Arthur John Butler.

The forerunners of Dante, a selection from Italian poetry before 1300 online

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JACOPO MOSTACCI . ... . . . . .12


RINALDO D'AQUINO . . . . . . . 18









GALLETTO DI PISA . . ' . . . .


ANONYMOUS . . . . ' .


MESSER OSMANO ... ... 78






CINO DA PISTOIA . . . . . . 136

NOTES . -143



ITALY is unique among European countries in having
twice seen its literature culminate, at epochs, indeed, far
remote one from the other ; and each time in a poet
who by common consent holds rank among the four
or five greatest among men of European speech.
The older Italian, which we call Latin, and the later
Latin, which we call Italian, must not be regarded
as parent and child ; they are the same individual at
various stages of development, as Dante was well
aware. Throughout the treatise on language and
literature to which he gave the name of De Vulgari
Eloquentia, the word he uses to designate his own
mother- tongue is Latino. The three chief ' Romance '
languages, as we now style them, are for him French,
* Spanish ' (including Proven9al), and ' Latin ' ; the
vernacular of Italy is vulgare latinum. His instinct was
quite right ; he would have understood Virgil, in all
probability, though he had never read another word
of ancient Latin, while Virgil would have understood
him, and recognized in his speech something very
closely resembling what he had heard every day in the
streets of Rome, or the country lanes round Mantua.

If we consider these two culminating epochs of
Italian literature, we shall be struck by two points of
similarity. First there is the extraordinary rapidity
of development in both cases. A hundred years
before Virgil was born, Latin poetry was represented


by a number of plays founded on the Greek, and a
versified chronicle in the rugged indigenous Saturnian
metre. A hundred years before Dante was born there
was, so far as we know, no Italian poetry at all, other
than the popular songs of which we can only infer the
existence from what we know of the universal habits
of mankind. The other point to be noticed is this :
In the earlier period, not only was the drama imported
straight from Greece, but the lyric and elegiac metres,
even the hexameter itself, which in Virgil's hands
became such an instrument as the world has never since
beheld for expressing and arousing all the nobler
emotions arma, amor, rectitudo, as Dante classifies
them all these and their themes were in the first
instance purely exotic, consciously introduced by men
of letters.

At the second great outburst of poetry in Italy a
similar process went on, though it took its rise some-
what differently. Instead of Italy consciously seeking
foreign models, the foreign model seems rather to have
been introduced by forces acting from without. For
a full century before any vernacular poetry appeared
in Italy the neighbouring country of Southern Gaul
had been a very nest of singing-birds. It is not
necessary here to discuss social and other causes which
brought about this development, or to criticize the
poetry of the troubadours. We need merely note
that in the course of the twelfth and thirteenth
centuries nearly every man of education in Guyenne
and Languedoc which, rather than Provence proper,
was the troubadours' land seems to have been a more
or less competent versifier, and that many of their


compositions which have been preserved possess a
richness of melody and a variety of rhythm such as
perhaps have never since been surpassed.

Throughout the twelfth century various forms of
heresy were rife in Provence and the adjacent regions,
but it was not till about the year 1200 that serious
efforts were made to suppress them. Innocent III,
one of the popes to whom the Roman See is most
indebted for the position it attained towards the end
of the Middle Ages, was elected in 1198. Before
long a crusade against the Albigenses was set on
foot, and for ten years Languedoc was given up to
slaughter and rapine. Those who preferred a quiet
life not unnaturally went elsewhere. Some trouba-
dours had already found a hospitable welcome at the
Courts of various North Italian princes, the Marquises
of Montferrat and Este, and the Counts of San
Bonifacio. They carried with them not only their
art, but their language also. It does not seem to
have occurred, in the first instance, to the courtly
poets of Italy that they had a language of their own,
capable of being employed for the expression of
passion or sentiment. Throughout Lombardy and
Venetia, and indeed further to the south, Prove^al
was for a long time the only language which a self-
respecting poet could use. Malaspinas and Dorias
corresponded with each other and with the strangers
in those curious metrical debates known as tensos or
tenzoni, and as late as 1268 a Venetian nobleman was
writing a planh or elegy over the defeat and death of
Conradin. The troubadours, it may be noted, were
mostly Ghibellines, as might be expected of men who


