A page from the "Poetry through the Ages" exhibit...

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The Italian heart.

The earliest examples of the canzone and canzonetta show an obsession with the subject of love, the emotional underpinnings of the Western world’s most explosive creative expansions, just as 13th century poetry began the Renaissance.

From Canzonetta: A Bitter Song to His Lady
Pier Moronelli di Fiorenza (mid-13th century)

O lady amorous,

Merciless lady,
Fully blithely play’d ye
These your beguilings.
So with an urchin
A man makes merry,–
In mirth grows clamorous,
Laughs and rejoices,–
But when the choice is
To fall aweary,
Cheats him with silence.
This is Love’s portion:–
In much wayfaring
With many burdens
He loads his servants,
But at the sharing,
The underservice
And overservice
Are alike barren.

From Of the Gentle Heart

Guido Guinicelli (c. 1225-1276)

Within the gentle heart Love shelters him

As birds within the green shade of the grove.
Before the gentle heart, in nature’s scheme,
Love was not, nor the gentle heart ere Love.
For with the sun, at once,
So sprang the light immediately; nor was
Its birth before the sun’s.
And Love has his effect in gentleness
Of very self; even as
Within the middle fire the heat’s excess.

The fire of Love comes to the gentle heart

Like as its virtue to a precious stone;
To which no star its influence can impart
Till it is made a pure thing by the sun:
For when the sun hath smit
From out its essence that which there was vile
The star endoweth it.
And so the heart created by God’s breath
Pure, true, and clean from guile
A woman, like a star, enamoreth.
From A Lady Asks Me
Guido Cavalcanti (1255-1300)

Because a lady asks me, I would tell

Of an affect that comes often and is fell
And is so overweening: Love, by name.
E'en its deniers can now hear the truth,
I for the nonce to them that know it call,
Having no hope at all
that man who is base in heart
Can bear his part of wit
into the light of it,
And save they know’t aright from nature’s source
I have no will to prove Love’s course
or say
Where he takes rest; who maketh him to be;
Or what his active virtue is, or what his force;
Nay, nor his essence or his mode;
What his placation; why is he in verb,
Or if a man have might
to show him visible to men’s sight.

In memory’s locus taketh he his state

Formed there in manner as a mist of light
Upon a dusk that is come from Mars and stays.
Love is created, hath a sensate name,
His modus takes from soul, from heart his will;
From form seen doth he start, that, understood,
Taketh in latent intellect–
As in a subject ready–
place and abode,
Yet in that place it ever is unstill,
Spreading its rays, it tendeth never down
By quality, but is its own effect unendingly
Not to delight, but in an ardour of thought
That the base likeness of it kindleth not.

Propagating throughout the land.

By the dawn of the 14th century, canzone writers were branching out from neo-platonic love, and writing verse that was contemplative and sad, even elegiac at times. By this time, canzone poets could be found throughout Italy.

His Lament for Selvaggia
Cino da Pistoia (1270-1336)

Ay me, alas! the beautiful bright hair

That shed reflected gold
O'er the green growths on either side of the way:
Ay me! the lovely look, open and fair,
Which my heart’s core doth hold
With all else of that best remembered day;
Ay me! the face made gay
With joy that Love confers;
Ay me! that smile of hers
Where whiteness as of snow was visible
Among the roses at all seasons red!
Ay me! and this was well,
O Death, to let me live when she is dead?

Petrarchian influence.

As he did with the sonnet, Francesco Petrarch grabbed hold of the canzone and systematized its structure. However, Petrarch favored the sonnet, and his variation spread throughout Italy and into England, where it defined 16th century British poetry. In Canzone 128, an angry anti-war piece, Petrarch drifts about as far away from love as any canzone writer who ever lived.

From Canzone 128
Francesco Petrarcha (1304-1374)

O my own Italy! Though words are vain

The mortal wounds to close,
Unnumbered, that thy beauteous bosom stain,
Yet may it soothe my pain
To sigh for Tyber’s woes,
And Arno’s wrongs, as on Po’s saddened shore
Sorrowing I wander, and my numbers pour.
Ruler of heaven! By the all-pitying love
That could thy Godhead move
To dwell a lonely sojourner on earth,
Turn, Lord! On this thy chosen land thine eye:
See, God of Charity!
From what light cause this cruel war has birth;
And the hard hearts by savage discord steeled,
Thou, Father, from on high,
Touch by my humble voice, that stubborn wrath may yield!

Ye, to whose sovereign hands the fates confide

Of this fair land the reins–
(This land for which no pity wrings your breast)–
Why does the stranger’s sword her plains invest?
That her green fields be dyed,
Hope ye, with blood from the Barbarians’ veins?
Beguiled by error weak,
Ye see not, though to pierce so deep ye boast,
Who love, or faith, in venal bosoms seek:
When thronged your standards most,
Ye are encompassed most by hostile bands.
O hideous deluge gathered in strange lands,
That rushing down amain
O'erwhelms our every native lovely plain!
Alas, if our own hands
Have thus our weal betrayed, who shall our cause sustain?