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From A Teacher of Dante and Other Studies in Italian Literature, by Nathan Haskell Dole, New York: Moffat, Yard & Company, 1908; pp. 89-141.

A Teacher of Dante and
Other Studies in Italian Literature,

Nathan Haskell Dole.




THE sun of Poesy shone bright on the lovely lands of Provence. Numberless Troubadours went wandering through Europe — gay, vagrant bards, furnished with lute and voice, hovering like musical birds in the perfumed atmosphere of luxurious courts and restlessly enjoying their chance existences.

Thus Pierre Vidal is found in Spain and Hungary and the Far East. In 1189 he was with the Marchese Bonifacio in Montferrat where he delighted the nobles with his praises of a fair Lombarda. In 1205 he was in the Island of Malta with Count Enrico. Rambauld de Vaquieras also came to Montferrat and so won favour that the Marquis made him a chevalier and brother-in-arms. He sang of Bonifacio’s sister or daughter, with whom he had very intimate relations. In 1194 he went to Sicily with the Marquis whose life he saved in a battle near Messina. In 1202 he went with him to 90 Jerusalem where five years later he perished by his side. These are only two out of numberless examples of similar relationships.

The Troubadours taught their art to the cultured inhabitants of upper Italy, where Provençal became an almost twin language with Tuscan. Princes and ladies caught the trick of song. Beatrice d’Este, the daughter of Azzo VI. and Emilia of Ravenna, sang of chivalrous love.

Not merely of love did the Troubadours sing: they took active part in politics, choosing sides in the great conflicts between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, urging Emperors to greater zeal against proud Milan or Genova la superba.

Uc de Saint Circ, in a poem addressed to Count Guido Guerra and other Italian Guelfs, displays the bitterest hatred against Frederic the Heretic, threatens his supporters with misfortunes and urges Francis and the Church to a crusade against the Empire, “for the infidel should have no land.”

Then if ever in the history of the world a single song was worth more than the ablest Latin pamphlet.

If the Italians wrote sometimes in Provençal, 91 Rambauld de Vaquieras himself at least twice composed Italian verse. In one song he makes a beautiful Genoese speak in her own dialect, and these verses are regarded as among the most ancient in Italian: they must have been written before 1200, for about that time he left Italy never to return.

The dialect of Northern Italy being not so very different from Provençal, the imitators seemed not to think of raising their own tongue to the dignity of a poetic function; in copying they copied both the model and the language in which the model was composed.

The most celebrated of the Italian Troubadours was Sordello of Mantua, who is praised by Dante in his treatise of “Popular Eloquence,” and, in the sixth and succeeding cantos of the “Purgatory” is transfigured as the type of generous patriotic pride. He wrote the “Treasure of Treasures,” but his works are Provençal if his fame is Italian.

Curiously, but at the same time naturally enough, Sicily was where Italian poetry first began. Northern Italy was too near Marseilles, celebrated by Raimon de Tors as the abode of valour, courtesy, love, song and pleasure; Central 92 Italy had no splendid courts, but in Sicily still lingered the beneficent effects of the preceding Arab civilization, and Federigo II. endeavoured to maintain and even enhance these conditions. He was in every way a remarkable man: interested in science and literature, excelling all his contemporaries in culture and statesmanship. He founded the University of Naples in 1224, collected Arabic and Greek manuscripts and had them translated. He introduced Aristotle to Italy; rhetoric flourished at his court. He had his faults; if he favoured reform it was because he hated the Papal power, but he burnt heretics because he saw in them dangers to his state. The Papal party declared that he denied the immortality of the soul, and Dante placed him in hell as a heretic and atheist in spite of the admiration which he felt for him. He tolerated Mussulmans; he was on friendly terms with the Sultan of Egypt and he followed Oriental usages in maintaining an extensive harem. Indeed, he was called the Baptised Sultan of Sicily, and he deserved the epithet by reason of his love of wisdom, his despotic powers so strangely mixed with magnanimity, and his brutal sensuality.


Though under his immediate predecessors Arabic poetry had flourished in Sicily, its influence entirely vanished under the Provençal poetry of love. Federigo, his son Enzo, King of Sardinia, his favourite statesmen, Pier della Vigna of Capua, all wrote verse under this influence. The life of Della Vigna, even to its tragic ending in 1249, is one long romance.

But otherwise little is known of the Sicilian school except their names and the places from which they came. As their verse was founded on Provençal models, it lacked freshness and originality. The new language seemed to exert no vivifying influences. They all sang chivalrous love — a love which, tested by a standard of purity, was far from golden. The truth about the Troubadours can hardly be told unless in French. Yet this chivalrous love, as expressed in song, represents humble and suppliant adoration: service and obedience are its keynotes. The Troubadour is unworthy; the lady is cruel and causes him to languish in vain; his sorrows bring him even to death, but he will never cease to love her, since from love are derived all valour and virtue. He must, therefore, persevere; faithful service may help him to 94 reach the summit of his desires: suffering and death will give him honour and glory, since he dies for the nobilissima donna.

In Provence this ideal of love, artificial as it seems, was indigenous, springing from a real condition of things, from an actual state of society. It had a certain amount of warmth and sincerity, delicacy, elegance. But transplanted into Italy, after it had outlived its full maturity and was already beginning to wane, it bore very unsatisfactory fruit. The imported thoughts and sentiments corresponded to no real life: Italy, Sicily, had no feudal chivalry. Their festivals and tourneys were stage celebrations. What did Federigo with his seraglio, guarded by eunuchs, know or care for an ideal love? What did he do for the once powerful nobility of the Island but hold it under his iron hand and do his best to destroy it?”

The ancient Sicilian lyric, of which he wrote no small number of delightful examples, is therefore marked by what Gaspary calls a pallid conventionality. Madonna is always the very image of abstract perfection, without life and without movement. She is the flower of women, the fragrant rose; she is the mirror of beauty, like 95 the morning star; her splendour excels that of pearls and precious stones; all excellent qualities belong to her and from her are derived all the prizes that poets boast. Love is an abstraction, a personification, a being with whom the poet talks and to whom he confesses his woes.

Colourless, stiff and immobile are the relations of the lovers in all these conventional poems. Madonna is forever cold; the suitor is sighing out his vows, humbling himself in the dust scarcely daring to hope; in view of his undying love will she not mitigate his torment? Here is an example from the works of the Emperor Federigo:

Oh give me courage, sweetest lady mine,

Whose heart before thee humbly doth incline.

