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Poetic improvisation in the nineteenth century: Giuseppe Regaldi and Giannina Milli.

Italy's reputation as the home of virtuosic improvised poetry continues well beyond the eighteenth century. A vivid traveller's description of a performance by Bartolomeo Sestini acts as an introduction to two of the most accomplished and successful improvisers of the mid-nineteenth century, Giuseppe Regaldi and Giannina Milli. Through their work this article explores four interrelated themes which impinge on improvisation: the role of travel and the press; transcription; the implications of the ephemeral nature of extempore verse; and issues relating to gender. De Stael's identification of the improviser and 'Italy' is reiterated, it is suggested, in a more melancholic key.


Among the most vivid descriptions of the kind of improvisatory performance with which Italian extempore poets dazzled and enthralled their audiences in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is one which the Anglo-Irish writer Anna Jameson included in her Diary of an Ennuyee:

Apropos to poets! Lady C** has just sent us tickets for Sestini's Accademia to-morrow night. [...]

April 7.--Any public exhibition of talent in the Fine Arts is here called an Accademia. Sestini gave his Accademia in an antichamber of the Palazzo--, I forget its name, but it was much like all the other Palaces we are accustomed to see here; exhibiting the same strange contrast of ancient taste and magnificence, with present meanness and poverty [...]. A table with writing implements, and an old shattered jingling piano, occupied one side of the apartment, and a small space was left in front for the poet. [...] Several persons present walked up to the table and wrote down various subjects; which on Sestini's coming forward, he read aloud, marking those which were distinguished by the most general applause. This selection formed our evening's entertainment. A lady sat down in her bonnet and shawl to accompany him [...].

The moment Sestini had made his choice, he stepped forward, and without further pause or preparation, began with the first subject upon his list,--'Il primo Navigatore'. Gesner's beautiful Idyl of 'The First Navigator', supplied Sestini with the story, in all its details; but he versified it with surprising facility: and, as far as I could judge, with great spirit and elegance. He added, too, some trifling circumstances, and several little traits, the naievete of which afforded considerable amusement. When an accurate rhyme, or apt expression, did not offer itself on the instant it was required, he knit his brows and clenched his fingers with impatience; but I think he never hesitated more than half a second. At the moment the chord was struck the rhyme was ready. In this manner he poured forth between thirty and forty stanzas, with still increasing animation; and wound up his poem with some beautiful images of love, happiness and innocence. (1)

Jameson went on to describe the remaining subjects on which Sestini improvised that evening: La morte di Beatrice Cenci, which she thought was a failure; 'the Immortality of the Soul, upon which the Poet displayed amazing pomp and power of words, and a wonderful affluence of ideas'; two sonnets on patriotic themes, the second of which, on L'Amor della Patria, was 'hailed by a round of plaudits' even before he began; his Parricide of Tullia was another resounding success; and the evening concluded with a lively burlesque, entitled Il Mercato d'Amore. She continues:

Sestini is a young man, apparently about five and twenty; of a slight and delicate figure, and in his whole appearance, odd, wild, and picturesque. [...] Though he afterwards conversed with apparent ease, and replied to the compliments of the company, he was evidently much exhausted by his exertions. I should fear that their frequent repetition, and the effervescence of mind, and nervous excitement they cannot but occasion, must gradually wear out his delicate frame and feeble temperament [...].

April 8.--As Maupertuis said after his journey to Lapland--for the universe I would not have missed the sights and sounds of yesterday; but, for the whole universe, I would not undergo such another day of fatigue, anxiety, and feverish excitement. (pp. 319-20)

Although this account is tinged with the ethnocentrism of the foreign traveller witnessing something exotic (the Lapland of poetry) and the ramshackle nature of the whole event is a cliche of early nineteenth-century views of Italy as the land of decay, it is an accurate and informative account as well. Tickets have been bought, so, as became increasingly common from the 1790s on, this was a public performance before a paying audience; subjects have been proposed in advance and a selection made; the poet sings or declaims with musical accompaniment (although some, including Regaldi, were famous for reciting without music, which was deemed more difficult for an improviser); the poems decided on vary in metre and subject-matter (Jameson, however, is not alert to the metrical dimension); rhymes are called out and inserted into the performance; there is palpable excitement in the hall and plenty of audience participation; virtuosity is prized, but some pieces work better than others; the poet is physically and mentally drained at the end of the performance.

'Of those who make a public exhibition of their powers, Sgricci and Sestini are the most celebrated', writes Jameson's anonymous diarist (p. 311), and Tommaso Sgricci, who mixed the improvisation of poems

with the creation extempore of entire five-act tragedies, was the most famous of all. But the practice of public, solo improvisation continued well beyond these stars of the 1810s and 1820s. At the same time that urban intellectuals were taking a new interest in the folk traditions of verse improvisation which flourished in the Tuscan hinterland or further a field in the Balkans or in Greece, the towns themselves continued to provide a space for talented improvisers throughout the fraught Risorgimento years. Among these, Giuseppe Regaldi and Giannina Milli were the two dominant figures in the second third of the century, the best known and the most successful in material and professional terms. Regaldi, who was born in Novara in 1809, flourished during the 1830s and 1840s before becoming an expert on the history of civilizations (thanks in part to his travels in Egypt, Syria, Palestine, the Lebanon, Asia Minor, and Greece) and accepting appointments to teach history in Parma, Cagliari, and Bologna; it was in Bologna that his younger friend and colleague Giosue Carducci pronounced his funeral oration in 1883. (2) Giannina Milli, born in 1825, was a generation younger than Regaldi, whom she had heard improvise and by whom she had been encouraged, in her home town of Teramo. She came of age, so to speak, in 1848 when her first published collection of poems, including some at least which had been improvised, was suspected by the Bourbon police of republicanism and became an immediate danger to anyone who owned it; her own family burnt the remaining copies in their possession. She, like Regaldi, travelled all over Italy to give her accademie, habitually accompanied by her formidable manager-mother Regina. Her maturity as a performer coincided with the years of political uncertainty, yearning, and disappointment of the 1850s and with the triumphs and renewed disappointments of the 1860s. She last improvised in public in the finally liberated territories of the Veneto in 1867; she too became an educator, and died in Florence in 1888.

