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The Epic Rhetoric of Tasso: Theory and Practice & Renaissance Transactions: Ariosto and Tasso.

Maggie Gunsberg, The Epic Rhetoric of Tasso: Theory and Practice Oxford: Legenda (European Humanities Research Centre), 1998. xii + 241 pp. [pound]27.50. ISBN: 1-900755-05-X.

Valeria Finucci, ed., Renaissance Transactions: Ariosto and Tasso Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999. vii + 328 pp. $21.95. ISBN: 0-8223-2295-1.

The final decade and a half of the twentieth century witnessed burgeoning Anglo-American interest in the Italian Renaissance epic and the emergence of several theoretically diverse studies, including the duo under review. Gunsberg's book revises her 1985 doctoral dissertation, devoted to Tasso's poetics and praxis in the Gerusalemme liberata, and has benefited from critiques by such luminaries as Cesare Segre and Peter Brand. Finucci's opus presents ten essays -- five focussed on Ariosto, four on Tasso, and one on both authors -- from leading and emerging scholars of the Italian Renaissance. Both works display notable erudition and restify to the pervasiveness of gender and culture studies in British and American universities at the end of the second millennium.

Gunsberg divides her technical (and at times tedious) study into two halves. The first scrutinizes Tasso's epic theory, as detailed in the poet's myriad letters but especially in his early Discorsi dell'arte poetica and the later (extensively revised) Discorsi del poema eroico. In three chapters that review respectively the rhetorical faculties of inventio (the selection of materia), dispositio (the ordering of the same), and elocutio (its clothing with words), Gunsberg traces Tasso's ever-evolving and frustratingly contradictory thoughts on classical rhetoric and epic theory. Not surprisingly, her overall assessment is that "Tasso's theory does not constitute a fixed, unchanging body of opinions" (21). In fact, because the Tasso-Ariosto polemic that erupted in the 1580s occurs largely in treatises written in dialogue form, it is difficult to pinpoint and ascribe fixed opinions to many of the participants in the searing debate over whose epic better exemplified great literature.

In contextualizing inventio in classical and Renaissance treatises, Gunsberg carefully distinguishes between materia understood as "subject matter" (res) and as "words" (verba). Such simple but useful distinctions characterize much of her study. In discussing dispositio, for example, Gunsberg daringly discerns in Tasso's theorizing "a striking affinity with theories on literature put forward four centuries later by the Russian Formalists" (46). But, once again, she quickly and prudently ascribes their similarities of thought (on the need to distinguish story and plot) to shared Aristotelian notions of how to order one's material. In writing of Tasso's preoccupation with elocutio, Gunsberg reveals the poet's worries over such micro-elements as vowels and consonants, as well as such macro-issues as syntax and allegory, by serially quoting and simultaneously glossing key passages from twenty-nine of his forty-six lettere poetiche. While the straightforward approach in Part I may appear pedestrian, the final prod uct points to the undeniable and bewildering "complexity of the interplay between the poet and the Counter-Reformation" (106).

Part 2, "Poesia: Rhetorical Practice in the Gerusalemme liberata," is also divided into three chapters: "Negation," "The Mirror Episode," and "The Ideology of the Look." Modern theory and method abound in this half of Gunsberg's study. Strings of negatives, litotes, double negatives, and antitheses in the Liberata are catalogued and interpreted in light of the Counter-Reformation's emphasis on prescription, censorship, and "the drive towards narrative closure" (109). Negation is seen in relation to Freud's psychoanalytical theories of the id: "what is negated belongs to, or is, the id, in other words, the narcissistic part of the mirror phase that precedes the delimitation and representation of self-oriented desire and action" (110). The famous mirror episode in Canto XVI of the Liberata receives a thoroughly Lacanian reading that goes beyond standard Renaissance interpretations of the mirror as Vanity or Lust, and reaches into a psychoanalysis of Rinaldo's "primary narcissism" (158-59) and the eventual "soci alization of his I" (165). Finally, the functions of sight are explored in Tasso's epic in relation to the field of semiotics and the notion of the text as pleasure. Descriptions of looking can reflect "an element of scopophilia" (196); staring can so penetrate as to transmogrify into the "look-as-phallus" (199); and the Reader may end up being "invited to play the part of a voyeur" (203) -- all this in a poem subject to Counter-Reformation censors and judged by some postmodernists as a prime example of "il pensiero debole" (weak [i.e., unproblematized] thought)!