And while I bow what right have I

To such a wished-for gift of love.

Save that I hope and still shall hope,

Save that belief is strong in me

That joy will make my heart beat high

That hope in thee alone doth move,

That without thee I blindly grope

And none on earth would serve but thee.

And when thy lovely face I see,

My dearest love I feel great joy.

I trust thou knowest no annoy

But rather pleasure in my service free,

Oh thou who art the flower of womankind,

Most perfect, most delightful, most refined!


Here are the well-remembered commonplaces; and in others of the same school one constantly comes across the idea that from the beloved no guerdon were better than the greatest from other women. He would not be king at the cost of losing her. Love is frequently depicted as a fire; the lover is like gold tried in this fire. Passion is the tempestuous sea. The lover’s kiss is conventionalized as the spear of Peleus whose wounds can be healed only by touching them again with the same deadly weapon. Forever appear the old stand-bys: Paris and Helen, Pyramus and Thisbe, Tristan and Isolde.

Another characteristic is the introduction of some of the fabulous animals of the Bestiaries, so popular in the Middle Ages. The lover living in the fire is like the salamander; the lady killing with her eyes is compared to the basilisk; the song of the dying swan is heard; the tiger robbed of her young has her mission. The panther attracting other animals by her odorous breath is a type of the lady who lures by her grace.

A considerable part of this conventional ornamentation is attributed to Richard de Barbézien 97 who was especially popular in Italy. Yet in Sicily there was some attempt to be original and to invent new images. “Water,” says Guido delle Colonne in one of his canzone, “is only heated and not destroyed by fire because of the wall of the cup separating them: so he himself who once had been like cold water, yea, like unto ice, has been heated to the boiling point by love and would have entirely evaporated had it not been for madonna.” Certainly this making a sort of tea-kettle of his inamorata is delightfully original!

In another poem the suffering lover declares that just as the load-stone can attract iron only because it uses air as a medium, so love observes that madonna is required to draw the lover to himself.

The metrical form, as might be expected, takes all sorts of curious conventionalities, reminding one of the seventeen-syllable Black and white image of japanese letters spelling hokku - modern haiku. hokku of the Japanese. The canzone consisted of strophes of similar structure and equal length, with a shorter one at the end called comiato, congedo, licenza, chiusa or ritornella. The art consisted in variety of accents, in choice or neglect of caesural pauses, in the judicious 98 and musical mixture of open or close vowel sounds. In Italian double, or feminine, rhymes prevail — the sharp masculine rhyme being almost as comic to the Southern ear as the triple rhyme to ours, and therefore reserved usually for humorous verse.

The length of the lines varied but the most prevalent were the endecasyllabic and the settenario; these two were chiefly employed in later times by Petrarca whose example made these meters classic.

The Italian strophe was generally more complicated than the Provençal and more rarely lacks the artificial division. This consisted of two parts similar in construction, called by Dante pedes, and one of different form called syrma. Sometimes there were four divisions: three pedes and a versus.

The Provençal was rather richer in rhymes than even the Italian, and the Troubadours delighted in carrying the same rhyme-scheme through their poems: these were known as coblas unisonans, while the Italians introduced new rhymes called coblas singulares.

The sonnet arose from the tripartite strophe of the canzone and in its origin is nothing more 99 than the singular strophe adopted by the Troubadours under the name of coblas esparsas, especially designed to convey moral precepts.

The Sicilians rarely used the sonnet-form. There is one by Pier della Vigna, one by King Enzo, one by Mazzo Ricco and a few by Iacopo da Lentini. As if in atonement for this lack they made use of a lyric form called Discord corresponding to the Provençal Descort or Lais. Here was no division into strophes. They were generally very brief; and as they were probably meant to be sung, not too much attention was lavished on their meaning. Here is an example of one and it would defy the most skilful translator or oversætter, as the Norwegians significantly name the rash poet that ties to cross the turbulent stream of poesy, for the meaning is elusive and the form is vaporous:

Si mi sdura



Di quant’ eo ne veio

Gli occhi avere

E verdere

E volere

E loro no disio.

It was written by Iacopo da Lentini.


It is remarkable that a good deal of the Sicilian poetry is so modern in form and so free from any admixture of Sicilian dialect. Some theorists have argued that we have these poems not as they were originally written but as later translations into Tuscan. Dante praises Guido delle Colonne and others of the Sicilians for having risen above the vulgar vernacular and made a purer and nobler language. The school of Sicilian poetry ceased only about forty years before his day.

It is certainly a remarkable circumstance that in three great departments of literature — the drama, lyric poetry and the modern novel — Sicily should have played such an important part. But still more remarkable is it that in at least two of these departments the impulse to a national literature should have come from aliens and enemies.

Federigo II. and his prime minister, Pier della Vigna, were foreigners both, for they lived as frequently in Naples as in Palermo and thus cultivated that wonderfully pure Italian which so puzzles the student in that it seems to have sprung almost perfect from the head of its parent Latin, as Minerva is fabled to have sprung 101 from the brain of Jupiter, without any visible signs of a long and painful gestation. And again, it is wonderful that between the day of the Sicilians whose poems are the earliest known and the forerunners of the great school of Tuscan song, not quite a century can be reckoned. One fragment attributed to Cuillo d’Alcamo mentions Saladin as living in his day and this seems to place him at the end of the twelfth century — about 1193 — and Dante was banished from Florence in 1202.

There is still another reason to explain the exceptional purity of the Sicilian Italian of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and that is the fact that Federigo II. attracted to his court poets from many different provinces, and the elegance and refinement of the society tended to smooth down the crudenesses which they might have brought with them. It is interesting to notice how, the more nearly one approaches the poetry of the people, the more simple, natural and effective it becomes. The dreary conventionalities disappear. The lady-love is no longer cold and distant and severe; the lover no longer humbles himself in the dust; he awakes from his indolent posture of adoration, and if he mourn 102 it is because he must leave her, though he may envy his own heart because that at least is left in her keeping. While far away from her, in camp, or on the crusade, he remembers her lovely eyes — suoi bei occhi — and her bright tresses — biondi tressi.

