vulgari eloquentia, De


vulgari eloquentia, De
(Eloquence in the vernacular tongue)
   by Dante Alighieri
(ca. 1304–1305)
   DANTE’s De vulgari eloquentia is an unfinished Latin treatise in which the poet argues that it is appropriate to write literature concerning serious topics— such as war, love, and virtue—in the vernacular Italian language. Thus it is an important text in Dante’s attempt to give theoretical justification for his use of Italian, rather than Latin, to compose his magnum opus, the DIVINE COMEDY.While this may seem of little importance to a modern reader, it must be remembered that in the European Middle Ages, a literary work with aspirations to high aesthetic seriousness would, prior to Dante, almost certainly be composed in Latin.
   Along with his CONVIVIO, one of the first important works Dante produced after his exile from Florence in 1302, De vulgari eloquentia was conceived of as a study in four books dealing with the origin and the history of language and then discussing the poetic forms and literary styles possible in the vernacular language. He chose to write the thesis in Latin to persuade the more conservative elements in his audience.
   The theme of De vulgari eloquentia is one that had concerned Dante for some time. In the 25th chapter of his VITA NUOVA (1295), itself written in the vernacular, he had defended the use of Italian for love poetry, and claimed for the vernacular poet the legitimate use of the same rhetorical figures common to writers in Latin. In the first book of the Convivio, a philosophical work written in Italian, Dante announces his intention of writing a small treatise concerning eloquence in the vernacular language. This suggests that Dante had not yet written De vulgari eloquentia by the time he had started the Convivio; however, it is likely that he began work on De vulgari eloquentia while he worked on the Convivio. He seems to have abandoned both works by 1307, devoting himself more fully to his Divine Comedy.
   Thus, of the four projected books of De vulgari eloquentia, only two exist, and the second is incomplete, breaking off in the middle of a discussion of the structure of a poetic stanza. In Book 1 Dante first makes a distinction between what he calls locutio prima or natural language, and locutio secundria, or gramatica, the language studied in school (Latin). He asserts that the nobler language is the primary one, because it is more natural, it is universal (everyone has one, whether they have attended school or not, and because it would have been the language spoken by human beings in paradise). This leads Dante to consider the origins of language, and he goes on to claim that Adam (not, as the Bible would have it, Eve) spoke the first word, and that it must have been the name of God. Dante sees the destruction of linguistic unity that occurred at the Tower of Babel as still going on, and he discusses the 14 different dialects of Italian spoken in his own day. He considers, as well, vernacular literature in French and Provençal, discussing some of the more impressive TROUBADOUR poets. He asks what language is best for literary composition, and argues that the ideal language does not exist, but must be forged by poets themselves in their verse, and he gives some guidelines for this ideal language that he refers to as the “illustrious vernacular.”
   In the second book of De vulgari eloquentia, Dante provides an incomplete treatise on the “art of poetry.” Here Dante argues that the highest form of poetry, and the most appropriate for lofty literary subjects, is the long lyric form called the CANZONE. In the midst of his discussion of metrical aspects of the canzone, Dante breaks off, and never completes his text.
   Dante abandoned his treatise on the “vulgar tongue,” just as he abandoned the Convivio, on which he was apparently working at the same time, in favor of his Comedy, the first installment of which (the Inferno) was completed in 1307. Though he seems not to have intended the incomplete text to be widely circulated, it has survived in four manuscripts, one from the 14th century, and an Italian translation of the text was printed in the early 16th century. Just why Dante never finished his text is a matter for debate, but it is true that in the Comedy, Dante’s prime example of sublime poetry in the vernacular, he breaks many of the rules for the “illustrious vernacular” that he had proposed in De vulgari eloquentia—he uses a number of words in the comedy that he had advised against in the earlier work, words that were quite appropriate for the style of “comedy” as opposed to tragedy.
   Bibliography
   ■ Dante Alighieri. De Vulgari Eloquentia. Edited and translated by Steven Botterill. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
   ■ Shapiro, Marianne. De Vulgari Eloquentia: Dante’s Book of Exile. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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