Finucci, in the introduction to her engaging tome, tackles the Ariosto-Tasso debate head on, labelling the "quarrel" between the "digressive" Orlando furioso and the "linear" Gerusalemme liberata as "the first critical controversy in narratology" (1). She defines it as nothing less than a "battle between the 'ancients' and the 'moderns'" and provocatively links it "to the current debate between modernism and postmodernism" (1). She provides a tripartite division to the collected essays and aims "to foster a dialogue among colleagues of various critical schools so that new perspectives could come out and long-held assumptions on history, culture, ethics, gender, and genre could be problematized" (4). The volume succeeds brilliantly in realizing this goal; unfortunately, none of the ten essays can be dealt with adequately in a synoptic review.

The first section, "Crossing Genres," opens with Ronald Martinez's sweepingly panoramic "Two Odysseys: Rinaldo's Po Journey and the Poet's Homecoming in Orlando furioso," in which Rinaldo's journey is revealed as a masterly accommodation of Arthurian romance and Carolingian epic tradition. Unfortunately, a vexing (and highly ironic) typographical error repeatedly renders Rinaldo's horse "Baiardo" as "Boiardo" (the author of Orlando innamorato) and results in nonsensical phrases, such as "Rinaldo's decision to pursue Boiardo" and "Gradasso's desire for Boiardo" (37). Parenthetically, it must be noted that, despite an attractive paperback cover reproducing Poussin's Rinaldo andArmida, the volume has a surprising number of typos, even of proper names ("Massimissa" for "Massinissa" [78] and "Ermiria" for "Erminia" [103]); also, the first copy sent to this reviewer had been misbound and lacked pages 297-328.

Next, Daniel Javitch's "The Grafting of Virgilian Epic in Orlando furioso" covers well-known territory for those familiar with this professor's prolific and magisterial writings on Ariosto's modification of epic scenes. Jo Ann Cavallo's "Tasso's Armida and the Victory of Romance" closes out this first section and constitutes perhaps the most provocative essay in the collection, arguing that Tasso is "erroneously . . . considered a spokesman for the Counter-Reformation" (87, italics added) and that "[bly redeeming sexuality in the reunion scene of Rinaldo and Armida, Tasso goes against the tendency of Cinquecento writers to equate sexuality with the illicit" (102).

The second section, "The Politics of Dissimulation," starts with Sergio Zatti's "Epic in the Age of Dissimulation: Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata," which translates a revised but seminal essay that previously appeared in Italian. Walter Stephens's "Trickster, Textor, Architect, Thief: Craft and Comedy in Gerusalemme liberata" perceptively analyzes Vafrino's role in Tasso's poem while boldly positing (against critical tradition and logic) that the weak, lachrymose, plaintive "Erminia is Tasso's most explicit poet figure, as well as his most powerful" (164). Katherine Hoffman's "'Un cosl valoroso cavalliero': Knightly Honor and Artistic Representation in Orlando firioso, Canto 26" problematizes Ariosto's ecphrastic episode of the fountain whose sculptures depict contemporary monarchs battling a monstrous Avarice.

The concluding section, "Acting Our Fantasies," contains Valeria Finucci's "The Masquerade of Masculinity: Astolfo and Jocondo in Orlando firioso, Canto 28," a Lacanian readingpar excellence; Eric Nicholson's "Romance as Role Model: Early Female Performances of Orlando furioso and Gerusalemme liberata," a fine example of performance studies scholarship; Naomi Yavhen, "'Dal rogo alle nozze': Tasso's Sofronia as Martyr Manque," a superb iconographical reading of Sofronia; and Constance Jordan's "Writing beyond the Querelle: Gender and History in Orlando furioso," a solid feminist interpretation of Bradamante.

Together these two volumes demonstrate, admirably and repeatedly, the value and jouissance of reading Renaissance texts against the context of their original cultures and in light of new methodologies.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2001
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