Prefazioni e polemiche/V. A history of the italian tongue (1757)

V. A history of the italian tongue (1757)

../IV. A dissertation upon the italian poetry in which are interspersed some remarks on mr. Voltaire’s Essay on the epic poets (1753) ../VI. Prefazioni al dizionario delle lingue italiana ed inglese (1760) IncludiIntestazione 20 aprile 2017 25% Da definire

V. A history of the italian tongue (1757)
IV. A dissertation upon the italian poetry in which are interspersed some remarks on mr. Voltaire’s Essay on the epic poets (1753) VI. Prefazioni al dizionario delle lingue italiana ed inglese (1760)

[p. 115 modifica]V A HISTORY OF THE ITALIAN TONGUE (1757) [p. 117 modifica]The beginning of every language is necessarily obscure; ali speech is orai before it is written and rude before it is polished. Words not committed to writing are lost with the breath that formed them; and the first rude essays are despised and neglected when a style nearer to perfection is once attained. It is therefore impossible to fix the time at which one language ceased and another began, or to mark exactly the gradations by which the change proceeded; it is at least impossible to a native of Italy to say when the present language had its first formation, amidst the confiision of war and the incursions of Barbarians, who for a time suspended ali attention to literature and left behind them no other memorials but mischief and desolation. But, as far as I am able, I will endeavour to satisfy the curiosity of an English reader by tracing the tongue of Italy from its remotest source and coming gradually down to the present time: give as clear and faithful an idea of its state, as lies in my power to give. It appears to me that the Italians of the eleventh century had no language fit to write in, or thought themselves that they had not, because those of their compositions that bave escaped the ravages of time, are either in corrupt Latin, coarse Sicilian, or inelegant Provenza!. The monks and clergymen, who from time out of memory not only performed their sacred duties in Latin among themselves, but preached also in the same tongue to the people, generally wrote their verses, whatever they were, in Latin: the Sicilian metres were cultivated only by the most [p. 118 modifica]

southern Italians, and, from Tuscany to the Alps, the ProvenQal dialect was the language of the Muses.

A quick succession of revolutions in the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, withdrawing the studious from their apolHnean employments, soon put an end to a language that was yet far from having reached its point of perfection; and the bar of the Alps obstructing the course of that spoken by the masters of Provence, left the inhabitants of Italy to improve their naturai stock of words, and look out for easier means of conveying their ideas in writing to their countrymen, now reduced to make the best use they could of an uncouth cant that was neither Gothic nor Latin, but a barbarous mixture of many modem tongues, incorporared into the adulterated relics of that noble language that was spoken a thousand years before by their glorious predecessors.

This language or cant, then called volgare, to distinguisi! it from the Latin, Sicilian and Provenpal that had by intervals prevailed in the writings of the Italians, began in the twelfth century to make its appearance in written prose and poetry; but as it was itself differently pronounced in different places, and was in a manner subdivided into as many dialects as there are districts in Italy, and as no standard of speech was yet formed to which ali could refer, every one was left to his own direction and every one generally wrote this volgare, as it was spoken in the place of his nativity.

Had the art of printing made its appearance at that period, what a quantity of writing would then have got out of obscurity to entertain or to puzzle succeeding students! The teeth of time and the fíre of war have corroded and burnt the greatest part of the barbarous parchments of that age; yet it is scarcely to be conceived what huge heaps of them are stili preserved in our numerous libraries and archives. The Tuscans in particular distinguished themselves much for their addiction to scribbling and the names of Perotto Zanobi, Frate Cercuccio, Loffo Banaguida, Pippo Fronda, Meo da Maiano, Lilio Lelli, Cene della Chitarra, Folcacchiero de’ Folcacchieri, Clone Ballione, [p. 119 modifica]

Lapo Lamberti, Cucco di Valfreduccio, Lippo Vannucci and numberless more petty poets of different parts of Tuscany are stili known to the inquirers into the origin of our langiiage. The Tuscans, notwithstanding, were then so far from pretending to the primacy in language, that even in the year 1299 one Rustigielo of Pisa wrote in the Venetian dialect The travels of Marco Polo, as they were dictated to him in the prisons of Genoa bj- that famous traveller; and even some j’ears after Petrarch, a Roman author wrote the life of the renowned Cola di Rienzo in the language that he had learnt from his nurse. The life of Cola di Rienzo I cannot fínd, therefore shall I only give a short specimen of Marco Polo *s language:

Qui comenza il prolasso del libro chiamado de la distinzione del mondo.

Vui signori imperadori duchi marchesi conti e kavalieri, ecc. (i).

Copies of Marco Polo ’s manuscript multiplied with great rapidity, though written in that uncouth dialect and manner, and quickly spread into ali parts of Italy and even of France and Germany. If the Venetians had had at that time many such voluminous and pleasing writers as Polo was, they would have had a probable chance of giving their language to the Italians; but they were so much taken up with their conquests and commerce in the East, that they missed this honour; and while Polo was dictating his prose to Rustigielo, Brunetto Latini of Florence writ many things in verse, that charmed the ears of his contemporaries, and collected in ten capitolos many of the proverbs and sayings of his time, to which he gave the whimsical title of Pataffio. This work obscured the little splendour of the petty preceding poets of ever>’ other Italian province, and had power enough to keep the Italians neutral and imresolved on the choice of the dialect that was to be the general standard of writing.

