The 13th century
We know that Tuscany did playa primary role in the shaping of the Italian language. It would be incorrect, however, to say that the Italian language originated in Tuscany: rather, it sprung almost anywhere in the Italian peninsula at around the same time (9-10th c A.D.), in a wilde number of regional variants, the ancestors of today's dialects. However, it was in Sicily and Southern Italy under Frederick II (1194-1250) that the first Italian standard appeared, though its circulation was limited to the high orders of society.
Literary Sicilian gained a literary prestige throughout the peninsula, and soon become a model for the Tuscan poets. Who were the Normans? The Normans (French translation of 'Northmen' or 'Norsemen'), from whom Frederick II descended by way of his mother, Constance of Hauteville, were originally Danish Viikings who had ravaged Northern France by going up the estuary of the Seine in the 8th-9th centuries, until they converted to Christianity and became vassals to the King of France.
The King gave them the fiefdom of Normandy in return. With such power and the learning that came to them from French civilization, their race thrived and spread to more European countries: England (1066), Scotland (1070), Ireland (12th century) and Southern Italy (1059-60).
When the Normans defeated the Saracens in Sicily, they brought their French heritage to the island. This included feudalism, but the Normans were also careful to respect the culture, language and religions of the conquered by adopting a policy equally tolerants to Sicilian natives, Greek Byzantines, Arabs and the Jews: they did not force their language or culture on them.
They also left all the minor dignitaries from the previous regimes in charge, thus avoiding possible rivalries or political tension. As in the other lands they conquered, the Normans easily fit in and soon assimilated to the local way of life.
Mutual tolerance was further encouraged by the by the Svevs with Frederick II's accession to the throne (1198 A.D.). Frederick was the son of Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor, and Constance d'Hauteville, daughter of Roger II, King of Sicily. Frederick I of Sicily (later Frederick II) was born in Jesi, in the Marche in 1194).
During his reign successfully managed to bring political unity to southern Italy by containing the ambitions of local barons and the Norman nobility, preferring to trust his estate into the hands of a modern bureaucracy which brought down the feudal barriers that impoverished the south. For about sixty years Sicily was to know unprecedented wealth, Bari becoming one of the richest ports of the Mediterranean, but this was also the result of Fredercik's religious tolerance and respect for the Arab, Byzantine, Jewish and other local minorities, whose religions deserved equal respect under the law.
This allowed all the cultural heritage of Sicily to come to light and shine in all its beauty: the Arab dignitaries that surrounded him made him a passionate student of philosophy, astronomy and medicine, whereas the Norman heritage encouraged him to cultivate occitan poetry.
There are indeed few disciplines where Frederick did not delve in, often not unsuccessfully, and this patron of the arts in 1224 also founded one of Europe's oldest Universities, the Università degli Studi di Napoli, and conferred to that of Bologna, the first university ever founded (1088) a special chart (Constitutio Habita or Authentca Habita) granting it independence and protection from any temporal or religious power. Another major academic pole was found in Messina, Sicily, where the emperor spent most of his time.
His initiative was of no small importance for Italy, where regional strife between Guelfs and Ghibellines, respectively the Pope's and the emperor's factions, tore apart the peninsula and filled the cities with exiles. With such divisions it was impossible to unify the local vernaculars under one national language, and this was particularly true in the North, where its numerous city states guarded their local traditions and autonomy with jealousy and each pretended to impose their own language as the standard.
Frederick was said to speak nine languages, seven of which fluently: he was also in love with philosophy and poetry. By resisting the temptation of submitting his temporal power to the Church and avoiding mixing church and state, Frederick created a lay nation that streched from Southern italy to Malta with a modern and efficient bureaucracy and a powerful trading class.
The Sicilian School
At those times, French poetry from the South of France, especially Troubadour Poetry in langue d'Oc (Occitan) was considered the finest form of literature in Europe and even widely imitated abroad, especially in Northern Italy. The Normans, who were also French subjects, and from which Frederick descended by way of his mother, brought much of it to Sicily.