In some cases the lady is described as descending from the window of her palace and throwing herself into the poet’s arms. She is represented with a little animation when she talks — weeping, expostulating, using her eyes. And it is undoubtedly a more honest poetry. For the cold and apparently chaste verse of the Troubadours was only a whited sepulchre; the chivalrous love of the Middle Ages was fair only on the outside; the courts of honour were dens of dishonour and the real truth of Feudalism cannot be told.

The dramatic element that is to be detected in some of the early fragments of Sicilian verse is indicative of an approaching change. For instance in one contrasto or dialogue, beginning Rosa fresca aulentissima — “Fresh fragrant rose that bloomest in the springtime” — a man and a woman are represented as engaged in lively conversation. He prays her to listen; she 103 resists. He grows petulant, she becomes angry and threatens to go into a convent or kill herself.

It was long supposed that this fresh and lively poem was the production of a poet endowed with the name of Cielo dal Camo. By the middle of the sixteenth century it had become transmogrified into Cuillo — which is a form of Vencenzo — d’Alcamo, and the inhabitants of the little city of Alcamo became so proud of their supposed poet that they called a piazza by his name and actually raised a monument to his memory. But the poet of Alcamo is as great a myth as William Tell. The story proves very abundantly that the poet that writes a single good lyric which appeals to the world’s heart and is never forgotten is more fortunate than the more ambitious genius that leaves behind him an epic which may be called great but is never read except as a curiosity or an exercise for students of literature.

The growth of the myth about Cuillo d’Alcamo is an interesting phenomenon. It was generally decided that as the young woman who is the heroine of his poem speaks of the wealth of the Saladin, her lover must have been a great feudal baron, owner of cities and castles. Hallam, 104 in his “History of the Middle Ages,” says: “There is not a vestige of Italian poetry older than a few fragments of Cuillo d’Alcamo, a Sicilian, who must have written before 1193, since he mentions Saladin as then living.”

Not until 1875 was it settled from internal evidence of the language of the poem itself that it could not have been written before 1231 and it is now regarded by the best judges as either a solitary example of the ancient popular poetry of Sicily or, more probably, an imitation of one by a so-called cantor di piazza. In either case it is far more interesting than the vast majority of the poems that have come down to us and are preserved in the great collection of the Vatican.

The founders of this new lyric school were Guido Guinicelli, Guittone d’Arezzo and Guido Cavalcante. Guittone d’Arezzo composed his great canzone on the Battle of Mont Aperti just before the birth of Dante. It was a political satire on that battle when the Guelfs of Florence 105 were disastrously defeated by the Sienese and King Manfred’s cavaliers, and the Ghibellines who had been expelled two years before returned in triumph. Guittone, like Dante, Brunetto Latini and Petrarca’s father, was a Guelf and he laments the fallen city overturned by its own sons and subjected to the German sword and the enemies of their commune. It seems heavy and prosaic to us, but it has some energy as he depicts “Florence, that ever reviving flower,” calling in her enemies and conquered by force and the Sienese when she ought to be Queen of Tuscany.

All of these early versifiers borrowed phrases and ideas and conventional forms of speech from the Troubadours of Provence. It was a decided advance, however, on the former custom of writing in Provençal.

Among the favourite amusements of these singers was the composition of tenzoni in which two poets are represented as comparing their lady-loves. Thus Dante de Maiano (who was born near Fiesole) demands of Tommaso da Faenza an answer to the question: ‘What is the greatest pang of love?” Another favourite exercise would be the defence of some such 106 question as “Whether it is wiser to court a maiden than a widow,” and this would be conducted in a long sequence of sonnets.

As a general thing love in the Middle Ages had nothing to do with maidenly affections. It may be imagined that a country which even in our own day and generation tolerated the strange system of the cavaliere servente — typified in Lord Byron’s relations with the Countess Guiccioli — was even less strict in the Middle Ages. The mariage de convenance made its allowance for the demands of natural passion and thus one of the strange phenomena of humanity is easily and naturally explained. We no longer wonder at Dante or Petrarca addressing their sonnets to ladies honestly wedded and the mothers of respectable families.

The artificiality of these sonneteers is quite peculiar and deserves mention because the conventions affected the greatest of their successors and thus had an influence on all the poetry of the modern world. Verbal conceits abound; quibbles are artfully introduced. Thus the word amore which means love is of malice prepense confused with amaro, which means bitter. 107 In the same way Petrarca rings the changes on l’aura, the breeze and lauro the laurel and Laura, the fair object of his passion.

Complications of internal rhymes also attest the ingenuity, if not the inspiration, of the school of Guittone, as for example:

Similemente — gente — criatura

La portatura — pura — ed avvenente

Faite plagente — mente — per natura

Si che ’n altura — cura — volagente.

These difficult and complicated rhyming schemes are called in Provençal rims cars — dear rhymes. Alliterations, repetitions, verbal conceits, naturally led to affectation of far-fetched obscurity. A poet devoted to such filigree work was Arnaut Daniel, who was praised by Dante in the twenty second canto of the “Purgatory” “as a better smith of the maternal speech” than Guido Guinicelli. “In love-verses and romantic prose,” Dante makes Guido say — in versi d’ amore e prose di romanze soverchio tutti — “he surpassed all,” and he compliments him by writing eight lines in Provençal.

Guittone d’Arezzo grew more and more addicted to this metaphysical and obscure style, until it became almost a disease. At first he 108 sang of love: without love there could be no excellence, so he begs love to enter into him and inform him. He urges his old master Bandino to teach him the secret. But suddenly by an impulse not at all uncommon in the Middle Ages, he turns from human love to love divine. At the age of thirty-five he abandons wife and child, accepting literally the words of Scripture, and enters the order of the Cavalieri di Santa Maria; he condemns his former life and his own sonnets and canzoni in which he had sung of love, and gives himself up to dry sermonising on the existence of God, in scholastic language, with which he mixes citations from Aristotle and Cicero, Seneca and Boethius. He died in 1294.

These earlier poets were constantly making experiments in poetic forms and working the sonnet into its permanent classic shape. The very megatherium of verse is the sonnetto doppio, and equally uncouth is the sonnetto renterzato; in length and portentous bulk comes the ichthyosaurus of sonnets consisting of four quartine and three terzine. One relic of those antediluvian forms, as the camel and elephant are relics of prehistoric fauna, is the tailed sonnet, one example of which was left by Milton.


