The concept and the form of tragedy from the end of Antiquity to the Renaissance

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The Concept and the Form of Tragedy from the End of Antiquity to the Renaissance



The European Middle Ages did not possess precise knowledge about the genres existing in antiquity. This ignorance extended to tragedy. In this case ignorance of the existence of Aristotle’s Poetics, of Greek drama and, to a certain extent, of Seneca’s Roman tragedies, proved decisive.2

While in the Poetics Aristotle considered tragedy to be the most per- fect type of poetic mimesis, making this conclusion on the basis of the texts of three great tragedians from Athens, his most accomplished stu- dent Theophrastus (a. 372–287 BC) could not perhaps have delivered such a judgment had he tried to support it on the basis of dramas by his contemporaries, only fragments of which have survived. It is worth remembering that his succinct de inition of tragedy, quoted in the Latin translation by the grammarian Diomedes at the end of the 4th century (in his Ars grammatica) as: “Tragoedia est heroicae fortunae in ad- versis comprehensio” (in the original: Tragōidia estin hērōikēs tychēs peristasis),3 along with Diomedes’ and Evanthius’ (another grammarian of the 4th century) remarks, decisively in luenced the understanding of tragedy in the Middle Ages, hence also to a certain extent the direction in

1 A detailed overview of the conceptions of tragedy in the European Middle Ages was presented by H.A. Kelly in his extensive study entitled Ideas and Forms of Tragedy from Aristotle to the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993). The present analy- sis, and especially its introductory part (§ 1), owes a lot to that study. It aims at emphasizing the signi icant elements of the evolution that occurred in the genre particularly in Italian literature on the basis of a few selected examples.

2 The Latin translation of Aristotle’s Poetics by William of Moerbecke (1278) remained almost unnoticed; it has to be added that even later, in the time of the humanism, the Vene- tian publication of the Poetics translated into Latin by Giorgio Valla (1498) was not received by a wider audience. Only the bilingual, Greek–Latin edition, also published in Venice and edited by Alessandro de’ Pazzi (1536), became the basis of the most noteworthy commen- taries on the Poetics, especially the one which was produced by Francesco Robortello.

3 Cf. Kelly, Ideas and Forms..., 9.


which the genre developed. By demonstrating the differences between tragedy and comedy the authors had in mind mostly the thematic crite- rion, the types of characters, and the course of events:

Comoedia a tragoedia differt, quod in tragoedia introducuntur heroes, duces, reges;

in commedia, humiles atque privatae personae. In illa, luctus, exsilia, caedes; in hac, amores, virginum raptus. Deinde quod in illa frequenter et poene semper laetis re- bus exitus tristes, et liberorum fortunarumque priorum in peius agnitio.4

Inter tragoediam autem et comoediam cum multa tum imprimis hoc distat, quod in comoedia mediocres fortunae hominum, parvi impetus periculorum, laetique sunt exitus actionum; at in tragoedia omnia contra: ingentes personae, magni timo- res, exitus funesti habentur; et illic prima turbulenta, tranquilla ultima, in tragoedia contrario ordine res aguntur. Tum quod in tragoedia fugienda vita, in comoedia ca- pessenda exprimitur. Postremo quod omnis comoedia de ictis est argumentis, tra- goedia saepe de histori[c]a ide petitur.5

While their intensity is greater or lesser, as emphasized by different authors, the characteristics of tragedy given above appear in its later de initions, starting with that by Isidore of Seville and ending with the 12th- and 13th-century authors of Poetrie, where, as it will be discussed here later, the moral overtone which is missing from the de initions above emerges. It has to be stressed that the de initions refer to the works whose structure is narrative and where monologues and dia- logues are included. The structure is not dramatic since, as is generally known, from the times of the Roman Empire the evolution of ancient tragedy was directed towards a partial or complete loss of the theatri- cal and stage dimension: the last tragedies written in order to be staged were Varius Rufus’ Thyestes and Ovid’s Medea, both of them now lost.

