A History of Italian Literature/Chapter XV

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A History of Italian Literature  (1901)  by Richard Garnett
Chapter XV. Humorous Poetry—The Mock Heroic



Numerous as are the poets we have briefly passed in review, many more might have been added whom it would have been agreeable to have met in the barren fifteenth century. The Renaissance had by this time entered into the blood of Italy, and produced one of the best effects of impregnation with the classical spirit—a passion for fame. This we find as constantly assigned as a motive of action in public affairs in that day as humanitarian inducements are in ours; and when it is considered that the sincerity of the former motive is much less questionable than that of the latter, it is not clear that the comparison is wholly to the advantage of the nineteenth century. Almost every man of any mark was deeply influenced by it, and it was one of the most potent instruments in stimulating both literary and artistic production. The drawback was that the aspirant to fame was naturally inclined to take the easiest and most fashionable path, and thus the same impulse which braced effort suppressed originality.

The sentiment of an age mainly under the sway of Petrarch naturally encouraged the production of lyrical poetry, and other styles were neglected in comparison. Apart from the epical attempts which have been mentioned, and the dramatic and humorous poems to which allusion remains to be made, the period has little to show apart from the lyric, with the exception of some didactic poems—the Balía and the Podere of Luigi Tansillo, the Nautica of Baldi, the Caccia of Valvasone, and two others modelled after Virgil, the Coltivazione of Luca Alamanni, and the Api of Giovanni Rucellai, both excellent examples of the description of poetry which owes most to artifice and least to inspiration. This might perhaps pass for a general character of the poetry of the period, which ranks with the ages of Augustus and Anne as an example of what exquisite culture can and cannot effect in the absence of creative power. It was of high value to succeeding periods by bequeathing to them a norm and standard of good taste by which to chasten their frequent aberrations; and, notwithstanding its almost academical character, it was actually in vital relation with the literary appetite of its limited but highly accomplished public. There was not, says Dolce, a cultivated person in Italy who could not repeat before it was in print Bernardo Tasso's sonnet resigning his mistress to his successful rival, a fact which proves not only the existence of a general appreciation of poetry independent of the machinery of reviewing and the printing-press itself, but also a general preference for its most refined and dignified examples.

The didactic poems of which we have spoken claim the less attention, inasmuch as they were in no respect national. The rules for good didactic poetry are the same in all languages, and any accomplished versifier will instruct in agriculture or the chase in much the same manner in any country, however his local colouring may vary with his climate. It is otherwise with satirical, familiar, and mock-heroic poetry. In all these styles Italian work is individual and characteristic. Satiric traits are frequent enough in the contemporaries of Dante, and from one point of view Dante himself may be regarded as a great satirist. The professed satire, nevertheless, of modern Italy derives from Horace rather than Juvenal; it aims at good-humoured raillery rather than scathing vehemence or corroding virulence; and its impetus is further moderated by its being generally composed in the easy and garrulous terza rima. Alessandro Vinciguerra (born 1480) appears to have first imparted this stamp; but the great exemplar is Ariosto, whose satires are not the least ornament of his poetic crown, yielding little in facetious urbanity to his model Horace.

The vigorous satires of Luigi Alamanni, imitated in English by Sir Thomas Wyat, evince a remarkable freedom of speech. Bentivoglio, Aretino, Anguillara, and other writers of note followed in his track with varying success. The first to employ blank verse in satire was Lodovico Paterno, who is perhaps more exceptionally distinguished for having achieved an epithalamium to Queen Mary of England without the least allusion to her restoration of the Roman Catholic religion. The Decennali of Machiavelli, a highly-condensed sketch in verse of the events of his time, may also be regarded as a satire; but his reputation as a poet rather arises from his Capitoli, disquisitions in verse in which Tansillo and many others also excelled, and whose easy familiarity is hardly to be paralleled in any other literature, and from his elegant versification of portions of Apuleius's Golden Ass. Francesco Coppetta (1510–1554), an excellent writer of sonnets, extended the domain of poetry by constituting himself the first laureate of the feline species. His ode on the loss of his cat (di tutta la Soria gloria e splendore, and consequently an Angora) is a curious blending of parodies of Petrarch with genuine feeling. He eventually finds comfort in the conclusion that the object of his affections has been appropriated by Jupiter and placed among the constellations. Two brilliant stars never seen before have of late been observable in the firmament, and the inference is obvious.