These two emblematic figures can help us understand important aspects of improvisation in mid-century, and it is through them that I propose in this article to explore four interrelated themes. These are: (1) the role of travel and the press in establishing and maintaining the reputation on which the improviser's livelihood depended; (2) the practice of transcription and something we might call 'active reading'; (3) the implications of the ephemeral nature of extempore verse; and (4) issues relating to gender. For the sake of convenience, I shall link the first two to the figure of Regaldi and the latter two to that of Milli, though in many respects they are transferable between the two poets.

To many of his admirers, Regaldi in the 1830s and 1840swas the Poet incarnate. His looks fitted the bill. Tall and slim, with wavy blond hair that he would sweep back over his shoulder when he improvised, brilliant blue eyes, and the clear baritone voice in which he declaimed his poems, he could clearly hold an audience and was alleged to arouse adoration in women and admiration, rather than jealousy, in men. The legend of the poet who had abandoned the lucrative practice of the law for the sake of poetry (3) and who lived his poetry day in and day out in his wanderings was assiduously cultivated in the poetry itself.

But he was in Italian terms a particularly modern, Romantic, kind of poet. Three aspects of his persona seem to have chimed with his audiences in a forceful way. He was, firstly, an avowedly Christian poet in the mould of Berchet and Manzoni and many of their imitators throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. Not only did the Bible, which he knew intimately, fill his head and supply his verses with images of violence, anger, horror, and sometimes peace, love, and hope, but with his frequent references to the dogmas of the Christian faith he seems to have been able to establish a platform of common understanding with audiences whose own commitment may have stretched from an undefined spirituality to a robust Catholic orthodoxy. Secondly, he was a patriotic poet, patriotic in his sentiments and in his life experiences: what appealed to even a moderately patriotic audience was also likely to come to the notice of the local police, and he was expelled by the Austrians from Lombardy and Venetia in 1834 and from the Duchy of Parma the following year, and was beaten up in Tivoli in 1836 by thugs allegedly sent out from Rome 'perche [...] non volli piegare ai dittatori della poesia arcadica'; (4) in Naples in the wake of the 1848 uprisings he fell under the suspicion of the Bourbon police, had his papers searched, and was briefly remanded in the Prefecture in November 1849, before being allowed to depart on the boat to Malta, which would initiate his four-year absence in the Near East and Greece. Regaldi did not fail to wear his (metaphorical) campaign medals with pride.

Christian and patriotic, these were attributes of a modern poet in tune with the spirit of the times informed by a moderate Romanticism; they could apply to 'premeditated' poetry just as much as to oral improvisation, and indeed Regaldi reinforced these features as he turned his attention more and more to writing rather than extemporizing poetry. But the third element of his poetic persona was intimately tied to the practice, and the allure, of improvisation. This was his self-projection as a troubadour, a wandering minstrel, and sometimes a bard. 'Consentiamo ch'ei ci narri la sua vita di peregrinazioni e di canto, ricomponiamo la svariata odissea di questo giovine trovatore,' wrote his first eulogist, the Neapolitan Achille De Lauzieres, in 1846, 'che errando di citta in citta, segna le dimore con le inspirazioni, e lascia in ogni terra il suo canto, come la rondine peregrina lascia il suo lamento su d'ogni croce di tempio, ove va a posarsi nell'affannoso viaggio.' (5) This itinerant persona both appealed to the medievalizing tendency in Italian culture of the 1820s and 1830s and had a certain 'popular' ring about it, recalling the poets described by Claude Fauriel in his Chants populaires de la Grece moderne ten years earlier, criss-crossing their native land, informing and entertaining their people, from whom they in turn gleaned new material for their song.

But this self-projection was also grounded in material reality. Regaldi was indeed a wanderer, or at least a traveller, proceeding from point to point in what seems like constant motion. In 1834 he was in the north-west (Casale, Alessandria, Asti, Cuneo, Genoa, Finale Ligure, Milan, Vercelli, Alessandria again); the following year he headed south, from Tortona to Piacenza, Parma, Bologna, Florence, and Pistoia, while in 1836 he was on the road to Macerata, then Perugia, Rome, Forli, Ancona, Perugia again, Subiaco, and Tivoli. He would normally arrive in a town, be accommodated by friends or sponsors, give some private accademie, make his presence known by word of mouth and through the press, and then put on one or more public performances in the local theatre or similar venue, to a paying audience. In these well-orchestrated transfers the local press played a vital role, and it is dicult to see the nineteenth-century improviser making much headway without the press: 'i giornali se lo annunziano a vicenda, come il celere linguaggio del telegrafo', De Lauzieres tells us (p. 8). (6) Regaldi was either lucky or, more probably, understood the importance of cultivating the newspapers: he himself contributed pieces on his travels and ensured that editors got some of his recent improvisations to print. When he published his collected poems in 1840, the publisher, who contributed a preface, had access to a cuttings book dating back to 1834, compiled presumably either by Regaldi himself or by an agent. (7) And when he set off that same year on an eight-year tour of Sicily and southern Italy, almost every move was faithfully reported in Il Lucifero of Naples, thus ensuring that his name was kept alive in the metropolis. For this minstrel did not wander from court to court, or from village to village, but from town to town. His was an urban kind of improvisation, attracting an urban (not always urbane) audience whose components ranged from the aristocracy, the religious, and the military to the aspiring middle classes of lawyers, doctors, teachers, public servants, and accountants, and their spouses and offspring, and depending largely on the urban network supplied by the tentacular reach of the giornali and gazzette. It was a newspaper that supplied the clearest synthesis of Regaldi's poetic persona at the height of his fame, describing him as 'il sacerdote del vero, il poeta morale, il trovatore del secolo xix, il bardo cristiano'. (8)

