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out of the dark
a quick history of italian literature

By Roberto Simmarano

The origins of Italian Literature
The rise of a literature, both written and spoken, in the vernacular began in the 13th century; a period of great political and civil revival in the Italian cities and a lively renaissance in art and culture after the difficult centuries following barbarian domination. There were a great number of trends in 13th-century literature: religious poetry (which thrived in Umbria partly as a result of the activity of Saint Francis, especially with the work of Jacopone da Todi); poetry made popular by the French jongleurs; the comic-satirical poetry of Cecco Angiolieri; chivalric literature (the chansons de geste derived from the French); didactic and moralistic prose in which Brunetto Latini was prominent, and, the most widespread, love poetry.

The Sicilian and Tuscan poets
The first Italian poetry written with literary pretensions emerged, and flourished in Sicily at the Court of the Emperor Frederick II, starting from around 1220 and inspired by the Provencal love lyrics. The poets of the Sicilian school (Guido delle Colonne, Pier dela Vigna, Cielo Dalcamo) treated their single theme of love according to the courtly model. In this way a poetic tradition was begun in which the vernacular Italian was increasingly cleansed of dialectical excess. Later this trend spread to central Italy, especially Tuscany where the poets (Chiaro Davanzati, Compiuta Donzella) expanded and enriched the Sicilian lyric by confronting moral and political themes which reflected the ideals of Communal life.

Stil Novo
The most important literary movement of the latter half of the 13th century was what Dante called the "dolce stil novo". The dominant theme of the poets (Guido Guinizelli, Guido Cavalcanti) was the basic experience of the conscience and the life of the soul. What was new about the style was not simply a more spiritual conception of woman, exalted as an angel of salvation, but a deeper intellectual and philosophical examination of love as the source of moral virtue, and a more refined searching of the psyche.

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)
The 14th century was a period of gradual change in Medieval life and culture which gave rise to a new concept of existence. It also saw a maturing of the literary tradition which was given its greatest expression by the Florentine Dante Alighieri. Dante's work was the origin to the modern Italian literary and linguistic tradition. The early lyrics are collected in the "Vita Nuova", an idealized autobiography in which the poet sings of his love for Beatrice whilst at the same time transcending that love for a higher one: the love of God. In the other works prior to the "Divine Comedy" ("Convivio","De vulgari eloquentia", "De monarchia"), Dante deals with contemporary themes of the spirit, culture, and politics.

Dante's "Divine Comedy"
Dante's major work, and the greatest in Italian literature is the "Divine Comedy": a complex and highly poetic work treating a vast subject. The content unites the culture and spirit of the Middle Ages and expresses a religious faith in a universe built and run by God's will. Dante's vision is of a journey in the afterlife through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise where he encounters the souls of the great men of the past and discusses with them the most important themes of humanity: philosophy, religion and morality, politics and culture. Dante's voyage, guided by Virgil (human reason), and Beatrice (human reason enlightened by revelation), is also the story of his personal redemption as well as a cry for the salvation of humanity.

Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) (1304-1374)
Petrarch differed from Dante in that he actively confronted the division between austere Medieval religion and the enjoyment of worldly goods, particularly love and fame. In this he was a precursor of the Humanist thought of the Renaissance with its full evaluation of earthly existence. Petrarch was the author of numerous philosophical, religious and poetic works in Latin, but his major works, I Trionfi, and Il Canzoniere, are written in the vernacular. In the latter collection of poems, he examines his soul, analyses his unrequited love for Laura (whoever the lady may have been) and probes his inner - unresolved - crises.

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375)
Boccaccio can be ranked alongside Dante and Petrarch as one of the three great Italian literary figures of the 14th century who were also prominent on the European Scene. He can be distinguished from them, however by his greater concentration on earthly themes and subjects and his relative disinterest in moral, religious, theological and political issues. Boccaccio's greatest work is "The Decameron", a collection of 100 tales linked in a narrative framework, where he masterfully portrays different characters and their various passions, thus creating a vivacious image of life in all its many facets.

