Overview Essay

French language and French leaders in 13th-15th century Italy

by Laura Morreale
Fordham University


French-language texts and French-speaking leaders were present and influential on the Italian peninsula from the late thirteenth through the late fifteenth centuries. These two phenomena, although related linguistically, have traditionally been examined separately according to disciplinary boundaries — historians of Italy have seen French political actors as important yet marginal characters in the larger story of Italy, and literary scholars have examined French texts created and copied in Italy as, at best, developmental stepping-stones in the inevitable march towards the Italian vernacular, or at worst, linguistic curiosities. A closer look at the sources on this site reveals that the production of French-language texts and the presence of French-speaking leaders on Italian soil are not quite so easily disentangled. Italian authors at times used the French language to achieve their own political purposes, and French-speakers living or staying in Italy were meaningfully engaged in the creation and exchange of many of the French-language works found there. Moreover, if we look past the aristocratic and military leaders — the most visible French-speakers in Italy — we see that French-language texts were fully enmeshed in the literary fabric of the time, and were copied and shared among Italians of many different classes, occupations and geographic locales.


Evidence for the importance of French-speaking leaders in Italy comes from none other than Giovanni Villani, one of the most well-known Italian-language historians of his day.  He viewed the participation of French rulers as fundamental to the story of his city and to the whole of Italy. In chapters 18-20 of the first book of his Nuova Cronica, he painstakingly recites the genealogy of the Kings of France from Ferramonte, the first  monarch, to his descendants  the Capetians, who ruled France and were active in Italy when Villani began his history sometime around 1320. Villani claims, moreover, that


Although we are only touching on this briefly, we will treat it more fully when there is time, because their [France’s] rulers were much entangled in the affairs of the city of Florence, as we mentioned beforehand.  [1]


Among modern students of medieval Italy, Villani’s attention to the affairs of France and of the French monarchs has largely been understood as an expression of fidelity to his political party, the Guelphs. His observations are viewed as no more than a nod to the overriding political atmosphere in Florence and in most of Northern Italy in the early fourteenth century. We are meant to understand that the most salient political tension during this period was the opposition between Guelph and Ghibelline, and by extension, Papacy and Empire.  French leaders in Italy, we learn, supported the military goals of the papacy and therefore functioned principally as supporting actors in the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict.


To date, efforts of literary scholars studying Francophonie in medieval Italy have focused on defining the corpus of French-language texts created and circulated there, delineating the linguistic markers that allow scholars to trace texts to one geographic locale or another, and examining individual textual traditions. Scholars have tended to focus on one community of French-speakers at a time, so that, for example, literary products coming from the Franco-Italian community are considered separately from those produced simultaneously in Tuscany or in Angevin Naples. But taken together, the evidence collected by these scholars, concerning how, where, and when Frenchwas used in Italy, paints a picture that conflicts with established narratives about medieval Italy. Elements of Florentine history are traditionally expressed in terms of the Guelph-Ghibellineopposition, Venice is understood through the prism of its exceptionalism (the “Myth of Venice”), and the Italian Angevins are largely dismissed as a power on the peninsula, alien or otherwise, after the Sicilian Vespers (1282). The network of exchange of French-language texts in Italy, however, seems to defy these dominant storylines. By looking at patterns of exchange, connections can often be seen  among Italian communities that are not usually linked, such as Genoa, Bologna, and Southern Italy, all areas where copies of Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César, for example, were created and circulated. Many other texts on this site demonstrate similar patterns of literary exchange among geographic groups which are not otherwise seen to interact.


To many modern and medieval historians, military leaders and aristocrats were the most visible French speakers active in Italy during this time, but French-language texts were enjoyed by readers and listeners of many different classes and professions, including merchants, notaries, city dwellers, and others. Merchants were among the most likely audiences for both Marco Polo’s Divisement du Monde (written c. 1298) and Brunetto Latini’s Trésor (1266). Excerpts from and references to French-language texts also appear in various merchant commonplace books, such as the Zibladone da Canal which comes from Venice and dates to early fourteenth-century (c. 1320).  Diplomatic and treasury documents created during the reigns of Charles I (1268-1285) and Charles II (1285-1309) of Anjou are witness to the use of French among the administrative classes in Naples, and works from the deluxe French-language chansonniers produced in fifteenth-century Florence, created for rich patrons, may well have been publicly performed as well. Writers of Franco-Italian epic mixed French with northern Italian dialects to appeal to their Italian-speaking audiences. In short, French-language texts were created and consumed by Italians of many different classes and occupations throughout the peninsula.


