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  • Towards an Italian Theater: Rucellai’s Oreste
  • Salvatore Di Maria

It is generally acknowledged that tragedy made its way into Western culture through Italian Renaissance playwrights wishing to revive classical drama. To be sure, interest in the concept and function of tragedy was very much alive throughout the Middle Ages, as evinced in the writings of scholars such as Donatus, Isidore of Seville, St. Remigius, and Dante. However, ancient dramatic texts were known mainly in excerpts from various collections or in anecdotal form. Numerous Greek plays were available in the St. Mark library in Venice, but many of those works were translated primarily into Latin. 1 The first collection of Seneca’s tragedies appeared in the early fourteenth century and their discovery inspired several imitations by humanist authors eager to recover the genre. Typically, most imitators followed the Roman preference for dramatic reading over stage representation. By the early sixteenth century, however, as playwrights began to translate and imitate newly discovered plays, the revival shows a tendency also for performance. Interest was further spurred by the diffusion of Aristotle’s Poetics which provided basic guidance and formal authority to writers willing to try their dramaturgical skills. But Aristotelian precepts, though of fundamental importance, were open to a wide range of interpretations and did not constitute, therefore, undisputed canons of dramatic theater. Playwrights were thus left with plenty of freedom in the composition of their works. [End Page 123]

Theater scholarship has dwelled sufficiently on the various ways in which individual authors interpreted and applied Aristotle’s rules. Nonetheless, we still lack a clear perspective of the cultural context and the dramaturgical preferences that inform the dramatic works of early playwrights. In the ensuing pages, using Rucellai’s Oreste as a point of reference, I propose to discuss specific cultural elements and theatrical innovations that contributed significantly to the revival of dramatic theater in the Italian Renaissance. I intend to articulate the discussion in part by focusing on the intertextual relations that exist at various levels between Oreste and other dramatic and non-dramatic texts, and, to a greater extent, by a semiotic analysis of the play’s ‘virtual’ performance.

Translations were important first steps in the recovery of ancient drama, for they provided firsthand knowledge of the genre’s most basic features. The effort revealed an art form whose cultural traditions and aesthetic context had long vanished, which could only be appreciated as one appreciates an archaeological finding, that is, as testimony of a distant past. 2 As one might expect, most writers were not satisfied with an art form void of life, and their enthusiasm eventually led to a revitalization process which brought the ancient art to life. The existing poetics of imitation, by insisting that imitators must strive to surpass the original, facilitated the task of molding the old into something new. Thus, Italian playwrights, inspired by the newly discovered ancient works and building on the experience provided by translations, began to compose their own plays, drawing plot materials from historical legends of the near and distant past, from classical mythology, or simply adapting story lines already dramatized in antiquity. 3

Whether they proposed original plots or mere adaptations of classical texts, playwrights aimed to create dramatic works that would reflect their own living traditions, giving theater a distinctive cultural flavor. Though both original compositions and adaptations represent genuine efforts at resurrecting classical theater, the latter tend to show more clearly the process by which individual authors intended to meet and even challenge the artistic preferences of their readers and, potentially, their spectators. 4 From a practical point of view, a representation [End Page 124] of an existing text promised favorably predisposed audiences, since the original story was well known to a public ever appreciative of classical culture. 5 This familiarity, while orienting the spectators’ response vis-à-vis the type of performance they were about to see (tragedy, as opposed to comedy or pastoral, etc.), inevitably lessened their interest in the plot, allowing them to concentrate on the innovations adapted by the playwright, that is the poetic invention that characterizes true imitation. An author’s display of poetic ability often came in the form of imitation, which, as...

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pp. 123-148
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