L'Accademia della Crusca

In a land well-renowned for its culinary traditions, perhaps it was inevitable that the national language academy of Italy would be named for a byproduct of the bread-making process. L'Accademia della Crusca, or the Academy of the Chaff, was founded in Florence in 1582 to maintain the purity of the language. Still in existence today, the academy was the first such institution in Europe and the first to produce a modern national language.

The major work of l'Accademia della Crusca was the compilation of A. F. Grazzini's Vocabulario, a dictionary of “pure” words first published in 1612 and later taken as a model by other European states.

i Crusconi

The academy developed out of the informal meetings of a group of Florentine intellectuals between 1570 and 1580. They ironically called themselves Crusconi (the bran flakes) with the intention of giving a jocular tone to their conversations. In 1582, the Crusconi gave formal status to their assembly, christening it with the name of Accademia. As the group continued to grow and take on new responsibilities, it was decided that each member should adopt a nickname, motto, and device having to do with bran and the oven.

The academy's headquarters are still located at the historical Villa Medicea di Castello just outside Florence, which is open for touring groups. The sixteenth-century garden is adorned with statues, fountains, and an artificial grotto by Giambologna, a sculptor to the Medici court.

Leonardo Salviati (L'Infarinato, “the floured one”) joined the group at this time and gave it renewed impetus. Salviati interpreted in a new sense the name of crusca (bran): “As if to say that the academy should undertake a separation of the good from the bad.” Together with Anton Francesco Grazzini (Il Lasca, “the roach”), Salviati gave the academy a new linguistic direction, setting as its goal the promotion of a Florentine language according to the model of vernacular classicism established by Pietro Bembo, who idealized the fourteenth-century Italian authors, especially Boccaccio and Petrarca. The Florentines differed from the purist Bembo to the extent that they included their national poet Dante among this privileged group.

The Question of the Language

La questione della lingua, an attempt to establish linguistic norms and codify the language, engrossed writers of all persuasions. Grammarians during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries attempted to confer upon the pronunciation, syntax, and vocabulary of Renaissance-era Tuscan the status of a central and classical Italian speech. Eventually this classicism, which might have doomed Italian to become another dead language, was widened to include the organic changes inevitable in a living tongue.

In the dictionaries and publications of the Accademia della Crusca, which was accepted by Italians as the authority in Italian linguistic matters, compromises between classical purism and living Tuscan usage were successfully effected. The most important literary event of the sixteenth century did not actually take place in Florence. In 1525, the Venetian Pietro Bembo (1470–1547) set out his proposals (Prose della volgar lingua) for a standardized language and style. His models were Petrarca and Boccaccio, whose writings were thus elevated to the status of modern classics. It follows, then, that the language of Italian literature is modeled on the dialect spoken in Florence in the fourteenth century.

The love poetry of Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374), especially his Canzoniere (Song Book), had enormous influence on the poets of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) wrote the Decameron, 100 stories that became a model for writers of fiction and other forms of prose.

L'Accademia Today — Still Fresh

L'Accademia della Crusca is still active and vigorous today, and their affinity for symbology has not waned a bit. The academy's symbol is a flour bolter, a machine used to separate the flour from the bran in milling operations. The traditional furnishings of the academy consist of pale (baker's shovels), which are individual coats of arms of the members of the academy from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. The iconography of these shovels draws on the symbolism of the cultivation of grain, the baking of bread, and other products of the flour and of the crusca.

There are also gerle (baker's baskets), which are ceremonial academic chairs in the shape of baskets. The earliest examples date from 1642. Then there are sacchi (sacks), cabinets where the academic secretary kept the flour — -the status, regulations, and other writings read and approved by the censorship academics.

L'Accademia: Language, Dictionaries, Linguistics

The academy has other, more serious resources too. For those interested in Italian linguistics, the history of the Italian language, and philological studies, there is the historical archive that consists of early diaries, literary manuscript texts, and correspondences from early academy members. The library at the academy consists of language texts, dictionaries, lexicons, and works devoted to the study of Italian and to linguistics in general.

Birth of a Nation and a Language

The unification of Italy in 1861 brought about sweeping social and economic reforms. Amazingly, only 2.5 percent of Italy's population could speak standard Italian at the time of unification. Mandatory schooling and the proliferation of mass communication and mass transit had an enormous impact on the formation of modern standard Italian. Local dialects, characterized as the language of the uneducated, began to fall out of favor in the decades following unification. As Benito Mussolini and his Fascist party rose to power in the early part of the twentieth century, the push toward a common language intensified. With the goal of solidifying his control over the Italian population, Mussolini outlawed the public use of Italian dialects. Modern standard Italian was by now firmly established as the sole official language of the Italian state and its people.

Alessandro Manzoni, a nineteenth-century writer, was instrumental in the development of the Italian language. Manzoni proposed that contemporary spoken Florentine should form the basis of Italian. His masterpiece, I promessi sposi, served as the benchmark for literary Italian, which, after the unification of Italy in the late 1800s, became standard Italian. The unificazione linguistica was as important to the newly formed nation as its political structure.

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