The newspapers also played an important role in the transmission of the oral extemporized poem in print. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, it was in the press that such a poem would first appear. It might then be collected with others in a slim volume of the poems composed in that particular town and subsequently into a larger selection of the poet's work, but such collections cannot be relied on to be complete: the newspaper report is often the only record we have of a particular improvisation. The process of transcription and transmission is methodologically difficult in the study of extempore poetry. The fundamental question is: what relation does the printed text bear to the original improvisation? This is a problem which besets all recordings, including electronic ones; it is simply more obvious when the medium of the copy--the printed word on the page--differs radically from that of the original, viz. the spoken word in addition to all the other sensory stimuli of performance, from intonation, rhythm, and music to physical gesture and facial expression. Two observations are particularly relevant here.

First, we can be reasonably confident of the accuracy of the words. The art of shorthand, invented in the 1780s, had by this time become the standard way of recording an improvisation in full flow, more reliable than the old system of using multiple scribes each taking it in turn to note down a line (particularly effective for regular metres like the ottava rima) or relying on individuals with exceptional powers of recall. Where once the stenographer was a rather shadowy figure scribbling surreptitiously in the background, by Giannina Milli's time he seems to have become part of the entourage. There is no record of Regaldi taking his own stenographer with him on the road, but there was no shortage of willing amanuenses in the towns he visited. The fact that the words could be transcribed with reasonable accuracy did not prevent the poet from altering or 'improving' them later, for subsequent publication. (9)

Secondly, the transcriptions, though they may have been intended just to get the words on paper, expected and required an active reading. It would have been impossible to reconstruct the original improvisation, even for the nineteenth-century reader who was accustomed to reading aloud and to hearing even premeditated poems declaimed. But in the nineteenth century people did not just hear poems, or read them, they very often memorized them. To our ears the poems as transcribed are often over-emphatic, very percussive, but that is what made them memorizable (if not memorable). In the course of a performance, the improviser aimed above all for clarity. The poet could not let the listeners' attention wander, and one way of achieving that was to stimulate the audience's memory during the performance itself. The circuitry of memory is crucial to any discussion about extempore verse. It certainly played a part in the composition of improvised poems, but I suggest here that it played a part in its reception too. If we read the transcriptions as though we were memorizing them, it becomes apparent that transcription does not, as is often thought, take the improvisation entirely out of the orbit of orality. On the contrary, its being written is what allows it to continue to be spoken (aloud or in the head, read, declaimed, or memorized).

Effects such as assonance and alliteration have an important role to play in creating the impact of the extempore poem, for example in the concatenation of f-, ve-/vi-, -g-/-gg-, and -l-/-ll-/le-/li- sounds in these lines from an early poem, La morte del conte di Carmagnola, improvised in Alessandria in January 1834. The juxtaposition of sguardo and squarciato in the second line sounds, however, as though it could be an automatism:
   De' futuri destini il velame
      Io qui veggo al mio sguardo squarciato:
      Il tuo fero leon fulminato
      Io lo veggio fra i brandi tremar;

      Lacerato, disperso e il suo vello,
   Egli manda l'estremo ruggito,
   O Vinegia, da questo tuo lito
   Lo stranier dara leggi al tuo mar. (10)

These lines display another feature which marks them as belonging to an oral/ aural system, the percussive effect brought about by the regularity of the metre and the self-containedness of each line: very rarely in the improvisers' verse will the reader find significant enjambment. But there is variation in pace: one by-product of this particular rhyme-scheme is what one might call a 'rising third', the reader's tendency (and perhaps the poet's) to speed up at the end of the third and seventh lines, and to lift the voice slightly, to enable the second rhyme-word to catch up with the first. (11)

The immediate impact of the performance was also assured by the poem's emphasis on visual imagery, on the act of seeing itself, on the implicit invitation to the listener to conjure up the scene in his or her mind's eye, and sometimes, as here, in the adoption of a visionary tone, the voice of a prophet. (12) In the lines quoted, the poet is foreseeing the terrible fate that will befall Venice at the hands of Napoleon centuries after this event, while the event itself, the beheading of Carmagnola, is visualized in gruesome detail two strophes further on, to be followed immediately by a vision of the execution's aftermath, what happens immediately after the severing of the head from the body:
   Da quel sangue che bruno spumeggia,
      Da quel sangue che bolle di sdegno,
      Ah! dell'aure nel torbido regno
      Vede sorgere un nembo il cantor.
        S'alza il nembo, per l'aure s'addensa
      Stilla goccie vermiglie dal lembo,
      Or s'annera, or rosseggia il suo grembo,
      Sparge intorno silenzio, e terror.

      (str. 13)

By the use of repetition (sorgere un nembo/s'alza il nembo, dell'aure/l'aure), and of synonyms or near-synonyms (bruno, vermiglie, s'annera, rosseggia), Regaldi inflates the original idea--that of the vengeful spirit rising from the spilt blood--creating an over-abundance of image, a kind of redundancy, which seems exaggerated on the page, but which is effective in holding the attention of a listening audience, for whom, as for the poet, this vision is being created for the first (and only) time.

But things can gowrong, aswitness these evident signs of desperation towards the end of a poem dedicated Alla belt a considerata nelle donne: (13)
   In riva al Tamigi la guata Bolena,
   Ahi guato di lutto, d'infamia atra scena
   Che insulta gli arcani divini del Ciel!
   Arrigo! ... Bolena! ... qual vista d'orrore!
   Ahi l'estro fallisce; mi trepida il core
   Su l'Anglia pietoso distendasi un vel.

