A History of Italian Literature/Chapter XIII

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A History of Italian Literature  (1901)  by Richard Garnett
Chapter XIII. Other Prose-writers of the Sixteenth Century



Italy now possessed a perfect standard of prose. She had already had one in the fourteenth century, when so rapid had been the development of the power of expression that the form had outrun the substance. She could say anything; but except by the mouth of the novelist Boccaccio, and that of Petrarch, who preferred to write his prose in Latin, had found little worthy of emphatic utterance. It may be partly owing to this poverty of matter in the vernacular literature, as well as to the passion for Latin, that style decayed so greatly during the fifteenth century. Yet, so far as the latter of these causes operated, the evil brought its own remedy: it was impossible to be as deeply versed as Pontano or Politian in the elegances of Latin without becoming impatient of barbarism and pedantry in Italian. Sannazaro, an exquisite Latin writer, was perhaps the first considerable man who insisted on an even standard of distinction in both languages. Fortunately for Italy, the Arcadia was a very popular book; fortunately, too, the Latin constructions with which it is replete were not so easily imitated as its general refinement of phrase. By the time of Leo X. inelegance had almost disappeared from Italian literature, and Italy might boast herself the only country in Europe that possessed a perfect literary language; wanting, indeed, the golden simplicity of the thirteenth century, but still the prose of cultivated men, and adequate for every form of literary composition. The intellectual distinction thus conferred upon the nation, combined with her still more pronounced superiority in the arts, seemed, as with Greece in similar circumstances, to regain for her a dominion more illustrious than that of which she had been despoiled. For a hundred years her authors were the arbiters of taste and the models of Europe, a sovereignty which might have been prolonged had it been possible for her to place herself on the right and victorious side in the great battle for civil and religious freedom that resounded throughout the sixteenth century.

As in all countries it their first awakening to an era of literary culture, this culture had gone deep enough to produce a multitude of authors, but not deep enough to generate a literary public capable of supporting them. The appetite for fame and the delight in authorship filled the ranks of literature with aspiring recruits, but the commissariat, without which no army can keep the field, had to be supplied by patronage, either from individuals or the state. Hence, except when some wealthy noble like Angelo di Costanzo was smitten with the passion for literary fame, we usually find the writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, even when most illustrious, in a condition of dependence. When with this is considered the utter absence of civil freedom (for Venice, the one free city, hospitable, to authors, allowed little liberty to printers), it is remarkable that the servility of the writers should have extended so little beyond their dedications. Especially is this the case with history, which, notwithstanding the influences at work to disfigure and corrupt it, remained on the whole surprisingly impartial. This must be ascribed in great part to the influence of classic models; partly, also, to the real mental superiority of most of those who in the sixteenth century essayed this form of composition.

No form is more attractive than the historical to men ambitious to shine in letters, and conscious of high talent without creative genius. "No merita il nome di creatore, se non Iddio ed il Poeta;" but delineation of character and representation of events are as it were an inferior kind of creation out of pre-existing material, like that ascribed by ancient theology to the Demiurgus. The literary genius of Italy addressed itself eagerly to the task. Ere long almost every considerable state had its vernacular historian. Some of the most important writers, nevertheless, continued to compose in Latin. Among these the most eminent was that very secular prelate and not very trustworthy historian Paolo Giovio, Bishop of Nocera (1483–1552), one of the men whose chief title to fame in our day is to have been famous in their own, but who was certainly reckoned as the chief historian of his time, and whose biographies of eminent men of letters and illustrious captains are still found valuable. Part of his general history of his own times perished in the sack of Rome (1527), and, with a sensitiveness not dishonourable to him, he shrank from recording the transactions of a time when the vials of wrath seemed so visibly poured out upon the Papacy. Except for the gaps indicated, his history extends from 1494 to 1547. Literature sustained a heavy loss in the disappearance of the work of Andrea Navagero, another Latin historian (1483–1529), who had been entrusted by the Venetian Government with the history of their Republic. The loss of another historian—Girolamo Borgia, who wrote the history of Italy in the days of Alexander VI. and Julius II.—is greatly to be deplored, not because he was distinguished as a writer, but because he was a Borgia.

