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Ludovico Ariosto
Ermalao Barbaro (Jean-Jacques Boissard)
Cardinal Pietro Bembo
Matteo Maria Boiardo

Baldassare Castiglione
Renaissance Humanists
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola
Angelo Poliziano

The heroes of Italian literature and poetry have an long heritage beginning with compilations and ballads of the ancient Greeks. Early renaissance scholars - Dante Alighieri (1265 -1321) author of Divine Comedy, Francesco Petrarch (1304 - 1374) who coined the term "Dark Ages," and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313 - 1375) who wrote De Mulieribus Claris and The Decameron - form the legacy upon whichRenaissance writers drew their inspiration. The most notable early Italian Renaissance neo-platonist humanist philosphers who contributed to the flowering of classical study were Marsilio Ficino, Angelo Poliziano, and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Later Renaissance literary achievements include Matteo Maria Boiardo's Orlando Innamorato, Baldassare Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier, Pietro Bembo's Gli Asolani, and Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. The mid-16th century saw the rise of many women writers and poets such as Vittoria Colonna and Veronica Gambara.

The Founding Fathers of Italian Renaissance Literature and Poetry

Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri (by Botticelli, c 1490)
Dante (born 1265, Florence – died 1321) is one of the founding fathers of modern Italian Literature. Simply known as “The Poet,” Dante is most famous for his work The Divine Comedy, written beginning in 1302 while he was in exile, having been banished from his native city of Florence after the Guelph and Ghibelline conflict of 1300. The Divine Comedy is the poet’s description of his journey through Purgatory (Purgatorio) and Hell (Inferno) guided by Virgil (author of the epic poem the Aeneid - about Aeneas fleeing to Rome after the fall of Troy), then finally through Heaven (Paradiso) guided by Dante’s true love, Beatrice. Dante's words upon seeing the face of God were, “at this high moment, ability failed my capacity to describe.” From Paradiso, Canto XXXIII. - Wikipedia

Dante’s major contribution to literature had immediate and far-reaching effects; his use of the the Tuscan vernacular for his writings was a major departure from the scholastic practices of the day. Almost exclusively, history, poetry, political thought, and philosophical works were written in Latin. Dante was the forerunner of this new establishment, which culminated during the 15th and 16th centuries with the flowering of humanism and the renaissance. These forces coincided with the invention of the printing press to help bring literary achievements to a wider audience. Dante, along with Boccaccio was one of the first editions of the classics printed by the famous Aldine Press, prepared by Pietro Bembo in 1502.

Excerpt from The Divine Comedy (Inferno):

Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain:
Through me among the people lost for aye.
Justice the founder of my fabric mov'd:
To rear me was the task of power divine,
Supremest wisdom, and primeval love.
Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I endure.

All hope abandon ye who enter here.

- Inferno, Canto III
Illustration Dante's "Inferno"

Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch)

Francesco Petrarch Petrarch (born July 20, 1304, Arezzo – died July 19, 1374) was an Italian scholar, poet, and early humanist. Widely considered one of the fathers of the Renaissance by 15th and 16th century Itallian scholars. He was one of the first to distinguish his era as being on the verge of emerging from a “dark age” and that a rebirth of classical scholarship and artistic mastery was upon them. He gained fame with his publication, Africa (c. 1341) about the Roman general Scipio Africanus. Petrarch’s collection of sonnets dedicated to Laura, the Canzoniere, were also highly popular - and were translated into English by poet Sir Thomas Wyatt. Petrarch is responsible for bringing major collections of ancient Greek and Roman works to light again. He was given the distinguished title of Poet Laureate of Rome. He is best known for his poetry, mostly written in Latin, and his sonnets and models were widely imitated throughout Europe. Petrarch’s works were the model for a standardized Italian language developed during the Renaissance under the auspices of later philosophers and poets, notably Pietro Bembo.

A sonnet from Africa:

To thee, perchance, if lengthened days are given,
A better age shall mark the grace of heaven;
Not always shall this deadly sloth endure:
Our sons shall live in days more bright and pure;
Then with fresh shoots our Helicon shall glow;
Then the fresh laurel spread its sacred bough;
Then the high intellect and docile mind
Shall renovate the studies of mankind –
The love of beauty and the cause of truth
From ancient sources draw eternal youth.

- Petrarch (Henry Reeve, 1879)

Petrarch and Laura
Petrarch and Laura, unknown source
Title page from Petrarch's "Virgil" c. 1336

Title page from Petrarch's Virgil, c. 1336. Illuminated manuscript by Simone Martini, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan.

Giovanni Boccaccio

Giovanni Boccaccio
Boccaccio (born 1313, environs of Florence –died 1375) was an important Italian author and poet, most famous for his collection of narrative tales, The Decameron, written in 1353. The stories area series of novellas told by a group of ten young noblemen and women who fled Florence during an outbreak of the plague. To pass the time, each participant tells one story each night for the ten nights spent at a villa outside the city waiting out the plague. As a young man Boccaccio travelled, studied canon law, wrote poems, and tales and attended gatherings with scholars and the Venetian elite. One of his works, De Mulieribus Claris (On Famous Women, 1374) is an anthology of famous and noteworthy women in the bible, legend, and history. He also wrote De Casibus Virorum Illustrium (On the Fates of Famous Men, 1374). Boccaccio’s work had enormous impact on European literature as a whole, as well as on later Italian authors. His Decameron influenced Chaucer and later Shakespeare, notably in the development of form, plot, and character.