Fatigue lies in wait for the improviser, however great a virtuoso he might be. (14) Reading the reports of the accademie that Regaldi gave across southern Italy in the 1840s, one can sense how the whole business must have begun to irk him. Time after time, going from Bari, for example, to Trani, Molfetta, Andria, Barletta, Terlizzi, Conversano, Monopoli, and Noci (all in the first three months of 1845) or Foggia, Lucera, Sansevero, and Troja later in the year, he would be asked to do another variant on Alfieri in Santa Croce, or one or other episode of the exile of Dante, Napoleon, Byron, or il Poeta (errante, ispirato, dolente, solitario, etc). Concert audiences are conservative, by and large they want to hear the things they know, or have heard about. This was true of poetic improvisation as well as music, and for the poet it gave rise to a sense of repetition and to sheer exhaustion. But something more insidious undermined the improviser. No improviser, even today, thinks of himself or herself as an improviser: they will always describe themselves as 'a poet', maybe a poet who improvises. The same has been noted of musical improvisers, who '"play flamenco" or "play jazz"; some refer to what they do as just "playing"' and are noticeably reluctant to talk of themselves as improvisers. (15) The uneasiness of the improviser increases when he or she is invited to consider being a poet instead of an improviser. This was the challenge which Lamartine, who had admired Regaldi's extempore performances in France in the spring of 1839 (De Lauzieres, p. 13), put bluntly to him later that same year: 'Vous etes un trop grand ecrivain pour rester un improvisateur', his French admirer wrote him from Saint-Point in October, thanking him for the (pre-meditated) poem La Solitudine: 'La verge d'Aaron et de Moyse, qui fleurissait en quelques minutes, ne germait pas des fruits immortels. Vous devez etre un arbre seculaire. Ecrivez donc, et n'improvisez que pour montrer de temps en temps les merveilles de votre belle organisation.' (16) It was an admonition that was to disturb Regaldi for years to come.

Milli too was dogged by an awareness of the insubstantiality and ephemerality of her art, even though, like Regaldi, she was an enormously successful improviser, always in demand, showered with gifts and medals, accolades, flowers, and money. In 1853 she wrote to her Sicilian friend Lionardo Vigo:

Avro deciso di partire [da Napoli] verso i venti di questo mese; ma una proposizione venuta dall'Impresa del Teatro Fiorentini mi fara rimanere forse forse fino al 27 dicembre. Mercoledi prossimo venturo dir o qualche canto e qualche sonetto in quel teatro, ed e a mia scelta rinnovare l'esperimento quindici giorni dopo, con condizioni tali che non posso attendermi da una Citta di provincia, dove debbo faticare il doppio, per sostenere tutta una serata a mio conto. (Pasquini, p. 135)

Five years later she signed a contract with Luigi Ronzi e fratelli, theatre impresarios in Florence, whereby she kept six-sevenths of the net takings (after deductions for expenses) and got to keep all the presents, except that for each present, the price of one ticket reverted to the management. (17) These were not enormous earnings, but they kept her and her mother comfortably.

Milli had great gifts as an improviser; she was, above all, clear. The extempore poem was a very suitable vehicle for moralizing or didactic verse, of the sort which her audience often demanded and which she was well equipped to supply. The use of ready-made phrases and predictable combinations, whether consciously memorized in preparation for particular compositions or, more probably, drawn from the memory-banks which their detractors called the improvisers' zibaldoni, responded to the audience's need, by and large, to hear what they wanted to hear:
   Ogni madre, vegliando il suo figlio
   Nella queta domestica stanza,
   Mille sogni d'amor, di speranza,
   Per lui forma sul tempo avvenir. (18)

However predictable these lines may be when read on the page and in retrospect, they came alive for an audience hearing them spoken as if for the first time, actually for the first time. Milli was a past master at playing on this double register of familiarity and newness. Relying mainly on description and narration in her poems, she could be very painterly in her improvisations. She was clear and she was fluent: 'la mirabile sicurezza della sua parola' was likened intriguingly by the man who organized her Venetian accademia in 1867 to the uninterrupted succession of notes from a piano. (19)

At the same time, with her combination of the pathetic, or empathetic, and the patriotic, she created a new space for improvisation and used improvisation effectively to delineate a new figure in the social sphere. Inevitably, the role of women in all stages of their lives was a subject on which she was often called to extemporize. Women appear in her poems in both a social and a political light. It is through a woman's voice, and often a female figure, that the demands of social conscience, made acute by the exigencies of Christian charity, find articulation, and in accademia after accademia the improviser makes the case for the poor, the old, the physically impaired, abandoned children, ill-treated women, the bereft and bereaved, the sick. At the same time, in the politically fraught years leading up to the final wars of independence, she embodied and represented in her stage persona the fundamental duty of women to support their men in the common pursuit of the political goal, to motivate and encourage them, to guarantee that they will be welcomed back from the struggle with love: personal and emotional life must be oriented to the political objectives of patriotism, clearly partitioned along gender lines. (20) Milli responded to her times' demand for a rhetoric of unflinching determination, as in these resonating lines from an improvisation in Bologna in 1858 on 'La donna quale dovrebbe essere ai nostri giorni':
   Ella a civil fortezza,
   A fede ardente, a indomita
   Speranza li educ o,
   E pria che vili, martiri
   I figli suoi bram o!

