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Italian Literature

The Interdependence of Literature
Italian Literature
by Curtis, Georgina Pell

The first general language of Italy was the Latin, and so strongly was the Italian mind dominated by the influence of ancient Rome that her earliest writers sought to keep alive the Roman tradition. This spirit of freedom led to the establishment of the Italian Republics, and after the Lombard cities threw off the yoke of Frederick Barbarossa they turned their chief attention to education and literature. The spirit of chivalry and chivalric poetry never took such root in Italy as it did in other European countries. Nevertheless, Italy was not uninfluenced by the Crusades, and the Arabs, establishing a celebrated school of medicine at Salerno, gave a new impetus to the study of the classics. In Bologna was opened a school of jurisprudence, where Roman law was studied, and these schools, or universities soon appeared in other parts of Italy.

The Italians devoted more time to the study of law and history, and to making translations from the Greek philosophers, than to the cultivation of chivalric poetry, although many of the Italian poets wrote in Provencal and French; and Italian Troubadours made journeys to the European Courts.

It has been said that the only poetry that has any real power over a people is that which is written or composed in their own language. This is especially true of Italy. Following this early Latin period came Dante, the most glorious, and inventive of the Italian poets, and indeed one of the greatest masters of verse in the world. He perfected the Tuscan, or Florentine dialect, which was gradually becoming the literary language of Italy. Petrarch, who succeeded Dante, is greatest in his Italian poems, and it is by these that he is best known, while his Latin works, which he hoped would bring him fame, have been almost forgotten.

In the fifteenth century the use of the national language in literature entirely died out, through the rise of the Humanists, and the craze for Greek and Latin classics; but toward the end of the fifteenth century, under Lorenzo de'Medici and Leo X, interest in their own literature among the Italians began to revive again. Ariosto and Tasso wrote their magnificent epics; and once more Italian poetry was read and appreciated, and reached the height of its renown. Again in the seventeenth century it declined under the influence of the Marini school; whose bad taste and labored and bombastic style, was unfortunately imitated in both France and Spain. In the eighteenth century, under the patronage of Benedict XIV, the Arcadian poets of the Marini school were banished from literature, and other and more brilliant writers arose, possessed of the true national feeling. Under Pope Pius VI, by whom he was liberally patronized, Quirico Visconti undertook his "Pio Clementine Museum," and his "Greek and Roman Iconography," said to be the two greatest archaeological works of all ages.

With the rise of Napoleon, Italy was flooded with French writings, and French translations, not always of the best, and even the French language was used instead of the Italian. The Italian literature again suffered a decline, and it was not until after the treaty of Vienna in 1815 that the foreign influence was again shaken off. It will thus be seen that it was when Italian poets wrote in their own language that their greatest and most lasting success was attained. During the periods when a craze for imitating foreign works existed, the national languages deteriorated. In Germany, under the Emperor Maximilian, a crown was publicly bestowed on any poet who achieved success in Latin verse, while no reward or emolument was given to those who wrote in German. The religion of Humanism in Italy went to such lengths that many seemed to lose not only their belief but also their good sense, as they considered it vulgar to talk of the Deity in the language of the Bible. God was spoken of in the plural--gods. The Father was Jupiter, the Son, Apollo; and the Devil, Pluto; but these various errors had no lasting or far-reaching influence. The Divine Comedy, the most powerful and lifelike exponent of the thoughts and feelings of the age in which Dante lived--an allegory, written in the form of a vision, at a time when men believed that the things that are unseen are eternal--is the most perfect and magnificent monument of earthly love, refined and spiritualized, that has ever been written. It stands alone; for no man of any country, coming after Dante, has been able to write from the same motive, and in the same spirit, that he did. Petrarch, the next greatest after Dante, is chiefly celebrated for his lyrical poems, which were used as models by all the most celebrated poets of the South of Europe. They are written in two forms, the canzone taken from the Provencals, and the sonnet, taken from the Sicilians. Petrarch kept up a wide correspondence with the literary men of Europe; and through his influence a sort of literary republic arose which joined together the literati of many different countries. Boccaccio, next in rank to Petrarch, evolved a poetry consisting of Norman wit and Provencal love, joined to an elaborate setting of his own. He took Livy and Cicero for his models, and tried to combine ancient mythology with Christian history, the result being that his writings were not so fine as they would have been had they displayed a greater freedom a of style. His most celebrated work is the Decameron, the idea of which is taken from an old Hindu romance which was translated into Latin in the twelfth century. Most of these tales have also been found in the ancient French fabliaux, and while Boccaccio cannot be said to have really invented them, he did clothe them anew, and his tales in their turn have been translated into all the European languages.

It is due to Cosmo and Lorenzo de' Medici, and to Pope Leo X, that there was such a glorious development of the fine arts in the fifteenth century, an era whose benefits have been felt among the cultivated nations for over three hundred years.

At the same time Poliziano created the pastoral tragedy, which served to revive the study of Virgil. Other poets seizing on the old romance of the Trouveres, added to them an element of mockery, in place of the old religious belief. This new spirit was adopted by Ariosto. From the East he borrowed the magic and sorcery interwoven in the adventures of his knights and ladies, giants and magicians. It remained for Torquato Tasso to revive the heroic epic in his Jerusalem Delivered, in which he depicts the struggle between the Christians and Saracens. Neither the Siege of Troy, nor the Adventures of Aeneas could compare with the splendid dramatic element in Tasso's immortal poem, which has been said to combine the classic and the romantic style in a new and unusual degree.

In the sixteenth century Strapparola, an Italian novelist, wrote a number of fairy tales, which have been a treasure house for later writers, and to which we are indebted for Puss in Boots, Fortunio, and other stories which have now become familiar in the nursery lore of most modern nations. Bandello, in the same century, was a novelist from whom Shakespeare and other English dramatists have borrowed much material.

One thing which is peculiar to Italy, and which has found its way into nearly the whole civilized world, is Italian Opera or melodrama. It was an outcome of the Pastoral drama, and first took shape in 1594 under Rinuccini, a Florentine. But the true father of Italian opera is Metastasio, who flourished in the eighteenth century. He regarded opera as the national drama of Italy, and raised it to a plane that it has ever since retained; though of late years it has become more the fashion to cultivate German opera.

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