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From A Source Book of Mediæval History by Frederic Austin Ogg; American Book Company, New York; pp. 445-452.


79. Dante’s Defense of Italian as a Literary Language

DANTE ALIGHIERI was born at Florence in 1265. Of his early life little is known. His family seems to have been too obscure to have much part 446 in the civil struggles with which Florence, and all Italy, in that day were vexed. The love affair with Beatrice, whose story Boccaccio relates with so much zest, is the one sharply-defined feature of Dante’s youth and early manhood. It is known hat at the age of eighteen the young Florentine was a poet and was winning wide recognition for his sonnets. Much time was devoted by him to study of literature and the arts, but the details of his employments, intellectual and otherwise, are impossible to make out. In 1290 occurred the death of Beatrice, which event marked an epoch in the poetical lover’s life. In his sorrow he took refuge in the study of such books as Boëthius’s Consolations of Philosophy and Cicero’s Friendship, and became deeply interested in literary, and especially philosophical, problems. In 1295 he entered political life, taking from the outset a prominent part in the deliberations of the Florentine General Council and the Council of Consuls of the Arts. He assumed a firm attitude against all forms of lawlessness and in resistance to any external interference in Florentine affairs. Owing to conditions which he could not influence, however, his career in this direction was soon cut short and most of the remainder of his life was spent as a political exile, at Lucca, Verona, Ravenna, and other Italian cities, with a possible visit to Paris. He died at Ravenna, September 14, 1321, in his fifty-seventh year.

Dante has well been called “the Janus-faced,” because he stood at the threshold of the new era and looked both forward and backward. His Divine Comedy admirably sums up the mediæval spirit, and yet it contains many suggestions of the coming age. His method was essentially that of the scholastics, but he knew many of the classics and had a genuine respect for them as literature. He was a mediævalist in his attachment to the Holy Roman Empire, yet he cherished the purely modern ambition of a united Italy. It is deeply significant that he chose to write his great poem — one of the most splendid in the world’s literature — in the Italian tongue rather than the Latin. Aside form the fact that this, more than anything else, caused the Tuscan dialect, rather than the rival Venetian and Neapolitan dialects, to become the modern Italian, it evidenced the new desire for the popularization of literature which was a marked characteristic of the dawning era. Not content with putting his greatest effort in the vernacular, Dante undertook formally to defend the use of the popular tongue for literary 447 purposes. This he did in Il Convito (“The Banquet”), a work whose date is quite uncertain, but which was undoubtedly produced at some time while its author was in exile. It is essentially a prose commentary upon three canzoni written for the honor and glory of the “noble, beautiful, and most compassionate lady, Philosophy.” In it Dante sought to set philosophy free from the schools and from the heavy disputations of the scholars and to render her beauty visible even to the unlearned. It was the first important work on philosophy written in the Italian tongue, an innovation which the author rightly regarded as calling for some explanation and defense. The passage quoted from it below comprises this defense. Similar views on the nobility of the vulgar tongue, as compared with the Latin, were later set forth in fuller form in the treatise De Vulgari Eloquentia.

Source — Dante Alighieri, Il Convito [“TheBanquet”]. Bk. I., Chaps 5-13 passim. Translated by Katharine Hillard (London, 1899), pp. 17-47 passim.

V. 1. This bread being cleansed of its accidental impurities,1 we have now but to free it from one [inherent] in its substance, that is, its being in the vulgar tongue, and not in Latin; so that we might metaphorically call it made of oats instead of wheat. Reasons
for using
the Italian
And this [fault] may be briefly excused by three reasons, which moved me to prefer the former rather than the latter [language]. The first arises from care to avoid an unfit order of things; the second, from a consummate liberality; the third, from a natural love of one’s own tongue. And I intend here in this manner to discuss, in due 448 order, these things and their causes, that I may free myself from the reproach above named.

