The Renaissance in Italy was a period of expanding economic, political, and cultural activity. The towns and cities emerged from feudal conditions to become centers of commerce and industry. City leaders struggled constantly to increase their power by conquest and by establishing spheres of influence. Some city-states, such as Venice and Genoa, won control of Mediterranean empires. The period was marked by a rebirth of culture based on the discovery of ancient manuscripts and the reevaluation of classical literature and philosophy, which spread eventually throughout Europe.
Many of the great figures of early Renaissance literature were scholars concerned with philological research into and the translation of the Greek and Latin classics. They were called humanists because of their interest in human rather than otherwordly ideals, as opposed to the scholars and thinkers of the Middle Ages. Many humanists turned for inspiration to the works of Plato in preference to those of his pupil Aristotle, who had been the dominant influence in medieval scholarship.
One of the most important figures of the early Renaissance was the humanist scholar and poet Petrarch. With him a new feeling entered Western culture. Unlike Dante and other medieval thinkers such as the Italian Scholastic philosopher Thomas Aquinas and the French philosopher Peter Abelard, Petrarch was not concerned so much with using the material of the ancient classical writers for his own purposes as with acting in the classical spirit. A great Latinist, he helped to restore classical Latin as a literary and scholarly language and to discredit the use of medieval Latin, which had served as an international medium of communication. After this period Latin lost currency as a spoken tongue.
Petrarch is often referred to as the “modern man” because of his interest in individuality; his Vita Solitaria (1480; Solitary Life, 1924) and his De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae (1468; Physicke Against Fortune, 1579) are considered the first essays to express this new attitude. He has been called also the first Italian nationalist, as contrasted with Dante, who was a universalist and for whom Italy was a part to be fitted into an imperial whole. To Petrarch, Italy was the heir and successor of ancient Rome, the civilizing mission of which he glorified in his Latin epic Africa (critical edition, 1926), dealing with the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage. He believed that the various states of Italy should be united to resume the mission of ancient Rome.
Impressive as were Petrarch’s contributions to classical scholarship, his greatness rests on his Italian lyrics. His Canzoniere (after 1327; trans. 1777)—a collection of sonnets addressed to Laura, probably the Frenchwoman Laure de Noves, the counterpart of Dante’s Beatrice—departs from the idealized approach of the dolce stil nuovo. It introduced an intensity and inwardness of feeling and perception heretofore unknown in European poetry.
Giovanni Boccaccio, like Petrarch, was conscious of belonging to a new age. He was strongly influenced by Petrarch, and the two men became close friends. Boccaccio had a strong narrative bent, as evidenced by his prose romances Il Filocolo (about 1336) and L’amorosa Fiammetta (Amorous Fiammetta, about 1343). Boccaccio’s greatest work is his Decamerone (1353; The Decameron, 1620), a masterpiece in which he drew directly from life instead of from literary models. It is a collection of 100 short stories presumed to have been told during a period of ten days by seven gentlemen and three ladies of Florence living in a remote country villa in which they had taken refuge from an epidemic of the plague.
Unlike Petrarch, Boccaccio valued Dante highly; his last work was a biography and a series of lectures on the work of the great poet. Boccaccio’s writings gained an international public and were drawn upon for plots and characters by writers in other countries. For example, his epic poem La Teseida (about 1341) was used by the 14th-century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer as the basis for his “Knight’s Tale” and by the 17th-century English poet John Dryden in his poem “Palamon and Arcite.”
Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio were the first Italian writers to make literary use of the Tuscan dialect spoken in Florence, Siena, and other towns of north-central Italy, and they won for it general acceptance as the language of culture.
In the Renaissance we see many examples of the so-called universal man, who achieved greatness in more than one field. Among the most famous figures of this type were the architect, painter, organist, and writer Leon Battista Alberti, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo. This universality of mind and talent was true also of the princes who ruled the Italian towns, the most brilliant of whom was Lorenzo de’ Medici, a member of the Medici family that ruled Florence. Lorenzo was a brilliant statesman and administrator, a patron of the arts, a poet, and a critic of distinction.
Angelo Poliziano, called Politian, is generally considered the outstanding poet of the period. His verse play Orfeo (1480?; trans. 1880) ranks as the first important work in the Italian drama, and his collections of lyrics are of a high order. Politian is famous also for his scholarly editions and translations of Greek texts.
In this period the Carolingian geste and the pastoral continued to provide literary themes. Among the outstanding gestes was the Orlando innamorato (Roland in Love, 1487) of Matteo Maria Boiardo. The finest work in the pastoral genre was Arcadia (1504), by Jacopo Sannazzaro, which attained recognition across Europe. In their preoccupation with worldly rather than religious values Renaissance writers departed widely from the Christian concepts of the Middle Ages. The popes themselves patronized atheist and so-called pagan authors. Some of these writers, especially the humanist Lorenzo Valla, whose bold exposure of dubious papal documents almost cost him his life, mentioned Christian authors only to find fault with them. The sermons and polemical writings of the reformer Girolamo Savonarola, who attempted to reverse this trend, provide graphic descriptions of revived pagan tastes and practices. He instituted a theocratic republic in Florence, but it lasted less than three years. He was abandoned by the people and suffered martyrdom for his defiance of Pope Alexander VI, who was famous for his patronage of pagan culture.