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§ 63. Dante, Petrarca, Boccaccio.
Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio represent the birth and glory of Italian literature and ushered in the new literary and artistic age. Petrarca and Boccaccio belong chiefly to the department of literary culture; Dante equally to it and the realm of religious thought and composition. The period covered by their lives extends over more than a hundred years, from Dante’s birth in 1265 to Boccaccio’s death, 1375.
Dante Alighieri, 1265–1321, the first of Italian and the greatest of mediaeval poets, has given us in his Divina Commedia, the Divine Comedy, conceived in 1300, a poetic view of the moral universe under the aspect of eternity,—sub specie aeternitatis. Born in Florence, he read under his teacher Brunetto Latini, whom in later years he praised, Virgil, Horace, Ovid and other Latin authors. In the heated conflict of parties, going on in his native city, he at first took the side of the Guelfs as against the Ghibellines, who were in favor of the imperial régime in Italy. In 1300, he was elected one of the priori or chief magistrates, approved the severe measures then employed towards political opponents and, after a brief tenure of office, was exiled. The decree of exile threatened to burn him alive if he ventured to return to the city. After wandering about, going to Paris and perhaps further west, he settled down in Ravenna, where he died and where his ashes still lie. After his death, Florence accorded the highest honors to his memory. Her request for his body was refused by Ravenna, but she created a chair for the exposition of the Divine Comedy, with Boccaccio as its first occupant, and erected to her distinguished son an-imposing monument in the church of Santa Croce and a statue on the square in front. In 1865, all Italy joined Florence in celebrating the 6th centenary of the poet’s birth. Never has study been given to Dante’s great poem as a work of art by wider circles and with more enthusiasm than to-day, and it will continue to serve as a prophetic voice of divine judgment and mercy as long as religious feeling seeks expression.
Dante was a layman, married and had seven children. An epoch in his life was his meeting, as a boy of nine years, with Beatrice, who was a few months younger than himself, at a festival given in her father’s house, where she was tenderly called, as Boccaccio says, Bice. The vision of Beatrice—for there is no record that they exchanged words—entered and filled Dante’s soul with an effluence of purity and benignity which cleared away all evil thoughts.990990 Vita Nuova, 10, 11. See Scartazzini, Handbuch, p. 193. After an interval of nine years he saw her a second time, and then not again till, in his poetic dream, he met her in paradise. Beatrice married and died at 24, 1290.
With this vision, the new life began for Dante, the vita nuova which he describes in the book of that name. Beatrice’s features illuminated his path and her pure spirit was his guide. At the first meeting, so the poet says, "she appeared to me clothed in a most noble color, a modest and becoming crimson, garlanded and adorned in such wise as befitted her very youthful age." The love then begotten, says Charles Eliot Norton, "lasted from Dante’s boyhood to his death, keeping his heart fresh, spite of the scorchings of disappointment, with the springs of perpetual solace."991991 Vita Nuova, Norton’s trsl., p. 2. The last glimpse the poet gives of her was as he saw her at the side of Rachel in the highest region of heaven.
The third in order, underneath her, lo!
Rachel with Beatrice.—Par., xxxii. 6.
