March 3, 2012 Leave a comment
A pie’ de’ colli ove la bella vesta Under the very hills where at first
prese de le terrene membra pria she donned that lovely dress, her earthly form
la donna che colui ch’a te ne ’nvia (that lady who so often rouses him
spesso dal somno lagrimando desta, who sends us to you, weeping from his rest)
libere in pace passavam per questa we went in peace and liberty through this
vita mortal, ch’ogni animal desia, our mortal life, where people wish to stay,
senza sospetto di trovar fra via without a thought of coming in the way
cosa ch’al nostr’andar fosse molesta. of something fashioned to entangle us.
Ma del misero stato ove noi semo For all this wretched state where we now find
condotte da la vita altra serena ourselves, whose former life was so serene,
un sol conforto, et de la morte, avemo: some comfort (and for death) is still at hand:
che vendetta è di lui ch’a ciò ne mena, that is, vengeance on him who brought us down,
lo qual in forza altrui presso a l’extremo who, also in extremis, now lies bound
riman legato con maggior catena. like all of us, but with heavier chain.
(trans. by J. G. Nichols)
Presentation on RVF 8 by Caterina Paoli; Report by Jennifer Rushworth:
Sonnet 8 opens a series of three intertwined sonnets linked to the previous poems by sonnet 7, and probably are addressed to two ‘historical characters’ who could be identified with the brothers Giacomo and Giovanni Colonna, Petrarch’s protectors during his ‘periodo avignonese’. This group of sonnets were meant to celebrate this family who was supportive with Petrarch; for this reason sonnets 8 and 9 are thought to be accompanied by material gifts, a truffle has been hypothesized for sonnet 9, and two doves for sonnet 8, whereas sonnet 10 is Petrarch’s official invitation to the bishop Giovanni Colonna to come and visit him in Valchiusa.
In sonnet 8 speaking animals describe their state of captivity, thus stressing the comparison with the poet who happens to be ‘incatenato più forte che augello tolto alla sua libertà’, to say it with Leopardi. The eclogue VIII in Petrarch’s Bucolicum Carmen may offer more information about the identification of the two birds with doves; the text stages the separation of Petrarch from the cardinal Giovanni Colonna at the end of 1347 in Provence, and the pleasure of hunting doves is mentioned as an activity they used to enjoy together (ll. 61-3). So the niveas columbas that they used to hunt in the past, could in this sonnet re-enact memories of the time spent together; the re-enactment happens on two levels: on the one hand the doves are the speaking subject of the entire sonnet, on the other hand real doves are offered as a gift to accompany the sonnet itself. The presence of doves also leads to the very strong echo of Dante’s Inferno V within this sonnet.
The Dantesque echo works on a microscopic level and it is displayed and conveyed by employing specific words: ‘la bella vesta prese’ (l.1) recalls ‘amore prese costui della bella persona’ (ll. 100-102), l. 7 ‘senza sospetto di trovar fra via cosa ch’al nostr’andar fosse molesta’ recalls ‘soli eravam e senza alcun sospetto’ (l. 129), l. 9 ‘ma del misero stato ove noi semo’ recalls ‘nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice ne la miseria’(ll. 121-123), ‘spesso dal sonno lagrimando desta’ l. 4 recalls ‘Francesca, i tuoi martìri a lagrimar mi fanno tristo e pio. (ll. 115-117) and many others.
This mosaic of Dantesque memory is however significantly varied and used by Petrarch to actually divert from the essence of Dante’s canto. Firstly because Petrarch’s doves do not symbolise the lovers, as it is in Dante, and for this reason they are not sinners; thanks to this, the birds in our sonnet actually experience a feeling of solace despite their captivity (l.11 un sol conforto avemo). It is rather the poet, whose condition is now described by the doves (whereas in Inferno V was the poet to describe the condition of the doves), who ends up being in the most miserable condition and more similar to the Dantesque doves. Although the persona loquens does not coincide with the author in this sonnet, the focus is well established on the poet’s feelings; at l. 3 of the first quatrain (che colui ch’a te ne ‘nvia) – through the image of the poet offering gifts – Petrarch has the possibility of anticipating his painful condition and his harsh slavery in respect of Laura, a condition which will be spelled out in the last two lines of the sonnet (lo qual in forza altrui presso a l’extremo riman legato con maggior catena).
The idyllic incipit (a piè de colli ove la bella veste) of the sonnet is therefore dismantled by the fact that this beautiful landscape, where the two doves used to spend time (l. 5 libere in pace), turns out to be the theatre of a painful event, id est the incarnation of Laura. The poet, explicitly mentioned as the offerer of the gift, then stands in the background with his insomnia amorosa (l. 4 spesso dal somno lagrimando desta). The second quatrain also conveys an initial atmosphere of joy and stresses the beautiful feeling of living sine cura.
