The Arthur of the Italians: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Italian Literature and Culture

The Arthur of the Italians: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Italian Literature and Culture


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The Arthurian legend reached all levels of society in medieval and Renaissance Italy, from princely courts, with their luxury books and frescoed palaces, to the merchant classes and popular audiences in the piazza, who enjoyed shorter retellings in verse and prose. The Arthur of the Italians offers an overview of the Arthurian fiction and art created in Italy during this time, with chapters examining, among other topics, the transmission of the French romances across Italy; the reworking of Arthurian tales in various Italian regional dialects; the textual relations of the story of Tristan; the narrative structures employed by Italian writers; later ottava rima poetic versions in the new medium of printed books; and the Arthurian-themed art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786830715
Publisher: University of Wales Press
Publication date: 06/15/2017
Series: Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages Series
Edition description: Reprint
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Gloria Allaire is a senior lecturer in Italian at the University of Kentucky. F. Regina Psaki is the Giustina Family Professor of Italian Language and Literature at the University of Oregon.

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Arthur of the Italians

The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Italian Literature and Culture

By Gloria Allaire, F. Regina Psaki

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2014 The Vinaver Trust
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78316-050-1



Keith Busby

Medieval Francophonia is a term I use to denote the various regions of Europe where the langue d'oïl was in use as a language of social, administrative, legal and literary discourse, beginning in the aftermath of the landing of William I of Normandy at Pevensey Bay in 1066 and continuing to the end of the fifteenth century. The word 'Francophonia', of course, is replete with implications in academic circles, as modern 'Francophone literature' has become a fashionable area within French departments and its growth has gone hand in hand with the rise of colonial and postcolonial studies. Here is not the place for an extended exposé of the parallels between the medieval and modern notions, but they are, mutatis mutandis, many and enlightening. The clash, coexistence and assimilation of cultures, languages and religions; tensions between political systems, between coloniser and colonised; problems of the governance of a distant diaspora; perception and awareness of ethnic identity – all feature prominently in the study of both medieval and modern Francophonia. Medieval Francophonia, which stretches geographically from Ireland in the west to the crusader kingdoms of the Levant in the east, did not develop uniformly or predictably. Indeed, it can be argued that the differences between its various regions are sometimes greater than the similarities, but the langue d'oïl indisputably provides a common denominator, furnishing not only the means of common discourse but also the prestige of an overachieving vernacular.

If the 'normannisation' of most of the big island was in many ways a classic case of colonisation and largely successful, Ireland, where the Cambro-Normans arrived in 1169, proved more difficult. Even though those parts of Ireland which acceded to Norman rule became thoroughly Norman, much of the smaller island resisted the invaders and remained stubbornly Irish, culturally and politically. The phrase 'Hiberniores Hibernis ipsis', the origin of which is obscure, points to the paradox of Norman success being dependent on Norman assimilation of Irish culture. The provenance of Hiberno-Norman authors and scribes in England, Wales and the continent makes it difficult to identify more than a handful of texts and manuscripts composed and copied in Ireland, but there must have been more than are currently known. The position of French in post-Conquest England is known in its broad outlines, although much work remains to be done rescuing Anglo-Norman (or Anglo-French or the French of England or Insular French) from the contemptuous attitudes of earlier generations.

A much more complex situation obtained on the continent than manuals of literary history suggest. Despite the underlying and enabling langue d'oïl, literary and linguistic regionalism is very much the norm, reflecting political situations and the relationship between the monarchy and the aristocracy. In the south, the literary dominance of the langue d'oc and the existence of bilingualism and border dialects require us to adjust the map. The courts of Flanders, Brabant and Hainaut in the north sometimes shifted between French and Dutch as a result of the cultural politics of intermarriage, and there is evidence of French literacy as far north as Utrecht.