Many rhetoricized works classi ied as representing this genre (including Seneca’s tragedies) were written in order to be recited and sung either in full or in part. A declaimer appearing in a mask and cothurni performed in it and he was frequently accompanied by a group of several mimes.

For this period three forms of “tragedy” may be discussed:6

1. The pantomime ballet (tragoedia saltata or fabula saltica): the plot of the tragedy was presented by the gestures and dance movement

4 Diomedes, “Ars grammatica: De poematibus” IX, in Grammatici Latini, vol. I, ed. H. Keil (Lipsiae: Teubner, 1856), 488.

5 Evanthius, “De fabula hoc est de comoedia,” in Aelii Donati quod fertur Commentum Terentii, IV, 2 (vol. I), ed. P. Wessner (Lipsiae: Teubner, 1902), 21.

6 Cf. Kelly, Ideas and Forms..., 16–17.


by the artist, a mime; in order to play another character in the per- formance he had to change the mask. In this kind of performance the outline of the plot was already known from earlier plays or from an epic work, such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses. There was also a version of the chorus which consisted of one or at the most several mem- bers of the chorus (choreutae).

2. The sung tragedy (tragoedia cantata).

3. The citharedy (citharoedia), where the performer sang a tragic aria with his own zither accompaniment.

Numerous reports about the latter two forms originate from Sue- tonius’ De vita Caesarum (1st century AD), particularly from fragments describing the emperor Nero’s performances, and from Cassius Dio’s Historia Romana (2nd/3rd centuries AD). It is known that, in contrast with citharoedia, in tragoedia cantata, a type of one-act play which was a shortened version of full tragedy, the musical accompaniment was not produced by the performer playing the main role.

Such “tragedies” had a purely ludic character and they were played not only during informal meetings, but also in the theatre, where epic narratives were recited. Later the modes of staging tragedy and epics were standardized, introducing the form of the so-called declamationes.

The fact that the subject matter of both tragedy and epic was associated with prominent deeds, both good and evil, of nobly-born individuals, and that both had unhappy endings and were written in high style, led to the extending of the term “tragedy” to literary works that had been called epic by Aristotle or were based on epic subject matter. Even though we are not sure if the title of Dracontius’ Orestis tragoedia from the end of the 5th century, written in hexameter, was given to the work by the poet himself or was attached to it by a copyist afterwards in one of the manu- scripts that bears the title Orestis fabula, it is certain that throughout the Middle Ages, up to the 14th century, the term “tragedy” was used in refer- ence to Homer’s epic (not known in the original version), Virgil’s Aeneid, Lucan’s Pharsalia and Statius’ Thebaid. Moreover, it is dif icult to ind the classic understanding of tragedy in the dialogic epic narratives written in hexameter or elegiac distich, such as Bernard Silvester’s Mathemati- cus sive Patricida (from the beginning of the 12th century) and Piramus and Thisbe by his student, Matthew of Vendôme.

Besides the works of the grammarians Diomedes and Evanthius, Bo- ethius’ De consolatione philosophiae was an important source of the me- dieval notion of tragedy as a genre, especially on the level of the subject.

More speci ically, it was the case of the famous sentence reverberating


in the works of the earlier grammarians, which in Boethius appears as an explanation that Fortuna provides her interlocutor with. She tells him that mutability is the guarantee of a better life for him in the future:

“Quid tragoediarum clamor aliud de let nisi indiscreto ictu Fortunam fe- licia regna vertentem?” (II, prose 2, 67–70).


The above-mentioned Mathematicus sive Patricida attributed to Bernard Silvester7 is a good example of medieval “tragedy” re lecting the concep- tion originating in Diomedes’, Evanthius’ and Boethius’ views. Its content is based on the story of Oedipus and the plot, set in ancient Rome but not free from cultural contamination by the reality of the Christian Middle Ages, takes place in a historically indeterminate time. The historical in- determinacy could suggest that the story has a paradigmatic dimension:

a happy married couple, whose only worry is their lack of issue, asks an astrologer for advice and inds out that on the behest of Jove and Fate a son will be born to them. Although the divinity has decided that the son would be fated to murder his father, the mother does not intend to kill the child as her husband asked her to. He suggested that otherwise her pietas for the child will be impietas for him:

«Ne dubites puerum morti icare tuum.

