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904
ITALIAN LITERATURE


There was living at Padua Albertino Mussato, born in 1261, a year after the catastrophe of the Ezzelini; he grew up among the survivors of a generation that hated the name of the tyrant. After having written in Latin a history of Henry VII. he devoted himself to a dramatic work on Ezzelino, and wrote it also in Latin. The Eccerinus, which was probably never represented on the stage, has been by some critics compared to the great tragic works of Greece. It would probably be nearer the truth to say that it has nothing in common with the works of Aeschylus; but certainly the dramatic strength, the delineation of certain situations, and the narration of certain events are very original. Mussato’s work stands alone in the history of Italian dramatic literature. Perhaps this would not have been the case if he had written it in Italian.

In the last years of the 14th century we find the struggle that was soon to break out between the indigenous literary tradition and the reviving classicism already alive in spirit. As representatives of this struggle, of this antagonism, we may consider Luigi Marsilio and Coluccio Salutati, both learned men who spoke and wrote Latin, who aspired to be humanists, but who meanwhile also loved Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio, and felt and celebrated in their writings the beauty of Italian literature.

3. The Renaissance.—A great intellectual movement, which had been gathering for a long time, made itself felt in Italy in the 15th century. A number of men arose, all learned, laborious, indefatigable, and all intent on one great work. Such were Niccolò Niccoli, Giannozzo Manetti, Graeco-Latin learning. Palla Strozzi, Leonardo Bruni, Francesco Filelfo, Poggio Bracciolini, Carlo d’Arezzo, Lorenzo Valla. Manetti buried himself in his books, slept only for a few hours in the night, never went out of doors, and spent his time in translating from Greek, studying Hebrew, and commenting on Aristotle. Palla Strozzi sent into Greece at his own expense to search for ancient books, and had Plutarch and Plato brought for him. Poggio Bracciolini went to the Council of Constance, and found in a monastery in the dust-hole Cicero’s Orations. He copied Quintilian with his own hand, discovered Lucretius, Plautus, Pliny and many other Latin authors. Guarino went through the East in search of codices. Giovanni Aurispa returned to Venice with many hundreds of manuscripts. What was the passion that excited all these men? What did they search after? What did they look to? These Italians were but handing on the solemn tradition which, although partly latent, was the informing principle of Italian medieval history, and now at length came out triumphant. This tradition was that same tenacious and sacred memory of Rome, that same worship of its language and institutions, which at one time had retarded the development of Italian literature, and now grafted the old Latin branch of ancient classicism on the flourishing stock of Italian literature. All this is but the continuation of a phenomenon that has existed for ages. It is the thought of Rome that always dominates Italians, the thought that keeps appearing from Boetius to Dante Alighieri, from Arnold of Brescia to Cola di Rienzi, which gathers strength with Petrarch and Boccaccio, and finally becomes triumphant in literature and life—in life, because the modern spirit is fed on the works of the ancients. Men come to have a more just idea of nature: the world is no longer cursed or despised; truth and beauty join hands; man is born again; and human reason resumes its rights. Everything, the individual and society, are changed under the influence of new facts.

First of all there was formed a human individuality, which was wanting in the middle ages. As J. Burckhardt has said, the man was changed into the individual. He began to feel and assert his own personality, which was constantly attaining a fuller realization. As a consequence of New social conditions. this, the idea of fame and the desire for it arose. A really cultured class was formed, in the modern meaning of the word, and the conception was arrived at (completely unknown in former times) that the worth of a man did not depend at all on his birth but on his personal qualities. Poggio in his dialogue De nobilitate declares that he entirely agreed with his interlocutors Niccolò Niccoli and Lorenzo de’ Medici in the opinion that there is no other nobility but that of personal merit. External life was growing more refined in all particulars; the man of society was created; rules for civilized life were made; there was an increasing desire for sumptuous and artistic entertainments. The medieval idea of existence was turned upside down; men who had hitherto turned their thoughts exclusively to heavenly things, and believed exclusively in the divine right, now began to think of beautifying their earthly existence, of making it happy and gay, and returned to a belief in their human rights. This was a great advance, but one which carried with it the seeds of many dangers. The conception of morality became gradually weaker. The “fay ce que vouldras” of Rabelais became the first principle of life. Religious feeling was blunted, was weakened, was changed, became pagan again. Finally the Italian of the Renaissance, in his qualities and his passions, became the most remarkable representative of the heights and depths, of the virtues and faults, of humanity. Corruption was associated with all that is most ideal in life; a profound scepticism took hold of people’s minds; indifference to good and evil reached its highest point.

Besides this, a great literary danger was hanging over Italy. Humanism threatened to submerge its youthful national literature. There were authors who laboriously tried to give Italian Latin forms, to do again, after Dante’s time, what Guittone d’Arezzo had so unhappily done Literary dangers of Latinism. in the 13th century. Provincial dialects tried to reassert themselves in literature. The great authors of the 14th century, Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, were by many people forgotten or despised.

It was Florence that saved literature by reconciling the classical models to modern feeling, Florence that succeeded in assimilating classical forms to the “vulgar” art. Still gathering vigour and elegance from classicism, still drawing from the ancient fountains all that they Influence of Florence. could supply of good and useful, it was able to preserve its real life, to keep its national traditions, and to guide literature along the way that had been opened to it by the writers of the preceding century. At Florence the most celebrated humanists wrote also in the vulgar tongue, and commented on Dante and Petrarch, and defended them from their enemies. Leone Battista Alberti, the learned Greek and Latin scholar, wrote in the vernacular, and Vespasiano da Bisticci, whilst he was constantly absorbed in Greek and Latin manuscripts, wrote the Vite di uomini illustri, valuable for their historical contents, and rivalling the best works of the 14th century in their candour and simplicity. Andrea da Barberino wrote the beautiful prose of the Reali di Francia, giving a colouring of “romanità” to the chivalrous romances. Belcari and Benivieni carry us back to the mystic idealism of earlier times.

But it is in Lorenzo de’ Medici that the influence of Florence on the Renaissance is particularly seen. His mind was formed by the ancients: he attended the class of the Greek Argyropulos, sat at Platonic banquets, took pains to collect codices, sculptures, vases, pictures, gems and Lorenzo
de’ Medici.
drawings to ornament the gardens of San Marco and to form the library afterwards called by his name. In the saloons of his Florentine palace, in his villas at Careggi, Fiesole and Ambra, stood the wonderful chests painted by Dello with stories from Ovid, the Hercules of Pollajuolo, the Pallas of Botticelli, the works of Filippino and Verrocchio. Lorenzo de’ Medici lived entirely in the classical world; and yet if we read his poems we only see the man of his time, the admirer of Dante and of the old Tuscan poets, who takes inspiration from the popular muse, and who succeeds in giving to his poetry the colours of the most pronounced realism as well as of the loftiest idealism, who passes from the Platonic sonnet to the impassioned triplets of the Amori di Venere, from the grandiosity of the Salve to Nencia and to Beoni, from the Canto carnascialesco to the Lauda. The feeling of nature is strong in him—at one time sweet and melancholy, at another vigorous and deep, as if an echo of the feelings, the sorrows, the ambitions of that deeply agitated life. He