The true life of Italy -- from Dante to our own time -- is much nearer to the turbulence of Greece than to the official discipline of Rome. Our municipal life is clamorous and agitated, we are full of the daring of the navigators and merchants who find or rediscover the roads of the world (a daring which is renewed today in a more anonymous manner by our emigrants), the spirit of party, the originality of individual temperaments, all this reminds us father of the turbulent Ionic cities than of the solemn scenes of collective life described by Livy.
Yet of this so agitated Italian life the classics of the sixteenth century only speak to deplore' it; almost as though they were ashamed of it. Only the novellieri -- the story-tellers -- delight in it with tranquil serenity.
When one talks of the novellieri one thinks before all of Boccaccio; the Decamerone is even today crowded with Italians of every age. In Boccaccio's own fourteenth century the pomp of the Church is superb, but faith is very weak; it might seem to have exhausted itself in the pure and sacred flame of St. Francis of Assisi in the preceding century; Dante thunders against the "new men and sudden wealth", but Boccaccio belongs to these "new men", he represents them, and moves among them at his ease. Like all Italians, he has learned as a child, the legends and visions that followed the year one thousand, but the Tuscan smile has not left his lips; his serene equilibrium gives him a sovereign indulgence for all human misery and this indulgence he applies with equal impartiality to the market-place and the church, to the cottage and the palace.
Dante sometimes describes with a simple stroke certain types of daily life like the old tailor who struggles with the eye of his needle, but we feel that all his lyrical power really reserves itself for tragic lovers such as Paolo and Francesca, or for a stubborn hero like Farinata. Boccaccio, instead, is all for the common people. If he describes princes, or knights and ladies, his world becomes pale and conventional. But when he brings on the scene merchants, artists or peasants, his prose is always bubbling with life. And then especially in Boccaccio -- notwithstanding the latinized rhythm of his style -- and, with him, in the anonymous stories that preceded him like the Novellino, and in all the succeeding collections of stories in Italian and in dialect, we may follow the long and authentic thread of Italian sentiment.
French story-tellers of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are not more inventive and realist than their predecessors, the Trouvères: almost always it is the usual deceived husband, the same sly wife who makes fools of her husband and her lover. . . . And so on down to La Fontaine: but the serene genius of this poet is concerned rather with human nature than with such typical French scenes.
The art of the Italian novellieri is a counterweight to the tone, sometimes too solemn and abstract, of literature of the highest order. In the novellieri all is a direct echo of the life of the people; just as it is in popular poetry, whether it is the Tuscan "rispetto", the Neapolitan "arietta", or the Sicilian "canzuna".
And like the Sicilian ottava with alternating rhymes -- spontaneous as the life of the people -- the Italian novella is rarely brilliant; only in Boccaccio these stories often present a final phrase that illuminates and wittily illustrates the whole.
French and German tales have a semi-mythological origin. In Italy, stories were very early written with contemporary human types as characters; for instance, in the fifteenth century, Arlotto, a parish priest of the neighbourhood of Florence, famous even today, or Gonnella, the buffoon of the court of Ferrara. Another difference between the Italian novella and that of other countries, is revealed in its essentially national character. In French and German fables -- as today in the Norman stories of Maupassant -- the humour has as its unique end some material advantage or some material pleasure. But behind the humour of Arlotto, as behind that of his successors, such personal ends are altogether lacking; it is indeed art for art's sake. These authors often injure themselves with their devices; they know it, but cannot resist it; what they aim at is a satisfaction of their self-respect. This is still today one of the most vivid traits of the Italian character.
A sceptical tolerance inspires our novellieri and chroniclers in almost all psychological problems. In one instance only are they all without exception unjust and even in this ultra-Italian. They have a double patriotism: love and pride in Italy, and a profound and secret tenderness for their native city. Even Boccaccio, whenever he brings a robber on the scene, a hypocrite or forger, never presents him as a Florentine, but makes him by birth Milanese or Neapolitan.
Four centuries later, we may note a similar love for Venice on the part of Goldoni; his typical liar comes from Naples, the braggart and the miser from other parts of Italy -- never from Venice.
It is only in the novellieri that we find faithfully described one of the most profound characteristics of the Italian people, one which centuries of silent struggles against the powerful and against nature have formed in them: a kind of philosophy, good-natured and resigned, that might appear to a superficial observer to be an almost oriental fatalism, while in fact it is only bitter experience of history, combined with daily practical attempts, silent and untiring, to eliminate the effects of evil and misfortune.