had found favour with the Emperor and feudal princes
and had reason to see in the Papal policy the cause
of the troubles which afflicted their own land. One
name is conspicuous among the Proven9alising Italians
that of Sordello of Mantua. Whether he had, as
Dante rather seems to imply, 1 begun by writing poetry
in his native tongue, or not, it is certain that no such
compositions of his have survived. Of his work in
Proven9al we have, however, a respectable body ;
including a moral treatise, the Ensenhamen tfOnor,
in some 1300 lines, and the famous ' Lament for
Blacaz ', which, with its invective against the existing
sovereigns of Europe, is thought by some to have
suggested the similar tirade at the end of the nine-
teenth canto of the Paradise, and to have earned for
its writer the post which he holds in the Purgatory.
He seems to have been living at least down to 1268.
Curiously enough, the earliest essay in Italian verse
which has come down to us is the work of a Pro-
ven9al. Towards the end of the twelfth century
Raimbaut de Vaqueiras of Orange went to Italy and
entered the service of Marquis Boniface of Montferrat.
He has left as a memorial of his residence in those
parts a somewhat amusing little piece in the form of
a dialogue between a Proven9al stranger and a lady
of Genoa. The Provengal opens with a string of
compliments, introducing most of the terms of the
troubadour's amatory vocabulary. She replies with
promptitude and decision, addressing him as ' Jujar',
that is, 'juglar' or 'jongleur' not much better than
mountebank and rejecting his advances in the most
1 V. E. i. xv.



uncompromising fashion. ' Provei^al of ill fame, dirty,
stunted, bald ; my husband is a better-looking man
than you ; go thy way betimes, brother, a better
man'. As he becomes more urgent, she becomes
more contemptuous. She does not value his Pro-
vengal at a farthing ; she understands him no better
than a German, a Sard, or a man of Barbary ; if her
husband comes to know, he will have an awkward
case to argue with him; the best thing he can do is
to get a horse and be off. As a bit of broad farce
the little piece is by no means a bad specimen of
mediaeval humour, employed for once on the side of
good morals. But its interest for our purpose lies in
the fact that, while the wooer speaks in his own lan-
guage, the lady replies in what is obviously meant to
be Italian. The language she uses is full of Proven9al
words, and needs a Provencal dictionary to make it
out ; but there are many forms that can only be

But, while the Italian language was thus slow in
coming to its own in the northern parts of its own
domain, a true vernacular literature was growing up
elsewhere. The process can hardly be better described
than in Dante's own words. In his search after a
vernacular fit to be the vehicle of high thoughts and
noble emotions he has passed in review most of the
local dialects of Italy, and rejected them all, some with
contumely, on account of the uncouth forms and
phrases which all at times admit. After a preliminary
sifting it is his own term in which he has eliminated
Rome, the March of Ancona, Spoleto, Milan, Bergamo,
and one or two more, he proceeds :


Next let us see what is to be thought of Sicilian ;
for the Sicilian vernacular seems to claim a reputation
above the others, for the reason that all the poetry
written by Italians is called Sicilian, and we find that
many of its native professors have sung in a dignified
style, as in the Odes Ancor che Vaigna per lo foco lassi
and Amor che lungiamente m hai menato. But this
fame of the Trinacrian land, if we look at the mark
whereunto it tends, seems to have survived only to be a
reproach to the princes of Italy, who follow after pride
not in heroic but in plebeian fashion ; as surely as
those illustrious heroes, Frederick the emperor and
Manfred his well-born son, displaying the nobleness
and righteousness of their souls, so long as their fortune
endured, followed after things befitting men (/tumana),
disdaining the ways of brute beasts. Wherefore, being
noble in heart and endowed with graces, they strove to
cleave to the majesty of the princes that they were ;
and so whatever efforts were achieved by the most
eminent Latins in their time first appeared at the
Courts of those great wearers of the crown. And
because Sicily was the place of their royal throne it
came to pass that all the vernacular work of those who
went before us was called Sicilian ; a name which we
still retain, nor will our posterity be able to change it.

