A History of Italian Literature/Chapter XIV

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We have seen that the definite result of the literary ferment which accompanied the revival of vernacular Italian literature after the long torpor of the fifteenth century was the recognition of literary form, rather than intellectual substance, as the principal object of cultivation, a conclusion completely in harmony with the national genius as well as the national traditions. Had this been otherwise, revolt would soon have made itself evident. On the contrary, however, we meet with scarcely any manifestation of the existence of a romantic spirit in Italian literature until Manzoni begins to be inspired by Scott and Byron, and Foscolo by Rousseau. The consequence is a great lack of richness and variety in comparison with a literature like the English, where all descriptions of tendencies have been allowed ample scope, and now one, now another, has successively seemed to be predominant; but none, except now and then for a time, has attained an absolute mastery.

On the other hand, the devotion of the Italian writers to elegance and symmetry of composition has rendered their literature a model for cultured writers in all languages, has deeply influenced contemporary literatures in their rudimentary stages, and has preserved many a writer from oblivion whose original power was not conspicuous, whose themes have long since become antiquated, but who still challenges the attention of posterity by charm of style. "Cela qui n'est pas écrit ne dure pas " is a rule without exception, and the converse is often, though not always, true also. One highly important class of these writers is that large section of the poets who modelled themselves avowedly on the greatest master of style their literature possessed or possesses, the man whose thoughts, often most precious in themselves, are displayed to incomparable advantage by incomparable felicity of expression.

Very few Italian lyrical poets of the sixteenth century ventured to stray far from the traces of Petrarch, who became to them what Virgil and Homer and Ovid had necessarily become to writers in Latin verse. Had Petrarch excelled in epic as he excelled in lyric, Ariosto and Tasso too would have been his humble followers, and the whole of the poetical Hterature of the age would have been imitative, and consequently second-rate. Yet, although the mass of this derivative literature is intolerably empty and insipid, much is distinguished by a perfection of expression which makes it not merely delightful reading but a valuable study. The poets frequently seem to approach Petrarch very nearly, but none reproduce him. Those succeed best whose imitation is the least avowed, and who are most remote from their model in native temperament, such as Tansillo, on the other hand, Bembo, Molza, and their like, who in mere form have most nearly approached Petrarch by most completely suppressing their own individuality, present much less to interest modern readers, although their contemporaries, estimating them from another point of view, extolled them to the skies.

Bembo and Molza, nevertheless, only followed in the track of the gifted man whom we have already seen so influential in the development of Italian prose—Jacopo Sannazaro. Sannazaro's attention was, indeed, principally given to Latin poetry. But the qualifications of an eminent Latinist and of a pattern Petrarchist were much the same. Both abdicated all claim to originality by setting before themselves a model which it was taken for granted—and with justice—that they would be for ever unable to rival. Sannazaro was, notwithstanding, something more than a master of felicitous expression. His Virgilian De Partu Virginis, in which he vied with the chief contemporary writers of Latin hexameters, Vida and Fracastoro, is less attractive than his elegies, into which he has introduced more of personal feeling, or his Piscatorian Eclogues, in which he has successfully revived the form, if not the spirit, of ancient composition, and from which Milton did not disdain to borrow ornaments for Lycidas. As a follower of Petrarch, Sannazaro stands on a diiferent footing from Bembo and Molza. Their excellence in their own way is indisputable, but monotonous: they neither rise nor sink; every poem of theirs is just as good as every other poem. Sannazaro, a man of noble character and strong feeling, imports a personal note into his poetry, and succeeds in proportion to the clearness with which he can render this audible. His praise of Petrarch's Laura, for instance, is something more than conventionality, and these lines, Mors et Vita, translated by Glassford, express the sum of much serious meditation:

"Alas! when I behold this empty show
Of life, and think how soon it shall have fled;
When I consider how the honoured head
Is daily struck by death's mysterious blow,

My heart is wasted like the melting snow,
And hope, that comforter, is nearly dead;
Seeing these wings have been so long outspread,
And yet so sluggish is my flight and low.
But if I therefore should complain and weep—
If chide with love, or fortune, or the fair—
No cause I have; myself must bear it all,
Who, like a man 'mid trifles lulled to sleep,
With death beside me, feed on empty air,
Nor think how soon this mouldering garb must fall."

