Ernest Hatch Wilkins (essay date 1954)
SOURCE: Wilkins, Ernest Hatch. “Poetry of the Latter Half of the Thirteenth Century.” In A History of Italian Literature, pp. 23-35. Boston, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1954.
[In the following excerpt, Wilkins explores the political and social setting in which Guinizelli and his fellow poets worked.]
The second half of the thirteenth century was marked by violent local warfare, by political upheavals, by extreme religious excitement, by a sudden flowering of activity in architecture, sculpture, and painting, and by a sudden and great expansion of literary production in Italian. It was marked also by the emergence of Tuscany, and especially Florence, into cultural primacy.
With the death of Frederick II the power of the medieval empire came virtually to its end, and the fragmentation of Italy began. Frederick's son Manfred held out for a time in Southern Italy; but the pope offered the kingdom of Naples and Sicily to Charles of Anjou, who won his realm in 1266, at the battle of Benevento, in which Manfred met crushing defeat and tragic death. In 1282 Sicily, in a movement known as the Sicilian Vespers, revolted against the French rule, and called in Peter of Aragon to be its king.
In Northern Italy the collapse of the empire opened the way for the seizure of control in several cities by powerful families. Milan fell to the Visconti; Verona to the Della Scala; Rimini to the Malatesta; and Ravenna to the Polenta. The Este continued to control Ferrara. Genoa and Venice remained as “republics”—they were in reality merchant oligarchies.
The Tuscan cities were rent with internal factional strife—the old names of Ghibelline and Guelf persisting, but with more local meanings than in the days of Frederick—and were often fighting against each other. The bitterest rivalry was that between Florence and Siena, and the most famous battle was that of Montaperti, in 1260, in which the Florentine forces were crushed by Siena and the then exiled Ghibellines of Florence. For a moment the fate of Florence hung in the balance. The proposal that the city should be razed was defeated by Farinata degli Uberti, leader of the Ghibellines. Florentine recovery and development were, however, extraordinarily rapid. The prosperity of the city was increased by the vast broadening of the business of its enterprising merchant companies. The Bardi and the Peruzzi furnished funds to princes and to prelates both in and out of Italy, and served as collecting agents for the papacy. Shortly before the end of the century a bitter feud broke out between two groups (both mainly Guelf) of great Florentine families, groups that came to be known as the Whites and the Blacks respectively. In June 1300, several of the leaders of both groups were banished.
The last and strongest pope of the period was Boniface VIII. He grievously misused his power; but he reorganized and greatly enlarged the Papal library, and he founded the University of Rome. He proclaimed the year 1300 as the first Holy Year: tens of thousands of pilgrims from all parts of Christendom thronged to the Holy City. The order of the Augustinian Hermits, destined to contribute largely to the cause of learning as well as to the cause of religion, was consolidated in 1256.
The Sixth and Seventh Crusades proved ineffective. In 1261 Greek control of the Eastern Empire was reëstablished.
In 1258 a great wave of religious excitement arose in Umbria, whence it swept over Italy—an excitement due in part to the unforgotten prophecy of the Abbot Joachim that a New Age would begin in 1260. Hordes of men and women and children gathered in city squares or marched in long processions, scourging themselves, and crying out in penitence and prayer. This movement, commonly referred to as that of the Flagellants, infused new life into the existing local church-sponsored lay confraternities, and led to an increase in the number of such organizations. In their meetings the members engaged in penance, in prayer, and in other devotional exercises, including singing.
The period was one of philosophic as well as religious excitement, though the center of philosophic excitement was not in Italy, but in France, where scholasticism, invigorated by newly acquired and newly absorbed knowledge of Aristotle, was at its height. The eternal conflict between the Platonic and the Aristotelian views of life—the former considering man as the divinely ensouled center of all creation, the latter considering nature as a whole, and man as a part thereof—was becoming specifically a conflict between Averroistic Aristotelianism on the one hand and Augustinianism on the other. Some of the implications of Aristotelianism were not without danger for Christian doctrine, and certain expressions of Aristotelianism were condemned by the Church. Yet the general greatness of Aristotle was beyond all doubt; and St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of medieval theologians, now undertook the task of capturing Aristotle for Christianity, retaining and developing everything in Aristotle that was not definitely counter to Christian doctrine, but holding firmly to that doctrine whenever the conflict seemed beyond solution. The vast resulting system of thought is set forth in the greatest of the voluminous works of St. Thomas, the Summa Theologiae. The exposition follows relentlessly the accepted logical procedures: no attempt is made to achieve a literary style. In the same years the Platonic-Augustinian position was defended and developed by St. Bonaventure, whose writings, since they are of literary quality, will be referred to in a later chapter.
In May 1291, the brothers Ugolino and Vadino Vivaldi, of Genoa, under took to sail westward across the Atlantic, hoping thus to reach India. Their two ships were last sighted from the Moroccan coast.
Meanwhile, Florence was entering an era of extraordinary architectural activity. The first city palace, the Bargello, was begun about the middle of the century; the church of Santo Spirito in 1269; Santa Maria Novella in 1278; and San Marco, Santa Croce, the Cathedral, and the second city palace, now called the Palazzo Vecchio, all between 1290 and 1300. For churches the prevailing style was the weak Italian version of the French Gothic. Elsewhere in Tuscany, Pisa was completing its cathedral group by the addition of the Camposanto.
