TWO MEN ARE WALKING IN HELL, BUT ONLY ONE OF THEM BELONGS THERE. DANTE ALIGHIERI, WHO DOES NOT, IS SPEAKING QUIETLY TO HIS GUIDE, THE ANCIENT ROMAN POET VIRGIL. ONE OF THE DAMNED, WHO WAS ONCE, LIKE DANTE, A CITIZEN OF FLORENCE, HEARS A FAMILIAR ACCENT, THE TANG OF HOMELY WORDS, IN THE DESOLATION OF HELL AND CALLS OUT:
'O TOSCO CHE PER LA CITTÀ DEL FOCO
VIVO TEN VAI COSI PARLANDO ONESTO,
PIACCIATI DI RESTARE IN QUESTO LOCO.
LA TUA LOQUELA TI FA MANIFESTO
DI QUELLA NOBIL PATRIA NATIO
A LA QUAL FORSE FUI TROPPO MOLESTO.'
The Florentine sinner has recognized Dante as a fellow Tuscan by his speech: 'O Tuscan who living walks through the city of fire, speaking with dignity, may it please you to pause here. Your way of speaking makes it plain you are of the noble fatherland to which I may have been too destructive.'
Dante is speaking, and writing, in the vernacular. He is communicating in the idiom his parents spoke to him as a baby, the tongue he called out in as a child playing in the streets of Florence, the language that sang out from the sweet lips of his beloved Beatrice as she walked with her company of maidens through Florence - as told by Dante in La Vita Nuova (c. 1292) and depicted in Henry Holiday's painting The Meeting of Dante and Beatrice (1884), in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.
Tuscan is the voice of home. The anguished joy of his damned compatriot on hearing Dante's vernacular reflects the longing of the exiled poet himself to be once again among Tuscan voices. The vernacular is living, local, social speech. It places you, welcomes you back and, like Beatrice on a good day, returns your greeting.
But when Dante wrote the Divine Comedy in the early 14th century, the vernacular idioms of Italy - not just Tuscan but also Sicilian or the tongue of Venice - were regarded as inferior, base, ignorant, fit only for talking, never for writing. Latin was the language of intellectual and political authority, of religion, scholarship, justice, contracts - and would remain so for centuries. When Dante wrote theoretically about the vernacular, he had to do so in Latin, the language of theory, in his treatise De vulgari eloquentia.
The vernacular, the opposite of Latin, is vulgaris. 'The Latin language', wrote a Venetian humanist in the 15th century, 'is what educated the barbarians, and indeed, all people in the liberal arts; it taught them the best laws; it secured the way to all knowledge; and its effects on them were such that they could no longer be called barbarians.'
To choose to publish in the vernacular, as Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer and Petrarch did, was to risk reverting to barbarism.
It was to choose the sloppy, gawky rudiments of local speech over the universal, imperial eloquence of Latin. Because Latin is a marvellously abstract and smooth language, medieval Tuscan and English feel more physical, tangible and carnal.
And the words and deeds that Boccaccio and Chaucer brought to the fore were insistently earthy and material. So it is as if the vernacular is the voice of the body, as Latin was that of the mind.
And the vernacular is the voice of the familiar, the voice of your mother - we still talk of our 'mother tongue'. You might even say that while the official university use of Latin in the Middle Ages represented a patriarchal abstraction from the physical and local, a deliberate estrangement from origins and intimacy, the vernacular was a return to the mother. This is even more apparent in Italian painting's parallel discovery of the visual vernacular, whose warmest, homeliest expression is in all those sensual, playful pictures of the Virgin and Child, the radically carnal childish happiness of a painting such as Filippo Lippi's Madonna and Child with Two Angels (c. 1465) in the Uffizi, Florence.
You might think all this belongs to the Middle Ages, to dead lost time. And yet the vernacular still has the power to unsettle. In fact so does medieval literature - or anyway it did in the early 1970s, when Pier Paolo Pasolini filmed his 'Trilogy of Life', three films that bawdily resurrect the raw joy of peasant storytelling - The Decameron (1970), The Canterbury Tales (1972) and Arabian Nights (1974).
The reception of these least regarded of Pasolini's films, right down to today, is revealing of the danger for any artist of genuinely speaking the vernacular. Almost all Western art speaks Latin. The languages in which works of art and literature are received are constantly reinventing a kind of Latin, that is, a privileged, restricted tongue. None of us, when we review art or make it, thinks we're doing this. But the fact is that genuinely to speak the vernacular is to immerse yourself totally in the culture of the vulgari, in which it is almost impossible to make yourself heard; it is to risk being misrecognized as a barbarian; it is to endanger your hard-won identity as artist, intellectual, or whatever it is you think of yourself as being.