In fact, Frederick set up, or at least encouraged a kind of 'literary workshop' headed by Giacomo da Lentini (the official head of the Scuola Siciliana, the "Sicilian School."), the subject-matter of their verse being courtly love, the fin' amor of French poetry.
It was lyric poetry estranged from reality, often populated by clichéd, abstract feminine figures rather than real characters: an exercise of rhetoric partly modeled on Troubadour poetry, but without the psychological insight and realism that Dolce Stil Novo will bring to it. However, the new verse and literary language devised by the Sicilians starting from the local venacular was a piece of work that stood on its own feet and soon gained widespread reputation in Europe.
The school, made up by some of the most eminent dignitaries and notaries of the magna curia included Guido dalle Colonne, Stefano Protonotaro, Rinaldo d'Aquino, Giacomino Pugliese, King Enzo of Sardinia, Percivalle Doria, Pier della Vigna and, last but not least, the Emperor himself.
In one of his poems he departs from his lady with these words:
Dolce mia donna, lo gire non è per mia volontate,
ché mi conviene ubidire
quelli che m'ha 'n potestate.
Or ti conforta s'io vado,
e già non ti dismagare,
Lo vostro amore mi tene
e hami in sua segnoria.
(Frederick II, Dolze meo drudo)
[transl.: my sweet lady, going away / is not my decision, / as I must obey / those who command me. / Now, do not be sad when I go, / and do not lose heart so soon, (...) your love keeps me with you / and makes me his slave.]
When looking back at the Sicilians in his treatise on the Italian language, De Vulgari Eloquentia, Dante will acknowledge that "in effect this venacular seems to deserve higher praise than the others, since all the Italian poets write is in Sicilian". Dante quotes the Sicilians as proof that there can be a national language capable of the highest poetry. In his efforts to fashion a new Italian language he will treasure the fruits of the Sicilians.
The First Italian Standard
The fact that not all of the poets were Sicilian (though it was largely based on the local dialect) and that Frederick moved his court to and through to face political and military emergencies favored the development of a southern standard that transcended the single regional dialects even within the island itself. However, the court had a predilection for French poetry and classical literature and many of the new words created for their poems were modeled on Latin and French.
The effect was twofold: 1. creating a koinè from a number of southern dialects and 2. enriching its vocabulary with a huge number of words from the classical (Latin) and troubadour words and phrases (terms relating to chivalry were almost entirely French). Some examples: joi, jujusamenti, amaduri, miraturi, nuritura, and more in -anza, as speranza, intendanza, rimembranza; longiamenti are of French origin but they reflect a palatilisation that is typical of southern Italy. Also note words like blasmari, placiri, fazone.
Most of the common (non-literary) words are Sicilian, with some influence from Apulia. Some are typically Sicilian words: abento, ammiratu, menna, nutricari, sanari. You can get an idea of this language in "Pir Meu Cori Alligrari" by Stefano Protonotaro. This is one of the few poems which survived the spelling changes made by Tuscan scriveners when the original texts were brought to the continent.
We must also consider the movement in a larger context: Lombardy, Piedmont and Liguria, but most of all Veneto and Ezzelino III da Romano (1194-1259), its prince, had strong ties with the Emperor: besides, the language of courtly love in northern Italy was actually Occitan though sometimes mixed with Lombard or Venetian words.
The Sicilians did not use any French language, preferring to naturalize foreign words coming from the North: the result was that a brand new language was born which generated the first masterpieces of literature in a true Italian standard, defined by grammar and spelling.
But where courtly poetry thrived, comedy and satire was smothered: Frederick did not allow much room for political dissent, and this is why the Sicilian School strictly concerned itself with love and avoids addressing itself to identifiable persons. More political freedom would have made room for more literature, whether from inside or outside the court.
Northern Italy, instead, being made up as it was of city states relatively independent from the great powers (the Holy Roman Empire and the Vatican) developed its own sirventese, a political or military song of French origin in which the poet defended his prince and / or mocked his enemies. The reference to battles, princes and real places and people is tangible.
