A Literary History of the Fourteenth Century

Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio – A Study of Their Times and Works – (Storia Letteraria del Trecento) – Translated with a Foreword by Vincenzo Traversa

by Natalino Sapegno (Author)
©2016 Monographs XXI, 256 Pages


Any one wishing to investigate the literary development of the golden century of early Italian literature, the Trecento, must read Natalino Sapegno’s extensive writings on the subject, in particular his Storia Letteraria del Trecento (A Literary History of the Fourteenth Century). The original Italian edition appeared in April 1963 as part of the vast collection, La Letteratura Italiana – Storia e Testi (Italian Literature – History and Texts), directed by Raffaele Mattioli, Pietro Pancrazi, and Alfredo Schiaffini for the Riccardo Ricciardi publishing house. Storia Letteraria del Trecento focuses equally on Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio while minor writers are introduced in proportion to their importance and position in the cultural, historical, and social events of the time.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Foreword
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: The Literary Civilization of the Age of Dante
  • Chapter Two: Dante
  • Chapter Three: Between Dante and Petrarch
  • Chapter Four: Petrarch
  • Chapter Five: Boccaccio
  • Chapter Six: The Literature of the Minor Writers
  • Bibliography
  • Series index

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Anyone wishing to investigate into the literary development of the golden century of early Italian literature, the Trecento, must read Natalino Sapegno’s extensive writings on the subject and, among them in particular, his Storia letteraria del Trecento (Literary History of the Fourteenth Century), that appeared in April 1963 as part of the vast collection, La Letteratura Italiana—Storia e Testi (Italian Literature—History and Texts), directed by Raffaele Mattioli, Pietro Pancrazi and Alfredo Schiaffini for the Riccardo Ricciardi publishing house. At its introduction, this work was announced as un ‘opera diversissima, a most different work in the purpose that it pursued and, consequently, in the general plan that characterized it, as well as in its choice and distribution of the material. Furthermore, rather than an independent study, it was meant to become a part and a complement of a “system” so as to offer a panoramic synthesis and the essential characteristics of a very important moment in the development of the Italian and European culture.

The volume that Sapegno wrote dedicates, in its original Italian version, about one third of its pages to Dante (excluding its bibliography), an almost equal number of pages is dedicated to Petrarch and Boccaccio, while the minor writers are introduced more summarily, in proportion to their importance and position, in the cultural, historical and social events of the time.

When Sapegno completed this study, he had already been conducting an active research and written numerous documents on the subject (as well as several ← xi | xii → others on different authors and periods) for approximately three decades. The Storia in question, therefore, constituted the crowning moment of an investigative labor matured through a long period of evaluation by means of a well developed critical methodology, and it was immediately recognized and favorably received.

At the outset, the author introduces the crisis of the medieval civilization at the point when its century old ideological underpinnings were starting to give in, when the very order of Christianity, the prestige of its universal institutions were in crisis and the moral and civic unity of Europe began to fragment. Dante (1265–1321), Petrarch (1304–1374), and Boccaccio (1313–1375), living through this tumultuous period of time, represent, then, three moments of cultural history and aesthetic progress and contribute to “establish and characterize” a new civilization by reaching the apex of European literature and culture and by taking the lead in the unfolding of a new development.

The importance of the Trecento in Italy derives from these premises, hence the necessity to comprehend the nature of the impending crisis and the efforts that were made with the purpose of establishing the basis of a new vision of life.

The key to a more persuasive interpretation of humanism that may go beyond the issues mentioned, says Sapegno, lies perhaps in a deeper and more careful study of the Italian Trecento that needs to shed light on the internal contradictions that existed on a cultural and civic basis and grasp all active and passive aspects, namely, the novelties and the remnants of the past, the intellectual span and weakness of its social and political foundations. Consequently, for the author, it was certain that the aspects of modern civilization took shape in fourteenth century Italy and that civilization then matured in the wake of Italian art and thought in the three following centuries until it revealed itself in the “manifest rationality of the European Enlightenment.” And if it was true that the humanistic movement could be viewed as the symptom of a deep crisis in the history of European civilization, and if it was conceivable that it was time for Italy “to bear its burden” and be the first to evaluate its importance and magnitude, it appeared certain that in that century, in Italy, one could notice “the initial moment” of that crisis, its emergence from the recesses of history to the light of awareness as well as its becoming conscious of itself while attempting to transform the new concept of life into suitable cultural moulds.

How can one understand the influence that Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio were to have on European society as well as the later influence on the same exercised by future figures like Ariosto, Tasso, Machiavelli and Galileo? Sapegno responds by becoming aware of the novelty and the creative ability of the Italian cultural effort that came to life in a “scornful and proud isolation,” to the point of opening a chasm among the freedom, lack of prejudice and refinement of its cultural achievements and the real conditions of civilized society to the point of ← xii | xiii → being under the illusion of leading and directing without participating, humbly in its labor, and by assuming some of its misery and contradictions.