Chiaro Davanzati had some skill in such conceits. Thus, in one of his dialogues in sonnet form he says: “It chanced to me as to the bird that flies away and comes not back. In the pasture which it finds delightful it dwells and remains: thus my heart has flown to thee.” A Japanese poet-emperor might have said that.

But his love replies: “I deny that I have thy heart, and, if I had, I would give it back to thee.”

In another sonnet Chiaro says: “The light or sun when he appears resplendent sends brightness into every darkest part; such virtue hath his gaze, so superior to all other is his splendour; so doth madonna fill with joy at sight of her whoever hath a pang.”

Dante copies the same pretty conceit. Chiaro Davanzati fought in the famous battle of Monte Aperti and was dead in 1280: that is nearly all that is known about him.

Hitherto, in Italian verse as in the typical verse of the Troubadours, the donna — madonna to use the sweet Tuscan word — is an abstraction, or at least a painting removed from the passions of the every-day world; but as the transition begins we find a more realist state of things. Thus in the canzoni of Compagnetto 110 da Prato we catch glimpses of women unhappily wedded and pouring out their complaints into the ears of their lovers. It seems like folk-poetry in many cases, and certainly the morality, or affectation of morality, vanishes when a poem represents a girl complaining that her father intends to marry her to a man whom she detests and her lover comforts her by bidding her unhesitatingly to take the hated spouse as so many others do, since this impediment will not prevent their loving each other still and being happy:

Assai donne mariti anno

Che da lor son forte odiati

De’ be’ sembianti lor donno

Però non son di più amati

Cosi voglio che tu faccia

Ed avrai molta gioia.

In other cases the wife is represented as earnestly desirous of the death of her spouse: in presence of others she would weep and would even wear decent-appearing weeds of mourning, but secretly she would rejoice; like the young widow who went into the parlour where lay the cold and rigid form of her aged millionaire husband and bending over the coffin was heard to 111 exclaim: “The Lord hath given and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”

The discovery of the lost works of Aristotle had a profound influence on the thoughts of the thirteenth century; this was speedily shown in the productions of the poets, and was first shown in the new school of Bologna. Guido Guinicelli was the founder of this sweet new style — dolce stil nuovo. Dante finds him in purgatory and speaks of him as

 il padre

mio e degli altri miei miglior che mai

Rime d’ amore usar dolci e leggiadre,

thus confessing his indebtedness to him for the sweet and graceful rhythms of love. Guinicelli confesses to Dante that he and those with him — too numerous to call by name — had sinned by obeying no human law, by following their appetites like animals, but he says:

Son Guido Guinicelli e già mi purgo

Per ben dolermi primo ch’ allo stremo.

Repentance before death would ultimately bring about his redemption and Dante confesses his sorrow when he hears the words of him whom he calls father of himself and of his betters.


Then Guinicelli asks Dante why in speech and look he held him dear. Dante replies: —

li dolci detti vostri,

Che quanto durerà l’ uso moderno

Faranno cari ancora i loro inchiostri —

“Your sweet ditties, which as long as the modern fashion shall endure will make dear their manuscripts.

This Guido Guinicelli was of a noble family of Bologna, but almost all that is known of him is that he died in 1276. He was a disciple of Guittone, whom he calls caro padre mio. At first he followed the style of the Sicilian school and in his early verses are seen the same commonplaces, the same images and similitudes, the same vacuity and monotony. But when he outgrew the old idea that love was derived from the senses and exerted his force through the eyes, he established a loftier ideal. Love has his throne only in the noble heart.

Guido Guinicelli compares the search of Love for a home in some generous breast to the bird seeking amid green foliage its blessed nest. To him nobility of heart and love are as inseparable as the sun and its splendour. Just as the gem when purified from all that 113 contaminates absorbs the virtue of the sun, so the heart, made pure and noble, is inflamed by sight of the beloved lady. Here seems to be the origin of Dante’s flaming heart in the “Vita Nuova.” And just as water quenches flame, so all impurity puts an end to love.

Again madonna becomes the abstract compendium of all perfections — the very symbol and incarnation of superior qualities. The impure chivalrous passion of the Troubadours is refined into a spiritual love.

We now begin to meet the figure of the madonna transmuted into an angel come straight from heaven. Thus Lapo Gianni sings;

Angelica figura nuovamente

Dal ciel venuta a spender tua salute,

Tutta la sua virtute

Ha in te locata l’ alto dio d’ Amore.

This rapid survey brings us directly to Dante who had the manner of thought of his predecessors and the same theory of poetry, the same spirtualised concept of love. But while he uses the poetic apparatus of Guittone and Guinicelli, he rises superior to them by his greater genius, his more powerful imagination. Dante reminds one of Palestrina. Just as 114 “the Saviour of Music” confined himself to the strictest laws of counterpoint but by his spontaneous invention secured effects not dreamed of before, so Dante excelled all his predecessors and eclipsed them as the sun quenches the light of the morning stars.


In passing from Dante to Petrarca we come into another world. Dante closes an era: he is the Titan of Italian poetry; with him the mediæval is summed up forever.

Petrarca is as modern as Chaucer. Just as in midsummer, sometimes, a few days of genuine spring weather seem to stray like summer birds from their exile in the South, as if impatient to be at home once more, so we find simultaneously in England and Italy these two modern men centuries ahead of their day. How gay, unsentimental, free from morbidness, from provincialism is Dan Chaucer! He was of humble origin, the name signifying shoemaker, and yet he rose to be courted by kings and emperors and 115 one of his descendants just missed inheriting the throne of England.

So Petrarca, as is proved by the name, which means Little Peter or Peterkin, sprang from the common people. His father was Ser Petracco di Ser Parenza — unable even to boast a family name — and when he was driven from Florence by that miserable squabble between the two factions that were always tearing the vitals of the city, he carried away with him on that January day in 1302 only a small part of the possessions which he had accumulated as a jurist.

The misfortune which befell Italy had been prognosticated. In September, 1301, a comet flamed in the western sky and twice that year Saturn and Mars had been in conjunction in the sign of the Lion which was the astrological symbol of Italy. These of us who place some reliance on astrological prophecies, looking back, may perhaps see in that comet a sign of the coming poet, who should, more than any other, influence the world of letters.

