And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

lørdag 31. oktober 2015

Torquato the badger-poet

In a previous blogpost I had a closer look at some adaptations of William Shakespeare in Italian comic book stories from the Disney universe. Since the beginning of the Italian production of comics about Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse in the 1950s, a wide range of works from world literature have been adapted into stories from the world of Duckburg, in Italian Paperopoli. A range of these adaptations have been collected in a book series issued by Corriere della Sera which is called I classici della letteratura, the classics of literature, presenting these adaptations with information both about the stories themselves and their authors. I am very fond of these adaptations since I grew up with them in Norwegian translations, and they will feature in many blogposts to come. This time I will look briefly at one very charming aspect of an adaptation of Torquato Tasso's (1544-95) epic poem Gerusalemme Liberata, the deliverance of Jerusalem, which was completed in 1575.

Front page of vol.14 in the second edition of I Classici della Letteratura

In 1565 Torquato Tasso settled in Ferrara and became attached to the house of d'Este, and during his time there he wrote a number of plays and poems in addition to his magnum opus. Gerusalemme Liberata is an epic chivalric poem, and in composition Tasso borrowed from that blend of classical epic and chivalric romance which had been made famous by Ludovico Ariosto in the early part of the century. The narrative of the poem is set during the First Crusade and recounts the capture of Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulchre led by Godfrey de Bouillon in 1099, but also heavily interspersed with digressions, love stories and fantastical episodes.

Gerusalemme Liberata has had a great impact on Western culture. For instance, Edmund Spenser was very much inspired by Tasso's poem in the writing his own epic, The Faerie Queene, which he began composing in 1590.  Also John Milton relied on Tasso's imagery for parts of Paradise Lost, and a wide range of operas, songs and paintings have sought to elaborate or focus on elements from Tasso's epic, and in the twentieth century the poem was adapted into a Disney comic.

Opening page of Paperopoli Liberata

The comic book adaptation, Paperopoli Liberata or Duckburg Delivered, was written by Guido Martina and drawn by Giovan Battista Carpi. It was first published in the Italian Topolino magazine (Mickey Mouse) in vols. 598 and 599, respectively issued on 14th and 21st of May, 1967. The epic, medievalesque tone of the adaptation is set already on the opening page where we see a painting of Donald and Scrooge fighting Beagle Boys in stereotypical Saracen armour (note the pointed helmets) and armed with revolvers and machine guns, highlighting the blend of old and new, and perhaps preparing the reader for the fact that the adaptation is set in modern-time Duckburg.

The first lines of the comic book story are adaptations from the opening of Gerusalemme Liberata. In the new rendition the text begins like this (translations from Italian are my own):

Canto l'armi Furiose e il capitano / Chamato Paperino

"I sing of furious arms and the captain / who is called Donald Duck"

While Tasso's poem opens in this way:

Canto l'arme pietose e 'l capitano
che 'l gran sepolcro liberò di Cristo

"I sing of pious arms and the captain
who liberated the great Sepulchre of Christ"

Guido Martina has retained the tone of the epic and necessarily secularised the content, but although the Paperino story is set in a fictional part of America rather than in late-eleventh-century Jerusalem, some elements are still retained and employed in a game of intertextuality. One example of this can be seen below, as a sign tells us that this is the camp of Donald Duck and his nephew, bringing to mind - as is pointed out in the introduction to this volume - the camp of the crusaders in Tasso's epic.

(Note, for instance, that Martina applies "Furiose" with a capital f instead of Tasso's "pietose". This is of course to remove the religious dimension of the poem, but it might also be a nod to Tasso's debt to Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, and perhaps also to Martina's own possible debt to Luciano Bottaro who had composed his adaptation of Ariosto's poem, Paperin Furioso, the year before.)

The story begins with the breaking of the camp and the departure for Paperopoli, and this sequence contains one of the most charming tools of intertextuality I can think of. As the nephews are taking down the tent, they notice that their new friend, a little badger, is saddened by their imminent leaving. The nephews then suggest that he come with them back to Paperopoli, and this makes the badger happy. But how is this intertextuality? Well, simply because this badger is a representation of Torquato Tasso himself, as his surname means "badger" in Italian. This is made crystal clear on the following page, where the little badger turns to the reader and says:

"It is not that I lack speech, it is that I, Torquato the badger, speak in the language of the badgers!"

Torquato the badger is then put in the car and as he departs he looks forward to whatever will transpire next, saying "what a wonderful adventure! I will tell this to my children, and to my children's children". Torquato Tasso is thus in a way reincarnated as Torquato the badger, and he will become the badger-poet who renders in proper verse the story which is about to unfold in Paperopoli.