Francophony in crusader culture of the Levant, centred around Acre but with a legacy that extends to fifteenth-century Cyprus and the great families of Ibelin and Lusignan, is only just beginning to be explored by Cyril Aslanov and Laura Minervini. It resulted, obviously, from a faith-based initiative, although many elements of a typical postcolonial culture are discernible in the wider context. Its cultural heyday was the century between the recapture of Acre by Richard I and Philippe-Auguste (1191) and the taking of the city by the Mamelukes (1291). Several workshops produced illuminated manuscripts of French texts composed there and in France. Aslanov and Minervini have even been able to discern distinctive dialectal features of crusader French.

Italian Francophonia has two principal centres, the Angevin court of Naples and the courts and city-states of the Veneto and Lombardy, with Florence providing a bridge between the two. Savoy is a geographical and cultural link between Francophone communities on both sides of the Alps. Whereas the milieux of the regno and Savoy were primarily aristocratic, with French being a language of both administration and culture, in the north the context is both courtly and non-courtly, but in any case basically literary. The merchant classes of the northern city-states and the great aristocratic families such as the Visconti, the Sforza, the Este and the Gonzaga mixed freely and intermarried with French aristocracy and royalty, creating a culture in which French literature became fashionable over a much wider social spectrum than usual. In Angevin Naples, French-language literary activity seems to have been limited, its best-known figure being Adam de la Halle, who composed Le jeu de Robin et de Marion there and began the Chanson du roi de Sicile for Charles I. Some Latin texts – historical, biblical and classical – were translated into French from the second half of the thirteenth century to the fourteenth, and a small number of manuscripts of existing French texts were copied there.

Within the north, the main region of Italian Francophonia, original works were composed in French and Franco-Veneto, and manuscripts copied in large numbers – of some texts on an almost industrial scale. The French texts copied were in both verse and prose, representing many different genres: romans antiques and Alexander romances, chansons de geste, some didactic works in verse and prose, (pseudo-)chronicles such as the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César, Li fait des romains, the French version of William of Tyre's Chronique d'Outremer, and numerous Arthurian prose romances examined in detail by others in this volume. The list is not exhaustive. I have argued elsewhere that most of these texts were popular in Italy because they appealed to a sense of 'national' pride. Those who read or listened to them were proud of Italy's role in the history of the ancient world, as the inheritor of Greek culture and a link in the chain of translatio studii et imperii; Italy – Aspramonte in particular – and the general Mediterranean region was the locus of action of many chansons de geste. These readers and listeners were the same people who commissioned, bought and owned manuscripts. Yet no such arguments can be made to explain the popularity of the Arthurian prose romances, which enjoyed wide dissemination among the aristocracy and merchant classes.

Italian Francophonia is distinct from most of the other regions in that it is not a result of any form of invasion or aggression. This is not to say that political motives and actions never played a part in the spread and acceptance of the French language and literature south and east of the Alps (they clearly did), but outside the Angevin realms in the south, we are not dealing with conquest and colonisation in the usual sense. It may be possible to think of French literature conquering Italy as a form of cultural colonisation, but if so, it is one in which the foreign language and its texts were both welcome and invited by the host.

The reception history of French Arthurian romance in medieval Italy is dominated, as other contributions in this volume amply demonstrate, by the copying, dissemination, ownership and adaptation of prose texts, most notably the Lancelot-Graal, the prose Tristan and Guiron le Courtois. Some of these texts are discussed in this volume by Fabrizio Cigni, Marie-José Heijkant and Daniela Delcorno Branca, while other work by the same scholars, listed in the bibliography, provides a more or less complete and up-to-date overview. Gloria Allaire sums up what is known about ownership of manuscripts. However, it would be false to conclude that earlier and other French Arthurian traditions had no impact in Italy, and more appropriate to argue that the traces they have left are more subtle and less visible.