Ser Petracco took refuge in Arezzo, a city of Tuscany, and found on the so-called Garden Street a house, as the poet says, haud sane 116 ampla seu magnifica, sed qualis exsulem decuisset — “not indeed magnificent but suitable for an exile.”

On Monday, July 20th, almost at the very hour when the Bianchi were making their last fruitless effort to regain the ascendancy, Francesco di Petracco was born. Here on the fifteenth of June, 1800, so nearly five exact centuries later, Napoleon, about to fight “Marengo’s bloody battle,” paused to grant, out of honour to Petrarca’s memory, amnesty to its inhabitants.

Petrarca’s life lies before us with remarkable clearness. Hundreds of letter give us an almost complete autobiography; but it has been charged against him that he was ashamed of his humble birth. He tells us little about his father’s family. We know that his great-grandfather Ser Garzo, a man of considerable native wisdom, though uneducated, lived at Incisa a few miles from Florence and died at the age of 104 on his birth-day, in the very room where he had been born.

Of Petrarca’s mother nothing is known and the Italian biographers are still struggling over the unsolved problem — whether her name was 117 Eletta, as seems to be indicated in his poem on her death, where he calls her Electa Dei tam nomine quam re — in that case making her a member of the well-known family of Cino Canigiani; or Nicolosa, daughter of Vanni Cini Sizoli, or whether she was Petracco’s second wife or whether she was only sixteen when she gave birth to her famous son Francesco — Cecco as they called him. When he was six months old he went with his mother to Incisa and on the way as they crossed the Arno the horse of the servant who was carrying him stumbled and the baby was almost drowned.

At Incisa he spent the first six or seven years of his life and it is generally believed that he there acquired that perfect Tuscan speech which did him and his country such honour. The house where he dwelt is still shown, though badly ruined, and it bears an inscription to the effect that here the great poet first uttered the sweet sounds of his mother tongue. In 1312 Petracco assembled his family in Pisa but perhaps found it impossible to support them there. Like many other banished Florentines he hoped for better fortunes in France and accordingly took his family to Avignon.


The Pope, Clement V., was wandering about France — at Bordeaux, Lyons, Poitiers, Montpellier and Avignon, and in October, 1316, his successor, John XXII. established the Papal Court definitely at Avignon. Hither Petracco came in 1313 and a second time the son nearly lost his life in a shipwreck near Marseilles. Avignon, on the left bank of the Rhone, was a part of Provence and at this time Provence was the patrimony of King Robert of Naples: here the king had his court from 1318 until 1324.

The influences to which Petrarca must have submitted in this transplantation should not be disregarded. Although he detested Avignon itself with its narrow streets and vile odours, yet it was the home of Provençal song and must have given him his first leaning to poetry.

Little in the way of anecdote can be told of his childhood. An astrologer prophesied that he would win the favour of almost all the princes of his day, and this was fulfilled. Also he himself relates in one of his letters how his father showed him the picture of a double-bodied boy with twin heads, four hands and other curious prototypal anticipations of the Siamese twins, that had been born in Florence and lived two 119 or three weeks. He relates that his father gave his ear a sharp switch that he might the better remember the marvel.

Expenses were high in Avignon and Petracco established his family at Carpentras, the capital of a little province where were mineral-springs and a quiet easy life. Here Petrarca lived four years and first enjoyed regular schooling at the hands of a scholar named Convennole or Convenevole who had a school there. This Convennole is believed by some to be the author of a portentous Latin poem of very mediocre value. He was in perpetual pecuniary difficulties and Petrarca’s father often assisted him, but the man played him a very mean trick. In later years Petrarca himself came to his aid but his generosity was likewise most shabbily acquitted: he took two priceless manuscripts by Cicero and disposed of them. The books must have been destroyed, for no trace of them was ever found and thus were lost Cicero’s Libri de Gloria.

Nevertheless, when Convennole died at Prato in 1340 or 1344 his fellow-citizens placed a poet’s laurel crown on his tomb and Petrarca offered to write his epitaph.


The progress which Petrarca made in his studies was not remarkable and it is to be deeply regretted that a more liberally cultured scholar had not directed his training. A large part of Petrarca’s works is in Latin but he never acquired a perfect style, such as Erasmus was able to wield. His Latin is mediæval: he himself discovered Cicero’s Epistles but it was too late in life to modify his habits. Only his inherent genius enabled him to invest his Latin Letters with a perennial charm. Certainly his correspondence with Boccaccio is one of the most precious possessions of literature and it is one of the strange anomalies of life that it so long has remained a sealed book to English readers.

Petrarca’s principal playmate and friend in Convennole’s school was Guido Settimo who became Archbishop of Genoa, their friendship enduring more than fifty years. With the future archbishop the future poet made his first visit to the source of the Sorgue at Vaucluse or Val chiusa, the Shut-in Valley which he was to immortalise.

From Carpentras Petrarca was sent to the high school at Montpellier with the idea of 121 fitting him for his father’s profession of the law. Here he spent four years but what he studied, or what his experiences were, is wholly unknown, or at least wholly a matter of conjecture mixed with imagination. One single anecdote of this time is preserved in Petrarca’s correspondence. His father, thinking that general literature was too much drawing his son’s attention away from the law, came unexpectedly to Montpellier, and making a thorough search for his books succeeded in finding them, carefully hidden though they had been, and flung them into the fire; moved, however, by his son’s bitter tears he allowed him to rescue a copy of Vergil and Cicero’s “Rhetoric.”

From Montpellier he went to Bologna in 1323 with his brother Gherardo and here again he neglected the lectures on civic law to the advantage of what are called “the humanities.” He also enjoyed the gaieties of a student’s life and in his later days liked to recall them, especially as Bologna was at this time free from the disturbances that elsewhere were racking the Italian cities. The gates of the town were not closed till late at night, so secure felt the inhabitants, and the students had free course. With one of his 122 instructors Petrarca made a visit to Venice and here also he found the highest tide of prosperity. Soon both cities were doomed to vail their glories.

Among his many friends at Bologna was Giacomo Colonna who afterwards became Bishop of Lombes and gave him a home.

Petracco died in 1326, leaving his family in deep poverty, and the two sons returned to Avignon. Petrarca’s only legacy was a manuscript of Cicero. With this, the profession of the law, none too enticing to him in any circumstances, seemed to be out of the question and as the Church offered greater inducements and especially as his friend Colonna was already on the road to high preferment, he decided to adopt this profession.