14th-Century Prose
The prose of the 14th century was characterized by an explosion of religious literature, primarily aimed at the education and religious instruction of the people. The number of sermons, doctrinal treatises, biographies of saints (particularly centered around Saint Francis and Saint Catherine) written at this time are testimony to the degree to which Christianity had become rooted in contemporary conscience and culture. There were also numerous historical works, in both Latin and Italian. These "chronicles" are notable for their liveliness and concrete narration.

Humanism in the 15th Century
The 15th century saw the rise and confirmation of a spiritual and cultural movement characterized by the rediscovery of the Greek and Latin classics, seen not only as the model for artistic perfection but also as a lesson for life. The Italian Humanists believed that the Classical world offered them a view of reality that could serve them in their own lives, one which exalted the dignity and rationality of Man, the glory of his spirit, the beauty of Nature and worldly existence. There were many writers (Pico della Mirandola, Leonardo Bruni, Poggio Bracciolini and Marsilio Ficinio in Florence, Giovanni Pontano and Jacopo Sannazzaro in Naples) who used themes and forms taken from the past, thereby giving rise to Classicism.

Lorenzo de' Medici (1449-1492)
Fourteenth-century lyric poetry was the literary expression of a civilization still in its first flowering. The prevalent themes were a realization of the beauty of the world and an optimistic faith in Man and Nature. A new conception of life was expressed, one which involved a deeply-felt love for earthly reality faintly tinged by that melancholy born of the awareness of the mutability of beauty, youth and life itself. These sentiments are evident in the writings of Lorenzo de' Medici, the Florentine patron and friend of the poets as well as a poet himself.

Angelo Ambrogini (Politian) (1454-1494)
What emerges from the life and poetry of Politian is a desire and need to escape everyday realities and seek refuge in a fantastical world of ideal beauty and harmony similar to that created by the great poets of the past. As a result, his verses have an elevated literary tone and use forms and images influenced by the Classic writers. In his poetry (the most famous perhaps being the "Stanze per la giostra", dedicated to Giuliano de' Medici) one is aware of the poet's tendency to look idyllically upon himself while at the same time there is evidence of the focus on a new harmony between Man and Nature; the fascination of life and the world as a whole; the cult of beauty and of poetry that were all to characterize the Renaissance.

Luigi Pulci (1432-1484)
Alongside the refined Classicizing poetry of Politian and the varied, imaginative works of Lorenzo de' Medici, the 15th century also witnessed a return to 13th century chivalrous poetry, or rather a remodeling of heroic poetry. In "Morgante Maggiore", Luigi Pulci uses the foundation of a chivalrous poem to build a work that was closer to the ridiculing and burlesquing tone popular in Florence since the 13th century. The heroic passions of the warriors, their noble deeds and idealistic love stories which form the basis of the heroic tradition are only an excuse for Pulci to free his imagination and recite the most incredible stories and to describe human beings and their feelings in a vivid and realistic way.

Matteo Maria Boiardo (1434-1494)
One of the major authors of 15th century Italian chivalric literature, along with Pulci, was Matteo Maria Boiardo, and he too altered the traditional models. In his unfinished "Orlando innamorato", Boiardo, Count of Scandiano, brings the uncurbable force of love to the rigid Carolingian world and uses it as a departure-point for a number of adventure stories. The courtly tradition, as in Pulci's work, is deprived of its original religious, ethical and patriotic content and transformed into an expression of the values and ideals of contemporary society.

Humanistic prose: Leonardo da Vinci and Leon Battista Alberti
Da Vinci (1452-1519) and Alberti (1404-1472) were both thinkers and artists whose sweeping interests embody the spiritual ideals and morals of the century. More than any other, da Vinci represents the ideal Renaissance man, versatile and open to all experience; his genius found expression in painting, sculpture, philosophy, mathematics and the study of the sciences, but he was also important as a writer thanks to his treatise on painting. Leon Battista Alberti was another man of many talents: architect, theorist, mathematician, physicist and scholar, as well as the author of treatises on sculpture and architecture, written in both the vernacular and Latin.

Next month we'll move into the Renaissance and touch on the battle of the dialects.


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