Did Simone Serdini ('Il Saviozzo') Really Commit Suicide?

Article excerpt

Simone Serdini--sometimes known as 'Il Saviozzo' ('the Wise One')--counts as a 'minor' poet of the early Italian Renaissance, and goes unmentioned in some literary histories. (1) He was born in Siena around 1360 and died some time in the decade after 1411. So his poetic activity fell in what was once called Italy's 'century without poetry', after Boccaccio's death in 1375. (2) Whether these judgements are fair is not a question to be addressed here, though it needs addressing: Serdini's verse survives in more fifteenth-century manuscripts than that of any other Italian poet except Dante and Petrarch. Some codices combine him with those two, as if they were on a par. (3) One late fifteenth-century connoisseur will even be heard awarding Serdini 'the crown' of Italian vernacular poets. (4)

The question to concern us here will be about one event in Serdini's biography. It is the last event: his death. Scholars who take any notice of Serdini say that he committed suicide. They say it so unanimously that it would be tedious to list examples. (5) For at least the last two centuries there has been nothing in secondary literature to discourage this belief. This article will re-examine the evidence.

A preliminary word will be appropriate as to why the question matters. Some of Serdini's most eloquent poems express sorrow and disappointment with his own life, qualified later by repentance and a hope in God. Two poems in particular were to become prototypes in the genre later called the diaperata. The poet here gives readers to understand, with an elaboration unmatched by any previous tradition, that he is contemplating suicide. (6) Of all Serdini's confessional poems these disperate are the hardest to interpret. Did he really 'mean' what he wrote there, or was he trying rather to 'think himself into' the mind of those who might have meant it--as Serdini certainly did in two narrative poems, whose heroines do commit suicide. (7)

The question becomes most acute in respect of the more influential of Scrdini's prototype disperate, (8) a canzone of 106 lines known from its incipit as Le 'nfastidite labbra. Most of the poem consists of a bombardment of curses against all whom the author thinks responsible for his existence, and in a ten-line congedo he ends by telling the spirits of hell that he will shortly be joining them, implicitly by suicide. A story got attached to this canzone that Serdini killed himself after writing it. The fullest version says he did this in prison, with a knife, in Toscanella (a fortified village now called Tuscania, near Viterbo), under the rule of the condottiere Tartaglia da Lavello. (9) Besides lending verisimilitude, these details have the added attraction of giving a date to Serdini's otherwise undatable death, because Tartaglia ruled Toscanella only in 1479 and early 1420.

There are two kinds of early witness to this account of Serdini's death. One kind is strictly literary. It is a long poem written, in 1475, on the model of Dante's Inferno. Like the Inferno it is studded with quasi-historical references, of which one alleges that Serdini killed himself. The other kind is a group of rubrics in some manuscripts of the disperata just mentioned, Le 'nfastidite labbra.

Gambino of Arezzo

We start with the long poem. Its title was Fantastica visione, and its author was Gambino of Arezzo. Only a fragment of book IV survives. It is unlikely that Gambino wrote much more. (10) The reader is at once struck by the closeness of its resemblance to the Inferno: it has the same terza rima, borrows language and images, and tells, canto by canto, how the poet made a tour of hell and spoke with souls there. One zone, introduced in canto v, is for suicides, and it is there that Gambino, qua pilgrim, is portrayed as meeting 'il Saviozzo'. The relevant passage begins as Gambino and his guide have left one zone of punishment and are approaching the next: (11)

   E poi entrammo in uno aspro diserto
      D'alpestri pruni e arbor molti e secchi,
      Cosi quel loco tutto era diserto. …