On the sixth of April, 1327, almost a year after his father’s death and not long after the probable death of his mother, Petrarca saw in the church of Santa Chiara at Avignon for the first time the lady whom he celebrated under the name of Laura.

Who was she?

This question has been a puzzle for two centuries and seems to offer no chance of satisfactory solution. Opinions have varied in the widest way. Some scholars have argued that 123 the lady who inspired Petrarca’s muse to such lofty flights of song was only a creature of his imagination; others, including Körting, give a certain amount of credence to the ingenious though somewhat sophisticated evidence of the clever Abbé de Sade, who elaborately argued that she was the daughter of Audibert de Noves and she was born in 1307, that she was wedded to Hugh de Sade, the Abbé’s ancestor, and bore him eleven children. A tomb at Avignon was opened in 1533 and in the coffin were found a medal and a sonnet. The sonnet was supposed to be Petrarca’s though it was hardly worthy of his fame. On the medal were the initials “M. L. M. I.” which were interpreted to mean Madonna Laura morta iacit — “Here lies the body of Madonna Laura.”

This discovery was in accordance with an old tradition that Laura was a De Sade. The Abbé Costaing of Pusignan believed that she was Laura des Beaux, the daughter of the Seigneur de Vaucluse Adhemar de Cavaillon, on her mother’s side descended from the house of Orange and that she lived with her relatives on her estates of Galas on the hills overlooking 124 the valley, and that she died not of the plague but of a consumption.

There is no phase of this famous passion that has not been made the subject of an essay or a poem.

Was she a widow or a maiden or the mother of a patriarchal family? Was Petrarca’s description of her beauty based on the reality or is it an ideal figment of his imagination? Was she a heartless coquette as was believed by Macaulay? Would Petrarca have written a fuller and more perfect book of songs had she been perfectly complacent? So the learned Professor Zendrini argues. Was Laura an ambitious woman caring for nothing but her own praise and cold to Petrarca not by reason of virtue but because of her insensibility?

A hundred similar questions arise, and how idle they are! Only one of them we may answer and that in the poet’s own words. Some one of his friends had evidently suggested that his complaints were imaginary and his Laura a being of air, as the name implies. He answered as follows:

“What dost thou mean by saying that I have invented the specious name of L’Aura as 125 if I wished to have something to talk about; that Laura is in reality nothing but a poetic fiction of my mind to which long and unremitting study proves that I have been aspiring; but that of this breathing Laura by whose form and beauty I seem to be a captive taken is all manufactured, verses fictitious, sighs simulated? Would that in this respect thou wert jesting in earnest! Would that it were simulatio and not furor. But believe me, no one without great effort can long use simulations but to struggle vainly to appear mad is the height of madness [summa insania]. Moreover while we may succeed in counterfeiting illness by our actions, we can not imitate pallor” — tibi pallor tibi labor meus notus est.

There are several passages in Petrarca’s Latin writings where he makes it evident that Laura was an actual person. One is in the treatise concerning Scorn of this World in which he represents himself at the instigation of Truth, who appears to him in the form of a stately virgin, as holding a three days’ conversation with his beloved instructor Saint Augustine. In the third dialogue Saint Augustine points out that Petrarca is held in the chains of two 126 passions which keep him from the true contemplation of life and of death: these are Love and Glory. Augustine expresses his surprise that a man of Petrarca’s talent should spend so large a part of his life in praise of an earthly love; and he predicts that the time will come when he will feel ashamed of himself and of this passion.

Petrarca replies that he has already, even during her life time, written a sonnet on her approaching death, having seen her once beautiful body exhausted by illnesses and frequent — what? Here is one of the mysteries; in the manuscript the word is, as usual, contracted and reads ptbus, which De Sade thinks stands for partubus — frequent child-bearing; while other manuscripts have the word spelled out: pertubationibus. If she was the mother of eleven children, De Sade would seem to have reason on his side.

Petrarca goes on to assure Saint Augustine that in his Laura he had worshipped not the mortal body but the immortal soul and that even if she should die before he did, he would still love her virtue and her spirit. Saint Augustine objects that though she be perfect as a goddess, yet even that which is most beautiful 127 may be loved shamefully — turpiter; but Petrarca asseverates the purity of his passion and declares that in nothing but its impetuosity was he guilty before her: that she was the source and origin of all his glory; she had nurtured the feeble germ of virtue in his breast; she was the mirror of perfection and love has the power to transmute the lover into the standard of the object loved.

But Saint Augustine is not satisfied: he points out the danger of deception and thinks that the fact that he has loved his love so exclusively has caused him to scorn other human beings and human interests. Earthly love has turned Petrarca from the heavenly and into the straight road to death.

In the course of the conversation Saint Augustine brings Petrarca to confess that he has carried next his heart a portrait of his Laura and that even the laurel wreath is dear to him only because it brings the echo of her name. And when Petrarca asks Saint Augustine what he can do to be saved from such a dangerous passion, the Saint recommends change of scene.

“Alas,” replies the poet, “in vain have I wandered West and North, far and long, even to 128 the shores of the Deep, and like the wounded stag carried my wound with me wherever I went.” Augustine recommends Italy and here occurs his justly famed magnificent eulogium of that beauteous land. This leads naturally to the other chain — glory.

The second passage occurs in a poetic epistle to Giacomo Colonna, written probably in August 1337, two days after returning to Avignon after a long journey:

“Beloved beyond measure is a woman known by her virtue and her ancient lineage — sanguine vetusto. And my songs have given her glory and spread her fame far and wide. Ever does my heart turn back to her and with renewed pangs of love she overcomes me nor does it seem likely that she will ever renounce her conquest.”

She had conquered him he says not by any arts of coquetry but by the rare beauty of her form. After enduring the chain for ten years, after wasting to a shadow and becoming another man, the fever of love so penetrating the very marrow of his bones that he could hardly drag one leg after another and he yearned for death, suddenly he determined to strike for freedom 129 and shake off the yoke. God gave him strength to win the battle; but even then the mistress of his heart pursued him as if he were an escaped slave.

