The Development and Legacy of Italian Poetry (The Middle Ages and the Renaissance)

Frescoes painted by Giotto (1267-1337) in the Cappella degli Scrovegni

The majority of the effort that I expend on this website does not go into writing the essays that I publish semi-regularly on this blog. It goes rather more surreptitiously into the library of poems that have been and continue to be uploaded in the various sections of the “best poems” page. So far I have compiled four of them: one in English, one in Swedish, one in French and just recently, one in Italian, all of which I highly encourage my readers who are able to read the respective languages to peruse. I also have in mind to complete a handful of other anthologies: in Spanish, Portuguese, German and two other Nordic languages: Danish and Norwegian. Whether I can go eighteenth-century intellectual full-circle and master Latin and ancient Greek before I give up the ghost, however, is highly doubtful.

These sections ought to be of far more interest than the texts I personally write since each of the completed anthologies (though calling them “completed” is not really honest as they are constantly being updated) contains hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of versified wisdom and delight from minds far finer than my own. My hope is that the labour that has gone into them–from first winnowing them out of tens of thousands of poems that didn’t make the cut, creating separate web pages for the respective authors, typing up their poems, editing the format and proofreading them–will not have been in vain.

The motivation behind this desire is certainly not financial–this website is and always will be unmonetised, and so if it is to be considered anything other than a labour of love, this entire project can only be deemed a great failure and liability for its owner in terms of the time and money spent creating it. My sole interest was, is and I hope ever shall be to propagate for the diffusion of high-quality poetry among a more popular readership. That’s it.

I am thus glad that Looking to Leeward has continued growing since its inception but am somewhat disappointed that the posts that I have written tend to be viewed more than the works of many of the titans that these libraries feature–some of which cannot be found elsewhere on the web. I am particularly annoyed, but not so surprised quite frankly, by the fact that the most viewed page on this website by far (it has almost 30,000 views and counting) is also the page that contains the website’s single worst examples of poetry by far–namely, those that Andrew Tate has written.

I would therefore like to take the opportunity to write a post advertising the poetic library of Looking to Leeward. I will be doing this by briefly presenting one of the sections of that library–the one of Italian poetry. I shall glancingly survey its historical development from its beginning through the Renaissance and above all highlight its larger legacy on the development of poetry outside Italy, all the while exhibiting some poems that appear in the anthology. I shall be quoting the originals in Italian and providing hasty, prosaic translations of my own immediately below these.

Although the non-Italian reader will not get a justified artistic rendition into English thereby, there is another, more important reason for writing this post in English. That is because it’s not Italians, but foreigners who need to be reminded of how vast the poetic inheritance from this part of the world is in their own respective languages. Italy during the late mediaeval period, the Renaissance and a good part of the Baroque lay at the very forefront of the birth and development of a poetic vernacular in Europe and was so influential in this position that it would be impossible to envision an alternative reality in which the poetic traditions of other European languages could be extricated from it. With the exception of the poetic legacy of the ancient world, I believe that there is scarcely any other culture that has had such a profound influence in the shaping of poetry written in just about every major European language. I like to think sometimes that the poetry of the western world was conceived Graeco-Roman, baptised biblical and then to a very large extent Italian in its schoolboy years. The legacy of this influence centuries down the line today is both undeniable and inseparable.


Laudato sie, mi’ Signore, cum tucte le tue creature, spetialmente messor lo frate sole, lo qual è iorno, et allumini noi per lui; et ellu è bellu e radiante cum grande splendore: de te, Altissimo, porta significatione.

Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per sora luna e le stelle: in celu l’ài formate clarite et pretiose et belle.

Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per frate vento et per aere et nubilo et sereno et onne tempo, per lo quale a le tue creature dài sustentamento.

Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per sor’aqua, la quale è multo utile et humile et pretiosa et casta.


Praise be to you, my Lord, together with all your creatures, and especially my lord the sun, through whom you shine light upon us; for he is beautiful and radiant and with great splendour and carries the meaning of you.

Praise be to you, my Lord, for sister moon and the stars: in the heavens you have shaped them, clear and precious and beautiful.

Praise be to you, my Lord, for brother wind and the air that is calm or clouded and every season through which you nourish every living thing.

Praise be to you, my Lord, for sister water, who is useful and humble and precious and chaste.