But another dimension to Milli's poetry was its melancholic and depressive strain. She was part of that important mid-century female readership of Leopardi, which loved his dolore but was less enthusiastic about his fiel, his venom, not to mention his atheism. The Leopardi she embraced was the creator of the dying poet and thwarted lover Consalvo, the same Consalvo who was the subject of Leopardi's 'masterpiece' ('capolavoro'), as De Sanctis saw the poem in these years. (21) Death and loss were constant themes of her poetry, albeit contained within the optimistic world-view of Christianity. What is striking, however, is the extent to which extempore poetry itself, the very essence of what she was as an improviser, gravitated towards the negative, fearful, side of her production. When Milli thought of herself as a poet in her improvised poems, her mind turned inevitably to the fleeting nature of her song, its insubstantiality, compared to a model of poetic resilience and durability often identified with Dante. This self-doubt and her 'consciousness of the ephemeral' were present from the beginning of her career. (22) Her poetry resembled the flowers she was given at the end of each performance, and would fade with them, despite the immediate pleasure which they afforded. But she did fight back against herself. She mounted a vigorous defence of extempore poetry against the strictures (still, forty years later) of Pietro Giordani. (23) Even if the improviser does not reach the heights of Dante or Tasso, she asks:
   [Ma] s'ei cantando ti ricerca il core,
   Se di fede, di onor, d'intemerato
   Zelo di patria i sensi in te ravviva,
   Dimmi, di gloria la sua meta e priva?

This was the straw she clung to, the idea that her verses had a positive effect in the here and now, even if they were destined to be forgotten in the future. (24)

These inner doubts, frequently expressed in public, must be set alongside what one of Milli's earliest biographers, Oreste Raggi, writing in 1861, said of her first impact on stage:

Esce in sul palco in candida e succinta gonna, adorna non d'altro che di tutta semplicita. Composta la persona, grave nel portamento, con due occhi vivi, scintillanti, che non si possono fissare senza sentirsi commossi fino alle lacrime, perche vi appalesano l'animo fortemente agitato e sofferente di questa innocente creatura; ella infonde un rispetto universale negli uditori, che mirano in lei come in un'antica sacerdotessa divinamente inspirata. In altri tempi si sarebbe detto che veramente l'agita un Dio; e veramente il genio della poesia possiamo noi dire che in quel momento tutta la investe e la predomina. (25)

Here Raggi combines three elements which are traditional in descriptions of female improvisers: the erotic appeal of the flashing eyes; the emphasis on vulnerability; and reference to the divine. The last of these initially appears anachronistic or problematic, and causes Raggi a certain degree of anxiety. 'In altri tempi', that is in the time of Arcadia or the Renaissance, when poets' imaginary worlds were filled with pagan gods and heroes of mythology, they would have said that she was stirred within by a god, repeating the old Ovidian tag 'Est deus in nobis, agitante calescimus illo' routinely applied to the improvisers. (26) A more secular 'genio della poesia' will have to do in lieu of the enthusiasm or inspiration traditionally associated with the god of poetry, Apollo, and also in lieu of the Judaeo-Christian deity which very definitely does not inspire poets. (27) Nevertheless, Milli remained for Raggi 'come [...] un'antica sacerdotessa divinamente inspirata', and this entitles us to dwell for a moment on the relation between gender and improvised poetry, specifically through the filter of 'inspiration'. The question is given edge by Luisa Ricaldone's observation that while 'Italy differed from other European countries in that very few Italian women in the eighteenth century earned their living by writing or engaging in cultural activities', one of the exceptions were 'the women improvisers'. (28) Such improvvisatrici as Corilla Olimpica, Fortunata Sulgher Fantastici, Teresa Bandettini, Rosa Taddei, and many others constitute what Ricaldone in another context calls a 'genealogy'; they form Milli's family tree. (29)

In an illuminating excursus on the historical threads leading to 'feminine intuition', Michele Le Doeuff lingers over such notions as 'infused knowledge' (a knowledge infused or inspired by God directly, without effort on the part of the subject, as a particular grace) and 'second sight' theorized in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Both ideas share the conviction that these are forms of insight available equally to both men and women. They are 'epicene' in the grammatical sense of that term: 'a word that may refer to either sex (child, for example)', but which may also 'designate things that would be equally suitable for both sexes'. (30) Similar considerations can be applied to the terms 'estro' or 'entusiasmo' as they were used when referring to poetic inspiration. They were applied equally in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to either sex, and there was no suggestion that women were particularly gifted with inspiration. 'Enthusiasm' was 'epicene' in its manifestations--there was nothing feminine or effeminate about a male poet inspired, (31) nor indeed did the reverse apply, although there was sometimes talk, as we shall see, about a female poet 'rising above her sex'. On the other hand, classical literature provided a rich store of real or mythical persons who had a gift of 'second sight' and who were female--Sibyl, Sappho, prophetess, priestess--or were always thought of as female even when they were not necessarily so: oracles, for example (but the Delphic oracle was as often male as female). 'Epicene' in its manifestations, the thing itself, inspiration, enthusiasm, estro, was somehow feminized in the eighteenth century: it came dressed in an imaginary which was predominantly female.

The feminization of 'inspiration' was reflected in contemporary comment on the female performer, in our case the female improviser, and here I refer to the fascinating work done by Margaret Reynolds on the figure of Sappho as it was absorbed, reinvented, and creatively recycled at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (32) In the way that the figure of Sappho herself was treated, and likewise those of contemporary women artists who drew on her myth (Emma, Lady Hamilton is a strong case in point), there was a familiar twin track. On the one hand, there was the sensationalist 'tabloid' approach (my word, not Reynolds's) which emphasized the woman's sexuality, her morals, and private and public behaviour; on the other, and at the same time, there was the glorification of the woman as embodiment and representation of an aesthetic principle which, in the case of the improvisers as of Sappho, tended towards the sublime rather than the beautiful and, since the sublime was conventionally associated with the male in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century aesthetics, tended towards something which lifted them above themselves and 'above their sex'. (33)

