Wednesday 18 March 2009

Luigi Pulci's Morgante

Since I mentioned this work in my splenetic blog entry yesterday, I might just add that Pulci's Morgante is, in my opinion, one of the finest and most entertaining works in Italian literature. Written in the 1460s and '70s, it precedes Ariosto's Orlando furioso and even its prequel, Boiardo's Orlando innamorato (which was written after 1476). It is a swashbuckling epic of gory battles, never-ending duels, near escapes and romance – populated by preposterous knights, beautiful damsels, giants and evil spirits. Unlike many of the other chivalric poems of the time, it is incredibly funny. But what marks it as a true masterpiece is its linguistic inventiveness and the vividness of its dialogue, which doesn't follow the high-falutin example of Petrarch, but is more akin to the humble idiom used by Dante and Boccaccio. It is full of memorable lines, such as:

"E cominciava a ragionar col dente" ("And then he started thinking with his teeth")

Morgante is the name of a heathen giant who, after being converted by Orlando to Christianism, embarks with him in a series of phantasmagorical adventures. This pantagruelic character became so popular that the author was forced to use the giant's name as the title of his work. The highest point of the poem is Morgante's death when he is pinched by a puny crab. Reading Morgante in the original is a joy for any lover of the Italian language, but if you are not up to it, you can have a taste through one of the ancient or modern translations of the poem.

As you may know, Lord Byron translated the first canto of Morgante, and I consider this the best introduction to Pulci's work. After completing this translation, Byron famously informed his publisher John Murray that his greatest aspiration was to write in Italian – and he was convinced that if he was ever to write a masterpiece, that could only be written in the language of Dante, Boccaccio, Pulci and Ariosto.


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