Literary Criticism of Giambattista Giraldi

The Italian dramatist, poet, and literary critic Giambattista Giraldi (1504–1573) was embroiled in a number of controversies. Like Dante, he spoke in favor of the use of vernacular languages and, as against the influential classical notions of literature deriving from Aristotle and Horace, he advocated a new genre, the romance, a lengthy narrative poem which combined elements of the classical epic with those of medieval romances. The most noteworthy contemporary example of such a romance was Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516). Hence Giraldi was effectively involved in a quarrel between “ancients” and “moderns” which was to last for many centuries. Giraldi’s leaning toward the modern is shown in a number of ways. To begin with, he tends to view literature in a historical context, which means that classical values are not necessarily applicable to all ages. He also reacted, both in his dramas and in his theory, against many of Aristotle’s prescriptions for tragedy, such as unity of action and unity of time. His drama and poetry influenced many subsequent writers, including Pierre Corneille and Shakespeare. His literary criticism, of which his Discorso intorno al comporre dei romanzi (1554; Discourse on the Composition of Romances) was the most controversial and influential, anticipates and parallels some of the views of Mazzoni, Du Bellay, and Coleridge.

b139fa55-3485-4075-8386-a93805d1f18bIn his Discourse Giraldi states unapologetically that romances directly contravene Aristotle’s precept that an epic should imitate a single action. Romances deal not only with many actions but with many characters, building “the whole fabric of their work upon eight or ten persons.”1 Giraldi pointedly remarks that the romance came neither from the Greeks nor from the Romans but “came laudably from our own language.” The great writers of this language, he adds, gave to this genre “the same authority” that Homer and Vergil gave to their epics. Giraldi also promotes an ideal of organic unity, suggesting that the parts of a poem must “fit together as do the parts of the body” (DCR, 24). However, this is not exactly the kind of organicism advocated by the Romantics and later poets. Indeed, it has more in common with classical and neoclassical views of organic unity. Giraldi, like Pope two centuries later, holds that the “prudent poet . . . can with varied ornaments embellish the body of his work,” giving each part “a just measure and decorous ornament” so that each part “may be set with beautiful order in its place” (DCR, 24). This ideal of organic unity depends upon the classical notions of appropriate proportion, harmony, and moderation; it also views form as having an ornamental connection with content, whereas later writers viewed appropriate form as growing out of a particular content.

However, Giraldi strikes a more Romantic and modern tone when he insists that authors should not limit their freedom by restricting themselves within the bounds of their predecessors’ rules. Such restraint would be a “bad use of the gifts that mother nature gave them” (DCR, 39). Even Vergil and Homer, he notes, showed how poets can turn away from the habits of the ancients. Giraldi’s arguments here have a nationalistic strain: the Tuscan poets, he maintains, need not be bound by the poetic forms or literary confines of the Greeks and Romans. After all, he remarks, Aristotle and Horace did not even know the Italian tongue or the manners of composing fitting to it (DCR, 40). And Ovid, who ignored Aristotle’s poetics, emerged “as a beautifully artistic poet” because he was writing about things for which there were no rules or examples. However, Giraldi’s modernism is constrained in its call to innovation: he recommends that Italian poets follow the example laid down by the better poets in this language who have already written excellent romances (DCR, 41).

In other respects, Giraldi’s views of poetry echo those of Horace and other classical writers. As regards the civil function of the poet, Giraldi insists that poetry must “praise virtuous actions and censure the vicious.” He claims that Italian poets, such as Dante, Petrarch, and Ariosto, are actually more decisive in this regard than the Greeks and Romans “who only hinted at such censures and praises” (DCR, 52). Moreover, the poet should always observe “decorum, which is none other than what is fitting to places, times, and persons” (DCR, 56). Giraldi also urges the use of moderation when employing principles of allegorical explanation, being sure not to veer into “chimeras and fantasies completely foreign to the meaning of the things on which they comment” (DCR, 67). Hence, Giraldi attempts a balance or compromise between classical virtues and contemporary artistic needs.

 

Notes
Giraldi Cinthio on Romances: Being a Translation of the Discorso intorno al comporre dei romanzi, trans. Henry L. Snuggs (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1968), p. 11. Hereafter cited as DCR.

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Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature

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