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

the poems written during Laura’s lifetime, the second the poems written after her death, the third the Trionfi. The one and only subject of these poems is love; but the treatment is full of variety in conception, in imagery and in sentiment, derived from the most varied impressions of nature. Petrarch’s love is real and deep, and to this is due the merit of his lyric verse, which is quite different, not only from that of the Provençal troubadours and of the Italian poets before him, but also from the lyrics of Dante. Petrarch is a psychological poet, who dives down into his own soul, examines all his feelings, and knows how to render them with an art of exquisite sweetness. The lyrics of Petrarch are no longer transcendental like Dante’s, but on the contrary keep entirely within human limits. In struggles, in doubts, in fears, in disappointments, in griefs, in joys, in fact in everything, the poet finds material for his poetry. The second part of the Canzoniere is the more passionate. The Trionfi are inferior; it is clear that in them Petrarch tried to imitate the Divina Commedia, but never came near it. The Canzoniere includes also a few political poems—a canzone to Italy, one supposed to be addressed to Cola di Rienzi and several sonnets against the court of Avignon. These are remarkable for their vigour of feeling, and also for showing that Petrarch had formed the idea of Italianità better even than Alighieri. The Italy which he wooed was different from any conceived by the men of the middle ages, and in this also he was a precursor of modern times and of modern aspirations. Petrarch had no decided political idea. He exalted Cola di Rienzi, invoked the emperor Charles IV., praised the Visconti; in fact, his politics were affected more by impressions than by principles; but above all this reigned constantly the love of Italy, his ancient and glorious country, which in his mind is reunited with Rome, the great city of his heroes Cicero and Scipio.

Boccaccio had the same enthusiastic love of antiquity and the same worship for the new Italian literature as Petrarch. He was the first, with the help of a Greek born in Calabria, to put together a Latin translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey. His vast classical learning was shown Boccaccio (1313–
specially in the work De genealogia deorum, in which he enumerates the gods according to genealogical trees constructed on the authority of the various authors who wrote about the pagan divinities. This work marked an era in studies preparatory to the revival of classical learning. And at the same time it opened the way for the modern criticism, because Boccaccio in his researches, and in his own judgment was always independent of the authors whom he most esteemed. The Genealogia deorum is, as A. H. Heeren said, an encyclopaedia of mythological knowledge; and it was the precursor of the great humanistic movement which was developed in the 15th century. Boccaccio was also the first historian of women in his De claris mulieribus, and the first to undertake to tell the story of the great unfortunate in his De casibus virorum illustrium. He continued and perfected former geographical investigations in his interesting book De montibus, silvis, fontibus, lacubus, fluminibus, stagnis, et paludibus, et de nominibus maris, for which he made use of Vibius Sequester, but which contains also many new and valuable observations. Of his Italian works his lyrics do not come anywhere near to the perfection of Petrarch’s. His sonnets, mostly about love, are quite mediocre. His narrative poetry is better. Although now he can no longer claim the distinction long conceded to him of having invented the octave stanza (which afterwards became the metre of the poems of Boiardo, of Ariosto and of Tasso), yet he was certainly the first to use it in a work of some length and written with artistic skill, such as is his Teseide, the oldest Italian romantic poem. The Filostrato relates the loves of Troiolo and Griseida (Troilus and Cressida). It may be that Boccaccio knew the French poem of the Trojan war by Benoît de Sainte-More; but the interest of the Italian work lies in the analysis of the passion of love, which is treated with a masterly hand. The Ninfale fiesolano tells the love story of the nymph Mesola and the shepherd Africo. The Amorosa Visione, a poem in triplets, doubtless owed its origin to the Divina Commedia. The Ameto is a mixture of prose and poetry, and is the first Italian pastoral romance.

The Filocopo takes the earliest place among prose romances. In it Boccaccio tells in a laborious style, and in the most prolix way, the loves of Florio and Biancafiore. Probably for this work he drew materials from a popular source or from a Byzantine romance, which Leonzio Pilato may have mentioned to him. In the Filocopo there is a remarkable exuberance in the mythological part, which damages the romance as an artistic work, but which contributes to the history of Boccaccio’s mind. The Fiammetta is another romance, about the loves of Boccaccio and Maria d’Aquino, a supposed natural daughter of King Robert, whom he always called by this name of Fiammetta.

The Italian work which principally made Boccaccio famous was the Decamerone, a collection of a hundred novels, related by a party of men and women, who had retired to a villa near Florence to escape from the plague in 1348. Novel-writing, so abundant in the preceding centuries, especially in France, now for the first time assumed an artistic shape. The style of Boccaccio tends to the imitation of Latin, but in him prose first took the form of elaborated art. The rudeness of the old fabliaux gives place to the careful and conscientious work of a mind that has a feeling for what is beautiful, that has studied the classic authors, and that strives to imitate them as much as possible. Over and above this, in the Decamerone, Boccaccio is a delineator of character and an observer of passions. In this lies his novelty. Much has been written about the sources of the novels of the Decamerone. Probably Boccaccio made use both of written and of oral sources. Popular tradition must have furnished him with the materials of many stories, as, for example, that of Griselda.

Unlike Petrarch, who was always discontented, preoccupied, wearied with life, disturbed by disappointments, we find Boccaccio calm, serene, satisfied with himself and with his surroundings. Notwithstanding these fundamental differences in their characters, the two great authors were old and warm friends. But their affection for Dante was not equal. Petrarch, who says that he saw him once in his childhood, did not preserve a pleasant recollection of him, and it would be useless to deny that he was jealous of his renown. The Divina Commedia was sent him by Boccaccio, when he was an old man, and he confessed that he never read it. On the other hand, Boccaccio felt for Dante something more than love—enthusiasm. He wrote a biography of him, of which the accuracy is now unfairly depreciated by some critics, and he gave public critical lectures on the poem in Santa Maria del Fiore at Florence.

Fazio degli Uberti and Federigo Frezzi were imitators of the Divina Commedia, but only in its external form. The former wrote the Dittamondo, a long poem, in which the author supposes that he was taken by the geographer Solinus into different parts of the world, and that his Imitators
of the Commedia.
guide related the history of them. The legends of the rise of the different Italian cities have some importance historically. Frezzi, bishop of his native town Foligno, wrote the Quadriregio, a poem of the four kingdoms—Love, Satan, the Vices and the Virtues. This poem has many points of resemblance with the Divina Commedia. Frezzi pictures the condition of man who rises from a state of vice to one of virtue, and describes hell, the limbo, purgatory and heaven. The poet has Pallas for a companion.

Ser Giovanni Fiorentino wrote, under the title of Pecorone, a collection of tales, which are supposed to have been related by a monk and a nun in the parlour of the monastery of Forlì. He closely imitated Boccaccio, and drew on Villani’s chronicle for his historical stories. Franco Sacchetti Novelists. wrote tales too, for the most part on subjects taken from Florentine history. His book gives a life-like picture of Florentine society at the end of the 14th century. The subjects are almost always improper; but it is evident that Sacchetti collected all these anecdotes in order to draw from them his own conclusions and moral reflections, which are to be found at the end of every story. From this point of view Sacchetti’s work comes near to