Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The 14th Century

The 14th century: Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio

Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio
Although the Sicilians actually created a standard, it remained confined to the higher classes, and remained a literary language, to be used within the narrow confines of the courts and the priviledge of poets and scholars. Its potential remained untapped, but it was also short-lived - about thirty years. When Manfredi, Frederick's illeggittimate son  succeeded his father as King of Sicily (1258-1266) the school exprerienced a gradual decline, until it was despersed when Mandredi, after refusing to retreat in spite of overwhelming enemy forces, launched himself into Charles d'Anjou's army. He was killed on the spot on February 26, 1266.

It was as much the end of Frederick's dream, as that of a unique experiment in the history of language. But one that was destined to be remembered for centuries. The poems of the Sicilians traveled to Tuscany and from there to the rest of Italy. Their fame survived it into the work of Guittone d'Arezzo and, later, Dante (1265-1321) who understood the importance of a modern, flexible standard which both the layman and the poet could use. This idea posessed him to write a treatise, De Vulgari Eloquentia, (1304-5) in which he expounded his ideas.

Intended as a small summa on the Italian language and literature, Dante had planned to divide it into an introduction (what is now chapter 1), and several books, one on poetry, another (probably) on prose, a third on middle style (mezzano, or comic), and it's likely that the fourth shoud deal with the low, popular Italian. It is impossible to make further assumptions on what was going to follow. 

After being brought to light by Dante's sons and Boccaccio, it was forgotten until the 16th century and even believed apocryphal until Jacopo Corbinelli published one of the extant 5 manucripts in Paris (1577). Its redescovery in Italy was destined to bear on the discussion of linguists that eventually led to the final establishment of a national standard with the foundation of the Accademia della Crusca.  

That the book is written in Latin must not mislead us as to the modernity of its content: actually, it was aimed primarily at those influential intellectuals and princes who regarded Latin as linguistically (and morally) superior and therefore refused to read anything vernacular, at least concerning such important subject as language and poetry. Many of the ideas contained in DVE had already been anticipated in Dante's Convivio, where he had admitted that the Italian language will "shine as a new light, a new sun, which will rise where the old one [Latin] had set, will enlighten those who live in darkenss because of the old sun that shines no longer" (Conv. I, xiii, 12)

If Latin was the language of those who were noble by birth, Italian, like Dolce Stil Novo must be the language of those who were noble at heart, a language for all. Dante's argument that true nobility is not inherited but must be proven by one's deeds reflects the modern, pragmatic views of the new, self-made men of Florence. 

While the Convivio was more focused on poetry and language in general, DVE is focused on the Italian language, and although Dante praises the stability of Latin against that of modern languages, he understands that the Italian language still needed to develop a norm, a grammar, that could standardise it and that there were yet few poets who had provided a body of text detached from the local thradition in which they belonged. 

Only a handful of poets have really written good Italian poetry: Guido Guinizzelli, Cino da Pistoia, Guido Cavalcanti and "his friend" (Dante himself). Stability is scarcely appreciated today, when dozens of words and phrases are rise and fall each day, in the age of massive advertising, television and the internet. 

For such a chamaleontic age as ours, tradition and immutabity sounds like something bad: we get news updates and software upgrades, car models are recalled and even the articles we keep in our homes are quick-lived, from furniture to toothbrushes.

However for a man living in the middle ages, ravaged by contnuous invasions, famine, wars, when the city you lived in could change hands several times in your lifetime, stability was a rare good, and it is not surpising that if something could resist the wear and tear of century, it must be inbued with some divine virtue. 

Old became synonymous with perfection and that explain why Languages like Latin, Greek or Jewish were the perfect languages. But from Convivio and DVE Dante detatches himself from the idea, being convinced that there is in fact no immutable language and that when one appears to be so, it is only because our lifespan is too short for us to realise such changes that, if microscopic in a lifetime, become macroscopic over a number of generations. 

Undoubtedly there are languages who are more irregular and changeable, while others are more stable, but this is not due to any divine quality: Dante attributed to the langue d'oc a great stability because many goofd poets had left outstanding works capable of standing the text of time. In other words, they had been so admired that certain traits of their poetry and language had resisted innovation. 

At this point Dante asked himself if this would not be the case of Italian if it could accumulate a similar poetic tradition in the future. And what is the purpose of his "booklet" if not that of inviting more Italian poets to join in this new tradition writing songs in Italian whose weight would eventually create a tradition and therefore a grammar capable of unifying the language and standardising it?    

The prestige of Latin was still high: it was the language of science and the teaching language of universities, but the language of everyday life had to be another. In De Divina Eloquentia, Dante anticipates the scholars' objections on the Italian vernacular, proposing that the new standard be enriched by Latin and Greek words adapted ad hoc.   

