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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sunday Guest: the Shadow

From Dino Buzzati's novel Il segreto del Bosco Vecchio. Against commonplace, Colonel Sebastiano Procolo's shadow is not a symbol of his dark side, but the 'embodiment' of the nobler part of his soul.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Let he who loves me follow me (2)

[6: 115]

Giunsero alfine al loco in cui discese
Fiamma dal cielo in dilatate falde,
E di natura vendicò l'offese
Sovra le genti in male oprar sì salde;
Fu già terra feconda, almo paese,
Hor acque son bituminose e calde,
E steril lago; e quant'innonda e gira,
Compressa è l'aria e grave odor vi spira.

They reached the place where a fire
Once fell from heaven in large layers,
Thus punishing the sins against nature
On those people so addicted to evildoing.
It had been a fertile land, mother of life;
Now, only hot and bituminous waters,
A barren lake; all around its perimeter
The air is heavy, full of a foul smell.

The knights who follow Armida do not actually reach her alleged "city," but her own enchanted castle on the banks of the Dead Sea. Renaissance and later maps (e.g. in Christian Adrichom, The Twelve Tribes of Israel, 1628) even reported the position of Sodom under the lake's surface.
To strengthen the hellish atmosphere, Tasso inserts some quotations and echoes from Dante, see Inferno 14: 29, 6: 15, 9: 31.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Un(s)even: St Anne's Asylum

(a bit cropped; reworked from Delacroix)

In Il Mondo Creato there are some hints at the seven horrible years (1579-1586) that Tasso spent at St Anne's "Hospital" -- actually an asylum and a jail -- in Ferrara. The only sources describing him as having gone insane come from Alphonse II of Este, the Duke of Ferrara, who imprisoned him, and the documents parroting Alphonse's. As a matter of fact, during those years (except the very first one, in total seclusion) Tasso wrote letters and essays that witness all of his intelligence, his culture, his interest in the historical and political events. As it has been highlighted and documented by Fabio Pittorru in his 1982 biography of the poet, Tasso's "fault" consisted in having threatened to reveal the corruption of the Court, which would have involved a powerful Cardinal. He was not internalised because he was crazy, but in order to drive him crazy. Basically, the punitive methods that would be adopted in the USSR too.

St Anne's Hospital was used as a setting by the 19th century poet and scholar Giacomo Leopardi for his Dialogue between Torquato Tasso and his Home Genius (see here an English translation of the whole text), probably the most brilliant insight into Tasso's worldview in the history of Italian criticism, which usually feeds on commonplace and ideology.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Magic/witchcraft in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

Let he who loves me follow me (1)

[6: 109]

Parte la vincitrice; e que' rivali
Quai prigionieri al suo trionfo avanti
Seco n'adduce; e tra speranze e mali
Lascia la turba poi de li altri amanti.
Ma come uscì la notte, e sotto l'ali
Menò il silentio e i levi sogni erranti,
Secretamente, com'Amor gli informa,
Molti seguir d'Armida i passi e l'orma.

She won, and now she leaves, preceded
By all those rivals as prisoners at the head
Of her Triumph(*) -- leaving the throng of
Other lovers between hopes and sorrows.
But when Night came, under her wings
Driving silence and soft, errant dreams,
Secretly, as Love had taught them all,
Many followed Armida's steps and prints.

(*) Recalling the classic Renaissance imagery of the Triumph of Love, especially as described in Francesco Petrarca's Triumphus Cupidinis. In the previous octave, here not reported, Tasso had even parodied Petrarca's famous verse Erano i capei d'oro a l'aura sparsi ("Laura's golden hair was loose in the air," with a pun between l'aura, the breeze, and Laura) saying that Godfrey's words of advice to the knights to be careful while escorting Armida were a l'aura sparse, "scattered in the air." In current Italian there still exist the phrase parole al vento, "words [spoken] to the wind." Armida, before leaving the Christian Camp, had shrewdly suggested to many excluded knights that she could hardly do without them.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Un(s)even: the "new" pagans

(by Selkis; a detail)

The cultural shock in the Discovery of America did not only consist in finding out that a whole Continent -- not a couple of faraway islands -- had gone unnoticed until then, but that the place was inhabited by peoples with their own histories and religions. And their religions were both "natural," e.g. having the Sun as the main god, and "heathen" in the worst Biblical sense, e.g. including human sacrifices. The clock of Christianity had been turned back by 1,500 years, what about now?

