At the Dawn of Italian Literature

April 12, 2017

Literature in Italian developed later than literature in French and Provençal, the languages of the north and south of French, respectevely.

Only small fragments of Italian vernacular verse before the end of the 12th century have been found (although a number of Latin legal records contain witness testimonies in an Italian dialect vernacular), and surviving 12th- and 13th-century verse reflects French and Provençal influence.

French prose and verse romances were popular in Italy from the 12th to the 14th century. Stories from the Carolingian and Arthurian cycles, together with free adaptations from the Latin narrative classics, were read by the literate, while French minstrels recited verse in public places throughout northern Italy. By the 13th century a “Franco-Venetian” literature, for the most part anonymous, had developed; Italians copied French stories, often adapting and extending various episodes and sometimes creating new romances featuring characters from the French works. In this literature, though the language used was purportedly French, the writers often consciously or unconsciously introduced elements from their own northern Italian dialects, thus creating a linguistic hybrid.

In the cultured environment of the Sicilian court of the Italian-born Holy Roman emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen, who ruled the Sicilian kingdom from 1208 to 1250, lyrics modeled on Provençal forms and themes were written in a refine version of the local Sicilian vernacular, the so called 'siciliano illustre'. Poetry was considered an embellishment of the court and an escape from seriousy matters of life, and it is significant that it was the love poetry of Provence and not the political poetry that was imitated by the Sicilian school. The most important of these poets was the notary Jacopo da Lentini, reputed to have invented the sonnet form. By an accident of history, all of the original Sicilian manuscripts were lost and the poetry of the Sicilian school was handed down in later Tuscan transcriptions, which make it look much closer to modern Italian than it really was. The first to be taken in by the manuscript tradition and to praise its “trans-regional” qualities was Dante Alighieri.



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