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1. LATIN INFLUENCE.—During the early part of the Middle Ages Latin was the literary language of Italy, and the aim of the best writers of the time was to restore Roman culture. The Gothic kingdom of Ravenna, established by Theodoric, was the centre of this movement, under the influence of Cassiodorus, Boethius, and Symmachus. It was due to the prevailing affection for the memories of Rome, that through all the Dark Ages the Italian mind kept alive a spirit of freedom unknown in other countries of Europe, a spirit active, later, in the establishment of the Italian republics, and showing itself in the heroic resistance of the communes of Lombardy to the empire of the Hohenstaufens. While the literatures of other countries were drawn almost exclusively from sacred and chivalric legends, the Italians devoted themselves to the study of Roman law and history, to translations from the philosophers of Greece, and, above all, to the establishment of those great universities which were so powerful in extending science and culture throughout the Peninsula.

While the Latin language was used in prose, the poets wrote in Provencal and in French, and many Italian troubadours appeared at the courts of Europe.

2. EARLY ITALIAN POETRY AND PROSE.—The French element became gradually lessened, and towards the close of the thirteenth century there arose the Tuscan school of lyric poetry, the true beginning of Italian art, of which Lapo Gianni, Guido Cavalcanti, Cino da Pistoia, and Dante Alighieri were the masters. It is mainly inspired by love, and takes a popular courtly or scholastic form. The style of Gianni had many of the faults of his predecessors. That of Cavalcanti, the friend and precursor of Dante, showed a tendency to stifle poetic imagery under the dead weight of philosophy. But the love poems of Cino are so mellow, so sweet, so musical, that they are only surpassed by those of Dante, who, as the author of the “Vita Nuova,” belongs to this lyric school. In this book he tells the story of his love for Beatrice, which was from the first a high idealization in which there was apparently nothing human or earthly. Everything is super-sensual, aerial, heavenly, and the real Beatrice melts more and more into the symbolic, passing out of her human nature into the divine.

Italian prose writing is of a later date, and also succeeded a period when Italian authors wrote in Latin and French. It consists chiefly of chronicles, tales, and translations.

3. DANTE (1265-1331).—No poet had yet arisen gifted with absolute power over the empire of the soul; no philosopher had pierced into the depths of feeling and of thought, when Dante, the greatest name of Italy and the father of Italian literature, appeared in the might of his genius, and availing himself of the rude and imperfect materials within his reach, constructed his magnificent work. Dante was born in Florence, of the noble family of Alighieri, which was attached to the papal, or Guelph party, in opposition to the imperial, or Ghibelline. He was but a child when death deprived him of his father; but his mother took the greatest pains with his education, placing him under the tuition of Brunetto Latini, and other masters of eminence. He early made great progress, not only in an acquaintance with classical literature and politics, but in music, drawing, horsemanship, and other accomplishments suitable to his station. As he grew up, he pursued his studies in the universities of Padua, Bologna, and Paris. He became an accomplished scholar, and at the same time appeared in public as a gallant and high-bred man of the world. At the age of twenty-five, he took arms on the side of the Florentine Guelphs, and distinguished himself in two battles against the Ghibellines of Arezzo and Pisa. But before Dante was either a student or a soldier, he had become a lover; and this character, above all others, was impressed upon him for life. At a May-day festival, when only nine years of age, he had singled out a girl of his own age, by the name of Bice, or Beatrice, who thenceforward became the object of his constant and passionate affection, or the symbol of all human wisdom and perfection. Before his twenty-fifth year she was separated from him by death, but his passion was refined, not extinguished by this event; not buried with her body but translated with her soul, which was its object. On the other hand, the affection of Beatrice for the poet troubled her spirit amid the bliss of Paradise, and the visions of the eternal world with which he was favored were a device of hers for reclaiming him from sin, and preparing him for everlasting companionship with herself.

At the age of thirty-five he was elected prior, or supreme magistrate of Florence, an honor from which he dates all his subsequent misfortunes. During his priorship, the citizens were divided into two factions called the Neri and Bianchi, as bitterly opposed to each other as both had been to the Ghibellines. In the absence of Dante on an embassy to Rome, a pretext was found by the Neri, his opponents, for exciting the populace against him. His dwelling was demolished, his property confiscated, himself and his friends condemned to perpetual exile, with the provision that, if taken, they should be burned alive. After a fruitless attempt, by himself and his party, to surprise Florence, he quitted his companions in disgust, and passed the remainder of his life in wandering from one court of Italy to another, eating the bitter bread of dependence, which was granted him often as an alms. The greater part of his poem was composed during this period; but it appears that till the end of his life he continued to retouch the work.

