Even if Teofilo Folengo’s Baldo had not already come highly recommended (via a suggestion from humblehappiness regarding gems of early modern Italian literature), I would have known from its opening lines that I was in for something special. The narrator of this 15,000 hexameter line poem, which first appeared in 1517, announces that he will disdain such muses as “Melpomene, or that chump Thalia, or Apollo scratching his little guitar,” and instead call upon the aid of those “paunchy muses,” the Macaronic sisters, who, reclining on the crests of high mountains enclosing “a lake of soup and a sea of gravy,” use immense graters to shred cheese “between the slopes of soft, fresh butter” where “a hundred caldrons steam up to the clouds, full of tortelloni, macaroni and tagliatelle.”
Now these sound like my kinds of muses.
This celebration of Italian culinary marvels appears both as content (sometimes) and style (always), the latter labeled “Macaronic” due to the mélange – akin to the admixture of flour, butter, eggs and cheese in the type of fare that appears in the poem’s opening - of “word parts from Northern Italian dialects and from various eras of Latin and Italian, enshrined in Latin syntax.” The result is a mesmerizing language (especially when one attempts to read the original aloud) directed at having a bit of fun with the conventional Renaissance appreciation of classical Latin and Greek. While undoubtedly Folengo’s linguistic humor and “continuous parade of synonyms” must lose something in translation, Ann Mullaney’s riotously effervescent, two-volume, first-ever English version, which retains the original Macaronic verse on facing pages, nevertheless proves rambunctious, terrific, comic fun. In her spry introduction, Mullaney calls Baldo “a cure for sobriety one uncorks privately,” but expresses a desire that “the remedy” of this comedy be better known. I’m happy to do what I can to further that goal.
Reading Baldo after revisiting Ariosto’s Orlando furioso required an abrupt shift in expectations. The juxtaposition of the two works in part underscores how extraordinary is the achievement of Ariosto’s poem, with which Baldo is more or less contemporary, but Folengo’s work, even to a non-scholar like myself, provides tremendous pleasures on its own terms. There’s a small bit of overlap between the two, in that Folengo himself would go on to write a lengthy poem featuring Orlando, and the eponymous hero of Baldo is himself an ironic, Orlando-like warrior, characterized at birth as
…that oak of prowess, that flower of gallantry, Baldo – a lightning bolt in battle, a sword of justice, a shield of strength, who amid arrows, amid battles will be a shatterer of lances, a fire-brand and a flame, like a terrifying cannon fired at enemy troops. Not even the hardness of mountains or of steel, or a vast bastion or the strong protection of thick walls will be able to withstand the hammer of his might.
The young Baldo is even an avid reader of the exploits of Orlando and his fellow knights, at one point listing various tomes in which his heroes appear.
But in most other respects, both Folengo’s poem and his protagonist could not differ more from those of Ariosto, who in comparison comes off almost as a moralizing goody-two-shoes. The difference is especially acute in regard to women, Baldo’s sole defense of whom, a diatribe by Baldo’s wife Berta against the injustices of men, is eclipsed by the bad end facing nearly all of the women in the poem, including Berta, and by the opprobrium heaped upon “scabrous whoredom” and “the shithouses of Venus” along the way. In place of the amiable, high-spirited narrative of Ariosto, seemingly always primed to fly to the heavens, Baldo, a caustic and decadent outlaw tale, heads in the opposite direction, and in fact spends an inordinate amount of time underground. Mullaney situates the poem on a continuum that traverses Petronius’ Satyricon, Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, and Boccacio. Perhaps best known as one of the chief influences on Rabelais, Baldo possesses a similar no-holds-barred, capricious wallowing in scams and tricks, wanton violence, and the scatological. There is a lot of drinking, a good deal of shit, and an over-abundance of fart jokes. Folengo celebrates the low, sordid, anti-authoritarian exploits of his anti-hero Baldo, leader of the most notorious gang ever to appear in Cipada, the disreputable city adjacent to Mantua. For Baldo, ”even a brief hour seems like a hundred…until once again he can sample diabolical deeds.”
Nested within the poem - and a clue to Folengo’s aims - is a story concerning Cipada’s search for a poet to represent the city in the same way that nearby Pietole boasts of hometown poet-hero Virgil. Alas, Zeus, petitioned by the envoy sent by Cipada to bring back such a poet, instead dispatches the ambassador to the kitchen, where he finds the narrator of the poem, Merlin Cocaio, a poet who rejects the loftiness of Homer and Virgil in favor of awarding “the first prize in macaroni” to the citizens of Cipada.
I felt a twinge of disappointment at the narrative’s descent from the spectacular Macaronic heights of its first pages, and though these are quickly followed by a sumptuously detailed feast featuring a remarkable pronouncement on the merits of various wines, it would be admittedly difficult for any writer to keep up something as gloriously over-the-top as that pastafarian Willy Wonka-style valley of Macaroni. The first volume focuses largely on Baldo’s origins, youth and the development of his rampaging gang. Curiously, as in Orlando furioso, the hero himself disappears for a long stretch, languishing in jail while his companions spend years figuring out how to spring him (Baldo disappears again on occasion later in the poem, passing out like a narcoleptic and missing key battles).