Ariosto and Machiavelli, nevertheless, although geniuses of the first order, rank in familiar poetry below Francesco Berni, better equipped for it by nature and entirely devoted to its practice. Berni, born at Lamporecchio, near Florence, about 1497, was a dependant of the Medici, successively attached to Cardinal Bibbiena and to Bishop Ghiberti, Papal datary. His life was consequently for a long time spent at Rome, where he enjoyed the friendship of the most eminent men of letters of the period, executed the remodelled version of Boiardo's Orlando Innamorato by which his name is best known, and produced the numerous Capitoli, which would stand high as examples of easy familiar verse, were it not for their frequent indecency. They gave the pattern of the style (Bernesque) which has derived its name from him, and in which he has had many successors, but no absolute rival. Humour, as Roscoe remarks, is very local, Berni loses much, not merely by translation, but on perusal by a foreigner. It is enough for his fame if he continues to be appreciated in his own country, and that nothing worse happens to him abroad than must equally happen to the author of a Hudibras or a Jobsiad. How well some portions of his work lend themselves to translation in congenial hands may appear from a specimen, rendered by Leigh Hunt, of the poem whose subject is the author's own prodigious laziness. His portrait of himself is very lifelike, and probably very accurate:

"The man, for all that, was a happy man;
Thought not too much; indulged no gloomy fit;
Folks wished him well. Prince, peasant, artisan,
Every one loved him; for the rogue had wit,
And knew how to amuse. His fancy ran
On thousands of odd things which he had writ:
Certain mad waggeries in the shape of poems,
With strange elaborations of their proems.
Choleric he was withal, when fools reproved him;
Free of his tongue, as he was frank of heart;
Ambition, avarice, neither of these moved him;
True to his word; caressing without art;
A lover to excess of those that loved him;
Yet, if he met with hate, could play a part
Which showed the fiercest he had found his mate
Still he was pronerfar to love than hate.
In person he was big, yet tight and lean,
Had long thin legs, big nose, and a large face;
Eyebrows which there was little space between;
Deep-set, blue eyes; and beard in such good case
That the poor eyes would scarcely have been seen
Had it been suffered to forget its place;
But, not approving beards to that amount,
The owner brought it to a sharp account."

Berni's death did him more honour than his life. The suppressed dedication to the twentieth canto of his Orlando seems to prove that he had become serious in his later years, and fallen under Protestant influences; but this was unknown to Cardinal Cibo, who deemed him the right sort of man to commend a poisoned chalice to the lips of Cardinal Salviati; and his refusal, there is every reason to believe, cost him his own life (1535). He died with strong symptoms of poison, was buried hastily without epitaph or monument, and, although his works were collected, nothing was said of the author. This sudden silence corroborates the suspicioin of his Protestantism.

Berni's chief characteristics as a poet are graceful ease and perfect mastery of style and diction. He is fluent and entirely unembarrassed, never at a loss for the right word, and handles the difficult terza rima with the facility of prose. This command of language would have raised him high if he had possessed any of the elements of greatness; but he is incapable of elevated sentiment, and has the good sense never to aspire to it. What is most admirable in him, his poetical gift apart, is the evident sincerity and consistency of his Epicurean view of life, and his eupeptic sanity. As regards his strictly original compositions, he occupies about the same position in Italian poetry as Goldsmith would have filled in English if he had written nothing but Retaliations and Haunches of Venison. In his rifacimento of Boiardo's Orlando Innamorato he has attempted something more considerable, and, from his own point of view, with much success. Modern taste will hardly sympathise with his disfigurement of the romantic grace and simple sincerity of the original, for the mere sake of heightening the comic element and improving its style. In his own day men thought differently, and it must be admitted that the disparity between Boiardo's comparatively unadorned groundwork and the brilliant superstructure of Ariosto marred the continuity of the Orlando as a whole, and that the chasm may well have seemed to require filling up. Berni could not impart the special qualities of Ariosto, but he could bring Boiardo's style more nearly up to Ariosto's level, and he could adorn his original by graceful introductions to the respective cantos. Both these objects have been achieved with taste and success; and although Boiardo's comparatively artless composition is still the best, as nearest to Nature, it cannot be denied that Berni's alterations must have appeared to his contemporaries great improvements, and that his embellishments may be read with abundant pleasure. Conscious of his lack of poetical invention, he has abstained from interfering with the narrative. His work was not published until after his death, and there is reason to suspect that it was considerably adulterated by or at the instance of the great literary bullv of the day, Pietro Aretino.

It does not appear that Berni had any intention of parodying the Orlando Innamorato in his rifacimento; he simply wished to bring it, in his conception, nearer to the literary level of the continuation which had superseded it, and deemed that this could be best effected by an infusion of humour and satire. It would be a still greater error to assume, with some modern Italian critics, an intention on the part of Boiardo and Ariosto of parodying the old chivalric romance. They merely desired to adapt it to the spirit of their own age, as Tennyson has adapted the Morte d' Arthur to ours, and their sprightliness is the correlative of his moral earnestness. Ariosto is less reverent of his original than Boiardo, but he keeps within bounds. The great success of his poem, however, was sure to evolve a bona-fide parodist, as in our day Mark Twain has capered with cap and bells in the wake of Tennyson. The Italian Mark Twain was Teofilo Folengo (1491–1544), known under his pseudonym of Merlinus Cocaius as a distinguished cultivator of macaronic poetry, a by-path of literature which we are compelled to leave unexplored. He was a dissipated runaway monk, who repented, became serious, and resought his cell just as he seemed within an ace of turning Protestant. His Orlandino is a burlesque upon the poems of chivalry, with pieces of genuine poetry interspersed, and many digressions on the corruptions of the age, especially the vices of the religious orders. It is unfinished. What was published is gaid to have been written in three months, a statement confirmed by the energy of the verse.