The last and most generous patron of Dante was Guido di Polenta, lord of Ravenna, and father of Francesca da Rimini, whose fatal love forms one of the most beautiful episodes of this poem. Polenta treated him, not as a dependent but as an honored guest, and in a dispute with the Republic of Venice he employed the poet as his ambassador, to effect a reconciliation; but he was refused even an audience, and, returning disappointed and broken-hearted to Ravenna, he died soon after at the age of fifty-six, having been in exile nineteen years.

His fellow-citizens, who had closed their hearts and their gates against him while living, now deeply bewailed his death; and, during the two succeeding centuries, embassy after embassy was vainly sent from Florence to recover his honored remains. Not long after his death, those who had exiled him and confiscated his property provided that his poem should be read and expounded to the people in a church. Boccaccio was appointed to this professorship. Before the end of the sixteenth century, the “Divine Comedy” had gone through sixty editions.

The Divine Comedy is one of the greatest monuments of human genius. It is an allegory conceived in the form of a vision, which was the most popular style of poetry at that age. At the close of the year 1300 Dante represents himself as lost in a forest at the foot of a hill, near Jerusalem. He wishes to ascend it, but is prevented by a panther, a lion, and a she-wolf which beset the way. He is met by Virgil, who tells him that he is sent by Beatrice as a guide through the realm of shadows, hell, and purgatory, and that she will afterwards lead him up to heaven. They pass the gates of hell, and penetrate into the dismal region beyond. This, as represented by Dante, consists of nine circles, forming an inverted cone, of the size of the earth, each succeeding circle being lower and narrower than the former, while Lucifer is chained in the centre and at the bottom of the dreadful crater. Each circle contains various cavities, where the punishments vary in proportion to the guilt, and the suffering increases in intensity as the circles descend and contract. In the first circle were neither cries nor tears, but the eternal sighs of those who, having never received Christian baptism, were, according to the poet's creed, forever excluded from the abodes of bliss. In the next circle, appropriated to those whose souls had been lost by the indulgence of guilty love, the poet recognizes the unhappy Francesca da Rimini, whose history forms one of the most beautiful episodes of the poem. The third circle includes gluttons; the fourth misers and spendthrifts; each succeeding circle embracing what the poet deems a deeper shade of guilt, and inflicting appropriate punishment. The Christian and heathen systems of theology are here freely interwoven. We have Minos visiting the Stygian Lake, where heretics are burning; we meet Cerberus and the harpies, and we accompany the poet across several of the fabulous rivers of Erebus. A fearful scene appears in the deepest circle of the infernal abodes. Here, among those who have betrayed their country, and are entombed in eternal ice, is Count Ugolino, who, by a series of treasons, had made himself master of Pisa. He is gnawing with savage ferocity the skull of the archbishop of that state, who had condemned him and his children to die by starvation. The arch-traitor, Satan, stands fixed in the centre of hell and of the earth. All the streams of guilt keep flowing back to him as their source, and from beneath his threefold visage issue six gigantic wings with which he vainly struggles to raise himself, and thus produces winds which freeze him more firmly in the marsh.

After leaving the infernal regions, and entering purgatory, they find an immense cone divided into seven circles, each of which is devoted to the expiation of one of the seven mortal sins. The proud are overwhelmed with enormous weights; the envious are clothed in garments of horse-hair, their eye-lids closed; the choleric are suffocated with smoke; the indolent are compelled to run about continually; the avaricious are prostrated upon the earth; epicures are afflicted with hunger and thirst; and the incontinent expiate their crimes in fire. In this portion of the work, however, while there is much to admire, there is less to excite and sustain the interest. On the summit of the purgatorial mountain is the terrestrial paradise, whence is the only assent to the celestial. Beatrice, the object of his early and constant affection, descends hither to meet the poet. Virgil disappears, and she becomes his only guide. She conducts him through the nine heavens, and makes him acquainted with the great men who, by their virtuous lives, have deserved the highest enjoyments of eternity. In the ninth celestial sphere, Dante is favored with a manifestation of divinity, veiled, however, by three hierarchies of attending angels. He sees the Virgin Mary, and the saints of the Old and New Testament, and by these personages, and by Beatrice, all his doubts and difficulties are finally solved, and the conclusion leaves him absorbed in the beatific vision.

