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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Francis, the marginalized Saint

by Caravaggio

G. B. Marino's vast production of verse also includes a group of four short poems dealing with the three standard theological virtues, Faith, Hope, and Love, plus a surprise, i.e. the Stars. Each virtue is associated with a key simile: the shield for Faith, the flower for Hope, fire for Love. In spite of interesting details here and there, these poems keep a low profile, all in all. Probably the most remarkable section is the one that, within "Love," describes Saint Francis of Assisi. In fact, even if Franciscan monks played a major role in the people's spirituality and practice (see Alessandro Manzoni's novel I Promessi Sposi), their holy founder had no significant place in the main Renaissance poems in Italy (as he had had in the Divine Comedy), probably because he is the very symbol of poverty, humility, and peace, while the then mainstream culture followed right the opposite values (see Nietzsche). Anyway, here it is:
Fire, you that wonderfully
change one into his beloved object,
or rather enliven, and inform
the changed heart by acting as its soul:
With this pure affection
the Seraph of Ascesis *
had his desires burning,
so much so that he was finally seen,
turning Christ into himself, turn to Christ.

* punning on "Assisi." Saint Francis is often called "the Seraphic Father."

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Italians' first shock with the 17th century

Don Rodrigo, the villain, blamed by
Father Cristoforo (ill. by G. De Chirico)

One of the 'most hated masterpieces' of Italian literature is Alessandro Mazoni's novel I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), written in the years 1827-42. Hated because it is mandatory to read long passages of it at school in Italy, with the obvious consequences on teenagers' taste. Many people, we included, will rediscover the book only at a much greater age. In our case, what makes it definitely palatable is that the events are set in the epoch that dominates this blog, namely between 1628 and 1630, in a northern Italy then colonized, if not oppressed by Spain.

The 17th century society, both Great History (the Thirty Years' War) and everyday life with its habits and tragedies (corruption, famine, poverty, war, plague), is described with great skill, in a plain and elegant prose that is quite unlike the Baroque standards, in order to make the story reader-friendly, as the author himself states in the introduction. As a matter of fact, Manzoni's language shaped current Italian. In the novel, there appear in the background personages who have been examined in recent posts, e.g. Duke Carlo Emanuele of Savoy and King Louis XIII. At the same time, it is curious to notice that at least three cultural protagonists of that era are not even mentioned, for some reason: Tommaso Campanella, Galileo Galilei, and Giambattista Marino.

Of I Promessi Sposi there also exists a rare 1964 edition illustrated by no less than Giorgio De Chirico, a master of 20th century art as well as the first inspirer of Surrealism -- though never joining the movement -- who in this case chose to adopt a fake-naive style.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable

works by Damien Hirst

Something strange happens as among the waves
the amazing artifact travels:
into the dark waters of the depth, it
is drawn downward by the sea abyss—
Venus herself, hiding inside the sea
and born out of it, and the sea queen,
thinking it Mars, takes it as it passes
to hug it, then being deluded, lets it go.

__G. B. Marino, Adone 11.155

In line 8, the word deluso (here delusa, in the feminine) would mean "disappointed" in current Italian; but in the 17th century it still kept the original meaning of the Latin adjective delusus, like "deluded" in English.
The stanza from Marino's long poem Adone referred to a majestic sculpture of King Henry IV of France, made by Jean Boulogne aka Giambologna, and transported to Paris in 1614. It would be destroyed not many years after the French Revolution.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

"Del gran Martirio hebreo l'historia amara"

Holy Mercy, if in heaven you're not dead
after having fled disgusted to heaven:
See the events down here, see the victims
of your enemy—they are weak and sad.     enemy: Cruelty
Why don't you come? Are offenses against 
the Jews uncared for by you, or unseen?
Look, no other shelter or salvation
is hoped for by the good seed of Israel.

One of the most striking features in Giambattista Marino's poem La strage degl'innocenti (The Slaughter of the Innocents) is a sort of prophecy of the Shoah, the Holocaust. Not simply of persecutions, as there have tragically often been; but of the methods that would be used by Nazism. In the poem, clearly a fictionalization from Matthew, ch. 2, King Herod means to exterminate as many people as possible. In order to accomplish the massacre, the mothers of 0-2 year-old babies are gathered in one place under a false promise (this is not in the Gospel), as Nazis did when ordered the Jews to get on the trains for the concentration camps. And afterward, soldiers search the houses one by one to make sure that no baby has escaped (not even this is in the Gospel). With a final coup de théâtre: The soldiers, out of zeal and by mistake, will kill Herod's only son (pure fiction).

Marino, as appears in other works (see La Sferza), was not exempt from Medieval/Renaissance prejudices against the Jews. In the Strage, however, it looks like he had developed a partially different view on life. The poem had a complex gestation: Marino had been working on it since the earlier years of the 17th century, but it was published only in 1633, eight years after his death. Friends report that at the end of his career, in Naples, he used to read it "at the club," so to speak, namely the Accademia degli Humoristi. So, in spite of its relatively short length, some 3,500 lines divided in six cantos, the poem took twenty years of elaboration. Parts of it -- canto 2, for example -- seem to reflect the quieter, wiser moods of an "old" man (though not much older than 50, in fact). And, a man who had himself experienced persecution.

