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Survey of Italian Literature 101: 'Il Trecento' / The Three Crowns


The Survey of Italian Literature 101 series aims to offer readers a complete overview of the rich and diverse Italian literary tradition. Through summary and description, this series will provide readers with an understanding of the works from different literary periods and from diverse regions of Italy. It will cover both the classics and works by contemporary authors as well as those from lesser-known areas, providing a broad introductory survey to those who are interested in learning more about Italian culture and the country's literary works.

The Survey of Italian Literature 101 series is divided into seven chapters:

  1. Survey of Italian Literature 101: The Origins and 'Il Duecento'/ The Origins and the 13th Century

  2. Survey of Italian Literature 101: 'Il Trecento' / The Three Crowns

  3. Survey of Italian Literature 101: 'Il Quattrocento' and 'Il Cinquecento'/ Humanism and Renaissance

  4. Survey of Italian Literature 101: 'Il Seicento' and 'Il Settecento'/ Baroque, Theatre and Enlightenment

  5. Survey of Italian Literature 101: 'L'Ottocento'/ Romanticism, Realism and Decadentism

  6. Survey of Italian Literature 101: 'Il Novecento'/ Futurism and Neorealism

  7. Survey of Italian Literature 101: Italian Literature Today

Survey of Italian Literature 101: 'Il Trecento' / The Three Crowns

In the 14th century, the empire and the church experienced a decline as a result of the escalation of social and political developments from the previous century. During the Middle Ages, a decline was observed in various aspects of society, including the papacy and the empire, which were previously considered to be significant examples of a specific understanding and representation of historical events. These powerful institutions began to weaken and lose influence. There was a more energetic sense of worldly and earthly interests and values, not in opposition to religious and otherworldly ones, but free from them and important in their own right (Sansone, 1960). Everyone was excited about the same concept expressed in many works of poetry and prose: the curse of the world and the flesh, the vanity of earthly goods and cares, and the life sought beyond life. As the new century began, there was a solemn dedication to shared ideas across the Italian diverse cultural landscape (De Sanctis, 2006). The writers whose literary production offers the best evidence of the complex cultural, social and political transformation of the 14th century - representing for Italian literature a moment of transition between the Middle Ages and Humanism - are the so-called “Three Crowns”: Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarca and Giovanni Boccaccio (Bisacca & Paolella, 2000). In this article, the focus will be on the "Three Crowns" and how their work impacted Italian literature.

Figure 1: Portraits of Dante, Boccacio and Petrarca (Del Castaño, 1450)

Dante Alighieri

“Non v'è dubbio che (Dante Alighieri) rappresenti la sintesi suprema delle fondamentali tendenze spirituali ed artistiche di questa età” [There is no doubt that (Dante Alighieri) represents the supreme synthesis of the fundamental spiritual and artistic tendencies of this age] (Asor Rosa, 1986, p. 28). Dante Alighieri summarises the literature of the century in its entirety in his works. At the same time, he creates determining models for all Italian literature (Ferroni, 2006).

One of Dante's best-known works, La Vita Nova (1292-93), is a spiritual diary dedicated to his treasured love Beatrice. Composed three years after her death, the poet recounts their first meeting in 1274 when they were both nine years old, and narrates how his love for her brought him a spiritual renewal. The diary is a work written in a mix of verse and prose containing twenty-five sonnets, four songs, a ballad and a stanza, as well as some prose aimed at explaining the reason for a specific division in the poems or narrating the facts that inspired them (Genesini, 2022; Sambugar & Salà, 2004). "Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare" is a poem of significant literary merit. It is considered a masterpiece of love poetry from the Middle Ages, displaying the poet's skilful use of language and his ability to convey complex emotions and ideas through imagery and metaphor. The poem also holds historical significance as it is one of the earliest examples of the use of the vernacular in literature, and a seminal work in the development of the narrative poem. On a personal level, the poem holds great importance to Dante as it is dedicated to his beloved Beatrice and marks the beginning of his journey of love and self-discovery (Genesini, 2022; Sambugar & Salà, 2004).

Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare, XXVI alongside English translation:

Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare

So gentle and honest my lady seems

la donna mia quand’ella altrui saluta,

when greeting others with great flair

ch’ogne lingua deven tremando muta,

that quivering tongues become still

e li occhi no l’ardiscon di guardare.

and prying eyes do not dare to stare.

(Sambugar & Salà, 2004)

Figure 2: Dante and Beatrice (Postiglione, 1906)

Next, Le Rime (1283-1307) are youthful poems influenced by Guido Cavalcanti, showing an already personal and stilnovist nature, and songs with an allegorical and didactic purpose. The three motifs that characterise Le Rime and its stilnovist thematic are the recognition of pure love and kind-heartedness, the nobility of one's soul, and the portrayal of women as celestial messengers sent to bring man closer to God. (Genesini, 2022; Sambugar & Salà, 2004).

Il Convivio was composed between 1304 and 1307. In Dante’s intentions, the work was to be an encyclopaedic treatise consisting of fifteen volumes intended as university lectures. In the commentary of the second treatise, Dante outlines the four meanings of writing. The first and primary is the literal meaning, from which one must always start. The second is the allegorical, or true meaning, hidden beneath a fable. The third is the moral meaning of the lesson learned from the text. The fourth is the anagogical meaning, or the meaning that refers to spiritual and ultimate truths (Genesini, 2022; Sambugar & Salà, 2004).