Among Sannazaro's contemporaries, a little too early to have imbibed the full spirit of the Petrarchan revival, may be especially named Antonio Tebaldeo (1463–1537), an admired poet who survived his reputation; Serafino dell' Aquila, imitated by Wyat, whose Neapolitan vehemence betrayed his lively talent into bombast; Antonio Cammelli, the political laureate of the Ferrarese court; Antonello Petrucci, who wrote as Damocles banqueted, with the headsman's axe suspended over him; Notturno Neapolitano; and Filosseno, chiefly remarkable for the undisguised gallantry of his sonnets addressed to Lucrezia Borgia.

Bembo was a model man of letters, to whom in this capacity the Italian language and Italian culture are infinitely beholden. As a poet he is perhaps best characterised by the forty drawers through which he is said to have successively passed his sonnets, making some alteration for the better in every one of them. If there had been any originality in any of them, this would hardly have survived the twentieth drawer, but there never had been, and since the polish was always meant to be the merit, there hardly could be too much polishing. Bembo's poetry at all events serves to refute the heresy which identifies genius with industry; and if we admit with Roscoe that "any person of good taste and extensive reading might, by a due portion of labour, produce works of equal merit," we must nevertheless allow that it will probably be long ere such a capacity for labour reappears. He entirely fulfilled the requirements of his own age, by which he was simply idolised. The quintessence of his contemporaries' admiration is concentrated in Vittoria Colonna's humble yet dignified remonstrance with him for having failed to celebrate the death of her husband:

"Unkind was Fate, prohibiting the rays
Of my great Sun your kindling soul to smite;
For thus in perpetuity more bright
Your fame had been, more glorious his praise.
His memory, exalted in your lays,
That ancient times obscure, and ours delight,
Had 'scaped in fell Oblivion's despite
The second death, that on the spirit preys.
If in your bosom might infused be
My ardour, or my pen as yours inspired,
Great as the dead should be the elegy.
But now I fear lest Heaven with wrath be fired;
Toward you, for overmuch humility;
Toward me, who have too daringly aspired."

Bembo's Latin poetry, of which charming specimens may be seen in Symonds's Renaissance, is better than his Italian, for it does not disappoint. The fame of Francesco Maria Molza (1489–1544) was in his day hardly second to Bembo's, and was based on much the same grounds. Like Bembo, he was an elegant Latin poet, who carried the maxims appropriate for composition in a dead language into a living one. Like Bembo's, his vernacular poems, with one remarkable exception, are models of diction as inexpressive as harmonious—a perpetual silvery chime which soothes the ear, but conveys nothing to the mind. The exception is a poem in which the usual vagueness and emptiness of sentiment assumes substance from its pastoral setting. The Ninfa Tiberina, in which one of Molza's innumerable light loves is idealised as a shepherdess, is just such a piece of mosaic as Gray's Elegy. The author has amassed all the commonplaces of pastoral poetry, and, without adding a single idea of his own, has combined them into so rich and glowing a picture that he may well claim to have superseded the entire school of pastoral versifiers, the few excepted who have derived their inspiration from Nature, like his predecessor Politian. "Molza is to Politian," says Symonds, "as the rose to the rosebud." He was born at Modena, but lived chiefly at Rome, leaving his wife and family in his native city. They would indeed have been much in the way, for he was continually involved in some amour, and his irregular ties ultimately proved fatal to him. He was a leading member of the brilliant literary circles of Rome and Florence, and as a companion and a man of letters his contemporaries have nothing but praise for him.

Petrarch is a poet as much within the scope of imitation as beyond the pursuit of rivalry. The swarms of Petrarchists stun the ear and darken the light of the period: Tansillo might well say that every hillock had grown a Parnassus. They may be found in the thesaurus of Dolce, a series whose continuous publication for so many years at all events affords proof that this appetite for imitative verse was not factitious. Some few stand forth from the crowd by some exceptional characteristics, and it is of these only that we can speak. The first of these in chronological order is Bernardo Tasso (1493–1568), whom we have already met as the author of the Amadigi. In his lyrical as in his epical attempts, Tasso is one of those provoking poets who are always trembling on the' verge of excellence, ever good, hardly ever quite good enough. Even the famous sonnet on his renunciation of his lady, which, Dolce tells us, thrilled Italy, is less eminent for the beauty of the poetry than the nobility of the sentiment. Once, however, straying within the domain of pastoral poetry, he found and polished a gem worthy of the Greek Anthology:

"The herb and floweret of my verdant shore,
Shepherd, thy pasturing flock's possession be;
And thine the olive and the mulberry
That mantle these fair hillocks o'er and o'er.
But be my fountain's fresh and sparkling store
Of gushing waters undisturbed by thee,
For they are vowed to Muses' ministry,
And whoso drinks is poet evermore.
Solely for these and for Apollo fit,
And Loves and Nymphs the sacred stream doth burst,
Or haply some fair swan may drink of it;
But thou, if not a swain untutored, first
Thy dues to Love in melody acquit,
Then with the bubbling coolness quench thy thirst."