“I fly,” he says, “I wander over the whole circle of he world, I dare to plough the stormy billows of the Adriatic and the Tyrrhene seas and I entrust my life, rescued from the toils of love, to a tossing vessel: for why should I, wearied by the torments of the soul, and sick of life, fear a premature death? I turn my steps toward the West and behold the lofty summits of the Pyrenees from my couch in the sunny grass. I behold the ocean from where the weary God of Day, after his long journey, dips his chariot of fire in the Hesperian flood and where looking up to Atlas turned to stone at sight of Medusa, he causes the steep mountain precipices to throw long shadows, and hides the moors with hastening shades of night. Hence I turn to the North and Boreas, and, lonely, wander through those lands that are filled with the harsh accents of barbarians’ tongues, where the gloomy waves of the British sea splash with changeful foam the shores of half-known coasts and where the icy soil denies obedience to the 130 friendly plough and keeps the vine-stock alien to the hills. Little by little as I journeyed, the billows of my passion grew calm: pain, wrath and fear began to vanish; now and then peaceful slumber closed my eyelids moist with tears, and an unaccustomed smile played over my face; and already in my recollection with less of threat and less of authority arose the image of my deserted love.”

Alas, he goes on, he was deceived; he thought he might disregard the sting of passion; the wound was not healed, the anguish was not allayed. He returned, but no sooner was he within the walls of the beloved city than his breast was again laden with the burden of cares. And then follows that superb description not dimmed even in the Latin in which it is couched.

“The sailor fears not with such terror the reefs as he sails through the night, as I now fear my love’s face and her heart-stirring words, her head crowned with golden tresses and her snowy neck encircled with a chain and her eyes dealing sweet death.”

Even in the secluded vale of Vaucluse he finds no relief. Useless to bewail the vanished years. Waking he sees her and at night her 131 image seems to come through the triple-locked doors, of his chamber at midnight and claim him as her slave. Then before the morning paints with crimson the eastern sky, he arises and leaves the house and wanders over mountain and through forest, ever on the watch to see if she is not there.

“Oft,” he says, “when I think I am alone in the pathless woods, the bushes waving in the breeze present her figure and I see her face in the bole of the lonely oak; her image rises from the waters of the spring; I seem to see her in the clouds, in the empty air and even in the adamantine stone.”

To the celebration of this love he consecrates 291 sonnets, twenty-four canzoni, nine sestini, seven ballata and four madrigals, besides the semi-epic poem written in terza rima like the “Divina Commedia.” In these sonnets — which are curious in this respect that they are not a sequence, they mark no progression: they are like a placid lake, not a river — Petrarca celebrates his love in every way. Every little event inspires a poem. Once he sees her about to cross a stream and the removal of her white shoes and red stockings leads to a sonnet. Her 132 beauty is ever the thought in his mind: both in Italian and Latin he tells us:

Una donna più bella che ’l sole,

forman parem non ulla videbunt saecula —

“A woman lovelier than the sun, whose form no century will ever see equalled.”

And again of her gait and voice:

non era l’ andar suo cosa mortale,

ma d’ angelica forme e le parole

sonavan altro che pur voce umana —

“Her gait was not a mortal thing but of an angelic form and her words sounded different from any human voice:”

cuius nec vox nec oculorum vigor

nec incessus hominem repraesentat,

A few of the lovely passages — which alas! even in a paraphrase must lose much of their charm — must furnish a hint of the richness of this collection of poems which Guiseppe Jacopo Ferrazzi calls the bible of poets, and which is by most critics considered “the most perfect monument of love-poetry among modern nations.”

Her name, he says in the fifth sonnet, which is devoted to an elaborate pun upon it — Lau-re-ta and Lau-re — was written on his heart by love. He sends her some fruit in spring and the thought that the sun has ripened it causes 133 him to call her “a sun among women” — tra le donne un sole — which shedding the rays of her bright eyes upon him wakes into life the thoughts, acts and words of love. But he concludes sadly that though spring may shine on earth again there will never be spring again for him. Most beautiful is the beginning of the second canzone

Verdi panni, sanguini, oscuri o persi —

excellently translated by Miss Louise Winslow Kidder:

Green robes, blood-coloured, dark or reddish black

Or golden hair in shining tresses heaped,

Ne’er clothed a woman beautiful as she

Who robs me of my will, and with herself

Allures me from the path of liberty,

So that no other servitude less grave

Do I endure.

In this canzone there are eight stanzas of seven lines each and a sort of coda of two lines, there being only seven rhymes in the whole poem. In the sestine are no rhymes, but each stanza of six lines has the same word endings. In the third canzone he speaks of her beautiful soft eyes which carry the keys to his sweet thoughts:

Que’ begli occhi soavi

Che portaron le chiavi

De’ miei dolci pensier.

And further on he speaks of the golden tresses 134 which should make the sun full of deep envy and her beautiful calm look — bel guardo sereno — where the rays of Love are so warm, and still recalling her graces, her white delicate hands and lovely arms —

le man bianchi sottili

e le braccia gentili.

All very well translated by Macgregor:

The soft hands, snowy charm,

The finely rounded arm,

The winning way, by turns, that quiet scorn.

He renders the lines

I dolci sdegni alteramente umili

e ’l bel giovenil petto

torre d’ alto intelletto

Chaste anger, proud humility adorn

The fair young breast that shrined

Intellect pure and high.

Wotton translates the lines:

L’ oro e le perle e i fior vermigli e i bianchi

Che ’l verno devria far languidi e secchi:

Those golden tresses, teeth of pearly white,

Those cheeks’ fair roses blooming to decay.

But it very well illustrates the danger one runs in reading translations: the gold and pearls and red and white flowers are the adornments which Laura wears and which are reflected in the mirror against which he complains because in 135 seeing herself reflected there she cares more for herself than for him.

Particularly beautiful is the sonnet in which he blesses all the circumstances of his passion:

Benedetto sia ’l giorno, e ’l mese e ’l anno

E la stagione e ’l tempo e l’ oro e ’l punto

E ’l bel paese e ’l loco ou’ io fui giunto

Da duo begli occhi.

This translated literally reads:

“Blest be the day and the month and the year and the season and the time and the hour and the instant and the fair country and the place where I was captured by two lovely eyes that enchained me fast.” And the sonnet proceeds: “And blest be the first sweet inquietude [affanno] that I felt at being joined with love, and the bow and arrows whereby I was wounded and the wounds that came into my heart. Blest be the voices which calling out the name of my lady, I scattered; and the sighs and the desire; and blest be all the writings whereby I won my fame and my thought which is wholly of her, so that no other has a share in it.”