Si patiaris eum superesse michi morituro, Hec pietas species impietatis erit.» (80–82)8

In accordance with the remaining part of the prophecy the boy, and then the youth, growing up far away from his parents and named Patri- cida by his mother in order to forewarn him, becomes the embodiment of perfection and nobility. He is as beautiful as Paris, spiritually akin to Achilles, richer than Cresus, wiser than Ulysses, and at the same time extraordinarily noble:

Et Paridem geret in facie, geret intus Achillem, Nec probitas fastum nec sibi forma dabunt.

Pauperior Cresus, minus illo doctus Ulixes;

Frena dabit ratio rebus et ingenio. (51–54)9

7 Cf. Tragedie latine del XII e XIII secolo, ed. F. Bertini (Genova: Univ. di Genova, 1994), 9–25.

8 Cf. ibid., 80.

9 Cf. ibid., 74–76.


He is to become the ruler over Romulus’ city after having rescued it from enemy attack. When after all those years the wife confesses the truth to her husband, he does not focus on his own destiny, but objec- tively and generously admits that Rome bene ited from the saving of his son’s life. The work ends after Patricida has attempted to make his peo- ple agree to his suicide in order to avoid the destiny.

Written in elegiac meter and containing over 850 lines, the poem, whose structure is more epic than dramatic, with infrequent dialogues and monologues interspersed in it and developed in narrative form, was intended for recitation and not to be staged. Its style is strongly rhetori- cized, deriving from the ancient authors, particularly Ovid with his Meta- morphoses, Tristia, and Fasti, which are frequent sources of exempla. It is not directly based on any speci ic tragedy, but on a rhetorical exercise:

IV Declamatio from Pseudo-Quintilian’s Declamationes maiores, while its major subject (and purpose) is to display the con lict between human destiny, represented by Jove, Parcae and Fate, and free will. The con lict, which is a contamination of ancient and Christian values, remains open (“Will he kill his father or himself?”), but it does not presage a good so- lution, taking into consideration the ful illment of subsequent stages of the prophecy. The concept of the Fate (Fortuna), frequently emphasized here, remains signi icant, since it blindly strikes blows (indiscreto ictu […] vertentem) at happy kingdoms (felicia regna), as Boethius had once claimed:

Ridiculos hominum versat sors ceca labores:

Secula nostra iocus ludibriumque deis. (175–76) […]

Sed tristis Lachesis, sed inexorabile fatum Nonnisi prescriptas ius habet ire vias. (299–300) […]

Quod de fatali descendit origine rerum Ne dicas ieri fraude vel arte tua; (439–40) […]

Longos successus, longos Fortuna favores Punit et incestat deteriore malo;

Dampnator cari capitis viteque paterne Ex rigida fati lege futurus erat. (627–30)10

10 Cf. ibid., 90, 102, 114, 132.



William of Conches (1090–1155), the author of the most magiste- rial 12th-century commentary on Boethius and, like Bernard Silvester, a member of the circle of the Chartres School, in luenced by Platonism and humanism, included a de inition of tragedy in his glossa to De conso- latione philosophiae. The de inition is based on the progress of the plot, which makes it similar to that we can read in Diomedes: “[lege Tragedia enim] est scriptum de magnis iniquitatibus a prosperitate incipiens et in adversitatem desinens.”11 The same de inition will appear in many later authors of Poetrie, such as Geoffrey of Vinsauf. Those authors were in turn the source for Dante in Ep. XIII, 10: “tragedia in principio est admi- rabilis et quieta, in ine seu exitu est fetida et horribilis […] ut patet per Senecam in suis tragediis.”12 In the phrase “magnis iniquitatibus” the moral overtone, absent from Boethius’ and Bernard Silvester’s work, be- comes particularly striking. The moral dimension had appeared already in Isidore’s of Seville Etymologiarum sive Originum libri XX: “Tragoedi sunt qui antiqua gesta atque facinora sceleratorum regum luctuosa car- mine spectante populo concinebant” (XVIII, 45).13 There were also many grammarians who referred to his work, such as John of Garland: “Huius tragedie proprietates sunt tales: gravi stilo describitur, pudibunda pro- feruntur et scelerata; incipit a gaudio et in lacrimas terminatur.”14

