Sunday 25 January 2009

"Ch'eo so lo pungiglion, e tu se' 'l bue." (Cecco Angiolieri)

For I’m the gadfly now, and you’re the ox.

No portrait has survived of Cecco Angiolieri of Siena (1260–c.1312), Dante’s contemporary and rival, but a long tradition has perpetuated the image of a bohemian poet, a lover of gambling, women and wine. Frustrated by the longevity of his rich but miserly father and his beloved Becchina’s constant rebuffing of his advances, Cecco vented his spleen through venomous sonnets in the same language as Dante and Cavalcanti, but in a completely different tone and spirit. In open opposition to the niceties of courtly poetry and the Stil novo, he favours a more realistic and light-hearted approach. A classic in Italy, where he is widely studied, Cecco is largely unknown in this country. He has been very rarely translated into English – most famously by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the 1870s, and since then only by a handful of Italian academics or enthusiasts.

If few people have heard of Cecco Angiolieri, certainly fewer still have had the privilege to read the beautiful verse translation of Cecco’s sonnets by C.H. Scott. Printed originally in 1925 in a limited edition of thirty copies for private circulation, this little gem – clearly a labour of love – remained unnoticed for decades until I stumbled across it at the British Library, and decided to publish it under the Oneworld Classics imprint. Here’s one of Cecco's most famous sonnets:

If, Dante, I’m a born buffoon, I swear
You run a tilt against me quite as hard;
If I with others dine, you supper there,
And if I bite the fat, you suck the lard;
If cloth I shear, the nap on it you raise,
And if I’m dissolute, you’re just as free;
If I’ve the noble, you’ve the learnèd ways;
If I’m for Rome – well, you’re for Lombardy.
Then, thank the Lord, there’s little to be said
Of vantage won for either at this hour:
To want of wit or luck we owe our knocks.
And if you’ve more to say upon this head,
Dante Alighier, I’ve got you in my power:
For I’m the gadfly now, and you’re the ox.

Prof Anthony Mortimer, the acclaimed translator of Petrarch and Michelangelo, has revised the translation extensively, making it even sharper and closer to the original.

Ironically, we printed the book back in March last year, but our distributor misplaced it, and it re-emerged from their warehouse only last week. So it will be sent out to journalists together with Dante's Rime. I hope they are not going to fight with each other for a review.


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