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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.