A History of Italian Literature/Chapter X

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The history of the Italian chivalric epic is one of the most interesting departments of the story of literature, both on its own account, and because it reveals as in a mirror the growth of the more important epic of the tale of Troy. It arose out of a real event of the deepest importance to Europe, but this it so disfigured by romance and imagination as to be hardly recognisable. Charles Martel, the deliverer of France from the Saracens, is confounded with another and still more illustrious Charles, whose relations with the Saracen monarchs were usually amicable; and, by what seems to be a universal law, this hero comes to occupy but a corner of the temple nominally dedicated to him, and his renown is transferred to creatures of pure imagination. As Agamemnon, who at all events personifies the most powerful state of primitive Greece, yields as a poetic hero to such historically subordinate, if not absolutely fictitious personages as Achilles and Ulysses; as the terrible Attila, the portent of his time, shrinks in the Nibelungen Lied into the insignificant figure of Etzel; so, in the romancer's eye, the real glories of Charlemagne dwindle to nothing before the petty skirmish of Roncesvalles.

In all these instances, and equally so in the cycle of Arthur, a germ of historical reality lies latent in the human consciousness for centuries, and then suddenly becomes prolific of a wealth of imaginative detail. There can be no reasonable doubt that the writers of the Homeric epics, whether few or many, stood in the same relation to their sources as Malory and Boiardo to theirs, inheritors of a tradition in which they reposed genuine belief, but which at the same time they thought themselves at liberty to embellish and diversify as they deemed best. We should probably find the resemblance between the development of Trojan and of Arthurian legend to be very close, had we the same acquaintance with the intellectual history of ancient Greece as we possess with that of the mediæval period. Both were the result of a great poetical revival, when the awakening spirit grasped eagerly at the nutriment nearest to hand; and the Celtic romancers of the twelfth century were inspired by true Celtic yearnings for an irrevocable past, finding much of their material in the national historian, Geoffrey of Monmouth.

With the Italian romantic epic the case was somewhat different: it was largely influenced by a single book, and one composed with a direct polemical purpose. The fear and hatred entertained in the tenth and eleventh centuries for the Saracen invaders and the Danes, and other heathens frequently confounded with them, found expression at last in a remarkable book, the Latin Chronicles attributed to Turpin, Archbishop of Rheims in the eighth century, but really a fabrication of the eleventh, in which Charlemagne and his paladins were idealised as the vanquishers of the pagans. From the prominent position given to Charlemagne's imaginary Spanish expeditions, the author is thought to have been a Spaniard, and he owed much to that "Iliad of the Middle Ages," the Song of Roland, also a production of the eleventh century. The panic passed away, but left behind it a rich deposit of romantic fiction, deriving a beauty unknown to former ages from the high estimate of woman which Christianity and Teutonic feeling had jointly contributed to the collective human consciousness. Utilised in many French narrative poems, this chivalric element first appeared in Italian in the elaborate prose-romance, I Reali di Francia. From this the step to metrical epic was easy, but the awkwardness of the Italian poets' first attempts seems to indicate that it was not taken until the poetic art had reached its period of deepest depression in the early part of the fifteenth century, when the rude and tedious epics Buovo di Antona (Bevis of Hampton), La Spagna, Febus, and Queen Ancronja were probably composed.

Another epic of the same period, without a name, recently discovered, is to a considerable extent the groundwork of the Morgante Maggiore[1] of Luigi Pulci (1432–87), a humorous poem with a serious purpose, or, at least, unconsciously expressing some of the most serious phenomena of the age. Its mixture of sincere religious feeling and genuine humanity with the most irreverent buffoonery has made it the stumbling-block of critics and literary historians, whose interpretation of its tendencies and estimate of its author's character are usually determined by their own prepossessions. While it is impossible to deny that Morgante's companion, the epicurean gourmand Margutte,[2] is the author's special creation, and the object of his chief predilection among his characters, other portions of the poem are couched in so lofty a strain, that he has been supposed to have had assistance from no less a philosopher than Ficino and no less a poet than Politian. Sarcastic sallies at the expense of the popular theology alternate with set passages of fervent orthodoxy. To us the Morgante appears a symbol of the intellectual anarchy then prevalent among the most intelligent Italians, among whom the religious sentiment survived, while its external vesture had become mere mythology; who had neither, like Benivieni, fallen under the influence of Savonarola, nor were disqualified by lack of classical culture from participating in the humanistic revival. Pulci's opinions are probably expressed by Astaroth, a devil introduced to aid the paladins and talk divinity, and whose discourse contains a marvellous foreshadowing of the discovery of America.

