Bellissimo! The Italian Language and European Culture

Posted on August 15, 2015 · Posted in Translation History

What, seriously, have the Romans ever done for us? Well, it’s no coincidence that the word “romance” looks suspiciously similar to the word “Roman”. By marching all over Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, subjugating/civilizing the local inhabitants from Babylon to Portugal, they managed to spread the Latin language (or more specifically, Vulgar Latin) to huge numbers of disparate populations. The Romance languages today, linguistic descendants of Vulgar Latin, are often so similar that it’s frequently claimed that speakers of Italian and Spanish can understand each other.

In reality, that’s something of an exaggeration, though many words and grammatical features are shared. The Latin roots of many of Europe’s languages have assisted with the spreading and sharing of culture across the centuries, and the Italian language has been at the heart of this process. The next time you hear someone say “I love Italian – it’s so romantic”, you can point out to them that they’re literally correct.

Standardizing the Language

Today, Italian is thought of as the modern language that’s closest to Latin. As languages are constantly evolving, it’s usually quite difficult to find a starting point, but sometimes a work survives that at least formalizes in writing what would have been a developing spoken language. Dante’s “Divine Comedy” (finished in 1320) was written in the dialect of Florence, Tuscany’s capital, and was read all over what is now Italy. Tuscan, descended from Latin, and thus became the standard for the Italian language; Italy’s origins as a collection of separate city-states, however, are preserved in the varying dialects and pronunciations that are still used across the country.

Linguistic Foundations

By the time of the Renaissance, the fact that there was a more-or-less standard Italian language, centered on Tuscany and in particular Florence, gave the huge cultural achievements of the period a foundation from which they could spread, first across the country and ultimately across all of Europe. Initially, however, there was some argument about how Italian should be refined, in both written and spoken forms. Some claimed that the language used by real people from day to day was preferable; others wanted to create a standard which incorporated dialects from many differing regions; “purists” argued that the standard should be based on the classics by Petrarch (late 14th century) and others, and by 1612, the first official dictionary of the language had been published – the purists had won.

Roots of Rebirth

The paths (both literal and metaphorical) laid across Europe by the Romans allowed the flowering of Renaissance culture to spread. Ancient Greek philosophy and art was rediscovered and celebrated, and Italian literature, painting, sculpture and architecture flourished as the “rebirth” took hold. One reason often given for the roots of the Italian Renaissance is the aftermath of the Black Death. Vast numbers of people had perished across the continent, leading ultimately to a smaller but better-paid workforce. At the same time, the Catholic church, which had once held huge power, began to decline in influence when people realized that neither God nor the clergy could protect them from the ravages of the plague. Humanist ideas were the basis of much Renaissance thought, and the combination of a European population with cash to spend, and the promulgation of increasingly popular ideas in works such as Machiavelli’s “The Prince” (1532) were central to the success of Europe’s cultural revolution.

The Prince

The meaning of, and intent behind “The Prince” has been argued over for centuries. The work describes the actions and (un)ethical decisions that need to be taken by successful rulers, using real Italian examples from close to Niccolo Machiavelli’s time. On the surface, it’s a manual for tyrants, but it can be read as a satire on politicians and leaders, or even as a manual for working people on how to spot, and deal with, those that oppress them. However you interpret it, it’s undoubtedly one of the most important and influential early books to have been written in the Italian language.

The Decameron

The horrific folk-memory of the Black Death also influenced another major figure in Renaissance Italian writing – Giovanni Boccacio. The “Decameron”, completed in the mid 1300’s, centers on ten survivors of the epidemic who escape the city – Florence – and tell each other ten stories each over the course of two weeks. Love, sex, and the tricky relationships between men and women are examined, as is the fallibility of the clergy and the difficulties of real-world ethics. Intelligence and wit is prized; stupidity is mocked. The themes are varied, very human, and often humorous, and the Decameron was to become hugely influential, with both Shakespeare and Chaucer reworking many of the plots, ideas and characters for their own writing.

Musical Renaissance

The cultural earthquake of the Italian Renaissance also affected music, and today, Italian is still the language of the classical form. The word “piano” is a contraction of “pianoforte”, Italian for “quiet-loud”; tempo (another Italian word) and other descriptions in musical notation are in Italian, from “a capella” (voice only, or unaccompanied) to “vivace” (lively), and from “adagio” (slowly) to “vigoroso” (you can probably guess that one). As well as the huge talent of Renaissance composers and musicians, the development of musical notation coupled with printing advances all helped to spread new musical ideas. The new humanism played a part as well, as non-ecclesiastical musical forms became more acceptable to a wider audience.

Secularism and Music

Northern European composers were at the forefront of religious music in the 15th and early 16th centuries, and many of them brought their talents and innovations to Italy. At the same time, Italian madrigals, or secular songs, composed by de Rore and Monteverdi amongst others, proved wildly popular and were distributed all over the continent. But the mechanics of music – the instruments themselves – also underwent a revolution in Italy. The violin and various keyboard instruments were among many to be refined during the period.

Today, it’s estimated that around 85 million people worldwide speak Italian, with significant populations in South America (particularly Argentina), New York and surrounding areas, and Sydney, as well as across the ancient territories of the Roman Empire. The development of a standardized Italian language provided a basis for the eventual formation of a nation in the 19th century – as well as the rebirth of philosophy, science and art that began there, 500 years earlier.