Tasso's started to write his long poem Il Mondo Creato in 1592. In a way, it is a sort of "taking stock of the situation" of Western civilization one century after Columbus' enterprise. With reference to the religions of natives, Tasso implores them to embrace Christianity, but does not call for forced conversions.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sunday Guest: Wind Matthew

From Dino Buzzati's novel Il segreto del Bosco Vecchio. Wind Matthew is an entity whose behavior recalls the elves by Tolkien and, even more, by CS Lewis in That Hideous Strength: he is neither good nor evil according to human standards. In fact, he can both be a friend to little Benvenuto and try to kill him.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Un(s)even: the monster of the lake

(a detail)

Tasso was fascinated with water creatures. In Il Mondo Creato, he even mentions a huge reptile supposedly living in a Norwegian lake, what we nowadays would call a "cryptid," like the Loch Ness Monster, the mokele-mbembe, Bigfoot, etc.

(The picture is obviously based on Spinosaurus, a dinosaur that has become a must-draw of paleoart after some recent discoveries; see also here.)

Friday, November 21, 2014

Two remarkable guys

In GC 6: 105, in the list of the "chosen ones" who will "fight for Armida" (in every sense of the word), two names are worth attention. One is a certain Conano, almost surely an Italianized form of ------ Conan. That's something more than mere coincidence because, as it has already been pointed out, Gerusalemme Conquistata modifies the Liberata so as to make it more "barbarian" in both senses: Normans and even Vikings are added to the Christian troops, including the main hero Richard, and the battles turn into bloodbaths, no longer refined Renaissance duels.

The other interesting guy is Tranquillo / Tranquil, a' dolci studi amico, "fond of sweet studies." His name echoes "Torquato"; in fact, this is a brief role that Tasso carved out for himself, as Alfred Hitchcock always did in his movies. Even more remarkably, Torquato will have Tranquil, i.e. himself, killed by the beautiful she-knight Clorinda. A literary and sweet way to commit suicide, as the poet was often tempted to, and "only my Christian faith prevented me," he confided to a friend.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Which is a witch?

Jadis, the alien Witch-Queen

In Mere Christianity (bk 1, ch. 2), the usually trustworthy CS Lewis defines witches as "people (. . .) who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather." Nowadays -- he explains -- we don't execute witches any longer not because our moral patterns have changed, but because "we do not believe there are such things."

The syllogism might stand, but is the major premise true? The definition, in fact, summarizes the worst prejudices of the late Renaissance, in line with the infamous Malleus maleficarum. But what about Ariosto (Orlando Furioso 43) calling the legendary witch Manto a "fairy," and defending her against persecutions?

Quite unexpectedly from him, here Lewis falls into a short-sighted and patronizing Enlightenment/liberal attitude when he 'saves' witches by saying, as a matter of fact, "Leave them alone! They are just fools." In The Great Divorce (ch. 9), by the mouth of George McDonald, he explicitly mocks "the poor daft women [why only women?] ye call mediums" the moment he states that their experiences with ghosts are real . . .

