- L’Idée de fable. Théories de la fiction poétique à la Renaissance
In L’Idée de fable, Teresa Chevrolet focuses on the theoretical framework that surrounds literary production in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy and France. Such a study is not without its precedents: one could mention the History of Literary Criticism in the Italian Renaissance by Bernard Weinberg (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1961) that Chevrolet heavily draws upon, as well as the more recent Poétiques de la Renaissance edited by Perrine Galand-Hallyn and Fernand Hallyn (Genève: Droz, 2001). These precursors notwithstanding, most of her book is based on her own patient readings of a large amount of treatises on poetic theory and commentaries of ancient authors of the time, the majority of Italian origin, which she quotes generously throughout the text. Such a bulk of primary sources makes possible Chevrolet’s attempt to catalogue all of the different currents and views that emerge, influence, and contradict each other over these two centuries. [End Page 1198]
The book is divided into three main parts, following chronological development of the poetic theory. In the first part, Chevrolet develops the idea of the fable as allegory, presenting this as the dominant conception of fiction in the first half of the sixteenth century. Following the rediscovery of Plato’s Republic, Neo-Platonists found it necessary to defend poetic fiction against Plato’s merciless indictment of the poets. They attempted to answer Plato’s charges by linking the fable to the truth. Thinking fiction in terms of allegory provided the means to do so since such an approach makes it possible to suggest that a fable may contain a hidden meaning that is related to philosophical and religious truths. Chevrolet bases her presentation of the interpretative tendencies of the period on Paolo Rossi’s distinction between fable as a veil under which lie truths inaccessible to the mob and fable as a pedagogical instrument that exposes knowledge to everyone without distinction (Francesco Bacone, dalla magia alla scienza [Bari: Laterza, 1974]). Chevrolet’s discussion of the former model describes the extent of the fascination with mystery and hidden meaning in the first half of the sixteenth century, the theoretical explanation of which is found in the concept of prisca theologia, a theory that claimed that all cryptic messages of the past, such as the words of the first poets or Egyptian hieroglyphs, express the same eternal truths, with these ancient poets and sages being directly inspired by gods. However, the tendency to seek hidden meanings everywhere leads to a situation where allegorical reading is no longer possible due to the multiplication of interpretations gone out of control, making it impossible to find this hidden meaning as each interpretation may be considered as a symbol for something else. As for the pedagogical potential of fiction, that is, of allegory as a carrier of knowledge and morals, Chevrolet shows that this latter possibility is valued and exploited by theoreticians at the same time as they emphasize fiction’s capacity to conceal the truth. Thus, she insists on the dual nature of Neo-Platonic allegory, concluding that such a duality also marks the contemporary understanding of the nature of literature itself, which was seen both as the original sacred language and as a language constructed by men for men.
The second part explores the acceptance and integration of Aristotelian ideas into Renaissance literary debates. Chevrolet opens with a presentation of the profound misunderstanding on the level of terminology that accompanies the entry of Poetics, rediscovered and translated into Latin and Italian in the early sixteenth century, into literary circles already versed in the language of Plato and classical authors. It is through people like Plato, Horace, and Cicero that such terms as mimesis and verisimilitude, crucial to Aristotle, were being read. Commentaries on the work manifest the general tendency to take these terms out of their context in an attempt to identify them with the familiar notions found...