The Ducks behold Paperopoli, as the crusaders beheld Jerusalem

For similar blogposts, see:

On adaptations of Shakespeare

On an episode from Orlando Furioso

On a painting on a knight errant

Elegy for Edmund Spenser

mandag 26. oktober 2015

Saint Boniface and the Miracle of the Fox

I recently finished reading the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, a collection of stories about saints and miraculous events from Italy and sometimes the nearby world in the sixth century. This opus, divided into four books written in dialogue form between Gregory and the monk Peter - is a huge treasure trove for a medievalist, both for its interesting insights to daily life in Gregory's time, but particularly for a saint scholar such as myself since this book was written at a time when hagiographical typology still was in its first formative period. Many of the stories recounted by Gregory contain similarities with other stories, both earlier and later, and these make for interesting comparisons. The most famous dialogue is undoubtedly the second book, which is a comprehensive hagiographical vita of Benedict of Nursia.

I hope to return to Gregory's Dialogues frequently, and in this blogpost I wish to present you with a miracle that happened to Saint Boniface when he was a young boy:

Boniface used to tend his mother's hens in a yard near the house. Frequently a fox would come from his den nearby and carry off some of the flock. One day when the boy Boniface was standing in the yard, the fox came as usual and took one of them. The boy quickly ran into the church and fell on his knees: 'O God,' he prayed in a loud voice, 'can you be satisfied to see me go hungry at my mother's table? Look! A fox is eating up all our hens!'  The moment he finished the prayer he ran out again. Almost immediately the fox came back, opened his jaws to free the hen, and fell dead at Boniface's feet.
- Gregory the Great, The Dialogues, translated by Odo Zimmerman, 2002: 40-41

The monk Peter finds this story to be a charming account and deems it to be a childish favour (but in a positive way). Gregory then responds that God sometimes fulfill small requests to keep our faith going for greater ones.

In addition to the typological details of this brief account - an animal returning with its prey, the culprit falling dead at the saint's feet - we also see echoes of the age-old iconography of the fox as the trickster and symbol of slyness and theft. This was an iconography which held great currency in the medieval imagination, and it was this which gave us the many stories of Renard the Fox, stories which became so popular that the name "renard" supplanted the word "goupil" as meaning "fox" in the French language.

Fox with duck
MS Royal 2 B VII, English psalter, between 1310 and 1320
Courtesy of British Library

Ai vist lo lop - I saw the wolf
Medieval traditional about a wolf, a fox and a hare
Performed by Arany Zoltán

fredag 16. oktober 2015

Narrative and Saints' Lives, part I - Abdon and Sennen, and the semblance of historicity

At the Centre for Medieval Literature in Odense where I work, we have recently started up a Latin reading group in which we translate selected stories from Legenda Aurea together. Since we are a centre of literary scholars – in various ways – we always talk about the stories as stories and narrative in addition to what grammatical discussions might arise. This has proved to be a very nice forum for talking about various forms of narrative, partly because we have a wide range of expertise among us and partly because the stories themselves – abbreviated renditions of existing tradition – lend themselves very well to narrative analysis. In this series of blogposts, therefore, I aim to present parts of our discussions and talk about points to be made from the stories. I will attempt to talk about elements and points that I raised in the course of our talk, but when I rely on the ideas of others I will do my best to attribute them as precisely as possible.

Abdon and Sennen holding their palms of martyrdom
Avignon - BM - ms. 0136, f.257v, Roman missal, c.1370
Courtesy of

First up is the story of SS Abdon and Sennen, and since their legend is so very short I will here quote it in full length as translated by William Granger Ryan in the 2012 edition of The Golden Legend (Princeton University Press).

Abdon and Sennen suffered martyrdom under the emperor Decius. When Decius had conquered Babylonia and other provinces, he found some Christians in these regions, brought them back to the town of Cordoba, and put them to death with various tortures. Two officials of that area, whose names were Abdon and Sennen, took the martyrs’ bodies and buried them. When the two were denounced and brought before Decius, he had them bound with chains and brought to Rome with him. There in the presence of the emperor and the Senate, they were ordered either to sacrifice and receive their freedom and goods, or to be devoured by wild beasts. They scoffed at the idea of sacrificing and spat upon the idols, so they were dragged to the circus, and two lions and four bears were loosed upon them. The beasts, however, would not touch the saints but rather stood guard around them, so they were put to death by the sword. Then their feet were tied together and their bodies dragged into a temple and thrown in front of an idol representing the sun god. When the bodies had lain there for three days, a subdeacon named Quirinus took them away and buried them in his house. They suffered about A.D. 253.

