An Italian Connection - Chaucer (Ackroyd's Brief Lives) - Peter Ackroyd

Chaucer (Ackroyd's Brief Lives) - Peter Ackroyd (2005)

Chapter 4. An Italian Connection


In the summer of 1370 Chaucer was given letters of protection by the king in order to travel “ad partes transmarinas”; these letters of protection were designed to protect the king’s envoy from any legal suits that might be raised against him while he was out of England, a necessary precaution in such a litigious age, but they do not specify the nature of Chaucer’s destination. It has generally been assumed, however, that he was sailing to Genoa; there were trade negotiations with that city during the same period. He had known Italian merchants all his life, and was fully acquainted with the business of wharves and imports. What could be more natural than that he should be sent on a trade mission to the busy port of Genoa?

It can be assumed that he knew the Italian language, also, since over the next few years he was sent on successive missions to Genoa and to Florence. In 1372 he was granted a warrant to negotiate with the Genoese for the construction of a special seaport in England for the merchants of that city. In that year too, he is first styled in the household accounts as “armigero regis,” or esquire of the household, which suggests a corresponding degree of importance. It is not probable that he was also esquire of the chamber, part of the king’s secreta familia which travelled with the monarch everywhere; he was more likely to be known for his skill in diplomatic missions, and retained accordingly. The journey to Genoa, for example, had other more secret purposes. He set out in December 1372, with two high-ranking Genoese together with servants and bodyguards. He had been given an allowance of one hundred marks—£16 13 s 4d—and he was out of the country for some five months. It was his first extended trip to Italy, and it would affect him profoundly.

It would not be a safe or comfortable journey in the middle of winter, especially as the route of the English party took them over the Alps. We may imagine them with horses and baggage on mountain ways which, although customarily used by travellers, were none the less icy and vertiginous; their faces were muffled in scarves, their shoes bound up in cloth, as they struggled against the snow and wind. A contemporary of Chaucer, Adam of Usk, described how on an Alpine journey he was “drawn in an ox-wagon half dead with cold, and my eyes blindfolded lest I should see the dangers of the pass.”

Genoa itself was the centre of a great trading empire, with a population approximately that of London in the same period. It was built of stone rather than of wood, however, and anyone who walks through the city’s “Old Town” will still be able to acquire some sense of how it seemed in Chaucer’s lifetime—the narrow winding streets, the small churches, the statues of the Virgin on every corner, the workshops, the street-stalls. The negotiations must have passed successfully enough, since trade between London and Genoa materially increased in the years after Chaucer’s embassy, but it seems likely that Chaucer had also been despatched to the city in order to hire Genoese mercenaries for Edward’s campaigns against the French. The records for that more clandestine trade have of course not survived.


Sixteenth-century map of Genoa and Florence

His mission to Florence was no less delicate, since he was sent there in order to facilitate previous negotiations concerning the king’s loans from the banking family of the Bardi. Since Edward III had defaulted on his debts to the same family almost thirty years before, these negotiations could not have been without their local difficulties; but, once again, Chaucer seems to have been successful. He was awarded significant gifts on his return to England, in any event, and the journey to Italy consolidated his standing at the English court.

But his travels had more profound, if less visible, consequences. For three months he had experienced the society and culture of Italy; in particular he had been introduced to the wealth of Florentine cultural life by the rich banking families of that city whose libraries and art collections far surpassed anything that a London merchant would possess. It was the time of Florentine “humanism,” although of course the word itself would have meant nothing to Chaucer or his contemporaries. It would be indeed ill-advised to suggest that the English poet was somehow transformed overnight into a representative of the “new learning,” or that a glimpse of Giotto’s art rendered him suddenly susceptible to the claims of “realism” in artistic production. Certain biographers have suggested that he met Boccaccio and Petrarch on this journey, but this is also unlikely. What would he have said to them if he had met them?

He was residing in a city, however, which had become the nurse and mother of contemporary Italian poetry. It had three favourite sons, each of whom would have a powerful and permanent effect upon Chaucer’s own poetic sensibility. They were, in chronological as well as literary order, Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio.