Had Dante written only the tract against the temporal power of the papacy, the De monarchia, his name would have been restricted to a place in the list of the pamphleteers of the 14th century. His Divine Comedy exalts him to the eminence of the foremost poetic interpreter of the mediaeval world. This immortal poem is a mirror of mediaeval Christianity and civilization and, at the same time, a work of universal significance and perennial interest. It sums up the religious concepts of the Middle Ages and introduces the free critical spirit of the modern world.992992 Die Komödie ist der Schwanengesang des Mittelalters, zugleich aber auch das begeisterte Lied, welches die Herankunft einer neuen Zeit einleitet. Scartazzini, Dante Alighieri, etc., p. 530. See Geiger, II. 30 sq. Church, p. 2, calls it "the first Christian poem, the one which opens European literature as the Iliad did that of Greece and Rome." Dante knew scarcely more than a dozen Greek words, and, on account of its popular language, he called his great epic and didactic poem a comedy, or a village poem, deriving it from κώμη, villa, without apparently being aware of the more probable derivation from κω̑μος, merry-making. It is Dante’s autobiography and reflects his own experiences: —
All the pains by me depicted, woes and tortures, void of pity,
On this earth I have encountered—found
them all in Florence City.993993 Allen Schmerz, den ich gesungen, all die
Qualen, Greu’l und Wunden
It brings into view the society of mediaeval Italy, a long array of its personages, many of whom had only a local and transient interest. At the same time, the Comedy is the spiritual biography of man as man wherever he is found, in the three conditions of sin, repentance and salvation. It describes a pilgrimage to the world of spirits beyond this life, from the dark forest of temptation, through the depths of despair in hell, up the terraces of purification in purgatory, to the realms of bliss. Through the first two regions the poet’s guide is Virgil, the representative of natural reason, and through the heavenly spaces, Beatrice, the type of divine wisdom and love. The Inferno reflects sin and misery; the Purgatorio, penitence and hope; the Paradiso, holiness and happiness. The first repels by its horrors and laments; the second moves by its penitential tears and prayers; the third enraptures by its purity and peace. Purgatory is an intermediate state, constantly passing away, but heaven and hell will last forever. Hell is hopeless darkness and despair; heaven culminates in the beatific vision of the Holy Trinity, beyond which nothing higher can be conceived by man or angel. Here are depicted the extremes of terror and rapture, of darkness and light, of the judgment and the love of God. In paradise, the saints are represented as forming a spotless white rose, whose cup is a lake of light, surrounded by innocent children praising God. This sublime conception was probably suggested by the rose-windows of Gothic cathedrals, or by the fact that the Virgin Mary was called a rose by St. Bernard and other mediaeval divines and poets.
Following the geocentric cosmology of the Ptolemaic system, the poet located hell within the earth, purgatory in the southern hemisphere, and heaven in the starry firmament. Hell is a yawning cavity, widest at the top and consisting of ten circles. Purgatory is a mountain up which souls ascend. The heavenly realm consists of nine circles, culminating in the empyrean where the pure divine essence dwells.
Among these regions of the spiritual and future world, Dante distributes the best-known characters of his and of former generations. He spares neither Guelf nor Ghibelline, neither pope nor emperor, and gives to all their due. He adapts the punishment to the nature of the sin, the reward to the measure of virtue, and shows an amazing ingenuity and fertility of imagination in establishing the correspondence of outward condition to moral character. Thus the cowards and indifferentists in the vestibule of the Inferno are driven by a whirling flag and stung by wasps and flies. The licentious are hurried by tempestuous winds in total darkness, with carnal lust still burning, but never gratified.
The infernal hurricane, that never rests
Hurtles the spirits onward in its rapine,
Whirling them round; and smiting, it molests them;
It hither, thither, downward, upward, drives them.
Inferno, V. 31–43.
The gluttonous lie on the ground, exposed to showers of hail and foul water; blasphemers supine upon a plain of burning sand, while sparks of fire, like flakes of snow in the Alps, slowly and constantly descend upon their bodies. The wrathful are forever tearing one another.
And I, who stood intent upon beholding,
Saw people mud-besprent in that lagoon,
All of them naked and with angry look.
They smote each other not alone with hands,
But with the head and with the breast and feet
Tearing each other piecemeal with their teeth.
Inferno, VII. 100 sqq.
The simonists, who sell religion for money and turn the temple of God into a den of thieves, are thrust into holes, head downwards, with their feet protruding and tormented with flames. The arch-heretics are held in red-hot tombs, and tyrants in a stream of boiling blood, shot at by the centaurs whenever they attempt to rise. The traitors are immersed in a lake of ice with Satan, the arch-traitor and the embodiment of selfishness, malignity and turpitude. Their very tears turn to ice, symbol of utter hardness, and Satan is forever consuming in his three mouths the three arch-traitors, Judas, Brutus and Cassius. Milton represents Satan as the archangel who even in hell exalts himself and in pride exclaims, "Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven," and the poet leaves the mind of the reader disturbed by a feeling of admiration for Lucifer’s untamed ambition and superhuman power. Dante’s Satan awakens disgust and horror, and the inscription over the entrance to hell makes the reader shudder: —
Through me ye enter the abode of woe;
Through me to endless sorrow are brought;
Through me amid the souls accurst ye go.
* * * * * * *
All hope abandon—ye who enter here!
