Italian Literature

In many ways it's difficult to define Italian literature because a cohesive Italian language did not exist before the Renaissance in the 14th century. The Italic languages of ancient times predate Latin and the later regional Italian dialects by several centuries, and most are now extinct. But evidence of their existence has survived in the form of inscriptions on bronze tablets dating to the 7th century BC. The Old Italic alphabets were based on Ancient Greek, as well as several other extinct languages spoken on the Italian Peninsula in pre-Roman times: Umbrian, Oscan and Faliscan, among others:

italian literature - d. bachmann
Italic languages - 8th Century BC
[Photo: D.Bachmann]

The Italian Literature of Ancient Rome

The earliest Italian literature is the literature of Rome, which was written in Latin. Poetry, comedy, tragedy, satire, history, and rhetoric drew on both the Italic traditions and on the literature of Greece.

Few early Latin works survive with the exception of plays by Plautus (Titus Maccius Plautus) (c. 254 BC–184 BC), and former North African slave Terence (Publius Terentius Afer) (195BC–159 BC). Twenty of Plautus's original 52 comedies have survived, and scholars continue to debate whether these were original works or simply reworked Greek plays. Nevertheless, his influence is evident in the works of Shakespeare and Molière. Terence's six plays continued to be popular through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and US presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams were also admirers. Fragmentary works by other Latin writers have also survived, but our knowledge of most others is limited to references by historians such as Pliny the Elder and Vitruvius.

Other important Roman literary figures include:

  • Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC–43 BC), a Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, and political theorist who is widely considered one of Rome's greatest orators and prose stylists

  • Lucius Marcus Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Elder and Seneca the Rhetorician), (ca. 54 BC– ca. 39 AD), a Roman rhetorician and writer, born of a wealthy family in Cordoba, Spain. Seneca was the author of a lost history of Rome from the beginning of the civil wars down to his final days, after which it was published by his son.

  • Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger) (c. 1 BC– AD 65), a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, dramatist, and humorist. A tutor and advisor to the emperor Nero, Seneca is widely quoted in Dante, Chaucer and Petrarch, and was admired by John Calvin and Ralph Waldo Emerson. His writings focus on traditional Stoic philosophy, and he also wrote tragedies that influenced later playwrights including Thomas Kyd and William Shakespeare.

  • Virgil, or Publius Vergilius Maro (70 BC–19 BC), a classical Roman poet best known for three major works—The Eclogues (or Bucolics), The Georgics, and The Aeneid.

  • Ovid, or Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BC–AD 17/18), a Roman poet who is best known as the author of the three major collections of erotic poetry: Heroides, Amores, and Ars Amatoria. He is also well known for his poetry: The Metamorphoses, The Fasti, Ibis and The Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto. Ovid is traditionally ranked alongside Virgil and Horace as one of the three major poets of Latin literature. His poetry, much imitated during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, decisively influenced European art and literature and remains as one of the most important sources of classical mythology.

  • Horace, or Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 BC–8 BC), was the leading Roman lyric poet of his time. Several of his poetic themes, such as the beatus ille (an appraisal of simple life) and carpe diem (seize the day), influenced later poets such as Petrarch and Dante, and are still referred to today.

  • Gaius Valerius Catullus (ca. 84 BC–ca. 54 BC) was a Latin poet of the Republican period. His surviving works are still read widely, and continue to influence poetry and other art forms. Catullus was a popular poet during the Renaissance: Petrarch was an admirer. Catullus also influenced other humanist poets, including Panormita, Pontano, and Marullus, and the English writers Andrew Marvell, Robert Herrick, Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe. John Milton, Thomas Campion, William Wordsworth, and Louis Zukofsky also admired his writing.

Italian Literature in the Middle Ages

As the Roman Empire declined, writers such as Cassiodorus, Boethius, and Symmachus kept the Latin tradition alive. The liberal arts flourished at other locations such as the Ostrogoth court at Ravenna and other Gothic kingdoms throughout Italy. Noted scholars of the time included the sixth century Christian poet Arator, the rhetorician and poet Magnus Felix Ennodius(473–521), grammarian Peter of Pisa (744–799), poet and scholar Saint Paulinus II (c.730–802), and the Latin poet and hymn composer Venantius Fortunatus (c.530–c.609).

The establishment of the medieval universities at Bologna (founded in 1088), Modena (1175), Vicenza (early 1200s), Padua (1222), Naples (1224), Salerno (The Salerno Medical School was founded in the 10th century) and Parma (962) helped create an environment in which the emerging Italian literature could flourish.

The Occitan-Speaking Troubadours

Occitan is a romance language originating in southern France in the twelfth century and introduced into Spain, Portugal, Monaco and northern Italy by French troubadours. The ballads of the troubadours, a form of lyric poetry set to music, quickly found favor with the Italian courts, and the Italian aristocracy became their patrons. Northern Italian writers soon adopted Occitan as the language of poetic composition.