The historian of Florence had given the first example of really classic Italian history, and Florence, though backward in comparison with Venice in the diffusion of literature by the art of printing, still took the lead among Italian cities in literary as well as artistic cultivation. A group of Florentine annalists sprung up, whose pens were chiefly exerted for the honour of their birthplace. Their candour generally prevented the publication of their works in their lifetime. Such is the case with Jacopo Nardi, who wrote the history of Florence from the expulsion of the Medici in 1494 to their final restoration in 1530, "with sincerity of intention and painstaking accuracy" (Symonds), but also with the acrimony to be expected from a banished patriot who fought for liberty to the last, and for the remainder of his life ate the bread of exile at Venice. The style is accused of aridity; but his translation of Livy is regarded as one of the best in the Italian language. His own history was not published until 1582, nor that of his continuator Segni until 1713, although this elegant historian, whose work occupies the period from 1527 to 1555, was a partisan of the Medici. A portion of the same epoch, from 1527 to 1538, is described much more diffusely by Benedetto Varchi, one of the most prolific men of letters of his time. Varchi, though a devotee of the liberty of whose restoration he despaired, wrote by the special commission of the Grand Duke Cosmo, which neither affected his impartiality nor protected him from being nearly murdered by some private persons who had been offended by his honesty, nor prevented his history from remaining in MS. until the eighteenth century. In 1570 Scipione Ammirato, a Neapolitan, received a commission from the Grand Duke to write a general history of Florence, which he brought down to 1574. His free access to archives enabled him to be more accurate than any predecessor. He also compiled some valuable genealogical works. The history of Ferrara was written by Pigna, and that of Genoa by Foglietta and Bonfadio, all of whom may be considered standard historians. The same can hardly be said of any other of the numerous local writers whom Italy produced in this age, except Porzio, the historian of the conspiracy of the Neapolitan barons against King Ferdinand; Graziani, who recounted the Venetian wars in Cyprus; and three others who deserve notice not merely as historians but as typical figures.

Never since Petrarch's day had the sceptre of Italian literature rested so unequivocally in one hand as in Pietro Bembo's during the second quarter of the sixteenth century. In one respect Bembo's pre-eminence is even more remarkable than his predecessor's, for Petrarch towered immeasurably above any possible competitor except Boccaccio, while Bembo was so far from being the first man of his day that he was not even a man of genius. His wonderful gift for felicitous imitation, whether in prose or verse, was unaccompanied by any power of original thought. But he possessed beyond any contemporary the formal perfection of style, whether in Latin or Italian, demanded by the age. His History of Venice, which alone concerns us here, was originally published in the former language, but Bembo vindicated his claim to a place among Italian historians by himself translating it into Italian. He had succeeded Andrea Navagero as Venetian historiographer in 1529.

Born at Venice in 1470, and son of the magistrate who so honourably distinguished himself by raising a monument to Dante at Ravenna, Bembo had all his life enjoyed the favour of the great. He had been the Platonic admirer of Lucrezia Borgia, who had honoured him with the shining tress and the dull letters religiously preserved in the Brera Library at Milan, Leo X. had made him his secretary before issuing from his own conclave, and, with munificence for once well applied, had provided him with means to occupy a delicious retreat at Padua, where he was residing when he received the Venetian commission. At a later period Paul III., who loved to surround himself with illustrious men, raised him to the Cardinalate and drew him to Rome, where he died in 1547, more admired and lamented than any man of letters of his time. His history, which extends from 1487 to 1513, and which he composed with his eye upon Cæsar, is the image of the writer, perfect in the harmony of its periods, and carrying the reader rapidly along its smooth surface, but surface alone, describing every occurrence as the ordinary man saw it and the statesman did not, with no attempt to search out the secret springs of action, no reference to documents public or private, and, which is more surprising, no effort to delineate a remarkable character. That this would not have exceeded his powers is shown by his beautiful portrait of the Duchess of Urbino, in his Latin life of her husband.