Later, in the reign of Constantine, the martyrs themselves revealed the whereabouts of their bodies, and Christians transferred them to the cemetery of Pontianus, where the Lord granted many benefits to the people through them.
- Jacobus de Voragine,
Legenda Aurea, translated by William Granger Ryan, 2012: 412

Abdon and Sennen bury the remains of Christians martyrs
Guillaume Courtois, 1656-57
Courtesy of Wikimedia

As can be seen, this is a very compact story and it contains a lot of information and also a wide number of hagiographical topoi. To what extent this story has some truth to its foundation is difficult to assess. This difficulty arises not only from the fact that we lack sources contemporary to the two martyrs, but also because the narrative contains several details which are grounded in historical facts. For instance, Decius was known for his persecutions of Christians, and he did live around the date given, and although he died in 251 and could not have done anything against any Christians in 253, the text saves itself from historical inaccuracy by adding the “about”. Furthermore, that people were taken from Babylonia (which was not the name of the region at the time) all the way to Spain might be based on the Roman practice of transferring auxiliary troops from one end of the empire to the next for the purpose of detaching them from their native power base. These details lend a certain sheen of trustworthiness to the story, and we might speculate whether those are conscious additions made for that particular purpose, or whether we see here a jumbling of vague and confuse memories of a past – but not too distant – century. The reason for thinking so is that although we do not know much about the historicity of Abdon and Sennen, we know that they are included in the Depositio Martyrum which was composed in 354 and accordingly some memory seems to have remained of them (see Farmer’s Oxford Dictionary of Saints for details of their cult).

Abdon and Sennen
Retabula painted by Jaume Huguet, 1459-60
Courtesy of Wikimedia

However, notwithstanding the semblances of historical truth, we also find that several of the details in the narrative can be labelled as hagiographical topoi. The Decian persecutions is a typical historical framework for saints of dubious historicity, and this period is one of three in which such saint stories are usually set, the other two being the persecutions under Nero and the persecutions under Diocletian. These are not the only periods of Roman history to be used as historical backgrounds for early saints’ lives, but they are the most common. Accordingly, what appears to be a reasonable date for these two martyrs might merely be a commonplace, a suggestion strengthened by the strange approximation of their death, because although it is not meant to be accurate it takes its starting point two years after Decius’ death.

This leads us to another important point which was presented by my colleagues Lars Boje Mortensen and Alastair Matthews, namely that the occasional presentation of minute details might be a way for the writer to give the impression of an account which comes from eyewitnesses, that the details provide a certain verisimilitude akin to that provided by the echoes of historical facts mentioned above. (It is important to note that “the writer” in this question is not Jacobus de Voragine as he was compiling from older sources.) Accordingly, the precise number of animals (with their mnemonically powerful symmetry), the name and rank of the man who buried them, and the approximate precision of their dating (as pointed out by Boje Mortensen) are all there to provide the narrative with more intensity and to bridge the gap between the times of the reader and the times described.

Abdon and Sennen
Châteauroux - BM - ms. 0002, f.256v, breviary, Use of Paris, c.1414
Courtesy of

In addition to this verisimilitude we also see a number of topoi aside from that of its temporal setting. Many details can be found which reminds one of other stories, and either this is done deliberately to invoke that kind of association – a typical feature of hagiography which was intended to lend credence and gravity to the story – or it could be a result of the writer having this array of topoi readily available in his memory.

The most obvious topos is that of the saint being forced to sacrifice to pagan idols and then refuse with holy derision. This is found in a wide range of saint stories, among them St. Catherine and St. Eustace. Another topos is the intended death by wild beasts – also found in St. Eustace – and the ultimate death by sword following the failures of the initial tortures (St. Catherine). Furthermore, that the saints are dragged through the streets can be found for instance in the story of Saint Fermín, while the detail that their remnants are honorably buried by other Christians can be seen for instance in St. Polycarp. That the saints posthumously alerted the faithful of their resting place is a topos perhaps most famously found in the story of Ambrose’s find of the relics of SS Gervasius and Protasius in Milano.

One final point should be mentioned here regarding the narrative progression of the story. The narrative begins in Babylonia and provides the historical setting and an initial geographical setting. Then the story moves to Cordoba and the first batch of martyrs – an unnumbered array of Babylonian Christians – are killed off. This is the preface of the story and in three lines we move from a grand scene with a big cast of characters which traverses a wide space to the deeds of two officials in Cordoba. At this point the narrative makes one more geographical move before it gains complete focus and it is amplified by a number of minute details. It is interesting, and perhaps also significant, that the narrative moves to Rome in order to reach its climax. From the inclusion of Abdon and Sennen in the Depositio Martyrum this might attest to a Roman memory of their martyrdom, and this is further suggested in the quiet epilogue which effectively begins with the abrupt introduction of Quirinius to the stage and the summary of their re-interment.

Abdon and Sennen
Nuremberg chronicles, f.128r, 1493
Courtesy of Wikimedia

tirsdag 6. oktober 2015

One kiss more - Shakespeare, Verdi and Italian intertextuality

 As readers of this blog will know, I am a big literature enthusiast. My enthusiasm extends quite widely and I'm not very picky in my choice of reading. I generally tend to shy away from ideas about lesser and greater literature, because although I do think some literary expressions deserve a greater longevity than others, few things are as destructive to reading than to construct artificial divisions which exclude books because of some increasingly ancient canon. For that reason, I think great literature lies in execution rather than in form, and I maintain that some of my greatest literary experiences have been with comic books.