Then, as if the mere mention of the bygone glories
had stirred his soul past endurance, he bursts out with
that often-quoted invective against the degenerate
princes of his own day, which, though it is not in the
Commedia, must have been in Villani's mind when he
charged the poet with garrire e sclamare :

Racha, racha ! What sounds come now from the
trumpet of the latest Frederick, or from the tinkling
bell of the second Charles, or from the horns of John
and Azzo, those puissant marquises, or the fifes of the


other grandees ? What but, ' Come hangmen, come
swindlers, come ye that follow after avarice! '

The fire soon dies down, and he continues : ' But it
is better to get back to our subject than to talk to no
purpose.' He then proceeds to consider whether,
after all, the ordinary speech of Sicily may not furnish
what he wants. A line from a vernacular poem (to
which reference will have to be made again) settles
that question in the negative. We may leave him to
put Tuscan, Romagnole, and other dialects through
his sieve, and, in his own words, ' foot it back to our

It was, then, in the brilliant Court of Frederick II,
' Wonder of the world and amazing revolutionist,' that
Italian poetry really sprang into life. It is not neces-
sary here to go into the details of Frederick's career,
though for students of Dante they are of profound
importance. No one who has read it will forget the one
tremendous line in which Farinata, rising up out of his
fiery sepulchre, acquaints Dante with the Emperor's
doom ; or the Lombard nobleman's attribution of the
disorders in his own country, with the consequent
decay of courtesy and goodness, to the opposition
which the Church had offered to him ; or half a dozen
other passages, from which we may learn how deeply
Dante's imagination had been impressed by the
splendid figure in whom the mediaeval series of Em-
perors, one might almost say the Middle Age itself,
culminated and practically ended.

Frederick's reign as Emperor he was born King of
Sicily may be dated either from his election in 1212


or from his final coronation at Rome by Honorius III
in 1 220. It lasted till 1250 ; and during the whole of
it, save for occasional absences in Germany or in the
East, the Empire may be said to have been governed
from Italy. The Emperor held Courts, Councils,
Diets, in one city or another, from Palermo to Friuli.
Learned men of all kinds, and from all nations, were
welcome ; lawyers and statesmen were of more account
than feudal nobles. Many of the fugitive troubadours
found their way thither, and brought with them the
fashion of verse-making into Tuscany, Apulia, and
Sicily, as they had already brought it into Lombardy.
There was this difference, however : that, whereas in
the North, where Proven9al and other foreign tongues
were more frequently heard, men were content to
borrow the language as well as the methods of their
teachers, in the South, Italian asserted itself from the
first. Frederick himself wrote love-songs a little con-
ventional, it must be owned ; his great minister, Peter
de Vineis, was one of the earliest exponents of the
sonnet, if he be not indeed the actual inventor of that
metrical form as it ultimately became fixed, with its
two quatrains and two tercets. The names which* we
find attached in the MSS. to the earliest extant pieces
are all, or nearly all, those of southerners Mazzeo di
Rico and Stefano di Pronto of Messina, Ranieri and
Ruggierone of Palermo, two or three of the Counts of
Aquino, Jacopo of Lentino, Ruggieri and Giacomo of
Apulia. Of course many of the ascriptions are uncer-
tain enough, the very names in some cases taking
different forms in different MSS. Even if we could be
sure of them, we know in most cases nothing further

about the persons. One or two we may perhaps
identify with men of whom other records exist.
Ruggieri d'Amici, of whom a couple of pieces survive,
was probably the Captain of Sicily who went on an
embassy from Frederick to the Sultan of Egypt in
1240. Rinaldo and Jacopo of Aquino were doubtless
members of the House from which sprang the Angelic
Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas. They may even have
been his elder brothers. The reality of some is
vouched by Dante's references to them, and we have
the same evidence for the correctness of the ascription
of a few poems. Thus he names a ' Judex de Columnis
de Messana ', who is plausibly identified with ' Judex
Guido de Columna' of Messina, the author in 1287 of
a history of the destruction of Troy, which had an
immense popularity down to 1500, or even later, to
judge by the number of MSS. and editions of it in
existence. To him Dante assigns the poem Amor che
lungiamente^ given in the passage just quoted as an
example of the Sicilian school. Altogether, in the De
Vnlgari Eloquentia and in the Commedia, Dante men-
tions by name some seven or eight poets, his prede-
cessors ; occasionally with a few words of acute criti-
cism the first that had been heard for many centuries.
It is only necessary here to refer to the great passage,
Purgatory xxiv. 52-60, wherein, one may almost say,
is contained as in a nutshell the substance of all that
future ages were to debate so keenly of the classic and
the romantic in poetry. 1 For it must be remembered
that, rude and rough-hewn as much of their perform-
ance appears to us, these pioneers of Italian poetry