Per me si va nella città dolente;
Per me si va nell’ eterno dolore;
Per me si va tra la perduta gente.
* * * * * * *
Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’ entrate.
Passing out from the domain of gloom and dole, Virgil leads the poet to purgatory, where the dawn of day breaks. This realm, as has been said, comes nearer to our common life than hell or paradise.994994 Strong, p. 142. Hope dwells here. Song, not wailing, is heard. A ship appears, moved by an angel and filled with spirits, singing the hymn of redemption. Cato approaches and urges the guide and Dante to wash themselves on the shore from all remainders of hell and to hurry on. In purgatory, they pass through seven stages, which correspond to the seven mortal sins, the two lowest, pride and envy, the highest, wantonness and luxury. All the penitents have stamped on their foreheads seven P’s,—the first letter of the word peccata, sins,—which are effaced only one by one, as they pass from stage to stage, "enclasped with scorching fire," until they are delivered through penal fire from all stain. A similar correspondence exists between sin and punishments as in the Inferno, but with the opposite effect, for here sins are repented of and forgiven, and the woes are disciplinary until "the wound that healeth last is medicined." Thus the proud, in the first and lowest terrace, are compelled to totter under huge weights, that they may learn humility. The indolent, in the fourth terrace, are exercised by constant and rapid walking. The avaricious and prodigal, with hands and feet tied together, lie with their faces in the dust, weeping and wailing. The gluttons suffer hunger and thirst that they may be taught temperance. The licentious wander about in flames that their sensual passions may be consumed away.
Arriving at paradise, the Roman poet can go no further, and Beatrice takes his place as Dante’s guide. The spirits are distributed in glory according to their different grades of perfection. Here are passed in review theologians, martyrs, crusaders, righteous princes and judges, monks and contemplative mystics. In the 9th heaven Beatrice leaves the poet to take her place at the side of Rachel, after having introduced him to St. Bernard. Dante looks again and sees Mary and Eve and Sarah,
… and the gleaner-maid
Meek ancestress of him, who sang the songs
Of sore repentance in his sorrowful mood;
Gabriel, Adam, Moses, John the Baptist, Peter, St. Augustine and other saints. Then he is led by the devout mystic to Mary, who, in answer to his prayer, shows him the Deity in the empyrean, but what he saw was not for words to utter. Alike are all the saints in enjoying the same reward of the beatific vision.
Dante was in full harmony with the orthodox faith of his age, and followed closely the teachings of Thomas Aquinas’ great book of divinity.995995 "There is in Dante no trace of doctrinal dissatisfaction. He respects every part of the teaching of the Church in matters of doctrine, authoritatively laid down ... He gives no evidence of free inquiry and private judgment."—Moore, Studies, II. 65, 66. He accepted all the distinctive tenets of mediaeval Catholicism—purgatory, the worship of Mary, the intercession of saints, the efficacy of papal indulgences and the divine institution of the papacy. He paid deep homage to the monastic life and accords exalted place to Benedict, St. Francis and Dominic. But he cast aside all traditions in dealing freely with the successors of Peter in the Apostolic see. Here, too, he was under the direction of the beloved Beatrice. The evils in the Church he traced to her temporal power and he condemned to everlasting punishment Anastasius II. for heresy, Nicolas III., Boniface VIII. and Clement V. for simony, Coelestine V. for cowardice in abdicating the pontifical office, and a squad of other popes for avarice.
Following the theology of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he put into hell the whole heathen world except two solitary figures, Cato of Utica, who sacrificed life for liberty and keeps watch at the foot of purgatory, and the just emperor, Trajan, who, 500 years after his death, was believed to have been prayed out of hell by Pope Gregory I. To the region of the Inferno, also, though on the outer confines of it, a place is assigned to infants who die in infancy without being baptized, whether the offspring of Christian or heathen parents. Theirs is no conscious pain, but they remain forever without the vision of the blessed. In the same vicinity the worthies of the old dispensation were detained until Christ descended after his crucifixion and gave them release. There, John the Baptist had been kept for two years after his pains of martyrdom, Par. xxxii. 25. In the upper regions of the hopeless Inferno a tolerably comfortable place is also accorded to the noble heathen poets, philosophers, statesmen and warriors, while unfaithful Christians are punished in the lower circles according to the degrees of their guilt. The heathen, who followed the light of nature, suffer sorrow without pain. As Virgil says: —
In the right manner they adored not God.