(i) Fino alle parole: «et in quel tempo iera in una zitade» [Ed.]. [p. 120 modifica]

Ricco da Varlungo, Dino Fiorentino, Salvino Doni, Ugo da Siena, Guido Novello, Farinata degli Ubarti, Lambertuccio Frescobaldi, Pannuccio dal Bagno, Guitton D’Arezzo and many more, ali living about the year 1250 and ali Tuscans, helped te turn the scale in favour of their country; and with their numerous verses, chroniches, books of devotion and other performances, admirable in those times, seemed to conspire with Brunetto Latini to crush in the cradle ali dialects that were not Tuscan, that one or other of their style might prevail and become the language of books in our peninsula.

My paucity of old Italian books hinders me from giving a specimen of the prose of those times. I shall only transcribe three short pieces of poetry: the first from Pannuccio dal Bagno, in the dialect of Pisa; the second from Guglielmotto da Otranto, who writ in neapolitan latinised; and the third from Fra Guittone, who, although born in Arezzo, yet writ in the Fiorentine, having lived the best part of his life in Florence.

This is from Pannuccio:

Lasso di far piú verso son, poi veggio ogn’om manco, ecc.

This is from Guglielmotto da Otranto:

O salve sancta Ostia sacrata immaculato sangue e carne pura, ecc.

The specimen from Fra Guittone is this short fable, which an Englishman that understands Italian will think a composition of yesterday:

Quando il consiglio degli augei si tenne di nicistd convenne, ecc.

Forty or fifty years after Brunetto Latini, one of his disciples did more towards the fixing the seat of our language in the city of Florence than ali his predecessors together. This was Dante Alighieri, whose poem on hell, purgatory and paradise, not only struck with wonder ali his contemporaries, but was invariably the admiration of successive ages, and has rather [p. 121 modifica]

increased than diminished that reputation which it got at first. In his youth, Dante chieflj- followed the trade of a soldier and distinguished himself in many battles for his conduct, personal strength and intrepidity. He was afterwards admitted to be one of the chief magistrates of his country, that was then not an inconsiderable Commonwealth; but he had too much honesty and catonian severity for the vicious time in which he lived; and having expressed rather too much contempt for his fellowmagistrates, njade so many enemies amongst them, that, in spite of his superior talents for war and peace, he was banished his country’ and forced to fly for protection to Guido da Polenta, lord of Ravenna, who proved a steady friend to the exiled poet to the last of his days.

Dante had writ a multitude of lyric verses before he left Florence, but it was in Ravenna that he conceived the thought of writing his great poem , of which I choose to give three short specimens, one from each of the three parts of it.

From the first part intitled Meli:


Al tornar della niente che si chiuse dinanzi a la pietá dei due cognati, ecc. (’).

From the second part intitled Purgalory.


Era giá l’ora che volge V disio a i naviganti, e intenerisce il core, ecc. (2).

From the third part intitled Paradise:


Vergine Madre, figlia del tuo figlio, umile ed alta piú che creatura, ecc. (3).

(1) Sino a tutto il v. 33 [Ed.], (a) Sino a tutto il v. 18 [Ed.]. (3) Sino a tutto il v. 27 [Ed.]. [p. 122 modifica]

These three specimens, as well as the greatest part of Dante ’s work, are as well understood now as they were four hundred and fifty years ago; yet one meets here and there not only with obsolete words, but with verses quite unintelligible; at least many of them are so to me.

I have said above that, in my opinion, the Tuscans in general and the Florentines in particular, did not look early on their dialect as the best of Italy. This opinion of mine is confírmed by this poem, in which Dante made use ofamultitude .-) of Lombard, Neapolitan and Venetian words, so that it seems j he had a mind to imitate the Grecian poets who, when occasion required, did not scruple to mix their diflferent dialects into one, which has not been the practice of Petrarca, Boccaccio, Pulci and the others that carne after him, as I shall say in its place.

I must not omit to observe that the corrupt Latin of the tenth and eleventh centuries was not quite expelled from Italy in Dante ’s time. Some of the studious stili made some use of it, especially in writing; and our poet, that he might please every class of men, not only dropt in his performance a great quantity of Latin words, but had whole lines and even ternaries quite Latin interspersed in it (J); and amongst his lyric compositions, he has one of those that we cali canzoni, which is in three languages, that is Provengal, Latin and Fiorentine. This is a proof that the two languages stili continued to be culti vated in Italy.

I said that this poem charmed his contemporaries and holds stili as high a rank in the esteem of the Italians as any other production of poetical imagination: yetifa foreign critic should happen to peruse it, let me teli him that he must not weigh a poem written so early in the scales of modem criticism, but make allowance, amongst other things, for some strange mixtures of pagan and Christian notions, and consider that our poet was not only a mortai man, like any other, and consequently subject to err; but that he writ before any body dreamt of those rules


(i) Dante had begun his poem in Latin, but changed afterwards his scheme and wrote it in italian. «Infera regna canam» was the beginning of his first line. [p. 123 modifica]

that have forced subsequent geniuses to confine even their mad V- flights within the boundaries of method and the circumscriptions of reason.

But the superior splendour of this poet did not absorb entirely the light of some other oi his contemporaries. The lovers of ancient Italian poetry and prose stili revere the names of Castruccio Castracani (prince of Lucca, whose life was written by Machiavelli), Farinata degli liberti, Bindo Donati, Pieraccio Tebaldi, Cecco Angiolieri, Gianni Alfani, Muoio Piacente, Benuccio Salimbeni, Lapo Saltarelli, Bbnagiunta Urbiciani, Dante da Maiano, Guido Cavalcanti and many other Tuscans whose writings, though for the greatest part a little rude and indigested, were looked upon as the best examples of pure language by those leamed and judicious compilers of our dictionary, known in the literar>’ republic under the name of academicians della Crusca.