The moral dimension is voiced in Albertino Mussato’s Latin tragedy Ecerinis written in 1314–1315, which in luenced the development of the genre in Italian humanism, and which is the irst tragedy in the early modern sense of the term due to the dramatic pathos characterizing the plot and those historical and cultural aspects which determined its ori- gin.15 The author belonged to the circle of Paduan “humanists,” whose leader was Lovato Lovati. They did research on, among other works, Seneca’s tragedies after the 11th-century codex, the so-called Etruscus, was discovered in a monastery in Pomposa (containing Seneca’s trag- edies and not including Octavia, which is now considered to be a play by the anonymous author). Mussato also knew Aristotle’s Poetics in Wil-

11 Glose super Librum Boecii de consolatione, l. II, pr. 2, Vatican MS lat. 5202 fol. 13 v.

12 Dante, Tutte le opere, ed. L. Blasucci (Firenze: Sansoni, 1993), 344–345.

13 Cf. Kelly, Ideas and Forms..., 46.

14 G. Mari, “Poetria magistri Johannis anglici de arte prosayca metrica et rithmica,” Ro- manische Forschungen XIII (1902), 940.

15 Cf. A. Perosa, Teatro umanistico (Milano: Nuova Accademia, 1965), 12. On the Ecerinis, see also S. Locati, La rinascita del genere: tragico nel medioevo. L’Ecerinis di Albertino Mus- sato (Firenze: Cesati, 2006); R.G. Witt, In the Footsteps of the Ancients. The Origins of Human- ism from Lovato to Bruni (Boston–Leiden: Brill, 2003), 124–130.


liam of Moerbecke’s translation from 1278, but, unlike his studies on Seneca, this knowledge did not in luence the concept of tragedy emerg- ing from Ecerinis or the theoretical considerations included in one of the Latin letters, Epistula I, written a year later. Having thematically re- viewed the plays by the Roman author, he presents generalized conclu- sions concerning the essence of tragedy as a genre. In these conclusions there appears the traditional Boethian motif of Fortune which causes the downfall of those who once enjoyed her favor. Among other things we may read there that “materiam tragico Fortuna volubilis auget, / quo magis ex alto culmine regna ruunt” (101–102).16 Such a conception will be found also in Chaucer and his imitators.17

In Ecerinis Seneca’s in luence manifests itself on the level of the struc- ture (the division into ive acts altogether, each of them including two or three scenes, separated by brief performances by the chorus), language and style (lexical calques, elevated and rhetorical style, frequently bom- bastic), meter (iambic trimeter in the dialogic forms and lyrical meter in the chorus parts), and subject matter. The latter oscillates around a historical character not too remote in time, namely Ezzelino da Ro- mano, a tyrant of Verona and Padua notorious for his atrocities. The play tells of his bloody deeds related to successive conquests and his eventual fall and that of his brother Alberico. An account of the ruth- less revenge taken on the family of the latter follows. Relying on legends Mussato endows the two brothers not only with demonic features, but also with the origins going back to Lucifer. Ezzelino is the embodiment of the Antichrist who hates “nomen inimicum Crucis” (101). In delineat- ing this biased and conventional portrait, in which the medieval legend is suffused with the ancient cultural in luence and combined with bib- lical moralization,18 Mussato considered the characters of Atreus from Seneca’s Thyestes and Nero from the anonymous Octavia. He referred to the Roman playwright in the descriptions of subsequent horrenda.

