IT was at the Apulian court of Frederick II that Italian literature was born. Perhaps the Moslems in his retinue contributed some stimulus, for every literate Moslem versified. Some years before Frederick’s death in 1250, Ciullo d’Alcamo (c. 1200) wrote a pretty “Dialogue Between Lover and Lady”; and Alcamo, in Sicily, was almost wholly a Moslem town. But a more decisive influence came from the troubadours of Provence, who sent their poems, or came in person, to the appreciative Frederick and his cultured aides. Frederick himself not only supported poetry, he wrote it, and in Italian. His prime minister, Piero delle Vigne, composed excellent sonnets, and may have invented that arduous form. Rinaldo d’Aquino (brother to St. Thomas), living at Frederick’s court, Guido delle Colonne, a judge, and Iacopo da Lentino, a notary, in Frederick’s Regno, were among the poets of this “Apulian Renaissance.” A sonnet by Iacopo (c. 1233), a generation before Dante’s birth, has already the delicacy of sentiment and finish of form of the poems in the Vita Nuova:
I have it in my heart to serve God so
That into paradise I shall repair—
The holy place through the which everywhere
I have heard say that joy and solace flow.
Without my lady I were loath to go—
She who has the bright face and the bright hair;
Because if she were absent, I being there,
My pleasure would be less than nought, I know.
Look you, I say not this to such intent
As that I there would deal in any sin;
I only would behold her gracious mien,
And beautiful soft eyes, and lovely face,
That so it should be my complete content
To see my lady joyful in her place.1
When Frederick’s court traveled through Italy he took poets along with his menagerie, and they spread their influence into Latium, Tuscany, and Lombardy. His son Manfred continued his patronage of poetry, and wrote lyrics that Dante praised. Much of this “Sicilian” verse was translated into Tuscan, and shared in forming the school of poets that culminated in Dante. At the same time French troubadours, leaving a Languedoc harried by religious wars, found refuge in Italian courts, initiated Italian poets into the gai saber, taught Italian women to welcome verse eulogies, and persuaded Italian magnates to reward poetry even when addressed to their wives. Some early Tuscan poets carried their imitation of the French troubadours so far as to write in Provençal. Sordello (c. 1200–70), born near Virgil’s Mantua, offended the terrible Ezzelino, fled to Provence, and wrote, in Provençal, poems of ethereal and fleshless love.
Out of this Platonic passion, by a strange marriage of metaphysics and poetry, came the dolce stil nuovo, or “sweet new style” of Tuscany. Instead of the frank sensuality which they found in the Provençal singers, the Italian poets preferred or pretended to love women as embodiments of pure and abstract beauty, or as symbols of divine wisdom or philosophy. This was a new note in an Italy that had known a hundred thousand poets of love. Perhaps the spirit of St. Francis moved these chaste pens, or the Summa of Thomas weighed upon them, or they felt the influence of Arabic mystics who saw only God in beauty, and wrote love poems to the deity.2
A bevy of learned singers constituted the new school. Guido Guinizelli (1230?-75) of Bologna, whom Dante saluted as his literary father,3 rhymed the new philosophy of love in a famous canzone (the Provençal canzo or song) “Of the Gentle Heart,” where he asked God’s pardon for loving his lady so, on the plea that she seemed an embodiment of divinity. Lapa Gianni, Dino Frescobaldi, Guido Orlandi, Cino da Pistoia, spread the new style through northern Italy. It was brought to Florence by its finest pre-Dantean exponent, Guido Cavalcanti (c. 1258–1300), Dante’s friend. By exception among these scholar poets, Guido was a noble, son-in-law of that Farinata degli Uberti who led the Ghibelline faction in Florence. He was an Averroistic freethinker, and played with doubts of immortality, even of God.4 He took an active, violent part in politics, was exiled by Dante and the other priors in 1300, fell ill, was pardoned, and died in that same year. His proud, aristocratic mind was well fitted to mold sonnets of cold and classic grace:
Beauty in woman; the high will’s decree;
Fair knighthood armed for manly exercise;
The pleasant song of birds; love’s soft replies;
The strength of rapid ships upon the sea;
The serene air when light begins to be;
The white snow, without wind, that falls and lies;
Fields of all flowers, the place where waters rise;
Silver and gold; azure in jewelry:
Weighed against these the sweet and quiet worth
Which my dear lady cherishes at heart
Might seem a little matter to be shown;
Being truly, over these, as much apart
As the whole heaven is greater than this earth.
All good to kindred creatures cleaveth soon.5
Dante learned much from Guido, imitated his canzoni, and perhaps owed to him the decision to write The Divine Comedy in Italian. “He desired,” says Dante, “that I should always write to him in the vernacular speech, not in Latin.”6 In the course of the thirteenth century Dante’s predecessors molded the new tongue from rude inadequacy to such melody of speech, such concentration and subtlety of phrase, as no other European vernacular could match; they created a language that Dante could call “illustrious, cardinal, courtly, and curial”7—fit for the highest dignities. Beside their sonnets the verses of the Provençaux were inharmonious, those of the trouvères and the minnesingers almost doggerel. Here poetry had become no rhyming rivulet of gay garrulity but a work of intense and compact art as painstakingly carved as the figures on the pulpits of Niccolò Pisano and his son. Partly a great man is great because those less than he have paved his way, have molded the mood of the time to his genius, have fashioned an instrument for his hands, and have given him a task already half done.