Two more specimens, one from Dante da Maiano, the other from Guido Cavalcanti (a disciple as well as Dante Alighieri of Brunetto Latini), will enable the reader to judge of those large strides that our language took as that period towards perfection. This specimen from Dante da Maiano is in the dialect that was spoken in that part of Tuscany now denominated Valdarno:

Com piú diletto di voi, dorma, prendo, e piú vi tegno ed aggio a vollia mia, ecc.

This specimen from Cavalcanti is in the old dialect of Florence:

Per gli occhi fiere un spirito sottile che fa in la mente spirito destare, ecc.

The Fiorentine dialect now began to rise apace in the estimation of the Italians and tower above the others of Tuscany. The most sagacious followers of the Muses began to prefer it to any other; as did Agatone Drusi of Pisa, Piero Mala volti of Cortona, Michele Pucci of Arezzo, Giovanni Lambertacci of Oltrarno and a great many more. I will only select a specimen from Ci no of Pistoia, the celebrated master of Bartolo the dvilian and Petrarch the poet, whose elegant compositions have [p. 124 modifica]

escaped oblivion, thanks te a beautiful lady of those times called Ricciarda de’ Selvaggi, that was much loved and praised by Cine in bis verses. This is the specimen:

Mille dubbi in un di, mille querele al tribunal de l’alta imperatrice, ecc.

So far I bave shown our speech coming out of the poor remains of the Latin tongue, like an unhappy woman that escapes from under the ruins of a tremendous earthquake, in a tattered gown, such as chance has thrown on ber back; but her beauty, though concealed in rags, is soon perceived and every one strives to give her something, that she may dress and adorn herself completely. Thus Brunetto Latini and Guittone d’Arezzo had given our language a tolerable degree of grammar, Dante Alighieri a forcible and vigorous turn, and Gino of Pistoia had laboured much to make it sweet and harmonious.

But the man to whom the Italians have the greatest obligation for their fine language was without doubt Francesco Petrarca, son of a Fiorentine notary, who, having been banished bis native place, fled for reluge to Arezzo with bis wife, who was there brought to bed of our poet in the year 1304.

It is to be supposed that the youth was very ingenious and very studious, because bis Latin compositions began to give him a reputation in bis earliest years, not only in Italy but in France, where he was carried by bis father when he was but eight years of age. Having reached twenty-three, bis gentle soul was kindled with love for a young lady of Avignon, called Laura, who being, in ali probability, a lover of Italian, then the fashionable language of the wits of both countries, was the cause that her admirer took to write in it those numerous pieces of poetry which will send the name of this lady to the remotest posterity.

This is not a proper place to expatiate on Petrarch ’s different powers as a writer, that gained him the appellation of «restorer of the Latin tongue»; therefore confining myself to the character of bis Italian verses, I say that he fell short ot Dante in point of vehemence of expression, strength of thinking [p. 125 modifica]

and variety of invention; but he greatly surpassed both him and ali his poetical predecessors in propriety, exactness and elegance; then the music of his number is so melodious, that he is rather too soft and tender whenever he mentions his joyless love for his chaste friend. I think him effeminate in many places, but this is my particular opinion and the reader must take it as such. I will, however, not pass in silence a pretty curious anecdote regarding this poet. He was, as I said, so desperately fond of Laura, that he loved her even many years after her death. His tender verses had made such an impression on a pope of his time, that pitying the poor enamorato, he went so far as to offer him a dispensation of his vows (Petrarch had early embraced the ecclesiastic state) that he might marry her. But Petrarch magnanimously declined the offer and chose rather to suffer ali the distress in which his violent passion kept him, than put a stop to that vein of sweet poetr>’ which would have been drained, as he apprehended, had he got possession of the lady and would rather go on immortalizing both her name and his own by praising her charms, than make himself happy in the fruition of them. I will not examine here whether he was right or wrong in so doing, and without going further wide of my first aim, I here transcribe the first canzone that he writ on his Laura ’s death :

Che debb’io far? che mi consigli. Amore? Tem,po è ben di morire, ecc.

Petrarch is the last of our writers that studied the provenQal language, which was then at its lowest ebb, and fell in such neglect about his time, that none of Petrarch ’s successors seem to have thought of it any further. Such was the reputation he acquired, that since him the greatest part of the Italian wits adopted his language as the true language of the Muses.

Our poetry had, by this time, made a ver>’ considerable progn’ess. Petrarch ’s age had produced so many elegant poetical compositions that it deserved from successive ages to be called // buon secolo della lingua, the good century of the language; but our prose remained stili uncultivated, and we stili wanted [p. 126 modifica]

a prose writer as excellent in his kind as Dante and Petrarch had been in theirs.

The good genius of Italy did not suffer us to be without one; Giovanni Boccaccio, a friend of Petrarch, about thirty years after his master, began to publish many works, amongst which his Decamerone raised his name so high, that no Italian author has yet appeared who pretends, or can with justice pretend to be possessed of only one half of his perfections. Boccaccio has copiousness of words, elegance of style, variety of thought, facility of invention and so many other excellencies, that none of his countrymen must hope to get the upper hand of him.

