Latin was the literary language of Italy before the 13th century and was used for the writing of historical and religious poems, lives of the saints, chronicles, didactic and scientific works.  As well as writing in Latin, a number of the early Italian poets wrote in French and borrowed most of their verse forms and literary themes from foreign sources.

The earliest poetry written in Italian was between the 13th and early 14th century in a Sicilian school connected with the German Hohenstaufen court of the Italian-speaking Holy Roman emperor Frederick II and his son Manfred. The two most outstanding poets of the school were Giacomo Pugliese (flourished about 1230-50) and Rinaldo d’Aquino.

By the late 14th century, Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio were the first Italian writers to make literary use of the Tuscan dialect spoken in Florence, Siena, and other towns of in this region, thereafter this was accepted as the language of culture.