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Roland in Italy

Please note: this article was written in 2001 and is part of my Master's thesis. It is here for archival purposes only. See the bottom of this page for licensing information.

-Vika Zafrin (email me with any questions)

It is difficult to say precisely when the French Roland seeped into the Italian culture. He first appeared in the oral tradition, brought to Italy in the twelfth century by the cantari (street minstrels) from France. The cantari sang canzoni di gesta (the French chansons de geste, epic poetry recited usually in song form with an accompanying lyre-like stringed instrument). Being street singers, they had as their audience the general populace, without regard to class; this, says Lewis Einstein in his Luigi Pulci and the Morgante Maggiore, allowed the poems to take on a crude form, the storyline being necessarily more emphasized than the poetic structure (19-21). Only about three centuries later, during the Renaissance, did the written Roland epics acquire what Einstein calls the "elevate[d]," as opposed to "popular," form (23), placing more emphasis on meter and rhyme than the cantari had.

In the meantime, written manuscripts of the largely oral canzoni di gesta did appear, thanks to the medieval scribes, many of whose works may today be found at the Marciana Library in Venice. As often happened, the scribes added a fair bit of their own material to the Roland lore, Italianizing the hero. Aside from the Norse Karlamagnus Saga, the Italian tradition is the only one that explores in depth Roland's parentage and birth, as well as his life and adventures before the famous fatal ambush at Roncesvalles, subject of the French and other Songs of Roland. In every other tradition Roland is unmistakably French, nephew and sometimes also son to Charlemagne. While the Italians could not deny the hero's French origins, they did situate his birthplace in Italy, either in the Romagna region or the town of Sutri, Lazio region (Calvino 11-12).

The premise of the Italian Roland

Milone of Clairmont (Chiaromonte), Charlemagne's standard bearer, seduces Berta, Charlemagne's sister. (In other versions, he secretly marries marries her [Bulfinch, "Orlando," par. 1].) Milone flees to Italy in order to escape the king's wrath; Berta, pregnant, also goes there, to avoid the shame of having the child in France. She gives birth to Roland there and lives in caves with him, barely surviving. When the boy is seven years old, he steals food from Charlemagne, who is passing through the region on his way to Rome. The king orders for the boy to be followed and questioned, subsequently recognizes him as his sister's son and pardons the two of them. (Calvino 11-12; Bulfinch, "Orlando")

Taking Root

The Marciana manuscripts, though culturally valuable, were not the principal means by which the Roland lore was spread in Italy. It firmly established itself as part of the Italian cultural consciousness through the street performances of the cantari. Legends about Roland became so much a part of the cultural identity that, before significant original works about our hero were written, he was already matter-of-factly referenced in other major works, Dante's Inferno being a notable example. Over a century had to pass from the time when Dante wrote his Divine Comedy for an epic poem to be added to the Rolandiana corpus by an Italian. When, however, the Italians caught up to the rest of Europe in their production of epic poetry, they did it with flare: not one but three Roland poems appeared in the course of less than 100 years, and only one of the three had anything to do with the battle of Roncesvalles, during which Hruodlandus had died.

The Renaissance

The poem to appear first (also the one to include narrative elements of the French Song of Roland) does not even mention Roland in its title. Luigi Pulci's Morgante Maggiore, which was completed in 1482, takes its name from the giant whose adventures the reader follows, on and off, throughout the work. It appears to have been largely a rewriting of Orlando, a previous work by an unknown Florentine author, the manuscript of which is part of the collection at the Laurentian Library in Florence (Einstein 27). Orlando had been primarily concerned with the events relating to Roncesvalles, and so Morgante necessarily touches upon that, taking the enmity between Ganelon (Gan or Gano in Italian) and Roland (Orlando) as its narrative center. It does, however, present other storylines, some of which have nothing to do with Orlando–an innovation. Another innovation of Pulci's is that these other storylines are comic in nature, whereas the humorous aspect is absent from earlier legends.