This is the character that Boccaccio acquired and preserved in Italy, since the first pubHcation of his Decamei’one; yet my particular opinion is that he has ali those good qualities when he speaks of ludicrous things; but when he treats a serious subject, I do not find his style so constantly naturai and perspicuous, as in his humorous descriptions and burlesque narrations. In his introduction to his novels, for instance, which contains a description of the plague that raged in Tuscany in the year 1348, he strives too much to be eloquent and pompous, and his style is here and there perplexed and embarassed by circumlocutions and parentheses ; but when he comes to describe and characterize ser Ciappelletto, frate Cipolla, Cuccio Imbratta, or Calandrino, his expressions flow with precision and rapidity.

But that commendation, which Boccaccio deserves from the admirers of Italian language and eloquence, is entirely forfeited if we look on his Decamerone with the eyes of moralists and christians. Yet as the intent of this historical dissertation is to treat of language and not morals, I shall not expatiate on the numerous transgressions among our writers of the limits which religion ought to have set their pens; but without further digression copy a novel tale for a specimen of Boccaccio ’s prose:

In Firenze fu giá un giovane chiamato Federigo di tnesser Filippo Alberighi, ecc. (’)

(i) Giorn. V, nov. 9 [Ed.]. [p. 127 modifica]

Contemporaries with Boccaccio were Zucchero Benci venni, Ciscranna de’ Piccolomini, Alberto degli Albizzi, Leonardo del Galacone, Arrigo Castruccio (son of Castruccio Castracani), Rainerio de’ Pagliaresi, Giovanni Lambertacci, Gano da Colle, Andrea di Piero Malavolta, Giacopo Colonna, Cecco Angiolieri, Antonio Pucci, Dino di Tucca and numberless others.

This set of writers was immediately foUowed by another of much more eminence than they. Laurence of the Medici of Florence, the richest private man that perhaps lived in Italy since the Roman Crassus, encouraged with such princely munificence the learned of his time, and especially those that escaped from Greece, then conquered by the Turks, that Florence became the seat of the Muses and Italy was filled with good writers.

Our language was not only beautified by the compositions of Laurence and his numerous courtiers and friends, but enlarged by their elegant translations of the best Latin and Greek books.

Poetry and learning became then so much in fashion, that even carpenters, shoe-makers, barbers and tailors of Tuscany could write good verses; nor shall I scruple to number amongst our poets Massa the joiner, Piero the carder, Giovanni Guggiola the seller of greens, and many more, whose lyric compositions please me near as much as those of Petrarch himself.

The greatest men in literature that Italy boasts of flourished in that time: the names of Poliziano, Ficino, Barbaro, Pico, Poggio, Valla, Crisolora, the two Aretines, Moschopulo, Tarcagnota Calcondile, Bessarione and others, either professors or promoters of Italian learning, will last as long as mankind are wise enough to be addicted to arts and sciences.

For a specimen of the language of that period I shall only transcribe a few stanzas out of the epic poem of Luigi Pulci, entitied // Morgante maggiore, a poem that, in my opinion, may cope with those of Boiardo and Ariosto, for power and variety of poetical thinking. Orlando, who, next Morgante, is the chief hero of this poem, after having fought the battle of Roncisvalle, is so much overpowered with fatigue, that he finds [p. 128 modifica]

he has exhausted his naturai vigour. Pulci therefore makes him pronounce this mournful and devout prayer, before he departs from life:

O Redentor de’ miseri -mortali il guai tanto per noi t’umiliasti, ecc. (i).

I will not omit to say that many people in Italy suspect Poliziano and not Pulci to be the author of this epic poem; and indeed there are such impious strokes of immorality running throughout it, and such a quantity of sweet and elegant verses, as may almost confírm the assertion of Teofílus Folengus, who in his poem of Orlayidino pitocco affirms that Pulci had it from Politian.

At the same time that Pulci was enlarging and embellishing our language, and charming the ears of his poetical, but irreligious, readers with his whimsical and irregular M^r^rt:»/*?, Boiardo, count of Scandiano, published in Lombardy another epic poem intitled Orlando innamorato, which, for extent of invention, variety of characters and picture of passions and manners, was far superior to Pulci ’s; yet Orla?ido, in point of language and versification, was so much below the Fiorentine poet, that Francesco Berni, the modem Catullus of Italy, took upon himself to versify it again, and about fífty years after Boiardo ’s death, published his rifacimcíito (as we cali it) of the Orlando innamorato.

This kind of translation pleased the Italians so much that they almost forgot the originai poem, and, especially in our days, the generality of readers care but little for Boiardo ’s genuine work. ^

Berni was not satisfied with only making the versification of this poem better: he interspersed it with many stanzas of his own and changed almost ali the beginnings of the cantos, introducing each of them with some moral reflection arising from the canto foregoing. I shall only for a specimen of his smooth

(i) XXVII, st. 121-124, 126-127, 129-130 [Ed.]. [p. 129 modifica]

and simple language, transcribe one of these beginnings, after having informed my reader that Boiardo, in the canto that preceeds this specimen, had described a set of human monsters, called anthropophagi and lestrigons, who were of gigantic stature, had larga noses, extended eye-brows, bushy beards, sharp talons instead of nails at their fíngers, and fed only on human flesh, which they were used to eat out of vessels of gold. Berni makes a moral and satirical application of their figures and manners to the courtiers of Rome, who in his time were a set of most corrupted people, as courtiers generally are every where in our days as well as in Berni ’s time. The canto begins thus:

Di questi antropofaghi e lestrigoni è gran dovizia ne’ nostri paesi, ecc. (i).

