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De vulgari eloquentia


De vulgari Eloquentia
The digression on the vernacular in the first treatise of the Convivio was developed, probably in 1303-04, into the De vulgari eloquentia, a thoroughly original work, planned to include at least four books and to deal with the origins and history of language and the complete range of styles and forms used in vernacular literature. To convince even the most conservative among the literati of the worth of the vernacular and, at the same time, to pay it the ultimate accolade, the analysis is conducted in Latin. The treatise remained unfinished and unpublished, probably overshadowed, like the Convivio, by the dawning of the Commedia. Nevertheless, it is of fundamental importance both for the history of the 'questione della lingua' and for what it reveals of Dante's perspectives on language and style.
The first book begins, astonishingly, by asserting the superiority of the vernacular over Latin (known also as gramatica). To justify his radically unconventional view - the opposite of what he had stated in the Convivio - Dante traces a brief history of human language from the first word ever spoken by Adam (rather than by Eve, as the Bible states) to the building of the Tower of Babel and the ensuing gradual division, subdivision, and, finally, atomisation of idioms which characterise present usage. Dante shows an unprecedented grasp of the historical character of language as a living organism in continuous evolution through time and space. Of the three closely related, Latin-derived languages in Southern Europe (the languages of oc, ol and s"), Italian (the language of s") presents the greatest variety. However, none of its many (at least fourteen) dialects is in itself dignified enough to become the literary language of Italy. Such a language already exists, not as an immanent presence but as a transcendent paradigm to which the best Italian poets strive to conform. It is the 'illustrious vernacular', a literary language free from, and superior to, all municipalisms, and already as fixed as Latin within the ever changing flux of local idioms: effectively, a new gramatica.
The second book is Dante's ars poetica. The illustrious vernacular, he writes, is no mere form but the only language capable of reflecting the writer's moral and intellectual personality. Therefore, it is suitable only for the most excellent poets seeking to express the noblest subjects: arms, love, and rectitude. As to metrical forms, the highest and most convenient for such lofty subjects, and especially for rectitude, is the canzone. The illustrious vernacular and the canzone are essential components of the superior 'tragic' style.
The major logical contradiction of the De vulgari lies in its presentation of the illustrious vernacular as both a historical reality and a transcendent ideal. In his search for a morally and expressively mature model of vernacular eloquence Dante is obliged to repudiate the spoken language in favour of the literary variety employed by the few writers - namely, the Sicilians and the stilnovisti, himself included - who had excelled in the tragic style. He is seeking to find one integrated solution to two discrete orders of problems concerning language as a historical phenomenon, and in terms of salvation history. More specifically, Dante interprets the episode of Babel as the crucial second Fall through which humanity irreparably lost its linguistic paradise. After Babel, all the vernaculars became themselves fallen, corrupt and incapable of fulfilling the primary function of language - universal communication. Gramatica, first as Latin and now as illustrious vernacular, represents the only morally valid response to post-Babelic confusion: an attempt to move back from fragmentation to unity, from the hell of individuality and incommunicability to the paradise of universality and communion. Though intellectually exciting and morally uplifting, this idea was a linguistic dead-end. The De vulgari was interrupted in mid-sentence. More significantly, the illustrious vernacular and the tragic style turned out to be totally inadequate when Dante set out to write his salvation poem. It is an instance, one of many, of how Dante's mind was always ahead of his own experimentation - at least until he successfully attempted that all-inclusive enterprise towards which all his experiments tended and beyond which no further experiment was possible.
The Convivio and the De vulgari eloquentia contain a store of information of the utmost importance for our understanding of Dante's intellectual evolution. Yet they are works which Dante never completed, revised, or published. In Dante's mind, they may well have been entirely superseded by the Commedia in which we find them substantially and repeatedly contradicted. The great poem was like an earthquake in Dante's life. It caused his own final revision of his past: principally, the rejection of the double project Convivio/De vulgari, and probably the writing of a new ending for the Vita Nuova. The cluster of critical problems surrounding the sequence Vita Nuova-Convivio/De vulgari-Commedia is likely to be the result of Dante's attempt to rewrite his past in order to endow his public figure with a unified sense of purpose, a teleology which would prove the extraordinary nature of his artistic calling.
[From L. Pertile, Dante, in The Cambridge History of Italian Literature, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, Revised Edition, 1999]