The Oxford book of Italian verse/Introduction II

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At the end of the Trecento Italian poetry already possessed a variety of verse-forms. The canzone, the canzonetta, the ballata, the sonetto and the terza rima were completely evolved, the ottava rima of Boiardo, Pulci and Ariosto was in existence, and the rispetto of popular poetry was about to become a literary form in Tuscany and Umbria. The first half of the Quattrocento, however, produced no lyric poet of importance; the delightful songs of Franco Sacchetti, that indefatigable writer of short stories, closed the great epoch of Dante and Petrarch; Fazio degli Uberti, with his mediocre Dittamondo, was influenced, but certainly not inspired, by the Divine Comedy, and the various disciples of Petrarch merely prove the unapproachable excellence of the Canzoniere. The poet gives place to the humanist, and when the humanist becomes a poet, his songs, in spite of all their delicate charm, have a note of conscious art and a profusion of ornament which give the reader a premonition of the horrors of stucco and tinsel that belong to the seventeenth century.

The Italian humanists of the Quattrocento were the pioneers of modern European culture, and their work, accomplished at a time when France, Germany, and England were only beginning to emerge into the new light, bore fruit in a civilization as brilliant as it was unhappily brief. The capture of Constantinople by the Turks sent a crowd of Greek scholars to Italy, and the ‘uneasy memories’, in Symonds’ phrase, of Greece and Rome which had haunted the Middle Ages became marvellous reality. The world ceased to be a sombre antechamber of Heaven or Hell; man was no longer merely one of God's silly sheep, but an individual heir of ages of culture, free of will, aroused at last from the long nightmare of priestly or tyrannical authority; and his life, instead of being a narrow prison, became an intellectual adventure in which all his faculties were free to range. The Renaissance was no mere enthusiasm for coins and inscriptions; it was the reawakening of the curiosity of a world.

With this new enthusiasm came scepticism—a distrust of the Church which had darkened counsel for so long, clutching the key of knowledge as tightly as the keys of Heaven and Hell; an ironical toleration of the Popes who were so often masters of all dubious arts. A more or less strict observance of the outward forms of faith existed side by side with the most hearty paganism; we find Lorenzo de' Medici, whose brilliant and useful life was certainly not limited within the bounds of the Christian conception of virtue, writing Laudi and a very good Sacra rappresentazione, and perhaps a certain spirit of indifference is manifest in the fact that religious songs were sung to airs which were usually associated with effusions of quite another character. The graver spirits of the age attempted to prove that the Pagan and Christian doctrines were essentially the same; Ficino and Pico della Mirandola discovered Moses in Plato—but the general attitude was hedonistic: a blend of the sacred thirst for learning, for speculative inquiry which was a pleasure in itself quite apart from its result as a guide to living, and an eager intention to enjoy the bel viver italiano without fear or scruple.

The centre of this bel viver was Florence, that loveliest of cities where the spirit of the Quattrocento seems chiefly to linger, in spite of the annual horde of invaders and the atrocious bric-à-brac of modern shop-windows. And the central figure of all that comely life was the Magnificent Lorenzo de' Medici, a wise ruler, a fervent lover of all that was fine in scholarship and art, and almost a great poet. We are not concerned here with his political qualities or defects, but it may be noted that probably far too much stress has been laid by stern moralists on his alleged deliberate debauchery of the Florentines with pageants and festivities; even if the charge were true, his early experience when the Pazzi daggers were gleaming in Santa Maria del Fiore was enough to excuse him for employing any method to strengthen his own position and to keep his hot-headed subjects in a state of tranquillity; and at least he preserved the balance of power in Italy until his death. His enthusiasm for scholarship had been awakened by the men who were his masters in early youth—by Agiropoulos, Landino, and Ficino. All the wise of Italy were his friends—Politian, Pico della Mirandola, Pulci, Alberti, and young Michelangelo—and with them he held high discourse in the Platonic Academy which Gemisthus Plethon founded for Cosimo, or rode on hunting expeditions such as he describes in La Caccia col Falcone or wandered in the cool gardens of the Rucellai, enjoying that delightful existence of scholarly friendship and emulation in a perfect environment for which the modern student who perspires in a hotel on the Lung' Arno or nurses a headache amid the vapours of the British Museum must sigh in vain.

