‘Parole appiastricciate’: The Question of Recitation in the Tasso-Ariosto Polemic
From Firenze University Press Journal: Journal of Early Modern Studies (JEMS)
Christopher Geekie, Paris-Sorbonne University
In February 1585, the newly founded Accademia della Crusca of Florence, intent on purifying the Tuscan language, published a lengthy screed against the epic poem Gerusalemme liberata (1581), emphatically condemning the work and maligning its author, Torquato Tasso.
Censuring the text for its use of unnatural words and overwrought syntax, the academicians declared that the Liberata’s language was often so deformed as to prevent understanding the sense of the poem:
[il poema] non ha né belle parole, né bei modi di dire … e sono l’une, e gli altri, oltre ogni natural modo di favellare, e con legatura tanto distorta, aspra, sforzata, e spiacevole, che udendole recitare ad altrui, rade volte s’intende, e ci bisogna prende-re il libro in mano, e leggerle da per noi: essendo elle tali, che non basta il suono, e la voce: ma per comprenderle bisogna veder la scrittura: e qualche volta non è assai. (Salviati 1588, 230–231)
Tasso, the Crusca claimed, had strayed so far from a natural– and presumably more purely Florentine — form of poetic expression, that one could no longer rely on the traditional manner of enjoying poetry, namely its recitation before a group of people. The Crusca’s remark offers a useful starting point for considering the immediate impact of a work, already notorious for its difficulty, and, by extension, valuable insight into the various, sometimes conflicting, ways of responding to poetry in late sixteenth-century Italy.3 Due to the harsh reception of Tasso’s poem by the Florentine academy, such a comment also helps us begin to map the various socio-cultural positions of Tasso’s early readers, who were often in conflict with one another for extra-artistic reasons. The Crusca’s criticisms of the sound of Tasso’s poem immediately suggest certain expectations, perhaps entirely Florentine, concerning a so-called natural poetic language that allows for ease of comprehension. In their account, listeners were not expected to follow along with the written text, and the need to consult the book seems to have entirely exasperated the group.Such exasperation implies a tension between poetry as written and poetry as spoken in early modern letters. This is not to say, however, that the poem’s written form and its oral execution were clearly defined, discrete modes of consumption and experience. On the contrary, as the Crusca’s comment implies, and as further analysis will show, the written text and its recitation often sat in uneasy relation to each other, due largely to the particular literary tastes and expectations of the academicians. This relation is perhaps best understood with reference to a perennial issue found in metrical studies, namely the ambiguous connection between a written text and the multiplicity of its possible metrical executions, whether read aloud or mentally.
In terms of meter, the text — as encountered on the page by a reader or performer — often presents moments of interpretative uncertainty. A line offers a range of possible metrical interpretations out of which a single reading must be chosen when the line is ‘performed’, a choice determined largely by the reader’s own tastes and customs.
As we shall see, the Crusca’s account of their unpleasant experience listening to Tasso’s poem emerged from their particular approach to poetic prosody. Our focus then is on the Crusca’s manner of recitation as it is brought to light through a reconstruction of their ideas about meter. Since the Crusca’s statements generated a vehement response from other writers supporting Tasso’s poem, we can also compare different readings of those same lines. By studying this opposition, we can get at the matter of metrics, prosody, and recitation as they were practiced at the time of the publication of the Liberata. This controversy thus provides a window not only into the possible manners of recitation of Tasso’s poem, but also –and perhaps more importantly –the diverse and often conflicting values and interests of its first readers.