The Continuity of Baroque Poetic Vision: From the Italian Disperata to the French Neo-Petrarchans

By Eschrich, Gabriella Scarlatta | Michigan Academician, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

The Continuity of Baroque Poetic Vision: From the Italian Disperata to the French Neo-Petrarchans


Eschrich, Gabriella Scarlatta, Michigan Academician


The Italian poets of the disperata take their name from a particular poetic composition and from the theme of despair that pervades their lyrics. The disperata is a poem similar to the canzone (stanza), or capitolo (chapter), whose main theme is the despair of a betrayed or ill-fated lover who seeks solitary and dark places in which to lament and damn himself and his destiny. It developed in the fourteenth century in Italy and it became very popular towards the end of the century. The writer Simone Serdini, better known as il Saviozzo (1389-1420), was popular for his disperata and catalyzed the spread of the genre (Sapegno, 269). The Italian court poets of the following two centuries adopted this motif and developed it with certain distinctive transformations. This analysis deals with the intertextualities that exist between these Italian poets and the French neo-petrarchan baroque poets who wrote between 1570 and 1620. As the French court was eager for new and refined material, the poets at the end of the si xteenth century in France developed petrarchan themes and psychological attitudes that were highly inspired by the disperata.

The theoretical approach I take in this study is largely based on the concept of intertextuality. In Semiotics of Poetry, Michael Riffaterre presents a theory of intertextuality based on the belief that every text is a remaking of other texts. Fundamental literary codes have already been stated in a previous writing, and patterns transform themselves and reappear in a later text. Through the "matrix," which gives the central idea of the poem, and the "model," which is the first actualization of the matrix, the poetic text is a highly patterned periphrasis achieving a monumental unity. Riffaterre claims that a later text absorbs previous texts and transforms them into its distinctive idiom (31).

However convincing Riffaterre's concept of poetic textuality might be, I differ with him on the rejection of mimesis as a poetic norm. Riffaterre states that the poem does not reproduce reality: a poem is not about reality (mimesis) but it is, to the contrary, only about itself. (1) Following Roman Jakobson, I argue that poetry includes the referential function but transforms reference (Jakobson, 64). The French neo-petrarchan poets at the end of the sixteenth century did write works that were reflected by reality. In fact, most of them were court poets benefiting from the support of a patron, the king or queen, who would often dictate the subject of their verse. Thus, I would contend that mimesis is significant to poetry. In France, baroque poets lived in social and historical chaos because of religious wars, plagues, poverty, and political instability. This instability is mirrored in the writings of the time, In fact, French lyric production between 1570 and 1620 provides abundant examples of intertextualit y in themes and psychology, since French poets of that period are inspired by these morbid and somber experiences. According to Henri Weber the disperata is one of the main aspects of Italian poetry to enter France in the sixteenth century (13-14). Its main traits are its themes and psychology of death and self-destruction. These tragic presuppositions appealed to the French baroque poets and conformed to the socio-historical situations they shared. The cultural contacts and exchanges between the two countries, especially among sovereigns, diplomats, artists, and courtiers facilitated the spread of the poetry of the disperata.

The disperata lover-persona seeks secluded and dark places in order to express his despair, passion, and anguish. He surrounds himself with deserted and sterile landscapes and finds comfort in them. This favorite site is sinister and infernal, populated by wild and abhorrent animals. The following verses of Luigi Tansillo paint a desolate scenery, projecting the narrator's condition onto nature:

Strane rupi, aspri monti, alte tremanti

Ruine, e sassi al ciel nudi e scoperti,

Ove a gran pena pon salir tant'erti

Nuvoli in questo fosco acre fumanti;

Superbo orror, tacite selve, e tanti

Negri anti erbosi in rotte pietre aperti;

Abbandonati, sterili deserti,

Ov'han paura andar le belve erranti;

A guisa d'uom, che per soverchia pena

Il cor triste ange, fuor di senno uscito,

Sen va piangendo, ove il furor lo mena,

Vo piangendo io tra voi: e se partito

Non cangia il ciel, con voce assai piu piena

Saro di la tra le meste ombre udito. …

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