The didactic function of the tragedy which is emphasized in the above-

16 Quoted in: E. Raimondi, “Una tragedia del Trecento,” in idem, Metafora e storia (To- rino: Einaudi, 1970), 147.

17 Cf. for instance, ll. 1973–1977, 1991–1998 in: Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, trans. D. Wright (Oxford–New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985), 177: “Tragedy means a cer- tain kind of story / As ancient books remind us, of some man / Who was once living in prosperity, / And fell from high estate to misery, / And who came to a calamitous end […]

I shall lament, and in the Tragic Mode, / The sufferings of those who once stood high, / Who fell from eminence, so that none could / Deliver them out from adversity. / For when For- tune makes up her mind to ly, / Her course no man is able to withhold; / Let no one trust in blind prosperity; / Be warned by these examples true and old.”

18 Cf. Raimondi, “Una tragedia del Trecento,” 152.


mentioned letter is also Senecan: it is to give rise to ethical re lection and constitute a warning against tyrannical rule in general, and in particular the rule exercised by Cangrande della Scala, the ruler of Verona at the time. The function of the chorus is analogous to that in Seneca’s play: it utters sententious remarks about the course of history and the fate of cruel and haughty people.

As a work with clear political implications the tragedy was warmly received by Coluccio Salutati, the translator of Mussato’s works into the vernacular (volgare). Salutati was a representative of “civic humanism,”

hostile to autocratic power, acquired and maintained through violence.

He postulated active participation of an individual in the public life. The tragedy was widely read in the 14th and 15th centuries, which is indicated by the existence of a considerable number of manuscripts.

Ecerinis inaugurates a whole sequence of humanistic tragedies based on recent events, such as Ludovico Romani da Fabriano’s De casu Cae- senae (1377) and a work by Giovanni Manzini della Motta, narrating the expulsion of Antonio della Scala from Verona (1387), of which only 58 verses survive. They often resemble dramatized chronicles, while in some codices they are called comedies (because of the happy endings) or tragicomedies, as in the case of Carlo and Marcellino Verardi’s Fer- nandus servatus. The latter term became popular because of Giovan Bat- tista Giraldi Cinzio, the author of the epistolary treatise entitled Discorso ovvero lettera di G. G. C. intorno al comporre delle commedie e delle trage- die a Giulio Ponzio Ponzoni (1554), and also thanks to Giovanni Battista Guarini, the author of the pastoral drama Pastor Fido.

Regardless of in luences of antiquity, and speci ically Seneca’s works and Octavia, the only tragedy of the praetexta type remaining from Ro- man literature, Mussato’s tragedy displays the epic concept of tragedy typical of the Middle Ages.19 This thesis is supported by the following evidence: the title, referring to such poems as Aeneis, Thebais and Achil- leis, narration as the form dominating also in the dialogues, and the chronological sequence of events which take place over twenty-three years (from 1237 to 1260).


In contrast, two noteworthy humanistic tragedies in Latin, Antonio Loschi’s Achilles from the end of the 14th century (1390) and Giorgio Correr’s Progne (1429), which constitute a signi icant stage in the de-

19 Cf. Witt, In the Footsteps of the Ancients..., 124.


velopment of the genre, are not politically involved, while their subject matter originates in ancient epic. Both of their titles refer to the names of the main characters, which suggests a break with the medieval epic and tragic tradition on the level of the paratext and a greater structural relationship with Seneca’s plays, whose echoes are frequent also on the linguistic and lexical level.20

Achilles is noteworthy due to the fact that it is the irst tragedy ever, not only in Italy, which was not inspired by historical matter. Similarly to the work of Seneca, the plot is developed in ive canonical acts, each of which includes one scene and they are followed by chorus performances.