There can, nevertheless, be no question that the frivolous and mocking element in the Morgante is the source of its celebrity and literary importance. It is the first really great modern example of burlesque poetry, and there are few literatures without traces of its influence. In our own, it was the father of Frere's Whistlecraft, which was the father of Beppo and the Vision of Judgment, the first stanza of which latter poem inverts an idea of Pulci's; and Byron accompanied these masterpieces by a translation of Pulci's first canto, upon which he himself set a special value. It has been contended that Shakespeare was acquainted with Pulci, and certainly Panizzi's portrait of the vindictive traitor Gano in the Morgante might almost serve for one of Iago, while Orlando's unsuspecting magnanimity resembles Othello's. Panizzi justly praises the truth and dignity of the characters of Orlando and Rinaldo, and says of the general economy of the poem: "Pulci was the first who wrote a long and complicated poem which, diversified as it is by many incidents, has a principal subject and a principal character, on which all other parts and personages depend, without which the poem could not subsist, and which by itself alone forms an uninterrupted narrative. This hero and this subject are Gano and his treachery, which brings on the defeat of Roncesvalles."

These are great merits. The principal defects are summed up by a genial admirer, Leigh Hunt (Stories from the Italian Poets, vol. i.), as the want of fine imagery and natural description, and frequent triviality and prolixity. The vulgarity objected to by the Italian critics must exist, but is not equally offensive to a foreigner. The poem is fully analysed by Panizzi in the first volume of his edition of Boiardo, and its general character may be very well caught from Byron's translation of the first canto. Pulci's higher strain is ably conveyed in the following portion of a translation of an episode by Lady Dacre:

"And because Love not willingly excuses
One who is loved and loveth not again;
(For tyrannous were deemed the rule he uses,
Should they who sue for pity sue in vain;
What gracious lord his faithful liege refuses?)
So when the gentle dame perceived the pain
That well-nigh wrought to death her valiant knight,
Her melting heart began his love requite.

And from her eyes soft beamed the answering ray
That Oliver's soul-thrilling glance returns;
Love in these gleamy lightnings loves to play
Till but one flame two youthful bosoms burns.

To tend his grievous wounds she comes one day,
And towards him with greeting mute she turns;
For on her lips her voiceless words are stayed,
And her bright eyes are fain to lend their aid.

When Oliver perceived that Forisene
Accosted him with shrinkingy timid grace,
The pains which insupportable had been,
Vanished, and to far other ills gave place:
His soul is tost sweet hopes and doubts between,
And you might almost 'mid these flutterings trace
A dear assurance to be loved by her;
For silence is Lovers best interpreter."

Not much is known of Pulci's life except that he was the intimate friend, correspondent, and confidential agent of Lorenzo de' Medici, and is said to have composed his poem at the request of Lorenzo's mother, whom he celebrated after her death. The disposition of his contemporaries to attribute the finest portions of his poem to Ficino and Politian may indicate some failure on his part to sustain the poetical character in his daily walk and conversation; while the more serious passages of his poetry, especially the noble pathos of the death of Orlando, disclose an elevated soul. Orlando, standing alone among his slaughtered friends on the battlefield of Roncesvalles, is visited by the angel Gabriel, who offers him a new army, and promises that earth and sea shall tremble at his name. But Orlando prefers to follow those who are gone. The Morgante was not printed till the year after Pulci's death. His minor works include a poem of humble life, in imitation of Lorenzo's Nencia, and a series of polemical sonnets against Matteo Franco, who was equally dyslogistic on his own part. Neither poet need be taken very seriously.

