Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The 15th Century

The 15th century: Humanism

A renewed interest in the Classics 

Petrarch, Dante and Boccaccio became literary icons in the 15th century: they were widely imitated, but no great literary work in Italian did appear, and it looked like the young volgare illustre was going to get old before coming of age. 

Paradoxically, this happened because classical studies were encouraged by the very authors who were turning Florentine into a national language: enriching Italian by drawing on Latin eventually drew more attention to the latter language as the object of scholarly, rather than practical, pursuits. 

Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio's intention was to re-descover Latin to advantage Italian, not diminish it, but in the 1400s the birth of modern philology encouraged scholars to devote most of their attention to rescue ancient texts from oblivion and even reconstruct works that had been partially lost. 

A decreased interest in the Italian language.

Until the first half of the century, the prevailing attitude was one of using the vernacular for municipal decrees and non-fiction, that is, to exclude it from literature or at least from the literature that counted. Dante's praise of Italian as "illustre", destined to the courts was being disregarded. 

As an instance of this trend, Bruni reminds us of Burchiello (1404-1449) who wrote rhyme verging on mere wordplay in a style "replete with popular expressions akin to dialect", in which the intent to ridicule Florentine as the language of the illitterate is evident. 

Though Leon Battista Alberti (1404 -1472), architect, educator and philologist, wrote the first Italian grammar basing it on current usage, the fact that such a work was only for private use and not given out for publication is another telling sign of the new times. 

However,  reconstructing texts on scientific grounds, as can be seen from the work of scholars like Lorenzo Valla, was revolutionary at a time where every truth was based on tradition: Valla anticipated the techniques of modern linguistics with outstanding results. 

In 1442, Valla proved conclusively that the Act of Donation of the Vatican State by emperor Constantine was a forgery amde by church prelates dating to the 8th century to legitimate the Church's temporal power. Valla's expertise allowed him to discriminate between styles, handwritings, terminology, usage of Latin from different periods. 

His new discovery stirred a sensation among Christians and scholars and seemed to point the way to the more revolutionary discoveries of the next century. The importance of Valla's paper was also symbolic: to many it seemed to prove there was no realm that reason could not probe and that reason alone should be the yardstick against which anything could and should be measured. 

Mass exodus from Costantinople

The study of ancient texts had thus become a lay science, being applied to fields that until then had relied on the sole dogmas of religious authority as summed up in the writings of the fathers of the Church, particulary St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle. 

The next big step towards the Renaissance was made in 1453, when many Greek and Jewish scholars left Greece as it was being ransacked by the Turks. These exiles brought with them a number of ancient manuscripts to Florence, thus saving them from sure destruction: precious documents no one had ever seen in centuries. 

Their arrival spurred an unprecedented wave of studies that actually may be considered the beginning of the Italian Pre-Renaissance period (humanism), that age of intense studies that will be applied in practice to the great masterpieces of the Itlian Renaissance from the early 16th century. 

Therefore it appears that during humanism, the meticulous tendency to study, classify and assimilate the classics prevails over poetic and artistic creativeness, which will prevail in the 1500s, which is by definition creative and bold in experimenting (Renaissance or Rinascimento means re-birth). 

Once the documents gathered in the late 1400s circulated though the press, they inspired poets, architects and painters to translated that wealth of knowledge into their own work. 

The Press: Gutenberg

Indeed, little would have been achieved without Gutenberg's invention of the printing press with movable types (probably 1450, his Bible is from 1455). This was a sort of water-mill connected to leaden types that printed words at unprecedented speed and therefore much lower costs. 

The Bible was entirely translated into German from the Latin edition of Vulgata so that a larger number of lesser educated people could read and practice their German without incurring in the prohibitive expenses of attending schools. 

However, it would take the work of later humanists to make a translation of the Christian Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek sources. 

Aldus Manutius and the pocket book

Scholars soon realized the potential of the press: Erasmus offered his expertise to Aldo Manuzio in Venice who in 1494 printed many classics, whether in Greek, Latin, or Italian. Using octavos, he introduced the first pocket books: this way culture became cheap and portable, so that traveling merchants could, for example, stuff their favorite reads in the pockets of their saddles and enjoy them on their long journeys. 

This was a great service to the Italian language and its great classics which were known and translated throughout Europe. Once books were readily available, reading become fun. When Paolo or Aldo hired a shipbuilder to write a technical book on the subject, he was asked to describe his techniques in data. 

When other shipbuilders bought the book and saw flaws in the techniques, they often offered their solution to a specific problem, and Manutius could improve the manual thanks to his readers feedback. Before the invention of the pocket book,  new ideas might take decades to get out of Italy. Thanks to Manutius, it just took a few years for information to travel thousands of miles across the continent. 

The first press censorship

We can only make assumptions on how an 'Authorized Italian Version' of the Bible might have helped learn and establish an standard Italian or spread literacy among the less priviledged, especially using Manutius' octavos. Unfortunately all printed Bibles in Catholic countries would be seized and burnt and their owners might follow their destiny. 