The allegorical meaning of the poem is hidden under the literal one. Dante, traveling through the invisible world, is a symbol of mankind aiming at the double object of temporal and eternal happiness. The forest typifies the civil and religious confusion of society deprived of its two judges, the pope and the emperor. The three beasts are the powers which offered the greatest obstacles to Dante's designs, Florence, France, and the papal court. Virgil represents reason and the empire, and Beatrice symbolizes the supernatural aid, without which man cannot attain the supreme end, which is God.

But the merit of the poem is that for the first time classic art is transferred into a Romance form. Dante is, above all, a great artist. Whether he describes nature, analyzes passions, curses the vices, or sings hymns to the virtues, he is always wonderful for the grandeur and delicacy of his art. He took his materials from mythology, history, and philosophy, but more especially from his own passions of hatred and love, breathed into them the breath of genius and produced the greatest work of modern times.

The personal interest that he brings to bear on the historical representation of the three worlds is that which most interests and stirs us. The Divine Comedy is not only the most lifelike drama of the thoughts and feelings that moved men at that time, but it is also the most spontaneous and clear reflection of the individual feelings of the poet, who remakes history after his own passions, and who is the real chastiser of the sins and rewarder of the virtues. He defined the destiny of Italian literature in the Middle Ages, and began the great era of the Renaissance.

4. PETRARCH.—Petrarch (1304-1374) belonged to a respected Florentine family. His father was the personal friend of Dante, and a partaker of the same exile. While at Avignon, then the seat of the papal court, on one occasion he made an excursion to the fountain of Vaucluse, taking with him his son, the future poet, then in the tenth year of his age. The wild and solitary aspect of the place inspired the boy with an enthusiasm beyond his years, leaving an impression which was never afterwards effaced, and which affected his future life and writings. As Petrarch grew up, unlike the haughty, taciturn, and sarcastic Dante, he seems to have made friends wherever he went. With splendid talents, engaging manners, a handsome person, and an affectionate and generous disposition, he became the darling of his age, a man whom princes delighted to honor. At the age of twenty-three, he first met Laura de Sade in a church at Avignon. She was only twenty years of age, and had been for three years the wife of a patrician of that city. Laura was not more distinguished for her beauty and fortune than for the unsullied purity of her manners in a licentious court, where she was one of the chief ornaments. The sight of her beauty inspired the young poet with an affection which was as pure and virtuous as it was tender and passionate. He poured forth in song the fervor of his love and the bitterness of his grief. Upwards of three hundred sonnets, written at various times, commemorate all the little circumstances of this attachment, and describe the favors which, during an acquaintance of fifteen or twenty years, never exceeded a kind word, a look less severe than usual, or a passing expression of regret at parting. He was not permitted to visit at Laura's house; he had no opportunity of seeing her except at mass, at the brilliant levees of the pope, or in private assemblies of beauty and fashion: but she forever remained the dominant object of his existence. He purchased a house at Vaucluse, and there, shut in by lofty and craggy heights, the river Sorgue traversing the valley on one side, amidst hills clothed with umbrageous trees, cheered only by the song of birds, the poet passed his lonely days. Again and again he made tours through Italy, Spain, and Flanders, during one of which he was crowned with the poet's laurel at Rome, but he always returned to Vaucluse, to Avignon, to Laura. Thus years passed away. Laura became the mother of a numerous family, and time and care made havoc of her youthful beauty. Meanwhile, the sonnets of Petrarch had spread her fame throughout France and Italy, and attracted many to the court of Avignon, who were surprised and disappointed at the sight of her whom they had believed to be the loveliest of mortals. In 1347, during the absence of the poet from Avignon, Laura fell a victim to the plague, just twenty-one years from the day that Petrarch first met her. Now all his love was deepened and consecrated, and the effusions of his poetic genius became more melancholy, more passionate, and more beautiful than ever. He declined the offices and honors that his countrymen offered him, and passed his life in retirement. He was found one morning by his attendants dead in his library, his head resting on a book.

The celebrity of Petrarch at the present day depends chiefly on his lyrical poems, which served as models to all the distinguished poets of southern Europe. They are restricted to two forms: the sonnet, borrowed from the Sicilians, and the canzone, from the Provencals. The subject of almost all these poems is the same—the hopeless affection of the poet for the high-minded Laura. This love was a kind of religious and enthusiastic passion, such as mystics imagine they feel towards the Deity, or such as Plato believes to be the bond of union between elevated minds. There is no poet in any language more perfectly pure than Petrarch—more completely above all reproach of laxity or immorality. This merit, which is equally due to the poet and to his Laura, is the more remarkable, considering the models which he followed and the court at which Laura lived. The labor of Petrarch in polishing his poems did much towards perfecting the language, which through him became more elegant and more melodious. He introduced into the lyric poetry of Italy the pathos and the touching sweetness of Ovid and Tibullus, as well as the simplicity of Anacreon.