The troubadours' popularity declined in the 14th century and they had all but disappeared by the mid 1350s. The poets' musical skills often outshone their literary abilities, so many of the works that survive barely qualify as literature. But they serve as important documents in the history of Italian literary traditions.

The most important Italian troubadours were:

  • Bonifaci Calvo (1253–1266) from Genoa

  • Ugo Catola - knight and troubadour, possibly crusader and monk

  • Lanfranc Cigala (1235–1257) - nobleman, knight, judge, and writer from Genoa

  • Dante da Maiano (c. 1300) from Florence

  • Ferrarino (dei) Trogni da Ferrara (late 13th century) from Ferrara

  • Sordello da Goito (fl. 13th-century) – troubadour from Lombardy, admired by Dante Alighieri, Robert Browning and Oscar Wilde

  • Terramagnino da Pisa (fl. 1350s) - author and troubadour

  • Paolo Lanfranchi da Pistoia (fl. 1282–1295) - poet and troubadour

  • Nicoletto da Torino (13th century) - minstrel and troubadour from Turin

  • Cerverí de Girona (fl. 1259–1285) from Girona

  • Rambertino di Guido Buvalelli (1170/1180–1221), judge, statesman, diplomat, and poet from Bologna

  • Perceval Doria (1195–1264) - naval and military leader, troubadour from Genoa

  • Simone Doria (fl. 1250–1293) statesman, man of letters and troubadour from Genoa

  • Luca Grimaldi (1240–1275) - politician, diplomat and troubadour from Genoa

  • Manfred I Lancia (fl.1160–1214) – the second Margrave of Busca

  • Calega Panzan (c. 1229–aft. 1313) from Genoa

  • Pavese (fl. 1350s) from Lombardy

  • Scotto (fl. 1350s) - troubadour

  • Thomas II (c. 1199–1259) - Lord of Piedmont and troubadour
[Some surnames signify the town they were from, e.g., da Ferrara means 'from Ferrara'. fl. is a genealogical term meaning “flourished”. It's used when no birth and death dates are available.]

The Middle Ages: Scholars And Poets

Not everyone was drawn to writing poetry. Scholars devoted themselves to the Roman law and translated older documents such as the writings of Aristotle, the precepts of the school of Salerno, and the travels of Marco Polo. There was little original Italian prose tradition at this time; instead, Italian writers translated French romances and other literary works.

But epic poetry flourished, and its roots in the troubadour tradition are evident in its use of a mixed language, a form of Italian based on French. Poems from this era include the Chansons de Geste (a French epic poems), the Entre en Espagne (written by Niccola of Padua) and the Prise de Pampelune.

The Beginnings of authentic 'Italian' literature

Some time in the final decades of the 12th century and the early 13th century, French and Occitan gradually gave way to native Italian languages. These works date for that transitional period:

  • The Canticle of the Sun, also known as the Laudes Creaturarum (Praise of the Creatures), is a religious song composed by Saint Francis of Assisi in 1224 and written in the Umbrian dialect. It is believed to be among the first works of literature written in an Italian language.

  • Ritmo di Sant'Alessio (late twelfth-century) is one of the earliest pieces of Italian literature, written in a central-southern Italian dialect.

  • Ritmo Cassinese is another poem written in a central-southern Italian dialect.

  • Ritmo Laurenziano (1150–71) is a lyric poem in the Tuscan language. It is the earliest surviving piece of poetry in an Italian dialect.

  • Giacomino da Verona, a medieval poet of the Veronese School, composed a poem in two parts, De Gerusalem Celesti (On the Heavenly Jerusalem) and De Babilonia Civitate Infernali (On Babylon, the Infernal City), in the Venetian dialect.

  • Bonvicino da Riva wrote poetry in the Milanese dialect.

The Sicilian School of Literature

In 1230 the Sicilian School of literature was born. Its members were a small community of Sicilian and Italian poets attached to the court of Frederick II who were inspired by the Provençal poetry imported by the Normans. The Sicilian School is credited with creating the first standardized Italian language, and its linguistic modifications were adopted by Dante and the Renaissance writers and passed down to future generations of Italian writers.

Giacomo da Lentini was the head of the movement, and is credited with inventing the sonnet, a form later perfected by Dante, Petrarch and Shakespeare. The most prominent writers of the Sicilian school include Ruggieri Apugliese, Enzio, king of Sardinia, Giacomo da Lentini, Cielo d'Alcamo, Jacopo d'Aquino, Guido and Odo delle Colonne, Pietro della Vigna, Inghilfredi and Arrigo Testa.


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