From “Canticle of Creatures” by Saint Francis of Assisi

Italian poetry begins thus, with the words of one of the most extraordinary Europeans to have ever existed–Saint Francis of Assisi. The ingenious boldness of opening the gates of poetry to the vernacular–the significance of which tends to be overlooked–was simply a continuation of Saint Francis’ religious conviction that God’s wisdom and the beauty of his creation could be expressed in the tongue of common men. Think about how radically democratic such an act must have been in a world where only Latin and Greek were deemed worthy of religious subjects for centuries to come. Perhaps no other single figure has since had such a lasting effect on the development of religious verse and the spirit seen here in the Canticle of Creatures above rings in so much religious verse that I can think of. Here it is for example in the next major Italian inheritor–a fellow franciscan from the thirteenth century by the curious name of Jacopone da Todi:

Fresca riviera                 ornata di fiori,
tu se’ la spera                di tutti colori:
guida la schiera             di noi peccatori,
sì ch’asavori                   de la tua beninanza.

Ave Maria,                      di gratïa plena
tu se’ la via                     ch’a vita ci mena:
di tenebria                      traesti e di pena
la gente terrena,            ch’era ‘n gran turbanza.

Fresh landscape            covered in flowers,
you are the prism           of every colour:
lead the herd                  of us sinners
that I may taste              of your goodness.

Hail Mary                       full of grace:
you are the path            which leads us to life,
You brought away         all humankind
in great distress             from darkness and pain.

from “Altissima luce” by Jacopone da Todi

The first major literary flourishing of a secular nature in Italy congregated further south however and around another one of those most extraordinary of Europeans–Frederick II, the Holy Roman emperor, who was also a contemporary of Saint Francis. Inspired by the courtly love of the troubadours (also largely contemporary), here came the first examples of a collective poetic tradition. Here is a sample from one of them, Guido delle Colonne, who was active in Messina around the mid-thirteenth century:

Ben passa rose e fiore
la vostra fresca cera,
lucente più che spera;
e la bocca aulitosa
più rende aulente aulore
che non fa d’una fera
c’ha nome la pantera,
che ’n India nasce ed usa.
Sovr’ogn’agua, amorosa — donna, sete
fontana che m’ha tolta ognunqua sete,
per ch’eo son vostro più leale e fino
che non è al suo signore l’assessino.

Your youthful face,
more brilliant than a star,
surpasses that of roses and flowers,
and your perfumed mouth
emits a finer smell
than that creature called a panther*
which is born and lives in India.
More than any lovely water–my dear, you are
the fountain that slakes all thirst,
to whom I am more loyal and true
than the assassin is to his lord.

*A medieval myth that the panther emitted a pleasing smell in order to allure its prey.

from “Gioisamente canto” by Guido delle Colonne

Although they wrote in Sicilian, (still quite easily readable by modern Italian standards), they gave direct impetus to the second great blooming of Italian poetry in Tuscany, whose various figures (among others, Brunetto Latini, Guido Guinizelli, Guido Cavalcanti, Lapo Gianni, Cecco Angiolieri, Cino da Pistoia, and not least, Dante Alighieri) would help cement the Tuscan dialect as the eventual lingua franca of the Italian peninsula. In both style and form this poetry was initially very similar to the Sicilian school. One very significant import from the former would be the sonnet form, which it would export in turn all over the rest of Europe.

But Tuscany would also become the hotbed for a significant stylistic development called the Dolce stil nuovo (the “sweet new style”). Not without its detractors (see this poetic invective by Bonagiunta Orbacciani as an example), the Stilnovisti, particularly Guinizelli, Cavalcanti and Dante gave the love poetry in the troubadour and Sicilian fashion an introspective and more platonic depth that would later be taken even further by Petrarch. Just look at the carnality of love in Guido delle Colonne’s poem above: it is almost fierce–it seems to want to impose itself on the world. Compare it with the almost cold introspection of this sonnet by Dante:

Cavalcando l’altr’ier per un cammino,
pensoso de l’andar che mi sgradia,
trovai Amore in mezzo de la via
in abito leggier di peregrino.

Ne la sembianza mi parea meschino,
come avesse perduto segnoria;
e sospirando pensoso venia,
per non veder la gente, a capo chino.

Quando mi vide, mi chiamò per nome,
e disse: “Io vegno di lontana parte,
ov’era lo tuo cor per mio volere;

e recolo a servir novo piacere”.
Allora presi di lui sì gran parte,
ch’elli disparve, e non m’accorsi come.

Riding along a path the other day,
wistful of the bitterness of parting,
I met Love in the middle of the road
clad in the simple clothes of a pilgrim.

He was a pitiful wretch to look at,
and looked as though he’d lost his titles;
sighing, thoughtful, he came, his head
bent low, so as not to see other people.

But seeing me, he called me by name,
and said: “I come from a distant land,
where I held possession of your heart;

I carry it now to serve a new pleasure.”
And I felt such empathy with him,
that he vanished and I cannot recall how.