Petrarch attached little value to his Italian poems; it was on his Latin works that he founded his hopes of renown. But his highest title to immortal fame is his prodigious labor to promote the study of ancient authors. Wherever he traveled, he sought with the utmost avidity for classic manuscripts, and it is difficult to estimate the effect produced by his enthusiasm. He corresponded with all the eminent literati of his day, and inspired them with his own tastes. Now for the first time there appeared a kind of literary republic in Europe united by the magic bond of Petrarch's influence, and he was better known and exercised a more extensive and powerful influence than many of the sovereigns of the day. He treated with various princes rather in the character of an arbitrator than an ambassador, and he not only directed the tastes of his own age, but he determined those of succeeding generations.

5. BOCCACCIO AND OTHER PROSE WRITERS.—The fourteenth century forms a brilliant era in Italian literature, distinguished beyond any other period for the creative powers of genius which it exhibited. In this century, Dante gave to Europe his great epic poem, the lyric muse awoke at the call of Petrarch, while Boccaccio created a style of prose, harmonious, flexible, and engaging, and alike suitable to the most elevated and to the most playful subjects.

Boccaccio (1313-1875) was the son of a Florentine merchant; he early gave evidence of superior talents, and his father vainly attempted to educate him to follow his own profession. He resided at Naples, where he became acquainted with a lady celebrated in his writings under the name of Fiammetta. It was at her desire that most of his early pieces were written, and the very exceptionable moral character which attaches to them must be attributed, in part, to her depraved tastes. The source of Boccaccio's highest reputation, and that which entitles him to rank as the third founder of the national literature, is his “Decameron,” a collection of tales written during the period when the plague desolated the south of Europe, with a view to amuse the ladies of the court during that dreadful visitation. The tales are united under the supposition of a party of ten who had retired to one of the villas in the environs of Naples to strive, in the enjoyment of innocent amusement, to escape the danger of contagion. It was agreed that each person should tell a new story during the space of ten days, whence the title Decameron. The description of the plague, in the introduction, is considered not only the finest piece of writing from Boccaccio's pen, but one of the best historical descriptions that have descended to us. The stories, a hundred in number, are varied with considerable art, both in subject and in style, from the most pathetic and sportive to the most licentious. The great merit of Boccaccio's composition consists in his easy elegance, his naivete, and, above all, in the correctness of his language.

The groundwork of the Decameron has been traced to an old Hindu romance, which, after passing through all the languages of the East, was translated into Latin as early as the twelfth century; the originals of several of these tales have been found in the ancient French Fabliaux, while others are believed to have been borrowed from popular recitation or from real occurrences. But if Boccaccio cannot boast of being the inventor of all, or even any of these tales, he is still the father of this class of modern Italian literature, since he was the first to transplant into the world of letters what had hitherto been only the subject of social mirth. These tales have in their turn been repeated anew in almost every language of Europe, and have afforded reputations to numerous imitators. One of the most beautiful and unexceptionable tales in the Decameron is that of “Griselda,” the last in the collection. It is to be regretted that the author did not prescribe to himself the same purity in his images that he did in his phraseology. Many of these tales are not only immoral but grossly indecent, though but too faithful a representation of the manners of the age in which they were written. The Decameron was published towards the middle of the fourteenth century; and, from the first invention of printing, it was freely circulated in Italy, until the Council of Trent proscribed it in the middle of the sixteenth century. It was, however, again published in 1570, purified and abridged.

Boccaccio is the author of two romances, one called “Fiammetta,” the other the “Filocopo;” the former distinguished for the fervor of its expression, the latter for the variety of its adventures and incidents. He wrote also two romantic poems, in which he first introduced the ottava rima, or the stanza composed of six lines, which rhyme interchangeably with each other, and are followed by a couplet. In these he strove to revive ancient mythology, and to identify it with modern literature. His Latin compositions are voluminous, and materially contributed to the advancement of letters.

While Boccaccio labored so successfully to reduce the language to elegant and harmonious forms, he strove like Petrarch to excite his contemporaries to the study of the ancient classics. He induced the senate of Florence to establish a professorship of Greek, entered his name among the first of the students, and procured manuscripts at his own expense. Thus Hellenic literature was introduced into Tuscany, and thence into the rest of Europe.

