Symonds's Renaissance in Italy

IN these two volumes1 the author presents his study of the Italian literature of the Renaissance, to which his previous works on the political history and the fine arts of the same period were preliminary. Even here, in preface to his immediate subject, he has found it necessary to occupy a considerable space with an account of the earlier literature that furnished the material and suggested the artistic methods of the later writers. He marks three periods of literary development: the mediæval, ending with the death of Boccaccio (1375), during which Italian literature was formed; the humanistic, ending with the birth of Lorenzo de’ Medici (1448), during which scholars reverted to the Latin culture, at the expense of the vulgar tongue ; the renascent, ending with the death of Ariosto (1533), during which the divided currents of the modern and Latin spirit merged in the golden age of letters. Incidentally, he discusses such familiar topics of subsidiary interest as the history of the popular legends that gave the theme for imagination, and the blight that fell on the miracle plays before they could result in drama. But the most important portion of his work is a biographical and critical account of the authors of the romantic epics, burlesque tales, novels, and idyls of the final period, accompanied by a running comment in reply to the repeated and significant question, Why did Italy produce no Shakespeare, Molière, or Calderon, — more than all, why had she no Juvenal ?

The traditional romance that hangs about Italy has fostered a popular misapprehension of nearly all things Italian. As the mother of Christian art and the Catholic church, the land is supposed to be religious; as the longenslaved and last-freed of the nations of Europe, the race is believed to be deficient in political sagacity. Yet it requires but little reflection, hardly more than a thought of the Reformation, to prevent surprise at the fact that the Italians were at heart the most irreligious of Christian peoples, and that the church, viewed by them always as a secular institution, is a monument of their genius applied to practical affairs. Italian art, too, as an expression of national life, must be ascribed less to piety than to the native bent of mind, the inbred race disposition, which seeks to bring all spiritual things within the perception of the senses ; indeed, the course of development in Italian art lies principally in the gradual substitution of an æsthetic aim for a devout motive as the source of inspiration. No people is less dreamy, in the Northern sense; the genius of the race is positive, definite, objective, practical, circumscribed in the tangible and visible facts of experience. Between Italian intellect and Italian feeling there seems to be no border-land. Ecstasy may fall from heaven and kindle masses of men into passion, as in the case of the Flagellanti, but it is a malady of emotion only; the madness passes, the mind remains untouched. In Dante’s poem, as has been often pointed out, these race qualities are clearly apparent : the journey is mapped out as on a chart; the hours are duly reckoned ; the world beyond is laid open to accurate observation ; the dark places of his Vision are not dark with the spirit’s excess of light, but with mediæval metaphysics. In later authors, however different the subject, the temper of mind is the same. The grasp on reality is no less tenacious, the attention to detail no less careful; the incidents of the adventure, the look of the landscape, the physiognomy of the characters, no less plainly defined as phenomena ocularly seen.

In the tales of chivalry, whether romantic, heroic, or burlesque, which seem to us to possess the characteristics of later Italian literature in most variety,

this realism is veiled by the apparent unreality of the fable. Arthur and Roland belong to the North ; and to the Northern mind itself, although they have the substance of ideals, they are very remote. But the Arthur of Italian nobles, the Roland of the Italian people, are the thinnest of shades; nor were they less insubstantial to most of the poets of the golden age than to us. The people gave the Carolingian myth to them as the burden of their stories ; but, leaving Boiardo out of the account, they could not accept the conditions of that imaginative world and believe in it; nor could Boiardo, who had without doubt a real enthusiasm for chivalry, believe with Spenser’s faith. Italy had no feudal past; how could the bourgeois Pulci feel any living sympathy with feudal ideals ? The myth was emptied of its moral contents ; how could Ariosto be earnest as Tennyson is ? In dealing with deeds of knight-errantry, adventures in the lists and the forest, wizard springs and invincible armor, all the poets were conscious of something quixotic; to Ariosto it was the main element. He could not be serious ; the mock gravity of irony was the most he could compass. This sense of unreality in the legend was not all that led especially the last poets of the age to play with their art. A more powerful reason was the hopelessness of society in their age, deep as that which in earlier times fell on their ancestors, who witnessed the barbarian incursions on Roman soil. Politically, morally, and religiously, society was breaking up. What was there to be serious about ? All that gives meaning to life was gone: the ties of family, country, and God were snapped. What better thing was there to do than to retire to the country, and let the world go “ the primrose way ” ? The striking thing in all this is that the sense of the pleasure to be derived from the refinements of culture excluded from the minds of nearly all the most gifted Italians that gloom which would have wrapped a Northern nation, at the sight of an anarchy which, if less terrible with blood than the French Revolution, was more appalling to the spirit. The Italians, however, went to their villas, to hear Bandello tell stories and Berni read verses. The City of the Plague, from which Boccaccio’s garden party fled, is the permanent background of this golden age.

