Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Translatio Galliae: Effects of Early Franco-Italian Literary Exchange

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Translatio Galliae: Effects of Early Franco-Italian Literary Exchange

Article excerpt

In the sixteenth century, French writers adopted Italian models, translated and plagiarized Italian works, and even wrote in the Italian language. Italy, it seemed, had introduced France to antiquity, but Italianism was seen as a disease that infected French culture, in particular with its taste for rhetoric, and its privileging of form over content. Jean Balsamo has characterized French translation of Italian works in this period as a kind of conquest, a literary will to power, when French military domination of the peninsula had become impossible. (1) If Italy was an irresistible influence in sixteenth-century France, when, for example, Ariosto's Orlando furioso, based ultimately on the Chanson de Roland and its derivatives, was translated into French, this was only reversing the tide of French culture over the Alps some three hundred years before, when Italian writers adopted French models, translated and plagiarized French works, and even wrote in French. Carlo Dionisotti claimed that whatever was known of ancient Rome in the mid-Duecento was known through French sources. (2) There were far more translations made from French than from Latin. Yet Italian volgarizzamenti of French works are rarely seen as a sign of "conquest," but rather of submission to dominant cultural models. Italian literature is thought to begin only as it disengages from Provencal and French influences and Italian authors who deserve the name are expected to challenge or suppress the hegemony of those northern cultures. (3)

In view of its later reversal, one wonders whether the story of French in Italy need always be told as if it were the drama of Oedipus, in which French is the vernacular cultural "father" to be gotten out of the way. In 1895, Henri Hauvette saw the rise of Italian literature in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as a fortunate continuation of French literature at the start of what he called "notre decadence." The culture in decadence at the time Hauvette was writing, however, was Italy's, for which he expressed warm wishes for a speedy revival, on the heels of its only recently acquired political independence. (4) Like the portrait of national literary rivalries, this vision of an amicable passing of the baton also depends upon a concept of native genius that did not exist in the thirteenth century, when linguistic difference between some dialects of France and Italy would have been smaller than between those on the peninsula itself, and no standard had been established for any of the vernaculars. Because there was a literature in French a good hundred and fifty years before there was one in Italian, for a long time, French literature was vernacular literature. To adopt it was not to steal it, nor to be dominated by it, but to use it as if it were one's own. French was a literary (and performative) instrument, not a birthright. When Italian starts to be a literary language--in large part thanks to numerous translations made of French texts--gallicisms remain, and French texts continue to be read and even written by Italians. Do French texts written by Italians belong to French literature or Italian literature?

Certainly Dante, who shapes our notion of the earliest Italian literature, had a competitive spirit, and was not above making invidious comparisons between romance vernaculars in favor, ultimately, of his own. In the Convivio he attacks those who disdain Italian speech and praise others, particularly Provencal.

   Mossimi ancora per difendere lui [i.e., il volgare] da molti suoi
   accusatori, li quali dispregiano esso e commendano li altri,
   massimamente quello di lingua d'oco, dicendo che e piu bello e
   migliore quello che questo; partendose in cio da la veritade. (5)

   (I was also moved to defend it [i.e., the vernacular] from its many
   detractors, who disdain it and praise others, especially the langue
   d'oc, saying that it is more beautiful and better than this one,
   departing thereby from the truth. … 
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