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

desire; while he thought this return would be easily accomplished if, on the fall of the Medici, the Florentine republic should come into the hands of his supporters. There may be more justice in looking on Savonarola as the forerunner of the Reformation. If he was so, it was more than he intended. The friar of Ferrara never thought of attacking the papal dogma, and always maintained that he wished to remain within the church of Rome. He had none of the great aspirations of Luther. He only repeated the complaints and the exhortations of St Catherine of Siena; he desired a reform of manners, entirely of manners, not of doctrine. He prepared the ground for the German and English religious movement of the 16th century, but unconsciously. In the history of Italian civilization he represents retrogression, that is to say, the cancelling of the great fact of the Renaissance, and return to medieval ideas. His attempt to put himself in opposition to his time, to arrest the course of events, to bring the people back to the faith of the past, the belief that all the social evils came from a Medici and a Borgia, his not seeing the historical reality, as it was, his aspiring to found a republic with Jesus Christ for its king—all these things show that Savonarola was more of a fanatic than a thinker. Nor has he any great merit as a writer. He wrote Italian sermons, hymns (laudi), ascetic and political treatises, but they are roughly executed, and only important as throwing light on the history of his ideas. The religious poems of Girolamo Benivieni are better than his, and are drawn from the same inspirations. In these lyrics, sometimes sweet, always warm with religious feeling, Benivieni and with him Feo Belcari carry us back to the literature of the 14th century.

History had neither many nor very good students in the 15th century. Its revival belonged to the following age. It was mostly written in Latin. Leonardo Bruni of Arezzo wrote the history of Florence, Gioviano Pontano that of Naples, Histories, &c. in Latin. Bernardino Corio wrote the history of Milan in Italian, but in a rude way.

Leonardo da Vinci wrote a treatise on painting, Leon Battista Alberti one on sculpture and architecture. But the names of these two men are important, not so much as authors of these treatises, but as being embodiments of another characteristic of the age of the Renaissance—versatility of genius, power of application along many and varied lines, and of being excellent in all. Leonardo was an architect, a poet, a painter, an hydraulic engineer and a distinguished mathematician. Alberti was a musician, studied jurisprudence, was an architect and a draughtsman, and had great fame in literature. He had a deep feeling for nature, an almost unique faculty of assimilating all that he saw and heard. Leonardo and Alberti are representatives and almost a compendium in themselves of all that intellectual vigour of the Renaissance age, which in the 16th century took to developing itself in its individual parts, making way for what has by some been called the golden age of Italian literature.

4. Development of the Renaissance.—The fundamental characteristic of the literary epoch following that of the Renaissance is that it perfected itself in every kind of art, in particular uniting the essentially Italian character of its language with classicism of style. This period lasted from about 1494 to about 1560; and, strange to say, this very period of greater fruitfulness and literary greatness began from the year 1494, which with Charles VIII.’s descent into Italy marked the beginning of its political decadence and of foreign domination over it. But this is not hard to explain. All the most famous men of the first half of the 16th had been educated in the preceding century. Pietro Pomponazzi was born in 1462, Marcello Virgilio Adriani in 1464, Castiglione in 1468, Machiavelli in 1469, Bembo in 1470, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Ariosto in 1474, Nardi in 1476, Trissino in 1478, Guicciardini in 1482. Thus it is easy to understand how the literary activity which showed itself from the end of the 15th century to the middle of the following one was the product of the political and social conditions of the age in which these minds were formed, not of that in which their powers were displayed.

Niccolò Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini were the chief originators of the science of history. Machiavelli’s principal works are the Istorie fiorentine, the Discorsi sulla prima deca di Tito Livio, the Arte della guerra and the Principe. His merit consists in having been the creator of the experimental History. science of politics—in having observed facts, studied histories and drawn consequences from them. His history is sometimes inexact in facts; it is rather a political than an historical work. The peculiarity of Machiavelli’s genius lay, as has been said, in his artistic feeling for the treatment and discussion of politics in and for themselves, without regard to an immediate end—in his power of abstracting himself from the partial appearances of the transitory present, in order more thoroughly to possess himself of the eternal and inborn kingdom, and to bring it into subjection to himself.

Next to Machiavelli both as an historian and a statesman comes Francesco Guicciardini. Guicciardini was very observant, and endeavoured to reduce his observations to a science. His Storia d’ Italia, which extends from the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici to 1534, is full of political wisdom, is skilfully arranged in its parts, gives a lively picture of the character of the persons it treats of, and is written in a grand style. He shows a profound knowledge of the human heart, and depicts with truth the temperaments, the capabilities and the habits of the different European nations. Going back to the causes of events, he looked for the explanation of the divergent interests of princes and of their reciprocal jealousies. The fact of his having witnessed many of the events he related, and having taken part in them, adds authority to his words. The political reflections are always deep; in the Pensieri, as G. Capponi[1] says, he seems to aim at extracting through self-examination a quintessence, as it were, of the things observed and done by him—thus endeavouring to form a political doctrine as adequate as possible in all its parts. Machiavelli and Guicciardini may be considered, not only as distinguished historians, but as originators of the science of history founded on observation.

Inferior to them, but still always worthy of note, were Jacopo Nardi (a just and faithful historian and a virtuous man, who defended the rights of Florence against the Medici before Charles V.), Benedetto Varchi, Giambattista Adriani, Bernardo Segni; and, outside Tuscany, Camillo Porzio, who related the Congiura de’ baroni and the history of Italy from 1547 to 1552, Angelo di Costanza, Pietro Bembo, Paolo Paruta and others.

Ariosto’s Orlando furioso was a continuation of Boiardo’s Innamorato. His characteristic is that he assimilated the romance of chivalry to the style and models of classicism. Ariosto was an artist only for the love of his art; his sole aim was to make a romance that should please Romantic epic. Ariosto (1474–
the generation in which he lived. His Orlando has no grave and serious purpose; on the contrary it creates a fantastic world, in which the poet rambles, indulging his caprice, and sometimes smiling at his own work. His great desire is to depict everything with the greatest possible perfection; the cultivation of style is what occupies him most. In his hands the style becomes wonderfully plastic to every conception, whether high or low, serious or sportive. The octave stanza reached in him the highest perfection of grace, variety and harmony.

Meanwhile, side by side with the romantic, there was an attempt at the historical epic. Gian Giorgio Trissino of Vicenza composed a poem called Italia liberata dai Goti. Full of learning and of the rules of the ancients, he formed himself on the latter, in order to sing of the campaigns Heroic epic. of Belisarius; he said that he had forced himself to observe all the rules of Aristotle, and that he had imitated Homer. In this again, we see one of the products of the Renaissance; and, although Trissino’s work is poor in invention and without any original poetical colouring, yet it helps one to understand better what were the conditions of mind in the 16th century.

Lyric poetry was certainly not one of the kinds that rose to

  1. Storia della repubblica di Firenze (Florence, 1876).