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MLN 119.1 Supplement (2004) S178-S200

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Storying Death in the Renaissance:
The Recapture of Roberto di Sanseverino (1418-1487)

Melissa Meriam Bullard
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The underlying problem this article addresses came to my attention in a chance encounter that pitted Salvatore Camporeale, scholar of Renaissance humanism, against modern literary critic George Steiner. During his campus visit many years ago, over lunch I had mentioned to Steiner something Camporeale had recounted, namely that one of his most vivid boyhood recollections from WWII was of the cook at his college reciting Dante as she stirred her kettle. Steiner seemed skeptical and then shocked me by stating unequivocally that it could not have happened as I had reported because Camporeale's account, like so many other stories of common folk reciting Dante, was purely topological. I argued just as strongly that I believed Salvatore's memory was accurate and his experience singular, no matter how many similar stock stories Steiner could cite. He countered solomonically that literature precedes life, for the act of interpretation presupposes a frame of reference in which to place new events, and thus a topos necessarily antedates our understanding of an event. Back then I was not convinced. Only after encountering the intriguing case of Roberto di Sanseverino while doing archival research for the edition of Lorenzo de' Medici's letters, did I begin to puzzle through what Steiner had said. He summed up his perspective in After Babel: [End Page S178]

"Defined 'topologically', a culture is a sequence of translations and transformations of constants ('translation' always tends towards 'transformation'). When we have seen this to be the case, we will arrive at a clear understanding of the linguistic-semantic motor of culture and of that which keeps different languages and their 'topological fields' distinct from each other."

What follows is an attempt to explore how topoi function in history using the case of Roberto di Sanseverino, or in other terms, to explain how Camporeale and Steiner can both be correct.

* * *

At the beginning of Henry IV, Part II, the curious figure of Rumour enters the stage in a suggestive costume, which Shakespeare describes as "painted full of tongues." He introduces the play by twisting King Henry's victory over Hotspur at the Battle of Shrewsbury into a defeat. The character portrays himself as follows:

". . . Rumour is a pipe
Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures;
And of so easy and so plain a stop,
That the blunt monster with uncounted heads,
The still-discordant wavering multitude,
Can play upon it . . .
. . . The posts come tiring on,
And not a man of them brings other news
Than they have learn'd of me: from Rumour's tongues.
They bring smooth comforts false, worse than true wrongs."
(1. 1. 1-40) 1

The confusions of battle, then as now, provide fertile ground for unconfirmed reports, those born of hearsay as well as the ones spawned with malicious intent.

Shakespeare's Rumour might well have been present at the Battle of Calliano in August 1487 when Roberto di Sanserverino disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The famous condottiere, whom Machiavelli immortalized in his Istorie fiorentine as one of the most distinguished mercenary captains of his day 2, had led the Venetian [End Page S179] forces fighting against the Tyroleans. Was he missing, captured, or dead? For two weeks conflicting rumors about his fate swirled around Italy, as diplomatic dispatches storied his death and framed his life for posterity. His checkered career in the service of the major states of Italy, however, had won him more enemies than friends. As long as the circumstances of his death remained clouded, Shakespeare's Rumour could have gleefully employed his many tongues, for those early notices of Sanseverino's whereabouts varied, depending upon who admired and who despised him. These conflicting accounts, together with certain events leading up to his death, and the literary images used to characterize him both just before and just after death, also reveal underlying tensions between an older chivalric military ideal and the centralizing...


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