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French Forum 26.2 (2001) 1-22

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Du Bellay's Time in Rome: The Antiquitez

Hassan Melehy

Rome and the Present

In 1553 , Joachim du Bellay sets out for Rome on a diplomatic and poetic mission: he is secretary to his older relative Cardinal Jean du Bellay, and he is in search of the ancient models that will provide the source of a new French poetry, the task of the latter laid out four years earlier in his Deffence et Illustration de la Langue Francoyse. The Antiquitez de Rome are, of course, an expression of the poet's 1 profound disappointment at what he sees before him, in which he finds neither the greatness nor the durability that he hoped to bring back in order to promote both poetic and political grandeur for the future of France. Precisely what du Bellay finds in Rome and what he tries to bring of it to French poetry have been widely debated in criticism, which only recently has begun to yield on the position that the Regrets constitute an obviously superior work. 2 In spite of the regret also expressed in the Antiquitez, on the title page they are termed "une generale description de [la] grandeur" of Rome. 3 That is, there is still a greatness available in Rome, which in the sonnets is most frequently identified with Roman writing. I would like to propose that the absence of the "original" Rome in which these writings were produced is not simply lamented in the Antiquitez; rather, their current lack of groundedness allows them to be taken up and reworked by the French Renaissance poet, who thereby produces the space in which a properly French poetry will take place. That is, the Antiquitez are not primarily an expression of lamenting nostalgia, but instead a production of a poetry in the present and for the future.

Du Bellay is pursuing, in rigorous fashion, the notion of imitation that he put forth in the Deffence. Although it would be tempting to view the Antiquitez as an instance of practice in relation to the theorization elaborated in the Deffence, I would rather view the Antiquitez as also continuing that theorization--the Deffence itself is not only theory but [End Page 1] illustration or practice. 4 I would like to show here that du Bellay extends the notion of imitation to the Roman ruins themselves: just as Roman writing is composed of signs now severed from their original context, or signifiers bearing an indefinite relationship to what they signify, the ruined monuments that the poet views also no longer signify the greatness that they did when they were first built. Du Bellay imitates this capacity of the signs constituted by the monuments: he represents them as continually moving away from what they first represented, and in so doing he borrows from the motion of signs in order to rearrange them in a new configuration that will constitute the new French poetry. This poetry is thereby composed of signs whose mobility is valorized; it may hence offer models for future imitations, one of the principal goals for the new poetry that du Bellay states in the Deffence. 5 In the Antiquitez, the mobility of signs is characterized as a temporality, such that the present may be viewed as the future of ancient Rome, and the ruining of the latter in time as the very process by which poetry arises in the present. Indeed, as I hope to show, du Bellay goes so far as to demonstrate that the difference between the ruin of modern Rome and the glory of ancient Rome occurs on a continuum in which each configuration of signs constituting Rome is a repetition, though altered, of the previous one. In lamenting the ruins of Rome, then, du Bellay is able to form the tie with Rome's greatness that is necessary to the production of French greatness in the present and for the future.

In antithesis to the "generale description de [la] grandeur" of Rome, the title page further qualifies the Antiquitez as "une deploration de sa Ruine...


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