Lorenzo and Politian were not only enthusiastic Platonists; they wrote a large amount of poetry in Italian, imitating Petrarch, yet bringing a distinctly new note to their country's literature. When he was only eighteen years old, Lorenzo had compiled a Codex of the old Italian poetry for his friend Frederick of Aragon, and in his Comento to his own poetry he gives his reasons for writing love sonnets and urges the claims of the Italian language as a vehicle of expression. His admiration for Petrarch did not prevent him from realizing the charm and freshness in the songs of the countryside; his canzoni a ballo have all the gaiety of the popular poetry; even his Sacra Rappresentazione di San Giovanni e Paolo is written in the fluent octave stanzas—rispetti continuati—which were sung throughout Italy to the music of lute and viol. In the Nencia di Barberino, that most delightful of Quattrocento idylls, the ardours of the rustic lover are revealed to us in his own language, yet seen through the eyes, half ironical, half sympathetic, of the highly cultured citizen of Florence, giving us the first really artistic example of that sense of the burlesque which was afterwards to become so important a factor in Italian poetry. Politian, too, the famous humanist and alter ego of Lorenzo, wrote rispetti continuati and spicciolati of great beauty, and his tragedy of Orfeo is a sequence of octave stanzas interspersed with brief songs. Lorenzo and Politian are sophisticated poets, perhaps, and their spirit, when they are themselves and not disciples of Petrarch, is the spirit of Boccaccio—of slightly ironical but quite good-natured realism; but though we may search their poetry in vain for high passion and great emotion, at its best it has a spontaneous gaiety, a keen delight in the comeliness of life and the earth, and, with Politian especially, an unerring tact in expression; it is the faithful mirror of the bel viver that was so soon to cease.

Whilst Lorenzo and Politian adapted to their own ends all that was best in the popular art of their time, Pulci was content to elaborate the popular Florentine conception of chivalry—a somewhat squalid conception, but one which was natural to a people whose troubles always began at home, and who had little sympathy to spare for crusaders and love-sick paladins. There is no idealism in the Morgante Maggiore; it is obviously written by a bourgeois for bourgeois; its innumerable characters are for the most part rogues—even Charlemagne is a besotted old dotard—and its events have no dramatic sequence. The importance of the Morgante lies in the fact that it is the first document in the long proof that the romance of Chivalry, as Germanic nations understand it, did not exist for the Italian. These ponderous and unique Italian poems are packed with all the paraphernalia of romance, enchanted islands, magicians, devils and hippogriffs—and in spite of it all there is not a single note of mystery, of the vague terror of the unseen, of the pathos of man's struggle with supernatural elements, from the first line to the last. The realization of this defect need not make us blind to the frequent beauty of description which adorns both the Morgante and the Orlando Innamorato especially the latter. The Court of Ercole d'Este at Ferrara was a more favourable field for the growth of the chivalrous epic than the democratic piazzas of Florence; and though Boiardo is concerned with events rather than with character, the personages of his poem are real knights-errant, not ruffians and imbeciles. Throughout the poem, however, we are conscious that he never takes them seriously; the whole work is a pleasant fairy tale which he has constructed without any larger aim than the amusement of an indolent audience and the glorification of the House of Este. This ironical treatment of the heroes of the old French epics is a most remarkable development in the Italian genius; we find it a short time later rising to the utmost limit of art in the Furioso.

The Innamorato was never finished; and the last lines of its 79th canto have a strange pathos for the student of Italian history:—

Mentre ch'io canto, O Dio Redentore,
Vedo l'Italia tutta a fiamma e foco
Per questi Galli, che con gran valore
Vengon per desertar non so che loco...

The dark storm-cloud of reality sweeps across the skies of fairyland, and the voice of the singer is forgotten amid the rumours of war. The selfish folly of Lodovico Sforza, ‘Il Moro’, made him invite Charles VIII of France to enter Italy and to occupy Naples as heir of the Angevins who had formerly reigned there. The weakness or indolence of the Italian states became obvious to Europe; Charles met with little opposition during his sinister progress through the country; only, in Florence, Piero Capponi dared to defy him, tearing the scroll containing his conditions of treaty to pieces, and crying ‘Voi sonerete le vostre trombe e noi soneremo le nostre campane’. The avenger whose coming Savonarola had foretold was amongst them; ‘the sword has descended, the scourge has fallen; the Lord leads these armies’. The armies in question had to retire from Italy not long afterwards, but the days of her liberty were numbered. Alexander VI Borgia was elected Pope in 1494.