The poem of Orlando innamorato, though a very long one, is not finishetl, and the author probably was hindered by death from completing it. After having most strongly awakened and kept a long while in suspence the curiosity of the reader, Boiardo had left it unsatisfied by not bringing Orlando ’s warHke feats and desperate love to an end. Many poets therefore and amongst them Nicolò degli Agostini writ several continuations of it; but their productions were disregarded as none of them came up to Boiardo ’s performance. The honour of rivalling and even surpassing the count of Scandiano was reserved to Lodovico Ariosto, who, in the year 15 15, published for the first time his Orlando furioso.

But before I speak of Ariosto, I must return back to the fifteenth century and mention another of our poems of the epic kind, written before those of Pulci and Boiardo, by Federigo Prezzi, a native and bishop of Foligno, after the manner and style of Dante. This poem was published for the first time in Perugia with this uncouth title: Incomincia el libro intitulato quatriregio de decursu della vita hutnana de messer Federico

(1) XLVIII, st. 1-6 [Ed.]. G. Bi«RETTI, Prefazioni e polemiche. [p. 130 modifica]

fratre dell’ ordine de sancto Domenico eximio maestro in sacra teologia: Et ia vescovo della cittá de Foligni: Dividese’ in quadro libri parziali secondo qíiactro regni. Nel primo se tracia del regno de dio Cupido. Nel secondo del regno de Satan. Nel terzio del regno delti vizi. Nel quarto ed ultimo del regno de dea Minerva e de virtú; but there is nothing uncouth in the whole hook, except the title. Prezzi wrote it with as much purity of Tuscan language as if he had been born on the banks of Arno; and I suppose it contributed much at that time to the enlarging of our tongue, as it was printed six times in the space of thirty years; but by an unaccountable misfortune, this fanciful, instructive and truly poetical performance, was so much neglected after the sixth edition, that it was near being quite lost to mankind, almost ali the copies of the old editions having been destroyed by time and neglect. Nor are the Italians little indebted to the academicians of Foligno, who having found two or three copies of it, reprinted it in the year 1725, giving us an additional volume of notes and historical observations on the poem and its author, for a specimen of whose elegant and forcible language, I shall transcribe the seventh chapter of his second hook:

Migliaia di mostri piú oltre trovai, i quai, bench’io li narri e li racconte, ecc. (’).

Nations owe the chief powers and beauties of their languages to their poets; but few nations, either ancient or modem, owe so much to a single genius as the Italian to Lodovico Ariosto, who flourished in that famous period when the Medicean family, the Italian princes, and even the emperors and the kings of France encouraged with ali sorts of liberality the Greek, Latin and Italian literature.

(i) Alla parola «cocca» della terzina xvii il Baretti annota: «Cocca, viciously pronounced instead of conca, that is the bark of Charon, made in the form of that shell-fish which the Latins and the Italians cali concha and conca». — E alla parola «scorto» della terzina xl: «Scorto, contracted from scortato, made short, cut off, curtailed» [Ed.]. [p. 131 modifica]

Ariosto had in his youth acquired such a reputatíon by his Latin verses, that having in his riper years communicated to his friend cardinal Bembo the design he had formed of writing an Italian epic poem, the cardinal exerted ali his powers to dissuade him from such an enterprize, telling him that he certainly would acquire an everlasting name if he continued to beat the lyric tracie in Latin, but would absolutely forfeit his poetical fame by attemptíng this second road to immortality.

But the good luck of Italy would bave it that when Ariosto communicated his pian to Bembo he had already written some cantos of the Orlartelo, and having read them to his relation and master, the duke of Ferrara, both the duke and his learned courtiers joined against Bembo ’s opinion, so that Ariosto went on in his work with a steady resolution; and in spite of his politicai occupations, in which he was involved as long as he lived, and the care of a numerous family which he was obliged to provide for, he was able to finish it in the space of thirteen years.

The poem was scarcely multiplied by an edition when the author had the agreeable surprize of hearing ali Italy resounding with the praises given to his performance. The learned bestowed upon Ariosto the most enthusíastical appellations, and the people showed him the same testimonies of reverence that the Grecians showed three thousand years before to their blind bard, by committing the Orlando to memory and singing it through the streets. So numerous were the beauties found in the poem, that the pen of criticism dared not at that time to point out even some faults that might bave been discovered in it; and the Florentines, who, proud of their Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio, stooped with difficulty to acknowledge that any body could write with Tuscan purit>’, presently granted that Ariosto ’s language was most elegant and inferior to nobody ’s; nor did his reputation, like a sudden flash of lightning, surprize, dazzle and disappear, as was the case at that time with the impious Peter Aretine, and in the last centur>’ with John Baptist Marini; but, sun-like, it constantly shone with an equal lustre and is as bright in our days, asTt was two huhdfèd yeáfs"ágo. [p. 132 modifica]

Among other striking instances of the people ’s veneration for him, Ariosto had one of a very particular nature. The duke, his master, had sent him governor of the Garfagnana, a province on the Appenine, whose inhabitants, seizing the opportunity of the general turbulencies that over-ran Italy at that time, paid but little obedience to their sovereign. Ariosto took his residence in a fortified castle, from wliich it was imprudent to step out without guards, as the whole neighbourhood was swarming with out-laws, smugglers and banditti, who, after having committed the most enormous excesses ali around, retired for shelter against justice amidst those rocks and cliffs. Ariosto one morning happened to take a walk without the castle in his night-gown, and in a fit of thought forgot himself so mach that, step after step, he found himself very far from his habitation, and surrounded on a sudden by a troop of those desperados, who certainly would have ili used and perhaps murdered him, had not his face been known by one of the gang, who informing his comrades that this was signor Ariosto, the chief of the banditti addressed him with intrepid gallantry, and told him that since he was the author of the Orlando furioso, he might be sure none of the company would injure him, but would see him, on the contrary, safe back to the castle; and so they did, entertaining him ali along the way with the various excellencies they had discovered in his poem and bestowing upon it the most rapturous praises, a very rare proof of the irresistible powers of poetry, and a noble comment on the fables of Orpheus and Amphion, who drew wild beasts and raised walls with the enchanting sound of their lyres.