If the importance of prose romance as the dominant form of Arthuriana in Italy and its popularity among the great Italian families such as the Este and the Visconti-Sforza must be acknowledged, it was equally widespread amidst those of lower social status who sought to enjoy the same French-language culture. This popularity is reflected in large-scale, almost industrial, production of manuscripts. More or less contemporaneous with the rise of Arthurian prose in the last decades of the thirteenth century and the first half of the fourteenth, however, a more discreet influence of the tradition of Chrétien de Troyes can be discerned, and it is that part of the legacy of the great Old French romancers which forms the object of the rest of this chapter. Chrétien may have been caught up in the general prestige of French in the aristocratic Italian courts and their satellites, but his verse clearly came to be seen in Italy as a less appropriate or less accessible medium for Arthurian romance.

The first possible traces of French Arthuriana in Italy are indeed visible and visual ones, namely the Modena archivolt and the Otranto mosaic. The dating of the sculpture on the Porta della Pescheria of Modena cathedral has not been firmly established, although it was most likely executed before 1140. The extensive mosaic covering the entire floor of Otranto cathedral was commissioned in 1163. If the general subject of the former is clear (the abduction, imprisonment and liberation of Guinevere), its precise source is not. Its complexity and numerous figures stand in contrast to the mute and enigmatic simplicity of the Arthurian scene in the latter (a figure captioned REX ARTURUS, holding a club of some kind, sits astride a goat and confronts a large cat-like creature). One French connection of the mosaic at least is known, namely the use of Norman craftsmen by Brother Pantaleone, himself working at the command of Archishop Gionato of Otranto. Neither of these images represents anything from Geoffrey of Monmouth and both predate Chrétien de Troyes. It therefore seems reasonable to conjecture that the sources of both the Modena and Otranto images may have been oral tales, brought over the Alps by itinerant storytellers and/or Norman craftsmen.

The Arthurian history of the written French word in Italy does not begin with prose romance. If the best-known testimony to knowledge of Chrétien in Italy is the excerpt from Cligés copied on the second folio of an added bifolium (fols 71–72) of Florence, Bibl. Riccardiana, MS Ricc. 2756, it is neither the only one nor the earliest. It is, however, the only textual witness and proof positive of the circulation of at least one manuscript of the romance in Italy sometime after 1300. The bulk of evidence for knowledge of Chrétien is in the form of allusions and quotations in non-Arthurian poetry in Occitan and Italian, the two other principal competing literary vernaculars in Italian Francophonia.

The Venetian troubadour Bertolomé Zorzi, who flourished in the third quarter of the thirteenth century, makes a clear reference to Chrétien. In En tal dezirs mos cors intra, a poem marked by the model of Arnaut Daniel, Bertolomé alludes to Perceval's confession to his hermit uncle:

'Don convenra que l'arma l'enfern intra,
Qu'el si gaudet, pois amors i mes l'ongla
Com Percevaus tro qu'anet a son oncle'. (11.

(So it's fitting that the soul will enter hell,
for it rejoices once love has put its fingernail in,
like Perceval before he went to his uncle.)

Guittone d'Arezzo, in Amor tanto altamente, a poem that may have been written before 1265, compares Perceval's silence at the Grail Castle to his own muteness before his lady:

    Fallenza era demando
    far lei senza ragione;
    poi veggio che, sí stando,
    m'ha sovrameritato el meo servire.
    Però 'n tacer m'asservo,
    perché già guiderdone
    non dea cheder bon servo;
    bisogna i' n'ho, che 'l chere 'l suo servire,
    se no atendendo m'allasso;
    poi m'avvenisse, lasso!
    che mi trovasse in fallo
    sì come Prezevallo – a non cherere.
    Verrei a presente morto!
    Ma non tal penser porto,
    né sí mala credenza,
    ché sola conoscenza – halla in podere. (21, ll. 65–80)

(It was a fault to ask it of her without reason; for I see that as things stand my service has outstripped me. Thus in silence I subject myself, because no good servant must ever ask for a reward; all I need is to ask to serve her, or else, waiting, I bind myself; then I, alas, would find myself at fault just like Perceval – for not asking. Then I would be dead! But I don't think such a thing, or hold such a wrong belief, for only knowledge – has that power.)

Beyond the significance of these allusions in the immediate context of the poems, we should note that they are both to key moments in the narrative of Chrétien's last romance, suggesting that both Zorzi and Guittone had detailed knowledge and good understanding of the text (and expected their audiences to have the same).

