Italian Language and Literature

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Italian Language and
Literature

The Renaissance was a period of intense literary activity in Italy. The renewed interest in classical* culture that had begun in the late Middle Ages played a major role in this flowering of literature. Italian scholars studied ancient sources and applied the knowledge they gained to their own writing. They also began to translate ancient Greek and Latin works into Italian and to use the vernacular* more widely in serious writing.


Origins of the Italian Renaissance. At the outset of the Renaissance, Italian scholars drew on the work of certain medieval* writers, particularly the poet Dante Alighieri of Florence (1265–1321). Dante's great poem The Divine Comedy, which describes a journey through the realms of the afterlife, remained popular long after his death. He also influenced later writers through his scholarly works. In On the Vulgar Tongue, for instance, he supported the use of the vernacular as more natural than Latin. Dante's argument started a debate on the use of language that continued throughout the Renaissance.

One of the most influential writers of the early Renaissance was the poet and scholar Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374), known as Petrarch. Petrarch promoted the study of Greek and Latin and praised ancient works as models of clarity and elegance. He worked to create a link between the secular* ideas of the ancient world and Christian religious beliefs. Petrarch also gained fame as a poet. His Canzoniere (songbook), a collection of love lyrics* and other poems written in Italian, influenced poets throughout Europe—especially his description of the emotional ups and downs of love.

Like Petrarch, the Florentine writer Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) paid a great deal of attention to Greek and Latin sources. He also introduced new literary forms, such as the pastoral*, to Italy. Boccaccio's masterpiece, the Decameron, wove together 100 stories told by a group of young men and women. Various Renaissance playwrights, including William Shakespeare, borrowed plots from this work. Boccaccio wrote works in Italian and defended the use of the vernacular as an alternative to Latin.


The Early Renaissance. In the early 1400s humanism* began to spread throughout Italy. The works of Petrarch, Boccaccio, and others helped revive interest in classical culture. Humanist writers drew on ancient sources to address social issues. For example, Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) discussed the civic* duties of the individual in On the Family.

Several factors helped promote literary development during the mid-1400s. The discovery of long-lost ancient texts inspired writers with new literary models. Wealthy patrons* among the nobility and the clergy supported authors in their work. Meanwhile, the invention of movable type and the printing press made books available to a growing number of readers.

By the end of the 1400s, four forms had taken center stage in Renaissance literature: lyric poetry, the pastoral, the romance*, and comic theater. Authors followed specific models in each of these genres*. Petrarch's verses influenced the growth of lyric poetry. The works of the ancient Roman writer Virgil served as a model for pastoral poems such as Arcadia (1502), by Jacopo Sannazaro. The comedies of the ancient Roman writers Terence and Plautus inspired comic plays. Finally, romance writers drew on medieval tales of chivalry* from France and England.


The High Renaissance. Humanist culture reached a peak in Italy between 1490 and 1530. In both literature and art, Italy produced some of its finest talent at this time. Scholars wrote on a variety of subjects, including politics, society, beauty, and the nature of love. The statesman Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), who had a humanist education, applied his talents to the social, political, and military problems of his day. Baldassare Castiglione focused on princely courts in The Book of the Courtier, written between 1508 and 1516. Castiglione's work celebrates the culture of the court while also expressing a sense of longing for the past.

Poets of the High Renaissance continued to take the works of Petrarch as a model. However, they began to adapt Petrarch's style to suit their own purposes. For example, many female poets, such as Gaspara Stampa (1523–1554), wrote lyrics addressed to men, reversing the usual form in which a male narrator praised a lady.


The Question of the Language. In the 1500s a spirited debate broke out about which form of Italian writers should use. In the Middle Ages, the people of Italy had spoken and written in a variety of different forms of Italian. By the Renaissance, the Tuscan dialect spoken in Florence and the surrounding region had become the preferred form. The most respected Italian writers of the 1300s—Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, sometimes called "the Three Crowns"—all wrote in Tuscan.

Throughout the 1500s, most writers and thinkers continued to favor the Tuscan language. Some important writers from other parts of Italy rewrote their works in Tuscan. However, some writers preferred other forms of Italian. The dramatist Angelo Beolco, better known as Ruzzante, wrote comedies in the dialect of Padua, in northeastern Italy. Those who favored the use of Tuscan founded the Accademia della Crusca around 1582. The academy prepared a dictionary of Tuscan Italian that further helped this form of Italian to become the literary language of Italy. Still, some people in other regions continued to use their own local dialects throughout the Renaissance.


The Late Renaissance. Toward the end of the Renaissance, two major forces in Italian literature were modern religion and ancient philosophy. The Roman Catholic Church had launched its Counter-Reformation* in response to the spread of Protestant ideas in Europe. As a result, church leaders in Italy tried to merge Catholic teachings into all aspects of life—including literature. At about the same time, scholars were producing new translations of texts by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, along with commentaries on his work. These texts helped spread Aristotle's ideas, including his rules for writing.

Some Italian writers, such as the poet and playwright Torquato Tasso, combined these two forces in their work. Tasso's poem Jerusalem Delivered (1575) followed both Aristotle's guidelines and the teachings of the church. Other writers, such as the scientist Galileo Galilei, dared to dispute certain views of the church. In works such as The Assayer (1623) and Dialogue on the Two Great World Systems (1632), Galileo broke with tradition and celebrated human freedom and potential.

By the end of the Renaissance, Italian writers had produced a body of work that made a lasting impression on the field of literature. The writing of Petrarch and other Italian poets influenced the lyric poetry produced in France, England, and Spain. Italian romances from the Renaissance shaped the development of the modern novel. Italian plays provided a basis for the major dramatic writing of the European Renaissance. Lastly, the thought of intellectuals such as Galileo set the stage for the scientific revolution that ushered in the modern era.

(See alsoArt in Italy; Catholic Reformation and Counter-Reformation; Chivalry; Classical Scholarship; Drama; Humanism; Individualism; Italy; Literature; Pastoral; Poetry; Translation. )

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* vernacular

native language or dialect of a region or country

* medieval

referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe

* secular

nonreligious; connected with everyday life

* lyric

refers to a type of verse that expresses feelings and thoughts rather than telling a story

* pastoral

relating to the countryside; often used to draw a contrast between the innocence and serenity of rural life and the corruption and extravagance of court life

* humanism

Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living

* civic

related to a city, a community, or citizens

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

* romance

adventure story of the Middle Ages, the forerunner of the modern novel

* genre

literary form

* chivalry

rules and customs of medieval knighthood

* Counter-Reformation

actions taken by the Roman Catholic Church after 1540 to oppose Protestantism