London Periodicals, Scottish Novels, and Italian Fabrications: Andrew of Padua, the Improvisatore Re-Membered

By Esterhammer, Angela | Studies in Romanticism, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

London Periodicals, Scottish Novels, and Italian Fabrications: Andrew of Padua, the Improvisatore Re-Membered


Esterhammer, Angela, Studies in Romanticism


THERE COULD HARDLY BE A MORE THOROUGHLY FORGOTTEN TEXT THAN Andrew of Padua, the Improvisatore, a novel that appeared in London in 1820. Scarcely a sentence has been written about it by any scholar. When it is fleetingly mentioned in criticism or bibliographic catalogues, it counts as an eighteenth-century Italian text; never has it been read as the brainchild of a Scottish Romantic author. Perhaps this is not surprising, given that the author himself forgot about his book for some fifteen years, to be reminded of it just in time to slip it into the last paragraph of his memoirs--only to admit, while mentioning the title this one time, that he has not the slightest recollection of writing it. Yet, as I will argue, Andrew of Padua is an exemplary novel, in the paradoxical double sense of the word "exemplary." It is, on the one hand, a typical example of the countless, ephemeral works of fiction that competed for attention in the literary marketplace during the prodigious expansion of reading and publishing that characterized the Romantic period. On the other hand, Andrew of Padua is exceptional in the way it thematizes the conditions of this very marketplace, using the imported figure of the improvvisatore to reflect, on several levels at once, the changing relations among authors, publishers, and the reading public.

It goes without saying that the 191-page text of Andrew of Padua, the Improvisatore has never been reprinted. Remarkably, though, a full-text version is freely available on the internet. (1) The title page (Fig. 1) presents Andrew of Padua as an anonymous translation of a popular Italian novel by the Abbate Furbo. (Educated or well-travelled nineteenth-century readers might have recognized with a tinge of unease that furbo is Italian for "wily," "artful," or "cunning," before they surrendered to the considerable charm of the tale itself.) In what follows, I will first discuss the unusual features that make this novel eminently worth recovering--in particular, its use of metafictional devices to create a mise en abime of story-telling and performance. After summarizing the evidence for attributing the novel to a Scottish Romantic writer, I will explore what the newly re-sited text can teach us about the relations among authors, publishers, and reader-consumers in early-nineteenth-century print culture. Andrew of Padua turns out to be a nexus for several interrelated practices and fashions, including anonymous and pseudonymous publication, the marketing of periodicals and new novels, the popularity of travel accounts, and even contemporary trends in educational publishing. The novel's most remarkable achievement, I will argue, is its self-conscious representation of these features of the Romantic literary marketplace on the level of narrative and character, whereby the Italian improvvisatore becomes an allegorical figure for the British periodical writer.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Andrew of Padua begins abruptly with the author and narrator, Abbate Francisco Furbo, locating the narrated events in Rome "some years ago, during the Carnival" (1). (The setting of the story in the midst of a festival of masking and disguise might again give a prudent reader pause.) Here Furbo's curiosity is aroused by Andrew, an aged street performer or improvvisatore. Variations on the question "Who is this Andrew of Padua?" echo throughout the opening chapter, and bystanders seem surprised that Furbo is not already acquainted with Andrew, for they consider him "the funniest man in all Rome" (3). Andrew introduces himself, however, as "a poor, friendless old man" who must literally sing for his supper (5). And that is exactly what he does throughout the novel: after the introductory chapter, the voice of the narrator Furbo is almost entirely superseded by Andrew's first-person account of his own history, which he frequently interrupts in order to request a meal or a glass of wine from his host Furbo. The novel unfolds as Andrew spins his story, and the story is his way of earning his subsistence. …

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