The year preceding the appearance, of the Morgante (1486) saw the posthumous publication of the first part of another poem, which, from some points of view, is entitled to rank at the very head of romantic poetry. This is the Orlando Innamorato of Matteo Maria Boiardo, Count of Scandiano. Little is known of his life except its simple and noble outline. He was born at his family seat of Scandiano, near Reggio, in the Modenese, about 1434, Like his successors, Ariosto and Tasso, he was a favourite at the court of the Duke of Ferrara, his sovereign. He celebrated Antonia Caprara in his lyrics, and bestowed his hand upon Taddea Novellara. In his later years he was successively governor of Modena and Reggio. In his disposition he was most generous, and too clement for his arduous public duties. He composed Latin poetry, and translated several classical and other authors; and died in 1494, on the eve of the invasion of Charles VIII., prophetically bewailing the consequent ruin of Italy at the end of his unfinished Orlando Innamorato, which he is supposed to have begun about 1472. The greater part of this poem had been published in 1486, the continuation is said to have appeared in 1495, but the edition of 1506 is the earliest now extant.

Although Orlando and Rinaldo are the heroes, the story of Boiardo's poem is original. "Turpino istesso la nascose," he says. It is exceedingly graceful and ingenious. Argalia and his sister Angelica, the children of the King of Cathay, present themselves at Charlemagne's court. The former has an enchanted lance, by the virtue of which he might have overthrown all Charles's paladins; but the pig-headed Saracen Ferau persists, like Monsieur Jourdain's servant, in thrusting tierce when he ought to thrust quarte, and Argalia is glad to make his escape, leaving the lance behind him. It falls into the hands of Astolfo, the English knight, not hitherto especially distinguished in battle or tourney, but who at least possesses his countrymen's characteristic of not knowing when they are beaten.

"Solea dir, ch' egli era per sciagura,
E tornava a cader senza paura."

By means of this lance Astolfo performs the most signal exploits, delivering Charles from the invasion of Gradasso, King of Sericana, who makes war upon him to obtain Rinaldo's steed Bajardo, and Orlando's sword Durindana. Rinaldo and Orlando themselves are absent in pursuit of Angelica, who has returned to her own country. Angelica and Rinaldo are alternately wrought to fondness and antipathy through the spell of enchanted potions supplied by the poet ad libitum. Orlando, without obtaining any share of her affections, remains her humble slave. All are involved in a maze of adventures, most cunningly interwoven, replete with the endless delight of inexhaustible invention and the surprise of perpetual novelty. No motto for the poem could be more appropriate than that with which Panizzi prefaces his edition:

"Ille per extentum funem mihi posse videtur
Ire poeta, meum qui pectus inaniter angit,
Irritat, mulcet, falsis terroribus implet,
Ut magus, et modo me Thebis, modo ponit Athenis."

In spite of the wild and fanciful character of the incidents, a deep interest is excited for the principal personages, who are truly human, except when avowedly of the fortisque Gyas fortisque Cloanthus order, or, as the Italian poet himself has it,

"Avino, Avolio, Ottone, e Berlinghiero."

In this respect Boiardo has a great advantage over Spenser; his characters are actual people, not mere abstractions, and he is unencumbered with allegory. As a master of poetic language he is greatly inferior. Though both picturesque and tuneful, he is far from rivalling the colour and music of the Englishman. Compared to the Faerie Queene his poem is as his own clear-chiming octave to the sonorous magnificence of the Spenserian stanza. In general, his tone is much more easy and familiar than Spenser's; when he chooses, however, his sentiment is more elevated and his pathos more moving. Poetry has few passages at once so nobly heroic and so exquisitely touching as the combat between Orlando and Agricane, epitomised by Leigh Hunt in his Stories from the Italian Poets. The pen fell from Boiardo's hand just as he was bringing his errant heroes back to encounter the new invasion of the African king Agramante, and the powerful hand that took it up used it to delay the approaching denouement, and superimpose a new structure upon the original foundation. In every literary quality Ariosto excels Boiardo, but he is a remove further from the realms of chivalry and fairie, and

"Never can recapture
The first fine careless raptured."