Boccaccio, late in life, assumed the ecclesiastical habit, and entered on the study of theology. When the Florentines founded a professorship for the reading and exposition of the Divine Comedy, Boccaccio was made the first incumbent. The result of his labors was a life of Dante, and a commentary on the first seventeen cantos of the Inferno. With the death of Petrarch, who had been his most intimate friend, his last tie to earth was loosed; he died at Certaldo a few months later, in the sixty-third year of his age. His dwelling is still to be seen, situated on a hill, and looking down on the fertile and beautiful valley watered by the river Elsa.

Of the other prose writers of the fourteenth century the most remarkable are the three Florentine historians named Villani, the eldest of whom (1310-1348) wrote a history of Florence, which was continued afterwards by his brother and by his nephew; a work highly esteemed for its historical interest, and for its purity of language and style; and Franco Sacchetti (1335-1400), who approaches nearest to Boccaccio. His “Novels and Tales” are valuable for the purity and eloquence of their style, and for the picture they afford of the manners of his age.

Among the ascetic writers of this age St. Catherine of Siena occupies an important place, as one who aided in preparing the way for the great religious movement of the sixteenth century. The writings of this extraordinary woman, who strove to bring back the Church of Rome to evangelical virtue, are the strongest, clearest, most exalted religious utterance that made itself heard in Italy in the fourteenth century.

6. THE FIRST DECLINE OF ITALIAN LITERATURE.—The passionate study of the ancients, of which Petrarch and Boccaccio had given an example, suspended the progress of Italian literature in the latter part of the fourteenth century, and through almost all the fifteenth. The attention of the literary men of this time was wholly engrossed by the study of the dead languages, and of manners, customs, and religious systems equally extinct. They present to our observation boundless erudition, a just spirit of criticism, and nice sensibility to the beauties and defects of the great authors of antiquity; but we look in vain for that true eloquence which is more the fruit of an intercourse with the world than of a knowledge of books. They were still more unsuccessful in poetry, in which their attempts, all in Latin, are few in number, and their verses harsh and heavy, without originality or vigor. It was not until the period when Italian poetry began to be again cultivated, that Latin verse acquired any of the characteristics of genuine inspiration.

But towards the close of the fifteenth century the dawn of a new literary era appeared, which soon shone with meridian light. At this time, the universities had become more and more the subjects of attention to the governments; the appointment of eminent professors, and the privileges connected with these institutions, attracted to them large numbers of students, and the concourse was often so great that the lectures were delivered in the churches and in public squares. Those republics which still existed, and the princes who had risen on the ruins of the more ephemeral ones, rivaled each other in their patronage of literary men; the popes, who in the preceding ages had denounced all secular learning, now became its munificent patrons; and two of them, Nicholas V. and Pius II., were themselves scholars of high distinction. The Dukes of Milan, and the Marquises of Mantua and Ferrara, surrounded themselves in their capitals with men illustrious in science and letters, and seemed to vie with each other in the favors which they lavished upon them. In the hitherto free republic of Florence, which had given birth to Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, literature found support in a family which, at no distant period, employed it to augment their power, and to rule the city with an almost despotic sway. The Medici had been long distinguished for the wealth they had acquired by commercial enterprise, and for the high offices which they held in the republic. Cosmo de' Medici had acquired a degree of power which shook the very foundations of the state. He was master of the moneyed credit of Europe, and almost the equal of the kings with whom he negotiated; but in the midst of the projects of his ambition he opened his palace as an asylum to the scholars and artists of the age, turned its gardens into an academy, and effected a revolution in philosophy by setting up the authority of Plato against that of Aristotle. His banks, which were scattered over Europe, were placed at the service of literature as well as commerce. His agents abroad sold spices and bought manuscripts; the vessels which returned to him from Constantinople, Alexandria, and Smyrna were often laden with volumes in the Greek, Syriac, and Chaldaic languages. Being banished to Venice, he continued his protection of letters, and on his return to Florence he devoted himself more than ever to the cause of literature. In the south of Italy, Alphonso V., and, indeed, all the sovereigns of that age, pursued the same course, and chose for their chancellors and ambassadors the same scholars who educated their sons and expounded the classics in their literary circles.

This patronage, however, was confined to the progress of ancient letters, while the native literature, instead of redeeming the promise of its infancy, remained at this time mute and inglorious. Yet the resources of poets and orators were multiplying a thousand fold. The exalted characters, the austere laws, the energetic virtues, the graceful mythology, the thrilling eloquence of antiquity, were annihilating the puerilities of the old Italian rhymes, and creating purer and nobler tastes. The clay which was destined for the formation of great men was undergoing a new process; a fresh mould was cast, the forms at first appeared lifeless, but ere the end of the fifteenth century the breath of genius entered into them, and a new era of life began.