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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.
G. R. Lomer, ed. The Student’s Course in Literature.

Lectures on the World’s Best Literature: Mediæval Italian Literature

By Gerhard Richard Lomer (1882–1970)

Introductory. IT is impossible to study the literature of Mediæval England without some general understanding of the literature of Europe during that period. Modern comparative methods of study have made us realize that no literature liveth unto itself alone, and that political boundary lines are of little significance in the history of art. Chaucer and his successors would not have been the poets we know them to be had they not been familiar with the works of their continental fellow-craftsmen, and even Shakespeare was content to exercise his genius in the recognized conventional borrowing of material from Italy and France. Some brief consideration of the early literatures of these two countries is therefore necessary as an introduction to the study of Chaucerian and Shakespearian writing. But the value of this Mediterranean literature is not merely a comparative one, nor is it to be read alone for its influence upon the writers of the other countries. The literature of Italy, like the art of this land which is the mother of arts, has a personal interest and an intrinsic value which reward the reader with richness of ideas and with the pleasures of form as well as with a knowledge of the historic progress of a great and noble people.

Italian literature is also interesting because of its close affiliation with classical writing, for in one sense it may be considered as a continuation, descendant, or revival of Latin literature. One must remember, however, that this art was only one, and by no means the greatest, of the arts of expression through which the versatile and energetic Italians gave utterance to their emotions and their ideals. In architecture, in painting, in music, the abounding vitality of these new Romans, citizens of the great world of art, expressed itself even more fully than it did in words. Michaelangelo is a great outstanding example of the vitality, the versatility, and the excellence of execution which meet us everywhere in Italian art and life. One must also remember, in speaking of Italian literature in relation to antiquity, that much of the writing done in Italy during the Middle Ages was done in Latin, and in this language of scholars appeared many of the famous treatises of the time. It remained for Petrarch to lay before his countrymen the literary claims of their own vulgar tongue and to plead the æsthetic value of the common speech of the people.

When one thinks of the past glory of Italy, one thinks of such names as Francis d’Assisi, Aquinas, Leonardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Columbus, and Galileo, in theology, in art, and in science. Not less conspicuous in the field of literary art do we find names known to everyone, and Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio belong now not only to the land which gave them birth but to the whole world.

The lives and achievements of these men, however, cannot be adequately understood or properly appreciated without a preliminary glance at the historical condition of Italy in the Middle Ages, for life and art went hand in hand, and political strife of the time had no less influence in its way upon literature than did the widespread love and encouragement of the beautiful by the patrons of the various arts.

Historical Conditions of Italy in the Middle Ages. It is in the Italy of the Middle Ages that there comes again to human consciousness the ideal of personality. It is an age in which individuality is developed in man and in society. The mediæval man becomes conscious of himself, of his powers, and of his ideals; and the state in which he lives becomes aware of its powers and of its possibilities, and develops into the city-state, the despotism, or the republic. Great men and great families come to the fore. It is the age of the Aragonese at Naples, of the Visconti and then of Francesco Sforza at Milan, of the house of Gonzaga at Mantua, of Montefeltro at Urbino, and of Este at Ferrara. Not less do the names of great men stand out conspicuous, of ill fame or good repute, and the gallery of portraits of the time contains such personages as Malatesta, Machiavelli, Pope Sixtus IV., Cæsar Borgia, Cosimo de Medici, and Lorenzo the Magnificent.

This age was characterized by hitherto undreamed achievement in crime, in statecraft, and in art, and the interest of the reader is divided between the fascination of the political changes, the romance of individual genius, and the glory of art. Each of these phases of the life of the time deserves a brief consideration.

The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are times of despotism, in which the heads of powerful families make themselves tyrants and rule by force and fear, by money and the sword. The pomp of public display and the magnificence of private life exacted and enjoyed by these tyrants we of to-day find it hard to conceive. The Doge Agnello of Pisa (1364) was wont to ride forth with a golden sceptre in his hand, and to show himself from a window “as relics are shown,” gorgeously attired, on silk embroidered cushions, surrounded by kneeling courtiers. Dante saw clearly whither such display was tending. “What mean their trumpets and their bells, their horns and their flutes; but come, hangman—come, vultures”; and Matteo Villani writes that “as despotisms rise, grow, and are consolidated, so grows in their midst the hidden element which must produce their dissolution and ruin.” It was an age of colossal ambition, of colossal undertakings, of colossal crime, nowhere better illustrated perhaps than by the Visconti of Milan. Intrigue, murder, massacre, poison, conspiracy of every sort, bribery, simony, illegitimacy—these were only too usual features of the life of the day. In opposition to the petty tyrants and to the more formidable despots of the greater dynasties, legal authority within the state was almost entirely ineffective. Family brawls and party feuds, such as those of the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, further complicated the social peace, and political progress of the Holy Roman Empire, which was now no longer Holy, since it was devoted to selfish crime; no longer Roman, since the centre of power was in Milan or Florence or Mantua, or Ferrara; and no longer Empire, since it was divided at home and powerless abroad. Even the Papacy, to which one looks for stability amid the stress of change and for purity and holiness in an age of corruption, had itself become tainted in its theory and remiss in its practice, so that the way was unconsciously being prepared for the Reformation.

