Virtual Theaters in Miniature Rooms: The Early Italian Dialogic Sonnets

By Boselli, Stefano | Italica, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Virtual Theaters in Miniature Rooms: The Early Italian Dialogic Sonnets


Boselli, Stefano, Italica


Although the theatrical potential of the sonnet has been fully acknowledged in the English-speaking context thanks to the presence of Shakespeare's production, (1) the same cannot be said for Italian literature. It is true that since its early days in the thirteenth century the sonnet exhibited a vocation for the antagonistic genre, but, on the whole, discussion took place at a distance, in the realm of the written word. The tenzoni, which provided the literary space for personal or philosophical debate among poets, allowed a reasonable amount of time for participants to respond. Even the contrasti--more direct conversations between fictional personae--could theoretically function as simple letter exchanges in absentia when a full sonnet was employed for each line, since the pause represented by the white space between them was open to interpretation. Therefore, as for dialogue between works, everything could comfortably exist on paper alone. (2) By contrast, a small number of sonnets included dialogue within the poem itself. Since lines had of necessity to be pronounced in praesentia by the interlocutors, not only did this group intensify a particular poetic device, it also raised the stakes considerably by unequivocally winking at a different medium: oral performance.

Because of their singularity, the dialogic sonnets are a fascinating hybrid between literature and theater, but attention so far has been reserved chiefly for the first term. Apart from Leandro Biadene's brief classification under the heading "giochetti e artifici retorici" (166-69) and a few very specific studies, (3) the most comprehensive treatment has come from Franco Suitner. His article "Sul sonetto dialogato nella poesia italiana delle origini" spans from the scuola siciliana to Petrarch's late homage, presenting the dialogic sonnet in its two main varieties. The first type is a little more aristocratic in origin, the second decidedly comic and realistic. Suitner mentions the importance of the giullari in inspiring the poeti realistici, who grew to be masters of this form, but any diachronic approach basically has to accept the idea that the residual traces of an oral tradition are forever consigned to the page. In the present study, instead, the dialogic sonnets are viewed synchronically, as scripts belonging to the dramatic genre tout court. Even if written by poets, and not professional actors, they can, at the same time, be counted among the examples of the pervasive theatricality of the Middle Ages and aspire to new life.

Yet, before actually resuscitating these sonnets for performers in flesh and blood, it is necessary to abandon the point of view of the writers and adopt that of their characters. In his popular scientific book The Fourth Dimension, Rudolf Rucker clarifies the concept of the title by first reducing numbers. Inspired by Edwin Abbott's Flatland, he describes a world in two dimensions for which any being in three dimensions, like us for example, would amount to a God. Without following Rucker in the further intricacies of multidimensional theory, we can employ his example quite literally by regarding the poet as the inventor of a world and the characters as beings who populate his poems on the page. This is similar to what a playwright does, but the sonnet is definitely more challenging because of its brevity and metrical constraints. Since it has a fixed form and only a few rhyme scheme variants, it has been aptly described as "a battleground on which the poet wages war with the form, on which grammar and syntax come to blows with metrics and versification, and on which spirit confronts matter" (Kleinhenz 24-25). If, however, we align our viewpoint with protagonist and antagonist, the sonnet takes the shape of a tangible, although two-dimensional, structure in which words and movements become very concrete. In tune with the theatrical metaphor, the notion of the canzone stanza which may have been at the origin of the sonnet, punning on its literal meaning in Italian, can be utilized in an architectural fashion to identify the virtual space that contains the dialogues, a tiny chamber black-box theater whose essential walls are its limited verses.

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