Figure 3: Lo amoroso Convivio di Dante (British Museum, 1521)

Similarly to Il Convivio, De vulgari eloquentia was composed by Dante in the same years but remained unfinished. It was supposed to consist of at least four books, but he only wrote the first and fourteen chapters of the second one. The main topic is the origin of European languages, with a focus on Romance languages, followed by a classification into fourteen groups of the dialects spoken in the whole Italian peninsula. Here, Dante puts forward a recurring argument in his philosophical and literary texts, namely the defence of the vulgar language in poetry, conceived as an instrument of conservation and promotion of the stability of the vernacular. In doing so, Dante seeks to bring the Italian language to the status of illustrious languages (Genesini, 2022; Sambugar & Salà, 2004).

Another significant work is De Monarchia (1312-13), a political libello composed during his exile, structured in three treatises written in Latin, in which the poet declared a need for a universal monarchy to maintain well-being in the world (book I), asserted that the role of the empire had been conquered by the Germans but should belong to the Roman people (book II), and claimed that the temporal monarchy was born directly from God (book III) (Genesini, 2022; Sambugar & Salà, 2004).

Figure 4: Portrait of Dante Alighieri (Signorelli, 1499-1502)

La Divina Commedia

Dante's life work is La Divina Commedia [The Divine Comedy] (1306-21). It summarises Dante’s human, cultural, religious, philosophical and political experience in poetic terms. It is composed of 3 cantics of 33 songs each. The first has an introductory song, for a total of 100 songs. The verses are hendecasyllables in chained rhyme (or Dantesque). La Divina Commedia tells of the poet’s travels through the three realms of the dead—Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise—accompanied by the Latin poet Virgil. The poet imagines taking a journey to the underworld at the command of God. Dante imagines that through him, God wants to call upon all the sinners and steer them to the path of good. The poet begins the journey on the Good Friday of 1300 (April 8 or March 25) and concludes it the following Wednesday, seven days later. Along his journey, he meets characters from the ancient world (Jewish, Greek, Roman) and characters from his own timeline. Dante's Divine Comedy is a highly regarded work of literature for its skilful blend of poetry and philosophy, a deep examination of human nature, and religious themes, such as sin, redemption and divine justice. It is regarded as one of the greatest works of literature of the Middle Ages and world literature (Genesini, 2022; Sambugar & Salà, 2004).

Hell is represented as an empty funnel, dominated by darkness, through which the soul needs to descend. Purgatory is a high mountain, bathed in the spring light, which one needs to climb. Finally, Heaven is out of space, immersed in a sea of light. All three kingdoms are divided into ten parts each: anti-hell and nine circles; then beach, anti-purgatory, seven cornices and earthly paradise; and finally, nine heavens and the empyrean (Genesini, 2022; Sambugar & Salà, 2004). In the opening lines, Dante establishes the purpose and rationale for his journey through the realms of the afterlife.

Inferno, I, vv. 1-3 alongside English translation:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

Midway upon the journey of our life

mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,

I found myself within a forest dark,

ché la diritta via era smarrita

For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

(Sambugar & Salà, 2004)

Inferno Canto III contains one of those verses, written at the entrance of Hell, that contributed to Dante’s reputation as the father of the Italian language and a legendary figure in universal culture:

Per me si va ne la città dolente,

Through me the way into the suffering city,

per me si va ne l’etterno dolore,

Through me the way to the eternal pain,

per me si va tra la perduta gente.

Through me the way that runs among the lost.

Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore:

Justice urged on my high artificer;

fecemi la divina potestate,

My maker was divine authority,

la somma sapienza e ‘l primo amore;

The highest wisdom, and the primal love.

dinanzi a me non fuor cose create

Before me nothing but eternal things

se non etterne, e io etterno duro.

were made, and I endure eternally.

Lasciate ogne speranza, o voi ch’ intrate.

Abandon every hope, who enter here.

(Sambugar & Salà, 2004)

Figure 5: Dante VR videogame screenshot of "La Porta dell’Inferno" (BitMAT, 2020)

Francesco Petrarca

With Francesco Petrarca, a new era opens in the Italian and European cultural panorama. He can be considered the "spiritual father" of Humanism. In 1327, he met a young woman named Laura, whose real identity has always remained unknown, and fell in love with her. From this love, many of his poems written in the vernacular and some poems in Latin were born (Sapegno,1956). One of his first works, De viribus illustribus (1337-1351) emphasises classical learning, being one of the earliest examples of vernacular literature. It provides insight into the political and social climate of the time, and showcases his skill as a poet and his ability to convey complex ideas through his use of language and imagery (Sambugar & Salà, 2004).

Another important work to consider is Il Secretum (1347-53) for its role in the development of Italian prose literature, and for its philosophical themes on love, morality, and the human condition. It offers insight into Petrarch's personal beliefs and struggles, and is considered an early example of the "secret book" genre popular in the Renaissance. It also provides valuable historical information about the 14th century (Sambugar & Salà, 2004). While writing Il Secretum, Petrarca started working on I Trionfi (1351) which he never completed. It is considered an important literary work for its role in the humanist movement, its status as an early example of a sonnet cycle, use of allegory and symbolism, and as a psychological self-portrait (Sambugar & Salà, 2004).