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Troubadour Studies in Italy: An American Perspective

From: Tenso
Volume 28, Numbers 1-2, Spring-Fall 2013
pp. 46-67 | 10.1353/ten.2013.0000

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Our Occitanist friends in Italy may rightly feel that they or their ancestors have been close to the troubadours since the very beginning. Italian troubadours like Sordello and Lanfranc Cigala participated in the spread of Occitan poetry into the Peninsula and created a lively poetic commerce between the two regions. The first of these was an old Lombard, us veilletz lombartz, who appeared in the gallery of troubadours written by Peire d'Alvernhe in the mid-twelfth century. Our oldest datable troubadour manuscript, known as D, was compiled in Italy in or around 1254. The Veneto, in particular, saw the composition of numerous troubadour manuscripts that survive today, including D; we have more Occitan canzonieri from the Veneto than from any other region, including the South of France. These manuscripts bear witness not only to the transmission of troubadour poetry but to their study, which prospered among Italian Humanists in the sixteenth century and has continued to thrive in Italy ever since. Meanwhile these troubadour manuscripts compiled in the Veneto and Lombardy seem to have provided a model for manuscripts of Italian poetry that were compiled a little later in Tuscany (Signorini, "Spunti" 538). The art of the troubadours was assimilated by poets writing in Italian beginning with Dante, who composed Occitan verse to be spoken by the shade of Arnaut Daniel in Purgatorio, and continuing with Petrarch, who lived half his life in Provence but did not compose in Occitan as far as we know. Italian scholars may well feel a sense of personal, cultural continuity with the troubadours that goes back to the thirteenth century or even the twelfth.

Among the troubadour manuscripts, only D has been reproduced in facsimile. In his introduction Aurelio Roncaglia expressed his sense of contact with the troubadours. He wrote:

The lyric of the troubadours constitutes indeed an obligatory and privileged passage for anyone who seeks to become aware of the roots from which all modern occidental poetry was born, of the mould that stamped an indelible imprint on the ways in which European man has composed his sentimental life. In particular for Italy, which with the illumination of Petrarchism restored to Europe the most mature developments imported from the troubadours, it is a question of a historical node in which anyone who regards himself as a participant in our civilization cannot fail to feel himself vitally implicated.

There is no doubt that Roncaglia's view centered on Italy.

By contrast to the warmth and immediacy of such a vital implication, American Occitanists may feel that when we study the troubadours, we are walking on the moon. In the thirteenth century, when Sordello rode from Mantova to Aix and Guilhelma de Rosers traveled from Provence to Genoa, the Western hemisphere was unknown in Europe (with the significant exception of Leif Ericson), just as Europe was unknown in the Western hemisphere. The second discovery of America (or the third, if we include the early migration from Asia across the Bering Strait), by a certain Genoese sea captain, has been taken as one mark of the end of the Middle Ages. The Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment rolled through history before an American first discovered Occitan. In 1787, while serving as minister plenipotentiary to France, Thomas Jefferson made an excursion that lasted fourteen weeks, taking him from Paris to Provence, Languedoc, Bordeaux, and back to Paris. Driven by boundless curiosity, Jefferson learned about the Occitan language in direct conversation with people who spoke it. He learned, as he wrote, that "The ballads of it's [sic] Troubadours were the delight of the several courts of Europe" (Paden, "American Discovery" 49). If we construe Jefferson as the first American who made contact with Occitan, as the old Lombard in Peire d'Alvernhe was the first Italian, we must acknowledge that Jefferson came six centuries later. Who, then, was the American Dante, the first major American poet to make contact with Occitan in a poetically meaningful way? It must have been Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who published a collection of poetry from all over Europe including the troubadours as they had been translated in England, and added examples of nineteenth-century Occitan poetry. Longfellow may have translated...

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