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entry Oct 2007

(Not even close to) Everything You Ever Wanted to Know... about the Sicilian School, the ritmo cassinese, and the beginnings of vernacular literature in Italy, including Neapolitan.

Dante Alighieri (statue in Naples)
Between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and about the year 1000, there existed in Europe a kind of “universal Catholic culture” (a phrase used by a number of sources); it was sustained by the official and scholarly use of Latin, even in the face of vernacular (meaning “of the people”) languages that were developing throughout the territories of the former Empire. These vernacular tongues would one day be known as Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, etc.—i.e., the large family of modern “Romance” languages. It is not surprising that residual Latin should have remained strongest in Italy, at the center of the empire, even as that empire disintegrated. Even the Lombards, the “barbarian” invaders who had invaded Italy many centuries earlier (569 AD) quickly absorbed both the religion (Christianity) and the language (Latin) of the territory they had subjugated. Thus, in Italy, the appearance of literature recognizable as early Italian comes about a century later than similar literature in early French or early Spanish (here, using for comparison the years 1150-1200, when both La Chanson de Roland for French and El Cantar de Mio Cid for Spanish appeared).
Italian high school students who study the history of their own language will generally tell you that Francis of Assissi’s Canticle of the Sun—the beginning of which reads: Altissimu, onnipotente bon Signore,/Tue so' le laude, la gloria e l'honore et onne benedictione…— is among the “first works of literature written in the Italian language.” A moment’s reflection, however, reveals that to be circular reasoning. Since there was no Italian language in 1225, when that poem was written, it couldn’t have been written “in Italian.” That statement is really shorthand for something like, “written in a vernacular neo-Latin dialect (Umbrian) that was very close to the Tuscan variety of Dante’s Divine Comedy (finished around 1320) that then became the basis for modern Italian.”

In that same period between 500 and 1000—after the Empire, but while Latin and classical traditions were officially being kept alive in Italy—the peninsula was also very much alive with popular traditions and vernacular language in the form of story-tellers, improvisational troupes of actors, popular celebrations of religious festivals, etc.  Almost none of this was written down (or, at least, written down and handed down to us), but there is enough from around the year 1200 to prove the concept that the common language of the common people could produce real literature.

The Ritmo Cassinese

In the mid-1100s, there are examples in various parts of Italy of written language that may be seen as “early Italian.” One of the best-known of these is the so-called ritmo cassinese. “Ritmo” (rhythm) refers to the rhyming scheme of the lines of verse; “cassinese” is the adjective from “Cassino,” meaning the abbey of Monte Cassino where the document was found and still resides. It is a lay allegorical poem written at the end of the twelfth century in what many commentators call “Apulian” dialect; in the context of Italy of the year 1200, that meant “Southern.”

The Sicilian School

That term refers to the poets who, in the mid-1200s, produced the first body of literature in a more or less uniform vernacular Italian. The term is also misleading since it might be mistaken to mean that the language was what today we would call “Sicilian dialect.” That was not the case; Dante reminds us in his famous defense of vernacular language, De Vulgari Eloquentia (finished around 1305), that “…the royal throne was in Sicily…[thus]… whatever our predecessors wrote in the vulgar tongue was called Sicilian.”  Thus, the poets of the “Sicilian School” were not necessarily present in Sicily; “school” refers to the poetry, itself, produced over a much broader area, including Tuscany, and influencing later generations of Italian poets and authors, including Dante. Holy Roman emperor, Frederick II, from his court in Sicily purposefully guided the choice of a more central Italian dialect for the “school” in an attempt to strengthen his influence on that part of Italy and to create a pan-Italian language—an imperial language, if you will—as opposed to the “universal Catholic” Latin. This happened in the middle of the Guelf-Ghibelline clashes over the power of the empire versus the power of the Church and reflected Fredrick’s hostility towards the Church.

(I am glossing over a debate about the traditional view that vernacularization in 1200-1300 in Italy was a manifestation of a new pre-Renaissance spirit of freedom against the authority of the church. Indeed, some authors (Kristeller, bibliography below) point out that vernacular language was often promoted in the most backward feudal courts while Latin was promoted in free republics such as Venice.)

Thus, in the mid-1200s, poets (including Frederick II, himself) produced a body of love poems largely derived from the earlier tradition of poetry in Provence. One member of the school, Giacomo da Lentini is credited by scholars with inventing the sonnet, a literary form later perfected by Petrarch. The last important poet of the school was Guido delle Colonne (d. after 1288), who was also the author of the Latin prose work Historia Trojana and who was praised by both Dante and Chaucer. By the last 25 years of the 1200s, a number of regional dialects had thus been adjusted towards a central Italian variety in the search of a vehicle for literature.