None the less turbulent and romantic prove the lives of the great men of this age. At first sight such men as Lorenzo the Magnificent, Leonardo da Vinci, or even Ariosto, appear to us to be enigmas. Such breadth and depth of interest in life, such manifold relationships to the twin worlds of man and nature, so much attempted, so much accomplished—all this strikes us with dumb wonder. How can such men be? We come to realize, however, that the secret of their lives is the combination of energy with variety, of personal power in a multiplicity of circumstances. They are not novices at life; they have the master touch of the skilled craftsman. Their ideal is “l’uomo universale.” Such a man, indeed, was Leon Battista Alberti (?1404–1472), not many-sided, but all-sided, awe-inspiring in feats of daring and skill, musician, lawyer, learned in scholarship and in the crafts of artist and artisan, writer of no mean note in various languages, lover and student of nature and man, strong of will as of body and mind, gifted even with prophecy, if tradition err not. To him all things seemed possible. Perhaps only Leonardo da Vinci surpassed him in multitudinous interests, in catholicity of activity, in sympathy, and in energy. Colossal figures these, compelling admiration, masterpieces of human personality, whose perfecting was perhaps the most notable achievement of the Renaissance.

Finally, the glory of Italian art remains to us the greatest and most permanent of the gifts of these mediæval and renaissance centuries in Italy. To speak of Cimabue, Giotto, Orcagña, Ghiberti, Donatello, Fra Angelico, Filippo Lippi, Ghirlandajo, Bellini, Perugino, Botticelli, is but to name over the treasures of the world’s art galleries, and to see the Baptistery of Pisa, San Croce, the Duomo at Florence, the Cathedral at Milan, St. Peter’s at Rome, is but to gaze upon a few of the architectural masterpieces of a land dotted with fine churches, splendid palaces, and magnificent gardens. How much we live with the historical past we can easily see in the case of painting and of architecture, but it is not less truly the case with literature.

Early Italian Poetry. In the hey-day of Grecian Sicily, lyric and pastoral poetry had been sung by Theocritus, Bion, and Moschus. In the thirteenth century Sicily again contributed to the world’s literature, this time in the “lingua volgare,” the spoken language of the Middle Ages which co-existed with the degenerate Latin of the ecclesiastics. It was at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederic II. (1194–1250), King of Naples and Sicily, that the poets of the day found welcome ahd encouragement from this royal poet and patron of art! Though we are told by Dante that the first poet to use the vulgar tongue did so in order to gain the ear of his beloved, there is reason to believe that, for political reasons, the imperial patron was anxious to develop the power which comes from a bond of common speech. The Tuscans and Lombards who also frequented the court helped to further this scheme, which was eventually to make Italy united in language. In passing, one also notes that Provençal literature had its influence, and that, though the “langue d’oc” favored courtly and chivalric themes, the “langue d’oil” kept close to earth in the songs of the wandering minstrels. While at Pisa in the thirteenth century the influence of the classics was strong in such a poet-monk as Guittone di Arezzo (c. 1230–1294), the vigor, spontaneity, and music which are the birthright of the Italian were still preserved, free from artificiality and mannerisms, in the popular songs of common men, and broke forth in poetry that ranged from the patriotic to the burlesque, and from the amorous to the obscene. So ingrained in the popular heart are these songs that Rinaldo d’Aquino (thirteenth century) and Jacopone da Todi (c. 1230–1306) do little more than raise them to the literary level. It is to these men that we must turn for the enduring poetry of the age, and to such friends of Dante as Guido Guinicelli of Bologna (1220–1276) and Guido Cavalcanti (1255?–1300), and to Rustico di Filippo (thirteenth century), Brunetto Latini (1210–1294), and Cino da Pistoia (1270–1336?). These men were writing sonnets and love lyrics, when Dante appeared to surpass them and to essay “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.”

