Was It Through Poetry or Food That Italy was United?
Though the process was begun in 1815, Italy wasn’t the nation state that we think of today until 1871. That’s rather a short history as a country. Prior to that it was a collection of city states, with their own rulers. Rome, Naples, Florence, and Venice were all in essence their own countries. And because of this they all spoke their own languages. There was no guarantee that an Italian from Florence could understand someone from Milan.
In 1861, only 3% of Italians were able to speak standardized Italian.
Even with the fall of the Roman Empire, people on the Italian Peninsula still spoke Latin. Over time the language began to evolve and change. Out of this change emerged ‘Vulgar Latin’ the seedling that would become Italian. It was ‘vulgar’ because it was spoken by the ‘Volgo’ the poor and uneducated portion of the population.
The popularity of Vulgar Latin spread eventually transitioning from a spoken language to a written one as well. The earliest texts of what we would now call Italian were written between 960 and 963 C.E. and were legal formulae known as the Placiti Cassinesi.
The Italian language adopted by the state after unification was based on Tuscan, which was the language spoken mostly by upper-class Florentines. Though this story has its routes in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.
Linguist Tullio De Mauro has pointed out that in the 1300s, 60% of the essential or basic vocabulary of Italian – the two thousand or so words we use most often- were already in common use. But Dante Alighieri decided to write the Divine Comedy in Italian and not Latin. Dante’s work left us with the a lexicon that included 90% of the basic vocabulary of what we think of as Italian today.
This is one view on the origin of modern Italian. Dante wrote the Divine Comedy in Florence where the language spoken was Tuscan. Tuscan was the language of the aristocracy. When Italy unified Tuscan was chosen as the official language of the state and so eventually became the official language spoken by everyone. Case closed.
Or is it?
There is a fascinating counter-story. It happened a little after the Italian unification. Pellegrino Artusi was an author and tried to get his cookbook of recipes published, but couldn’t find a publisher who was interested. Instead he published – La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene or The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well – on his own.
Just a thousand copies at first, but the book caught on and before Artusi had died over 200,000 copies had been sold. It was read throughout Italy and was one of the first popular books read by a large section of the population.
Dante might have formed the basis of the Tuscan language, but Artusi made people actually interested.