However, in spite of the restricted freedom of expression, under Frederick II the South esperienced something short of a Renaissance, and became, though for a few years, the center of Italian culture. The Sicilian School is also credited with inventing a literary form destined to change forever the literary landcape of Italy and Europe and being exported ti tuscany: the sonnet, invented by Giacomo da Lentini, was to dictate literary taste both in Italy and Europe in the following centuries.
This form was later adopted by France and then by the Earl of Surrey and the Elisabethans. Shakespeare used it in a variant which was to become the English sonnet. Ezra Pound even looked back to the oldest Italian sonnets which inspired much of his imagist and modernist poetry.
Technical notes on the sonnet
The sonetto, as it is know in Italian was adopted by Dolce Stil Novo (Dante will write quite a few in his Vita Nova, dedicated to Beatrix) and perfected by Petrarch. The sonnet is the brainchild of Giacomo da Lentini, the head of the Sicilian school. Consisting of an octave (ABAB-ABAB) and a sestet (BCB-BCB), the former strophe usually posing a question, the second giving the answer, it has the advantage of brevity while allowing for a relative flexibility in style and language.
It favors the use of ellyptic expressions and a synthetic, clear language, and this was probably one of the reasons it received so much attention by such modernist poets as Ezra pound and T.S. Eliot. Below I have quoted one of Giacomo's most famous sonnets, "Io m'aggio posto in core" widely studied in Italian schools.
The first version is my tentative reconstruction of the original Sicilian text that has been lost based on research and knowledge of my native Sicilian, the second is the extant version we have got from Tuscany, while the third is a (tentative) translation into English.
(Please note the phonological changes due to the early Tuscan adaptation. As a result, the lines of the continental version do not rhyme perfectly in the second version). This 'Sicilian', says Migliorini "is on the whole quite like the poetic language used throughout Italy until the 1800s":
Iu m'aiu pustu in cori a Diu serviri,
com'iu putissi giri in paradisu,
al santu locu ki aggiu auditu diri
u' si mantien sollazzu, iucu e risu.
Senza mea donna nun vi vuria giri
killa ki avi blonda testa e claru visu
ki senza lei nun poteria gaudiri
estandu da la mea donna divisu.
Ma nu lu dicu a tali intendimentu
pirk'iu piccatu chi vulissi fari;
si nun vidir lu su bel portamentu
e lu bel visu e 'l morbidu sguardari:
ki lu mi teria in gran cunsulamentu,
veggendu la mia donna in gloria stari
Io m'aggio posto in core a Dio servire,
com'io putesse gire in paradiso,
al santo loco ch'aggio audito dire
u' si mantien sollazzo, gioco e riso.
Senza mea donna non vi voria gire
quella c'ha blonda testa e claro viso
ché senza lei non poteria gaudere
estando da la mea donna diviso.
Ma no lo dico a tale intendimento
perch''io peccato ci volesse fare;
si non vedire lo suo bel portamento
e lo bel viso e 'l morbido sguardare:
ché lo mi teria in gran consolamento,
veggendo la mia donna in gloria stare
I have sworn God to serve
so that I might go to Heaven
to the Sacred Place of which I have heard
where you keep having fun and play.
Without my woman I wouldn't go
the one with fair hair har and pale face
since without her I could not feel happy
being far from my woman
But I'm not saying it with such intent
As if I wanted to sin with her;
if I didn't see her lovely gate
and her pretty face and sweet look:
because it would greatly comfort me,
to see my woman sit in Heaven's glory
Translating a poem, however close the target to the source language may result in a consistent loss of the original message, especially in literature where the form of the expression is as important as content itself. Therefore some lines of the tuscanised version, as for many other poems from the School don't quite rhyme.
The Sicilian dialect has a five-vowel system, probably inherited from North African Latin, while the Tuscan has seven: ó (closed), ò (open), é (closed), è (open), i, a u. Sicilian words as giri and gaudiri do no longer rhyme in Tuscan.
When read, last I of Sic. gaudiri was perceived as é and therefore written as E, but close and open Es do not rhyme, they did not then, standard Italian still keeps the difference, only today such diference is not widely perceived and the poem sounds fine. But the Tuscan version did not sound all right at that time.
