No peace for a woman lying on the beach reading a book. Young men were circling. One asked why I was reading Dante’s Divina Commedia. I explained, haltingly, that I was trying to learn Italian and, in reply to one of them holding out his hand, I insisted that I would not go ‘teco’. Bursts of laughter. I should have said ‘con te’, ‘with you’ in modern Italian, but they did understand Dante’s way of putting it. That set me thinking. Dante lived in Florence at the end of the 1300s and wrote his great work in the early years of the 1400s. Boccaccio wrote his Decameron about fifty years afterwards and both were crucial inspirations for later writers. Before Dante no one wrote for ordinary people in their ‘vulgar tongue’. As was the custom in the Middle Ages, he had written a treatise (in Latin so all educated Europeans could read it) in praise of writing literature in the language you used to speak to people around you – De Vulgaria Eloquentia. Dante was as good as his word. He wrote a sparkling account of his youth and his meeting with Beatrice in La Vita Nuova – the New Life – using, for the first time, prose interspersed with poetry. He and other young Florentine friends began writing poetry in their local Italian dialect inspired by poets in Palermo. Earlier in the 13th century the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II had founded a fledgling university in his Sicilian court. There, with his encouragement, they wrote in the local Sicilian dialect. They in turn were influenced by the troubadours who travelled from castle to castle during the crusades in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, singing their songs in variations of local dialects.
Boccaccio’s tales were recounted by young Florentine men and women. They had decided to flee the plague-ridden city in the mid-1300s to reside in a large villa in the hills and devised there an entertaining way to pass the time. It was the birth of the short story and keenly taken up by Chaucer early in the 14th century. His decision to recount the stories told by a group of pilgrims on the way to Canterbury gave him a wider canvas and greater psychological depth. Boccaccio’s wealthy young Florentines were fascinated by people who were ‘furbo’ or clever and wily, while Chaucer was intrigued by the interplay of people from all walks of life. They would probably never meet again, so they could let rip in their tales. Chaucer lived half a century after Boccaccio, but we almost have to translate The Canterbury Tales.
So Italians today, without much difficulty, can read Dante, Boccaccio and the poetry of his contemporary, Petrarch, whose love sonnets to Laura gave European poetry its most enduring verse form – the 14 line sonnet. All three wrote in the Tuscan dialect of the 13th and 14th centuries. I was puzzled. Why had the dialects of a peninsular invaded over centuries by the Austrians, French, Spaniards, Arabs, Normans and Saracens not imbibed something from all those languages?
I asked everyone I could. I learnt that modern English and German come from the early 16th-century translations of the Bible into the ‘vulgar tongue’ of the various nations and states, the work of Luther and Wycliffe. All Protestant church services and readings from the Bible were comprehensible to the congregations while Catholic masses were still said in Latin even when I first went to Italy.
Dante’s ‘teco’, now ‘con te’, with you – is easy to understand. Then a Swiss-Italian friend asked if I had heard of Pietro Bembo. I had seen a portrait of him by Raphael. He was a Venetian scholar using Latin to keep in touch with other scholars all over Europe. He was clearly influenced by Dante’s work on the literary potential of the languages and dialects people spoke but was aware that the numerous dialects spoken all over Italy meant that ordinary Italians couldn’t understand one another. In 1525 Bembo published a work, probably influenced by Petrarch’s poem Italia Mia, an impassioned cry for Italian unity, and proposed that the dialect spoken in Tuscany, the land of Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch, should become the language of communication between scholars in the Italian peninsular. Centuries later during the 19th-century struggle for Italian unity and independence, Manzoni wrote the great Italian novel, I Promessi Sposi, in the local dialect so the people of Piedmont could read it. Decades later he rewrote it in Italian – or the Tuscan dialect- and that became the Italian taught in schools throughout the peninsular.
When I first visited Italy I was asked by a woman to read the letter from her son, a soldier. Some were still illiterate then and spoke dialect – I learnt a few words when helping with the olive harvest. Now almost all who spoke a dialect have died and everyone in Italy speaks the language used by the first Europeans to write literature in the ‘vulgar tongue’- Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch’s Tuscan dialect.