Another poet of the time vies with Bernardo Tasso in nobility of character, evinced in his case by the fervour of his patriotism. The bulk of the verse of Guido Guidiccioni, Bishop of Fossombrone (1500–41), consists of insipid love-strains in the style of Bembo and Molza; but when he touches upon the wrongs and misfortunes of his country he becomes inspired, and speaks in tones of alternate majesty and pathos, to which the following sonnet superadds the charms of fancy:

"The Arno and the Tiber and the Po
This sad lament and heavy plaint of mine
I hear, for solely I my ear incline,
Accompany with music sad and low.
No more Heaven's light on sunny wave doth glow,
No more the dwindled lamps of virtue shine;
Dark western tempests, dank and foul with brine,
Have swept the meads and laid the flowerets low.
The myrtle, Rivers, and the laurel-spray,
Delight and diadem of chosen souls,
And sabred shrines the blast hath borne away:
No more unto the sea your torrent rolls
Exulting, or your Naiades display
Their snowy breasts and shining aureoles."

If other Italian poets felt like Guidiccioni, they shunned to give their sentiments utterance. The chief original poem of Annibale Caro (1507–66), the accomplished translator of Virgil and Longus, and one of the best letter-writers of his age, was a panegyric on the house of Valois—Venite all' ombra dei gran gigli d'oro ("Hither, where spread the golden fleurs-de-lis"). A few years later, with equal genius and equal insensibility to the part that became an Italian, Caro turned to celebrate the Spanish conqueror. Whatever may be thought of the theme of his poem, it is in execution one of the great things of Italian poetry:

"Here the Fifth Charles reposes, at whose name
Eyes of superbest monarchs seek the ground,
Whom Story's tongue and Honour's trump resound,
Quelling all loudest blasts of meaner fame.
How hosts and legioned chiefs he overcame,
Kings, but for him invincible, discrowned,
Swayed realms beyond Imagination's bound,
And his own mightier soul did rule and tame—

This knows the admiring worlds and this the Sun,
That did with envy and amazement see
His equal course with equal glory run
Wide earth around; which now accomplished, he,
From heaven observant of the world he won,
Smiling inquires, 'And toiled I thus for thee?' "

Giovanni della Casa (1500–56) emulated Caro in the nobility of his style, which would scarcely have been expected, considering the licentious character of some of his verse and his ecclesiastical profession. He does, however, sometimes attain a dignity and gravity which, apart from the beauty of his diction, lift him high out of the crowd of Petrarchists; nor are his themes invariably amorous. His Galateo, a treatise on politeness, has earned him the name of the Italian Chesterfield. He would have attained greater eminence as a man of letters but for the distractions of politics and business, which he deplores in the following sonnet:

"To woodland fount or solitary cave
In sunlit hour I plained my amorous teen;
Or wove by light of Luna's lamp serene
My song, while yet to song and love I clave;
Nor by thy side the sacred steep to brave
Refused, where rarely now is climber seen;
But cares and tasks ungrateful intervene,
And like the weed I drift upon the wave.
And idly thus my barren hours are spent
In realms of fountain and of laurel void,
Where biit vain tinsel is accounted blest.
Forgive, then, if not wholly unalloyed
My pleasure to behold thee eminent
On pinnacle no other foot hath prest."

Angelo di Costanzo (1507–91), already noticed as an historian, is another example of a writer of sonnets who rose from the crowd by the individuality which he contrived to impress upon his performances. His great characteristic is an exquisite elegance, not, as in some other instances, veiling inanity, but usually the accompaniment of something well worth saying. The following piece is a good instance of his power of enhancing, by ingenious embellishment, a thought interesting and attractive in itself:

"River, that from thy Apennine recess,
Swollen with surge of tributary snow,
Com'st foaming, and thy tawny overflow
Hurlest on Samnian vales with headlong stress;
Thy farther shore, where Love awaits to bless,
I seek, and by thy wrath unharmed would go;
If thou intendest not my overthrow,
With stringent curb thy furious flood repress.
But art thou verily resolved to kill,
And purposest that this conclusive day
Shall jointly terminate my good and ill,
Grant me but once to stem thy shock and spray:
My happy errand I would fain fulfil;
Me going spare, returning sweep away."