Dante was of course the most significant Italian poet of the fourteenth century. His Divina Commedia was composed in the vernacular; he had written his epic of heaven and hell in letters of fire and had instantly given the Italian language pre-eminent status among all the tongues of Europe. In addition he had written a defence of his decision in a formidably erudite volume entitled De Vulgari Eloquentia. This work “concerning vernacular eloquence” had been written in the first decade of the fourteenth century, in precisely the period he had set to work upon the Divina Commedia . By the time of Chaucer’s visit to Florence, almost seventy years later, it may have occurred to him that the English language might be capable of a similar transformation. His journey to that city may then have materially strengthened his resolve to write in English, and to render that language the medium of great art. It is certainly true that the poems Chaucer wrote, immediately following his journey to Italy, are heavily influenced by Dante’s example. His next major poem, The House of Fame , is in fact almost a parody or pastiche of the Italian poet’s grand manner.

In the period of Chaucer’s travels Petrarch was living a hundred miles away from Florence in Padua; but the reputation of the greatest living Italian poet was everywhere apparent. Petrarch was the poet of magnificence who had almost single-handedly raised the status of the poetic maker into the company of kings. He had indeed been crowned with the laurel in the Roman senate, and was also variously proclaimed “master” in the courts of Naples and of Venice. King Robert of Naples had presented him with an opulently embroidered robe of honour. No such awards and honours were available in England—nor ever would they be—but the elevation of Petrarch must certainly have encouraged Chaucer to see his poetic career as a vocation more than an employment. It is unlikely that, without the combined example of Petrarch and Dante, he would have considered the composition of such longer poems as Troilus and Criseyde and The Canterbury Tales.

These two poems also owe much of their inspiration to the third member of the Italian poetic trinity, Giovanni Boccaccio. Chaucer’s love epic set in Troy, Troilus and Criseyde, borrows much from Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato; it has been plausibly argued that The Canterbury Tales takes as its model the peripatetic story-telling of Boccaccio’s Decameron. Chaucer never once mentions Boccaccio. By instinct, perhaps, he knew that the Italian poet was too close a source and inspiration to be confessed to the world. It is in fact easy to outline passages from Boccaccio which Chaucer transposed to his own work, but his principal influence was of a different kind. Chaucer discovered in the Italian poet the possible range and variety of poetic concerns—the epic story-telling of the Decameron, the classical mythology of Ninfale fiesolano , the narrative of Theseus entitled Il Teseida, the Trojan romance entitled Il Filostrato, and the Latin text “on the genealogy of the Gentile Gods” De Genealogiis Deorum Gentilium. At the time of Chaucer’s visit to Florence Boccaccio was also completing De Casibus Virorum Illustrium, a section of which the English poet lifted for one of his Canterbury tales. It is of more than passing interest, too, that Boccaccio was about to give a series of public lectures on Petrarch in Florence itself.

So Chaucer returned to England significantly changed by his experience in Italy. It has sometimes been supposed that he brought back with him certain manuscripts, particularly that of Dante’s Divina Commedia, as gifts from the rich Italian banking families with whom he negotiated; given the circumstances of fourteenth-century hospitality, this is likely to be the case. We can certainly see the consequences of his close reading, in the poetry he was soon to compose, but in the meantime the life of the world kept on breaking through. A few months after his return from his successful mission to Italy, in August 1373, he was despatched to Dartmouth in order to mediate between a Genoese ship-owner and the port authorities there. John de Nigris owned a vessel which for unknown causes had been placed “sub aresto” by the men of Dartmouth; Chaucer was sent to expedite its return to its owner, in which he was successful. Once more Chaucer’s connection with the Italian merchants becomes clear, as does his evident skill in difficult negotiations. It is perhaps no more than coincidental that, in The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s Shipman “was of Dertemouthe”; the allusion is amusing, however, and opens the possibility that some of Chaucer’s invented characters were based directly or indirectly upon “real” people. He would probably have denied any outright identification with any of his contemporaries, but he may have divined in certain people the outlines of idealised types.

Chaucer’s evident success in these negotiations, and in many others which have gone unrecorded, was rewarded with various grants and annuities. In the spring of 1374 Edward III bestowed upon him the gift of a daily pitcher of wine, a pitcher in this instance meaning a gallon-sized jug or lagena, which Chaucer continued to receive until the day of the king’s death. Two months later he also received an annuity of ten pounds from John of Gaunt, who had just returned from further forays and incursions in France. It is sometimes assumed that these favours were shown to him as a means of literary patronage, but this is most unlikely; if they were given for his oratorical skills, they were the ones he used as a diplomat and household messenger rather than as poet.


One of the Canterbury pilgrims, the Shipman, came from Dartmouth, scene of one of Chaucer’s diplomatic missions