From this epochal background there emerge gradually the figures of the major protagonists, persons and currents of the century, while philosophy, faithful to scholastic forms, and theology accept rational and worldly elements; historiography, without renouncing its providential, transcendent interpretation of human events, opens to the circumstances, passions and struggles of everyday existence. Political doctrines are still circumscribed within the framework of a twofold universal authority and deal with the relationship between the Church and the Empire but this pattern becomes more flexible with specific and concrete issues, while political life witnesses the rise and consolidation of the comuni and the signorie. Even religious concepts, still very strong and deeply rooted in people’s minds, show tendencies to become less anonymous and collective and appear embodied in strong, free and combative personalities.

At the same time, Sapegno indicates that above the doctrinal and creative literature there rise the early figures of the new poets. Along the learned language of the scholastic writers intervenes the new linguistic style of the vernacular, the volgare. Dante himself, in fact, participates and is one of the most authoritative creators of this period that concludes the Middle Ages and heralds in the Renaissance. In him, medieval religiosity and theology come together with the curiosity of human contrast and natural things, the longing for transcendence does not eliminate the concern for political events while the study of the scholastic philosophers does not clash with his great love of literature and, quite importantly, the new language and his didactical and allegorical preferences do not weaken his firm faith in art as a formal instrument of beauty.

As for the material that constitutes his works, he is linked with the entire medieval culture. He elaborates, as it were, all its aspects and renews them in his own manner while, concerning their forms, he is connected with the learned trends of courtly poetry, of the vast and refined rhetoric and moral culture that, in the Florence of his time, had its most notable representatives in Brunetto Latini and the poets of the “sweet new style.”

Such are, in Sapegno’s presentation, the starting points of Dante’s human experience and intellectual preparation, if not of his powerful sense of synthesis and classic stylistic balance, and it was only from that tumult of imagination and intentions, artistic vision and doctrinal aspirations that “a flower of eternal, divine poetry” could be born. He also affirms, on one occasion, that Italy recognized in the Florentine its “national poet” par excellence and in its hours of difficulty and in those of the Risorgimento it proclaimed him the father of its civilization, the symbol of its suffering and of its mission. The cult and study of Dante’s personality and work went along, step by step, with the evolutions of Italian history, it assumed ← xiii | xiv → in the nineteenth century a highly ideal value and continues in the present through a wealth of definitions, enlightening of doctrines and institutions of historic and linguistic ideas from which the understanding of poetry gains fullness and depth.

In the case of Petrarch, Sapegno prefers to follow an analytical process that differs from the one adopted for the presentation of Dante particularly because Petrarch’s works do not lend themselves to be classified in a precise and well defined chronological framework “as the modern philologists’ investigations have amply demonstrated, namely how those works came into being and developed in a process of composition organized in successive layers that, at times, span an ample period that goes from his youth to old age. And while the constantly increasing uncommon wealth of archival documents and, above all, the abundant information provided by the writer and his contemporaries allow us to follow the progress of his life in every phase, … it increases, nevertheless the difference between personal history and general anecdotes that seem to be interconnected only by rare and intermittent links.”

Born in Arezzo on July 20, 1304, he was the son of a Florentine notary, ser Petracco, and Eletta Canigiani. Because of political reasons, ser Petracco decided to move his entire family, including another son, Gherardo, who was born in 1307, first to Pisa and then, in 1312, to Avignon, in Provence, where the pope had transferred the Curia. But due to a scarcity of houses caused by the sudden arrival of a large number of new inhabitants, Eletta and the children were lodged in the nearby town of Carpentras where Francesco began to study grammar, rhetoric and dialectic under the guidance of Convenevole da Prato.

At the early age of twelve, he was sent by his father to study law at Montpellier and then, from 1320 to 1326, to the University of Bologna. But he was ill disposed toward the legal studies and already strongly attracted to the classics and the Provençal and Italian poetry of love.

While he was still in Bologna, he was attracted to the happy, carefree life of the students of his age and when he returned to Avignon, after his father’s death in 1326, he began to join, with Gherardo, the elegant, pleasure loving society of that city where he was sought-after because of his wit and sharp intelligence, as well as his attention for fashionable clothing, apparel, pleasant conversation and superficial love affairs. Many years later, in a letter to Gherardo, he evoked this time of youthful distraction with words of repentance and irony about his behavior.

Without doubt, the episode of this period of his life that was to be more significant in his spiritual experience and was destined to influence deeply his poetical work was his love for Laura that he met for the first time in the church of St. Claire, on April 6, 1327.

It is by now commonly believed that Laura’s identity escapes most attempts of historical definition. Even Petrarch’s poems do not give a precise “image” of ← xiv | xv → her but see her as a literary figure related to the various spiritual states of mind of the writer. Sapegno suggests that it will suffice to believe that Laura’s love was a real episode in the poet’s life, although it raised some doubts even among his contemporaries.

Love and vanity did not mould his entire life, however, if it is true that since that time he made careful plans in order to secure for himself an honorable and tranquil life style by assuming limited ecclesiastical duties. At the same time, he was expanding his knowledge through a sedulous study of the classics, particularly Cicero, Virgil, Livy and the Fathers of the Church, predominantly Saint Augustine, while avoiding the Scholastic writers that had played such a major role in Dante’s intellectual background.

