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ITALIAN EPICS
The fact that Latin remained so long the chief literary language of Europe prevented an early development of literature in the Italian language. Not only were all the popular European epics and romances current in Italy in Latin, but many of them were also known in Proven?al in the northern part of the peninsula. It was, therefore, chiefly imitations of the Proven?al bards' work which first appeared in Italian, in the thirteenth century, one of the best poets of that time being the Sordello with whom Dante converses in Purgatory.

Stories relating to the Charlemagne cycle found particular favor in Northern Italy, and especially at Venice. In consequence there were many Italian versions of these old epics, as well as of the allegorical Roman de la Rose.

It was at the court of Frederick II, in Sicily, that the first real school of Italian poetry developed, and from there the custom of composing exclusively in the vernacular spread over the remainder of the country. These early poets chose love as their main topic, and closely imitated the Proven?al style. Then the "dolce stil nuovo," or sweet new style, was introduced by Guinicelli, who is rightly considered the first true Italian poet of any note. The earliest Italian epic, the "Buovo d'Antona," and an adaptation of Reynard the Fox, were current in the first half of the thirteenth century at Venice and elsewhere. In the second half appeared prose romances, such as tales about Arthur and his knights, the journey of Marco Polo, and new renderings of the old story of Troy.

Professional story-tellers now began to wander from place to place in Northern and Central Italy, entertaining auditors of all classes and ages with stories derived from every attainable source. But the first great epic poet in Italy was Dante (1265-1321), whose Divina Commedia, begun in 1300, is treated separately in this volume. Although Petrarch was prouder of his Latin than of his Italian verses, he too greatly perfected Italian poetry, thus enabling his personal friend Boccaccio to handle the language with lasting success in the tales which compose his Decameron. These are the Italian equivalents of the Canterbury Tales, and in several cases both writers have used the same themes.

By the fifteenth century, and almost simultaneously with the introduction of printing, came the Renaissance, when a number of old epics were reworked. Roland—or, as he is known in Italy, Orlando—is the stock-hero of this new school of poets, several of whom undertook to relate his love adventures. Hence we have "Orlando Innamorato," by Boiardo and Berni, as well as "Morgante Maggiore" by Pulci, where Roland also figures. In style and tone these works are charming, but the length of the poems and the involved adventures of their numerous characters prove very wearisome to modern readers. Next to Dante, as a poet, the Italians rank Ariosto, whose "Orlando Furioso," or Roland Insane, is a continuation of Boiardo's "Orlando Innamorato." Drawing much of his material from the French romances of the Middle Ages, Ariosto breathes new life into the old subject and graces his tale with a most charming style. His subject was parodied by Folengo in his "Orlandino" when Roland began to pall upon the Italian public.

The next epic of note in Italian literature is Torquato Tasso's "Gerusalemme Liberata," composed in the second half of the sixteenth century, and still immensely popular owing to its exquisite style. Besides this poem, of which Godfrey of Bouillon is the hero and which is par excellence the epic of the crusades, Tasso composed epics on "Rinaldo," on "Gerusalemme Conquistata," and "Sette Giornate del Mundo Creato."

Some of Ariosto's contemporaries also attempted the epic style, including Trissino, who in his "Italia Liberata" relates the victories of Belisarius over the Goths in blank verse. His fame, however, rests on "Sofonisba," the first Italian tragedy, in fact "the first regular tragedy in all modern literature."

Although no epics of great note were written thereafter, Alamanni composed "Girone il Cortese" and the "Avarchide," which are intolerably long and wearisome.

"The poet who set the fashion of fantastic ingenuity" was Marinus,
whose epic "Adone," in twenty cantos, dilates on the tale of Venus and
Adonis. He also wrote "Gerusalemme Distrutta" and "La Strage degl'
Innocenti," and his poetry is said to have much of the charm of
Spenser's.

The last Italian poet to produce a long epic poem was Fortiguerra, whose "Ricciardetto" has many merits, although we are told the poet wagered to complete it in as many days as it has cantos, and won his bet.

The greatest of the Italian prose epics is Manzoni's novel "I Promessi Sposi," which appeared in 1830. Since then Italian poets have not written in the epic vein, save to give their contemporaries excellent metrical translations of Milton's Paradise Lost, of the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Argonautica, the Lusiad, etc.



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