For such defects, and not for other guilt,
Lost are we, and are only so far punished,
That without hope we live on, in desire.
Dante began his poem in Latin and was blamed by Giovanni del Virgilio, a teacher of Latin literature in Bologna, because he abandoned the language of old Rome for the vulgar dialect of Tuscany. Poggio also lamented this course. But the poet defended himself in his unfinished book, Eloquence in the Vernacular, De vulgari eloquio,996996 Engl. translation by A. G. F. Howell, London, 1890. and, by writing the Commedia, the Vita nuova, the Convivio and his sonnets in his native Florentine tongue, he became the father of Italian literature and opened the paths of culture to the laity. Within three years of the poet’s death, commentaries began to be written on the Divina Commedia, as by Graziuolo de’ Bambagliolo, 1324, and within 100 years chairs were founded for its exposition at Florence, Venice, Bologna and Pisa.
A second service which Dante rendered in his poem to the coming culture was in bringing antiquity once more into the foreground and treating pagan and Christian elements side by side, though not as of the same value, and interweaving mythological fables with biblical history, classical with Christian reminiscences. By this tolerance he showed himself a man of the new age, while he still held firmly to the mediaeval theology.997997 See Burckhardt-Geiger, I. 219.
Dante’s abiding merit, however, was his inspiring portrayal of the holiness and love of God. Sin, the perversion of the will, is punished with sin continuing in the future world and pain. Salvation is through the "Lamb of God who takes away our sins and suffered and died that we might live." This poem, like a mighty sermon, now depresses, now enraptures the soul, or, to use the lines of the most poetic of his translators, Longfellow,
Thy sacred song is like the trump of doom;
Yet in thy heart what human sympathies,
What soft compassion glows.
Francesco Petrarca, 1304–1374, was the most cultured man of his time. His Italian sonnets and songs are masterpieces of Italian poetic diction, but he thought lightly of them and hoped to be remembered by his Latin writings.998998 Of his 317 sonnets and 29 canzoni all are erotic but 31. For the sake of euphony, the author changed his patronymic Petrarco into Petrarca. In the English form, Petrarch, the accent is changed from the second to the first syllable. He was an enthusiast for the literature of antiquity and gave a great impulse to its study. His parents, exiled from Florence, removed to Avignon, then the seat of the papacy, which remained Francesco’s residence till 1333. He was ordained to the priesthood but without an inward call. He enjoyed several ecclesiastical benefices as prior, canon and archdeacon, which provided for his support without burdening him with duties. He courted and enjoyed the favor of princes, popes and prelates. He abused the papal residence on the Rhone as the Babylon of the West, urged the popes to return to Rome and hailed Cola da Rienzo as an apostle of national liberty. His writings contain outbursts of patriotism but, on the other hand, the author seems to contradict himself in being quick to accept the hospitality of the Italian despots of Mantua, Padua, Rimini and Ferrara, and the viconti of Milan. In 1350, he formed a friendship with Boccaccio which remained warm until his death.
In spite of his priestly vows, Petrarca lived with concubines and had at least two illegitimate children, Giovanni and Francesca, the stain of whose birth was removed by papal bulls. In riper years, and more especially after his pilgrimage to Rome in the Jubilee year, 1350, he broke away from the slavery of sin. "I now hate that pestilence," he wrote to Boccaccio, "infinitely more than I loved it once, so that in turning over the thought of it in my mind, I feel shame and horror. Jesus Christ, my liberator, knows that I say the truth, he to whom I often prayed with tears, who has given to me his hand in pity and helped me up to himself." He took great delight in the Confessions of St. Augustine, a copy of which he carried about with him.