From the poem, Girolamo and Salvestra:

Wide are the hundred streams that lead unto fair Florence's mart,
And strong the stream that fills them all like life-blood to the heart,
And proud are all its merchants there its world-wealth to display,
And bravely sail their tall ships in from Genoa's laden bay;
And where its glitter tempts the most, where brightest streams the glare
Of gems, and gold, and tinselled pomp, of all that's rich and rare,
Where highest rise the gilded domes of cool suburban seats,
And sweetest scent the groves that shade the traders' soft retreats,
Where the swift Arno's chafing tide the largest vessel bears,
And fiercely scorns the richest freight with all its pricelss wares,
Where all smiles bright and whispers tales of many a countless hoard,
There youthful Girolamo reigns the undisputed lord!

Illustration from Boccaccio's "Decameron"
An illustration from Boccaccio’s
De Casibus Virorum Illustrium Paris: 1467
- Stories from Boccaccio and other Poems by James Payn (1852) Googlebooks edition.


Unlike Venice and Florence in the last two decades of the fifteenth century, Rome never became a center for the printing of illustrated books. The three most important Roman printers of the period, John Besicken, Andreas Freitag, and Stephen Plannck were German by birth and training, and their publications reflected a Germany style in book production. Also, Roman print culture did not evolve from a fine arts tradition as occurred in Venice and Florence. No leading school of painting contributed its influence to the woodcutters and designers at work in Rome, and as a result, the woodcut there did not take on the fresh characteristics of the Renaissance style until after the turn of the sixteenth century.

First Italian Book Illustrated with Woodcut Series

MeditationesRome, 1484 Cardinal Juan de Torquemada's Meditations on the life of Christ, a
cornerstone of Italian book illustration, is thought to be the first Italian book illustrated with a series of woodcut images. The first edition was printed in Rome in 1467 by the German printer Ulrich Han. The copy displayed here is the fourth edition, printed Stephan Plannck, Han's apprentice who took over the business after his death. The designs of the thirty-three woodcuts, though considered rough by some early critics, are distinguished by their spaciousness, clarity, and economy of line, all important characteristics of the Italian woodcut before 1490. These woodcuts of "Adam and Eve in the Garden" and "The Annunciation" are simply constructed, gracefully executed, and eminently accessible to the viewer. A sensuousness in the lines that define Adam's torso and the fine turn of Eve's ankle suggests a developed sense of artistic possibility. This emphasis on the physical form demonstrates a new artistic awareness that was developing in Italian woodcut design during the early Renaissance.

Important Edition of Divine Comedy

La CommediaVenice, 1491 This 1491 edition of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy is considered by many bibliographers to be one of the most important illustrated editions of Dante's masterpiece printed in the fifteenth century. It contains three full-page woodcuts introducing each of the books of Dante's poem and ninety-seven small cuts illustrating the action of each canto. Framed by a monumental architectural border, this large woodcut illustrating the beginning of Book 3, Il Paradiso, translates into pictorial form Dante's beloved Beatrice's vision, transmigration, and ecstacy as she ascends from earth to paradise. The image exemplifies the "popular" style of Venetian woodcut, which gets its name from the designer's decision to dress its characters in contemporary costume, to use playful images to decorate borders, and to populate the composition with animals, birds, and flowers. The designer achieves this effect by the delicate use of outline to construct forms rather than relying on shading or parallel lines. This technique keeps the image open, less formal, and emphasizes the popular nature of the design.

Cleverly Designed Woodcuts Created as Educational Aids

ArithmeticaFlorence, 1491-92 Calandri's Arithmetica is the first Italian arithmetic book to
contain illustrations that illuminate mathematical problems, as well as being the first work to discuss long division. The woodcuts contain many of the characteristics of Florentine designs from this period, including the use of ornamental borders to frame an image, simple contours to elucidate content, and sensitive physical representations that depict human expression. In this illustration, the borders of the woodcut are characterized by a freedom of line and playful imagery. Composed of four individual blocks all of different design, the borders are cut in a delicate yet casual style, incorporating standard motifs of columns, urns, foliage, branch-and-leaf patterns, cherubs, and birds. The hands counting numbers are cleverly designed and sensitively convey motion. They depict a physical reality typical of woodcuts produced in early Renaissance Florence. The remainder of the woodcuts in this volume illustrate mathematical problems, including examples of use to builders, merchants, and farmers.

Formulario di lettere et di orationi volgariMaster with Students

Florence, 1492 The subject of this woodcut, "The Master and His Seven Students," was a common motif used in Italy to illustrate educational or scientific books, much the way portraits of saints were used for religious tracts. This image introducing Landino's manual for secretarial writing is considered one of the finest woodcuts produced in fifteenth-century Florence. The artist's consummate skill at drawing and composition are perfectly matched by a woodcutter capable of creating fine line cuts that translate expression and motion in a natural and convincing manner. The ordinary nature of this composition is heightened by the emphasis on the individual characteristics of each of the figures. The thin ribbon-patterned border is a common element of Florentine woodcuts. In A Catalogue of the Books in the Library of C. W. Dyson Perrins (1914), Alfred Pollard called this woodcut a "little masterpiece of quiet drama."

to Renaissance Poets and Writers: Baldassare Castiglione, Pietro Bembo, Matteo Maria Boiardo Ludovico Ariosto