1 See Gaspary, Scuola Poetica Sic^liana, pp. 1 78-9.


followed the best poetic tradition of their age and
adhered to its accepted conceits and conventions.
Dante used their language and many of the phrases
to which they had given currency ; but their true
spiritual heir was Petrarch, and through him the
great Petrarchizing school of the cinquecento. Even
in the English lyric verse of the seventeenth century
their influence, passed down through who knows what
long obliterated conduits, seems now and again dis-
tinctly traceable.

Nevertheless, their interest to the student of Dante
is very considerable. Of many of their characteristics,
their allegorizing, their use of metaphor and imagery,
and the like, we detect the influence upon him at every
step. The wonderful thing is how he made conven-
tions spontaneous, and restored its original lustre to
many a well-worn ornament. Take, for example, the
much and rightly praised image in Paradise xx. 73-75
of the lark which soars aloft singing, till, sated with
the sweetness of its own song, it becomes silent. This
beautiful conception is Dante's own ; but Bondie
Dietaiuti before him had borrowed from Bernard de
Ventadour and inserted into a poem of his own the
image of a bird flying upwards with eyes fixed on the
sun, till it is forced to drop to earth

per lo dolzore ch' a lo cor le viene,
or, as the Prove^al has it,

per la doussor qu'al cor li vai.

Dante's image is unquestionably the more beautiful ;
but one can hardly doubt that his ' ultima dolcezza che
la sazia ' is an echo of his predecessors.


One may even go so far as to say that Beatrice her-
self is the donna of the troubadours and their Italian
imitators, in a sublimated form. Dante's attitude to-
wards her, the love without expectation, or it would
seem desire, of requital, finds its prototype in many of
the older writers. The merely sensual aspect of love,
which holds so prominent a place in the troubadours'
conception of that passion, is far less conspicuous
though of course instances of it are not lacking in
the poetry of their Italian followers, or so much of
it as has come down to us. To be allowed to serve
Madonna is all the reward that ' fino amore ' demands ;
' guiderdone e lo servizio ' says Bonagiunta, possibly
in tacit reproof of the Notary's more ambitious

Guiderdone aspetto avire
di voi, donna, cui servire
non m'e noia.

The Notary himself, in his most famous sonnet, ' lo
m* aggio posto in core a Dio servire ' (which Rossetti
has translated), in which the presence of his lady in
Paradise is represented as the lover's chief motive for
serving God, seems to provide the germ which was, in
the greater poet's hands, to attain so magnificent a
development. If indeed the little poem beginning
' Poiche saziar non posso gli occhi miei ' (Ballata X)
be correctly assigned to Dante, he must himself in his
younger days have essayed a variation on the same
theme ; just as in tfce sonnet ' Negli occhi porta la mia
donna amore ' he has uttered with a new richness and
tenderness the commonplace which Bonagiunta and
others had adopted from their Proven9al models, of
the power of the lady's presence to purge the thoughts


of the beholders from all sin and baseness. The Vita
Nuova, in fact, shows the influence of the dngentisti
from end to end, as might, perhaps, have been ex-
pected. But there is abundant evidence in the
Commedia that the influence was upon him to the
last. One instance may suffice. When Beatrice
first appears to Dante's view, after the ' ten years'
thirst', describing the effect on himself, he begins
(Purgatory xxx. 34-36) :

E lo spirito mio, che gia cotanto
tempo era stato che alia sua presenza
non era di stupor tremando affranto.

Here we have, touched no doubt with the ' grand
style', but quite recognizable, one of the common-
places of the ' Sicilian ' school ; and the kinship is
marked by the use of the word affrauto a Proven9al
word introduced by, and familiar enough in, the older
poets, though Dante himself uses it only once elsewhere.
The word was rapidly becoming obsolete, and before
the end of the century we find Benvenuto of Imola,
perhaps the most intelligent of the older commen-
tators, misunderstanding its meaning. Many other
words and forms, familiar enough in the earlier poetry,
had dropped out of use altogether by the time Dante
began to write. But enough has been said to show the
importance to the Dante student of an acquaintance
with these earlier singers.