For a while, however, the tempest held aloof, and in the Cinquecento we see the spectacle of a splendid artistic and intellectual achievement which reaches its zenith in the last hours of Italy's freedom, amid a general corruption of all qualities but fine taste, that ultimate heritage of a morally bankrupt people. The accession of Leo X to the kingdom which had been founded for him by Cesare Borgia and Julius II marks the beginning of an epoch when Italy seems to spend the whole store of her Renaissance capital in a few years; painting reaches its climax in Michelangelo and Raphael; Bembo and Sadoleto are the high priests of the last refinement in scholarship; the Papal Court becomes the home of all elegance and luxury. Machiavelli in Florence, Ariosto and Tasso in Ferrara, are the supreme figures amid the innumerable writers of the Cinquecento.

The lyric poetry of the epoch is, however, disappointing. A careful study of Petrarch and a highly polished form are its chief characteristics; the spontaneous grace which Lorenzo learnt from the popular songs has disappeared, and instead we find an immense output of sonnets which, for all their melodious charm, make us wonder if it is altogether an advantage for a poet to possess an extremely musical language as his native speech. It is a relief to turn from the fluent elegance of Molza and della Casa to the rugged strength of Michelangelo, whose poems, in that age, seem like the cry of a giant breaking into a symphony of tuneful but expressionless voices. Even the lyrics of Ariosto, with the exception of one canzone, are not remarkable; it is in the Furioso and the satires that his unique irony, his insight into character, and his wealth of imagination find full scope.

It is idle to speculate as to what the result of this studied cultivation of language might have been if Italian liberty had not perished; actually, the last flower of the Cinquecento died in a wilderness of arid conceits, and two lyric forms only preserved any vestige of vitality: the ode of Bernardo Tasso, and the idyll which was developed in the pastoral dramas that followed Sannazaro's famous and tedious Arcadia. The fond resuscitation of the golden age—the idyllic existence of song and simplicity—is the natural solace of cultivated minds condemned to exist in a world of strife or tyranny; and it was to this enchanted precinct that the poets of Italy fled for refuge in the gloomy closing years of the Cinquecento.

O bella età dell'oro
Quand'era cibo il latte
Del pargoletto mondo, e culla il bosco...

The idyllic genre soon became as anæmic and affected as every other kind of poetry in Italy during the Seicento, but at any rate it rose to its finest height in the Aminta or Tasso, and its elegiac element is conspicuous throughout the Gerusalemme. Guarini's Pastor Fido, which resembles the Aminta in being a lyric recited by various characters rather than a drama of action, is the other famous memorial of this idyllic form of poetry.

The burlesque verses of Berni and his followers are remarkable for the perfection of their style and for their unblushing obscenity; the spirit of Boccaccio is still alive in them and in the ‘macaronic’ poetry of Folengo—the Merlinus Coccaius whose effusions were so well known to Rabelais. Elsewhere, the sorriso italiano, the ironical smile that dawned upon the lips of Ariosto even while he wrote his most pathetic or heroic lines, forsakes literature for the popular song and the pasquinade, and we look for it in vain in the ‘epic’ of the Jesuit-trained Tasso.

Meanwhile, Italy had become the battlefield for Charles-Quint and Francis I, for Giovanni delle Bande Nere and Frundsberg. Rome was sacked in 1527; Florence, after a heroic resistance under Ferrucci for ten months, was captured by the combined armies of Pope and Emperor in 1530; Milan fell into the latter's hands in 1535; Lombardy, Naples, Sicily and Sardinia became Spanish provinces; proud Siena was humbled to the status of a small provincial town. Plague, famine, and the Holy Office of the Inquisition followed as gleaners in the rear of the invading armies, and by the end of the century the flame of Italian liberty had been quenched—for ever, as it seemed—by the careful hands of foreign viceroys, by the Pope and the Society of Jesus.

O bella età dell'oro!