3. For, in the first place, had it [the commentary] been in Latin, it would have been sovereign rather than subject, by its nobility, its virtue, and its beauty. By its nobility, because Latin is enduring and incorruptible, and the vulgar tongue is unstable and corruptible. For we see that the ancient books of Latin tragedy and comedy cannot be changed from the form we have to-day, The Latin fixed,
the Italian
which is not the case with the vulgar tongue, as that can be changed at will. For we see in the cities of Italy, if we take notice of the past fifty years, how many words have been lost, or invented, or altered; therefore, if a short time can work such changes, how much more can a longer period effect! So that I think, should they who departed this life a thousand years ago return to their cities, they would believe them to be occupied by a foreign people, so different would the language be from theirs. Of this I shall speak somewhere else more fully, in a book which I intend to write, God willing, on Vulgar Eloquence.2

VII. 4. . . . . The Latin could only have explained them [the canzoni] to scholars; for the rest would have not understood it. Therefore, as among those who desire to understand them there are many more illiterate than learned, it follows that the Latin would not have fulfilled this behest as well as the vulgar tongue, which is understood both by the learned and the unlearned. Also the Latin would have explained them to people of other nations, such as Germans, English, and others; in doing which it would have exceeded their order.3 For it would have 449 been against their will I say, speaking generally, to have explained their meaning where their beauty could not go with it. Translations
cannot pre-
serve the lit-
erary splendor
of the originals
And, moreover, let all observe that nothing harmonized by the laws of the Muses4 can be changed from its own tongue to another one without destroying all its sweetness and harmony. And this is the reason why Homer is not turned from Greek into Latin like the other writings we have of theirs [the Greeks];5 and this is why the verses of the Psalter6 lack musical sweetness and harmony; for they have been translated from Hebrew to Greek, and from Greek to Latin, and in the first translation all this sweetness perished.

IX. 1. . . . The Latin would not have served many; because, if we recall to mind what has already been said, scholars in other languages than the Italian could not have availed themselves of its service.7 And of those of this speech (if we should care to observe who they are) we shall find that only to one in a thousand could it really have been of use; because they would not have received it, so prone are they to base desires, and thus deprived of that nobility of soul which above all desires this food. And to their shame I say that they are not worthy to be called scholars, because they do not pursue learning for its own sake, but for the money or the honors that they gain thereby; just as we should not call him a lute-player who kept a lute in the house to hire out, and not to play upon.

X. 5. Again, I am impelled to defend it [the vulgar tongue] from many of its accusers, who disparage it and commend others, above all the language of oco,8 saying that the latter is better and 450 more beautiful than the former, wherein they depart from the truth. Wherefore by this commentary shall be seen the great The Italian of
more solid ex-
cellence than
other tongues
excellence of the vulgar tongue of Si,9 because (although the highest and most novel conceptions can be almost as fittingly, adequately, and beautifully expressed in it as in the Latin) its excellence in rhymed pieces, on account of the accidental ornaments connected with them, such as rhyme and rhythm, or ordered numbers, cannot be perfectly shown; as it is with the beauty of a woman, when the splendor of her jewels and her garments draw more admiration than her person.10 Wherefore he who would judge a woman truly looks at her when, unaccompanied by any accidental adornment, her natural beauty alone remains to her; so shall it be with this commentary, wherein shall be seen the facility of its language, the propriety of its diction, and the sweet discourse it shall hold; which he who considers well shall see to be full of the sweetest and most exquisite beauty. But because it is most virtuous in its design to show the futility and malice of its accuser, I shall tell, for the confounding of those who attack the Italian language, the purpose which moves them to do this; and upon this I shall now write a special chapter, that their infamy may be the more notorious.

XI. 1. To the perpetual shame and abasement of those wicked men of Italy who praise the language of others and disparage Why people of
Italy affect to
despise their
native tongue
their own, I would say that their motive springs from five abominable causes. The first is intellectual blindness; the second, vicious excuses; the third, greed of vain-glory; the fourth, an argument based on envy; the fifth and last, littleness of soul, that is, pusillanimity. And each of these vices ahs so large a following, that few are they who are free of them. . . .


3. The second kind work against our language by vicious excuses. These are they who would rather be considered masters than be such; and, to avoid the reverse (that is, not to be considered masters), they always lay the blame upon the materials prepared for their art, or upon their tools; as the bad The unskilful
attribute their
faults to the
smith blames the iron given him, and the bad lute-player blames the lute, thinking thus to lay the fault of the bad knife or the bad playing upon the iron or the lute, and to excuse themselves. Such are they (and they are not few) who wish to be considered orators; and in order to excuse themselves for not speaking, or for speaking badly, blame and accuse their material, that is, their own language, and praise that of others in which they are not required to work. and whoever wishes to see wherein this tool [the vulgar language] deserves blame, let him look at the work that good workmen have done with it, and he will recognize the viciousness of those who, laying the blame upon it, think they excuse themselves. Against such does Tullius exclaim, in the beginning of one of his books called De Finibus,11 because in his time they blamed the Latin language and commended the Greek, for the same reasons that these people consider the Italian vile and the Provençal precious.