The Italian language might be as good as Latin, though, only if scholars and poets would contribute to its growth with woks of art and that is what he and his disciples attempted to do with the songs and sonnets of Dolce Stil Novo. Guido Cavalcanti was, in Dante's own words, the most talented of the group, writing a poetry as rich in philosophical and moral consideration as in simple, sensuous, impressionistic observation of women and love.  

The import of new Latin words, would not antagonize the classicl language: instead, it should encourage more people to study it. Because Latin is Italy's parent language, Latin words can be painlessly converted into Italian ones, and it is possible for anyone to do so by just replacing the suffix of the Latin nominative with that of the ablative (a, e, o according to the original declension). The latin grammar was also a model for verbs, and the tenses are in fact quite faithful to the Latin. 

The enormous success of Dante's school of Dolce Stil Novo, whose corpus was also a test to check how the new language might be received, prompted him to aim higher, to the sophisticated language structure of the Divina Commedia, where Stil Novo is not denied but included in his philosophical and moral quest for salvation. 

Its enormous success proved him right, and the legacy was inherited by Boccaccio who in his public lectures on the Commedia made Dante's work truly immortal and his language a cannon to which all great future writers would conform.   

The Four Virtues of the Italian Language

After a short and generic survey into the European languages, in which Dante clearly defines the boundaries between Slavic, Germanic and Romance languages, he divides the vernaculars of roumania into lingue d'oc, d'oil, del sì (Italian dialects). He then tries a further subdivision: Western Italy (west of the Appennini), and Eastern (east). To the former belong the following regions: western Apulia, Latium, the duchy of Spoleto, Tuscany and the Genoese marquee, Sicily and Sardinia, while the latter includes part of Apulia, Marche, Lombardy, Veneto, Friuli and Istria. 

However, because of the absence of local standards and the mutual influence between these territories he cautions us into assuming that these are separate languages, and that one may fond sensible variation when moving from town to town. Since such languages enjoy little or local tradition they had, in Dante's eyes, no defined grammar or usage rules. His search for a dialect on which to base a future literary tradition founders on the rocks of a babelic sea of micro-languages: against such lingusitic division he cannot even boast the Tuscans, whom Dante says that " having lost the few wits they had left on account of their madness, claim for themselves the monolpoly of volgare illustre" (I, xiii). 

He shows admiration for the Sicilians, whose language "seems to deserve a higher praise than the others, because all the Italian poets write in their own language can be dubbed " 'Sicilian' " (I, xii) and the Bolognese, qualifies as the the most beautiful, its harmony being due to the fact it partakes in equal measure of the harsh masculine quality from Veneto and the feminine accent from Forlì: on the other hand, Bologna was home to his university and great masters who like Guinizzelli had started Dolce Stil Novo, a poetry whose language, like that of the Sicilians sixty years before, were starting a poetry that transcended regional languages and was building a grammar based on the example of the geat Latin classics. 

Dante would wish the new Italian language to be a koinè emerging from the sum of all the italian dialects, but realises that the political divisions made anything like what had happened in Sicily impossible. Rather, the Italians could lean on the example of some good poets once that a literary tradition consolitated. This only might generate one peninsular language capable of transcending all. 

Such a language must be illustre, being inspired to the most 'illustrious' tradition of past men of letters (Dante explicitly refers to the great men of the classical word, such as Seneca or Numa Pompilius, but), cardinale, because every other dialect must tend to to it, as a door (the dialects) turns around its hinges (it. cardini), aulico because "if we Italians had our King's castle, it [=the Italian language] would belong in the court", and curiale because governed by solid rules as those by which the courts are governed. 

However, there should be three levels of italian, each corrisponding to a virtue: salus (self-preservation), amor (love), virtus (virtue). While salus was common to animals and humans alike, it was the lowest kind of volgare illustre, in which we might include war songs (epics), the second was nobler, its subject being amor cortese, or the fin'amor of the troubadours, and the third was moral and phiolosophical (about the spirit and human reason, above eartly 'passions' and 'instincts' of animals and plant, the exclusinve gift of God to man. 

Below this volgare illustre Italian stood two lower levels, namely volgare mezzano (middle, or "comic" as opposed to volgare illustre, or "high"), and low (or 'humble', typical of popular ballads). On the contrary, the song was the highest poetic form and as such only suitable to volgare illustre, the only one capable of treating tragedy, the highest form of literature.

For all the styles, however, Dante called for a fixed spelling, an established grammar and pronunciation to which all other Italian states should conform to make the Italian language a reality. 

An angel fallen from Heaven: Dolce Stil Novo

Dolce Stil Novo
was actually the touchstone against which Dante tested his literary and linguistic theories before engaging in the Commedia. 