The general passion for verse naturally extended to the refined and accomplished ladies of the time. Only two, however, have gained a permanent position in Italian literature, as much by their characters as by their poetry. The muse of Vittoria Colonna (1490–1547) chiefly prompted the apotheosis of her husband, the Marquis of Pescara, "a sworded man whose trade was blood," and who, though a great captain, scarcely possessed a single amiable or magnanimous trait of character. The pathos of the situation surpasses that of the verse which it called forth. As a woman, Vittoria evoked the enthusiastic admiration of her comtemporaries, and lives for posterity more in the strains of Michael Angelo than in her own.

The unhappy fate of Gaspara Stampa (1524–53), who literally died of love, would have preserved her name without her verse; she was, nevertheless, a true poetess, and might have been a great one had she not, like so many poetesses, struck upon the fatal rock of fluency. Could her centuries of sonnets be concentrated into a dozen, she would rank high.

More truly a poet than any of the stricter Petrarchists is a Neapolitan, Luigi Tansillo, although his advantage is rather intensity of feeling than superiorit in the poetic art. He must indeed be admitted to have derogated in some measure from the high standard of taste then generally prevalent, and to have foreshadowed, though but in a very trifling degree, the extravagances of the seventeenth century. This may be forgiven to his southern ardour and liveliness, and foreign critics are not likely to perceive the little technical defects so severely visited upon him by his countrymen. He had the unspeakable advantage over his competitors of being devoted to no ideal nymph, but to a real and very great and very cold lady, the Marchioness del Vasto, wife of the Viceroy of Naples. Such an attachment was necessarily Platonic on his part, and imaginary, if so much, on the lady's. The first rapture is magnificently expressed in the sonnet in which the poor knight and military retainer, whose business in life was to help in clearing the Mediterranean of Turks, compares his rash love to the flight of Icarus:

"Now that my wings are spread to my desire,
The more vast height withdraws the dwindling land,
Wider to wind these pinions I expand,

And earth disdain, and higher mount and higher:
Nor of the fate of Icarus inquire,
Nor cautious droop, or sway to either hand;
Dead I shall fall, full well I understand;
But who lives gloriously as I expire?
Yet hear I my own heart that pleading cries,
Stay, madman, whither art thou bound? descend!
Ruin is ready Rashness to chastise.
But I, Fear not, though this indeed the end;
Cleave we the clouds, and praise our destinies,
If noble fall on noble flight attend."

Suspicion, jealousy, bitterly wounded feeling, open breach, and hollow reconciliation make up the remainder of the sonnets, the best of which have few superiors in any literature for fire and passion. His other poetical performances are far from inconsiderable. The best known is the sin of his youth, the Vendemmiatore, whose ultra-Fescennine truth to rustic manners and the licence of the vintage brought it into the Index, and its author into gaol. In quite a different key are his delightful didactic poems, Il Podere, on the management of an estate, and La Balía, on the care of children, translated by Roscoe. Some of his familiar Capitoli are very pleasing, and some of his miscellaneous poems are very fine, especially this on the Spaniards slain by the Turks at Castel Nuovo, on the coast of Dalmatia:

"Hail, scene of fated Valour's final stand,
Revered for these sad heaps of whitening bone,
Their trace who other monument have none
Pyreless and tombless on this desert strand;
Who hitherward from far Iberian land
To Adria's shores on blast of battle blown,
With streaming blood of foemen, and their own,
Came to empurple foreign sea and sand.

Three hundred Fabii gave immortal name
To ancient Tiber; what to Spain by death
Heroic of three thousand shall be given?
Greater the host, more excellent the aim
Of warrior martyrs; those their dying breath
Resigned to Italy, and these to heaven."

