To anyone reading this post’s title and clicking on it hoping for a review of Rob Kroese’s dystopian LA novel or commentary on a parody of Raymond Chandler: my apologies. Dear reader, you will need to look elsewhere, as here I plan to write briefly about the pernicious influence of Italian literature, or at least of the subset of it sampled, translated and introduced by Janet Levarie Smarr in her delightful Italian Renaissance Tales (Solaris Press, 1983).
About that pernicious influence, Smarr quotes 16thcentury British writer Roger Ascham:
These be the inchantementes of Circes, brought out of Italie, to marre men’s manners in England; much by example of ill life, but more by preceptes of fonde books, of late translated out of Italian into English, sold in every shop in London…
Consider my manners marred. Although I had read Giambattista Basile’s Pentameron, a tremendous collection, Smarr addresses the larger Italian Renaissance phenomenon of such story collections and offers up samples from a dozen of them. These begin with the only pre-Decameron example, the anonymously-authored The Hundred Old Tales, and end with the “baroque extravagance” of Basile, who introduced to the genre a new degree of literary inventiveness. In between we find such works as Sacambi’s Tales, Sacchetti’s Three Hundred Tales, Straparola’s The Entertaining Nights, Bandello’s Novellas, Masucio’s The Little Storybook and Manetti’s Fatso the Carpenter.
The book’s table of contents gives a good sense of what to expect. Among the forty some-odd stories here, we find such catchy titles as:
THE THREE CITRONS
HOW CHRIST WALKING ONE DAY WITH HIS DISCIPLES THROUGH A WILDERNESS, SAW A GREAT TREASURE
THIS STORY IS ABOUT A COURTIER WHO BEGAN A STORY THAT NEVER CAME TO AN END
ANTONIO PUCCI OF FLORENCE FINDS CERTAIN ANIMALS HAVE BEEN PUT INTO HIS GARDEN AT NIGHT AND INGENIOUSLY DISCOVERS WHO DID IT
SIR ANTONIO BOLOGNA MARRIES THE DUCHESS OF MALFI AND BOTH OF THEM ARE MURDERED
A few titles all but give away the whole story:
MASTER DIEGO IS CARRIED DEAD TO HIS CONVENT BY SIR RODERICO; ANOTHER FRIAR, THINKING HIM ALIVE, HITS HIM WITH A STONE AND BELIEVES HE HAS KILLED HIM; HE FLEES WITH A NAG, AND BY A STRANGE CHANCE ENCOUNTERS THE DEAD MAN MOUNTED ON A STALLION WITH A LANCE AT REST, WHO PURSUES HIM THROUGHOUT THE CITY
I was particularly taken with one tale that predates Marshall McCluhan’s cameo appearance in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall by nearly 600 years. The title of the Renaissance version gives away the gag:
DANTE ALIGHIERI, HEARING AN ASS-DRIVER RECITE FROM HIS BOOK AND SAY “GEE-UP,” STRIKES HIM SAYING “I DIDN’T WRITE THAT”; AND WHAT FOLLOWS AS THE TALE TELLS
While the stories themselves are entertaining enough beyond their titles, with complex framing arrangements and tricks and turns of fate, I found the real treat here to be Smarr’s introduction, a treasure trove of information that obliquely makes the strongest case I’ve yet encountered for according Italian literature a particularly prominent place in Western literature. Smarr succinctly traces the rivers of narrative that poured from the Middle East and Orient into Europe and gives several examples of the evolving lives and transmissions of these tales in response to shifting moral and didactic needs. For instance, she describes how the 6thcentury life of Buddha, written in Sanskrit, passed first into Arabic, then into Greek and Latin as The Life of Josafat, and later manifested itself in French, Italian and Spanish chronicles of the saints’ lives. Other tales made their way into Petrarch, Dante, Ariosto, Rabelais and Cervantes. The premonitory position the collections have had over the subsequent centuries is evident in their influence on works such as Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, inspiration for a number of Shakespeare’s plays, altered appearances in the works of Charles Perrault and the brothers Grimm, and significant contribution to the development of the modern novel.
Smarr also marvelously decocts the various terms used to describe what are now generally referred to as “novellae,” noting the mix of histories, chronicles and fantasies used to point out the foibles and follies of the great and small. She sets these collections in the context of plague, war, political unrest and “individual melancholy,” and shows how the Counter-Reformation resulted in suppression of some of the tales’ more libertine aspects and a shift from comedy to tragedy, balanced by an increasing incorporation of fantasy elements and fairy tales as a way to avoid church condemnation, with far-reaching impact on later strains of European narrative.
Several fundamental characteristics link these works. These include the use of framing devices; a deliberate low style with popular appeal; a link with oral storytelling and preaching, since many such tales were performed; the use of dialect; an emphasis on variety (Smarr cites a theoretical view of Boccaccio’s The Decameron as being a display of narrative styles); and a combined purpose of didactics and carnival-like play – “amusement for the sake of…health and lives.” About the last, she writes that “it is peculiar to the novella to discuss within the fiction itself whether or not it ought to have an ethical function,” noting that the “exemplary” function is more often than not also being satirized simultaneously. Another characteristic is the sense of completeness and wholeness of these collections as reflected in the round numbers employed in many of their titles, with Bandello, who extended the novella into longer narratives with recurring characters, calling his work “a theatre of the world.” This wholeness works in tandem with the framing devices, as Smarr notes in quoting Millicent Marcus’ observation of The Decameron: “For the dialectic between the cornice and the tales is an attempt to define a space, bounded by reason, with which man may exercise his passions and appetites onestamente.”
I’m going to leave off with one endearing characteristic of these narratives that I’ve also noted from Ariosto to Manzoni to some contemporary Italian literature: the frequent apologia issued by authors and/or narrators for their stories. Smarr theorizes that such humility may have indicated the difficulty such collections had in gaining acceptance as literature, but also notes a similarity to French court poetry that largely addressed itself to women, likely the chief audience for these Italian tales. Smarr concludes there may be no single explanation for the phenomenon, but it’s clear that artifacts of it still crop up in Italian literature.
I see no better way to end this post than by quoting in its delightful entirety what may be the ultimate example of this sort of apologia. There is more where this came from, and so I bid you farewell in commending Smarr’s book to you with her translation of the opening of ser Giovanni Fiorentino’s 14th century collection entitled Il Pecorone, or The Big Sheep:
Thirteen hundred and seventy-eight years
had passed when this book
was written and put into order,
as you see, by me, ser Giovanni.
And I had no trouble in baptizing it,
for a dear lord of mine gave it its title;
and it is called the Big Sheep
because it contains strange dolts.
And I am the chief of such a group,
who go bleating like a sheep,
making books when I don’t know a thing about it.
Let’s say that I made it early in life,
and so that my reputation might be honored,
as it will be, by boors.
Don’t marvel at that, reader,
for the book is made just like the author.