Italian music in the 14th century (the "trecento") has a history different from that of French music in the same period.
Little is known about the development of composed polyphony in Italy to 1300, although it is obvious from inspection of the earliest preserved compositions, from around 1330, that Italians already had a fairly extensive experience in its writing; these early works show an originality and skill not possible in first attempts.
Early examples of Italian polyphony are nearly all secular works. This emphasis on the secular as the place of polyphony is a general characteristic of the Italian Ars Nova, for little seems to have been composed for liturgical purposes.
Very few actual examples of Italian polyphony have been preserved which can be dated earlier than about 1330. After that date, several manuscripts exist including the Squarcialupi Codex. It contains 352 pieces, mostly for two and three voices, by twelve composers.
The foremost Italian musician of the 14th century was Francesco Landini, a musician-poet comparable in his versatility and genius to Guillaume de Machaut in France at the same time. His output makes up about one-fourth the repertoire of the Italian Ars Nova that is preserved, its high place indicated by the great number of sources into which it was copied. Of Landini's 154 preserved compositions, the vast majority are ballate, 91 for two and 42 for three voices, with 8 others in double versions, for two and for three. The remainder of the output is divided between the madrigal, with 9 for two and 2 for 3 voices, and the caccia, with but two examples.
Melodic improvisation played a large role in Italian music, with much attention paid to the simultaneous improvisation of both words and music. Such a stress on melody as a major constituent of music gives to Italian compositions of the Ars Nova a completely different orientation from the French, for, instead of using the tenor as a strong foundation above which the other parts are composed, the uppermost melody, that with the poetic text, is preeminent and acts as a generator of the lower lines. The Italians had very little use for the "cantus firmus" technique and were barely interested in the structural complexities of the motet. The French worked up from the tenor while the Italians worked down from the uppermost part.
The high position of improvisation was not peculiar to secular music; it accounts also for the lack of attention given by Italian musicians to the composition of sacred polyphony. Improvisation supplied all the needs for polyphony within the church, leaving little necessity for composed polyphony.
Modern Italian scholars insist upon the continuity of an Italian musical tradition centered about the exposition of the beauty of the voice; no matter the subject or the period, there is always the emphasis in their studies on this point.
Unlike the music of Machaut, Landini's works show the Italian concentration upon the voice, for the greater part of his compositions are vocally oriented. Landini's handling of melismata implies a strong feeling for vocal technique. Penultimate syllables are often emphasized with sweeping melodic insertions, leading finally into graceful cadences. To match the smoothness of individual line, there is also a harmonic clarity and avoidance of dissonance in contrapuntal movement. There are no parallel seconds and sevenths, such as abounded in the 13th century, and few parallel fifths and octaves. Full triad sonorities are plentiful, though they are never used as either first or final chords. The overall effect is one of suavity and easy flow, typically Italian.
(Instruments) Many of Landini's three-part ballate are, like the French ballades, for solo voice with two accompanying parts. It should be stressed that there was no uniform, fixed way of performance. The fact that one part lacks text is not conclusive that it is intended for an instrument and the converse is also the case. We must also keep in mind the likelihood of instrumental doubling (perhaps with added embellishments) of a sung melody and also the possibility of alternation of instruments and voice; for example, the florid melismas at the beginning and end of a madrigal may have been played and the rest of the part sung, and both conceivably by the same performer.
After Landini, in the latter part of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th, there is more and more of a turn to French models, not only in notation and rhythm, but also in the forms themselves and the language used.
Three types of secular Italian composition are represented in the Squarcialupi Codex: madrigal, caccia, and ballata.
The 14th-century madrigal, one of the first polyphonic genres to be cultivated in Italy, has many traits that suggest some historical connection with the French 13th-century polyphonic conductus. Madrigals were usually written for two voices; their texts were idyllic, pastoral, amatory, or satirical poems of two or three three-line stanzas. The stanzas were all set to the same music; at the end of the stanzas an additional pair of lines, called the ritornello, was set to different music with a different meter. Although the two melodic lines flowed in similar smooth vocal style, the upper was embellished with melismatic passages.
The caccia is another form which may have owed something to foreign examples. In 14th-century France there was a type of piece called a "chace," with lively pictorial-descriptive words and a melody of popular cast designed to be sung in strict canon. The Italian caccia, which seems to have flourished chiefly from 1345 to 1370, was likewise canonic, for two equal voices at the unison; but it usually had also, unlike the French and Spanish examples, a free supporting instrumental part in slower movement below. Both the French and Italian words have the same meaning: "hunt" or "chase." The title also alludes to the typical text dealing with hunting, fishing, bustling market life, girls gathering flowers, a fire, a battle, or such.
The polyphonic ballata flourished later than the madrigal and caccia, and showed some influence of the French ballade style. Originally the word ballata signified a song to accompany dancing. The ballata form was used for the lauda, and in this connection lost some of its dance characteristics. A few 14th-century monophonic ballate have been preserved, but most of the examples in the manuscripts are for two or three voices, and date after 1365. These purely lyrical, stylized, polyphonic ballate resemble in form the French virelai. They have a two-line refrain (ripresa) which was sung at both the beginning and the end of a six-line stanza.
Landini's three-part madrigal "Sy dolce non sono" is exceptional in being constructed on an isorhythmic tenor, and one senses that the composer was not entirely at ease with the difficult technique. On the other hand, in "De dimmi tu" a canon at the fifth between tenor and contratenor does not constrain him in the least; this madrigal, in fact, is one of Landini's most beautiful compositions.