And yet, all in all, in spite of his statement that "it may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches," he seems to miss them if he creates even three of them in his Chronicles of Narnia; three, considering Jadis and the White Witch as only nominally the same, but very different in almost everything. They increase to four if we add the Hag of Prince Caspian, who is the only 'hag' among them, while many readers have probably fallen in love with the beautiful and energetic Jadis.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Un(s)even: Sesostris

by Selkis; a detail

In Tasso's long poem Il Mondo Creato, Ancient Egypt is no longer the "symbolical" place being referred to in the Bible (and Dante), nor the fantastical setting of some episodes in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, but the real thing: Egypt with its Pharaohs, gods, pyramids, hieroglyphs. For example, Tasso mentions Pharaoh Sesostris because of his majestic projects of hydraulic engineering. This rediscovery of Egypt during the Renaissance depended on the rediscovery of ancient Greek literary sources; a direct archaeological knowledge on the spot will come with the Napoleonic campaigns.

P.S. As it has been pointed out by Heinrich C. Kuhn in a different "site," in the Renaissance, artifacts and true Egyptian hieroglyphs could be seen (esp. on obelisks) in Italy. But, of course, the latter were symbolically interpreted without any knowledge of the actual Egyptian language.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What about Armida? (6)

Canto 6, stanzas 101-105 (summary): In the end, they decide to draw for ten-not-more-than-ten knights who will follow Armida and help her regain the power in her own city, at least according to her version. Here Tasso amuses himself a lot by describing the reactions of the Christian warriors as the names are drawn from the box -- the reactions of both the chosen ones and the others. Paradoxically, while Ariosto loved to caricaturize the typical scenarios of the poems of chivalry, here the usually more austere Tasso caricaturizes Ariosto in his turn, since in Orlando Furioso the raffle was about no less than the duels among the main four Muslim knights to assert their respective rights on the ownership of special weapons and horses. Whereas in Orlando Furioso the parallel love affair between the Christian knight Rinaldo and the witch Alcina had nothing to do with any draw: he had chanced to reach her island by riding the hippogriff.

Monday, November 17, 2014

When René Met Hecate

Companions of Fear, 1942

René Magritte's art has been explained from different viewpoints: Freudian psychoanalysis (that he didn't like at all), the theories of language (that he liked more, and even encouraged), etc. What about the dynamics of fantasy -- with admittedly a bit of Freud? In spite of his atheism and unbelief in symbology, Magritte often pictured magic subjects and landscapes: sexy witches, enchanted forests, supernatural lights, metamorphoses, . . .  The very usage of language in his paintings seems to suggest a foray of words that are powerful precisely because they belong to a different level of reality, while not absolutely chosen at random.

After all, he did met Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft. He met her when he was 14: when his mother was mysteriously found dead in a river, her body naked, her face hidden in her nightshirt. A phantom who would haunt him from then on, enticing and frightening, opening his mind onto a "further" dimension that was not heaven nor hell.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sunday Guest: Mr. Bernardi

From Dino Buzzati's fantasy novel Il segreto del Bosco Vecchio. Mr. Bernardi (his first name not being reported) belongs to the geniuses / jinns, who in this story are something halfway between elves and male dryads inhabiting the trees; they can also turn into animals. Mr. Bernardi however lives among humans and works as a forest ranger so as to be able to defend the rights of the Old Wood. He can heal both plants and people.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Un(s)even: Vasco Da Gama

by Selkis; a detail

Tasso knew and liked Camões Lusiads, the national poem of Portugal celebrating the enterprises of Vasco Da Gama, who discovered a new sea route to reach India so that direct "commercial" (to put it kindly) relationships between the Western Kingdom and the Indian States might be established. Tasso, who usually thinks on his head, in this case echoes the official propaganda and affirms that the imports from the newly discovered lands -- the "Indias," both in Asia and in America -- to Europe created a lucky balance, since "we" lacked goods and "they" had plenty of them, much beyond their needs.

More about Tasso, Camões, and Columbus: see here.

Friday, November 14, 2014

What about Armida? (5)

[6: 100]

Dunque, prima ch'a lui novella apporti
Romor di fama incerto, o certa spia,
Scelga la tua pietà, fra' tuoi più forti,
Alcuni pochi e meco hora gli invia;
Ché se non mira il ciel con occhi torti
L'opre mortali, o l'innocenza oblia,
Non fia ch'egli m'ancida o mi costringa
D'andar la state e 'l verno anco raminga.

