My fascination with the Italian Renaissance, its history and in particular its literature, continues to grow. To feed it, I’m embarking on a small reading project which covers the greats of the period. Here’s the list of those authors who made the grade (notice that they’re all either Florentine or intimately associated with Florence). Let me know of any others I should add to the list.
All of these authors I’ve read before but either in excerpt or a long, long time ago in a university far, far away. Now, I can give them the time and appreciation they deserve.
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)
Dante is often named as one of the fathers of the Italian language. He wrote in this language rather than in Latin, as was more usual in his day. He lived during the political turbulence of the struggle for power between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire. Of course, his most famous work is the Divine Comedy in which he travels from the dark forest of doubt through hell and purgatory to heaven and clear understanding. His guide for two thirds of the journey is the Roman poet Virgil. He’d be shocked to know that most people who read him today only read the first of the three works, Inferno, and miss out on the argument carefully developed across all three. Today, his name is appropriated for the premier international Italian language school, the Societa Dante Alighieri.
Francesco Petraca aka Petrarch (1304-1374)
He is another of the golden lights of Florence and is named as the father of Humanism ans is sometimes even styled the father of the Renaissance. This is largely because of his philosophy that secular achievements did not diminish one’s capacity to be on the right side of god. He argued for a balance between the active and contemplative life and a concern for people in the here-and-now, not just in the hereafter. As well as pretty much inventing the tradition of courtly love in the Canzoniere, I’m looking forward to reading his many letters to friends in which he discusses the problems of the age and, in particular, his letters to dead Roman authors in which he both praises and criticises.
Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375)
Although his origins are uncertain, he spent most of his life in Florence and definitely considered it his home town. He was a contemporary of Petrarch and, according to legend, they spent many evening in friendly literary and philosophical debate. His famous work is the Decameron, which describes a group of ten young people escape Florence during the Plague and pass the ten day telling each other ten stories per day. The details of the Plague are described in graphic detail making this book one of the primary sources for the effects of the disease which ravaged the town in 1348. I also want to get my hands on a copy of his book “On Famous Women,” the first biography of women in Western literature, but apparently it’s quite difficult to find.
Nicolo Machiavelli (1469-1527)
Machiavelli is the odd man out in that he’s distant from the other four authors by more than 150 years. He is, however, intimately associated with his home town of Florence during the height of its power and glory. He is thoroughly and absolutely misunderstood. Pretty much anything you think you know about him is almost certainly wrong. He is perhaps the first historian to admonish political rulers to look at the examples history not as cookie-cutter prescriptions for the present day but in order to understand the context in which decisions were taken and to look at the results. Although I’ve read The Prince before (and, like everyone else, not understood it), I’m really keen to read the work he’d rather be known for, The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy, in which he argues that the republic is the best, most stable and most equitably form of government.