The Renaissance — French for “rebirth” — was a period of re-flowering for art and literature after the gloom of the Dark Ages. From the 14th through the 16th Centuries, artists and writers all over Europe created an amazing body of masterworks whose beauty and intensity still bring joy to us today. And Italy — though not yet a unified nation — was the birthplace of this re-flowering.
Renaissance in Italy is a monumental series of treatises by English literary critic John Addington Symonds (1840-1893), covering virtually all aspects of the subject. The first three volumes cover the fragmented political landscape of the time; the rise of Humanism; and a detailed study of the great Italian architects, sculptors, and painters.
The fourth and fifth volumes, Italian Literature (Part I, Part II), brilliantly examine Italian literary masters, from Dante to Machiavelli. For Symonds, the Golden Age of Italian literature took place between 1300 and 1530, when poets and essayists moved away from Latin and composed their best works in their native Italian dialects — particularly Tuscan, which became the basis for modern Italian. Sicilian and Provençal troubadours of the 13th Century, writing in their own languages, led to the “dolce stil novo” (sweet new style) of Dante and other poets writing in the Tuscan dialect. The highest expression of this style was, of course, Dante’s Divine Comedy.
From this linguistic and literary transition sprang all that followed: Boccaccio and his Decameron, Ariosto and his Orlando Furioso, Machiavelli and his Prince, and many other masterpieces by many other masters in between. Symonds recognized that Italy’s greatest literature was also born of the artistic ideals of ancient Rome:
When all her deities were decayed or broken, Italy still worshiped beauty in fine art and literary form. When all her energies seemed paralyzed, she still pursued her intellectual development with unremitting ardor… They wrought, thought, painted, carved and built with the antique ideal as a guiding and illuminative principle in view. This principle enabled them to elevate and harmonize, to humanize and beautify the coarser elements existing in the world around them. What they sought and clung to in the heritage of the ancients, was the divinity of form — the form that gives grace, loveliness, sublimity to common flesh and blood in art; style to poetry and prose; urbanity to social manners; richness and elegance to reflections upon history and statecraft and the problems of still infantine science.
Renaissance in Italy: Italian Literature (Part I) was part of DP’s 20,000 titles celebration. The entire Renaissance in Italy series is available at Project Gutenberg: The Age of the Despots, The Revival of Learning, The Fine Arts, Italian Literature (Part I), Italian Literature (Part II), and The Catholic Reaction (Parts I and II).