The rich diversity of audiences for French-language works in Italy also speaks to the many ways that these texts arrived in Italy. Some, such as those that constitute the Franco-Italian repertoire, were home-grown products, but others were imported by Italian bankers or merchants who lived and worked in French-speaking areas like Flanders, England, the Latin East, or in areas now known as France, including Paris or the towns of Champagne.  Dante Alighieri famously made reference to Italians who read (and were corrupted by) French-language romances in Canto V of the Inferno. Some Italian writers claimed that French texts were imported by French-speaking leaders who traversed and sometimes sojourned in Italy on their way to the Holy Land. Rustichello da Pisa, for example, explains that Edward I, when he was still Prince Edward, left a manuscript copy in Italy containing some of the works that found their way into his Compilatione (late 1270s to 1298), a collection featuring stories from the Matière de Bretagne. Other works, like those included in the corpus of deluxe French-language manuscripts from Naples dating from the late thirteenth to the mid-fourteenth centuries, were imported or created by French-speaking leaders who had settled in Italy after 1268.


Once in Italy, French-language texts enjoyed a dynamic existence, and were adopted, changed, transformed and at times translated into the Italian vernacular by Italian authors according to the needs of their audiences. Some Italian writers, including Latini and Martin da Canal, noted that they chose to write in French because the language was both aesthetically pleasing and widely understood.  [2] Others made no mention of the value of writing in French, but simply observed whether a text was first created in French or translated from another language. And still other Italian authors, like Villani, presented the language as a carrier of French identity, so that a direct connection was made between those who were French and those who spoke French.  Some French-language texts created by Italians, including Polo’s Divisement du Monde and Latini’s Trésor, were exported to other areas with a strong Francophone culture, such as Cyprus, the Latin East, Provence, England, or areas in Northern France.


The multiplicity of audiences, uses, modes of arrival and dissemination of French-language texts from Italy suggests that the adoption of this vernacular on Italian soil was not the result of French cultural hegemony, deliberate or otherwise. On the contrary, Italian authors and copyists of French-language texts were aware of the ways that they could use the language to their own advantage.  At times, they relied upon mechanisms of French literary tradition to achieve their textual objectives, whether they were motivated by political purposes or were simply targeting a particular audience.  Even though da Canal spoke of the beauty of the French vernacular in his Estoires de Venise (1267), for example, much of the reason for his language choice had to do with utility and with how his text would speak to important players on the international scene. Da Canal reveals his intentions to reach a world-wide audience in the prologue to Book Two, when he makes an appeal to a long-list of potential witnesses to his narrative who would have understood the claims he made in his French-language history. “I give you as witness,” he begins,


the apostolic seat of Rome and the patriarch of Jerusalem, Madame the queen of Cyprus and her son the king, and Monseignor Bohemond, the lofty prince of Antioch, who is lord of Tripoli, and Monseignor Geoffrey of Sargines, and the brothers of the orders, and the noble knights of Syria, and also the French and the Pisans and townspeople of Acre and of Tyre and the Greeks and Lombards and Provençals and Catalans and Anconitans and all those who cross the oceans, that all that I relate in my book is perfectly true.  [3]


Da Canal, like many other Italian authors of French-language texts, recognized that using the French vernacular would allow him to disseminate his message to a wider audience, and render it more effectively to those who shared with him a common understanding of French literary norms.


Given this evidence, we should perhaps take Villani at his word and accept that French forces, both cultural and political, played an important part in how contemporary and successive generations of Italians viewed themselves and their communities.


     “Onde noi in questo in brieve, qundo fia tempo, ne tratteremo, imperò che la loro signoria si mischia molto ne’nostri fatti della città di Firenze, come innanzi faremo menzione.” Villani, vol. 1, p. 29.

     See mention of this in Fabrizio Cigni, “Manuscrits en français, italien, et latin entre la Toscane etla Ligurie à la fin du XIIIe siècle:implicationscodologiques, linguistiques, et évolution des genres narratifs,” in Medieval Multilingualism:The Francophone World and its Neighbours, ed. Christopher Kleinhenz and Keith Busby, Turnhout, Brepols, 2010, p. 188.

     Martin da Canal, Les Estoires de Venise, trans. Morreale, Pauda, Unipress, 2009, pp. 59-60.