Riding along a path the other day by Dante Alighieri

We must stop here to give particular mention to Dante and his Commedia, a work of such immensity that it has to be considered as something of a parenthesis or even an anomaly within the trajectory of not just medieval Italian literature, but of all literature ever written. Yes, the work is heavily rooted in 13th-century Florence–it is a complex intellectual microcosm of that very world that Dante knew and lived in, but artistically it cannot be encapsulated by any school, movement or style either before or since. It is a work that really can properly be called universal–not just because of its appeal, but because it is a grand plumbing of the full scope of human experience, and as such transcends any particular period or genre. It contains parts written in just about every imaginable style: from the philosophical to the elegiac, farcical, parodical and realistic all the while touching on seemingly every imaginable subject. Besides this, so many parts of it feel entirely out of place in the expectations of mediaeval-era literature and read much more like later developments from the romantic or even the modern era. Just compare the idealised, dare I say exaggerated nature of love in Guido delle Colonne (or any other contemporary, for that matter) with Dante’s realistic handling of the subject in the famous episode of Paolo and Francesca, from Canto V of the Inferno. Murdered by Francesca’s husband because of their infidelity, for which they now suffer eternal torment together, she relates the story of how they fell in love with each other:

Ma s’a conoscer la prima radice
del nostro amor tu hai cotanto affetto,
dirò come colui che piange e dice.

Noi leggiavamo un giorno per diletto
di Lancialotto come amor lo strinse;
soli eravamo e sanza alcun sospetto. 

Per più fïate li occhi ci sospinse
quella lettura, e scolorocci il viso;
ma solo un punto fu quel che ci vinse. 

Quando leggemmo il disïato riso
esser basciato da cotanto amante,
questi, che mai da me non fia diviso, 

la bocca mi basciò tutto tremante.

But if you really want to know
Where and when our love began I’ll tell you

as one who both speaks and weeps.

One day, for pleasure, we were reading
of Lancelot and how love gripped hold of him,
we were alone and nothing was suspicious.

But from time to time, our eyes suspended
from reading and our faces turned pale;
but there was one moment that defeated us.

It was when we read of her laughing smile,
and how many a lover longed to kiss it,
and then he, who shall never leave me here,

all atremble, his lips kissed mine.

from Canto V of the Inferno by Dante Alighieri

How ravishing this is. Dante contrasts the fake representation of love in the courtly tradition of the book they are reading with a very realistic portrayal of a moment where a young couple fall in love. Love is not a grandiloquent explosion–it’s subtle and comes gradually and silently in the small glances that Paolo and Francesca exchange and then Dante shows how terrifyingly beautiful the final, “defeating” moment can be–they grow pale when they realise what is happening and Paolo is shaking, almost with terror, when he finally kisses her. Absolutely sublime.

Although Dante is the fountain from which all Italian literature since issues, the first Italian who would have a direct cosmopolitan influence was Petrarch, who in his Canzoniere turned lyric poetry into something far more linguistically complicated than it had been earlier–into a more compact exposition of thought layered in metaphor, complex imagery and wordplay. As such, with Petrarch it really feels like poetry takes a stylistic leap into a form that is much more similar to the poetry of today and his was a style that was directly imitated by succeeding poets all over Renaissance Europe. In English the debt to Petrarch is most blatantly obvious during the Tudor period, with poets such as Thomas Wyatt (who also wrote fine translations of his), Henry Howard, Philip Sidney, Fulke Greville and Edmund Spenser. Even Shakespeare’s sonnets read like largely like Petrarch’s, don’t you think?

Erano i capei d’oro a l’aura sparsi
che ’n mille dolci nodi gli avolgea,
e ’l vago lume oltra misura ardea
di quei begli occhi, ch’or ne son sì scarsi;

e ’l viso di pietosi color’ farsi,
non so se vero o falso, mi parea:
i’ che l’esca amorosa al petto avea,
qual meraviglia se di sùbito arsi?

Non era l’andar suo cosa mortale,
ma d’angelica forma; e le parole
sonavan altro, che pur voce humana.

Uno spirto celeste, un vivo sole
fu quel ch’i’ vidi: e se non fosse or tale,
piagha per allentar d’arco non sana.

Her golden hair was dispersed on the air
and tied in a thousand sweet knots
and the weak light burned beyond measure
from those lovely eyes, which has since died down;

her face took on such pitiful hues
that I could not tell if they were false or true,
I had love’s bait within my breast,
why wonder then, that I was all aflame?