Life was something left behind, but art remained ; and for the purposes of art, whose function was entertainment, the adventures of Orlando and his like were sufficiently serviceable. Such myths afforded opportunity for inexhaustible invention of incident, for the play of fancy and the exhibition of the courtesies and humors of life ; and should there be a lapse into seriousness, there was room for satire on the clergy and for sentiments of the Reformation. These tales, it is true, were products of culture separated from the realities of society, and neglectful of them; but they were not, as might have been anticipated, expressive of individual rather than national temperament. They are prominently characterized by the Italian love of incident, pictures, and fun. The incidents are invented for their own sake, not to develop character or exhibit it in action ; they are only adventures, happenings, skillfully interwoven and rapidly passed ; but amid them the conduct of the personages is true Italian, realistic. In presenting these incidents and the scenes in which they take place, the poets, as Lessing complained, adopt pictorial methods: they describe the ladies piecemeal, the landscapes leaf by leaf. Possibly, as Mr. Symonds suggests, the habitual sight of pictures enables the Italian to succeed where the German fails ; to harmonize the colors on the canvas and build up the fragments into a proportioned statue, and thus obtain a single mental impression. Whether this be so or not, the pictorial quality is a tribute exacted from literature by the ruling art, and illustrates the Italian proclivity to identify the mind’s eye with the body’s, to turn the things of the intellect into objects of sense. This realism, too, is shown as continuously in the frequent lapsing of Pulci’s story, for example, into undisguised burlesque, low comedy, and broad fun ; and more subtly in the prevailing irony of Ariosto, — in the tolerance yielded by him, to use the author’s simile, with the elderly acquiescence in a story told to children. The poems thus constructed were an acceptable, usually a high, mode of amusement; they interested the fancy, delighted the senses, and stirred laughter. The Italians of the Renaissance asked no more.

In the novellæ of which so large a number were written on the model of Boccaccio, the absorption of interest in simple incident is more plain, and the presence of contemporary manners more manifest. Various as they are, including every rank of life in their characters and every phase of action in their events, they all bear a family resemblance. They are for the most part comedies of intrigue, arresting attention by romantic or piquant situations ; usually immoral, not infrequently obscene. The crafty seducer is the text, the fool of a husband the comment; and when the gloss is read, afforded by the lives of the cardinals and the wit of the capitoli, no ground remains for doubting that they hold the mirror up to society as it then was. If they have any other than a humorous or romantic interest, it is the interest of the tragedy of physical horror, as in our English Titus Andronicus. Of course there are many novellæ to which this broad and rapid generalization would not apply, — tales wholly innocent, or harmless at least, full of movement, fancy, and action, graceful and charming with the art of story-telling at its Italian best; but, as a whole, they must be described as exhibiting a masque of sin. They are bourgeoise in taste and temper; the corruption they set forth is not of the court or the curia only, but of the citizens ; the laugh with which they conclude is an echo from the lips of the trades - people. Their principal value now is historic; they are the clear record of that social decay which condemned Italy to centuries of degradation. To ask why they did not generate the novel or suggest the drama is to state a literary puzzle ; but the hundred considerations which have been put forth to explain the abortive issue of the miracle plays apply here also. It would seem as if the laws of spiritual development were unperceived; as if the knowledge of right and wrong as indestructible agencies to build or shatter character did not exist; as if the spirit had stiffened into that senseless stupor in which evil is no longer recognized for itself. It was left for the dramatists of the Globe Theatre to take these external incidents and show the meaning they had for humanity ; to transfer the interest from the momentary and outer act, and centre it upon the living soul within. The Italians could not work the mines they owned ; the pure gold of poetry that the novellæ held in amalgamation was to be the treasure of England. The novellæ of the last years do not differ from the original of Boccaccio except for the worse; his successors never equaled their master, nor have their works obtained currency, like his, among men, as a part of the general literature of the cultivated world.