Dante’s De Vulgari Eloquentia was revolutionary in defending the common everyday language of the people. (Amusingly, he had to write it in Latin; in other words, “Stop writing in this language you are now reading.”)  Yet, it was also a simple recognition of what had already been going on for almost a century—a standard vernacular language had coalesced around the dialect of Tuscany, and Dante recognized that. (Note, however, that both Dante and his great admirer, Boccaccio, felt Latin to be superior to the vernacular. For example, Boccaccio praised Dante’s decision to write the Commedia in the volgare for the benefit of his fellow citizens who had been “abandoned by the learned,” but, at the same time, Boccaccio also says in his Comment of the Comedy that the work would have been “richer and more sublime” in Latin (in Gravelle, below). Boccaccio, of course, chose vernacular Tuscan (with some portions in other dialects, including Neapolitan) for his own Decameron finished around 1353).

Dante was certainly not modest about his own role in the formation of modern Italian; not only does he put himself in the company of Virgil and even Homer (Purgatorio, canto 4) in the Divina Comedia, he cites himself (Purgatorio, canto 24) as one of the founders of the Dolce Stil Novo ("sweet new style"), the literary movement that helped shape the future language of Italy. Surely, some reactionary literary critic in mid-1300s (yes, they have always existed!) must have thought, Just who does this Dante Alighieri fellow think he is?!


In his recorded anthology of the Neapolitan Song, Roberto Murolo (below) presents “Canto delle lavandale del Vomero” (Song of the Washerwomen of Vomero) from ca. 1200 as the first example of a song text handed down to us in the Neapolitan vernacular:

Tu m’aje prommiso quatto moccatore
Oje moccatore. Oje moccatore
Io sò benuto se, io so benuto
Se me lo vuò dare,
me lo vuò dare...etc.

It is not remarkable that such early texts come down to us in many dialects throughout Italy. It is another question, however, from whether or not there is traceable literature from the same period. Unfortunately, there is a considerable gap in our knowledge of Neapolitan as a literary language after the appearance of early “Italian” (which was still called “Tuscan” in some cases as late as 1700!). It is not until the late 1400s that a number of names appear in Naples: primarily Pier Antonio Caracciolo, mentioned in various sources as a “dialect” poet, and his contemprary
Jacopo Sannazzaro (1458-1539). Apparently, nothing has survived of the works of Caracciolo, and we know him from secondary mention alone. Sannazzaro, on the other hand, is known as one who wrote primarily in both Latin and “vernacular Tuscan.” 

Thus, it seems that for the two centuries between the Divine Comedy and 1500, there must been have a conscious decision on the parts of authors to choose either “Tuscan” or “dialect”, depending on the circumstances)—which is also to say that dialect was not overwhelmed by a standardized Italian, not in Naples, nor anywhere in Italy. And that is to say that regions in Italy have always existed—and continue to exist—in what linguists call a state of “diglossia”—i.e. the use of different varieties of the same language depending on social and political circumstances (including prestige, usually attached to the standard literary version). By 1600, dialect in Naples was firmly entrenched as a vehicle for literature, poetry and theater. For example, Giambattista Basile’s (1575-1632) Il Pentamerone (in dialect) is the first published collection of European fairy tales. With some fluctuation, depending on the age, Neapolitan has remained a strong literary language since that time.



  • Cosgrove, William. “The Vernacularization of Science, Medicine, and Technology in Late Medieval Europe: Broadening our Perspectives” in Early Science and Medicine, vol. 5, no. 1 (2000).
  • Gravelle, Sarah Stever. “The Latin-Vernacular Question and Humanist Theory of Language and Culture” in Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 49, no. 3 (July-Sept. 1988).
  • Hall, Marguerite. “The Old Italian Ritmo Cassinese” in Modern Language Notes, vol. 69, no. 8. Dec. 1954.
  • Haller, Hermann W. The Other Italy: The Literary Canon in Dialect. Toronto Italian Studies. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. (Reviewed by Frank Nuessel in Italica, vol. 78, no. 2, (2001).
  • Haller, Herman W. “The Teaching of Italian Dialects and Italian Literautre” in Italica, vol. 57, no. 3 (Pedagogy), (1980).
  • In Search of Italian Theater. Ed. by Joseph Farrell and Paolo Puppa. Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Kristellar, Paul Oscar. “The Origin and Development of the Language of Italian Prose” in Renaissance Thought, 2, New York, 1965.
  • “Canto delle lavandale del Vomero” (anon.) in Napoletana, Antologia Cronologica della Canzone Partenope, vol. 1,  presented by Roberto Murolo; Durium LP ms AI 77069.
  • Vaughn, Herbert H. “The Importance of the Dialect in Italy” in Italica, vol 5, no. 3. Sept. 1928.
  • Viviani, Vittorio. “L’anonimo cassinese” and “Pier Antonio Caracciolo” in Storia del Teatro Napoletano, Guida Editore Napoli, 1969.
  • Weiss, R. “Links between the ‘Convivio’ and the ‘De Vulgare Eloquentia’ in The Modern Language Review, vol. 37, no. 2, April, 1942.

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