Bembo's successor, Pietro Paruta (1540–98), who continued his history to 1551, typifies the statesman historian, versed in diplomacy and public business, and so highly endowed with the qualifications demanded by such employments as to have become Procurator of the Republic, and to have been prevented only by his death from becoming Doge, He was consequently well fitted to write the annals of a state like Venice, and his work stands high among Italian histories. The third exceptional historian of the age, typical of the accomplished literary amateur, is Angelo di Costanzo, a Neapolitan noble whom we shall meet again among the poets. He wrote the history of Naples from 1250 to 1486, and is interesting as the pupil of Sannazaro, the friend of Vittoria Colonna, a patrician whose love of letters led him to cultivate authorship, and a patriot whose love of country gave umbrage to the jealous Spanish viceroy, and subjected him to perpetual confinement to his estates. His history does not disappoint the favourable prepossessions thus aroused, being composed with great elegance and dignity, and a manifest love of truth; insomuch that the author of the modern standard history of Naples, Giannone, while supplying Costanzo's defects by close attention to jurisprudence, public economy, and other subjects neglected by his predecessor, has transfused most of the latter's narrative into his own.

Biography, the most attractive form of prose composition, was also well represented in this age, but inspired only two standard works, extremely unlike in style and spirit, but both possessions for all time, and both relating to the fine arts. Giorgio Vasari (1512–74), biographer-general of painters, sculptors, and architects, may be called the Herodotus of art; a practitioner himself, and acquainted with many of the persons whom he describes; lively and garrulous, apparently most artless, he possesses either the science or the knack of felicitous composition in an extraordinary degree. Living when picturesque stories about artists were accepted without question, he is entirely unembarrassed in relating such as commend themselves to him, to the joy of the readers and the scandal of the critics of the future. It is probable that scepticism of the truth of his anecdotes and the authority due to his attributions of pictures has gone much too far; but however this may be, criticism will never be able to turn his living book into a dead one, or to invalidate our debt to him for the mass of unquestionably authentic particulars which he has preserved. His good taste in art as well as in literature is evinced by his admiration for the first-fruits of the early Tuscan school, neglected in his day, and his character appears throughout his work in the most amiable light. His chief defect, a serious one, is the imperfection of his information respecting the important schools of Lombardy and Venice.

There is little amiability in a still more distinguished writer, whose pen has gained him the immortality which he expected from the chisel and the graver. Benvenuto Cellini (1501–71) was undoubtedly a very eminent artist; yet the autobiography which has preserved his name while those of Pompeo Tarcone and Alessandro Cesati are forgotten, is a greater work of art than any he accomplished in his own vocation. It may be compared to the realistic sculpture of Donatello, surpassing in vigour and animation the ideal models of which it falls short in elegance and grace. It is the counterpart of a man, and a very manly man, all muscle and sinew and rude force, a boaster, a bully, a libertine, a duellist, almost an assassin, one whom a slight change of circumstances would easily have made a brigand or a bravo, but always the artist. No book, it is probable, gives a better idea of the general atmosphere of the Italy of the sixteenth century; assuredly no other delineation is nearly so vivid. With truly Pepysian unconsciousness the writer depicts in himself the man of turbulent and impracticable character moving among princes and nobles, outraging their forbearance by every action of his life, and revenging himself for their exhausted patience by malicious truth or reckless calumny. The general fidelity of the picture, however, does not depend upon the accuracy of particular statements, and Cellini's untruths where his own vanity is concerned do not impair his claim to confidence as a delineator of his age. Of the literary merit of his performance it is needless to speak; if not at the very head of entertaining autobiographies, it is at least second to none. The English reader will be continually reminded of Haydon; although, however, Haydon's confidence in himself was no less robust than Cellini's, he had far less reason for it, nor, with all his vividness, is he the Italian's equal in graphic power.