A similar mistake occurred when Sic U was perceived as an ó and therefore written as O. Changing consonants for the Tuscan diction was relatively painless though: CL > CHI, GL > GHI. Here, no harm was done. For clarity, however, Sicilian CH is pronounced in the English way (as in 'cheer') and Scn. IU > Tus GIO.
Tuscan poetry also inherited via the Sicilians many words of Occitan origin, and these occur very frequently in the language of chivalry, which is part of the cultural heritage of French feudalism: Tusc. amanza, intendanza, lanza, sollazzo, gioia, coraggio, fazone many of them inherited from Sicily.
Under Frederick and his son Manfredi the poetry of courtly love is full of such calques, as opposed to the use of typically Sicilian words. French calques occur especially in contexts inspired by chivalry. It is easier to see that when courtly love is praised against the lower, less noble passions of the illitterate: dulci placiri, billizzi, abundanza are associated with physical beauty and are imported from native, popular verse.
We must keep such differences in mind when at Manfredi's death (1266), we must turn our attention to Arezzo and the Florence.
Realistic Poetry: Cielo d'Alcamo
At least one poem that today's scholars place within the tradition of the Sicilian school widely departs from its clichés: The Contrasto by Cielo d'Alcamo (once written as 'Ciullo'), also known as Rosa fresca aulentissima. This consists of a comic dialogue between two lovers, an insistent suitor and his belle who rebukes him for his audacity. Eventually though, she caves in.
This was a famous genre in the middle ages, another was the adieus or addii, or the aubes, about lovers who must part in the early morning (one such poem is contained in Romeo and Juliet)..
Nothing is taken too seriously, though, double-entendres and backbitings are full of irony and the lady is just teasing her lover before letting him to her room. Its freshness lies in the use of a lower register by which its author parodies the clichés of the Sicilian poetry.
Unfortunately, the Contrastomust be considered an exception, and the only one (as long as similar poems turn up). To add to the censorship imposed by the court, at Frederick's death (1250) his literary experiment was continued by Mandredi, the emperor's son, who in addition gave a melancholic, if not moralist twist to the movement. The sunny side of Sicilian poetry, which made it diffrent from any other, was gone.
The Sicilian School became extinct when Manfredi died in 1266.
The Sicilians Heritage: Early Tuscan poetry (1266-1290)
Guittone d'Arezzo and the Neo-Sicilians. After the end of the Svev dynasty, a knight and poet from Arezzo, Guittone, who admired the Sicilians, carried on their experiment by founding the New Sicilian School. Though its literary value is lower, the spirit remained quite faithful to the original.
Guittone and his followers were successful in their linguistic endeavors in that many Sicilian words were adopted by the Tuscans with the addition of appropriate spelling changing that made them acceptable to Tuscan readers. Many French, especially Provençal words that had entered the Sicilian dialect at the time of Frederick II were widely assimilated to the Tuscan dialect as well.
Sicilian words of French origin could be adapted with ease thanks to the many similarities between Tuscan and Sicilian, as in the case of French words ending in -ce and -cière like prov. esperance > it. speranza and it. cera, riviera, and others in -enza, -ore, -ura, -mento, -aggio.
Such suffixations allowed for the coinage of entirely new Italian words, but the addition of latinisms is even more remarkable at this stage (late 1200s). After Guittone, the Florentines showed even more interest in the Sicilian School, destined to inspire the Toscano illustre, the basis for that new linguistic standard that was to be employed nationwide through the immortal work of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio.
Dante praised the marriage between Sicilian and Tuscan in one of the greatest works on language ever produced, the De Vulgari Eloquentia, ("About the Vulgar Idiom", 'vulgar' here meaning "vernacular", or the language spoken by the people, the vulgus ). And it is here that he acknowledges that the origins of Italian in the Sicilian school.
Before we move on, however, we must stop at a small town that made as much history in Christian Reform as in medieval literature, and left very important marks on literature though its linguistic influence was lesser than the Tuscans and the Sicilians.
