Medieval Studies Italian Religious Writers of the Trecento
Silvia Serventi
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0298


The Italian religious literature of the 14th century includes a considerable number of texts, both original and vulgarized, which are placed between the latest monastic literature and the first literature linked to the mendicant orders. Compared to the writers of the previous century, among whom mystics authors prevailed, those of the 14th century aim, above all, to form a religious conscience in the recipients of their works. The authors belong to different religious orders and are dedicated to various literary genres: at the beginning of the century there is the preaching of the Dominican Giordano da Pisa (b. 1260–d. 1310) and between the third and fourth decade the work of his brother Domenico Cavalca (b. 1270–d. 1342), author of treatises and vulgarizations. Shortly after the middle of the century the Dominican Iacopo Passavanti (b. 1302–d. 1357) composed the Specchio della vera penitenza and in the seventies Catherine of Siena (b. 1347–d. 1380) wrote her letters and the Dialogo della Divina Provvidenza. Around her a “family” of devotees is created, which includes writers such as Niccolò Cicerchia (b. 1335/40–d. 1376), Neri Pagliaresi (b. 1350-d. 1400), and the Augustinian Felice Tancredi da Massa (b. 1335–d. 1385). In the Franciscan context, there are the vulgarizations of some writings of the previous century and the works of Ugo Panziera (b. 1260/70–d. 1330). In connection with Franciscan spirituality, the lay movement of the Jesuates was born in Siena in the sixties, promoted by Giovanni Colombini (b. 1304–d. 1367), author of letters and laudi. The Jesuate Bianco da Siena (b. 1350–d. 1399) was author exclusively of laudi. The Sienese environment is very fruitful in this century also due to the presence of the Augustinian hermitage of Lecceto, to which Girolamo da Siena was linked (b. 1335/40–d. 1420), author of two treatises and several spiritual direction letters. Another Augustinian died in this hermitage, Filippo degli Agazzari (b. 1339–d. 1422), author of the Assempri. Linked instead to the Florentine environment are the Augustinian Simone Fidati da Cascia (b. 1280/95–d. 1348) and Luigi Marsili (b. 1342–d. 1394), correspondent of Guido del Palagio (b. 1335–d. 1399) and of the Vallombrosan Giovanni dalle Celle (b. 1310–d. 1396). Several of these authors, together with the Dominican Giovanni Dominici (b. 1356–d. 1419), contributed to the development of the epistolography of spiritual direction, a characteristic genre of the 14th century. The religious texts will be presented according to the social groups (religious orders and laity) with special entries devoted to the most important authors, and finally with a particular attention to specific literary genres (epistolography and translations).

Reference Works

The writings of the Italian religious authors of the 14th century were read up to the 16th century as works of spiritual edification, while later they were considered as “language texts” and were used by the compilers of the Crusca vocabulary as exemplary texts. Even the numerous editions that followed one another between the 18th and 19th centuries had a mainly linguistic interest and it is only from the mid-20th century that these works have been rediscovered as important sources for learning about the history, culture, and spirituality of the late Middle Ages. Among the first to enhance them were Levasti 1935 and De Luca 1954: the latter in particular is responsible for an important anthology of texts with a large section dedicated to vulgarizations, which the author considered as important as the original works. Petrocchi 1957 and Getto 1967 were among the first to dedicate literary analyses to religious authors, until then considered on the sidelines of the 14th-century literature represented mainly by Dante, Petrarca, and Boccaccio. Miccoli 1974 emphasized the need to interpret religious literature within precise historical and sociological coordinates. With Petrocchi 1987, ample space is given to religious literature in the context of a history of Italian literature. Subsequently, with the development of the studies on the medieval exemplum, the interest of Varanini and Baldassarri 1993 focused above all on the short stories of an exemplary nature, called exempla, present in the vulgarization of the Legenda Aurea of Iacopo da Varazze, in the transcriptions of the sermons of Giordano da Pisa, in the treatises of other Dominicans such as Iacopo Passavanti and Domenico Cavalca and in the Assempri, or “Examples,” of the Augustinian Filippo degli Agazzari. Baldassarri 1995 offers an overall synthesis of the religious literature of the 14th century useful as a first approach to the theme. The reference point for knowing the bio-bibliographic data of the individual authors is the Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani (DBI). Librandi 2012 offers an overview of Italian religious literature not only medieval and pays particular attention to the linguistic aspects in the writings of Catherine of Siena. Delcorno 2019 offers an updated overview on the Italian religious literature of the Middle Ages.

  • Baldassarri, Guido. “Letteratura devota, edificante e morale.” In Storia della Letteratura italiana. Vol. 2, Il Trecento. Edited by Enrico Malato, 211–326. Rome: Salerno Editrice, 1995.

