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Monday, February 23, 2015

Meet Prester John!

also available
in English,
same title

Semiologist Umberto Eco's international career as a writer has been ruined -- his words -- by his first novel Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose), published in 1980, that immediately became a "must read" and created a certain, and wrong, kind of expectations in the general public. But Baudolino, published twenty years later and set in the late 12th century, probably provides a much more interesting insight into Medieval history, philosophy, and imagery, namely:

1. An 'unauthorized biography' of Emperor Frederick I von Hohenstaufen aka "Red Beard," who also was the grandfather of the everlasting enigma Frederick II;
2. A journey to India up to the lands of Presbyter Johannes, Prester John, often called il Senàpo in Italian literature; introducing, for the first time, the Priest's alleged son, Deacon John! -- while reworking all the striking creatures of that legendary kingdom in a modern and witty way;
3. A fascinating detective story structured as a set of Chinese boxes.

Both Ariosto and Tasso inserted the story of Prester John into their long poems, even though Orlando Furioso deals with the 8th century, and Gerusalemme Liberata/Conquistata with the 11th century. In both cases, the fabulous kingdom is placed in central Africa, not in Asia (but it was no dramatic difference in the Renaissance, as the shape of Africa was often imagined as stretching deep eastwards). In a key episode, Tasso will even reveal that the Senapo is the true father of the she-knight Clorinda.