In his De contemptu mundi,—the Contempt of the World, written in 1343, Petrarca confesses as his greatest fault the love of glory and the desire for the immortality of his name. This, the besetting sin of the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Humanists inherited. It became with them a ruling passion. They found it in Cicero, the most read of all the Latin classics. Dante strove after the poet’s laurel and often returned to the theme of fame as a motive of action—lo grand disio della eccelenza.999999 "The noble desire of fame,"Par. xi. 85-117. See, on the subject, Burckhardt-Geiger, I. 154 sq. Pastor, I. 4 sq., calls special attention to this pursuit of the phantom, fame, by the Humanists at courts and from the people. Petrarca, after much seeking on his own part, was offered the poet’s crown by the University of Paris and the Roman senate. He took it from the latter, and was crowned on the Capitoline Hill at Rome, April 8, 1341, Robert, king of Sicily, being present on the occasion. This he regarded as the proudest moment of his life, the excelling glory of his career. In ostentatious piety the poet carried his crown to St. Peter’s, where he laid it on the altar of the Apostle.
Petrarca has been called the first modern scholar and man of letters, the inaugurator of the Italian Renaissance. Unlike Dante, he despised scholastic and mystic learning and went further back to the well of pagan antiquity. He studied antiquity, not as a philologist or antiquarian, but as a man of taste.10001000 Robinson, Life, p. 336, says, "Petrarch’s love for Cicero and Virgil springs from what one may call the fundamental Humanistic impulse, delight in the free play of mind among ideas that are stimulating and beautiful." He admired the Greek and Roman authors for their eloquence, grace and finish of style. Cicero and Virgil were his idols, the fathers of eloquence, the eyes of the Latin language. He turned to Plato. He made a distinction between the religion of the New Testament as interpreted by Augustine and as interpreted by the Schoolmen. Petrarca also opened the period of search and discovery of ancient books and works of art. He spared no pains to secure old manuscripts. In 1345, he found several of Cicero’s letters at Verona, and also a portion of Quintilian which had been unknown since the 10th century. A copy of Homer he kept with care, though be could not read its contents. All the Greek he knew was a few rudiments learned from a faithless Calabrian, Barlaam. He was the first to collect a private library and had 200 volumes. His first thought in passing old convents was to hunt up books. He accumulated old coins and medals and advocated the preservation of ancient monumenta. He seems also to have outlined the first mediaeval map of Italy.10011001 See Burckhardt-Geiger, II., Excursus LXI.
Few authors have more fully enjoyed the benefit of their labors than Petrarca. He received daily letters of praise from all parts of Italy, from France, Germany and England. He expressed his satisfaction that the emperor of Byzantium knew him through his writings. Charles IV. invited him three times to Germany that he might listen to his eloquence and learn from him lessons of wisdom; and Pope Gregory XI. on hearing of his death, ordered good copies of all his books. The next generation honored him, not as the singer of Laura, the wife of another, whose beauty and loveliness he praised in passionate verse,10021002 For Petrarca’s attachment to Laura, see Koerting, p. 686 sq., and Symonds, Ital. Lit., I. 92, and The Dantesque and Platonic Ideals of Love, in Contemp. Rev., Sept., 1890. but as the scholar and sage.
The name of Giovanni Boccaccio, 1313–1375, the third of the triumvirate of the Italian luminaries of the 14th century, has also a distinct place in the transition from the Middle Ages to the age of the Renaissance. With his two great predecessors he was closely linked, with Dante as his biographer, with Petrarca as his warm friend. It was given to him to be the founder of easy and elegant Italian prose. The world has had few writers who can equal him in realistic narration.10031003 Symonds, Ital. Lit., I. 99, says, "Boccaccio was the first to substitute a literature of the people for the literature of the learned classes and the aristocracy," etc. There is ground for the saying that Dante is admired, Petrarca praised, Boccaccio read. He also wrote poetry, but it does not constitute his claim to distinction.
Certaldo, twenty miles from Florence, was probably Boccaccio’s birthplace. He was the illegitimate son of a Florentine father and a Parisian mother. After spending six years in business and giving six to the law,—the whole period being looked upon by him later as lost time,—he devoted himself to literature. Several years he spent at the court of Naples, where he fell in love with Maria, the married daughter of King Robert, who yielded her honor to his advances. Later, he represented her passion for him in L’amorosa Fiammetta. Thus the three great Italian literati commemorate the love of women who were bound in matrimony to others, but there is a wide gulf between the inspiring passion of Dante for Beatrice and Boccaccio’s sensual love.10041004 The best edition of his La Vita di Dante, with a critical text and introduction of 174 pages, is by Francesco Marci-Leone, Florence, 1888. Boccaccio was an unmarried layman and freely indulged in irregular love. His three children of unknown mothers died before him.