It would take too much room to expatiate on each particular excellence or defect of this poem, or to fíx the degree of contempt the French critics in general have deserved, whenever they spoke of Ariosto. Those wretched judges of epic poetry have had the good luck of being constantly absurd, whenever they spoke either in praise or blame of messer Lodovico; and the pitiful decisions they have uttered, whenever they have compared our Orlando to our Gerusalemme, prove their perfect [p. 133 modifica]

ignorance of our language and epic poetry, as well as the impudence of their temper. But this subject would lead me too far beyond the limits I have prescribed to this dissertation. Perhaps I shall hereafter fully discuss this mattar in a treatise for this purpose and expose them to the ridicule they deserve for their temerity on this head. Meanwhile let the English reader take my word for it, that Ariosto is the greatest poet that my poetical country ever produced; for a specimen of his poetry, I select that part of the xxiii canto in whicli he describes his liero tuming mad out of love and jealousj’:

Volgendosi ivi intorno vide scritti molti arboscelli in sull’ombrosa riva, ecc. (0.

Ariosto had a prodigious number of contemporaries that increased and beautified the Italian tongue with their works; amongst whom Annibale Caro is perhaps the best model of familiar writing we have; Claudio Tolomei, Francesco Maria Molza, Giangiorgio Trissino, the author of the Italia liberata, an epic poem in blank verse, Nicolò Machiavello, Bernardo Segni, Giacomo Bonfadio, Andrea Navagero, Agostino Beaziano, Trifon Gabrieli, Benedetto Varchi, Bernardo Tasso, the father of the famous Torquato, Iacopo Sannazaro, Sperone Speroni, Baldassare Castiglione, Giovanni Guidiccioni, Lodovico Castel vetro, Berardino Rota, Giovanni Della Casa and others; besides some ladies whose performances are stili the admiration of our wits, especially those of Veronica da Gambara, Vittoria Colonna, Laura Battiferra, Tullia d’Aragona and Gaspara Stampa.

The succeeding generation of writers was much inferior to that of Ariosto in number, as well as in language. The Italians, weary of simplicity which is the chief characteristic of their tongue, began to for.sake the old road and seek for a new one. That interval nevertheless produced Torquato Tasso, whose Gerusalemme liberata will last as long as any performance in Italian.

(i) XXIII, st. 102-33 [Ed] [p. 134 modifica]

Next Ariosto, Tasso was the greatest poetical genius modem Italy ever admired. But if he was inferior to him as to knowledge of language, variety of invention, rapidity of expression, picture of manners and general powers’ of delighting, on the other hand he never defiled any of his pages with immodest or vulgar talk, and his style isconstantly nervous and perspicuous, his thoughts sublime, his characters striking, his descriptions picturesque and his learning unbounded; no wonder therefore if some of his countrymen stili continue to set him higher than his rivai, as he likewise spoke of religion with a truly Christian dignity and often showed that no theme whatsoever is so susceptible of poetical beauties as the exposition of the doctrine contained in the sacred books.

Foreigners, and especially the French, generally coincide with the opinion of the smaller number of our critics, and boldly give the preference, as I took notice above, to Tasso, whenever they compare him with Ariosto. But though I declare myself so warm an admirer of the Jerusalem as to prefer it to the epic performances of Dante, Pulci and Boiardo, yet I wish that foreigners, for the sake of their literary honour, would proceed with a little more caution when they discourse on such a subject, and be less confident of their knowledge of our tongue and poetry; because, though it is true that on some points Tasso is superior to his rivai ; yet if he has on the whole fewer faults, they must be persuaded that he has also fewer perfections. But as I said above, I shall perhaps hereafter bave occasion to write an English treatise entirely on this subject in which I hope I shall prove past contradiction, that a nation cannot in point of literature constantly deceive themselves for centuries and that foreigners cannot without incurring the charge of impertinence think themselves better qualified than any native to fíx the rank of our authors, as every body knows that Italy can boast of men versed in dead languages, as well as the most eminent of other nations, and they must be supposed to understand their own far better and consequentlv more able to judge of the productions of their own soil. [p. 135 modifica]

Tasso ’s family was one of the noblest in Lombardy and his father was as conspicuous for bis parts as for bis misfortunes; but his son surpassed bim in botb, and baving forfeited the friendship of bis master, the duke of Ferrara, was obHged after a long and shameful imprisonment to wander a wbile tbrougb many parts of Italy, ratber in the garb of a beggar than in the dress of a gentleman.