Petrarch’s connection with the church grew in importance from 1330, when he established very friendly ties with the powerful Colonna, Giacomo, in particular, who was the bishop of Lombez and with whom he spent the summer of that year on a vacation journey near the Pyrenees, and then with cardinal Giovanni, Giacomo’s brother, in whose household he resided as a family chaplain.

In 1333 he traveled extensively through northern France, Flanders and southern Germany, driven by a natural desire to know new things and his innate restlessness that wearied him of every land or event that occurred in his existence, unable to find peace, thirsting for novelty and perhaps hopeful to divert his mind from his passion for Laura.

Finally, in 1336, he could return to Italy and visit Rome, in the early part of the following year, where he was able to admire the sacred vestiges of the ancient monuments and the symbols of the Christian faith.

When he was back in Avignon in 1337, after a protracted journey where it seems he visited Spain and England, he secluded himself in a small house not too far from Avignon, at Vaucluse, a lovely, shady place bathed by the river Sorgue. A desire of solitude drove him away from the life of ease and corruption of Avignon and the burden of his passion, while a strong drive to cultivate his cherished studies, the planning of original works of a vast scope and an anxious urge to remove himself from worldly matters seemed to him to be the best way to seek his spiritual salvation. As his writings show, a serious moral and religious crisis had begun for the Aretine and created a conflict between the eternal and the transient, the world and God that affected so deeply his literary works and lasted nearly all his life without ever reaching a final stage of conversion.

In 1336, he climbed Mt. Ventoux in the company of his brother Gherardo. At a certain point, he opened at random St. Augustine’s Confessions, a book that he frequently carried with himself, and found words that seemed to refer to his spiritual condition, “… men go and admire the heights of the mountains, the large waves of the sea, the vast, flowing rivers, the immensity of the ocean and the ← xv | xvi → movements of the stars, yet they neglect themselves,” He then had become indignant at himself for indulging in an excessive admiration of earthly things whereas he should have learned even from the pagan philosophers that nothing is marvelous except the soul.

He found it arduous, however, to subdue his ambition for honors, desire of glory and carnal passions and even more difficult it was to set aside his cultural and literary dreams. From this condition stemmed the constant swaying of his thoughts and the moral uneasiness that are at once the signs of his weakness but also the marks of human dignity as they appear in his abundant confessions.

In 1337, he became the father of a child who originated from a superficial affair. He named him Giovanni and six years later, in similar circumstances, he had a daughter, Francesca.

In September 1340, he received the offers to be crowned poet from both Paris and Rome. He opted for Rome and after being examined for three days by King Robert in Naples, he was solemnly crowned with laurel in Rome’s Capitol by senator Orso dell’Anguillara.

The conversion of his brother Gherardo who became a monk in the Charterhouse of Montrieux in April 1343, acted powerfully on Petrarch’s conscience. As in the case of Gherardo, also in his mind there came a deep crisis, more complicated, however, and devoid of a practical solution. Evidence of it remains in the invocations to God in his Psalmi penitentiales (that Sapegno defines as true passionate and anguished prayers to God for help with his tumultuous feelings) and in his Secretum.

From 1343 a series of frequent journeys saw the poet in Naples, Parma, Modena, Bologna and Verona; then in Vaucluse, Parma, Verona, Ferrara, Padua and Mantua. In 1348 he learned of Laura’s death that occurred on April 6 during the great plague that swept through Europe. He suffered also other personal losses such as the death of his influential protector, Cardinal Colonna and several friends, among whom the poet Sennuccio del Bene. These events could only increase his sadness and world-weariness and burdened his mind with the inanity of material things and the disastrous consequences of sinning. After another stay in Avignon, he returned to Italy in 1353, where he remained, except for a few brief periods, till the end of his life.


XXI, 256
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (December)
Italy Renaissance Trecento
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. XXI, 256 pp.

Biographical notes

Natalino Sapegno (Author)

Vincenzo Traversa, a United States citizen born and educated in Italy, has taught Italian language and literature at UCLA, Stanford University, and the University of Kansas. He holds a doctorate in English language and literature from the University of Naples and a PhD in Romance languages and literatures from UCLA. Traversa is Professor Emeritus of Italian and Humanities at California State University, East Bay, where he served as chairman of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures for thirteen years. His works include Parola e Pensiero; Idioma in Prospettiva; Frequency Dictionary of Italian Words (coauthor); Racconti di Alberto Moravia; Luigi Capuana: Critic and Novelist; The «Laude» in the Middle Ages (Peter Lang, 1994); Giovanni Boccaccio, Theseid of the Nuptials of Emilia (Teseida delle nozze di Emilia) (Peter Lang, 2002); and Three Italian Epistolary Novels: Foscolo, De Meis, Piovene – Translations, Introductions, and Backgrounds (Peter Lang, 2005). He was awarded the title of Knight in the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic and was also honored in the 2000 edition of Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers.


Title: A Literary History of the Fourteenth Century
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