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Petrarch and Laura: 1327-1348

In the year 1327, on April 6, in a church in Avignon, Petrarch first sees Laura, the beautiful young woman with whom he falls deeply and forever in love. Or so he tells us.

Nothing is known about Laura apart from the hints given in Petrarch's Rime, his collection of 366 poems analyzing and lamenting (more often than indulging) his passion for her. Scholars have written countless tomes trying to identify her with historical Lauras of the period. Others have argued that she is a poetic fiction, invented to give flesh to the bones of a theme which much exercises Petrarch - the conflicting demands of human love and the love of God, or experience and purity.

If Petrarch has invented Laura, he sees his creative fantasy through to the bitter end. In the terrible plague year of 1348, Laura dies on the 6th day of April - twenty-one years to the day after his first glimpse of her in the Avignon church. Her death, even if fictional, prolongs and deepens the crisis of Petrarch's distant love for her. Of the Rime 263 are written during Laura's life and the other 103 after her death.

Perhaps the most likely scenario is that Laura is a real person, not necessarily of that name (and not necessarily dying in 1348), with whom the poet has an intense platonic friendship. Either way, Laura has come to rank with Beatrice as the most famous examples in literature of poetic love.

Boccaccio: 1328-1348

Boccaccio, son of a rich merchant of Florence, is sent as a young man in about 1328 to study commerce and law in Naples. He moves in the commercial world of the city and also in court circles, where he finds himself among devoted admirers of Petrarch. Petrarch later has a profound influence on Boccaccio. But economic hardship brings an earlier change in his life.

His father loses his fortune in the failure of the Bardi bank. During the 1340s Boccaccio is recalled home. He is never again free of financial problems, though he plays a distinguished part in the public life of Florence.

Boccaccio is in Florence in 1348 when the Black Death reaches the city. The disaster gives him the framework for his greatest work, the Decameron. By that time he already has a reputation as a writer in various traditions of courtly romance. Il Filostrato (of about 1338) is a poem on the love of Troilo and Criseida, a favourite medieval story and the inspiration, through Boccaccio, of Chaucer's first masterpiece.

Il Filocolo (c.1336) is a more significant work in Boccaccio's development. It uses various devices (such as a party where the guests debate 'Thirteen Questions of Love') to frame a collection of stories. This theme is carried to much more ambitious lengths in the Decameron.

Decameron: 1349-1351

The pretext for Boccaccio's Decameron is the flight of seven young women and three young men from plague-stricken Florence in 1348. They spend two weeks together in various country villas. Ten of the days are passed in story-telling - giving the work its title (from the Greek deca ten, hemera day). On each day each guest tells one story, bringing to 100 the total in the collection.

The tales are in prose. Some derive from folklore and legend; some are comic and scurrilous, in the mood of French medieval tales known as fabliaux; some adopt the high romantic tone of another French tradition, that of courtly love. All have the added flavour of Boccaccio's quick-witted urban background.

The stories are loosely grouped according to subject matter or tone - thanks to the fictional device of a different member of the party being king or queen for the day, with power to direct the proceedings.

Boccaccio's collection has lasting literary influence. Later writers dip into it for their material (Keats' Isabella, or the Pot of Basil, for example, is one of Boccaccio's tales). The framework is later improved upon by Chaucer whose Canterbury pilgrims, telling stories which reflect their varied origins and characters, come more vividly alive than Boccaccio's rich young Florentines.

The Italian epic romance: 1487-1581

For a century, from the 1480s, the Italians take over the romantic tradition pioneered in France. Most of the French authors have used Arthurian legends for their tales of epic chivalry. The Italians now go back to Charlemagne's paladins for their subject matter, following the earliest French example (the Chanson de Roland). But they place these semi-historical characters in settings of magic and of amorous encounter more characteristic of the Arthurian stories.

The result is two epics of complex and fantastic adventure which again take for their hero Roland, now transformed into the Italian Orlando.

The first of the two is Boiardo's Orlando Innamorato (Roland in Love), published in two parts in 1487. It tells of the havoc caused by a beautiful pagan princess, Angelica, who suddenly appears among thousands of Charlemagne's knights gathered for a tournament in Paris. Many of them fall in love with her, but none more fully than Orlando. They begin fighting among themselves, thus fulfilling Angelica's ulterior motive - which is to render the knights helpless against the besieging Saracens.

Boiardo dies before finishing the third part of his poem. Lodovico Ariosto takes up the challenge of continuing the epic story.

Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (Roland Mad) is even more fantastical than Boiardo's tale, but it treats the material with greater detachment and irony. Among other complex events, Roland goes mad when Angelica abandons him. His wits are eventually found on the moon - where a friend recovers them after flying there in Elijah's chariot with St John as his guide.

Ariosto uses the trappings of romance and fantasy as a poetic vehicle for his own comments and speculations (much as Rabelais does, a generation later, in prose). The result is a work of great sophistication which becomes an immediate success throughout Europe. Orlando Furioso appears first in 1516 and then, in a longer version, in 1532.

In 1581 there is published in Italy a third epic romance, very different in style from its predecessors. Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Liberated) deals with the capture of Jerusalem by the crusaders in 1099.

The context is therefore more historical than the legends of Charlemagne and his paladins, though much of the plot still involves the amorous intrigues associated with romantic epic. The real difference is that Tasso rejects the sprawling poetic freedom taken for granted by Ariosto, and attempts to give his work some measure of classical restraint.

Tasso is keenly interested in literary theory and in the supposed rules for poetry outlined in Aristotle's Poetics. The Unities specified for drama (formulated in an Italian work of 1570) do not apply so strictly in epic, but Gerusalemme Liberata has a central plot which is limited to a few months during 1099.

Italians of the late 16th-century engage in passionate debate on literary principles, with Tasso and Ariosto taken as the champions of those arguing respectively for and against classical unity. Meanwhile the combined example of the two poets inspires others in Europe, such as Edmund Spenser, to persevere with the somewhat archaic form of the romantic epic.

This History is as yet incomplete.

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