It was up to lay literature to instruct Italians in the new standard, above all the Divina Commedia and the works by Petrarch (Canzoniere) and Boccaccio (Decameron), considered the linguistic canon par exellence

Florence under Lorenzo il Magnifico

By that time the Medicis ruled Florence, and the city had extended its influence to a number of near cities and was becoming a signoria, a small princedom. A similar process was taking place in other Italian city-states. Ferrara, where Ludovico Ariosto made his fortune, was ruled by the Estensi family, and the Republic of Venice, the city of the Aldine Press was became redoubtable European power. 

The Medicis, who controlled much of Tuscany, widely encouraged the growth of the Florentine language by funding research, poetic and artistic production. "The revaluation of the vernacular was the work of intellectuals who, though continuing to use Latin as a general basis and keeping faith to their classic curriculum did not turn their back to the living language", says Bruni. 

Such revaluation started under Lorenzo il Magnifico, Prince of Florence, a learned man who was also a talented poet. Working with Angelo Poliziano, he wrote an anthology of the Florentine Literature for the son of the King of Naples, prefaced by a letter which went down in history as an important piece of literary criticism. 

As a poet, he also wrote a few great works, such as "Il trionfo di Bacco e Arianna", celebrating the joys of the carnival: the initial words, which make up the refrain of the song, seem remarkably prophetic in the light of his untimely death only a few years later:  

Com'è bella giovinezza che si fugge tuttavia, 

chi vuol esser lieto sia, 
di doman non c'è certezza.


How beautiful is youth that escapes us in spite of all, 

He that wishes to, be happy! 
We don't know about tomorrow. 

This poem dates to 1490, only four years from his death, but no one like Lorenzo could feel the uncerainty in the existence of the Italian Renaissance man, so enlightened and yet so vulnerable to political whim  (his brother had been killed in his own palace by the plot by the Pazzi family (1478). 

Lorenzo, patron of the arts

Like many great writers who wanted to make Florentine into a true spoken language, Lorenzo did not mind mixing popular expressions with scholarly terms: they are terse and yet studiously written, and perhaps this is the reason why his poems can stir emotion in the heart of modern readers. 

The popes, though with less success, tried to compete with Florence, but this time the Center-North was to keep the edge. It was Lorenzo il Magnifico who encouraged more research and experiment in the direction of spoken Italian. 

And it was in under Lorenzo that Leonardo studied and produced his early masterpieces. The first was probably the giant copper ball on top of the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, in which he welded the empty halves of the brazen sphere using 'burning-mirrors', or sun-powered laser beam. 

It was in this Florence that Michelangelo Buonarroti became famous, though he was to accomplish his masterpiece painting at the Sistine Chapel in Rome. And it was also here that Machiavelli revolutionized the study of politics by studying the history and military tactics of Ancient Rome, while Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino disclosed the wonders of Plato to the world. 

Renewed interest in Plato

On the whole, Plato became for the Renaissance what Aristotle had been for the middle ages: neoplatonism was particular attractive for its less dogmatic, but more romantic inclination. Such change of view implied a distaste for the old eduactional system since it meant comforming to the fathers of the church who had supported the old (Ptolemaic) earth-centered view of the universe. 

However, Aristotle's impact on the Renaissance is not negligeable in other respects, mostly in the Classical Theatre, it was at this point that his Poetics were brought to light after it had been lost for centuries. Aristotle's classification also influenced the theory of literary genres. 

But it seems only natural that a passionate philosopher like Plato who praised love as the driving force of the universe and nature as the benevolent, sensual goddess must have inspired so many intellectuals to look to the future with optimism and investigate the world without fear. 

Lorenzo's attempts to unify Italy

Lorenzo il Magnifico can be credited with bringing as much wisdom to humanities as in politics. At that time, Italy was torn by political factions, often backed by the French and the Spaniards. His attempt to make Italy one unified, independent nation by balancing one against the other, though the ruses of diplomacy rather than force came to an end when he died in 1492. 

Only two years later Charles VIII the French king would march from the alps to Naples without one Italian prince raising a hand to stop him. When Charles VIII retired, he carried back with him invaluable works of Italian art which, though unfortunately depleting Italy of many of its greatest treasures, brought the spirit of the Renaissance to France, from where it would spread to England and other European countries. 

The new wave of studies made a sensation in the European continent. Most words loaned from Italian date indeed to the Renaissance, and much European literature was inspired by French translations or adaptations of Italian works. 

The arrival of the French in Florence had caused an upheaval that had forced the Medicis to exile, while the Florentines had proclaimed Florence a republic. Only a couple of years after one friar from Ferrara, Girolamo Savonarola inflamed the people of Florence condemning many of the excessive liberal practices endorsed by those princes and their protegées, accused of fostering libertinism, sodomy and satanism. His sermons reached into the hearts of many Florentines. 

The new Republic of Florence became under him a fundamentalist state where every freedom was suppressed, and 'suspects' were tortured and burned at the stake. It seemed the clock had been turned back to the early middle ages: but this age of terror was short-lived as the Pope excommunicated Savonarola and had him burnt at the stake too (1498).  The Republic would stay in power for a few decades until the Medicis came back to power in 1527.

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