The epic tradition of Charlemagne in Italy

The epic tradition of Charlemagne in Italy

By Jane E. Everson

Cahiers de recherches médiévales, Vol.12 (2005)

Introduction: From the late thirteenth century to the end of the Renaissance, Carolingian narratives centred on the deeds of Charlemagne, Roland and the peers of France enjoyed immense popularity in Italy at all levels of society. Some of the greatest writers of this period were attracted to the genre and produced in it their masterpieces. And if, for the early period, the most important compositions are often anonymous, for the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the names of Andrea da Barberino, Pulci, Boiardo, Ariosto and Tasso, to name only the best known and most influential, serve to underline the status of Carolingian narrative literature as the pre-eminent literary genre in the vernacular. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the sheer length of time during which the Carolingian narrative tradition flourished in Italy, the large number of writers involved with the genre, the wealth of material both in content and style, the range of developments and modifications, all pose major problems for the scholar aiming to produce a comprehensive historical and thematic survey of the genre.

The magnitude of the task had already taxed E. G. Gardner at the beginning of the twentieth century and Sir Anthony Panizzi at the beginning of the nineteenth. It is perhaps scarcely surprising, therefore, that the history of Carolingian narratives in Italy, while highly desirable, still effectively remains to be written. Inevitably therefore a survey article like the present discussion can paint only the broad outlines and trace only the major steps in the development of Carolingian narratives in Italy. Regrettably but unavoidably much will be omitted that in a larger context would naturally be included. The aim therefore will be to focus on the verse narratives in the vernacular which have as their core themes the epic struggles of Charlemagne against the Saracens, and the deeds (gesta) of Roland, the peers of France and their chief pagan antagonists. While maintaining a chronological approach, the discussion will aim to emphasise the most significant modifications and innovations of the Italian tradition as well as key aspects of continuity.

The narratives of Charlemagne, Roland and the peers of France are first attested in Italy in the form of sculpted reliefs dating from the twelfth century, in baptismal records and in various place names. The earliest literary records of the tradition date, however, from the later thirteenth century. At this period chansons de geste were being regularly recited in Italy, and at least as far as northern Italy is concerned, were being copied in the original French by Italian scribes. Chansons de geste in French continued to be copied for Italian audiences until into the fifteenth century, again especially in the Po valley where a certain bilingualism in the reception of such texts persisted long after texts ceased to be produced in French. From the early fourteenth century, however, new compositions begin to emerge, still in the traditional form of laisses, but in hybrid linguistic forms known as Franco-Italian or Franco-Venetian. These narratives originate especially in the Po valley and in particular the areas around Padua and Verona. South of the Apennines in Tuscany, where the linguistic influence of Dante and Boccaccio was obviously strongly felt, the narratives passed into Italian by the mid-fourteenth century at the same time as the new metre of ottava rima was invented and imposed itself as the fundamentally important vehicle of Italian narrative poetry. Though the influence of Dante is paramount in terms of language, it is Boccaccio who had the greater influence on the development of vernacular narratives of Charlemagne, both through his own vernacular epic in ottava rima, the Teseida, and through his brilliant demonstration of the powers of vernacular prose. In the course of the fourteenth century Carolingian narratives develop in prose in Tuscany and reach their apogee with the work of Andrea da Barberino in the early fifteenth century. This simultaneous existence of, and interaction between, vernacular prose accounts and verse narratives within the Carolingian narrative tradition makes tracing the textual transmission of a particular narrative very complex. Andrea’s work of compilation stands, however, as something of a watershed; thereafter the prose tradition becomes much less significant in terms of new compositions. Subsequent writers drew significantly on Andrea’s work, but it was the narrative in ottava rima which became, in the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries, the vehicle of the Carolingian tradition in Italy. From the mid-fifteenth century to the mid-sixteenth century Italy saw the greatest flowering of the vernacular narrative derived from the chansons de geste -paradoxically, since this was also the context of the great flowering of the revival of classical culture, of the Renaissance. To this period, nonetheless, belong the poems of Pulci, Boiardo and Ariosto, the significant contributions of other court poets and second rank writers, and the vigorous continuation of the cantari by anonymous figures. The popularity and vigour of the whole tradition can best be measured in the number of titles in the genre produced in the period between 1470 and the end of the sixteenth century, and the frequency with which individual titles were reprinted. After the middle of the sixteenth century, however, the changed cultural and political climate had already begun to spell the decline of the genre and its definitive retreat into purely popular levels of culture after a period of two centuries of innovation and experiment in which it had occupied a prominent place at the most sophisticated levels of high culture.

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