The first age of Italian literature can be between the first decades of the 13th century. and the correspondents of the 14th: it therefore culminates in the figure of Dante, who was also its first historian. It is written, as already mentioned, in Latin, in French or Provençal, and in the various Italian vernacular.
In Latin, rules are dictated or grammatical or rhetorical models are offered (Boncompagno da Signa, G. Fava, Pietro della Vigna etc.) and art poetry is attempted in the classical meters, as Arrigo da Settimello does, already in the foreshortening of the previous century, with his Elegy, he provided all of Europe with a long-admired poetic text, or even Quilichino da Spoleto and Riccardo da Venosa; that is, Latin is bent to vulgar rhythms, as do the authors of religious hymns such as the Pange lingua, the Dies irae, which some put in the 12th century, the Stabat mater (the latter most likely the work of Iacopone da Todi) etc. Others narrate the events of their cities in prose, sometimes achieving notable artistic effects, such as Salimbene da Parma. The greatest writers in Latin, eg. jurists, philosophers and theologians, mystics (Accursio, St. Thomas, St. Bonaventure, etc.), express a civilization that goes beyond the boundaries of Italy and they do not propose artistic ends. Between the 13th and 14th centuries. then a circle of intellectuals (writers, historians, jurists) flourished in Padua, looking for classical authors and taking them as a direct model; so that we can rightly speak of a Paduan prehumanism flourishing in the age of Dante; there emerge F. de ‘Ferreti, L. de’ Lovati and A. Mussato. The Latin of the De vulgari eloquentia and of the Monarchia is to itself of Dante, nourished by classicism, but not bound to specific models.
According to TIMEDICTIONARY, they thicken in the 13th century. the literary manifestations in the vernacular and acquire a very different consistency and importance than the previous ones; there is a visible tendency to level out the dialects, to eliminate the most strongly idiomatic peculiarities from them. The process, which takes place throughout the 13th century, has its consecration in the early 14th century, when Dante, in De vulgari eloquentia and in the Convivio, almost already sees in progress and promotes the adoption of a common literary language, different from other similar national languages (those we now call Latin) and that it is not the language spoken in a single city or region of Italy, but a superlanguage, the only one in his opinion legitimate, at least for high literature. The process of formation of the national language and literature has, with Dante, its theoretical culmination. However, it should be noted that at the beginning of the fourteenth century a common literary language can be considered already formed only as regards poetry, indeed only lyric; the prosastic koinè (and of narrative poetry) will be conquered later. Hence the need to keep the history of poetry separate from that of prose for this early age.
In the vulgar prose writings of the thirteenth century several Italian vernacular are represented; but since Tuscans prevailed among prose writers from the beginning, prose, unlike poetry, did not become but was born in Tuscany. Furthermore, prose writers initially propose more modest ends than the lyrics, dedicating themselves mostly to stopping the memory of family and citizen events, or to educate or entertain poorly educated readers; although they wish to cross regional borders, they do not have an ‘illustrious’ subject, they are more linked to daily experience, and therefore do not pose the problem of a language that is also ‘illustrious’.
In prose, we first have versions from French or Latin, or more or less free Italian remakes of Breton novels (the Tristan kept in the Riccardiana Library in Florence), or of a Carolingian or classical subject. Or it is a question of moral prose or historical compilations, of rhetorical writings. More important are the chronicles, mostly Tuscan: from that of Rememberano and Giacotto Malispini, to those (and we are already in the age of Dante) much more remarkable, both historiographically and artistically, by D. Compagni and G. Villani and its followers. There are numerous religious prose, especially from the fourteenth century, but in many cases it is uncertain about their exact dating: starting with the Fioretti di San Francesco, the work of an unknown Tuscan friar, who perhaps does not propose literary ends, nor does he propose them for his energetic Letters s. Catherine of Siena. On the other hand, other edifying writers of the age of Dante or a little later are more learned (D. Cavalca, Giordano da Pisa, Italy Passavanti, the blessed G. Colombini). But all these writers are models of prose much later, when Romanticism will lead to an appreciation of their true or supposed literary naivety, and purism will enhance their Tuscanity. The same can be said for another work, also very important, the Novellino, a thirteenth-century collection of short stories. While another thirteenth-century collection of short stories, the Book of the seven wise men, is a version from the French, the unknown Florentine author of the Novellino does not translate, even if it takes up traditional Latin and French novelistic material; in his dry, clear but far from naive prose the world of the new bourgeoisie to which he certainly belongs is reflected.
What the Sicilians had done for opera, the Tuscan Guittone tries to do for prose. But his highly elaborate Letters, too full of Latinisms and linguistic preciousness of various kinds, too convoluted and abstruse, cannot constitute a starting point for later prose writers. The following generation also imposed its more sober taste for prose, and produced two distinguished examples of illustrious prose in the mystical-narrative pages of the Vita Nuova and in the doctrinal pages of Dante ‘s Convivio ; and yet the true teacher for the prose to come is not Dante, but will be G. Boccaccio. That of the Decameron it will nevertheless be a composite model: the mature Renaissance, with P. Bembo, will appreciate the illustrious part of Boccaccio’s prose, the lexically refined one, architecturally arranged according to the models of Cicero and more of Livius and Apuleius; but alongside these examples the Decameron offers others and different ones, of a varied lexicon up to the dialect, of an articulated, nervous, spoken syntax; and the prose writers of the following centuries will keep an eye on either of these two contrasting aspects of the master Boccaccio.