    Wide overview of Italian religious literature of the 14th century with historical contextualization. Presentation of the authors and works with bibliographic notes and an extensive final bibliography.

  • Delcorno, Carlo. “Medioevo religioso e dimensione letteraria.” In Dal “Medioevo cristiano” alla “Storia religiosa” del Medioevo: a Giovanni Miccoli (1933-2017), in memoriam. Quaderni di storia religiosa medievale 1. Edited by Raimondo Michetti and Andrea Tilatti, 111–142. Bologna, Italy: Il Mulino, 2019.

    An updated survey of the studies on the religious literature and the interplay with the general Italian literature of the Trecento.

  • De Luca, Giuseppe, ed. Prosatori minori del Trecento. Tomo I. Scrittori di religione. Milan and Naples, Italy: Ricciardi, 1954.

    The anthology of religious texts is divided into two sections: the first dedicated to the original texts and the second, much wider, to the vulgarizations. The first section includes sermons, letters, and short treatises; the second opens with the popularization of the book of Tobit and continues with translations from the Fathers of the Church, from medieval mystics and the works produced by the Mendicants.

  • Getto, Giovanni. Letteratura religiosa del Trecento. Florence: Sansoni, 1967.

    The volume collects two essays entitled “Umanità e stile di Iacopo Passavanti” and “L’intuizione mistica e l’espressione letteraria di Caterina da Siena,” respectively dated 1942 and 1939. Although dated, the two essays offer an in-depth literary analysis of the Specchio della vera penitenza of Passavanti and the culture and language of the Sienese saint.

  • Istituto della Enciclopedia italiana, ed. Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani (DBI). 100 vols. Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia italiana, 1960–2020.

    Dictionary consisting of one hundred volumes with entries on the most important Italian authors arranged in alphabetical order. Many entries are edited by leading experts on the subject and provide a biographical profile and a complete list of works. The bibliography is updated especially for the authors included in the last volumes. Also available online.

  • Levasti, Arrigo, ed. Mistici del Duecento e del Trecento. Milan and Rome: Rizzoli, 1935.

    Anthology of religious texts of the 13th and 14th centuries, with particular attention to mysticism, reissued in 1960. It includes a selection of works by almost all religious authors of the 14th century and the popularization of three works by St. Bonaventure.

  • Librandi, Rita. La letteratura religiosa. Bologna, Italy: Il Mulino, 2012.

    Historical and linguistic profile of religious literary production from its origins to the 20th century. It debates the different literary genres and pays particular attention, among the authors of the 14th century, to Catherine of Siena.

  • Miccoli, Giovanni. “La storia religiosa.” In Storia d’Italia. Vol. 2.1, Dalla caduta dell’Impero romano al secolo XVIII. Edited by Ruggiero Romanoand Corrado Vivanti, 431–1079. Turin, Italy: Einaudi, 1974.

    Historical overview of Italian religious literature from the early Middle Ages to the 16th century with systematic consultation of the works in the vernacular dedicated to the laity. In particular, the eighth chapter is dedicated to the literary forms invented or renewed by the mendicant orders and the ninth to specific figures such as Catherine of Siena, Giovanni Colombini, and Giovanni dalle Celle.

  • Petrocchi, Giorgio. Ascesi e mistica trecentesca. Florence: Le Monnier, 1957.

    Collection of seven essays still interesting for the stylistic analysis of Angela da Foligno’s Liber, the treatises and praises by Ugo da Prato, the Meditationes Vitae Christi, the Fioretti di S. Francesco, the letters by Colombini and those by Francesco Datini and his correspondents. The last essay is dedicated to Giovanni dalle Celle’s dilemma between the cultural setting of the Dominicans and the contempt for studying in the Cistercians.

  • Petrocchi, Giorgio. “Cultura e poesia del Trecento. Cap. III. La letteratura religiosa.” In Storia della Letteratura Italiana, Vol. 2, Il Trecento. Edited by Emilio Cecchi and Natalino Sapegno, 649–741. Milan: Garzanti, 1987.

    Chapter inserted in a literary history provides an overview of the religious literature of the 14th century, in which the various religious orders and the main authors are reviewed. First published in 1965.

  • Varanini, Giorgio, and Guido Baldassarri, eds. Racconti esemplari di predicatori del Due e Trecento. I Novellieri Italiani, Vol. 4. Rome: Salerno Editrice, 1993.

    The volume is divided into three parts: the first presents a choice of exempla taken from the popularization of the Legenda Aurea by Iacopo da Varazze; the second 268 exempla derived from the sermons of Giordano da Pisa and forty-nine from the Specchio della vera penitenza by Iacopo Passavanti; the third presents ninety-two exempla taken from seven works by Domenico Cavalca and sixty-two from the Assempri by Filippo degli Agazzari, plus two contained in two appendices.

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