The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

by Jacob Burckhardt

translated by S.G.C. Middlemore, 1878

Part Five

Language and Society

The higher forms of social intercourse, which here meet us as a work of art--as a conscious product and one of the highest products of national life have no more important foundation and condition than language. In the most flourishing period of the Middle Ages, the nobility of Western Europe had sought to establish a 'courtly' speech for social intercourse as well as for poetry. In Italy, too, where the dialects differed so greatly from one another, we find in the thirteenth century a so-called 'Curiale,' which was common to the courts and to the poets. It is of decisive importance for Italy that the attempt was there seriously and deliberately made to turn this into the language of literature and society. The introduction to the 'Cento Novelle Antiche,' which were put into their present shape before l 300, avows this object openly. Language is here considered apart from its uses in poetry; its highest function is clear, simple, intelligent utterance in short speeches, epigrams, and answers. This faculty was admired in Italy, as nowhere else but among the Greeks and Arabs: 'how many in the course long life have scarcely produced a single "bel parlare." '

But the matter was rendered more difficult by the diversity of the aspects under which it was considered. The writings of Dante transport us into the midst of the struggle. His work 'On the Italian Language' is not only of the utmost importance for the subject itself, but is also the first complete treatise on any modern language. His method and results belong to the history of linguistic science, in which they will always hold a high place. We must here content ourselves with the remark that long before the appearance of this book the subject must have been one of daily and pressing importance, various dialects of Italy had long been the object of study and dispute, and that the birth of the one ideal was not accomplished without many throes.

Nothing certainly contributed so much to this end as the great poem of Dante. The Tuscan dialect became the basis of the new national speech. If this assertion may seem to some to go too far, as foreigners we may be excused, in a matter on which much difference of opinion prevails, for following the general belief.

Literature and poetry probably lost more than they gained by the contentious purism which was long prevalent in Italy, and which marred the freshness and vigor of many an able writer. Others, again, who felt themselves masters of this magnificent language, were tempted to rely upon its harmony and flow, apart from the thought which it expressed. A very insignificant melody, played upon such an instrument, can produce a very great effect. But however this may be, it is certain that socially the language had great value. It was, as it were, that the ; of eager language the crown of a noble and dignified behavior, and compelled the gentleman, both in his ordinary bearing and in exceptional moments to observe external propriety. No doubt this classical garment, like the language of Attic society, served to drape much that was foul and malicious; but it was also the adequate expression of all that is noblest and most refined. But politically and nationally it was of supreme importance, serving as an ideal home for the educated classes in all the States of the divided peninsula. Nor was it the special property of the nobles or of any one class, but the poorest and humblest might learn it if they would. Even now-- and perhaps more than ever --in those parts of Italy where, as a rule, the most unintelligible dialect prevails, the stranger is often astonished at hearing pure and well-spoken Italian from the mouths of peasants or artisans, and looks in vain for anything analogous in France or in Germany, where even the educated classes retain traces of a provincial speech. There is certainly a larger number of people able to read in Italy than we should be led to expect from the condition of many parts of the country--as for in- stance, the States of the Church--in other respects; but what is more important is the general and undisputed respect for pure language and pronunciation as something precious and sacred. One part of the country after another came to adopt the classical dialect officially. Venice, Milan, and Naples did so at the noontime of Italian literature, and partly through its influences. It was not till the present century that Piedmont became of its own free will a genuine Italian province by sharing in this chief treasure of the people--pure speech. The dialects were from the beginning of the sixteenth century purposely left to deal with a certain class of subjects, serious as well as comic, and the style which was thus developed proved the equal to all its tasks. Among other nations a conscious separation of this kind did not occur till a much later period.

The opinion of educated people as to the social value of language is fully set forth in the 'Cortigiano.' There were then persons, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, who purposely kept to the antiquated expressions of Dante and the other Tuscan writers of his time, simply because they were old. Our author forbids the use of them altogether in speech, and is unwilling to permit them even in writing, which he considers a form of speech. Upon this follows the admission that the best style of speech is that which most resembles good writing. We can clearly recognize the author's feeling that people who have anything of importance to say must shape their own speech, and that language is something flexible and changing because it is something living. It is allowable to make use of any expression, however ornate, as long as it is used by the people; nor are non-Tuscan words, or even French and Spanish words forbidden, if custom has once applied them to definite purposes. Thus care and intelligence will produce a language, which, if not the pure old Tuscan, is still Italian, rich in flowers and fruit like a well-kept garden. It belongs to the completeness of the 'Cortigiano' that his wit, his polished manners, and his poetry, must be clothed in this perfect dress.

When style and language had once become the property of a living society, all the efforts of purists and archaists failed to secure their end. Tuscany itself was rich in writers and the first order, who ignored and ridiculed these endeavors. Ridicule in abundance awaited the foreign scholar who explained to the Tuscans how little they understood their language. The life and influence of a writer like Machiavelli was enough to sweep away all these cobwebs. His vigorous thoughts, his clear and simple mode of expression wore a form which had any merit but that of the 'Trecentisti.' And on the other hand there were too many North Italians, Romans, and Neapolitans, who were thankful if the demand for purity of style in literature and conversation was not pressed too far. They repudiated, indeed, the forms and idioms of their dialect; and Bandello, with what a foreigner might suspect to be false modesty, is never tired of declaring: 'I have no style; I do not write like a Florentine, but like a barbarian; I am not ambitious of giving new graces to my language; I am a Lombard, and from the Ligurian border into the bargain.' But the claims of the purists were most successfully met by the express renunciation of the higher qualities of style, and the adoption of a vigorous, popular language in their stead. Few could hope to rival Pietro Bembo who, though born in Venice, nevertheless wrote the purest Tuscan, which to him was a foreign language, or the Neapolitan Sannazaro, who did the same. But the essential point was that language, whether spoken or written, was held to be an object of respect. As long as this feeling was prevalent, the fanaticism of the purists--their linguistic congresses and the rest of it--did little harm. Their bad influence was not felt till much later, when the original power of Italian literature relaxed and yielded to other and far worse influences. At last it became possible for the Accademia della Crusca to treat Italian like a dead language. But this association proved so helpless that it could not even hinder the invasion of Gallicism in the eighteenth century.

This language--loved, tended, and trained to every use--now served as the basis of social intercourse. In northern countries, the nobles and the princes passed their leisure either in solitude, or in hunting, fighting, drinking, and the like; the burghers in games and bodily exercises, with a mixture of literary or festive amusements. In Italy there existed a neutral ground, where people of every origin, if they had the needful talent and culture, spent their time in conversation change of jest and earnest. As eating small part of such entertainments, it not difficult to keep at a distance those who sought society for these objects. If we are to take the writers of dialogues literally, the loftiest problems of human existence were not excluded from the conversation of thinking men, and the production of noble thoughts was not, as was commonly the case in the North, the work of solitude, but of society. But we must here limit ourselves to the less serious side of social intercourse--to the side which existed only for the sake of amusement.