Guido Guinizzelli had provided the first manifesto in his song Al cor gentil , followed by a collection of poems, but it was up to Dante's Vita Nuova (a collection of philosophical sonnets followed by prose comments) to perfect what Guinizzelli had only started. Guinizzelli, like Guittone, had been both fascinated by the Sicilians' idea of a platonic woman liberated from the realistic vein of Troubadour poetry. 

Dolce Stil Novo
 refused to paint the usual ingenerous portrait of the fair sex as the cause of humanity's sins: the woman here is a madonna, a redeemer who comes to earth to convert her lover: a woman's love, when pure, is the gateway that leads man to divine love. 

Such platonic, angelic view of woman was probably the consequence of the new social role acquired by women in Dante's liberal Florence, reflecting the views of the new middle-class and the fact that women had become a consistent part of the reading public. 
But let us test these theories against a known sonnet in Dante's Vita Nova, called 'Tanto Gentile': 

Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare 

la donna mia quand'ella altrui saluta, 
ch'ogne lingua deven tremando muta, 
e li occhi no l'ardiscono di guardare. 
Ella si va, sentendosi laudare, 
benignamente d'umiltà vestuta; 
e par che sia una cosa venuta 
da cielo in terra a miracol mostrare. 
Mostrasi sì piacente a chi la mira, 
che dà per li occhi una dolcezza al core, 
che 'ntender no la può chi no la prova; 
e par che da la sua labbia si mova 
un spirito soave pien d'amore, 
che va dicendo all'anima: sospira 
So kind and honest looks 
My lady when she greets strangers 
That every tongue hushes and quivers 
And people's eyes do not dare look at her 

She walks past, hearing people praise her, 

Simply clad in humility 
And she looks like something come down 
From heaven to hearth to show a miracle. 
She looks so lovely to those who watch her 
That her eyes send some sweetness to the heart 
But cannot be understood if not been felt inside 
And it looks as if from her lips departed 
A gentle spirit full of love 
That invites to the soul to sigh. 

The ladies in the poems of Dolce Stil Novo are usually mindful of the Holy Virgin: they are surrounded by a golden aura that enflames man with pure love, a passion that elevates him both in the torments (Guido cavalcanti) and the joys (Dante) it inspires. 

Guido Cavalcanti's life was particularly tainted with hardships (separation from his beloved due to an exile, and disease) and Guido himself explains his passion using averroistic (is the spirit made of atoms, he asked hmself) theories, but Dante and his contemporaries generally emphasised the divine nature of woman, capable by divine gift of inspiring and redempting man from sin. 

With Dante, such redemptive value extends beyond the grave: Beatrice's influence becomes even stronger after her death. Here Christian mysticism and platonic love blend to evoke a powerful figure that transcends humanity. (Platonism would be further developed by Petrarch, who perfected the sonnet and widely anticipated romantic sensibility.) The songs and sonnets of Vita Nuova (the title itself hints to spiritual salvation) are dedicated to Beatrice herself. 

Unfortunately we know little about her life, except that her real name was Bice Portinari. Dante seems to have fallen for her when they meet in their childhood, when he was nine. Later, she ended up marrying another man, but died in her early twenties. 

At that point Dante was seized by despair, and was losing his faith, so Beatrice returned in his dreams to confort him. In the Commedia she will also be at his side, leading him through Purgatory into Heaven. (Virgilio, who could not receive the blessing of true faith in its own time, must leave Dante him at the end of hell.) 

Dante's Commedia is not just religious poetry. It is a historical, social and literary survey of Italy, present and past with its most eminent politicians, princes, popes and poets. Out of respect of classical and theological tradition, this gallery of live portraits includes mythological characters like Minos and Lucifer painted with remarkable realism, Paolo and Francesca, the unhappy lovers murdered by Francesca's husband, Brunetto Latini, author of that medieval encyclopedia of knowledge, The Trésor, and Sordello da Goito, a known troubadour poet. 

Dante met many of the real characters in the Commedia, and tried honestly to portray them in all their virtues and flaws rather than just praising or condemning them altogether. His attitude is by no means moralistic: he has a psychologist's eye, glossing over, for example, Brunetto Latini's sodomy to praise his many merits - he had been his mentor and a great scholar. 

Not only is the Commedia one of the greatest literary and linguistic accomplishments, it is also a powerful historical account of Dante's times. 

The Legacy of Dante's Italian

After Dante's death Commedia became almost as popular as the Bible itself, its words and language entered common usage, including a few clichés as 'Galeotto fu il libro e chi lo scrisse', "The culprit was the book and the one who wrote it", to refer to the occasion in which a couple fall in love for the first time. 

Also well-known is the proverb 'non ti curar di lor ma guarda e passa' (do not mind them but look and move on) or the verses 'foste non fatti per viver come bruti / ma per seguir virtute e conoscenza.' when speaking of Ulysses sailing to the end of the world ("You have not been made to live like brutes, but to pursue virtue and knowledge"), which a pedantic teacher may use to remind his pupils of their chores. 