After eleven years of perduti giorni, since that “fierce passion’s strong entanglement” (as Dacre translates the line) he calls upon the 136 Father of Heaven to vouchsafe unto him power to turn to a different life and to finer achievements

ad altra vita ed a più belle imprese.

But still the charm holds: even if he would forget her the sight of the green laurel-tree brings her so vividly before him that amid the oaks and pines on the shore of the Tuscan sea where the waves broken by the winds complain, he falls as it were dead; even after fourteen years have passed he still sings her golden locks flowing in mazy ringlets to the breeze — capelli d’ oro a l’ aura sparsi.

Leigh Hunt has a good translation of the canzone to the Fountain of Vaucluse beginning Chiare, fresche e dolci acque —

Clear, fresh and dulcet streams,

Which the fair shape who seems

To me sole woman haunted at noon-tide.

Fair bough, so gently fit

(I sigh to think of it)

Which lent a pillar to her lovely side

And turf and flowers bright-eyed

O’er which her folded gown

Flowed like an angel’s down,

Give ear, give ear with one consenting

To my last words, my last and my lamenting.

Of Petrarca’s later life there are a thousand fascinating details to be found in his letters: 137 his travels, friendships, with all the great men of his day, his relations with popes and prelates, princes and emperors, his clever intrigues to obtain the poet’s laurel crown, his studies, his efforts to collect the first private library of modern times, his residences, as for instance in the Magician’s house at Selva Piana, or at Venice at the house of Arrigo Molin, from one of the turrets of which he used to watch the ships, or again on the beautiful Euganean Hills.

Nor must we forget his cat which, as Tasoni says, still unburied — un’ insepolta gatta — “conquers in glory the tombs of haughty kings.” A whole chapter should be devoted to his beautiful friendship with Boccaccio and how one of his last works was to translate into Latin the story of the Patient Griselda which Chaucer put into verse.

A few cardinal dates will serve on which to hang the more important events of the latter half of his life. In 1339 he began his Latin poem “Africa,” the hero of which was Scipio: it waited more than half a millennium to be published. The next two years he was busy with his growing glory and waiting to be crowned at the Capitol.

After several years’ residence at Parma he 138 was made canon and in 1348 while residing at Verona came the sad news of Laura’s death. Henceforth his sonnets, though retrospective and often inspired by memory of her beauty become an ascending scale until in the “Trionfi” they rival the more spiritualised poems of Dante, Laura being personified as Chastity triumphant.

In 1350 he was appointed archdeacon of Parma and the following year the Florentines decreed the restoration of his property, but when he refused to live there they confiscated it again. In 1360 he was sent as an ambassador to King Jean of France and then settled in Venice, where he lived another decade and then retired to Arqua among the Euganean Hills, where, in 1374, on the eighteenth of July, he was found dead at his table. A magnificent funeral was decreed in his honour as became so great an ornament to Italy. In 1873 his tomb was opened. His skull and bones were at first intact but on exposure to the air speedily fell to dust.

This great man becomes even greater on close study: he is chiefly known as the author of love-poems which in a dissolute age are absolutely pure and in such perfect Italian that the taste of the most refined and exacting would 139 change scarcely a word. Although these graceful lavorietti composed of equal parts of serenity, brightness of touch and absolute perfection of imagery, are so spontaneous in Italian and so impossible to translate into English — wilting (as has been well said by an Italian scholar) when transferred into alien soil — yet all poets who know Italian have tried their hand at them. The latest attempt, by a California lady who published her first version* in London, is sheer paraphrase; the simplicity and directness of the original appear in an extraordinarily imaginative overlaying of filagree and arabesque. A word or a hint is enlarged to an elaborate comparison; a thousand poetic images and conceits which Petrarca never dreamed of are introduced, and yet the work has been widely heralded as a masterpiece of translation. It was certainly inspired by Petrarca, but if one compares the version with the original, the enormous gulf between them will soon become at once apparent.

They were turned into Polish by Ian Grotkowski as early as 1465. Spanish, German and French poets — all have drunk at the fountain of this Parnassus. In 1520 there was a Petrarca 140 Academy at Venice. Ioost van Vondel the greatest of the classic Dutch poets and the master of Milton, made a pilgrimage to Arqua and set Petrarca above all other poets. Boccaccio in 1374 two hundred years earlier had predicted that Arqua, a village scarcely known even in Padua, would rise famous in the whole world: men in days to come would make pilgrimages to it. His prediction was amply verified.

There are at least two score commentaries on Petrarca’s Italian poems which he himself regretted and repented having written. According to Crescenbini there were more than six hundred sonneteers in the sixteenth century all imitating Petrarca: no less than twelve at once in Venice. Marco Foscarini prepared for the press the Rima of sixty Venetian gentlemen, all disciples of Laura’s lover.

On the fifth centenary of his birth, prizes being offered, more than six hundred responses in French and Provençal were submitted.

But he was not merely a poet, he was also great as an orator, as a scholar, as a philosopher. The more we study his career the more we must marvel at its richness in accomplishment. Ugo Foscolo calls him the restorer of letters. He was the promoter of classic literature. “For 141 us and for all Europe,” says Carducci, “Petrarca was above all the recreator of glorious antiquity and the leader who through the desert of the Middle Ages freed our people from the slavery of barbarous peoples.”

Professor Domenico Berti calls him at once poet, historian, philosopher, scholar and cultivator of the fine arts and speaks of his fine, exquisite, full, robust genius and his noble soul.

He was also the prophet of United Italy. When Cola di Rienzi engage in his great but futile struggle to restore to Rome her ancient liberty Petrarca actively sympathised with him and wrote to him one of his noblest canzoni beginning

Spirto gentil che quelli membra reggi,

and that which begins “Italia mia” praised by all critics and commentators and called the Marseillaise of Italy, as fresh and animated and full of sparkling enthusiasm to-day as if written only yesterday. It may be read in Lady Dacre’s spirited version. No wonder the Austrian authorities, when they were making their desperate efforts to keep Italy dismembered and enslaved, forbade its use in the gymnasia, for it well might kindle generous souls to patriotic hatred of tyranny.


 *  “Madonna Laura.” Agnes Tobin, 1907.


IV.  Boccaccio and the Novella

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