Pisa was the adopted home of the first truly great Italian sculptor, Nicola Pisano. His best known works are the large pulpits in the Pisan Baptistery and in the Cathedral of Siena, both adorned with extensive series of bas-reliefs, impressive in their native vigor and in a dignity gained through study of classic sculpture. The leading painters, all of them men who combined respect for the austere Byzantine tradition with an attempt to move beyond its limitations, were, in Florence, Cimabue; in Siena, Duccio; and in Rome, Cavallini. Cimabue brought into the old forms a new religious fervor; Duccio a new grace; and Cavallini a new classic dignity. The main pictorial enterprise of this half century was the fresco decoration of the Upper Church of St. Francis of Assisi.
In this period most of the influential writers who chose to write in any form of the spoken language of Italy were Tuscan, and the Tuscan dialect, somewhat Italianized (that is, somewhat modified by the influence of non-Tuscan dialects and of Latin) came to be generally recognized, except in Piedmont, Liguria, Lombardy, and Venetia, as the normal vernacular language for literary use. Before the end of the following century the unquestioned literary supremacy of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio completed the establishment of Italianized Tuscan as the common Italian language of all Italy.
From this point on it is to be assumed that the language of the vernacular verse and prose to be considered is fairly to be called Italian, except in cases in which some statement to the contrary is made.
The three leading lyric poets of this half century were Guittone d'Arezzo, Guido Guinizelli, and Guido Cavalcanti. Guittone was the first prolific Italian poet—about 300 poems of his are extant—and he was the first significant Italian poet whose home was in Tuscany. He was born in or near Arezzo, about 1225. In his youth he wrote many love poems, some of them canzoni, the rest sonnets. In content these poems imitate the verse of the Provençal troubadours, from which they borrow attitudes, experiences, metaphors, and phrases. They are heavy, verbose, and essentially plebeian; one is aware, however, of a mind at work, thinking seriously, and with signs of a moralizing tendency, about the themes that are being treated. In many canzoni Guittone makes use of the terminal tornada of the Provençals (commonly called commiato or congedo in Italian: both words mean “leave-taking”), which the Frederician poets had disregarded. In his terminal stanzas he sometimes turns to the poem itself, telling it whither to go; sometimes addresses his lady; and sometimes names a friend to whom the poem is to be sent. He did a great deal of metrical experimentation. Two of his sonnets have for the octave the rhyme-scheme abbaabba, which was destined to replace in general favor the simple original abababab. He was the first poet to make written use of the ballata, existent previously as a folk form.
He was intensely Guelf: the defeat of the Florentine Guelfs at Montaperti stirred him deeply, and roused him to the writing of the first Italian political canzone—an Italian sirventés—beginning
Ahi lasso! or è stagion di doler tanto— Alas! now it is time to grieve so much—
a poem that towers above the rest of Guittone's verse.
In or about 1260, in the course of the prevalent religious excitement, Guittone was converted; and not long afterward he joined the order of the Knights of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He remained a busy member of that order for the rest of his life, which lasted until 1293 or a little later. His conversion, far from putting an end to his poetic activity, gave it a new stimulation, directing it into moral and religious channels that were really more congenial to him. The canzoni and sonnets of his later years are almost as numerous as his earlier love poems; and they are superior by reason of their driving moral and religious earnestness. The most notable of his canzoni is one in which he discusses the nature of nobility: his verdict is that it is the heart, and not ancestral blood, that constitutes true nobility. Two of the poems are plazers, the old Provençal genre lending itself well to moralizing use.
In addition to his lyrics Guittone wrote some thirty-five letters, in most of which he sends moral or religious exhortation to his correspondents. A few of these letters are in verse, in forms approximating that of the canzone; the others are in an irregularly rhythmic prose. Two are of much more interest than the rest: one a letter sent to the city of Florence soon after the battle of Montaperti, perhaps with a copy of Guittone's canzone on that battle, the other a letter which starts out almost as if it were to be a love letter, but soon takes a religious turn. Since it is quite possible that this particular letter, because of its union of the idea of feminine charm and the idea of religious service, had a determining influence on other and greater poets, it is here quoted in a much condensed translation:
Most charming Lady:
Almighty God has endowed you with such a marvelous perfection of all excellence that you seem to be rather an angelic than a terrestrial being. We were indeed not worthy that so precious and marvelous a person should dwell on earth. But I believe that it pleased Him to set you among us in order that you might be as it were a mirror, wherein we all might learn to shun vice and to attain virtue, and because you are the desire and the delight and the satisfaction of all who see you and hear you speak. Wherefore you are beholden to Him to serve and love Him with all your heart and with pure and perfect faith, so that the nobility of your spirit, the greatness of your heart, your beauty, and your charm may lead you not to forget Him, but rather to find all your pleasure in serving Him, so that in the court of Paradise you may be as marvelously great as you are among us here.
Guido Guinizelli was a Bolognese jurist. In 1274 he was banished from Bologna with other Ghibellines; he died two years later. As poet, he was in the first instance a faithful follower of Guittone—to whom he once sent a canzone and a sonnet, calling Guittone, in the sonnet, caro padre meo, and asking him to correct the imperfections of the...
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