I bave seen an edition of the first cantos of bis poem printed in his life-time, in the preface of whicb tbis remarkable anecdote is related. Tasso one day arrived a foot and most wretcbedly equipped at one of the gates of Turin. The guards wouldnot let bim enter the town, because instead of producing a passport, he could give no other account of bimself but that he was Tasso the poet. He was tberefore obliged to turn back, and go to a neighbouring convent of capuchins, to beg for some food as he was almost starved to death. But he bad scarcely began to eat wben the duke of Savoy, baving been casually informed of what bad passed at the gate, sent a coach and six to fetch the noble pilgrim at the capuchins, received bim with the most generous kindness and, after baving feasted bim for some days, put him in a condition to follow his journey with more decency towards Rome.

It is probable that such a reception from one of the greatest heroes of that age bad a very good effect on the mind of Tasso, not only much disturbed by the perverse animosity of the academicians della Crusca against bim, but almost distracted by a hopeless love; yet he died soon after in Rome, to the great reg^et of his very antagonists, who then adopted bis Works amongst the models of Italian language, for a specimen of whicb I transcribe from the second canto the eloquent speech of Alete, the ambassador of the king of Egypt, to Goffredo, the leader of the Christian army to the siege of Jerusalem:

O degno sol cui d’ubbidire or degni questa adunanza di famosi eroi, ecc. (’).

(I) II, st. 62-79 [Ed-] [p. 136 modifica]

In Tasso ’s life-time so few advantageous additions were made to our language by his contemporary wits, that I can as well pass them over in silence. I could almost do the same with those that flourished in the next half century, were not Chiabrera, Bracciolini, Tassoni and Lippi amongst them.

Gabriel Chiabrera attempted in his earlier youth to obtain the epic laurei, but perceiving that his countrymen could not be brought to bestow any great encomiums on his Amadeide , turned his steps to the lyric track, and abandoning the road traced some centuries before by Petrarch and his followers, took Pindar and Anacreon for his models and acquired much reputation both with his fervid and his soft measures.

Francesco Bracciolini, amongst other things, writ two epic poems, one sacred entitied La croce racquistata, the other burlesque entitied Lo scherno degli dèi, which gave him a right to be numbered amongst the enlargers, but not the embellishers of our language.

Alessandro Tassoni is known throughout Europe for his burlesque epic poem entitied La secchia rapita, in which there are some very good poetical passages, and our language has received some additional beauty by it.

Lorenzo Lippi wrote a burlesque epic poem intitled Malmantile, in which he collected a vast number of the proverbs and vulgar sayings most common amongst the low people of Tuscany. Tho’ his performance be very ingenious if we have regard to the invention of it, yet it is more so if we consider that he had the art of bringing together numberless proverbs on every purpose without ever falling into affectation or swerving from his subject.

I transcribe no part of Bracciolini ’s, Tassoni ’s and Lippi ’s poems, because I have them not amongst my books; but the following anacreontical song shall serve for a specimen of Chiabrera ’s poetry and language:

Del mio sol son ricciutegli i capegli, non biondetti tna brunetti, ecc. [p. 137 modifica]

I bave said that the immediate successors of Torquato Tasso made no advantageous additions to our language; but this happened rather for want of judgment than of genius in many of them. Tasso had even an immediate successor, who, for vastness of imagination, command of language and poetical powers, would perhaps have surpassed him and equalled Ariosto, had he not, out of a foolish fondness for novelty, deviated fròm the ri ght track of comm on se n se.,

ThisjuaiLj^s Giambattista Manni, whose surprising_fa^ ity^ in versificatioa-’ fitled Italy in a few years with his epic, lyric, satirical and pastoral works, with which he so much dazzled thè eyes òTTiis countrymen as made them almost totally forget their old writers; and his exuberant fancy, expanding itself into bold metaphors and wild exaggerations, entirely corrupted, with astonishing rapidit}’, the taste of his contemporaneous authors and readers, so that many of them improving extravagance with extravagance and engrafting nonsense upon nonsense, published innumerable books, big with bombastic and far-fetched thoughts, clad with humorous and unnatural language.

That unhappy centur>’ was, towards the end of it, and on the beginning of this, branded by the Italians with the dishonourable appellat ion o f cattivo secolo della lingua, in opposition to the age of Petrarch, honoured, as I said, with that of buon secolo della lingua. Nor can we gfive a more opprobrious character to a bad modern~scribbTèr, than"^y calling Tilrif~«^ sec entista ^ that is a writer like those of the seventeenth centuryT’

About the end of the last and the beginning of this present age, Francesco Redi, the famous physician, Alessandro Marchetti, Lorenzo Magalotti, Benedetto Menzini, Lorenzo Bellini, Antónmaria Salviní and some other Tuscans destroyed at last the charm of corruption and brought their countrymen again within sight of nature.

It is true that, although taste was at last restored amongst us, none of those poets or prosatori who have flourished since the literary reformation in Italy have deserved to be compared with Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio and the other fathers or improvers [p. 138 modifica]

of our tongue ; yet none likewise have sunk so low as to merit a rank amongst the corrupters of it; and it is to be hoped_that the Works offra Ciro di- Efirs^ Claudio Achillini, Luca Assarino, Giovanni Ciampoli, Girolamo Preti, Antonio Abati and the other imitators and improvers of the marinian corru£tipn, will b^ totally lost and forgotten in a short time. ^

Thús háve I traced our language step after step from the twelfth century down to our present times. To give an account of our living writers to an Englishman is needless, as the best amongst them have but followed the good path pointed out to them by their earliest predecessors and made almost no advance towards the enlarging the compass of our tongue, though, upon the whole, it is my opinion, that ne ver so much real knowledge was spread amongst the Italians as at present.