The graceful poets who thus tuned their harps to the notes of Petrarch sang within the hearing of a spirit of another sort, whose verses, had they known them, they would have compared unfavourably with their own elegance, but whose appearance in their circle would have been like that of Victor Hugo's Pan at the banquet of the Olympians. Michael Angelo, the greatest Italian after Dante, had not, like Dante, acquired the secret of poetic form. He indites as on marble with mallet and chisel; but the inscription is everlasting. "Ungrammatical, rude in versification, crabbed or obscure in thought," as Symonds describes them, Michael Angelo's sonnets are yet priceless as a revelation of the man, more distinct than that, vouchsafed by his painting or sculpture. These tell of his tremendous force; the deep springs of tenderness in his nature are only to be learned from the poems, the most important of which are consecrated to Love, now ideal and impersonal, now expending itself upon some fair object, masculine or feminine, but in either case Platonic. Vittoria Colonna and Tommaso de' Cavalieri are the objects of the poet's deepest attachment. The following sonnet was most probably inscribed to Cavalieri:

"By your eyes' aid a gentle light I see,
Which but for these mine own would never share;
By your auxiliar feet a load I bear
Which my lame limbs refuse to bear for me.

I, plumeless, yet upon your pinions flee;
When heaven I seek, your soul conducts me there;
Blushes or pallor at your will I wear;
Sun chills and winter warms at your decree.
The fashion of your will prescribeth mine;
My thought hath in your thinking taken birth;
My speech gives voice to your discourse unspoken.
A sunless moon that by herself would shine,
I were without you; only seen on earth
By light of sun that on her dark hath broken."

The roughness of Michael Angelo's verse was planed down by the first editor, his great-nephew, and the true text has only been retrieved in our time.

Two religious poets stand aloof from the class of Petrarchists, rather by the nature of their themes than the quality of their talent. Celio Magno, a religious poet of Protestant tendencies, produced a hymn to the Almighty which ranks among the best canzoni of the period, and had anticipated Coleridge's project, which with him as with Coleridge remained a project, for a series of similar compositions. Gabriele Fiamma, Bishop of Chioggia, is in general a tame versifier, but in two inspired moments produced two of the most beautiful sonnets in the language: one of which is remarkable for expressing in an ornate style the thought of Heine's famous lyric, "Mein Herz gleicht ganz dem Meere"; the other, apart from its great beauty, as an instance of a sonnet which, beginning apparently in a commonplace style, is vivified through and through by the last tercet:

"Never with such delight the bee in spring,
When the full mead teems with the novel flower,
The sweetness of the honey-burdened bower
Amasses for her cell in wayfaring;

Not with like joy, when glades cease echoing
The baying hound, no more compelled to cower
In covert, doth the hind the forest scour,
Panting for crystal rivulet or spring:
As I the sob acclaim that signifies
Passion of love or awe divinely given,
Or other ecstasy that God endears.
Transported with her bliss the spirit cries;
How vast his rapture who inhabits heaven,
If joy he hath more joyful than these tears!"

The Cinque Cento period of Italian poetry, which to the men of that day seemed the ne plus ultra of artistic achievement, has since received less praise and exerted less influence than fairly its due. It was a great thing to have produced works so perfect in form, and to have refined the language in so eminent a degree. The general belief, too, that the Italian poetry of this age was devoid of all but formal excellence involves a great exaggeration. It is true that the literature of the period is overloaded with masses of mechanical and conventional stuff, but Guidiccioni and Casa and Tansillo are capable on occasion of expressing themselves with an energy the more impressive from being restrained within the limits prescribed by a chastened taste, and many Italian sonnets are even better fitted to be breathed from the trumpet than warbled to the lute. A great development in this direction might have been expected, but for the extinction of political and spiritual liberty.

What the Italian lyric might have become we see in Milton, who could have written neither his Lycidas nor his sonnets without Tuscan models. He undoubtedly weighted, without overweighting, both canzone and sonnet with thought to a degree unparalleled in Italy, but how much he owed to Italians appears by a comparison of his sonnets with those of Wordsworth, who neglected the traditions which Milton carefully observed. Wordsworth has even more ripeness of thought and moral elevation than his predecessor; but while Milton's work is immaculate, Wordsworth's is full of flaws.

With all its defects, the poetry of the Cinque Cento will survive as a proof that rules of art exist and may be ascertained, and cannot be safely departed from; no less than as an example of the embellishment which even ordinary thoughts may receive from nobility of diction and breadth of style; and as an instance of the great part which a literature not too original or too racy of the native soil may play in moulding and enriching the literatures of neighbouring and less advanced nations. Nor can it be fairly judged by itself as an isolated phenomenon. It was a part, and far from the most important part, of a stupendous artistic movement, which spoke more readily and eloquently with brush and chisel than with pen, and expressed through their medium much that in an age more exclusively literary would have been committed to paper.

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