XII. 3. That thing is nearest to a person which is, of all things of its kind, the most closely related to himself; thus of all men the son is nearest to the father, and of all arts medicine is nearest to the doctor, and music to the musician, because these are more closely related to them than any others; of all countries, People should
use their own
language, as
being most nat-
ural to them
the one a man lives in is nearest to him, because it is most closely related to him. And thus a man’s own language is nearest to him, because most closely related, being that one which comes alone and before all others in his mind, and not only of itself is it thus 452 related, but by accident, inasmuch as it is connected with those nearest to him, such as his kinsmen, and his fellow-citizens, and his own people. And this is his won language, which is not only near, but the very nearest, to every one. Because if proximity be the seed of friendship, as has been stated above, it is plain that it has been one of the causes of the love I bear my own language, which is nearer to me than the others. The above-named reason (that is, that we are most nearly related to that which is first in our mind) gave rise to that custom of the people which makes the firstborn inherit everything, as the nearest of kin; and, because eh nearest, therefore the most beloved.

4. And again, its goodness makes me its friend. And here we msut know that every good quality properly belonging to a thing lovable in that thing; as men should have a fine beard, and women should have the whole face quite free from hair; as the foxhound should have a keen scent, and the greyhound great speed. And the more peculiar this good quality, the more loveable it is, whence, although all virtue is lovable in man, that is most so which is most peculiarly human. . . . And we The Italian
fulfils the high-
est require-
ment of a lan-
see that, of all things pertaining to language, the power of adequately expressing thought is the most loved and commended; therefore this is its peculiar virtue. And as this belongs to our own language, as has been proved above in another chapter, it is plain that this was one of the causes of my love for it; since, as we have said, goodness is one of the causes that engender love.


1  Dante represents the commentaries composing the Convito as in the nature of a banquet, the “meats” of which were to be set forth in fourteen courses, corresponding to the fourteen canzoni, or lyric poems, which were to be commented upon. As a matter of fact, for some unknown reason, the “banquet” was broken off at the end of the third course. “At the beginning of every well-ordered banquet“ observes the author in an earlier passage (Bk. II., Chap. 1) “the servants are wont to take the bread given out for it, and cleanse it from every speck.” Dante has just cleansed his viands from the fault of egotism and obscurity, — the “accidental impurities”; he now proceeds to clear them of a less superficial difficulty, i.e., the fact that in serving them use is made of the Italian rather than the Latin language.

2  The date of the composition of the De Vulgari Eloquentia is unknown, but there are reasons for assigning the work to the same period in the author‘s life as the Convito. Like the Convito, it was left incomplete; four books were planned, but only the first and a portion of the second were written. In it an effort was made to establish the dominance of a perfect and imperial Italian language over all the dialects. The work itself was written in Latin, probably to command the attention of scholars whom Dante hoped to convert to the use of the vernacular.

3   The author conceives of the canzoni as masters and the commentaries as servants.

4  That is, any poetical composition.

5  Some students of Dante hold that this phrase about Homer should be rendered “does not admit of being turned”; but others take it in the absolute sense and base on it an argument against Dante’s knowledge of Greek literature.

6  The Book of Psalms.

7  The canzoni were in Italian and a Latin commentary would have been useless to scholars of other nations, because they could not have understood the canzoni to which it referred.

8  The Provençal language — the peculiar speech of southeastern France, whence comes the name Languedoc. Oc is the affirmative particle “yes.”

9  Si is the Italian affirmative particle. In the Inferno Dante refers to Italy as “that lovely country where the si is sounded” (XXX., 80).

10  That is, prose shows the true beauty of a language more effectively than poetry, in which the attention is distracted by the ornaments of verse.

11  The author refers to Cicero’s philosophical treatise De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum.


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