The whole work consists of over 900 verses. The chorus includes groups of Trojans and Greeks performing one after the other and in a moraliz- ing tone commenting on the course of events.21 The plot is related to the subject matter of the Trojan war and constitutes a thematic complement of Seneca’s Trojan Women, since it anticipates the events evoked in that work.22 The plot originates from Dares Phrygius’ work, De excidio Troiae Historia (XXXIV–XXXV) from the 5th century, which is related to the Iliad, but includes legends broadening the epic matter. The episode of Achil- les’ death is the signi icant point. In Loschi’s work it is demanded by the ghost of Hector who appears to Hecuba (Act I). Paris is the agent in the intrigue and the plot consists in the promising of Polixena to Achil- les, who is in love with her, and thus throwing him off his guard in or- der to murder him (Act II). In the meantime (Act III) Cassandra foretells other misfortunes for the Trojans, which will be caused by the planned murder, and the scene of murder itself is described by the Messenger to the chorus of Greeks (Act IV). In the last scene Agamemnon and Menel- aus decide to avenge Achilles’ death, while the prophet Calchas foretells the destruction of Troy by his son Pyrrhus.

Progne (1429), written by Giorgio Correr, a Venetian, was even more successful. It has been acknowledged to be perhaps the most classiciz- ing example of tragedy in the Italian Quattrocento. In this type of trag- edy the reader may perceive on the one hand the in luence of Seneca’s drama on the characters’ dialogues, their emotional reactions, the shape

20 Cf. E. Paratore, “L’in lusso dei classici, e particolarmente di Seneca, sul teatro tragico latino del Tre e Quattrocento,” in La rinascita della tragedia nell’Italia dell’umanesimo. Atti del IV Convegno di Studio di E.P.T. di Viterbo (Viterbo: Union Printing Edition, 1980), 37.

21 Cf. for example its last lines (934–940): “fata gubernant mortale genus / et prima dies ultima novit. / Quicquid gerimus sydera volvunt / cursusque poli mundana regunt. / Non ipse deus mutare potest / quicquid fatis nectitur altis” (quotation from: Il teatro umanistico veneto. La tragedia: Antonio Loschi, “Achilles,” ed. V. Zaccaria; Gregorio Correr, “Progne,” ed.

L. Casarsa (Ravenna: Longo, 1981), 62–63).

22 Cf. the lines 40–140 in ibid., 38–41.


of some of the scenes and the metric structure, and on the other hand the impact of Ovid’s language and style. The former and latter in luences give rise to a harmonically constructed whole.23 Progne was praised by Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who did not deem worthy of notice other works representing that genre and written at that time.24 The thematic pattern was provided by an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (IV, 412–674), where the dramatic tale of the Thracian king Tereus, his wife Progne and her sister Philomela is narrated. The pattern is shaped in accordance with the theatrical technique typical of Seneca. Even though in the argu- mentum preceding the text the author clearly indicates that “imitatur in hanc tragedia Senecam in Thieste,” traces of Medea and other plays by the Roman playwright may be found.25

The action starts in mediis rebus, as in the classical tragedies. The prologue is dominated by the monologue of the ghost of Diomedes, a predecessor of Tereus as king of Thrace, who used to feed his horses on human lesh. He has been forced to come out of hell, where he suf- fers punishment for his crimes, which he freely confesses, to tell of even more horrendous crimes that are about to happen. The effect of empha- sis is achieved through a number of epithets, abominandum, pessimum, horrendum, novum (47–48), used in order to refer to the act committed by Progne. In revenge for the cruel and treacherous deed of her husband, who had raped her sister Philomela and severed her tongue so that she could not complain to her sister, she decided to murder their son Itys and serve his lesh as meal for her husband. Unaware of what will hap- pen, the chorus expresses their hope that Tereus will return happily and will bring Philomela to her sister who longs for her. In the ensuing scene Tereus tells the story of the alleged death of Philomela during a storm at sea, which makes Progne mourn her sister, since she feels partly re- sponsible for it. The event makes the chorus re lect on the universal mu- tability of human fate, which constitutes a motif in Seneca’s works, but appears also in those of the Greek tragedians, particularly in Sophocles.

In the second act a witness to the king’s crime, who had managed to lee, reveals the whole truth to the queen and directs her thoughts toward revenge. Directly afterwards the chorus anticipates Progne’s wild anger (furor) with their Bacchus-like song. She seeks the most appropriate punishment for Tereus by asking frantic questions and then, following

23 Cf. Paratore, “L’in lusso dei classici…,” 41–44.

24 Cf. Il teatro tragico italiano. Storia e testi del teatro tragico in Italia, ed. F. Doglio (Par- ma: Guanda, 1960), XXI.