Francis Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304-1374) was profoundly inspired by Dolce Stil Novo and his Canzoniere is as much a tribute to his beloved Laura, as it is the Vita Nuova by the Sommo Poeta. 

He draws on Dante's songs and sonnets, sometimes using the same interlocking rhymes or terza rima in his sonnets. But Petrarch went much beyond imitation: he developed the sonnet form to the highest perfection: he made the language simple and terse, added powerful imagery, and introduced the enjambement, allowing a single sentence to space beyond the end- rhyme. 

His looser use of metre in his songs paved the way for the free verse of modernists. His desperate love for Laura, never returned, and the inconsolable regret after her death show a sensibility that goes well beyond literary convention and into his own personal life, as such it will only be found much later in the Romantics. 

The remarkable modernity and down-earthedness of the language enflamed by the sincerity of his passion are a treat both to the scholar and the average reader and are nothing short than exraordinary: 


Erano i capei d'oro a l'aura sparsi 

che 'n mille dolci nodi gli avolgea, 
e 'l vago lume oltra misura ardea 
di quei begli occhi, ch'or ne son sí scarsi; 
e 'l viso di pietosi color farsi, 
non so se vero o falso, mi parea: 
i' che l'ésca amorosa al petto avea 
qual meraviglia se di súbito arsi? 
Non era l'andar suo cosa mortale, 
ma d'angelica forma; et le parole 
sonavan altro, che pur voce humana. 
Uno spirto celeste, un vivo sole 
fu quel ch'i' vidi: et se non fosse 
or tale, piagha per allentar d'arco non sana. 

Petrarch watches Laura as she walks past him, her long golden hair caressed by the wind, her eyes burning with desire, her cheeks flushing as her eyes meet his. Now he has fallen for her, he has eaten the esca amorosa, her love bait, and is seized by the agonizing fear that she will not return his love. Laura looks and speaks like an angel, is brighter than sun, and his torment never ends. 

But, alas, Francesco suddenly wakes up from the dreams, many years have passed from that moment, and those eyes burning with love shine no more. And yet, the memory of those moments spent together is so alive that that passion still consumes him like a torch. 

Structure: 2 stanzas: an octave (8 lines) and a sestet (6 lines): ABBA ABBA CDE CDE. The sestet can also rhyme: CDCDCD (the intertlocking rhymes used by Dante) or otherwise though never ending with a rhyming couplet. 

Petrarch's Legacy

This is the sonnet Wyatt imported in the 1500s, later to adapted to English by the Earl of Surrey in the form popularised by Shakespeare. Remarkably for the middle ages, when precious few works are signed, Petrarch inaugurated the first truly autobiographical literature, and the Romantics will use in their novels. However, such personal reflections are balanced by considerations about mankind, nature and the universe. 

Petrarch's language largely benefitted from his classical studies which occupied most of his life: he was an accomplished humanist well ahead of his times. Boccaccio was profoundly inspired by his poetry and was in many ways his spiritual son. 

Giovanni Boccaccio

Petrarch's heritage was passed on to Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), his favorite disciple, though he went down in history for story-telling than poetry. 

In fact it was with Boccaccio that the short, or novella, until then considered low literature, acquired the status of a literary genre, paving the way for the novel. Boccaccio also created a standard Italian prose on which written and polite Italian would be modeled in the centuries to come. 

His Decamerone, one-hundred tales told in ten days by a group of fictional characters gathered together to escape the black plague of 1348, was widely imitated, as in the Trecentonovelle by Franco Sacchetti (1330-1400), and later, Matteo Bandello (1485-1561) in his Novelle, one of which inspiring Brooke's Romeo and Juliet. While Marguerite of Navarre's Heptameron was one of most famous examples abroad during the Renaissance. 

Many prose-writers tried to imitate Boccaccio but no one could ever equal his skill. Boccaccio introduced a "modern Tuscan lexicon, enchiched, when necessary by imports from dialects", says Giuliano Manacorda, remarking that the phrase is "abundant without being excessive", with "wit that puts life into it". "Such language makes Boccaccio the true beginner of Italian prose fiction". 

In Manacorda's words, this is "a prose that can be called realistic because of the competence and sometimes the strict attention to minute details with which he looks at and describes the world he imagines and that matches the one of his own experience." 

Such flexibility in the use of language was also inspired by Boccaccio's use of many different registers (from high to low, from colloquial and even vulgar to extremely literarate) according to the kind of tale he was going to narrate (comic, tragic, historical, biographical) and the the characters of his tales, from the sardonic account of Bergamino (see above), to the tragic tale of Elisabetta who dies after her brothers dig up the head of her lover she had hidden in a vase of basil.

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