In Italy the fame of these pioneers was at first ob-
scured by the greater lights of the Trecento Cino of
Pistoia, Petrarch, Boccaccio and totally eclipsed with
the general eclipse of Italian letters, which followed the


revival of classical study. Even the few who still cul-
tivated vernacular poetry, such as Giusto de' Conti,
show no trace of their influence. Boccaccio indeed
introduces into one of his stories (Dec. Day X, Nov. 7)
a short canzone, which he attributes to one Mico of
Siena, a poet not otherwise known (unless he be iden-
tical with Mino da Colle). But the style of the little
poem is hardly ' convincing ', and some of the forms
occurring in it are still less so ; so that Tiraboschi is
probably right in conjecturing that it is the offspring
of Messer Giovanni's own muse. Boccaccio's younger
contemporary and pupil, Benvenuto of Imola, in his
commentary on the Commedia, shows some knowledge
of at least the history of the four or five of the earlier
poets whose names occur in the poem ; but from the
fact that he specially mentions having seen the works
of Guittone ' cuius librum ego vidi ' it may be in-
ferred that his acquaintance with the others did not
extend to their writings.

From this time onward no notice seems to have
been taken of the early poets until the fifteenth cen-
tury was far advanced. In 1465 Lorenzo de' Medici
fell in at Pisa with Frederick, son of Ferdinand, king
of Naples, by whom he was requested to indicate to
him some Italian poetry worth reading. Lorenzo,
a true poet himself, and evidently possessed of a taste
very unusual in that age of reviving Petrarchism,
' willingly,' says Roscoe, following Tiraboschi, ' com-
plied with his request ; and shortly afterwards selected
a small volume, at the close of which he added some
of his own sonnets and canzoni.' Lorenzo's selection,
though Apostolo Zeno in the eighteenth century pro-


fessed to have seen it, seems now to have disappeared l ;
but the letter which accompanied it is fortunately
preserved, and some sentences in it seem of sufficient
interest to be quoted :

Fu 1' uso della rima, secondo che in una sua latina
epistola scrisse il Petrarca, ancora appresso gli antichi
Romani assai celebrato. II quale per molto tempo inter-
messo comincio nella Sicilia non molti secoli avanti
a rifiorire ; e di qui per la Francia sparto, finalmente
in Italia, quasi in un suo ostello, e pervenuto. II primo
adunque dei nostri (che) a ritrarne la vaga immagine
del novello stilo pose la mano fu 1' Aretino Guittone ;
ed in quella medesima eta il famoso bolognese Guido
Guinizello . . . quel primo alquanto ruvido e severe,
. . . T altro tanto di lui piu lucido, piu soave, e piu ornato.
. . . Riluce drieto a costoro il dilicato Guido Cavalcante
fiorentinOjSottilissimo dialettico, e filosofo del suo secolo
prestantissimo. . . . Ne si deve il lucchese Bonagiunta ed
il Notaro da Lentino con silenzio trapassare ; 1' uno
e 1' altro grave e sentenzioso, ma in modo d' ogni
fior di leggiadria spogliati, che contenti dovrebbero
restare se fra questa bella manata di si onorati uomini
li riceviamo. E costoro e Piero delle Vigne nella eta di
Guittone furono celebrati. ... II bolognese Onesto e li
siciliani che gia primi furono, come di questi dui (i. e.
Dante and Petrarch) sono piu antichi, cos\ della loro
lima piu arebbono mestiero. . . . Assai bene alia sua
nominanza risponde Cino da Pistoia, tutto dilicato
e veramente amoroso ; il quale primo, al mio parere,
cominci6 1' antico rozzore in tutto a schifare ; dal quale
n& il divino Dante, per altro mirabilissimo, si e potuto
per ogni parte schermire.

1 In a letter of May 1742, to Jacopo Facciolati (whose name we now

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Online LibraryArthur John ButlerThe forerunners of Dante, a selection from Italian poetry before 1300 → online text (page 1 of 18)