Religious Poetry in Umbria: Saint Francis of Assisi
The Canticle of the Sun, written in 1225-5 widely attributed to St. Francis (1182-1326) is probably the first piece of literature ever written in Italian. This laude ("divine praise"), partakes of the Christian mysticism of the Franciscan Order and the Alleluia Movement which arose between the close of the 12th and the early 13th centuries.
Mystical poetry from Umbria and the center- north, however popular and naive, was powerful in its spiritual message and in calling for a reformation of the Church. The high clergy was being accused of becoming more and more indifferent to the needs of the unpriviledged and detached from their spiritual vocation. St. Francis' simple but beautiful language translates the hardships and the joys of a simple life put to the service of the poor. His message touched the heart of people from all walks of life, and his new order spread rapidly.
In the Canticle the praise to the Lord seems to come from every aspect of nature, with which St. Francis seemed to be able to speak:
Laudato sie, mi Signore, cum tucte le tue creature, spetialmente messor lo frate sole, lo qual'è iorno, et allumini noi per lui. Et ellu è bellu e radiante cum grande splendore: de te, Altissimu, porta significatione. Laudato si', mi' signore, per sora luna e le stelle: in celu l'ài formate clarite et pretïose et belle Laudato s', mi' Signore per frate vento et per aere ed nubilo et sereno et onne tempo, per lo quale a le tue creature dài sustentamento Laudato si', mi' Signore, per sor'acqua, la quale è multo utile et utile et pretiosa et casta [...]
Thine be the praise my Lord, with all thy creatures Especially the reverend brother Sun Who is daylight, and through whom thou shinest on us. And he is beautiful and shines so bright: He hath taken that from you, our Highness. Thine be the praise, my Lord, for sister moon and the stars: In Heaven thou created them bright and precious and beautiful Thine be the praise, my Lord for brother wind and for the air and the clouds and every weather through which you feedest thy creatures Thine be the praise my Lord, for sister water which is quite useful and precious and pure [...]
Such passionate verse exercised a remarkable influence on Christian literature and laid the foundations for our modern theatre. Apart from some lyric and highly mystic monologues as Saint Francis', or the much sterner Sermons in verse by Giacomino da Verona and other puritans ante litteram, this poetry was generally made up of dramatic dialogues between Jesus and the Holy Virgin.
But their tone is nothing like preaching, it is like hearing a mother's weeping as his son is brouhgt to the block. Even though we are not believers, we cannot help being moved by the simple words of two human beings as seen by the eyes of the layman, in all their humanity and frailty.
These laudi were later collected in big volumes called Laudarii and then passed on from convent to convent. As mentioned, most of them re-enact the Calvary of Jesus and his consolation to Mary as he is being crucified with agonizing detail.
Many critics now see the relation between the lay adieus of medieval poetry (see above) and these laudi. Jacopone da Todi, a Franciscan friar with a solid scholarly background wrote some of great value and is widely considered the inspirer of modern theatre.
The first performances were just dramatic dialogues read in church on Easter Friday, then the first dramas were performed on the front of churches (on the parvis) originally by friars, later by lay members of society.
Comments on the text Notes on the Umbrian Dialect
The extant text of St. Francis is not likely to be the original version: the -u ending, typical of the Umbrian dialect for the masculine is relatively rare, and so are the assimilation of the -ND and -GN groups to NN, (eg. legno > lenno; mondo > monnu, stridendo > stridenno), as we see in the poems of Jacopone da Todi, says Migliorini, hinting that the unorthodox, often hasty technique used by friars to collect and copy the laudes from the neighboring convents may have contaminated the Umbrian version without leaving us clue to the original.
In fact, after circulating in Umbria, many of these poems might also be copied in the Tuscan dialect, where most of the Italian literature and poets finally converged. Texts bouncing back to Umbria from Tuscany may help explain unusual changes in diction, too.
The fortune of Florence
For all the moral merits of mystical literature, it is to Sicily and then Florence that we must turn to witness most of the linguistic changes that would spread to the whole peninsula after Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio died. Since Florence was a rich and independent city-state, with a high literacy rate for those times even amongst women.