All of this long history is echoed in Raggi's description of the 'candid' Giannina (always dressed in white when she was performing). There is, as well, one further element which should be added to the 'genealogy', one of which Milli, if not Raggi, was certainly aware, summed up in the name Corinne, the eponymous heroine of Mme de Stael's 1807 novel, Corinne, ou l'Italie. The first great set piece of that novel is the coronation on the Capitol of the mysterious and beautiful improviser Corinne, who celebrates the occasion by reciting an extempore poem on the literary and artistic glories of Italy. This is a very powerful representation of poetic improvisation in a heavily charged atmosphere, the apotheosis of female genius. But it has a double edge: for literary women of the nineteenth century, 'the myth of Corinne persisted as both inspiration and warning: it is the fantasy of the performing heroine', 'the myth of the famous woman talking, writing, performing, to the applause of the world'. (34) In her discussion of Corinne Moers makes the point that 'women writers who have attempted the literary portrait of genius have insisted more than men on showing it off at the moment of public acclaim' and adds that 'the literary result is more often raw fantasy than finished art' (p. 183). The fantasy of triumph both conceals and reveals defeat. Corinne can do everything--the famous tarantella she dances later in the novel is a striking example of her multiple talents--and poetic improvisation, as well as being one of them, is also the summation, the 'crowning', of her genius. But the course of her private experience, founded on displacement and ambivalent identity and leading to anti-climax, suggests that the long, strong undertow of lived life extracts its price from the life of the imagination.

This double-edged apotheosis, of triumph and defeat, as an image of the performing heroine imprinted on its readers' minds in the nineteenth century may provide a framework for an understandings of Milli's work. If we return to the consciousness of the poet's enthralment to the ephemeral and the consciousness of the patriotic project which simultaneously justifies it, we may be tempted to see a dual sublimation at work. At one level, improvised poetry is raised to the dignity of the subject which inspires it: this mission which is imposed from outside (by the Muse, by the Nation) is perhaps simply the most resonant, the most absolutely gratifying manifestation of extempore poetry per se, one of whose conditions is that the subject is always imposed from outside. But there are in the poems enough hints of doubt in the successful outcome of the nationalist project to redirect all discourse, even the most exalted, to the frailty, the labilita, which Milli customarily attributes primarily to the voice of the improviser. In brief, the identification between the figure of the improvvisatrice and an idea of 'Italy' in Milli's verse as in her public persona as 'l'usignolo del Risorgimento' is equally an echo and a rewriting of that earlier elision, Corinne, ou l'Italie. Italy may continue to be 'implicitly feminized'; what is referenced fifty years on, however, in the mid-century, is no longer the country's fecundity, (35) but its stubborn melancholia.



This article forms part of a wider research project on poetic improvisation in Italy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, made possible by the award of a Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellowship, which I here gratefully acknowledge. An earlier version was delivered as a paper to the Birmingham-Warwick Italian Research Seminar at the University of Birmingham, 2 March 2005. I am grateful for the discussion which ensued on that occasion and for the helpful comments made on an earlier draft by MLR's anonymous reader.

(1) Anna Jameson, Diary of an Ennuyee, new edn (London: Henry Colburn, 1826), pp. 310-14; the work had first been published anonymously in the same year with the title A Lady's Diary. The Diary is an autobiographical fiction based on Jameson's own travels in Italy between the autumn of 1821 and the spring of 1822, and I am grateful to Anne O'Connor for drawing my attention to this source. The poet referred to here, Bartolomeo Sestini (1792-1822), was a celebrated improviser in his day but was best remembered posthumously as the author of the romantic novella La Pia (1822), an elaboration of the skeleton story Dante reports in Purgatorio, v. 130-36.

(2) Giosue Carducci, 'Al feretro di Giuseppe Regaldi', in Poeti e figure del Risorgimento, serie seconda, Edizione Nazionale delle Opere, 19 (Bologna: Zanichelli, 1957), pp. 150-54; Carducci had earlier provided a lively portrait in his preface to Giuseppe Regaldi, Storia e letteratura (Livorno: Vigo, 1879), reprinted as 'Giuseppe Regaldi' in the same volume of the Edizione Nazionale, pp. 139-49.

(2) The tension between law and poetry was a leitmotif of Regaldi's early years, the memory of which endured in his extempore poems and in his later writings. On 1 August 1833 he failed a law examination, to the horror of his mentors in Turin and his family in Novara. To add insult to injury, he gave his first public performance as an improviser in Turin the following day. Before he began his law degree, his Jesuit teachers, noting his propensity for poetry and eloquence, had him marked down as a future oratore sacro: 'sarei stato vinto,' he writes in his unpublished memoir, 'se non si fosse fortemente opposta la mia madre, la quale non mi voleva ne gesuita, ne poeta, ma avvocato' (Florence, Biblioteca Marucelliana, MSS Regaldi 83, 'Memorie', fol. 5r).

(4) Regaldi's account of this and other travails is in his introduction, dated 'Torino, Gennaio 1856', to the reprint of his poem Il Museo Santangelo: Giuseppe Regaldi, Canti e prose, 2 vols (Turin: Tipografia Scolastica di Sebastiano Franco e Figli, 1858-62), 1, 201. This edition, the first of Regaldi's collected writings, appears to have been published in two parts because vol. 1 (Canti) includes poems later than 1858, the date printed on the title-page. On this point, see Rossana Caira, 'Nota sulla poesia di Giuseppe Regaldi', Critica letteraria, 4 (1976), 295-305 (p. 305).

(5) Achille De Lauzieres, 'Prefazione', in Regaldi, Canti e prose, 1, 5-6. De Lauzieres's biography, heavily influenced by Regaldi himself, is dated 'Settembre 1846' and first appeared in the 'Terza edizione napoletana' of the poet's verse; I have found no further trace of this edition. The 'Prefazione' was regularly reproduced in the subsequent partial or complete editions of Regaldi's work up until the 1870s.

(6) Carducci enjoyed the disjunction between the troubadour and the media-winged traveller, imagining the young Regaldi's admirers asking themselves, 'Or come ritornano gli aedi e i trovatori nell'eta della stampa e delle gazzette?' (Carducci, 'Al feretro di Giuseppe Regaldi', p. 150).

