The sonnet, courtly love and renaissance men

Oh the sonnet can be so hard to teach as it comes with a huge great history and life of its own. You kind of need to know that history to fully appreciate it, and that’s the tough bit, because then, even though you know about it, you can’t write about it. Or you don’t need to.

Okay, so here’s the thing. You have to think of Italy and you have to think of France. You have to remember that France considers itself second-to-none. Its signs to Roman architecture say ‘Gallo-Roman’ because as far as the French are concerned, the Gauls had as much to do with it as the Romans. Forget that the Gauls were no different than any of the Celtic tribes in England, Asterix is not the best-selling cartoon for nothing. The French see themselves as a kind of equal partner in this ‘Franco-Roman’ thing. French people like to get cross because most of the rest of the world don’t speak French and they think they should. Living in France, having seen the ins and outs of the French history curriculum, I know that all schoolchildren in France learn all about how important France was. To a Frenchman, French things are far superior to things in the rest of the world.

Take cookery. French people see their food as the best in the world. Sure, Japan has Michelin stars, but French people invented cuisine. According to French people.

Italian people might argue with that, and they’d have a point. The French laugh at English ‘cuisine’ and German food and English chefs. However, they tolerate Italian stuff. They actually accept it’s pretty good. Likewise with fashion. French people like to think they are the most cultured in the world, and will grudgingly accept the Italians as less-than-but-acceptable.

Italian people laugh at English ‘cuisine’ and German food and English chefs, too. However, they tolerate French stuff. They actually accept that it’s pretty good. Ask an Italian what he wouldn’t mind being if being Italian did not exist, and he might say ‘French’.

Here’s an example. A French friend of mine lived in Italy. She had an argument on a bus with an old lady, who was absolutely adamant Italian food was better than French. In the end, my friend gave in, but not without telling me that ‘I just realised I’d never convince her that French food is the best of course. Poor, deluded woman.’

So… picture the Italian Renaissance – the ‘re-birth’ of Italy. Why a re-birth? Because after Rome collapsed, what was there? Pretty much nothing. They were overrun by tribes like the Visigoths and Vikings got big and important and what once was Rome needed to pull itself back together again to become a mighty empire.

And it did. It was the first European country to do so.

Music, art, literature… The Italians cornered the market.

Ask yourself, what is the most famous painting in the world?

If you didn’t say the Mona Lisa, you’re not very well informed about famous paintings. But I’d bet any money you said the Mona Lisa.

And the Mona Lisa, an Italian painting in a French art gallery, painted by an Italian who died in France.

So what do you have to understand?

Firstly, Italy wasn’t a nation. It was a set of city-states and smaller nations. Like imagine if Manchester decided to rule itself and it was no longer part of England. Not only that, but whilst the rest of Europe languished under a feudal system, like this one in Monty Python, Italy’s city-states had an awful lot more merchants.

And that’s something to think about.

First, most people were either landed gentry or peasants. Usually. And the landed gentry were good at taking taxes, building big castles and gathering up all the men to go off to far away wars. The peasants were good at rooting about in fields. Generally, though, between dying in wars and growing kingdoms, there wasn’t much time for reading and whatnot.

Anyway, having a city state means there’s less feudalism and more capitalism. More cash.

And Italy is at the crossroads of Europe.

For the last 200 years, we’ve been trekking across Europe to fight in Turkey in the Crusades. And Italy is right there on the crossroads. The first, in 1096, unites England, France and Italy who go and fight off the First Crusade to win back Jerusalem. And we keep doing it until 1192 when we finally put down swords.

But during that time, the city-states of Italy have been getting richer and more competitive. Imagine if someone made London a country, and Manchester a country, and the competition that would go on between them. It was the same.

So, by the time of the Renaissance, Italy is rich, competitive and ready to get creative. It’s filled with rich merchants who’ve got money to spend and who want to show off. There wasn’t really a beginning or end to the Italian Renaissance, but there were definitely busy periods.

So what did the Renaissance bring?

It brought literature and poetry. It brought Petrarch and Boccaccio, giants of the literary world. Say Shakespeare and everybody knows who you mean. Petrarch should, by rights, have a similar reputation. Born in 1304, he was a poet, scholar and diplomat. He starts writing his great works in 1327. Boccaccio writes his epics in about 1351. Dante’s Divine Comedy – the most famous Renaissance piece of literature – is written between 1308-1321.

It takes a little while for art, music and science to warm up to the same degree, but it does. Galileo and Copurnicus theorise about the planet; Leonardo Da Vinci paints the Mona Lisa between 1503 – 1506. Michaelangelo is born and creates the Sistine Chapel, the statue of David, countless other treasures in the art world.

So, this is Italy, from 1300 – 1520 – a world where art and music and literature and science flourish.

Next up: Renaissance man

Following that, you’ll be better placed to understand the way the sonnet came out of Italy, what it meant to be a man who wrote sonnets, the women they wrote them to and the way these ideas spread across three kingdoms to finally land on England’s doorstep, to fox English GCSE and A level students for the rest of their days.



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