500 Years of Italian Grammar(s), Culture, and Society in Italy and Europe: From Fortunio’s Regole (1516) to the Present

A new display of books in the University Library (in the exhibition cases outside of the Tea Room and Map Room) traces the development of the Italian grammatical production over the centuries by means of a selection of grammar texts. This post describes the books, which will be on display until the end of next week.

2016 will mark the 500th anniversary of the publication of the first printed grammar of the Italian language, the Regole grammaticali della volgar lingua (1516) by Giovan Francesco Fortunio (1470 c.-1517). A study day, organised by Dr Helena Sanson (University of Cambridge/Clare College) and Dr Francesco Lucioli (Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Neo-Latin Studies) will be held on 10 December 2015, at Downing College, Music room (9am-5pm), to celebrate the occasion, ahead of the actual anniversary in 2016, when a special issue of The Italianist will be published to collect the papers from the event.

The earliest example of a grammar of the vernacular in Italy (of Florentine, more specifically) is Leon Battista Alberti’s Grammatica della lingua fiorentina (also called Grammatichetta vaticana, c. 1437-1441), which had nonetheless little influence in the Italian grammatical production, because the text remained buried in a single manuscript copy and lost for centuries. The first printed grammar of the Italian tradition is Giovan Francesco Fortunio’s Regole grammaticali della volgar lingua, published in Ancona in 1516. This is a normative grammar of Tuscan based on the linguistic example of the great fourteenth-century authors: Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio.

In the sixteenth century the vernacular established itself as a language of prestige and culture alongside Latin. Italy’s linguistic fragmentation into several different vernaculars, used in every day life in speaking, meant that the grammatical tradition was born at the beginning of the sixteenth century in particular through the efforts of non-Tuscan men of letters who prepared these linguistic instruments for themselves as a means to master the language of the great Tuscan writers.

In the seventeenth century grammar production was overshadowed by the publication of the Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca (1612) and by the rich production of polemical writings—in favour or against the Crusca with its focus on Florentine and Florentine writers—that ensued. Meanwhile, a particular trend was represented by the grammars of Italian for foreigners, which is evidence of the literary prestige and of the spread of Italian abroad. Contemporary Italian authors were translated and read abroad. In these circumstances the first grammars of Italian written in other European languages found a ready market.

From the last decades of the seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth century, the influence of French was gaining more and more ground across Europe, reinforcing in Italy the Purist tradition that upheld and defended the purity of fourteenth century Tuscan against outside corruption. But the influence of French also meant a wider circulation of new words and ideas, with the more cosmopolitan approach going hand in hand with a renewed awareness of Italy’s rich cultural and historical tradition. Nonetheless, the specific character of Italy’s situation meant that competence in Italian could not come naturally and required, instead, study (above all of its grammar). Italian was still an uncertain tool of expression and, outside Tuscany (and, to a certain extent, Rome) was seldom and badly spoken.

The percentage of Italophones at the time of unification, in 1861, amounted to 2.5% of the population, and the different dialects continued to be the real mother tongues. The expansion of the printing market after unification contributed to the increase in grammars and to the development and renewal of teaching and learning methods. The newly created Kingdom of Italy made elementary schooling compulsory for both girls and boys and in the absence of a commonly used spoken language, school programmes gave great emphasis to grammar teaching. Knowledge of grammar was considered essential in order to gain at least a rudimentary knowledge of the now ‘national’ tongue.

– Dr Helena Sanson and Dr Francesco Lucioli

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