Friday, November 14, 2008

The Duecento (13th century)

The Duecento Italiano is one of the brightest periods in the history of arts and, like humanism in the 1400s, its studies and discoveries pave the way for the golden age of the following century, the Trecento Italiano. A Renaissance, however, is hardly the brainchild of a few mavericks - rather, it is built on the shoulders of giants: St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-7-1274), the greatest philosopher of this century reshapes Christian theology by reaffirming the primacy of Aristotle, and what seems to be a theoretical achievement has in fact profound implications in the history of western European thinking. Among the towering giants are, notably, the poets of the Sicilian School of Frederick II (1230-1250), mystic reformers like St. Francis (1181-1226), Gothic art although Giotto di Bondone (1277-1337), belongs to the following rather than the 13th century. Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) and Guido Cavalcanti (1255-1300 - the head of Dolce stil Novo) are already active in the last two decades. So many are the forces at play at this time that listing them here would scarcely do them justice.

Unlike the past century, the Duecento is creative - it innovates rather than consolidates: once the communes have shored up their power their efforts aim at creating a new world of arts and letters. Florence in particular is the point where all these forces converge, gaining momentum by the year until the close of the century, when the mighty titan of Dante emerges. It is said that we owe the Italian language to him - but it would be unfair stop at that - Dante is the demiurge of the Italian language, writes Migliorini, one of the greatest Italian philologists - Dante channels all the creative forces into an entirely new culture - one that we can truly feel ours and that is already that of the modern Europe .

The Gothic cathedrals, that appear in this century, are another visible product of the spirit of innovation that pervades the age, with sophisticated building techniques that allow architects to erect extraordinary high walls by using pointed arches, and buttresses to discharge their immense pressure on their sides. Once propped by extra support, walls become so resistant as to incorporate large glass windows. Their frames accomodate paintings whose beauty reminds one of the miniatures of illuminated manucripts.

Creativity is also religious: the century opens with the migration of the troubadours to Piedmont and Veneto as pope's cruisade against the "heretics" exiles many from France - where the crown seeks to subject Provence under its language and Catholic orthodoxy. Provence defends its autonomy by cultivating an original literature in its native language - the langue d'oc - and keeping the troubadours at its courts - these poets are, however, more than roving minstrels, they are skilled poets, musicians and actors all in one: even in the absence of a repertoire, they can improvise with incredible ease.

Not only does their talent charm princes, it draws crowds to the streets to listen to their stories of knight errants falling for enchanting princesses. To win a princess's love the knight must submit to her will - and prove his fidelity by undergoing a number of ordeals. The harder the test, the more worthy he will be in her eyes - the final reward being the consummation of love.

The ritual of submitting to the princess mimics the feudal relationship between vassal and prince, who grants lands to a knight in exchange for his services. Once this ritual is applied to love, it is used as a pretext to wave extraordinary tales into music. However, because the Occitan culture supports some of the zealous reformers - such as the Cathars - people who not only deny the power of the Catholic hierarchy but questions the resurrection of Christ, the troubadours are doomed.

The pope lauches into a "cruisade" to restore orthodoxy and the kings of France are only eager to help him crush the riotous aristocracy of the south - Cathar reformers, unfortunately, include known princes and troubadours, many of them are burned at the stake, while others are exiled to Italy, where their poetry is extremely popular, especially in the North - Ezzelino III da Romano (1194-1259), prince of the Marca Trevigiana (today's Veneto) has many of them at his court, while others settle in the Monferrato (Piedmont). Some win the admiration of crowds in central Italy, from Tuscany to Umbria, whose communes are tolerant and enjoy a greater independence from the Vatican thanks to their republican constitutions. The sirventois is another important heritage from France that the Tuscan troubadours will put to good use - for their own political satire - as much abundant in the propaganda wars between the communes as in the pages of the Commedia.

Courtly love also lands in Sicily, where the trobadour legacy passes on to the dignitaries of Frederick II (1194-1250) - they improvise their pieces in their own language while sticking to the troubadour model, yet writing their songs in literary Sicilian, which becomes a standard for Italian literature - arguably the first national language of Italy before Dante. The sonnet, the offspring of Giacomo da Lentini (active 1230-1250) plays an important role in early Italian poetry - Dante himself uses it copiously in his collection of songs - Vita Nuova.

From the Sicilians, particularly Giacomo, Dante inherits a rich repertoire of phrases and expressions that pass into the Florentine with only a few spelling variations. Only when we are aware of the diverse legacy that impacts on Dante we can truly acknowledge his genius - the ability of welding so many cultures into one great work. Dante is, Migliorini says, the demiurge of Italian language - it would, however, have been impossible to weave together so many cultural instances without his encyclopedic knowledge - one that hails from the teachings of Brunetto Latini (1220-1294 - Dante's mentor, author of the Tresor encyclopaedia) to the lessons of his law professors of Bologna and the poetic apprenticeship of Guido Cavalcanti.

The Catholic Church will manage to harness the less extreme reformers into new orders - like the franciscans and the dominicans who write, like St.Francis, extraordinary lyric poetry and, incidentally, give birth to the first Italian theatre - initially made of popular dramas enacting the Passion of Jesus. This new wave of mysticism penetrates artists like Dante and Giotto, whose work deeply affects the treatment of courtly love. In much of this religious poetry the relationship beween knight and princess is tranfigured into that between Jesus and the Virgin, as portrayed in the powerful scenes of love and pathos of Umbrian poestry.

Incidentally, the Laudes Creaturarum of Saint Francis of Assisi is considered the first work of Italian literature, although written in a regional Italian that is far from the language of Dante - but is quite original in content and is not, unlike previous work, dependent on, French models. The hand that pens it is that of Francis, but the poem echoes that of the psalms.

Dolce Stil Novo is not insensible to this poetry, and mediates between the subtle eroticism of Occitan aristocracy and popular mysticism of Umbria. Christian Neoplatonism, which elevates physical love to spirituality, becomes the means to embark on a metaphysical quest - from Cavalcanti's theory of spirits to Dante's christianism. For him, true love can only lead to eternal bliss, since it is inspired by God and must therefore have a redeeming value to it. The woman in the poem, then, becomes, like the Virgin (very popular in this age) the intermediary between man and God and like Beatrice, his ultimate guide to salvation.


Anonymous said...

Greetings! Reliable online references include the following:

Thank you!

Brad Hoffstetter
Communications Division
Assembly of good Christians

Mauro Baglieri said...

Welcome to my blog Brad.

Thanks for your sources, I am looking into them right now. You understand that I may only include source material that reflects a strictly neutral point of view. Thanks for taking your time to reasearch.

Anonymous said...

What an interesting blog, Mauro - and thanks for visiting mine, too.

perugina said...

Mauro, I wanted to send you an email thanking you for your support and particularly for adding me to your sidebar here - sei tanto carino.
You have many blogs all of interest.
I wish you all the best for this new year.
la Perugina
Patricia La Rossa

Mauro Baglieri said...

Dear Patricia, I must thank you for creating such beautiful artwork and sharing it with all of us - including me. Good luck with your blog(s)!

perugina said...

Mauro.. ma dove sei.. sono preoccupata per te!
Volglio sapere le tue notizie!

Mauro Baglieri said...

Troppi impegni in questo momento e poca concentrazione, ma il blog andrà avanti, stai sicura. A presto.