Pasolini, when he filmed his version of Boccaccio's 14th-century story cycle The Decameron - a book that veers between the pastoral elegance of young men and women making posies and dancing in the Tuscan countryside and the sheer filth of the tales they tell - plumped for the filth. Shorn of Boccaccio's framing structure of a group of Florentine youths fleeing the plague and whiling away their rustic retreat by telling each other stories, Pasolini's film plunges straight into a muddy, orgiastic peasant sexuality, a world in which everyone will fuck anyone in a dirty, rural, raw free-for-all. It is Italian cinema's answer to late 1960s festivals of free love: the closest an Italian has ever got to being a hippy.
Most of all, though, Pasolini - poet, novelist, Christian, Marxist and, since his début Accatone! in 1961, a charismatic star of European art cinema, aimed his 'Trilogy of Life' right beneath the high brows of his international audience, at the guts of the Italian home market. The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales are routinely compared in their toothy exuberance to Britain's Carry On films - and were just as popular in Italy as Sid James and Barbara Windsor were with British audiences. Pasolini, regarded as one of Italy's greatest postwar writers and cinéastes, disappointed his radical audience by turning from films such as The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964) and Theorem (1968) to make the equivalent of Oops There Goes My Renaissance.
The 'Trilogy of Life' was - and is - seen by many fans of Pasolini's avant-garde films as a crass sell-out to conservative populism, a grim coarsening of his aesthetic, a sad travesty of the entire neo-Realist and post-neo-Realist tradition, in which the use of amateur actors and enthusiasm for the people that stretches through Italian films from Rome Open City (1945) to Pasolini's Gospel ... descends into mere amateurism. As sell-outs go, it was a great triumph. The Decameron was such a commercial success in Italy that a whole series of rip-offs were quickly filmed and released in the early 1970s (one source cites almost 50 by the end of 1972). Pasolini's own follow-up was The Canterbury Tales, the same but rougher, dirtier and raunchier, and more offensive to the Italian courts, which initially banned it as obscene.
That did Pasolini no harm. What hurt his reputation was the supposed trashiness of his tales. Yet the 'Trilogy of Life' is Pasolini's greatest manifesto for the vernacular. Not only do the stories come from vernacular medieval literature, but their visual aesthetic is that of the vernacular art of the early Renaissance.
The first vernacular artist was Giotto (c. 1267-1337). To look at Giotto's scene of the death of St Francis in Santa Croce, Florence, is to see, in the faces and gestures of the grief-stricken friars, a demotic speech in art, the plain language of suffering. Giotto's art haunts Pasolini's Decameron. Pasolini himself appears in the film as a fresco painter referred to as 'the follower of Giotto'. Perhaps he thought it immodest to play Giotto himself, although in Boccaccio's collection of tales this character is in fact Giotto.
In Pasolini's Decameron, the filmmaker-medieval artist is caught in the rain and made to look ridiculous. This is an accurate rendition of Boccaccio's tale, in which Giotto and the famous jurist Forese da Rabatta are caught in a downpour while returning to Florence from the countryside. Both of these great men, claims Boccaccio's storyteller, were notoriously ugly, both getting on in years, both riding useless old nags. After a peasant lent them a couple of dirty capes they rode through the rain, and when finally it stopped, Messer Forese looked at Giotto, saw his repulsive face, straggling wet hair and tatty cape, and said, 'Giotto, supposing we were to meet some stranger who had never seen you before, do you think he would believe that you were the greatest painter in the world?' Giotto replied: 'I think he would believe it if, after taking a look at you, he gave you credit for knowing your ABC.'
Two intellectuals, one of them the world's greatest painter, reduced to risible rustic plainness. Boccaccio's story, which Pasolini eruditely dramatizes in a film often dismissed as anti-intellectual, is a manifesto for the vernacular. It insists that art does not lie in the refined but in the natural, the homely. Giotto was a popular artist and a great one. Vasari, remembering this same association of Giotto and the vernacular, not only refers to Boccaccio's anecdote in his 'Life of Giotto', but emphasizes Giotto's simplicity by claiming he was the son of a peasant who was discovered by Cimabue tending flocks and drawing for his own amusement in the earth.
Far from naive, far from exploitative, Pasolini's cycle of novellas is as serious and innocent as anything he did. It insists on the possibility of another, better, popular culture than the one sold back to itself even more brutally today than when he was alive. It is an argument for a common, natural experience conceived as something more real, more physical, more human than the consumer culture glamorized in the 1960s as Pop and marketed today as reality.