[Armida speaking to Godfrey:] "Therefore, before any news about me might be brought to that tyrant by uncertain rumors or certain spies, let Your Mercy choose, among your strongest warriors, a few to be sent with me. In fact, if Heaven does not look askance at the works of mortals, or does not ignore innocence, the tyrant won't succeed in killing me, nor will he force me to go wandering forever. (*)"

(*) Literally, "in summer and in winter." The fact that Armida asks Godfrey to choose her "body guards" [who, in fact, will just long for having a close look at her body] himself implies that she knows that the election of the new captain of the mercenary troops has ended in a failure, in a tragedy indeed. To be noted, again, her nerve in invoking God as a witness, cf. here.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Dante, a would-be (and would have been a good) physician

. . .  of a holistic trend, as he showed in his handbook of medicine, commonly known as the Convivio. While Tasso mostly appreciated him as an astronaut.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Un(s)even: A symbol of human life

(a bit cropped)

Tasso sympathetically sees the myth of Arachne from the opposite point of view than Dante's.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What about Armida? (4)

[6: 99]

E sendo giunto il dì che già prefisse
Il capitano a darle alcuno aiuto,
A lui se 'n venne riverente, e disse:
- Sire, il promesso giorno è homai venuto,
E se del mio refugio il vero udisse,
E de' miei preghi, il reo tiranno astuto
Prepareria gran forze a far difesa,
Né fora agevol poi la giusta impresa.

And since the day had come, which 
The Captain(*) had fixed to give her help,
She reverently came before him, and said,
"Lord, the promised day has arrived;
Besides, if he learned about my refuge
And my plea, that evil, shrewd tyrant
Would prepare great forces for the defence,
And the just enterprise wouldn't be easy."

(*) Then modified into il sommo duce, "the supreme leader." Godfrey had -- chivalrously if reluctantly -- promised to help Armida in her alleged family feud, actually a trap to weaken the Christian army.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The sex of angels, and the Art of paying tribute

To whom the Angel with a smile that glow'd
Celestial rosy red, Love's proper hue,
Answer'd. "Let it suffice thee that you know'st
Us happy, and without Love no happiness.
Whatever pure thou in the body enjoy'st
(And pure thou wert created) we enjoy
In eminence, and obstacle find none
Of membrane, joint, or limb, exclusive bars:
Easier than Air with Air, if Spirits embrace,
Total they mix, . . .

      When in Eternity Man converses with Man, they enter
      Into each other's Bosom (which are Universes of delight)
      In mutual interchange, and first their Emanations meet
      Surrounded by their Children. If they embrace & comingle
      The Human Four-fold Forms mingle also in thunders of Intellect
      . . .

Once in a while, William Blake did not find John Milton's angels to be boring  ;-)

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Sunday Trip: the Old Man's Horn

From Dino Buzzati's novel Il segreto del Bosco Vecchio. Almost surely, Vecchio (Old Man) is a 'safe' way to call the devil, since it was often considered of ill omen to name him directly. Less probably, il Corno del Vecchio might be a short phrase meaning "the horn-shaped rock rising above the Old Wood." But, as a matter of fact, the Horn is linked with Wind Matthew who, as we will see, has something in common with the devil.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Praying Order

SANCTIFICETUR NOMEN TUUM. Quid a Deo petendum, quove ordine id agendum sit, ac Dominus omnium docuit et imperavit. Nam cum studii et desiderii nostri nuntia sit et interpres oratio, tum recte et ratione petimus cum postulationum ordo sequitur ordinem rerum expetendarum.

HALLOWED BE YOUR NAME. The Lord of all also taught and commanded what must be asked from God, and in what order it should be done. In fact, as prayer is the messenger and the interpreter of our efforts and desires, we only ask God rightly and reasonably when the order of our requests follows the very order of things [ordo rerum, ṛta, cosmic order] as they must be asked for.