The dividing point for the two volumes seems as much stylistic as plot-driven: the gang’s flight from Cipada coincides with the kooky imaginativeness of the narrative picking up considerably, playing out in an increasingly screwball series of fantastic battles between Baldo’s gang and various representatives of the underworld and unfolding in a flickering, chaotic chiaroscuro of light and dark, interior and exterior, surfaces and depths. Most of these conflicts take place on and in a whale covered with forests, mountains and wildlife that Baldo and his companions have mistaken for an island. There’s a deadly fight involving wild bears and a witch, followed by larger battles between the Cipada crew and the denizens of Hell, access to which is gained through a door on the whale. Baldo also discovers (still on the whale) a grand hall in which simulacra of the great knights and heroes of the ages are seated around a banquet table, odd ghostly doubles of their physical selves. After conquering Beelzebub and his legion of demons, the group undergoes full confession (except for the centaur accompanying them, who only confesses from his human half “because where he sinned with his equine parts, there is no blame”), then, using a giant, magical ruby for illumination, they proceed to scour the underworld, dispatching a vast army of witches in a cavern beneath the sea and then heading lower to pursue Lucifer, whom they’ve previously encountered. Coming around again to the culinary axis around which Baldo revolves, the story ends with the gang half-mad, drifting into and out of fantasy and enclosed in a great, hollowed-out pumpkin in which they find for company most of the world’s thinkers and writers. I’ve scarcely begun to touch on the poem’s nuttiness.
Baldo possesses an explosive energy and playfulness that rarely lags and often overtakes any effort at philosophy. Asides attacking the clergy, lawyers, and civil authorities see light but never fully develop, as Folengo seems all too eager to turn his poem into the literary equivalent of a comic action flick. Battles are relayed in a crackling prose – one almost expects to see “Blam!” and “Pow!” rendered graphically as in TV’s Batman - and it’s easy to imagine the poem being read aloud to a gape-mouthed audience hanging blow-by-blow on every adventure. The poem’s low humor is often laugh-out-loud funny, its pranks and gags leaving one feeling that in such humor there’s nothing new under the punch-drunk sun. For example early in the second volume, Boccalo, a clowning member of the group, convinces another character to search Baldo’s chest, from which the astonished man, in a terrific Harpo Marx bit, “extracts all sorts of stuff…a bulb, a mirror, an inkwell, a bell, a shard of a plate, a bridle, part of a truss and the bits of candle which are left for the altar boy to gather after Mass.” Some of the ruses played by Baldo and his merry band of delinquents consist of malicious practical jokes ending in death or injury, but others have an irresistible, ribald humor. In one such scam, Baldo’s closest accomplice Cingar dupes another character into selling vats of human waste disguised during the sales “training” period with a deceptive layer of honey. In a scene later borrowed by Rabelais, Baldo and his companions, fleeing Italy on a ship filled with three thousand sheep and their shepherds, commandeer the vessel when Cingar concludes a deal to purchase one of the sheep then promptly tosses it overboard, causing all the other sheep to leap after it into the sea.
Such hijinks are often accompanied by lyrical flights of imagination, as in the above scene when the narrator’s eye follows the sheep into the depths:
At the time of the great flood, fish crisscrossed the woods up in the high treetops and cavorted happily in the elms and poplars, looking down at the meadows and flowers. And now a wooly flock feeds on algae under the waves and against its will eats, drinks, and drowns.
The humor also comes from Folengo’s (and Mullaney’s) inventive knack for comic detail. The setting sun “has such a big red face now that it looks…as though it has just guzzled a barrel of Corsican wine.” An old man’s “big nose drips like an alembic.” Zambello, the character duped into selling feces, is “denser than a bowling ball and about as sharp as a garlic pestle.” A large ruffian named Lancelot (alternatively Lunchalot due to his gluttonous tendencies) possesses a “tiny head” that “rests on hunched shoulders, and doesn’t look like his own, but like one he rented.” Berta, chased by an angry neighbor attempting to scorch her with flaming flax, “doubles the speed of her zigzag running, like a half-tame cat whose tail is tied to a pig’s bladder with three or four dried beans in it… always pursued by that bladder and thinks that someone is chasing it.” Sometimes these accounts develop into extended riffs, as when Cingar holds forth in a loony, lengthy paean to the seasons, with Spring depicted as a naughty boy in underpants and Autumn as a couple who drink and dance themselves into slumber while,
Watching over these naked ones while they rest, snorting like pigs, are a thousand naked putti. They sing ‘Hey, ho, Bacchus!’ and dance and perform morescas, the pudgy little dears, and perhaps are suitable and fitting for a stew. Each one crowns his curly head with a leafy vine; each holds in his hands bunches and clusters of grapes; each has a small flask with a little dangling spout. They prance, laugh and celebrate their father’s bacchanals; there, beneath the grape-laden vines, they themselves get drunk. The mother is drunk, the father is drunk, the children are drunk; thus, all of them are drunk and pant with gaping throats.
There’s no shortage of absurdity, including a scene half-Pinocchio and half-Gogol in which Cingar’s nose, having been lightly touched by a passing witch, grows to such enormous proportions that it can be wrapped around his neck like a scarf.
Baldo also rewards with the unusual precision Folengo can use in describing the life of his time. Historians of everyday life could mine quite a bit from the poem’s references to medical treatments, clothing, crafts, music, politics, jokes and pranks, witches’ concoctions, the various winds that blow across the Mediterranean, and, especially, kinds of foods and wines (and their effects - readers may be cautioned to watch out for “the hangover of Rome,” a wine from Somma that causes people “to walk crooked”).
The cumulative effect of Baldo’s bristling, cockamamie tales is an atmosphere of unfettered delirium and a vibrant, rousing anti-manifesto aimed at jettisoning rules, convention, pretension, authority and anything that stands in the way of bawdy fun. Recognizing that “what a man really is…an air bubble and a whirligig spun by the faintest wind, kindling to fire, snow to the sun, frost to the heat,” Baldo and his companions seize the day, picking fights, running scams, inventing endless caprices, indulging in drunken, gastronomic adventures, and leading a defiantly irreverent life. Rarely have I encountered literature in which human pride has been brought so low with such ebullient comic energy - and with so much delightful pasta fazool.