When I was little I grew up with Norwegian translations and editions of Italian stories of Donald Duck. These stories were compiled in pocket books and became a part of the Norwegian literary landscape in 1968. By that time, the Italian home production of Disney stories had been going on for more than ten years, and Italian comic book writers and artists had increasingly found their own voices in this format. Already in the 1950s there were made Donald Duck stories which imitated famous works of literature, such as Orlando Furioso and Doctor Faustus, to mention only a few. In future blogposts I will probably go into greater details, but here I want to highlight a minor case of delightful intertextuality in these stories.

Front page of  I Classici della Letteratura, vol. 38 

A few years back, the publishing house Corriere della Sera began a collected edition of literary parodies from the Italian Disney production, and the first edition reached 30 volumes in hardback. The second edition counted 40 volumes in paperback, with a slightly different order than in the first edition. In my attempts to learn Italian, I started to buy in a few of these volumes after I came to realise that many of the stories I had grown up with in Norwegian translation were often heavily abbreviated to suit the allotted page number in each pocket book. To read these familiar stories in the original language has been a great pleasure to me, and it has also given me great joy to embark on stories which have not been translated into Norwegian and which were completely new to me.

One of these volumes is the one shown above, a volume collecting three works by William Shakespeare, the first of which is the tragedy of Hamlet, King of Denmark with Donald Duck - or Paperino - in the lead role. The adaptation of the story was done by Giangiacomo Dalmasso and Giovan Battista Carpi, and it ran in three parts in the Italian Mickey Mouse magazine Topolino - Mickey's Italian name - in 1960: volume 226, 227 and 228, issued on January 10, January 25 and February 10 respectively.

The adaptation deviates significantly from the Shakespeare's version and necessarily so, most of all because this is a story for children played out by practically immortal characters, so the violence and the murders of the original are left out. However, several features of the play are retained: Prince Hamlet meets a king's ghost, the crown of the kingdom is usurped, and a Norwegian king - of sorts - makes an entrance.

As often is the case with these adaptations, there is a frame narrative which serves to justify the adaptation itself. As the above opening shows, Donald is taking a bath as the narrative begins and this leads to a sequence where he injures his head, confining the unlucky duck to the bed where he is given a copy of Hamlet.

The Duck household's edition of Hamlet

Reading Shakespeare's tragedy shapes the subsequent dream of the bed-ridden Donald, and in this dream the story unfolds within the framework of the Disney universe. As stated, there are many changes to the story and it reads perhaps more as a cloak-and-dagger castle intrigue than a deep psychological drama. The atmosphere is very dark, as can be seen below where Hamlet enters the treasure chamber of his uncle Scrooge (Paperone in Italian). This page also shows the ingenious playfulness of the writers and artists, as is evidenced by the coat of arms of Scrooge which bears the legend sola in auro exultatio, which can be roughly translated as "only in gold do I rejoice".

This playfulness is made manifest already in the opening page, and this is the very reason why I decided to write this blogpost. As seen above, the story opens with Donald in the bath, singing some lines in Italian. These lines are not just any lines but most likely selected carefully, resulting in a very beautiful intertextuality which gives a friendly nod not only to Shakespeare himself but also to the cultural legacy he inspired.

The lines sung by Donald comes from the opera Otello by Guiseppe Verdi, and these are the last lines of Othello as he smothers Desdemona in a jealous rage, heartbreakingly asking for "un bacio ancora", one more kiss. In other words, right in the opening of an Italian adaptation of Prince Hamlet, the mood is set by the performance of lines from an Italian opera based on another play by Shakespeare, an intertextuality which gave me great pleasure. For readers of this particular volume, moreover, the intertextuality becomes increasingly complex since the adaptation of Hamlet is followed by an adaptation of Othello, written by the very same author behind Amleto, Giangiacomo Dalmasso.

Othello as re-imagined by Giangiacomo Dalmasso & Giorgio Bordini
First published in Topolino, vol.851, March 19 1972

Desdemona and Othello the blackamoor
One of very few instances where an Italian Disney character has been portrayed as black

As I was growing up, I never read either of these adaptations so this has been my first encounter with them. Yet the many adaptations I did read made me familiar with a wide range of world literature, even though some of these works remained elusive to me until I reached adulthood. Nonetheless, I treasure these stories more now than ever, because as I learn more about world literature the more I see how beautifully and elegantly these adaptations are wrought.

Un bacio ancora as performed by Enrico Caruso
He has also been parodied in a Paperino comic - as a singing whale performing Figaro