She did not walk with a mortal step,
but an angelic form, and her words
spoke with a different, inhuman sound.

A heavenly spirit, a living light
was what I saw, and though time has changed,
my wounds don’t heal, struck by that distant archer.

Compare this with Saint Francis, delle Colonne or even Dante where the language is far simpler–less figurative, more direct. The most conspicuous absence in these former poets is perhaps the use of metaphor–although they exist here and there, such as in Saint Francis’ “brother wind” and “sister water” or in Dante’s allegory, they are quite tame and few and far between. Petrarch’s on the other hand is just swimming in them (the light burns–his love is a bait–love is a cruel archer etc.), not to mention other rhetorical devices like contrasts (most obviously between the mortal and the divine), and just the wittiness of it all–look at the first line where the noun “aura” (air) together with the definite article “l’” is a conscious play on his beloved’s name, Laura.

Scarcely any later figure of the Italian renaissance was spared of this influence. One of the major successors was Matteo Maria Boiardo who is most famous for writing perhaps the first great epic of Italian literature, the Orlando innamorato, inspired by the chivalresque story of Roland. It would have a direct influence on the publication of two other major epics within less than a century: Orlando furioso by Ludovico Ariosto and Gerusalemme liberata by Torquato Tasso, by which time Italian poetry had really established a literary tradition. Owing no doubt to its vogue, it’s noteworthy that all three of these works were translated into English already during the sixteenth century and their common use of the ottava rima must no doubt have been a major influence on its later adaptation in English into a number of major works such as Don Juan by Lord Byron and the invention of the Spenserian stanza in The Faerie Queene.

Torquato Tasso, probably the most of read the three aforementioned authors today, was a Neapolitan and during the later Renaissance Naples had established itself as a cultural nexus. One of the most important of its Renaissance figures was Jacopo Sannazaro, who probably more than any other artist was responsible for reviving and re-elaborating the pastoral ideal of Arcadia in his eponymously titled work, written around the year 1480. Whether or not this was a source of inspiration for Sir Thomas More’s appropriation of the Arcadian ideal in his philosophical work Utopia from 1516 is uncertain, but its artistic legacy is undeniable in works such as Sir Philip Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Milton’s great pastoral elegies, to mention just a few. One interesting novelty with pastoral literature is the strong presence of the natural world being in symbiosis with human civilisation. Looking back on the ancient world as an ideal, the pastoral poem also tends toward a tone of lament for something that has been lost:

Poi che ‘l soave stile e ‘l dolce canto
sperar non lice più per questo bosco,
rincominciate, o Muse, il vostro pianto.

Piangi, collo sacrato, opaco e fosco,
e voi, cave spelunche e grotte oscure,
ululando venite a pianger nosco.

Piangete, faggi e querce alpestre e dure,
e piangendo narrate a questi sassi
le nostre lacrimose aspre venture.

Lacrimate voi, fiumi ignudi e cassi
d’ogni dolcezza, e voi fontane e rivi,
fermate il corso e ritenete i passi.

E tu, che fra le selve occolta vivi,
Eco mesta, rispondi a le parole
e quant’io parlo per li tronchi scrivi.

Piangete, valli abbandonati e sole;
e tu, terra, depingi nel tuo manto
i gigli oscuri e nere le viole.

Since the soft manner and sweet song
can no more be hoped for in this wood,
strike up again, o Muses, your mournful song.

Weep, sacred hill, grown dark and gloomy,
and you deep and darkened caves,
come and howling join in our wail.

Weep, you beeches and strong, alpine oaks
and weeping, recount to these rocks
of our bitter and mournful fate.

Shed tears, you bare and futile streams
stripped of sweetness, and you fountains and shores,
cease your journey, hold your step.

And you, who live hidden among the woods,
mournful Echo, give answer to my words
and write what I speak upon the trunks of trees.

Weep, you abandoned, lonely vales,-

and you, earth, paint dark the lilies
and black the violets with your cloak.

From “Arcadia” by Jacopo Sannazaro

Irrespective of its historic importance, Sannazaro’s poem is a masterpiece and still reads fantastically today.

All the works cited here were written before the sixteenth century, and it is really striking how early Italian poetry and the Italian language solidifies into a very concrete form. While English was still in its fledgling Middle form with only a few major works under its belt (and which can often be quite hard for contemporary readers to get through), Italian already looked more or less identical to the language spoken today and could boast scores of enduring authors and masterpieces. Although Italian literature would continue to exert a major influence in Europe throughout the Baroque and beyond, it would also increasingly contend with rivals of equal strength. I will outline the legacy from this period through to our current day in a later post.

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