Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

northern conquerors invaded Italy. The Roman world crumbled to pieces. A new kingdom arose at Ravenna under Theodoric, and there learning was not extinguished. The liberal arts flourished, the very Gothic kings surrounded themselves with masters of rhetoric and of grammar. The names of Cassiodorus, of Boetius, of Symmachus, are enough to show how Latin thought maintained its power amidst the political effacement of the Roman empire. And this thought held its ground throughout the subsequent ages and events. Thus, while elsewhere all culture had died out, there still remained in Italy some schools of laymen,[1] and some really extraordinary men were educated in them, such as Ennodius, a poet more pagan than Christian, Arator, Fortunatus, Venantius Jovannicius, Felix the grammarian, Peter of Pisa, Paulinus of Aquileia and many others, in all of whom we notice a contrast between the barbarous age they lived in and their aspiration towards a culture that should reunite them to the classical literature of Rome. The Italians never had much love for theological studies, and those who were addicted to them preferred Paris to Italy. It was something more practical, more positive, that had attraction for the Italians, and especially the study of Roman law. This zeal for the study of jurisprudence furthered the establishment of the medieval universities of Bologna, Padua, Vicenza, Naples, Salerno, Modena and Parma; and these, in their turn, helped to spread culture, and to prepare the ground in which the new vernacular literature was afterwards to be developed. The tenacity of classical traditions, the affection for the memories of Rome, the preoccupation with political interests, particularly shown in the wars of the Lombard communes against the empire of the Hohenstaufens, a spirit more naturally inclined to practice than to theory—all this had a powerful influence on the fate of Italian literature. Italy was wanting in that combination of conditions from which the spontaneous life of a people springs. This was chiefly owing to the fact that the history of the Italians never underwent interruption,—no foreign nation having come in to change them and make them young again. That childlike state of mind and heart, which in other Latin races, as well as in the Germanic, was such a deep source of poetic inspiration, was almost utterly wanting in the Italians, who were always much drawn to history and very little to nature; so, while legends, tales, epic poems, satires, were appearing and spreading on all sides, Italy was either quite a stranger to this movement or took a peculiar part in it. We know, for example, what the Trojan traditions were in the middle ages; and we should have thought that in Italy—in the country of Rome, retaining the memory of Aeneas and Virgil—they would have been specially developed, for it was from Virgil that the medieval sympathy for the conquered of Troy was derived. In fact, however, it was not so. A strange book made its appearance in Europe, no one quite knows when, the Historia de excidio Trojae, which purported to have been written by a certain Dares the Phrygian, an eye-witness of the Trojan war. In the middle ages this book was the basis of many literary labours. Benoît de Sainte-More composed an interminable French poem founded on it, which afterwards in its turn became a source for other poets to draw from, such as Herbort of Fritzlar and Conrad of Würzburg. Now for the curious phenomenon displayed by Italy. Whilst Benoît de Sainte-More wrote his poem in French, taking his material from a Latin history, whilst the two German writers, from a French source, made an almost original work in their own language—an Italian, on the other hand, taking Benoît for his model, composed in Latin the Historia destructionis Trojae; and this Italian was Guido delle Colonne of Messina, one of the vernacular poets of the Sicilian school, who must accordingly have known well how to use his own language. Guido was an imitator of the Provençals; he understood French, and yet wrote his own book in Latin, nay, changed the romance of the Troubadour into serious history. Much the same thing occurred with the other great legends. That of Alexander the Great (q.v.) gave rise to many French, German and Spanish poems,—in Italy, only to the Latin distichs of Qualichino of Arezzo. The whole of Europe was full of the legend of Arthur (q.v.). The Italians contented themselves with translating and with abridging the French romances, without adding anything of their own. The Italian writer could neither appropriate the legend nor colour it with his own tints. Even religious legend, so widely spread in the middle ages, and springing up so naturally as it did from the heart of that society, only put out a few roots in Italy. Jacopo di Voragine, while collecting his lives of the saints, remained only an historian, a man of learning, almost a critic who seemed doubtful about the things he related. Italy had none of those books in which the middle age, whether in its ascetic or its chivalrous character, is so strangely depicted. The intellectual life of Italy showed itself in an altogether special, positive, almost scientific, form, in the study of Roman law, in the chronicles of Farfa, of Marsicano and of many others, in translations from Aristotle, in the precepts of the school of Salerno, in the travels of Marco Polo—in short, in a long series of facts which seem to detach themselves from the surroundings of the middle age, and to be united on the one side with classical Rome and on the other with the Renaissance.

The necessary consequence of all this was that the Latin language was most tenacious in Italy, and that the elaboration of the new vulgar tongue was very slow,—being in fact preceded by two periods of Italian literature in foreign languages. That is to say, there were many Italians Provençal and French preparatory periods.who wrote Provençal poems, such as the Marchese Alberto Malaspina (12th century), Maestro Ferrari of Ferrara, Cigala of Genoa, Zorzi of Venice, Sordello of Mantua, Buvarello of Bologna, Nicoletto of Turin and others, who sang of love and of war, who haunted the courts, or lived in the midst of the people, accustoming them to new sounds and new harmonies. At the same time there was other poetry of an epic kind, written in a mixed language, of which French was the basis, but in which forms and words belonging to the Italian dialects were continually mingling. We find in it hybrid words exhibiting a treatment of sounds according to the rules of both languages,—French words with Italian terminations, a system of vocalization within the words approaching the Italo-Latin usage,—in short, something belonging at once to both tongues, as it were an attempt at interpenetration, at fusion. Such were the Chansons de Geste, Macaire, the Entrée en Espagne written by Niccola of Padua, the Prise de Pampelune and some others. All this preceded the appearance of a purely Italian literature.

In the Franco-Italian poems there was, as it were, a clashing, a struggle between the two languages, the French, however, gaining the upper hand. This supremacy became gradually less and less. As the struggle continued between French and Italian, the former by degrees lost as much Dialect. as the latter gained. The hybridism recurred, but it no longer predominated. In the Bovo d’ Antona and the Rainardo e Lesengrino the Venetian dialect makes itself clearly felt, although the language is influenced by French forms. Thus these writings, which G. I. Ascoli has called “miste” (mixed), immediately preceded the appearance of purely Italian works.

It is now an established historical fact that there existed no writing in Italian before the 13th century. It was in the course of that century, and especially from 1250 onwards, that the new literature largely unfolded and developed itself. This development was simultaneous in the North Italy. whole peninsula, only there was a difference in the subject-matter of the art. In the north, the poems of Giacomino of Verona and Bonvecino of Riva were specially religious, and were intended to be recited to the people. They were written in a dialect partaking of the Milanese and the Venetian; and in their style they strongly bore the mark of the influence of French narrative poetry. They may be considered as belonging to the popular kind of poetry, taking the word, however, in a broad sense. Perhaps this sort of composition was encouraged by the old custom in the north of Italy of listening in the piazzas and on the highways to the songs of the jongleurs. To the very same

crowds who had been delighted with the stories of romance,

  1. See Giesebrecht, De litterarum studiis apud Italos primis mediaevi saeculis (Berlin, 1845.)