The great age of Italian scholarship was now ended: France took the torch when Julius Caesar Scaliger migrated from Verona to Agen in 1526. Note the effect of war upon the book trade: in the last decade of the fifteenth century Florence published 179 books, Milan 228, Rome 460, Venice 1491; in the first decade of the sixteenth century Florence published 47, Milan 99, Rome 41, Venice 536.26 The academies founded for classical scholarship—the Platonic Academy at Florence, the Roman Academy of Pomponius Laetus, the Neacademia at Venice, the Neapolitan Academy of Pontanus—died out in this period; the study of pagan philosophy was frowned upon except in a Scholastified Aristotle; and Latin gave place to Italian as the language of literature. New academies sprang up, chiefly devoted to literary and linguistic criticism, and serving as central exchanges of ears for the poets of the town. So Florence had the Della Crusca Academy (1572) and the Umidi; Venice had the Pellegrini, Padua the Eretei; and each new society took a sillier name. These academies encouraged talent and stifled genius; poets struggled to obey the rules laid down by the purists, and inspiration fled to airier haunts. Michelangelo belonged to no literary academy, and though he, like the rest, indulged his Muse in trite conceits, and forced his fire into cold Petrarchian molds, his sonnets, rough in form but warm in feeling and thought, are the best Italian poetry of the time. Luigi Alamanni fled from Florence to France, and composed a poem on agriculture—La coltivazione— which did not fall far short of Virgil’s Georgics in combining tillage with poetry.* Bernardo Tasso rehearsed, in the misfortunes of his life, the vicissitudes of his famous son Torquato; his lyrics are among the choicest artificialities of the age; his epic, Amadigi,versified with heavy seriousness the chivalric romance, Amadis de Gaul. The Italian public, missing in it Ariosto’s leavening humor, gave it a quiet burial.
The novella, or short story, had remained popular ever since The Decameron had given it a classic form. Written in simple language, and usually describing dramatic incidents or intimate scenes of Italian life, the novelle were welcomed by all ranks. Often they were read aloud to avid listeners, none more avid than the letterless, so that their audience was all Italy. We may marvel today at the broad tolerance of Renaissance women who heard these tales without reported blushing. Love, seduction, violence, adventure, humor, sentiment, descriptions of scenery, provided the material of the stories, and every class furnished types and characters.
Almost every city had a skilled practitioner of the form. At Salerno Tommaso de’ Guardati, known as Masuccio, published in 1476 his Novellino —fifty stories illustrating the generosity of princes, the incontinence of women, the vices of monks, and the hypocrisy of mankind. Less polished than Boccaccio’s novelettes, they often surpass them in sincerity, power, and eloquence. At Siena the novella took on a highly sensuous quality, filling its pages with tales of unlicensed love. Florence had four famousnovellieri.Franco Sacchetti, friend and imitator of Boccaccio, outwinded him by writing three hundred novelle, whose vulgarity and obscenity made them almost universally popular. Agnolo Firenzuola devoted many of his stories to satirizing the sins of the clergy; he described the goings-on in a dissolute convent, exposed the arts by which confessors induced pious women to leave legacies to monasteries, and himself became a monk of the Vallombrosan order. Antonfrancesco Grazzini, known to Italy as il Lasca, the Roach, excelled in comic stories, featuring the prankster Pilucca, but he could also season his dish with sex and blood, as when a husband, finding his wife in adultery with his son, cuts off their hands and feet, cuts out their eyes and tongues, and lets them bleed to death on their bed of love. Antonfrancesco Doni, a Servite monk and priest, was expelled from the cloister of the Annunciation (1540), apparently for sodomy; at Piacenza he joined a club of profligates devoted to Priapus; in Venice he became a devoted enemy of Aretino, against whom he wrote a pamphlet ominously entitled “Earthquake of Doni the Florentine, with the Ruin of the Great Colossus and Bestial Antichrist of Our Age”; meanwhile composing novelle noted for their pungent humor and style.
The best of the novellieri was Matteo Bandello, whose life spanned half a continent and most of a century (1480–1562). Born near Tortona, he was soon entered into the Dominican order, whose general was his uncle. He grew up in the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan; he was presumably there when Leonardo painted The Last Supper in the refectory, and when Beatrice d’Este was buried in the adjoining church. He lived at Mantua for six years as tutor in the ruling family, carried on a flirtation with Lucrezia Gonzaga, and saw Isabella fight with all her arts the coming of old age. Returning to Milan, he actively supported the French against the Spanish-German forces in Italy; after the French disaster at Pavia his house was burned and his library was almost totally destroyed, including a Latin dictionary which he had almost completed. He fled to France, served Cesare Fregoso, General of the Dominicans, well, and was made Bishop of Agen (1550). In his leisure hours he gathered together the 214 stories that he had written during the years, gave them their finished literary form, covered their mild indecency with his episcopal absolution, and had them printed in three volumes at Lucca (1554), and a fourth at Lyons (1573).
As in the other novellieri, so in Bandello the plots turn mostly on love or violence, or the morals of friars, monks, and priests. A sweet lass revenges herself upon a faithless lover by tearing him to pieces with pincers; a husband forces his adulterous wife to strangle her lover with her own hands; a convent abandoned to debauchery is described with tolerant good humor. Some of Bandello’s stories provided material for exciting dramas, as when Webster took from one of them the plot for The Duchess of Malfi.Bandello tells with feeling and skill the romance of Romeo Montecchio and Giulietta Capelletti, and vividly conveys the passion of their love. Shall we sample him at his most romantic?
Romeo, not daring to inquire who the damsel was, applied himself to feed his eyes on her lovely sight, and minutely considering all her movements, drank the sweet amorous poison, marvelously commending her every part and gesture. He was seated in a corner wherein, when dancing was toward, all passed before him. Giulietta (for so was the damsel called) was the daughter of the master of the house and giver of the feast. And she likewise, not knowing Romeo, but seeing withal that he was the handsomest and sprightliest youth that might be found, was marvelously pleased with his sight, and softly and furtively eyeing him a while askance, felt I know not what sweetness at heart, which all to-flooded her with exceeding delight; wherefore she would fain have had him join the dance, so she might the better see him and hear him speak, herseeming as much delight should issue from his speech as she still drank in at his eyes, what while she gazed on him; but he sat all alone and showed no wish to dance. All his study was to ogle the fair damsel, and she thought of nothing but to look upon him, and so they viewed each other on such wise that, their eyes by times encountering, and the flashing rays of the one and the other’s glances mingling, they lightly perceived that they eyed each other amorously; more by token that, whenassoever their eyes met, both filled the air with amorous sighs, and it seemed they desired for the nonce no otherwhat than to discover one to other by speech their newborn flame.27
The climax in Bandello is subtler than in Shakespeare. Instead of Romeo dying before Juliet emerges from her coma, she awakes before Romeo feels the effect of the poison he has drunk in despair at her apparent death. In his joy at her recovery he forgets the poison, and the lovers have a few moments of delirious joy. When the poison wreaks its force and Romeo dies, Juliet stabs herself with his sword.*