Accademia della Crusca explained

The Accademia della Crusca is an Italian institution that brings together scholars and experts in Italian linguistics and philology. It was founded in Renaissance Florence in 1582 by Antonio Francesco Grazzini, commonly known as Il Lasca. To this day, the Accademia della Crusca has remained well-known for its mission to maintain the "purity" of the original Italian language. In 1612, the Academy published the first edition of the Dictionary of the Italian Language, or the Vocabolario della Crusca which also served as a model for subsequent French, German, English and Spanish dictionaries.


What is an Academy?

An academy is neither a school nor a university. Rather, it is an institution devoted to research or to the perfection of a particular art, chosen by the academy. It is a thoroughly European concept and these institutions are located in every European country. They are of fundamental importance in the development of the European mind.[1] The University as an institution of higher learning was founded during the Middle Ages, while the concept of the Academy grew out of Renaissance ideas.[2]


The Founding of the Accademia della Crusca

The Accademia della Crusca began in a "light-hearted manner", when some intellectual friends decided to form a small society or club for their own amusement. Gradually as time went on the group grew larger and more members joined. These determined individuals decided to specialize on a topic that they felt passionate about: purifying the Tuscan dialect and compiling a dictionary of the language.[3] Founded in Florence in 1582, it was actually an offshoot of a larger body known as the Fiorentina whose interests were largely philological. Leonardo Salviati who joined the Crusca shortly after its founding became the most conspicuous member and had the distinction of drawing up its code of laws and supervising its first serious undertaking, the preparation of its Vocabolario.

Significance of the Accademia della Crusca

The Vocabolario della Crusca is one of the first and probably the most famous of language dictionaries and was published in Venice in 1612.[4] It has gone through many editions and has been the model for subsequent efforts of the same kind. The Vocabolario has influenced many other language dictionaries, including the Dictionnaire de l'Académie française and Dr. Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language (1755). The Cruscans used their sieve to "purify language", sifting good words from bad in order to produce a perfect work. In one of the editions, the capital letters introducing each letter of the alphabet are formed from the imprese of the academy leaders. An impresa (plural imprese) is a variant of the badge that became particularly popular in the fifteenth and sixteenth century for identifying Accademia. Filippo Sassetti claims that the Accademia della Crusca has a good imprese because it consists of a material object with a hidden meaning of great importance.[5] The Accademia began in a comedic, almost burlesque fashion and the names of the early members are reflected in this. All personal names are related to flour or grain. For example, one member called himself l'Infarinato- a name suggestive of the harlequinade. Another was the famous Il Lasca, whose daring burlesque dialogues created controversy among the academy members. Il Lasca relates to flour because the fish lasca requires to be floured before being cooked. [6] The name Crusca means bran and the symbol of this academy was the sieve, which denoted a process of refining. Refining words was essentially the purpose of the Academy, so it was appropriate that the symbol is a sieve. A sieve is a material instrument through which something is purified and perfected. Also, the name of the Academy, the Accademia della Crusca or Academy of the Bran implies that the linguists are not perfect. The allusion that is formed is that they are rough bran not yet sifted to form perfect flour. Essentially they are imperfect beings who are seeking their prefect or refined form.[3] The function of the Accademia resembled that of the Académie Française, which was essentially the governing and overseeing body of the French language. Pietro de Medici became the patron of the Accademia and his ultimate goal was to refine the Italian language. By 1738, the dictionary had been published in six volumes. Each group member was responsible for reporting on and defining a certain number of words; each definition was then submitted to be judged by the academy before officially entering the dictionary. The Accademia della Crusca was a useful enterprise and it accomplished many great things. For example, it enforced the proper use of words and frowned upon slang, in order to maintain a high standard for the Italian language and to elevate it into one of the world's great languages. It established definite principles for good usage by selecting appropriate words from the best authors to use in the dictionary. This helped popularize literary language and kept it from being inaccessible to the general population. Finally it rendered a valuable service in publishing classic works distinguished for their pure diction and cultural influence. Again, this helped increase the spread of great literature among the people and formalized the Italian language. [4]

On 9 April 1809, Napoleon gave the Florentines the right to use their own language in a decree sent from the Tuileries Palace. In this decree he affirmed that "The Italian language may be used in Tuscany alongside the French language, in the courts, in notarized acts and in private." In a further attempt to display benevolence, Napoleon continued: "We have created an annual prize of 500 napoleons, which will be administered by our civil service and will be presented to the authors whose works contribute with the greatest effect to the maintenance of the Italian language in all of its purity."

Every so often Napoleon put forth laws in favour of the Florentines, such as the decree of 9 January 1811 which reestablished the former Accademia della Crusca, "particularly charged with the revision of the dictionary of the Italian language, and with the conservation of the purity of such." Thanks in part to the reopening of the Academy, a project was begun to publish a new edition of the Dictionary. The Academy's scholars were given an annual salary of 500 francs, 1000 francs were paid to those charged with the compilation of the dictionary, and 1200 francs were paid to the secretary of the Academy. In 1813 the Accademia della Crusca acquired the Biblioteca Riccardiana, an important collection of texts and manuscripts.

Progress was however, if perhaps inevitably, slow. Various fascicles concerning words beginning with the letter ‘A’ were issued over the ensuing years, but the first complete volume of this fifth edition of the Vocabolario appeared only in 1863. Further volumes were issued at irregular intervals until 1923 when the project was finally halted on the completion of ‘O’. Thus the Fifth Edition’s final word was Ozono.

Significance of the Accademia della Crusca to the Early Modern Mediterranean

Filippo Sassetti defines an academy as an association of persons of noble birth for the study of letters. He also identifies a significant difference between the ancient and modern academies. Within modern academies all members were of equal hierarchical status and not subjected to a leader or figure head, unlike that of the past Greek academies. Yates claims this to be a ‘curious definition’ that sheds light on the importance of equal status.[7] The significance of this equality can be found in the fact that it didn’t truly exist within the Early Modern Period. Society and its structure were strictly segmented into hierarchical divisions which not only restricted its inhabitants but also defined them within that society. The desire for equality and the ability to move up in status existed but was rarely a feature of the early modern period. It can be seen in France with the Nobles of the Robe and within the Ottoman Empire and its Devsirme, but did not exist within the ever popular Guild.

The production of a dictionary is a significant development within language and culture as it defines who people are and what society or group they belong to. It also has obvious benefits for the progression of a language and its spread throughout society. With Johannes Gutenberg inventing the Moveable type (leading to better circulation of intellectual documents)and an increased interest in education, as a means of furthering ones social status, a dictionary becomes vital for the official verification and filtering of a language. As the Vernacular slowly replaced Latin in business and official records, it provided jobs for notaries, secretaries and clerks for men who not attended university. This process delivered a broader circle of literary individuals, and habitual readers, but also served to divide people from those elsewhere.[8]

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Notes and References

  1. Yates, Frances A. 1983. "The Italian Academies." In Renaissance and Reform: The Italian Contribution. London, Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp.6
  2. Yates, Frances A. 1983. "The Italian Academies." In Renaissance and Reform: The Italian Contribution. London, Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp.7
  3. Yates, Frances A. 1983. "The Italian Academies." In Renaissance and Reform: The Italian Contribution. London, Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp.18
  5. Yates, Frances A. 1983. "The Italian Academies." In Renaissance and Reform: The Italian Contribution. London, Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp.17/18
  6. Yates, Frances A
  7. Yates, Frances A. 1983. "The Italian Academies." In Renaissance and Reform: The Italian Contribution. London, Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp.17
  8. Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E.2006."Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789". New York, Cambridge University Press, pp.31