__from the Catechism of the Council of Trent, 1566

When ecumenical Hindus say that, okay, the Gospel is so cute and all, but Christians aren't just able to pray, it is comforting to remember that Christianity hasn't always been as it has been for the past fifty years.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Off Topic: Dougal Dixon is alive today!

Dougal Dixon, Dan Green, If Dinosaurs Were Alive Today, London: Octopus Publishing Group, 2007, 2013 [I dinosauri sono tra noi, Milan: Mondadori, 2014, pages 96, euros 11.90], with pictures by Leonello Calvetti, Frank DeNota, Andrew Kerr, Simon Mendez, Peter Scott, Franco Tempesta

Dougal Dixon, the cult author of such "must have" books as After Man and The New Dinosaurs, as well as well as a BBC production on alternative fauna, after many years in which he has often wasted his genius on trivial kids' books, is back with a project up to his standards. The question is not 100% original, as it had already been asked in Jurassic Park: What about dinosaurs interacting with our world? And, not all species presented here are top-carefully rendered. But these are the secondary sides of it, because the book answers the question with the intelligence, the humor, and even the bit of poetry that mark a true "must have" item.

What about Armida? (3)

No way, Armida does not succeed in seducing Godfrey. So, she tries with somebody else, but it looks like it is her unlucky day . . .

[6: 97]

Ma contra sue lusinghe invitto almeno
Tancredi hor fu, ch'arse già a dramma a dramma;
Però ch'altro desìo gli accende il seno,
Tal che di novo incendio hor non l'infiamma;
Ma come guarda l'un d'altro veneno,
Tal d'amore fiamma d'amorosa fiamma.
Questi soli non vinse, o nulla o poco;
Avampò ciascun altro al dolce foco.

But unconquered by her enticements stood
Tancred now, who already burned ounce by ounce; (*)
In fact, another longing(**) lights up his bosom,
That's why she won't ignite him with new fire,
But, as a drug(***) defends against poison,
So does a flame of love against another. (****)
These only she could not, or not completely, defeat;
All others did burn up with that sweet fire.

(*) From Dante, Purgatorio 30: 46, 48.
(**) For the Muslim she-warrior Clorinda. An interesting example of interfaith 'dialogue.'
(***) Literally, poisons acting against one another; but here the Greek term pharmakon is implied, meaning both venom and medicine. On a similar occasion, Ariosto used a phrase that is still common in Italian: chiodo scaccia chiodo, "one nail drives out another."
(****) In the final printed version the wording will be a little different, but amounting to the same thing: Tal antica d'Amor da nova fiamma.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Un(s)even: Dagon

(a bit cropped)

The (undescribed) god of Philistines in the Bible, then turned into a devil by John Milton in Paradise Lost, but much more famous after having been re-launched by HP Lovecraft. Since it was conceived as half man half fish, here it has been portrayed by keeping in mind a sea species that fascinated Renaissance naturalists and artists, namely the ray, also known as "devil fish."

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

What about Armida? (2)

[6: 93]

E benché sia mastra d'inganni, e i suoi modi
Gentili, e le maniere accorte,
E bella sì che 'l ciel prima né poi
Altrui non diè maggior bellezza in sorte,
Onde i più scelti e più famosi Heroi
Del suo piacer già presi havea sì forte
Che tutti vanno indietro altri diletti,
Non adivien che 'l pio Goffredo alletti.

But, although she is a master of deception,
And her manners all courteous and kind,
And she is so beautiful that never had heaven
Given a greater beauty to any other woman, (*)
Therefore the most selected and famous Heroes
Have been caught by her appeal so strongly (**)
That they have left behind all other delights,
She cannot allure(***) the pious Godfrey at all.

