Recovering the lost voices of early modern Italy

by Brian Richardson

8 Feb 2017

How did people encounter texts in early modern Italy? We tend to think of these texts in the handwritten or printed forms that we can see today among the treasures of our libraries: from elegant books, fit for courtly readers, to the now rare examples of the cheap print that was affordable by the less well-to-do.

However, during the Renaissance and beyond, all kinds of texts were also spoken and sung for purposes of entertainment, information or instruction, not just among the uneducated but also by and for the literate minority. Poets might prefer to read their latest sonnets aloud to friends, even when these friends could easily have read them silently. All verse could be set to music. Machiavelli, best known nowadays for having advised princes in the early sixteenth century on how to rule effectively, had a reputation in his day for being able to improvise and sing verse translations of Latin poetry. One of the pieces of advice that Castiglione, his contemporary, gave to his perfect courtier was to be able to entertain others by singing verse with an instrumental accompaniment. On the other hand, what about texts that we would expect to have been performed in the first place, such as sermons or political speeches? Many were made available in writing, but do these versions represent what audiences actually heard?

If we are to build up as complete a picture as possible of the reception of texts in the period, we need to ask how far oral culture operated independently of writing, and also to look at the relationship between orality and writing: how far were written texts performed by men and women, and how may texts that were originally heard have then passed into writing? The problem, of course, is that the sounds of early modern voices have been lost. But we can hunt for evidence of them in sources such as correspondence, diaries, chronicles, archival records including those of trials, literary texts, records of sermons and speeches, and visual depictions of performances.

In order to investigate this topic, I was fortunate to receive generous funding from the European Research Council. One of the unique aspects of the ERC’s Advanced Grants – access to which, from the point of view of the UK, is now threatened by Brexit – is that they encourage unconventional, ‘frontier’ research of just this kind. With this invaluable support, the project ‘Oral Culture, Manuscript and Print in Early Modern Italy, 1450-1700’, known informally as Italian Voices, got under way in the University of Leeds in June 2011 and ran until November 2015. Our research had to be interdisciplinary, and it had to cast its net wide. It encompassed spaces such as courts and private houses, streets and piazzas, churches and convents, academies and universities; men and women of all social classes; and contexts including ceremonial and ritual events, oratory, public and private performance, and entertainment that was scripted and improvised – or more likely, we think, semi-improvised, using skills of memory as well as invention. We also had to take into account the unusually broad spectrum of languages used throughout the politically divided Italian peninsula in this period. A standard Italian language was emerging, and it was used mainly in writing, but it may have been spoken and heard more widely than has been assumed. The very varied dialects of the peninsula were associated mainly with informal spoken communication, as they still are today, but they were also used to provide colourful characterisations in some kinds of writing. This linguistic variety raises the question of what happened when texts or performers moved from state to state. The only language that rose above variety was Latin: this was still used in university lectures, and some poets were able to sing improvised Latin verse.

The research team based in Leeds was joined at seminars and a conference by many other scholars from the UK, Italy, France, the Netherlands, the USA and Canada, whose range of expertise included the essential elements of musicology and art history. The outcomes of our joint research are appearing in collections of essays, in monographs and in articles. These include two books published by Routledge in 2016: Interactions between Orality and Writing in Early Modern Italian Culture and Voices and Texts in Early Modern Italian Society. These and other project publications shed new light on many topics within oral/aural culture, including the two-way relationships between written texts and performances, differing attitudes towards spoken and sung performances, the audiences for performances, the practices of street singers, preaching and attempts to control it in the context of the Counter-Reformation, prayer and devotions, the influence of the spoken word on written texts not intended for performance, the orality of authors not normally viewed as performers (such as Machiavelli), the spaces of performance, the improvisation of poetry and its musical accompaniment, the effects of the voice, and the otherwise lost culture of those who did not have the ability to read and write. More generally, the project suggests that the history of oral culture can and should be combined with the history of manuscript and printed books, forming a single history of the circulation of texts in all media.

For the future, it would be fascinating to compare what was happening in Italy with the oral cultures of the rest of Europe.

The project was funded under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) / ERC Grant Agreement no. 269460. Further information can be found here. The principal investigator was Brian Richardson. The postdoctoral researchers were Francesca Bortoletti, Stefano Dall’Aglio, Luca Degl’Innocenti, Nicolò Maldina, Massimo Rospocher and Chiara Sbordoni. The research assistants were Dr Naomi Wells and Dr Isabella Bolognese.

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