Both are poets of the Renaissance, but Ariosto has more of that aspect of pomp and luxury which estranged Ruskin, and Boiardo of that half-erudite, half-ignorant naïveté which so fascinates in the pictures of Botticelli and Roselli. The following stanzas, translated by Miss Ellen Clerke, form an excellent specimen of Boiardo's manner in general, and exemplify that delightful blending of classic and romantic feeling only possible in the youth of a literature:

"In the glade's heart a youth upon the sward,
All nude, disported him with song and jest;
Three ladies fair, to serve their love and lord,
Danced round him, they, too, nude and all undrest.
Unmeet for sword and shield, for watch and ward,
He seemed, with eyes of brown, and sunny crest.
That yet the dim upon his cheek had sprouted,
By some might be averred, by others doubted.
Of roses, violets, and all blossoms pied,
Full baskets holding, they their merry game
Of love and frolic on the greensward plied,
When Montalbano's Lord upon them came.
'Behold the traitor!' with one voice they cried;
'Behold the recreant!' did all exclaim.
'Him, who all joy contemned of sense enraptured,
Now in his own despite our snare hath captured.
And with their baskets, when these words were said,
They on Rinaldo flung themselves amain;
One violets threw, another roses red,
Lilies and hyacinths they strewed like rain;
Each blow unto his heart keen anguish sped,
The marrow of his bones was searched with pain.
With burning aches they sting wher'er they settle,
As though of fire were leaf and flower and petal.

The youth who nude had figured on the scene,
When all his basket he had emptied out,
With a tall lily-stem full-branched with green,
Rinaldo on Mambrino's helm did flout.

No help availed that baron bold, I ween,
Felled like a four-year child beneath the clout,
Scarce touched he earth, ere he who thus had mauled him,
Caught by the heels and round the meadow hauled him.
Each of those ladies three a garland wore,
Of roses twined, deep damask or snow-white;
Each from her head its garniture now tore,
Since other weapons failed them for the fight,
And though the knight cried mercy o'er and o'er,
They ceased not, e'en when tired, to scourge and smite,
And dragged him round, and did with blows belabour,
Until the noonday sun shone on their labour.
Nor hauberk stout, nor iron plate of mail,
Those blows could fend, or parry their fierce might;
But all his flesh was bruised with wound and wale,
Beneath his arms, and with such fire alight,
That souls condemned, in the infernal vale,
Must of a surety suffer pains more slight
Than those in which this baron sore did languish,
When like to die of utter fear and anguish.

Nor could he tell if gods or men were those,
Nor prayers availed, nor aught such foes could rout;
And thus continued they, nor took repose,
Till on their shoulders wings began to sprout,
Of white and gold, vermilion blent with rose;
While from each plume a living eye looked out,
Not peacock-orbed, or other fowl's in seeming,
But like a lovely maiden's softly gleaming.
Then straight did they uplift themselves in flight,
And one by one unto high heaven upsoared,
Rinaldo, on the lawn, in doleful plight,
Now left alone, with tears his state deplored,
O'erwhelmed so sore with pain and woe that quite
His senses ebbed away, in grief outpoured;
And in the end such anguish did invade him,
That, as one dead, down on the sward he laid him."

