the King of Naples, a philologist beside, and the life and soul of the Neaapolitan Academy, he is none the less the Lucian and the Martial of his age; the lively satirist and delineator of popular manners in his dialogues; in his verse a genuine lyrist, careful of form as a Greek, animated and eager as if he had been a born Neapolitan. His prose and verse palpitate with feeling and he gains life at the expense of Latinity. His historical writings, though respectable, are of less mark; but as a popular poet and satirist, Italian speech had an infinite loss in him. Even as it is, he seems but one remove from a vernacular author. His dialogues had probably much influence upon Erasmus. Another contemporary figure is strange and enigmatical. We know but imperfectly who Francesco Colonna, the author of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, was, and can only guess why he composed his visionary romance in a macaronic jargon neither Latin nor Italian. The book describes a vision in which Polifilo, after viewing magnificent processions and going through various adventures, ultimately obtains the hand of his lady, Polia, who has been identified with Lucrezia Lello, daughter of a jurisconsult at Treviso. It is barely readable, and yet its very inarticulateness gives it a charm which it would not have possessed if the author had been another Boccaccio. The soul of the Renaissance seems to have passed into it, and to be dumbly yearning for a manifestation never found, "moving apart in worlds not realised." The impression is greatly assisted by the unique illustrations to which it owes its preciousness in artistic eyes, and whose origin is still an unsolved problem. Their lavish fancy and skill in rendering every variety of expression by mere outline are apparent to all; but behind these technical qualities lies the suggestion of a romantic and far-away world, comparable to the Hades adumbrated in the tender farewells on Greek sepulchral reliefs.

On the whole the literary harvest of the century following the death of Petrarch was poor, and the seed dispersed by him and Boccaccio seemed to have fallen upon barren ground. It was not, however, entirely thus: some of the Latin poets, such as Baptista Mantuanus, Campanus, Augurellus, whom we have been compelled to pass without special notice, might haye won durable renown if they had written in Italian; and though there is little achievement in vernacular literature, several branches of human activity are for the first time in modern Europe brought under literary influence. The dearth of literary genius was paralleled by an equal paucity of statesmen and warriors of real greatness, though a Ziska or a Sforza appears here and there. Some mysterious cause had depressed the intellectual vitality of the age, which, nevertheless, continued to progress in social refinement and in opulence. Its aesthetic sensitiveness was chiefly expressed in the rapid development of pictorial and plastic art, and the renovation of architecture; its literary ideal was mainly manifested by the philological and critical apostles of the Renaissance, a remarkable band, who must find place in another chapter. As was to be expected under such circumstances, one of the features of the time was the improvement of the old universities and the formation of private societies of scholars, which expressed Italian intellectual needs as clearly as the foundation of the Royal Society expressed English needs at a later date. Two achieved special celebrity—the Roman Academy, persecuted by Pope Paul II. for its relapse into paganism, and the Platonic Academy at Florence, cherished by the Medici. It fell to the lot of the latter to solemnly decide, under the auspices of Lorenzo de' Medici, that the Italian language actually was on a par with the Latin, and that a man of wit or learning need not fear to lose caste by writing in it.

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. Many will be found in a collection unfortunately published on too limited a scale to be generally accessible, Daelli's Biblioteca Rara.