A year after Pulci's poem comes another by Matteo Maria Boiardo, called Orlando Innamorato. The first two books of the Innamorato were published in 1483, whereas the third book (incomplete) was published posthumously, in 1495 (Gottfried 21). In his tale Boiardo chooses never to mention the battle of Roncesvalles, concentrating instead on adventures the knight undergoes during his prolonged service at the court of king Charlemagne (Carlo Magno in Italian). While other works mention the knight's life between his birth and the Spanish campaign only in passing, most often enumerating his various political conquests, in the Innamorato Orlando pursues a conquest of a different nature. Bewitched by a pagan princess, the hero follows her all over the world, hopelessly in love.

We will never know whether Boiardo's Orlando was ever intended to get the girl: the author died leaving his poem incomplete. This may have been a more fortunate turn of events for the European literary heritage than a completed Innamorato would have been: Boiardo's death allowed Ludovico Ariosto, a poet forty years Boiardo's junior, to continue along the same storyline. In 1516, after twelve years of work, Ariosto's Orlando Furioso was first published. Picking up where the Innamorato left off, Ariosto's piece follows the hero on more travels in search of his beloved Angelica. Eventually (and this is the furioso part of the title), we watch Orlando go mad; at the end of the poem, he is brought back to his senses and the love spell is lifted off of him. As in Pulci's Morgante, the subject matter of the Furioso lends itself to comedic treatment - and the piece is, in fact, purposely comical. The poem was to undergo several major rewritings after its first publication; the definitive version appeared in 1532.


By the seventeenth century, Roland's fame on the Italian peninsula had expanded southward to the kingdom of Naples, where the cantari came to be called the Rinaldi napoletani. Their popularity there merged with that of puppet theater (which had existed in Naples since at least the 1500s) to create what came to be called the theater of the pupi siciliani (Sicilian marionettes), though it was not brought into Sicily until the eighteenth century. The puppets, measuring up to four feet in height and representing popular chivalric legend characters, were used in performing tales about Charlemagne and the French paladins, among them Boiardo and Ariosto's works. The performances involved audience participation and aimed at evoking an emotional response, which included throwing vegetables at the "traitor" puppets and applauding the "heroes." Eventually, puppet making became a popular form of folk art in the south of Italy and, together with the performances themselves, survives as such to this day (Buttita).

The Past Hundred Years

In the twentieth century, artists' interest in Boiardo and Ariosto's works in the rest of Italy was renewed. In 1969, poet Edoardo Sanguineti condensed Orlando Furioso into a play and produced it with theater director Luca Ronconi. The production later toured internationally in Europe and the United States. During performances, multiple stages were set up, and audience members were free to wander from one to another as they wished. Performed theater being a kind of text, "read" by the audience, these performances were certainly hypertextual, multilinear (more than one storyline being performed at once) and interactive (the decisions made by each audience member rendered his or her experience of the piece unique). The production was an effort on the part of the artists to demystify arts, making them accessible to a wider modern audience by involving the viewers in the experience. "Fundamentally," Ronconi said in an interview about the production, "[the member of the audience] finds himself... faced with two options: either he participates in the game we propose..., or stands aside and watches. And in this case he will get bored, because... the play is to be lived, certainly not viewed and 'judged'." Sanguineti remarked in the same interview that the "dismantling" of the Furioso, which was necessarily part of dramatizing it, brought out the legend's oral-tradition origins. The protagonists, much like ancient storytellers, presented their scenes in the third person, subsequently literally entering the action in the first person (Sanguineti/Ronconi 15-16, translation my own).

Another result of the interest in bringing Roland back to his canzoni di gesta origins was a mutual decision by friends and colleagues Italo Calvino and Gianni Celati sometime during the 1960s to re-write Boiardo and Ariosto's works in present-day vernacular prose. Orlando Furioso di Ludovico Ariosto raccontato da Italo Calvino (...told by I. Calvino) appeared in print posthumously in 1995 and consists of Calvino's prose, re-telling parts of the Furioso, interlaced with segments of Ariosto's verses. At its heart lies a series of radio shows recorded by the author in 1968 and aired by the Italian national radio (Calvino 33). Celati, on his part, wrote an account in prose of Boiardo's piece, not quoting any of the original. Orlando Innamorato raccontato in prosa came out in 1994; parts of it are quoted in translation in the present project. Both writers were excellent storytellers attentive to orality: Celati dedicates his book to "those who love reading books aloud" (xiii). The re-tellings thus "sound" to the modern reader much more like orally narrated tales than like Renaissance writing.

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