The fastidious refinement of the Italians of the sixteenth century for a time obscured the fame of one of their most dehghtful authors. We have seen that Boiardo was a native of the district of Reggio; we have also seen that Reggio was among the places which, in the opinion of no less eminent a judge than Dante, were disqualified by their dialect from ever producing a poet. It is no wonder, therefore, that the Orlando Innamorato should teem with inelegances of diction, scarcely perceptible to a foreigner, but which seemed most flagrant in an age when priests pocketed their breviaries for fear of contaminating their style. Two other poets independently addressed themselves to the task of making Boiardct presentable. Domenichi, "a literary gentleman by trade," did little good or harm; he neither added nor omitted a stanza, except in the first canto, and as he went on his emendations fell off. Berni, a great writer in his way, of whonj much must be said when we treat of comic and familiar poetry, inserted many stanzas of his own, and altered so many throughout as to metamorphose the spirit no less than the diction of the poem. Chivalry and humour are nicely balanced throughout the original; the poet occasionally smiles at the extravagance of his own imaginations, but his irony never broadens into burlesque. In Berni's rifacimento the element of humour greatly preponderates, and the elegance and grace of the adulteration make no sufficient amends for the transposition of a noble poem from an heroic into a familiar key. Although his rifacimento was not frequently reprinted, it attained such celebrity in literary circles that Boiardo was almost forgotten, and the Orlando Innamorato commonly passed under Berni's name. No edition of the original as Boiardo wrote it was published from 1544 to 1830, when Antonio Panizzi, doubtless stimulated by the circumstance that he himself was born near Reggio,[3] redeemed it from oblivion, and restored it to the place it has ever since maintained as a star of at least the second magnitude in the constellation of Italian epic poetry.

The almost simultaneous appearance of two such poems as the Morgante and the Orlando by two writers of such social and intellectual distinction as Pulci and Boiardo, indicates that the love of chivalrous fiction must have been very rife in Italy. It is remarkable that the Italian writers should have so rarely essayed the easier path of prose-romance, but this they left to the Spaniards, who on their part, excepting in ballads, in that age rarely ventured upon poetical composition. One only of the Italian romantic epics between Boiardo and Ariosto deserves mention. It is the Mambriano of Francesco Bello, known as Il Cieco d'Adria. The blind bard amused the court of Mantua with recitations which he afterwards stitched together into a long poem devoid of all pretence to epic unity. But, as he himself observes, he thought he had done enough in bringing all the paladins back to Paris, and rendering all the Saracens tributary to the Emperor. His diction is often as unshapen as his story; nevertheless, he is a real poet, and his description of the Temple of Mars in particular will compare not unfavourably with those of Statius, Chaucer, and Boccaccio.

Before parting with the predecessors of Ariosto, a word should be said of Boiardo's minor poems. Besides a comedy, Timone, to be noticed hereafter, he wrote numerous canzoni and sonnets. Of these Panizzi justly says: "Boiardo's poetry, although in the manner of Petrarch, has all the marks of originality, and resembles more the character of the predecessors of the Bard of Laura than of his successors. His poetry was not written to be read, but to be sung, and was submitted to those musical as well as metrical laws by which that of Petrarch had been governed. In his day, music was still subject to poetry, and the inanimate instruments were designed to support, not to drown, the human voice." Panizzi, therefore, seems to consider Boiardo the last of the truly melodious lyrists of Italy; though it is just to point out that his remark respecting the predominance of the instrument over the voice did not become applicable until the seventeenth century, and that he elsewhere seems to confine the decay of Italian melody to the two centuries immediately preceding his own time (1830). His edition of Boiardo's lyrics is almost inaccessible but he has quoted enough in his memoir of the author to confirm his favourable judgment of their literary qualities.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

  1. Morgante is the name of a giant converted to Christianity by Orlando. He dies in the middle of the poem.
  2. The evident Greek derivation of this name from margos (gluttonous) lends some countenance to the suspicion that Politian had a hand in Pulci's poem.
  3. It is curious to note in this connection that Rubiera, the original seat of Boiardo's family, having become a state prison under the modern Dukes of Modena, gave Panizzi the subject for his first publication, known under the abridged title of I Processi di Rubiera.