In the undated Letter 21 addressed to Orlando da Chiusi, Guittone also includes a partial translation of a couplet from Cligés, even mentioning Chrétien by name:

Unde Cristiano là ove Allessandro Novello dice:

'Reposo e loda
non concordano bene insieme'.

(Thus Chrétien, where the new Alexander says, 'Rest
and fame do not go well together.')

I take 'Allessandro Novello' to mean that Chrétien's character is a new Alexander the Great. The verbal detail here suggests intimate knowledge of Cligés, either from a copy to hand or from a retentive memory. This letter is replete with allusions to, and quotations from, Latin, Old French and Occitan texts: Aristotle, Cicero, Galen, Macrobius, Seneca, Socrates, Augustine, Bernard, Jerome, Gregory, Benoît de Sainte-Maure, Chrétien, Peire Rogier and Peire Vidal. It may well have been written after Guittone's conversion, and cannot be earlier than 1261, the date marking the start of Orlando's conflict with Guglielmino degli Ubertini, bishop of Arezzo. There is a clear difference in the use to which Chrétien has been put in these two contexts, first, as part of a traditional amorous meditation, and second, as the source of a moral exemplum. The couplet translated from Cligés is essentially a paremiological dictum.

Cligés appears to have left fewer traces in the Middle Ages than Chrétien's other romances – for example, by way of adaptations in other languages. Modern scholars have also tended to pay less attention to it. In Italy, however, it seems to have been relatively well known. In an Italian scribe's attempt to write an Occitan salut d'amor on the blank f. 60v of Florence, Bibl. Mediceo-Laurenziana, MS Plut. XLIV, 44 of Le Roman d'Eneas (late twelfth century), the two pairs of lovers from Chrétien's text are mentioned along with Floire and Blancheflor:

    Per vos, donna vallenz,
    ch'eu non aus dir
    ni non pos dir
    a vos ma desiranza ...
    En am plus vos
    de bon cor lialmenz
    che Cliges non ama
    Fenices verament
    ne Floire Blancaflor
    ne Alixandre Soredamors.

(For you, worthy lady, I do not dare nor can I tell you my desire ... I love you with a true heart more loyally than Cligès loved Fenice, or Floire Blanchefleur, or Alexandre Soredamor.)


Excerpted from Arthur of the Italians by Gloria Allaire, F. Regina Psaki. Copyright © 2014 The Vinaver Trust. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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Table of Contents

Ad Putter
The Contributors
Introduction: The Arthur of the Italians
F. Regina Psaki
Part One: France and Italy
1. Arthuriana in the Italian Regions of Medieval Francophonia
Keith Busby
2. French Redactions in Italy: Rustichello da Pisa
Fabrizio Cigni
3. From France to Italy: The Tristan Texts
Marie-José Heijkant
4. The Italian Contribution: La Tavola Ritonda
Daniela Dicorno Branca
Part Two: Arthurian Material in Italian Narrative Forms
5. Narrative Structure in Medieval Italian Arthurian Romance
Stefano Mula
6. Arthurian Material in Italian Cantari
Maria Bendinelli Predelli
7. Arthur as Renaissance Epic
Eleonora Stoppino
Part Three: Arthur beyond Romance
8. The Arthurian Presence in Early Italian Lyric
Roberta Capelli
9. Arthur in Medieval Italian Short Narrative
F. Regina Psaki
10. The Arthurian Tradition in the Three Crowns
Christopher Kleinhenz
Part Four: Arthur beyond Literature
11. Arthur in Hagiography: The Legend of San Galgano
Franco Cardini
12. Owners and Readers of Arthurian Books in Italy
Gloria Allaire
13. Arthurian Art in Italy
Gloria Allaire
14. Arthurian Art References
Gloria Allaire
Bibliography: Primary Texts
Gloria Allaire
Bibliography: Studies
Gloria Allaire
Index of Manuscripts
General Index

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