Page:The Oxford book of Italian verse.djvu/3

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THE earliest Italian poetry which has come down to us was written in Sicily during the brief but extremely important epoch of culture which was inaugurated by the Emperor Frederick II, himself a poet and an enthusiastic patron of all fine art. This poetry, as might be expected, is in some degree tainted with the formal graces of the Court; it lacks the personal note, and its conventions are an inheritance from the Provençal troubadours. Dante tells us in the Vita Nuova that the first poet who wrote in lingua volgare—in the spoken language that existed all through the early Middle Ages side by side with the sadly degraded Latin of the priests—employed that lowly medium in order to be understood by the lady whom he addressed; but the Sicilian school of poets probably made use of the volgare for a less interesting reason—it had become the fashion, or, possibly, the custom of writing it was encouraged by the Emperor because his ambition to unite the various Italian cities against the Pope made him realize the importance of cultivating a language which, except for a few local variations, was common to them all. In spite of a certain conventionality, however, there is a freshness and delicacy in the little garland of Sicilian court-poetry which is intrinsic, owing nothing to the art of