Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The 12th century

The cathedral of San Zeno, in Verona (1178)

Although this century brings widespread prosperity to the peninsula, and sees the coming of age of the commune (city-state) with the flourishing banking industry of Pisa and Florence, intellectual effort is focused on the crafts rather than the arts - the bourgeoisie is busy building palazzi and basiliche (churches in the romasesque style modeled on Roman basilicas) to make room for the blooming political and religious institutions of the new republics. The Vatican consolidates its political influence in the center and in the North, where the Guelf party defeats Emperor Frederick I in Legnano (Milan, 1176) . Meanwhile the South is unified by the Normans under the Crown of Sicily, later inherited by the Hohenstaufen (Frederick II is named King of Sicily in 1198). In this turnmoil so little time is left to literature and the fine arts that even writers of Latin literature hush for a hundrerd years. The previous century had seen a number of works in this language, if not yet in Italian.

Energies are no longer put into painting or poetry - and when we look at the sobriety romanesque architecture we see how these massive white stone buildings catch the eye without appealing to our sense of beauty - the first cathedrals and their huge bell towers rather point to the economic prosperity and power of their patrons, not to renenewed artistic sensibility.

Such sobriety impresses us with the craftmanship of those who strove to built these basiliche but not with their art when we compare them to the maturity diplayed in the age of Dante and Giotto. The mysticism of romanesque is accounts for its simplicity, not unlike the one of the paupers and mystics that anticipate St. Francis - decoration is minimal, space in paintings two-dimentional, human bodies and faces gazing at us from from arches and spires without really detaching from the white body of the cathedral.

Until Florence becomes known for its poetry the economy's economic boom in the north is unmatched by any other achievement in the arts. When we see how much language draws on literature to evolve we understand Migliorini's disappointment. In this context it should not appear remarkable that the most important documents in the Italian language are fragments, not works, phrases, not pages and come as they do from accounting books and deeds by notaries and bankers.

We can roughly divide these documents into carte and scritte. Only the latter interest us linguistically since the scritte (en. "writings") are jotted down informally, often parenthetically to comment on or clarify what is being stated in Latin. While only Latin statements in the carte (en. "papers") have legal status, they stick to protocols and have little of the spoken language. Conversely, the informal tone of scritte frees them from the constraints of Latin formulas - because do not longer pretend to imitate the Latin spelling their Italian stands off more clearly.

However, the transition to Italian is not sudden and scritte steal themselves into the uncertain fabric of middle Latin in the course of two centuries eventually eroding it. At this point as more and more people get to speak the vernacular, even on official occasions, given the growing demand for financial transaction: merchants and bankers, the rising upper class that replaces nobility is no longer raised in convents but is trained in the shops and travels quite a bit around Europe, most often to France with whom Tuscany and Umbria have strong business relationships: the name "Francesco" ("Francis") was likely coined by Italian merchants and personalities like "Francesco" d'Assisi and Francesco Petrarch were the sons of merchants who had spent most of their lives beyond the Alps.

The influence of Latin on 11th-century writing had produced calques on early attempts at Italian, producing a latinised Italian mingled without much distinction to the italianised Latin. Until then it is not easy to draw the line between middle Latin and the first scribblings in Italian. In the 12th century, however, a line is drawn - at some point we can tell when one language begins and the other ends by just reading - writers now must have a clear perception of Italian as a language and do no longer see it as a "lower" form of Latin. We are going to see much the same thing in the Renaissance when vernacular, or regional literature takes on a life of its own as it separates from the italian language - and dialect can be really said to exist only when its perception among the people is consolidated. After that the standard Italian can rightly secede from regional languages.

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