The doves are the symbol of a type of life which does not involve preoccupation. It is especially underlined that in this kind of life which ‘ogni animal desia’ (l. 6) the possibility of a future pain is unconceivable. At line 6 ‘animal’ should be interpreted as human being (again Inf V, ll. 88-90 ‘O animal grazïoso e benigno che visitando vai per l’aere perso noi che tignemmo il mondo di sanguigno’), but it does sound like the poet is playing a bit with the signifiers since the doves (animals) talk about all human beings as if they were animals too. The possibility of an interpretation of animal as animal is however kept by the ambiguous word. In the two last tercets doves somehow take revenge of their state of captivity: death and slavery are the two issues in the backdrop of this last part of the text.
The doves, just like the poet, are in a cage. And now we arrive to the solace I have mentioned beforehand regarding the birds: rather than death, the major consolation for the doves (un sol conforto avemo, l. 11) is the fact that the poet, who is responsible for their miserable condition (che vendetta è di lui ch’a ciò ne mena, l. 12), is himself in a worse condition (lo qual in forza altrui riman legato con maggior catena ll. 13-14). Close to the end of his life (presso a l’extremo l. 13) the poet is completely imprisoned into Laura’s chains. Through the personification of the doves, Petrarch in fact attracts the attention even more than if he had himself spoken about his own condition. The ultimate stereotype of denied freedom (uccello in gabbia) is here destroyed by Petrarch who offers paradigmatically, and at the very beginning of the Canzoniere, an alternative example of denied freedom to that of the birds in captivity. The symbol of this condition is the poet himself and his personal story which sees him enchained until the very end of his life.
By deciding to put this sonnet at the beginning of the Canzoniere as an homage to his benefactors Colonna, Petrarch declares another central element to the poem alongside Laura. This element is a piece of his personal story which recalls a meaningful past, and should maybe be understood as an act of faith towards his story as a person and as a poet.
The poem may seem at first sight too occasional, or trite, but it does employ vocabulary that will become more and more central to the Canzoniere. Thus we can read ‘le terrene membra pria’ (v.2) as an anticipation of the obsession with Laura’s mortal, dead body later in the collection, and we can likewise anticipate the shift in the collection from the ‘bella vesta’ here to the ‘vesta negra’ (RVF 268) after Laura’s death. Similarly, the very dramatic line 4 (‘spesso dal somno lagrimando desta’) seems to anticipate the later sonnets when the poet is visited by Laura after her death in his sleep, and he wakes up when she leaves. It was noted that the gerund in line 4 (lagrimando) agrees with the object and not the subject of the sentence, which would be ungrammatically correct in modern Italian but is frequent in Italian. The strong enjambment over lines 5 and 6 conveys the sense of movement, which of course contrasts with the doves loss of free movement once caught and caged. This is the only poem in the collection in which the speaking voice is not the poet.
Some discussion centred on the ultimate fate of the doves: are they going to be eaten? Since there was no evidence in the poem, the question was discarded.
A meta-linguistic reading of the poem was also suggested, if we read ‘pie’’ as metrical feet, and ‘bella vesta’ as poetry. Similarly, ‘riman’ can be read as ‘rimano’, and ‘legato’ and ‘catena’ also frequently refer to poetry in Petrarch. In this sense, the poet seems to be as trapped and imprisoned in his poetry as the doves are in a cage. While line three was criticised for its clumsy structure (‘ch’a te ne’), this was noted to sound ‘catene’, and therefore to be highly appropriate (given the last word of the sonnet, ‘catena’). The ‘catene’ should also be read in the context of book 3 of the Secretum, and the two chains (Laura and poetic fame) that bind the poet, and which the poet enjoys. In this respect, it is possible that the poet does win eventually, for the doves’ vendetta is not without its positive side for Petrarch (he enjoys his chains).
Laura’s name was heard in particular words as usual: ‘mortal’, ‘conforto’, ‘forza’, ‘maggior’.
The word ‘vendetta’ seemed surprisingly strong in Petrarch, and consulting the concordance revealed that it appears mainly in early poems, and always in vita. Perhaps it is too courtly for later poems: it mainly refers to love’s vendetta. In general, RVF 8 was felt to be an old-fashioned poem, given its context (the medieval, courtly gift of birds), and thus somewhat frustrating, especially considering its prominent position in the collection. In general, it seems that Petrarch moves from the historical (poems written for a particular occasion or reason) to the more purely poetic through the Canzoniere.
The Inferno V resonances were accepted as irrefutable, but the question was asked: why? It was suggested that the end result, and perhaps Petrarch’s motive, was parodistic, since by literalising the metaphors of Dante’s canto, it belittles and treats reductively the intertext. Such an early parody in the history of the reception of Inferno V seems surprisingly modern, given how seriously it has tended to be taken since (Tchaikovsky, etc.).