I cannot nevertheless pass in silence two living poets, who have struck out two new tracks thro’ the vast continent of literature. I cannot resist the impulses of admiration for Pietro Metastasio and the calls of friendship for Giancarlo Passeroni, who have not only added to the splendour of our poetry, but, what is stili more commendable, have interspersed their works with the dogms of the strictest morality, an ornament, as I took notice before, too much neglected by the generality of our authors of the three good ages of our language.

Metastasio has published many operas, oratorios, cantatas and songs, in so harmonious a style, that our musicians are chiefly indebted to him for the honour of having their compositions relished at present in almost ali parts of Europe; yet the most judicious part of our readers like Metastasio ’s verses better without than with music, as it but seldom happens that the composers keep pace with the poet. They either slacken when his poetry requires to be expressed with forcible notes or sink into effeminacy when it demands but softness.

Metastasio well deserves the honours paid him by the present age, for besides his unparallelled harmoniousness in versification, his language is most perspicuous, his invention of characters and interesting situations almost equal to that of [p. 139 modifica]

Shakespear and Corneille, and his knowledge of passions not inferior to his invention.

Though his Works are now known to every foreign lover of Italian, yet for the convenience of those that are not possessed of them, I choose to transcribe two short lyric pieces out of them.


Scendi propizia col tuo splendore, ecc.



Grazie agl’inganni tuoi alfin respiro, o Nice, ecc.

Giancarlo Passeroni is the author of a poem of the epic kind intitled Vita di Marco Tullio Cicerone ( The life of Marctis Tulliiis Cicero) .

But let not the reader expect that the poem will come up to its titie. Cicero is scarcely mentioned in the greatest part of the cantos and the author, rather hinting than describing the severa! accidents of Cicero ’s life (which are also imaginary for the greatest part), generally carries on his work with digressions tending to reform the present manners of his countrymen. From the good qualities he attributes to Cicero ’s father, mother, preceptor and attendants, he takes occasion to satirize the modem bad fathers, mothers, preceptors and attendants; and Cicero ’s juvenile studies, exercises and amusements, afford the poet as many opportunities as he pleases to expatiate on the modem virtues and vices, and approve, blame or rectify the notions of mankind about literature, manners, employments, expectations and A^ews.

This praise must I bestow on my honest friend Passeroni, that none of our poets, either ancient or modem, has like him kept dose to the horatian rule of mixing the useful with the delightful. A multitude of moral precepts has he spread in his [p. 140 modifica]

poem, that being delivered in a most easy strain, will certainly make the bulk of his readers better than they are, and consequently render his name dear to his contemporaries and venerable to posterity; especially if in the next edition he shall expunge some passages that are too burlesque or rather too vulgar, and if he is made sensible that he has done amiss in running down physicians, to whom he has, like Molière, been quite unjust, casting ridicule on their respectable art, whenever his subject brought him to talk of physic.

A specimen of Passeroni ’s poetry I take from the twentyninth canto, where, after having said that Cicero ’s father chose a Tuscan poet to be the governor and preceptor of his son, our author runs into a digression in praise of the poetical art, too much despised in Italy by a multitude of ignorant people, who confounding poetasters (of which there are great numbers) with poets, are continually declaiming against it:

Un poeta per aio a Cicerone, un che compone versi in lingua losca, ecc. (i).

The present state of our language in Italy is neither very good nor very bad. Besides Metastasio and Passeroni, we bave many poets and prose- writers not destitute of elegance, but our present poets stand at a great distance from Ariosto and Tasso, and we are far from boasting now of novellista like Boccaccio and Firenzuola; of historians, like Machiavelli and Guicciardini; of critics, like Vellutello and Castelvetro; and of philosophers, like Piccolomini and Galileo; yet Cocchi, Lami, Gori, Foscarini, Zanetti, Volpi, Martinelli, Gozzi, Marsili, Vitturi, Zanetti, Vettori, Frugoni, Balestrieri, Tanzi and some others, will, in my opinion, be reverenced by posterity and ranked amongst the benefactors of mankind, if they publish their voluminous writings, which I suppose to be equal to the short specimens they bave already printed. Our universities and our -academies are not wanting in

(i) XXIX, st. 21-29, 31-43 [Ed.]. [p. 141 modifica]

men of great wit and learning, but such is the present condition of the country,

che Appenin parte e 7 mar circonda e l’Alpe,

as to leave me but faint hopes of seeing literary men much countenanced there, since the best part of it is in the hand of strangers, that think more of plunder than of literature, and do not care to preser\’e a language they scarcely understand. It is even probable that our tongue will soon be no more a tongue, as the Tuscans, who are the naturai guardians of it, besides meeting no encouragement fot writing in it, are obliged to get some knowledge of foreign gabbles, that they may talk to their ignorant masters, who mixing on their part their French and German words and phrases with the few Tuscan they catch by conversing with their subjects, must in a short while beget a monstrous jargon; and if the source of the language is once tainted, the corruption will quickly run ali along the stream and quite poison it.

May the tutelar genius of Italy avert the melancholy catastrophe, and may a young prince, who gave in his earliest years the most hopeful signs that he would one day be the promoter as well as the cultivator of Italian learning, keep our language from sinking into a dead language so soon as I apprehend. May my expectation not be frustrated of hearing the banks of the Po, the Tiber, the Mincio, the Sebeto and the Arno, and both the shores of my country, with the Alps and Appenines, loudly re-echo his name and repeat the Italian verses that shall be sung in his praise!