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CHAPTER VIII. THE MIDDLE AGES: ITALY

Troubadours of Southern Italy. Neapolitan and Sicilian Poets. Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio.

THE TROUBADOURS.—The Italian literature of the Middle Ages is intimately associated with the literature of the Troubadours in the south of France. To express the case more definitely, the literature styled “Provencal,” apart from mere differences of dialect, extended from the Limousine to the Roman campagna, and French literature existed only in the northern and central provinces of France, the rest being Provencal-Italian literature. The Italian Troubadours, by which I mean those born in Italy, who must at least be cited, are Malaspina, Lanfranc Cicala, Bartolomeo Ziorgi (of Venice), Bordello (of Mantua), etc.

NAPLES AND SICILY.—Naples and Sicily, where were founded large universities, were the seat of a purely Italian literature in the thirteenth century, thanks to the impetus of the Emperor Frederick II. At this seat were Peter of Vignes (Petrus de Vineis), who passes as inventor of the sonnet; Ciullo of Alcamo, author of the first known Italian canzone, etc. The influence of Sicily on all Italy was such that for long in Italy all writing in verse was termed Sicilian.

BOLOGNA; FLORENCE.—The literary centre then passed, that is in the thirteenth century, to Bologna and Florence. Among the celebrated Tuscans of this epoch was Guittone of Arezzo, mentioned by Dante and Petrarch with more or less consideration; Jacopone of Todi, at once both mystic and buffoon, in whom it has been sought, in a manner somewhat flattering to him, to trace a predecessor of Dante; Brunetto Latini, the authentic master of Dante, who was encyclopaedic, after a fashion, and who published, first in French, whilst he was in Paris, The Treasure, a compilation of the knowledge of his time, then, in Italian, Tesoretto, a collection of maxims drawn from his previous work, besides some poetry and translations from Latin.

The fourteenth century, which for the French, Germans, and English was the last or even the last century but one of the Middle Ages, was for the Italians the first of the Renaissance. Two great names dominate this century: Dante and Petrarch.

DANTE: THE DIVINE COMEDY.—Dante, highly erudite, theologian, philosopher, profound Latin scholar, not ignorant of Greek, much involved in the agitations of his age, exiled from his home, Florence, in the tumult of political discords, proscribed and a wanderer, coming as far as France, studied at the University of Paris, wrote “songs,” that is to say, lyrical poetry gathered into the volume entitled The Canzoniere, the Vita Nuova, which is also a collection of lyric efforts, though more philosophical, and finally The Divine Comedy, which is a theological epic poem. The Divine Comedy is composed of three parts: hell, purgatory, and heaven. Hell is composed of nine circles which contract as they approach the centre of the earth. There Dante placed the famous culprits of history and his own particular enemies. The most popular episodes of hell are Ugolino in the tower of hunger devouring his dead children, Francesca of Rimini relating her guilty passions and their disastrous consequence, the meeting with Sordello, the great Lord of Mantua, ever invincibly proud, looking “like the lion when he reposes.” Purgatory is a cone of nine circles which contract as they rise to heaven. Heaven, finally, is composed of nine globes superimposed on one another; over each of the first seven presides a planet, the eighth is the home of the fixed stars, and the last is pure infinity, home of the Trinity and of the elect. The power of general imagination and of varied invention always renewed in style, and the warmth of passion which throws life and heat into each part, have assured Dante universal admiration. The community of literature pre-eminently admires the hell; the eclectic have been compelled to assert and therefore to believe that the paradise is infinitely superior.

PETRARCH.—Petrarch, a Florentine born in exile, brought up at Avignon, Carpentras, and Montpellier, during four fifths of his life thought only of being a great scholar, of writing in Latin, and of obtaining the repute of an excellent humanist. Hence his innumerable works in Latin. But when twenty-three he was deeply affected by love for a maiden of Avignon, and he sang of her living and dead and still triumphant in glory and eternity, and hence his poems in Italian, the Rhymes and Triumphs. The sensitiveness of Petrarch was admirable; never did pure love, growing mystical and mingling with divine love, find accents alike more profound and noble than came from this Platonist refined with Italian subtlety. Petrarchism became a fashion among the mediocre and a school among these above the common. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries there were innumerable imitators of Petrarch in Italy, and later still in France. It is impossible not to instance Lamartine as the last in date.

BOCCACCIO: THE DECAMERON.—Immediately after these two great men came Boccaccio, born in Paris but of Italian parentage, who resided at Naples at the court of King Robert. He was a great admirer of Dante and Petrarch, and himself wrote several estimable poems, but, in despair no doubt of attaining the height of his models and also to please the taste of Mary, daughter of King Robert, he wrote the libertine tales which are gathered in the collection entitled The Decameron and which established his fame. He is one of the purest authors, as stylist, of all Italian literature, and may be regarded as the principle creator of prose in his own land.

THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY IN ITALY.—The fifteenth century, less great among the Italians than the fourteenth, yielded many wise men: Marsiglio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Aurispa, etc. But omission must not be made of poets such as Ange Politien, refined humanist, graceful lyrist; and the earliest of dramatic poets of any rank, such as Pulci and Bojardo. In prose note Pandolfini, master and delineator of domestic life, as was Xenophon in Greece, and Leonardo da Vinci, the great painter who left a treatise on his art; nor must it be forgotten that Savonarola was a remarkably fine orator.