(7) Two virtually identical editions were published, one in Paris, the other in Novara: Poesie di G. Regaldi (Paris: Instituto [sic] Italiano, n.d. [the copy held in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence contains numerous manuscript annotations, the latest of which is dated 'Lione--9bre 1839']); Poesie estemporanee e meditate dell'avvocato Giuseppe Regaldi da Novara (Novara: Artaria, 1840). Both editions contain the extensive press review mentioned above.

(8) Anon., 'Poesia estemporanea: terza accademia del Regaldi', Il Lucifero, anno terzo, 25 November 1840, p. 340.

(9) 'Il mio solito Stenografo era infermo, percio non pote venire; mi si disse che ve ne erano stati degli altri, ma non ancora ho veduto nulla' (letter from Giannina Milli to Lionardo Vigo dated 17 August 1853, in Luciana Pasquini, Risorgimento e Antirisorgimento: carteggio inedito Lionardo Vigo-Giannina Milli (1852-1875) (Lanciano: Carabba, 2003), p. 124). For a more extensive treatment of this topic, see Michael Caesar, 'Poetic Improvisation and the Challenge of Transcription', in Theatre, Opera, and Performance in Italy from the Fifteenth Century to the Present: Essays in Honour of Richard Andrews, ed. by Brian Richardson, Simon Gilson, and Catherine Keen (Leeds: Maney, 2004), pp. 173-84.

(10) Canto comprising fifteen double quartine in decasillabi piani (occasionally sdruccioli) and the fourth and eighth lines tronchi, rhyming ABBCDEEC, in Poesie estemporanee e meditate (Novara, 1840), pp. 69-74. Carmagnola, the mercenary captain executed for treason by his Venetian employers in 1432 and vindicated in Manzoni's tragedy of 1817, is a 'local', Piedmontese, hero; the strophe quoted is no. 8.

(11) The ABBC rhyme scheme, employed in lines of varying, but always internally uniform length, ranging from senari to decasillabi, is used in nearly 70% (246 poems) of the 356 instances that I have surveyed of the all-purpose poetic form known in the eighteenth century as the 'ode' or 'ode anacreontica' or 'canzonetta' or 'ode-canzonetta': for the very substantial overlap and occasional nuance of difference between these terms, extended to the early nineteenth-century 'inno', see the definitions in P.G. Beltrami, La metrica italiana (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1991), and Giorgio Bertone, Breve dizionario di metrica italiana (Turin: Einaudi, 1999). Variations on the canzonetta/ode/inno form in turn make up over 56% of the 726 transcribed improvisations which I have sampled.

(12) The appeal to sight in general, often with repetition of the several persons, moods, and tenses of the verb vedere, is a staple of the improvisers. On this point, see AlessandraDi Ricco, L'inutile e maraviglioso mestiere: poeti improvvisatori di fine Settecento (Milan: Angeli, 1990), and Francoise Waquet, Rhetorique et poetique chretiennes: Bernardino Perfetti et la poesie improvisee dans l'Italie du XVIIIe siecle (Florence: Olschki, 1992), for their detailed analyses of verse technique in the transcribed improvisations of Francesco Gianni and Teresa Bandettini (Di Ricco) and Bernardino Perfetti (Waquet).

(13) Performed in Vercelli, 31 October 1834: Poesie estemporanee e meditate (Novara, 1840), pp. 67-72.

(14) In one of the most detailed contemporary accounts and analyses of the whole phenomenon of improvisation, Carl Ludwig Fernow makes the point that in Italy, thanks to the flexibility of the language and the depth of poetic culture, dilettanti in this field could achieve almost as much as professional virtuosi: 'man hort da [in Italien] zuweilen Dilettanten, die es den Virtuosen von Profession gleich thun' (Carl Ludwig Fernow, 'Uber die Improvisatoren', in id., Romische Studien, 3 vols (Zurich: Gessner, 1806-08), II (1806), 295-416 (p. 322)). But Regaldi was a virtuoso. A favourite moment in his repertoire was the composition of three sonnets simultaneously on linked themes using the same rhymes. He made this more exciting by composing two lines at a time of each of the three sonnets, dictated to three people called up on stage for the purpose, then doing a completely fresh improvisation, then returning to the sonnets and calling out for new rhymes and so on, until the whole sequence was complete. The audience would then see that all three linked logically to each other according to the plan he had announced at the beginning, and he would round it off by summarizing the argument in a fourth sonnet with new rhymes being called out as he went along.

(15) Derek Bailey, Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music, rev. edn (New York: DaCapo, 1993), p. xii.

(16) Regaldi, Canti e prose, 1, 119.

(17) L'Ottocento di Giannina Milli, ed. by Comitato per le onoranze a Giannina Milli (Teramo: Deltagrafica, 1989), p. 36 (item 11). Milli's early biographers paid particular attention to gifts, as well as the award of medals and other honours: after her appearance in Venice in 1867, for example, she received, in addition to the customary flowers, a painting, a collection of Murano glass on a silver tray, and a gold bracelet decorated with the lion of St Mark in enamel. A whole section is devoted to 'I doni' and to the list of donors in Pietro Verrua, Giannina Milli a Venezia nel 1867 (Rome: Unione Arti Grafiche Abruzzesi, 1925), pp. 23-26.

(18) 'Una madre presso la culla dell'unico figlio cieco', improvised in Foggia on 7 May 1854. All poems up to 2 March 1863 are quoted from Giannina Milli, Poesie, 2 vols (Florence: Le Monnier, 1862-63).

(19) Poesie improvvisate da Giannina Milli la sera del 15 marzo 1867 nel Teatro Gallo a S. Benedetto, intro. by Vincenzo Mikelli (Venice: Antonelli, 1867), pp. 13-14.

(20) See Pasquini, pp. 24-25.