In this sense, very interesting in the Strage is the character of Joseph, Jesus' adoptive father. He is a . . .  normal guy! An aged, sweet, attentive husband, father, and artisan. There is nothing epic in him, and nothing grotesque, too, as most men of the people tend to be in Marino's poems. This unusual realism is skillfully mixed with Marino's typical themes: here, in particular, a modern imagery about heaven and hell, that preludes John Milton. There also is a female angel, called Vision, whose forehead is a screen showing the events of the future.

More cues: Penelope's lovers treacherously shut inside the royal palace, and killed by Odysseus. King Pentheus, who wants to get rid of a god, Dionysus, and is fiercely punished (Euripides' Bacchae are hinted at in Marino's poem). "The Slaughter of the Innocents" replaces the long-planned poem on "Jerusalem Destroyed," in a very different key.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The oldest "Road Map" for Jerusalem

from William Blake's illustrations
for Paradise Lost (recolored)

Gierusalemme distrutta, "Jerusalem Destroyed," is a Baroque long poem long promised by Giambattista Marino, and never realized but for a 'tiny' part, i.e. more than 700 lines, like six whole cantos of the Divine Comedy. The subject should have been the tragic events of 70 AD, when, after the Jews' rebellion against the Empire, the Holy City was seized and razed to the ground by the Romans, who would build a heathen colony in its place, Aelia Capitolina. In brief, a prequel -- and a competitor -- to Torquato Tasso's Gierusalemme liberata.

Quite interestingly, the remaining canto is not the first, but the seventh. And quite interestingly, it does not deal with battles or other historical episodes, but a dialog in heaven. God looks down onto the war being waged on Earth, where the devil is causing havoc, so He also decides to intervene; a scene of far Homeric origin, more directly based on Gierusalemme liberata. Here, the Almighty opens the book of Destiny, where it is stated that Jerusalem must be destroyed forever because of its "rebellion" against the divine will (i.e. not embracing Christianity). King David, who is among the blessed, is shocked, and implores Virgin Mary to avert that fate. Mary prays her Son, and Christ in his turn shows his mercy to God the Father. God accepts to spare the Holy City; He will just send Archangel Michael to break the devil's plans; and here the canto comes to an end. An important part of the plot is missing, since Jerusalem was actually destroyed, so some unexpected (even by God?) development must have occurred (or, did God only 'make if' He had changed his mind?).

More remarkable than the plot is the style. Marino drew on Tasso as John Milton would, and Milton also read Marino, whose Jerusalem stanzas were published posthumously in 1633. Well, an amazing similarity leaps out between Gierusalemme distrutta and the parallel sections in Paradise Lost -- except for the Catholic devotion, of course. Effects of light and shadow, majesty and paradoxes, colors and music and flowers, dizzy detailed descriptions, belligerence and tenderness, golden curls and shiny armors, Biblical quotations and theatrical phrasings. . .  At the same time, Marino cannot help adding his trademark, especially in the dialog of Mary and Christ. Here, the words exchanged between the Virgin and her Son have an erotic undertone that cannot be wholly justified as Baroque sentimentalism. By the irony of fate, sanctimonious readers of the 17th century hoped that Gierusalemme distrutta would be completed.

Monday, July 9, 2018

A true fake edition

The unfinished, or rather, barely begun long poem Gerusalemme distrutta, "Jerusalem Destroyed," by G. B. Marino turned up to be available through AbeBooks, the biggest book market worldwide. Curiously enough, though in an Italian version, the poem came from India (see the amount of stamps above), and very cheaply so. But there was a trick: As a matter of fact, the 'publisher' simply downloaded some online facsimile file, then printed it on demand.

Anyway, it doesn't matter. What matters is that this work of Marino, together with other fascinating texts, is on my desk now :-) We will be dealing with each poem included in this precious prank.

Friday, July 6, 2018

1623: When years were years

photo from a Web source

The Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi, Italy, is mostly known for its Medieval frescoes, made by Cimabue, Giotto, and others, that show episodes from the life of the famous Saint as well as from the Gospels and other religious texts. But the basilica inferiore (the lower floor of the church) also hosts a big fresco about the Last Judgment, clearly based on the Sistine Chapel, just reinterpreting it in a Franciscan key, and making it more "standardized" than Michelangelo's.

The Assisi Judgment fresco was made by a Baroque painter called Cesare Sermei, and in a very special year: 1623. That is, when the first (and posthumous) edition of Michelangelo's experimental poems was published. . .
and the First Folio of Shakespeare was published. . .
and G. B. Marino's long poem Adone, too.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Hippogriff, a successful invention

As far as scholarship goes, the hippogriff appeared for the first time in the history of literature in Ludovico Ariosto's long poem Orlando Furioso (1516-32), so it can be considered his own invention. This fascinating creature still soars in our paper skies. Here drawn by Ediano Silva for Pathfinder, volume 6: Runescars, Dynamite Entertainment, 2018 (in Italy: Le Rune di Varisia, Editoriale Cosmo).