(*) Tasso reserves this praise to Armida, and in part to Herminia/Nicaea, while in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso a lot of women were described as "the most" beautiful ever. And unlike Ariosto's Alcina, Armida's gorgeous beauty is real, not a delusion created by magic. It may be worth recalling that, in Gerusalemme Conquistata, Armida is a "mermaid" not by way of saying but literally.
(**) Echoing Dante, Inferno 5: 104, where Francesca Da Rimini speaks.
(***) Possibly with a pun, since the verb allettare -- in current Italian, at least -- also means "to have someone go to bed" (letto).

Monday, November 3, 2014

"And . . . they are named Jerusalem"

A facsimile edition (Florence, Italy: Giunti Gruppo Editoriale, 1994; original ed. by The Tate Gallery and the William Blake Trust, 1991) of William Blake's long poem Jerusalem. The handwritten marginal notes are the marks left by a study that has been carried on for a dozen years now. This poem, on which Blake worked throughout the first two decades of the 19th century, can be termed the last sacred long poem of Christianity, a genre that enjoyed its heyday in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance -- by a curious chance, Tasso's main poems were both titled Gierusalemme, the Liberata and the Conquistata. In Jerusalem, the great Briton offers his final, personal, brilliant, surprising version of:

* The Bible, Genesis to Revelation;
* Classical art, mythology, and literature;
* Fantasy lore;
* Gnosticism -- as a "mood," rather than any specific "school";
* Dante, but just in dribs and drabs;
* Traditional Catholic art, and even spirituality sometimes
* Milton;
* Swedenborg, willy-nilly;
* Modern philosophy, science, and history;
* The comparative history of religions, a field that fascinated 19th century scholars, though from a quite twisted point of view, at least according to our current criteria;
* His own previous works, both poetry and artwork; where it clearly emerges that Blake's now-commonplace ideas about religious ecumenism and free love are parts of a much more complex worldview;
* His own biography, but in such a hidden way that one needs to read some 'external' essays in order to be able to grasp the 'inside' hints.

As for the reading activity, probably the best thing is simply to relax, enjoying each gorgeous episode without caring about a search for Blake's "System" or a 100% consistency. All the more so as Blake himself, each time he mentions the many characters of his original mythopoiesis, makes it always clear whether they are to be seen as good or evil -- or both.

Just one detail. The subject matter of Plate 99 (see) is often captioned as the final embrace of God and Jerusalem, i.e. the Soul, or rather, true Humankind. On closer inspection however, especially comparing it with Plate 96 (see), the action shown here is clearly a rape in a hellish atmosphere. It might be based on the heathen god Zeus' 'adventures' (two references to the story of Leda can be found in Jerusalem) and/or on Eve's dream/nightmare in Milton's Paradise Lost, or even better, a hard-core version of Blake's Plate 11 (see) for The Book of Job. Anyway, the Plate 99 picture brings into question the whole text in the final section of the poem: Is it really meant as a happy ending?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Sunday Guest: Uncle Antonio Morro

. . .  or rather, his wooden monument, as described by Dino Buzzati in his 1934 novel Il segreto del Bosco Vecchio. The statue has been sculpted by the elves, here called "geniuses." On November 2, in the Catholic Church there falls the Commemoration of the Dead, so it was worth paying a visit to this 'forgotten personage,' whose doom is a clear universal symbol.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Un(s)even: Light

(by Selkis; a detail)

A topic that engaged thinkers from the Middle Ages (see Robert Grosseteste, Dante) to the Renaissance (see Milton): When we speak of God's "spiritual light," is it simply meant as a metaphor, or is there any ontological relationship between it and the physical light? Usually, the answers are not very clear in their turn, but this makes the question all the more fascinating. Tasso for example, almost surely in the wake of ancient authors, defines God as "the Sun of the sun."

The complete separation between the two types of light would only be brought about in the 18th century, when the once holistic cosmology split in two: one-sided scientism on the one side, and intimist, weepy devotion on the other.

And speaking of spiritual light: today is All Saint's Day, as well as my beloved wife's birthday. All the best!