It was a great step in Greek comedy when the mythological parodies which had constituted the substance of the middle comedy were replaced by the picture of contemporary manners which formed the staple of the new. So great an advance could not be made by Alessandro Tassoni (1565–1638), the chief representative of serio-comic poetry in the seventeenth century, for his age would not have tolerated it; but he effected much in the same direction by converting the mere parody of the chivalric romance which had satisfied his predecessors into the mock-heroic epic, a form of literature which, if he did not invent, he may claim to have perfected. Instead of contriving burlesque variations upon Ariosto, he took a real incident of a serio-comic nature—the war which in the thirteenth century had actually broken out between the republics of Modena and Bologna respecting a bucket carried off by the former. The treatment is admirable; the characters, some of whom are historical, and others sketched after Tassoni's contemporaries, have an air of reality altogether wanting to the personages of Folengo's parodies; there is enough of idyllic charm and tender pathos here and there to approve the writer a true poet, while humour dominates, and many of the sarcasms are really profound. A more biting irony on the wretched dissensions which had been the ruin of Italy cannot be conceived; and, notwithstanding a subordinate purpose of deriding Tasso's languid imitators, and the personal quarrel which prompted composition in the first instance, such was probably the main purpose of the writer, in his political sentiments and aspirations a statesman of the type of Machiavelli and Guicciardini, who burned with hatred of the Spanish oppressor, but, except for the two Philippics he composed in demonstration of the real hollowness of the Spanish power, could find no other vent for his patriotism than his poetry, and wasted his life in the service of petty princes. La Secchia Rapita (The Rape of the Bucket) was published under a pseudonym at Paris in 1622, having long circulated in manuscript. Tassoni also showed himself a bold if bilious critic of Petrarch, against whose predominance a reaction was declaring itself, and participated in the general anti-Aristotelian movement of his times by a volume of miscellaneous reflections.

A contemporary of Tassoni is usually named along with him as a master of the heroi-comic style, but is in every respect greatly his inferior. This is Francesco Bracciolini (1566–1645), whose pen, if he really meant to serve the Church by ridiculing the classical mythology, should have been wielded a century sooner. Part of the humour of his Scherno degli Dei consists in the unconscious anachronism. It manifests considerable fertility of invention, and has survived the author's four epics, placed as these were immediately after Tasso's by good judges in his own day. The Malmantile Racquistato of Lorenzo Lippi the painter, the delight of the philologist for its idiomatic Tuscan, is remarkable for embalming much local folk-lore, and so many local phrases as to be shorter than its own glossary.

Two more recent examples of the mock-heroic epic may be included here to complete the subject. The Ricciardetto of Niccolo Forteguerri, published under the pseudonym of Carteromaco, has received much merited and more unmerited praise. The author (1670–1730) was a prelate of the Roman court, and so great a favourite of Pope Clement XII. that he is said to have died from mortification at having displeased his patron by neglecting to ask for a vacant appointment. His poem burlesques the chivalric epics of Ariosto and others, not with the refined raillery of a Berni, but in a style of broad, coarse buffoonery. It was published after his death, when his friends sought to extenuate its unclerical character by alleging that it had been undertaken for a wager, composed in spare intervals of time, and never designed for publication. All these statements seem to be groundless. It has considerable merit as a burlesque, and some passages indicate a talent for serious poetry which might have developed into something considerable; in the main, however, the ability displayed is of a low though drastic strain. The best idea is that of making the Saracen champion Ferafi turn hermit, a character which he supports less in the fashion of St. Jerome than of Friar Tuck.

It seems an instance of apparent injustice in prevalent literary opinion that the Ricciardetto should be so widely known, while no less a poem than Leopardi's Supplement (Paralipomeni) to Homer's Battle of the Frogs and the Mice is hardly mentioned. The wonder, however, is not so great as it seems. Forteguerri wrote what all could understand, while Leopardi only cared to please exceptional readers, and was, moreover, compelled to shroud much of his satire in obscurity for fear of the ruling powers. The allegory, nevertheless, is sufficiently transparent. The vanquished mice are the people of Italy; the frogs are the priesthood and other accomplices of the powers of darkness; the crabs, who turn the scale in the latter's favour, are the Austrians. The weakness and disunion of the oppressed, no less than the brutality of the oppressor, are depicted with the most refined sarcasm. Nothing can be more humorous, for example, than the crab's exposition to the mouse of the principle of the balance of power; and through all the fancy and drollery pierce the grief and rage of a patriotic Italian. There are also fine flashes of true poetry, especially near the end, when the adventurous mouse visits the underworld of his species; and Ariosto is parodied as well as Dante. The satire, nevertheless, transcends the appreciation of ordinary readers; and it certainly does appear somewhat singular that the fastidious author, who composed so sparingly and with such difficulty upon the most exalted themes, should have bestowed so much labour upon a jeu d' esprit.

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