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Fëdor Dostoevskij: Le notti bianche 01

Tony Richardson. Chimes at Midnight. The Immortal Story. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum. Cat People. The Republic and the Empire were for them the two most glorious epochs of their own history; and any attempt which they made to revive either literature or art, was imitative of the past. They were not in the position to take a new departure. The material was wanting to a race that knew its own antiquity. Even when an Italian undertook a digest of the Tale of Troy or of the Life of Alexander, he converted the metrical romances of the middle ages into prose, obeying an instinct which led him to regard the classical past as part of his own history.

We have already seen that this reversion of the popular imagination to Rome may be reckoned among the reasons why the victory of Legnano and the Peace of Constance were comparatively fruitless. Of hardly less importance, as negative influences, were the failure of feudalism to take firm hold upon Italian soil, and the defect of its ideal, chivalry. From this point of view Dante's phrase of lingua aulica , to express the dialect of culture, is both scientific and significant. It will further appear in the course of this chapter that the earliest dawn of Italian literature can be traced to those minor Courts of Piedmont and the Trevisian Marches, where the people borrowed the forms of feudal society more sympathetically than elsewhere in Italy.

It must moreover be remembered that during the eleventh and twelfth centuries the force of the Italian people was concentrated upon two great political struggles, the contest of the Church with the Empire, and the War of Lombard Independence. They became a race of statesmen and jurists.

Gomorrah and Beyond

Their greatest divines and metaphysicians wandered northward into France and England. Their most favored university, that of Bologna, acquired a world-famed reputation as a school of jurisprudence. Legal studies and political activity occupied the attention of their ablest men. It would be difficult to overrate the magnitude of the work done during these two centuries. In the course of them, the Italians gave final form to the organism of the Papacy, which must be regarded as a product of their constructive genius.

They developed Republican governments of differing types in each of their great cities, and made, for the first time since the foundation of the Empire, the name of People sovereign. They resuscitated Roman law, and reorganized the commerce of the Mediterranean. Thus, through the people's familiarity with Latin; through the survival of Roman grammar schools and the memory of Roman local institutions; through a paramount and all-pervading enthusiasm for the Roman past; through the lack of new legendary and epical material; through the failure of feudalism, and through the political ferment attending on the Wars of Investment and Independence, the Italians were slow to produce a modern language and a literature of modern type.

They came late into the field; and when they took their place at last, their language presented a striking parallel to their political condition. As they failed to acquire a solid nationality, but remained split up into petty States, united by a Pan-Italic sentiment; so they failed to form a common speech.

The written Italian of the future was used in its integrity by no one province; each district clinging to its dialect with obstinate pride. Their education during two centuries of strife was not without effect. The conditions of burghership in their free communes, the stirring of their political energies, the liberty of their popolo , and the keen sense of reality developed by their legal studies, prepared men like Dante and Guido Cavalcanti for solving the problems of art in a resolute, mature and manly spirit, fully conscious of the aim before them, and self-possessed in the assurance of adult faculties.

In the first, or, as it may be termed, the Latin period of medieval culture, there was not much to distinguish the Italians from the rest of Europe. Those Lombard schools, of which mention has already been made, did indeed maintain the traditions of decadent classical education more alive than among the peoples of the North. Better Latin, and particularly more fluent Latin verse, was written during the dark ages in Italy than elsewhere. Their previous vantage-ground had been lost in the political distractions of their country. At the same time, they were the first jurists and the hardiest, if not the most philosophical, freethinkers of Europe.

This is a point which demands at least a passing notice. Their practical studies, and the example of an emperor at war with Christendom, helped to form a sect of epicureans in Italy, for whom nothing sanctioned by ecclesiastical authority was sacred. To these pioneers of modern incredulity Dante assigned not the least striking Cantos of the Inferno. Their appearance in the thirteenth century, during the ascendancy of Latin culture, before the people had acquired a language, is one of the first manifestations of a national bias toward positive modes of thought and feeling, which we recognize alike in Boccaccio and Ariosto, Machiavelli and Guicciardini, Pomponazzi and the speculators of the South Italian School.

It was the quality, in fact, which fitted the Italians for their work in the Renaissance.


As metaphysicians, in the stricter sense of that word, they have been surpassed by Northern races. Their religious sense has never been so vivid, nor their opposition to established creeds so earnest. But throughout modern history their great men have manifested a practical and negative good sense, worldly in its moral tone, impervious to pietistic influences, antagonistic to mysticism, contented with concrete reality, which has distinguished them from the more fervent, boyish, sanguine, and imaginative enthusiasts of Northern Europe.

We are tempted to speculate whether, as they were the heirs of ancient civility and grew up among the ruins of Roman greatness so they were born spiritually old and disillusioned. Another point which distinguished the Italians in this Latin period of their literature, was the absence of the legendary or myth-making faculty. It is not merely that they formed no epic, and gave birth to no great Saga; but they accepted the fabulous matter, transmitted to them from other nations, in a prosaic and positive spirit. This does not imply that they exercised a critical faculty, or passed judgment on the products of the medieval fancy.

On the contrary, they took legend for fact, and treated it as the material of history. Hector, Alexander, and Attila were stripped of their romantic environments, and presented in the cold prose of a digest, as persons whose acts could be sententiously narrated. This attitude of the Italians toward the Saga is by no means insignificant. When their poets came to treat Arthurian or Carolingian fables in the epics of Orlando, they apprehended them in the same positive spirit, adding elements of irony and satire.

It is not needful to dwell upon this aspect of the national culture, since it presents no specific features. What is most to our purpose, is to note the affectionate remembrance of Rome and Roman worthies, which endured in each great town.