Linguistically speaking, the Italian language is a member of the Romance group of the Italic subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages. It is spoken principally in the Italian peninsula, southern Switzerland, San Marino, Sicily, Corsica, northern Sardinia, and on the northeastern shore of the Adriatic Sea, as well as in North and South America. Considered a single language with numerous dialects, Italian, like the other Romance languages, is the direct offspring of the Latin spoken by the Romans and imposed by them on the peoples under their dominion. Of all the major Romance languages, Italian retains the closest resemblance to Latin. The struggle between the written but dead language and the various forms of the living speech, most of which were derived from Vulgar Latin, was nowhere so intense or so protracted as in Italy.
During the long period of the evolution of Italian, many dialects sprang up. The multiplicity of these dialects and their individual claims upon their native speakers as pure Italian speech presented a peculiar difficulty in the evolution of an accepted form of Italian that would reflect the cultural unity of the entire peninsula. Even the earliest popular Italian documents, produced in the 10th century, are dialectal in language, and during the following three centuries Italian writers wrote in their native dialects, producing a number of competing regional schools of literature.
During the 14th century the Tuscan dialect began to predominate, because of the central position of Tuscany in Italy, and because of the aggressive commerce of its most important city, Florence. Moreover, of all the Italian dialects, Tuscan departs least in morphology and phonology from classical Latin, and it therefore harmonizes best with the Italian traditions of Latin culture. Finally, Florentine culture produced the three literary artists who best summarized Italian thought and feeling of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance: Dante, Petrarca, and Boccaccio.
The First Texts: The 13th century
In the first half of the 13th century Florence was preoccupied with the development of trade. Then interest began to broaden, especially under the lively influence of Latini.
- Brunetto Latini (1220-94): Latini was exiled to Paris from 1260 to 1266 and became a link between France and Tuscany. He wrote the Trèsor (in French) and the Tesoretto and contributed to the development of allegorical and didactic poetry, along with a tradition of rhetoric upon which the 'dolce stil nuovo' and Divine Comedy were based.
- The 'dolce stil nuovo' (1270-1310): Although in theory they continued the Provençal tradition and counted themselves members of the Sicilian School of Federico II's reign, the Florentine writers went their own way. They used all their knowledge of science and philosophy in a delicate and detailed analysis of love. Among them were Guido Cavalcanti and the young Dante.
- The Chroniclers: These were men of the merchant class whose involvement in city affairs inspired them to write tales in the vulgar tongue. Some, such as Dino Compagni (d. 1324), wrote about local conflicts and rivalries; others, like Giovanni Villani (d. 1348), took much wider European events as their subject.
The Three Jewels in the Crown
- Dante Alighieri (1265-1321): Dante's Divine Comedy is one of the great works of world literature, and it was also proof that in literature the vulgar tongue could rival Latin. He had already defended his argument in two unfinished treatises, De vulgari eloquentia and Convivio. But to prove his point it needed the Divine Comedy, 'this masterpiece in which Italians rediscovered their language in sublime form' (Bruno Migliorini).
- Petrarch (1304-74): Francesco Petrarca was born in Arezzo, since his father was in exile from Florence. He was a passionate admirer of ancient Roman civilization and one of the great early Renaissance humanists, creating a Republic of Letters. His philological work was highly respected, as were his translations from Latin into the Vulgate, and also his own Latin works. But it is his love poetry, written in the vulgar tongue, that keeps his name alive today. His Canzoniere had enormous influence on the poets of the 15th and 16th centuries.
- Boccaccio (1313-75): This was a man from the rising commercial classes, whose Decameron has been described as a 'merchant's epic' It consists of one hundred stories told by characters who are also part of a story that provides the setting for the whole, much like The Arabian Nights. The work was to become a model for fiction and prose writing. Boccaccio was the first to write a commentary on Dante, and he was also a friend and disciple of Petrarch. Around him gathered enthusiasts of the new humanism.
La «questione della lingua»
The 'question of the language', an attempt to establish linguistic norms and codify the language, engrossed writers of all persuasions. Grammarians during the 15th and the 16th centuries attempted to confer upon the pronunciation, syntax, and vocabulary of 14th-century Tuscan the status of a central and classical Italian speech. Eventually this classicism, which might have made Italian another dead language, was widened to include the organic changes inevitable in a living tongue.
In the dictionaries and publications of the Accademia della Crusca, founded in 1583, which was accepted by Italians as authoritative in Italian linguistic matters, compromises between classical purism and living Tuscan usage were successfully effected. The most important literary event of the 16th century did not actually take place in Florence. In 1525 the Venetian Pietro Bembo (1470-1547) set out his proposals (Prose della volgar lingua - 1525) for a standardized language and style: Petrarca and Boccaccio were his models and thus became the modern classics. Therefore, the language of Italian literature is modeled on that spoken in Florence in the 15th century.
It was not until the 19th century that the language spoken by educated Tuscans spread to become the language of a new nation. The unification of Italy in 1861 had a profound impact not only on the political scene but also resulted in a significant social, economical, and cultural transformation. With mandatory schooling, the literacy rate increased, and many speakers abandoned their native dialect in favor of the national language.
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