As the novelists make more prominent the realistic element of the narrative poems, the idyllic writers develop more plainly the pure poetic quality ; in reading them one willingly assents to the enthusiasm which names their works the literature of the golden age. More than the epic of the novella, the idyl influenced the future. Arcadia is a well-

known region in every great literature of Europe, and its atmosphere still hangs over the opera. The creator of this pastoral myth was the father of much beauty. Something was borrowed from the Garden of Eden, from the Virgilian fields, and from the Earthly Paradise; the religious, classical, and mediæval moods united in it; but essentially it was pure Italian, — Arcadia was an idealized Italy. The scene presented was the same country life that forms the background of all contemporary literature, but charmed, ennobled, and bathed in a softer than Italian air. There was little left in that age of ruin but delight in the natural beauty that was darkened by no shadow of humanity. The villa, the cultivated fields, the still, calm morning sky, were probably never more dear to the Italian heart than then, and it was this unsophisticated and keenly felt delight in nature that flowered in the idyl. To Northern nations Arcadia must always be a dream ; to the Italians, then, at least, it was only the refinement of what was most real to them. It was because the idyl was so deeply rooted in a genuine emotion that it outlived the other modes of literature contemporary with it, and developed its final perfection only in the next age of the counter reformation, in the art of Tasso and Guarini. But even in its earlier history the idyl shares with the best narrative poems that beauty of form which has conferred on both an immortality denied to the novellæ. The poets were all literary artists: they polished their verses with assiduous care; they expended many years in correction, elaboration, and adjustment; and they obtained that exquisite finish which, surface-like as it may seem, is adamant to the tooth of time. They achieved beauty, and won the delight that comes from its creation and contemplation; humor, too, they made their own, and gave it universal interest; they illustrated in practice the theory of art for art’s sake; yet, after all, what is the judgment of posterity, we will not say on the men who were never suspected of being heroes, but on their works ? They have left a literature, not of intellectual or moral weight, but of recreation ; one that does not reveal, but amuses, — does not enlighten, inform, or guide life, but solaces and helps to while it away. This literature enriched the Northern minds by making them more sensitive to beauty, and by sharpening their perception of artistic refinements ; it has left no other mark on civilization. The interest which the golden age excites in cultivated minds seldom loses its dilettante character; the really serious interest is in the Italy of Dante and Giotto, or in the genius of isolated men who stand apart, like Michel Angelo.

In a brief and rapid review of so wide a field as is opened in these two volumes, much must necessarily be neglected which would afford that limitation of general statements which can be given only by details; but the best of the literature described by Mr. Symonds is broadly featured as lias been indicated. Some works detach themselves from any classification here possible, and are of a nobler kind, such as Alberti’s, Castiglione’s, and especially Macchiavelli’s and Campanella’s; but they are more affected by individuality of temperament. Mr. Symonds’s characterization of each author separately is very full, and if sometimes novel, as is the

case with his praise of Poliziano, — “of this Italy (of the Renaissance) Poliziano was the representative hero, the protagonist, the intellectual dictator,” — or if sometimes less favorable than late criticism has adopted, as in the case of Macchiavelli, it is always scholarly and deserving of thoughtful consideration. Yet in his work as a whole, including the previous volumes, it seems to us that the point of view chosen is not the best, if the Renaissance was to be presented in the most powerful way. The literature of the golden age, which he has made the culmination of his work, is not the centre of interest in the period under review. The Renaissance was a movement of civilization not less important than the Reformation or the Revolution, and to Italy, as its source, the debt of the world is great. But the Renaissance was not conveyed to Europe by the literature of its corruption ; it was conveyed in far different ways. To fasten attention on this literature, as the conclusion of the whole matter, is to mislead the mind and obscure the facts. It follows from this that we regard the earlier or introductory volumes as the most valuable to those who would learn what the Renaissance really was; this literature serves as an illustration, but it is not the heart of the matter. Within their own limits, however, it needs to be said, these two volumes are the best, the only adequate, account of their subject in English.

  1. Renaissance in Italy. Italian Literature. In Two Parts. By JOHN ADDINGTON SYMONDS. New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1882.