(21) Francesco De Sanctis, 'Alla sua donna: poesia di Giacomo Leopardi' (1855), in F. De Sanctis, Leopardi, ed. by Carlo Muscetta and Antonio Perna (Turin: Einaudi, 1960; repr. 1983), p. 405.

(22) The phrase ('la coscienza dell' effimero') is taken from the summary of an essay by R. Sirri which I have not been able to consult in its entirety; it is included in Giannina Milli nel primo centenario della morte: Atti del Convegno Nazionale 6-8 ottobre 1989, ed. by Comitato per le onoranze a Giannina Milli (Teramo: Edigrafital, 1991).

(23) Pietro Giordani, 'Intorno allo Sgricci e agl'Improvvisatori in Italia', in Biblioteca Italiana, 1.11 (November 1816), 365-75; now in P. Giordani, Scritti, ed. by Giuseppe Chiarini, new introduction by Sebastiano Timpanaro (Florence: Sansoni, 1961), pp. 133-42. Giordani famously denounced the work of the improvisers as a ludus impudentiae, and continued to be cited, for and against, well beyond the middle of the century. For the background to his article, see Carlo Caruso, 'Pietro Giordani e la poesia all'improvviso', in Pietro Giordani e Giacomo Leopardi: Convengo-Nazionale di Studi [1998], ed. by Roberto Tissoni (Piacenza: Tip.Le.Co., 2000), pp. 161-83.

(24) The poem was improvised in Lecce on 25 December 1854. The same message was reiterated seven years later (Siena, 12 January 1862) in her most explicit poem on this subject, entitled 'Alla Musa estemporanea': 'Oh mia Celeste! ... tu il sai, devota | Tuo sacro incarco cercai compir; | Fugace e rozza fu la mia nota, | Ma dell'Italia rese il desir! [paragraph] Ogni suo duolo, ogni speranza Cercai nel poco verso adombrar, | E giunto il giorno dell'esultanza: | Tacermi or posso, ebbi a sclamar! [paragraph] Ma no!... tu imponi ch'io canti ancora, | Ed anzi addoppi l'usato zel, | Poiche infelici gemono ancora, Roma e Venezia sotto il flagel'.

(25) Oreste Raggi, Biografia con alquante poesie inedite di Giannina Milli improvvisatrice, 2nd edn (Florence: Le Monnier, 1861), p. 33.

(26) Ovid, Fasti, vi. 5.

(27) It is argued by the historian of French Romanticism, Paul Benichou, that while the doctrine of enthusiasm is fundamental to Greek and then Latin poetics, it is alien to Judaeo-Christian views of the relation between poetry and knowledge, except in so far as Christianity reaches an accommodation with the classical tradition: Paul Benichou, 'Introduction' to Le Sacre de l'ecrivain (1973), in Romantismes francais, 2 vols (Paris: Gallimard, 2004), 1, 23-25.

(28) Luisa Ricaldone, 'Eighteenth-Century Literature', in A History of Women's Writing in Italy, ed. by Letizia Panizza and Sharon Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 95-106 (p. 97).

(29) See Adriana Chemello and Luisa Ricaldone, Geografie e genealogie letterarie: erudite, biografe, croniste, narratrici, epistolieres, utopiste tra Settecento e Ottocento (Padua: Il Poligrafo, 2000).

(30) Michele LeDoeuff, The Sex of Knowing, trans. by Kathryn Hamer and Lorraine Code [from the French original, pub. 1998] (New York and London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 14-15, p. 222 n. 17 (quotation adapted).

(31) A man, Bartolomeo Lorenzi, is taken as the epitome of improvisatory enthusiasm in the seminal essay by Saverio Bettinelli: Dell'entusiasmo delle belle arti (1769), in Opere edite e inedite in prosa ed in versi, 2nd edn, 24 vols (Venice: Adolfo Cesare, 1799-1801), III (1799), 47-49 and 220 n. v.

(32) Margaret Reynolds, The Sappho Companion (London: Chatto and Windus, 2000), and The Sappho History (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

(33) This compliment is the one most often paid to Corilla Olimpica by her male admirers after her (controversial) coronation on the Capitol in 1776; her examiners certify 'di averla interrogata ciascuno di noi sopra una delle infrascritte materie scientifiche e letterarie [...]; dimodoche di comun sentimento giudichiamo l'incomparabile Poetessa superiore al sesso, eccellente nel canto Estemporaneo, e dotata di ingegno cosi straordinario e sublime' (emphasis added); see also the homage by L'Intronato (Francesco Carcano). Both of these testimonies are in Atti della solenne coronazione fatta in Campidoglio della insigne poetessa Maria Maddalena Morelli Fernandez pistoiese tra gli Arcadi Corilla Olimpica (Parma: Stamperia Reale, 1779), pp. 29 and 93 respectively. A challenging stance on the nature of female improvisation as seen through eighteenth-century eyes is taken in Paola Giuli, 'Corilla Olimpica improvvisatrice: A Reappraisal', in Corilla Olimpica e la poesia del Settecento europeo, ed. by Moreno Fabbri (Pistoia: Maschietto, 2002), pp. 155-71. On the gendering of the sublime and the beautiful in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, see Reynolds, The Sappho Companion, pp. 149-51.

(34) Ellen Moers, 'Performing Heroinism: The Myth of Corinne', in ead., Literary Women (London: Women's Press, 1978), pp. 173-210 (pp. 174, 176).

(35) 'The improvisatrice's [Corinne's] poetry becomes less important than what she symbolizes--whether that is an implicitly feminized Italy, overflowing with excessive fertility in literature as in agriculture, or the doomed career of the artist as woman, reliving Sappho's tragic fate' (Caroline Gonda, 'The Rise and Fall of the Improvisatore, 1753-1845', Romanticism, 6 (2000), 195-210 (p. 206)).
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Author:Caesar, Michael
Publication:The Modern Language Review
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Date:Jul 1, 2006
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