One other prose-writer of the period, and perhaps only one, may be considered as much an author for all time as Vasari and Cellini. This is Baldassare Castiglione, whose Cortegiano depicts the ideal life of the agcomplished Italian courtier—a character of more importance in that day than he can be in ours. In Castiglione's time not only were the court and good society almost convertible expressions, but the relation of the courtier to the court was far more intimate than it can be now. It actually was his sphere, which he seldom forsook except when absent on military enterprises or public business; he was in habits of daily intercourse with his sovereign, and professed courtesy and civility as others professed arts or trades. A competent writer on the court and its accomplishments, therefore, was necessarily an instructor in manners and refinement, and as such might exercise an important influence on his age. While the equally accomplished Casa, in his Galateo, instructed the average gentleman in good manners, the courtier's training fell to the lot of Castiglione, than whom no man could be better qualified either by actual disposition or the circumstances of his life. A Mantuan by birth, he had served the Duke of Urbino, had exemplified Italian refinement at the English court on a mission to receive the Garter for his sovereign, and when he wrote (1518), was envoy at the court of Leo X., and the intimate friend of the most cultivated men of his age.

The machinery of his book is a report, imaginary in form, but faithful in spirit, of dialogues held at the court of Urbino among the distinguished persons who frequented it at various times. They are by no means frivolous; Castiglione's standard, not merely of deportment and manly exercise, but of intellectual accomplishment, is very high. The conversations deal with such themes as the preferable form of government and the condition of women, and are handled with signal elegance, acumen, and graceful but not cumbrous erudition. They are interspersed with pleasant stories admirably told, and would give a fascinating idea of Italian court life, were it not so evident that its darker features have been kept out of view, and that the general relation of Castiglione's picture to reality is that of Sannazaro's Arcadia to the actual life of shepherds. Yet the picture has many elements of truth, and it speaks well for the age that it could produce even such an ideal. "Carried to the north of Europe," says Mr. Courthope, "and grafted on the still chivalrous manners of the English aristocracy, the ideal of Castiglione contributed to form the character of Sir Philip Sidney." The delicacy of Castiglione's sentiments is shown by his bitter mortification at the unjust reproaches of Clement VII., into whose service he afterwards entered, and who accused him of failure as a diplomatist. These are said to have broken his heart. He died in 1529. Raphael had painted his portrait, his tomb was designed by Giulio Romano, and his epitaph was written by Bembo.

"Love rules the court, the camp, the grove." The Asolani of Bembo, therefore, a disquisition on Love from different points of view, composed in imitation of Cicero's Tusculan Questions, should take precedence of Castiglione's Cortegiano, but it can hardly be said that it does. The Cortegiano is a piece of real life, indicating, if not precisely what the highest Italian society was, at all events what it felt it ought to be. Bembo's dialogues, or rather monologues, might have been composed in any age of refinement; they are purely academical in form, and the perpetual justice of the sentiments is purchased by perpetual commonplace. Seldom, however, have commonplaces been set off with such harmony and polish of style, or with more ingenious eloquence, especially at the conclusion, where the Hermit reconciles Love's advocates and his accusers by descanting on the charms of ideal beauty. If it be true that to have read it was the indispensable passport to good society, the circumstance is creditable to the age's literary taste, and still more so to its standard of ideal excellence. Bembo's prose is more satisfactory than his poetry, perhaps because it raises less expectation; in verse the wonder is that he attains no further, and in prose that he attains so far. Gli Asolani, first published in 1505, was written at the age of twenty-eight, and was dedicated to Lucrezia Borgia. On the strength of it Bembo is made the chief interlocutor in Castiglione's Cortegiano when the question of love is touched upon.