In his old age he passed, like Petrarca, through a certain conversion, and, with a preacher’s fervor, warned others against the vanity, luxury and seductive arts of women. He would fain have blotted out the immoralities of his writings when it was too late. The conversion was brought about by a Carthusian monk who called upon him at Certaldo. Upon the basis of another monk’s vision, he threatened Boccaccio with speedy death, if he did not abandon his godless writing. Terrified with the prospect, he determined to renounce the pen and give himself up to penance. Petrarca, on hearing of his state of mind, wrote to him to accept what was good in the monk’s advice, but not to abandon studies which he pronounced the nutriment of a healthy mind.
In zeal for the ancient classics, Boccaccio vied with his contemporary. Many of them he copied with his own hand, and bequeathed them to his father-confessor in trust for the Augustinian convent of the Holy Spirit in Florence. He learned the elements of Greek and employed a Greek of Calabria, Leontius Pilatus, to make a literal translation of the Iliad and Odyssey for learners. An insight into his interest in books is given to us in his account of a visit to Monte Casino. On asking to see the library, a monk took him to a dusty room without a door to it, and with grass growing in its windows. Many of the manuscripts were mutilated. The monks, as his guide told him, were in the habit of tearing out leaves to be used by the children as psalters or to be sold to women for amulets for their arms.
In 1373, the signoria of Florence appointed him to the lectureship on the Divina Commedia, with a salary of 100 guldens gold. He had gotten only as far as the 17th canto of the Inferno when he was overtaken by death.
Boccaccio’s Latin works are mostly compilations from ancient mythology—De genealogia deorum — and biography, and also treat the subject of geography—De montium, silvarum, lacuum et marium nominibus. In his De claris mulieribus, he gave the biographies of 104 distinguished women, including Eve, the fictitious popess, Johanna, and Queen Johanna of Naples, who was still living. His most popular work is the Decamerone, the Ten Days’ Book—which in later years he would have destroyed or purged of its immoral and frivolous elements. It is his poetry in prose and may be called a Commedia Humana, as contrasted with Dante’s Commedia Divina. It contains 100 stories, told by ten young persons, seven ladies and three men of Florence, during the pestilence of 1348. After listening to a description of the horrors of the plague, the reader is transferred to a beautiful garden, several miles from the city, where the members of the company, amid laughter and tears, relate the stories which range from moral tales to indecent love intrigues. One of the well-known stories is of the Jew, Abraham, who, refusing to comply with the appeals to turn Christian, went to Rome to study the question for himself. Finding the priestly morals most corrupt, cardinals with concubines and revelling in riches and luxury, he concluded Christianity must have a divine origin, or it would not have survived when the centre of Christendom was so rotten, and he offered himself for baptism. The Decamerone reveals a low state of morals among priests and monks as well as laymen and women. It derides marriage, the confessional, the hypocrisy of monkery and the worship of relics. The employment of wit and raillery against ecclesiastical institutions was a new element in literature, and Boccaccio wrote in a language the people understood. No wonder that the Council of Trent condemned the work for its immoralities, and still more for its anticlerical and antimonastic ridicule; but it could not prevent its circulation. A curious expurgated edition, authorized by the pope, appeared in Florence in 1573, which retained the indecencies, the impure personages, but substituted laymen for the priests and monks, thus saving the honor of the Church.10051005 In an attempt to break the force of the charge that in its beginnings the Renaissance was wholly an individualistic movement, independent of the Church, Pastor, I. 6 sqq., lays stress upon the gracious treatment Petrarca and Boccaccio received from popes and the repentance of their latter years.
Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio led the way to a recognition of the worth of man’s natural endowment by depicting the passions of his heart. To them also it belonged to have an ardent love for nature and to reproduce it in description. Thus Petrarca described the mountains and the gulfs of the sea as well as Rome, Naples and other Italian places where he loved to be.10061006 See Burckhardt-Geiger, II. 18 sqq. His description of his delight in ascending a mountain near Vaucluse, it has been suggested, was the first of its kind in literature. In these respects, the appreciation of man and the world, they stood at the opening of the new era.
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