Dante (1265–1321). In the history of world literature Dante stands forth as one of the greatest writers of the epic. Shelley calls Milton “the third among the sons of light” and Dante “the second epic poet, that is, the second poet, the series of whose creations bore a defined and intelligible relation to the knowledge and sentiment and religion of the age in which he lived.” As Homer seems to us the epitome of ancient Greece, Shakespeare that of Elizabethan England, and Milton that of the Puritan Commonwealth, so Dante, to an even greater degree, embodies for us the ideals, the intensity, the hopes, the superstitions of mediæval Italy. But it is not merely because Dante is of his own century that he is of interest to us, but rather because he is “not of an age but for all time” does he still appeal to our minds, does he continue to stimulate our imaginations. We have in Dante’s prose, in his sonnets, and in his epic, the outlook of a master of experience upon this present world and upon the world to come, expressed in language that has the high seriousness of the true classic and the perfection of form which makes for literary immortality.

From two points of view and for two distinct purposes, then, should Dante be read. Dante as the poet of his age gives us a spiritual Pisgah-sight of a region of life and of an organized system of thought which are alien to our own; Dante as a man much tried by the world, absent from felicity throughout all the days of his life, is for us a type of victorious aspiration, of spiritual love, of ideal devotion. He is one of those of whom without mental reservation we can say, “This was a man.”

As we find in the ‘Iliad’ and in the ‘Odyssey’ a background of belief in the current polytheism and an anthropomorphic conception of divinity, so in Dante, the epic poet of Roman Catholicism in the Middle Ages, we find beliefs and hopes and convictions that are but the poetic counterpart of the prose theological dogma of Dante’s great countryman, St. Thomas Aquinas. Dante does not advance beyond his age in knowledge; his science is that of the Greeks, and his theology that of contemporary scholasticism; but in spiritual insight, in scope of imagination, and in a mystic intuition of immortal love Dante leaves far behind him the men of his day and walks with God. For Dante is one of the prophets of the larger vision, no foreteller of things to come, but a seer, gifted with insight, looking, as no one of his age or any other age has done, behind the veil, beholding the doors of heaven, and hearing amid the silences of Paradise the beating of the heart of Love.

Petrarch (1304–1374). Dante was of his age, though pre-eminent in it; but Petrarch was the herald of a new age. He is “the first modern literary dictator”; he is the great exponent of Humanism. This ideal of a liberal education, of the development of the free individuality of man, rooted in the fruitful past and fostered by the rich experience of the present, numbers among its exponents such honorable names, in addition to those of Petrarch and Boccaccio, as Barzizza, Æneas Sylvius, Chrysoloras, Guarino of Verona, and Vittorino da Feltre.

Born at the appropriate moment and broadly educated at various mediæval universities, Petrarch attained fame partly because of his own ability, partly because he lived at a time when Literature, hitherto the handmaid of learning or the decorative idler of a dilettante court, was now to emancipate herself and assume the responsibilities of professionalism. In Petrarch’s life, as in Dante’s, there came the vision of love. Dante dates his new life from the moment when, in his ninth year, Beatrice appeared to him “clothed in a most noble color.” Petrarch early met his Laura, and felt forthwith his lips unsealed by the divine spirit of poetry, so that his sonnets to her are perhaps his most enduring monument. Petrarch is, then, one of the great love-poets of the world, using to perfection that most exquisite of miniature poetic forms, the sonnet. In an age devoted to the poetry of love Petrarch is a master, and in a land where fineness of polish and mastery of detail are practiced in every art, Petrarch is an artist whose pre-eminence is freely acknowledged by his contemporaries.

Petrarch embodies the restlessness so characteristic of the Renaissance in Italy. This spirit manifests itself physically in the desire to travel which led him over the whole of Europe; and intellectually in his manifold occupations and interests, for like Keats, Petrarch was much “traveled in the realms of gold and many goodly states and kingdoms” had he seen. Though his Latin works have neither the elegance of Poliziano, the finish of Bembo, nor the scholarly brilliance of Erasmus, Petrarch is a great lover of learning, a humanist by nature, devoted to old manuscripts and to antiquity. His epistles show us the ideal man of letters, keen, critical, observing, just as his ‘Canzoniere’ show us the man of feeling, devoted to Laura and inspired by her, and as some of his poems called forth by his love of Italy show us the man as a patriot.