This big city had all the financial means to encourage scholarly research, which was very costly at those times. Its relatively democratic government encouraged a freedom of speech hitherto unknown to most of Italy, providing fertile ground for that small blossom of Italian that was to stretch its twigs from Ragusa to Milan.
When after centuries of invasions and political upheaval Europe became more peaceful, and prosper, the boroughs and the countryside, once ravaged by poverty and disease, started to grow back. Mystics predictions of "Mille e non più mille" (This millennium and mo more), warning about the end of the world in the year 1000, were right in a sense: a world, the old world was making space for a new one more ready to embrace science and progress, in which feudalism was becoming obsolete and the orders of society were changing.
Starting from around the 11th century Florence emerged from the city walls, growing bigger, his merchants traveling to the major European cities and courts. Trading and agriculture flourished. Commerce caused a sudden urge for liquidity, readily available cash to loan to entrepreneurs and princes who used mercenaries to increase their military power, so the Florentines invented the first banks, allowing for an unprecedented accumulation of capital.
The term bank itself (modern it. banca) comes from the Italian banco, a "bench" or "table" used for transactions when the first banks opened for business. Many Italian banks actually date to the late middle ages and some are still in business today, some in the hands of a few, influential Italian families.
Appropriately, many Italian bank names begin with "Banco di -" followed by the name of a place. The Florentines acquired political and economic power by lending on interest to laymen and princes alike. Once a practice forbidden by the Catholic Church to his faithfuls, it was now tolerated.
The Florentines introduced checks and money transfers as well, so it was no longer necessary to carry large quantities of gold from place to place. Transfers allowed for credit to be passed and sold from person to person, and cashed in any bank, something we take for granted today but very unusual at a time in which gold coins and spices like pepper were the only currencies.
Sending money became safer and faster than ever before. As we were hinting above, the great princes of Europe opened many accounts with the Florentines, as they needed huge lump sums of money to pay for their big mercenary armies.
Meanwhile, the (substantial) yields from these loans made Florence increasingly richer, wrenching the political power from an aristocracy which was becoming more and more indebted and was losing its social role. The middle class now ruled the city, and the something like that was starting to happen in the other city states of the center-north, as Milan or Genoa.
This environment also allowed for class mobility, a revolutionary concept in the middle ages. Many people whose families had been made of peasants and laborers and lived under feudal yoke became the richest merchants in Europe. Florence was one of the largest European cities by the 13th century., as was Bologna, home to the oldest University in the world.
Quite a few rich families sent their offspring there to study and practice law. This also involved learning Latin and classical literature. Guido Guinizzelli, the founder of Dolce Stil Novo was a renowened law professor in Bologna with an extraordinary talent for poetry.
Dante and his friends inherited his legacy, and this fact alone reshaped the literary scene in Florence when it was most needed: since the neosicilian school of Guittone had not produced work of exceptional value the fresh blood from Bologna was a bliss for Italian literature.
The prosperity of Florence and the presence of influential scholars also meant that the Florentine language would branch into the city's dialect (informal use) and the new Italian standard (formal and literary use). Thus this 'higher' language could be enriched by new coins from other dialects and Latin.
In fact, a national language must include a rich vocabulary suitable for every use, from oral story-telling to science and literature. Dialect is, in fact, usually restricted to a few thousand words and, being mostly spoken, lacks an established spelling, and has innumerables local vatiants none of which prevails upon the others.
In all other respects, though, it works as a language, since a language is nothing but a dialect enriched in vocabulary, with a standardized spelling and phonetics if only because it encountered favorable political support that helped it grow out of its restricted local domain.
Though a standard language is far from perfect in its early stages, in time it becomes grammatically and phonetically stable and geographically uniform, being written and spoken with very little or no variation throughout the country.
Such stability and uniformity also makes it the catalyst for political unification. In Italy, tthe need for a national standard was primarily felt by merchants, diplomats and princes who must use one common language for mainly technical reasons, knowing they will be understood when moving from one Italian state to the next .
By the 1300s there were so many travelers who spoke Italian that the laws of each state (except the Vatican's) had to be (re)written in the new language. On the contrary, Latin was losing the status of lingua franca (and spoken language) to become the center of a renewed academic interest.