The number of writers at this period who, if not always moral, may be described as moralists, is very considerable. Alessandro Piccolomini, afterwards Archbishop of Patras, wrote a complete institution of the citizen which is not devoid of merit; but he is better remembered by a sin of his youth, the Dialogo della bella creanza delle donne, in which an Italian Martha successfully exhorts an Italian Margaret to add a lover to a husband. The literary merits of this otherwise reprehensible performance are considerable; it is also an authority on cosmetics. Sperone Speroni, eminent for the dignity of his life and the elegance of his style, has the further honour of having first employed the dialogue in the discussion of purely ethical questions. Lodovico Dolce and A. F. Doni, industrious littérateurs, obtained a reputation in their own day which posterity has not ratified. The former, says Tiraboschi, wrote much in every style and well in none; the latter is tersely characterised by Niceron as "grand diseur de riens." Far superior is Giovanni Battista Gelli, the learned tailor of Florence, who had the great advantage over the other moralists of being able to clothe his wit and wisdom in an objective form. In his Circe, Ulysses is represented as unsuccessfully endeavouring to persuade his metamorphosed companions to reassume human shape. They know better, and their argumentation might well have suggested the machinery of Dryden's Hind and Panther; even as that of Gelli's Capricci, where Giusto disputes with his own soul, was very probably copied in Smollett's Adventures of an Atom.

One of the most characteristic writers of the time is Agnolo Firenzuola (1497–1547), an authority "on the form and colour of the ear, and the proper way of wearing ornamental flowers," whose elegant and frequently licentious stories, idiomatically Tuscan in style, fresh in humour, and brilliant in description, are interwoven with his Dialoghi d'Amore, and who also gained fame by his comedies, and as the translator, or rather adapter, of Apuleius. As the combination of the photographic portraits of several members of any class of society gives the mean average of its physiognomy, so Firenzuola represents the average constitution of such men of letters of his day as wrote with a real vocation for literature. It is doubtful whether any such vocation can be credited to another satirist who greatly surpassed him in celebrity, the notorious Pietro Aretino (1492–1556). Aretino was merely a literary blackmailer, whose profligate and venal pen was employed to extort or cajole money from the great men of the age. His indubitable success is difficult to understand, except as the irrepressible and irreversible decree of fashion. Apart from his comedies and his letters, an amazing record of the abasement of rank before impudence, only one of his works has any literary merit, and the genuineness of this is questionable. His other immoralities are as insipid as his moralities, and his personalities are of the kind best answered by a cudgel. Notwithstanding, he became a power in public life as well as in literature, rivalled the opulence and the pomp of his friend Titian, and, like him, trained up disciples of his craft. The charm may have lain in some measure in the boldness of the man, who alone in his age made a show of free speech, although the real motor of his pen was cupidity, who lived libelling, and died laughing. Worthless as he was, he might have anticipated Pope's boast that men not afraid of God were afraid of him.

Aretino is only one among a host of letter-writers, who included the most accomplished men of the age. Bembo appears as its typical representative, here as elsewhere, although the unfortunate historian Bonfadio is held to have written best. All wrote with an eye to the publication of their epistles, and asked themselves what Cicero would have said in their place. None had the delightful candour and exuberance of Petrarch; they are in consequence much less national, interesting, and human; and their letters, stripped of the complimentary phrases which eke them out, are in general brief. Yet it would be hard to refuse any among them the praise due to two excellent qualities, good style and good sense. Such were the general characteristics of the age, a period, but for Ariosto, almost devoid of creative power in letters, yet fully worthy to be ranked with the other great eras of artificial literature, the eras of Augustus, and Anne, and Louis XIV. Its truest praise is perhaps afforded by a comparison of it with the other contemporary literatures of Europe, then, the French excepted, which is immensely indebted to the Italian, almost equally destitute of genius and of art, although the magnificent rhythm of English prose even then showed what an instrument had been provided for performers yet to come. But temporal and spiritual tyranny were fast destroying the elementary requisites of great literature in Italy. The hare was lamed, and the tortoises were overtaking her. A little while yet, and it would be needful to look beyond Alp and sea for the true Italy, and find her in the bosoms of Shakespeare, Spenser, and Sidney.

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