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


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: The Origins and 'Il Duecento'/ The Origins and the 13th Century

Ancient Roman civilisation produced great works in the field of theatre (Plautus, Terence), philosophy (Cicero, Seneca, Tacitus) and poetry (Virgil, Horace, Ovid). From the third century AD, the new Christian religion inevitably introduced changes in Latin literature: the first writings were of a religious nature and were written by theologians, clergymen and scholars. The fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century gave rise to Vulgar Latin, a diatopic variation of Latin mixed with Germanic languages. Around the year 1000, with the dissolution of the Latin language, different neo-Latin languages arose around Europe (Genesini, 2022). Asor Rosa (1986) explains that the new melting pot of linguistic and sociological phenomena gave birth to a whole new culture essentially based on the exclusive use of Vulgar Latin.

The Origins of Italian Literature

The first documents written in the Italian language appear shortly before the year 1000. The most important ones are ‘L’indovinello veronese’ [The Veronese riddle], ‘I Placiti Cassinesi’ and ‘L’iscrizione di San Clemente’ [The Saint Clement Inscription]. The Veronese riddle may be the earliest example of writings in Vulgar Latin and is considered to belong to the eighth or early ninth century. The Placiti Cassinesi are testimonies made by villagers and peasants in favour of the Montecassino monastery. The oldest one is the Placitus of Capua, which dates back to the tenth century. Saint Clement's Inscription dates from the eleventh century, and it is a dialogue between a master and his servants, who orders them to drag St. Clement to prison. The servants are unaware that St. Clement has escaped and are left dragging a stone column (Genesini, 2022).

‘L’indovinello veronese’ alongside the English translation:

“se pareba boves

“In front of him (he) led oxen

alba pratalia araba

White fields (he) plowed

et albo versorio teneba

A white plow (he) held

et negro semen seminaba”

A black seed (he) sowed”

(Sambugar & Sala', 2004)

(History of Information,

Figure 1: L'Indovinello Veronese (8th-9th century). [Manuscript]. Biblioteca Capitolare di Verona.

Compared to the rest of Europe, Italian literature established itself late because Latin was the dominant language of the culture for a long time, being the language of the Church, courts and tribunals, schools and universities. In addition to Latin, languages d’oc (Old Occitan or Old Provençal) and d'oïl (Old French) were used in several parts of Italy, producing some valuable literary works like Il Milione [The Million or The Travels of Marco Polo] written by Marco Polo (Sambugar & Sala', 2004). The first poets, called ‘trovatori’ [troubadours], used the Old Occitan for their poetic expressions, and they performed for the high aristocracy in Northern Italy. The most important contributions of the troubadours were the production of chansonniers (books of songs) and the composition of vidas (brief prose biographies) and razos (short prose texts or poems) (Lachin, 2008).

Figure 2: Marco Polo (1298-1299). The Khan at war. Chapter CXXIII and CXXIV, a page from "The Travels of Marco Polo" [Ilustration].

Il Duecento

‘Il Duecento’, or the 13th century, is an essential literary period from 1224 to 1321. It is characterised by numerous social and political changes and high intellectual and religious activity. There are five major literary currents in the 13th century: the religious literature, the Sicilian School, the Tuscan School, the comic-realistic poetry and Il Dolce Stil Novo (Asor Rosa, 1986).

The religious literature is verse literature of a religious nature, written in various local dialects, mostly anonymous. However, a few important names of religious literature are known. San Francesco d’Assisi (Saint Francis of Assisi), Tommaso da Celano (Thomas of Celano), Tommaso d’Aquino (Thomas Aquinas) and Jacopone da Todi (Jacopone of Todi) are important names to remember when it comes to religious or Franciscan literature. ‘Cantico di Frate Sole’, or ‘Cantico delle creature’ (Canticle of the Sun or Canticle of the creatures), written by St. Francis of Assisi is considered to be the oldest composition in the Italian vernacular (Genesini, 2022).

‘Cantico delle creature’ alongside the English translation:

“I. Altissimu, onnipotente, bon Signore

“I. Most High, all powerful, all good Lord!

tue so’ le laude, la gloria e ‘honore

All praise is Yours, all glory, all honour,

et onne benedictione.

and all blessing.

Ad te solo, Altissimo, se konfàno

To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.

et nullu homo ène dignu te mentovare.”

No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.”

(Sambugar & Sala', 2004)

(Canticle of the Creatures,

Figure 3: Branduardi, A. (2000). Il cantico delle creature [Digital Artwork].

The Sicilian School was founded in Palermo at the court of Frederick II around 1230 and ended around 1260 with the decline of Fredrick’s II power in Italy (1266, battle of Benevento). The most important authors from the Sicilian school are Giacomo da Lentini, Giacomino Pugliese, Pier delle Vigne, Guido delle Colonne and Cielo d'Alcamo (Genesini, 2022). Love was the main motif of the Sicilian poets, inspired by the Provençal models in which the poem can take the form of a canzone (song), canzonetta (short song) or sonnet. The latter was invented by the author Giacomo da Lentini.

'Rosa fresca aulentissima' written by Cielo d’Alcamo is believed to be one of the only surviving representatives of contrast (composition as a dialogue) poems (De Sanctis, 1922).

‘Rosa fresca aulentissima’ alongside the English translation:

“Rosa fresca aulentis[s]ima ch’apari inver’ la state,

“O lovely fragrant rose, born on a summer’s day,

le donne ti disiano, pulzell’ e maritate:

Thou dost both damozels and dames with envy sway:

tràgemi d’este focora, se t’este a bolontate;

Out of this furnace flame, sweet, rescue me, I pray;

per te non ajo abento notte e dia,

From thoughts of thee Madonna, I ne’er cease,

penzando pur di voi, madonna mia.”

And day and night I am bereft of peace.”

(Samburgar & Sala’, 2004)

(de’ Lucchi, 2014)

Figure 4: Von Altstetten, K. (1300). Swiss ministerial rests with his beloved after a whipped hunting. [Illustration]. Codex Manesse.

The Tuscany School was founded in the homonymous geographical area during the second half of the 13th century. The most notable authors from that period are Guittone d’Arezzo and Bonagiunta Orbicciani. Similarly to the Sicilian school, the Tuscan school’s main theme was love, but it was adapted to the new vernacular language and was mixed with political and moral content (Genesini, 2022).

Il Dolce Stil Novo [Sweet New Style] originated in Bologna in 1274, where it spread to Tuscany, in particular to Florence. The major authors of this writing style are Guido Guinizelli, Dante Alighieri, Guido Cavalcanti, Lapo Gianni, Cino da Pistoia and Gianni Alfani. It is widely recognised that il Dolce Stil Novo began with Guido Guinizelli and his poem 'Al cor gentil rempaira sempre amore' [Within the gentle heart Love shelters...] (Rossetti, 1861; Genesini, 2022).

‘Al cor gentil rempaira sempre amore’ alongside the English translation:

“I. Al cor gentil rempaira sempre amor

“I. Within the gentle heart Love shelters him,

come l’ausello in selva a la verdura;

as birds within the green shade of the grove;

né fe’ amor anti che gentil core,

before the gentle heart, in Nature's scheme,

né gentil core anti ch’amor, natura:

Love was not, nor the gentle heart ere Love:

ch’adesso con’ fu ‘l sole,

for with the sun, at once,

sì tosto lo splendore fu lucente,

so sprang the light immediately; nor was,

né fu davanti ‘l sole;

its birth before the sun's.

e prende amore in gentilezza loco

and Love hath his effect in gentleness