Forged Letters and Literary Hoaxes: Satire and the Epistolary Novel in Girolamo Gigli's Il Gazzettino and Il Collegio Petroniano Delle Balie Latine

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The modern epistolary novel as genre began in Italy with a significant though very sporadic production ranging from Lettere amorose di due nobilissimi intelletti by Luigi Pasqualigo (1563) to Ferrante Pallavicino's Il corriero svaligiato (1641), to L'esploratore turco by Giovanni Paolo Marana (2) (1684-1686), followed by Girolamo Gigli's Gazzettino (1713-16?), Ugo Foscolo's Le ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis (1798) and by Giovanni Verga's Storia di una capinera (1865). It was not until the latter half of the 18th century that attempts to define the emerging novel began to take shape throughout Europe and that epistolary or letter novels flourished, especially in France and in England. (3) Gigli's Gazzettino is a monologic collection of gazette articles, which he also referred to as "avvisi ideali." (4) While the events or "expeditions" reported are purely fictional, the letters contain references to real personages, places and events; they were sent to a real addressee; and they were signed by a reliable (though unaware) third party, aptly chosen by the author because of his credibility. Written in journalistic style, the letters circulated individually at first and were only collected posthumously under the current title in 1765. The Gazzettino was subsequently published in 1861 by Ettore Fanfani and in 1865 by Luigi Banchi. (5)

In Gigli's expeditions myth, literature, and popular imagination collide: Chinese Amazons arrive as gifts for Tuscan aristocrats; Jesuit missionaries are literally confronted by their worst fears; and pompous Florentine academics find themselves on the moon as they search for new sources of obsolete words to satisfy their insatiable need for an increasingly abstract academic language. While written earlier than his longer novel Il collegio petroniano delle balie latine (1719), Il gazzettino represents Gigli's most accomplished and original fictional narrative work. There is reason to believe that he wrote more "avvisi" which have yet to be found: (6) Gigli's friend Francesco Onorato Tondelli indicates in a letter that "Up until now only 17 of the productions have been seen, but we hope to get some more out of the copyist's hands;" 7) and in 1746 Francesco Corsetti (8) thought there may have been as many as 20. There are currently 18 surviving expeditions; (9) since Gigli signed them with the name of a respected Jesuit missionary, (10) these outlandish events fast became commonly regarded as true accounts, deceiving the very institutions they targeted and furthering Gigli's agenda: exposing the affectations and hypocrisy of the Accademia della Crusca and the religious bigotry of the Medicean court, (11) Montesquieu would later accomplish a similar effect by using Usbek, a foreign (and therefore naive) observer of Parisian society, and Swift would use Gulliver as a familiar traveler in an exotic land. In the Gazzettino Tuscan events are transposed in a context so strange that they may as well have been taking place on the moon or in distant China, the point of origin of the exotic characters and merchandise transported in the various expeditions.

In Gigli's novel the tone and style of the letters support the author's claims of truthfulness, though the satirical undercurrent creates a paradoxical estrangement from the narration: the events are filled with exotic adventures, but the characters involved bear the real names of well-known contemporaries. In that sense, the exoticism found in the Gazzettino is simply one of Gigli's fictional devices, a means to the end of attaining credibility. Ironically, the more the author exaggerated the use of detailed descriptions, procedures and names, the more credible his stories became to his (naive) readers. As Janet Gurkin Altman has observed, "the creator of the epistolary novel who disclaims authorship reclaims it elsewhere" (183): Gigli does, indeed, reveal his imposture to his "discerning readers" through third-person references to himself and his own plays, while at the same time fooling his targets, who missed the clues and continued to believe even his most outrageously imaginary or literary accounts to be true. …