Petrarch developed some of the early forms of popular poetry so successfully that he seemed to make them his own. The personal mannerisms which he infused into them gave rise to the cult of imitation, and Petrarchism spread over France and Spain as well as over Italy. Petrarch embodies in his work the twin ideals of style and beauty which always inspire the true poet. He expresses strongly contrasted, rapidly antithetical moods of feeling; he is highly colored with mediæval mysticism; and he combines, in a manner characteristic perhaps only of the virtuosi of the Renaissance, a sensuous paganism with a Christian asceticism that seem irreconcilable until we find them fused in his writings.

Boccaccio (1313–1375). If Dante is of significance in the history of mediæval religious thought, and Petrarch noteworthy in the intellectual and humanistic life of his age, Boccaccio merits our attention in the history of Italian culture because he showed his countrymen how to write a facile and graceful prose and because he has given, not to Italy merely but to the world, a collection of tales which are perennially young and lusty and which entitle him to be regarded as a great master of narrative art and to be called the first modern novelist.

Like Petrarch, he wandered over much of Europe, learning human nature at first hand and enjoying experience to the full. Reared in the cultured atmosphere of Florence, Boccaccio later joined the gay court of King Robert of Naples, and amid the congenial virtuosi of the Neapolitan court, stimulated by expanding friendships, encouraged by the approval of connoisseurs, ripened by the luxury and the sensuousness of his experiences, Boccaccio developed a wide and deep understanding of human nature in its fundamental and recurring aspects. Certain chapters of his own life appear in ‘Fiammetta,’ not unjustly called the first great psychological novel. In his ‘De casibus virorum illustrium’ and in ‘De claris mulieribus’ he provided a storehouse for later tellers of tales and makers of plays.

It was in his ‘Decameron,’ however, that Boccaccio put the perfection of his art. Here he combined materials from French “fabliaux,” from the classics, from the folk-lore of the Italians, and from the life of his own day, into a masterpiece of story-telling, to which scores of writers from Chaucer to D’Annunzio have been willing debtors. Boccaccio is a master of what we have to come to call short story technique, and he knows men and women “au fond.” With this wide and profound familiarity with human nature and its foibles and frailties, with his keen enjoyment of the humorous side of the fundamental and eternal aspects of the human animal, Boccaccio reached a height in the “comédie humaine” as lofty as that attained by Dante in tragedy.

Whatever charges of breadth of humor or of licentiousness of situation are made against Boccaccio by the prudish or the myopic may be met by the assurance that Boccaccio was keenly anxious to be a poet of his own day, and that he reproduced the amusements and the conversation usual in his time among genteel folk in their hours of leisure and their moments of relaxation. To the common stock of current tales, Boccaccio adds the attraction of a refined style and the charm of a masterly vocabulary. We cannot blame the fourteenth-century poet for a point of view which, since it is of his own age, is naturally and inevitably separated “longo intervallo” from our own.

Boccaccio was enthusiastic in his devotion to his master Dante, and was faithful in a long correspondence and friendship with Petrarch. In his own life he was no different from the average and pleasure-loving Florentine of his time, until his gayety became exhausted and the world’s lure lost its charm. In his great century of tales, however, Boccaccio is perennially young, full of the hot blood of youth, lusty with throbbing life and with the debonair freedom of the will to live.

Reading Recommended

Additional Reading

For a continuation of Italian Literature, see next lecture.

For general information on this period, the student is referred to the one-volume history of ‘Italian Literature’ by Richard Garnett, J. A. Symonds’s ‘Renaissance in Italy,’ ‘The Oxford Book of Italian Verse’ edited by St. John Lucas, the literary histories of Emiliano Giudici and Francesco de Sanctis, and to the ‘Storia lett. d’Italia scritta da una società di professori.’

For information on Dante, in addition to the references given in the selections, the following introductions and studies may be consulted with advantage: J. A. Symonds, F. J. Snell, H. F. Tozer, P. H. Wicksteed, C. A. Dinsmore, Karl Witte, Edward Moore, and Paget Toynbee.

For information on Petrarch, see ‘Sonnets, Triumphs, and other Poems’ (Bohn’s Library), H. C. Hollway-Calthrop’s ‘Life and Times of Petrarch,’ Pietro Borghese’s ‘Petrarch and his Influence on English Literature,’ and M. P. Jerrold’s ‘Francesco Petrarca: Poet and Humanist.’

For information on Boccaccio, see the complete edition by Moutier, the translation by J. M. Rigg, or the ‘Life’ by Edward Hutton.