25 Cf. Casarsa, “La Progne di Gregorio Correr,” in La rinascita della tragedia…, 7.


Medea’s example, after inner struggle, she inds the punishment in kill- ing Itys (Act III):

Heu, quis dolori sit satis tanto furor?

Quae poena Tereo digna? Quis regi queat nocere diro? Tota splendescat licet Acthaea ferro tellus et summae parent arces Cyclopum bella […]

Quid hoc furore maius accrescit malum?

Libet experiri, quicquid est, quod me monet ultrix Erynnis […]

Tremisco. Quis matrem impellit manus maculare duras impia nati nece?

Crudelis ille est: meruit ut facerem scelus. (612–16; 681–83; 689–91)26

The song of the chorus is directed against the tyrants whose deeds encourage revenge, which breaks the most sancti ied laws. The scene of murder, which Philomela participates in, is described by the messen- ger (Act IV). In the last scene, which follows a brief commentary by the chorus, Progne completes her murderous revenge when she causes her faithless husband to discover the truth about the dish which has been prepared for him from his son’s lesh. The play ends with mutual accusa- tions, threats and curses, which increase in the dramatic crescendo.

While creating Tereus as a character Correr looked to Seneca’s Jason and Thyestes. In the case of Progne he had for models not only Medea, but also Phaedra wailing because of her unreciprocated love and Andro- mache from Trojan Women who mourns her little son fated to die; and in the last part of Correr’s play the model was Atreus from Thyestes. The plot strictly imitated the Ovidian episode, apart from the motif of reveal- ing the truth about the deed of Tereus. In the Metamorphoses Philomela embroidered her misfortune on a piece of linen. The change in the plot introduced in the tragedy, namely the eyewitness’ narrative which turns into a dialogue with Progne, introduces a more dramatic quality, intensi-

ied by the title character’s violent emotional reaction and her increas- ing furor.


The examples of Latin tragedy from the epoch of humanism presented above are inspired by the historical matter or mythological and literary plots. The tragedies display gradual improvement of the dramatic form,

26 Quoted from the edition: Il teatro umanistico veneto. La tragedia…, 149–150, 152.


with the result almost equaling the classical model, here that of Seneca’s works. In the irst decades of the Italian Cinquecento the editio princeps of the three Greek tragedians is created: Sophocles’ tragedies are pub- lished in 1502, Euripides’ in 1503, and Aeschylus’ in 1518. Besides in- creasing familiarity with and studies of Aristotle’s Poetics (particularly after its publication by Alessandro de’ Pazzi in 1536) the acquaintance with the Greek models started to in luence the development of trage- dy in the Renaissance and with time it led to the form becoming enclosed in the rigid structure of the three unities. The form became so rigid due mainly to the in luence of the treatises by Giraldi Cinzio, Julius Scaliger and Ludovico Castelvetro.27 Another important factor of this develop- ment was the custom of writing in the vernacular, which led to openness to a new sphere of in luence, represented by the literary production of the three “Florentine crowns:” Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio.

The irst tragedy written in Italian and, at the same time, which will be the last play discussed in this brief outline and which is the irst modern example of imitation of the Greek model, is Sophonisba (1514–1415), composed by Gian Giorgio Trissino of Vicenza.28 It is characterized as

“tragoedia regularis,” constructed in accordance with the norms of Ar- istotle’s Poetics which had not become fossilized yet when it was writ- ten. Trissino replaced the Latin iambic trimeter with the unrhymed hen- decasyllable. The title character, and a truly tragic igure, is the queen of Carthage, the daughter of Hasdrubal, Hannibal’s brother, and the wife of Syphax, the king of Numidie. Syphax had been taken prisoner by Mas- sinissa, the Romans’ ally. Sophonisba was promised to be married to him by her father in the past and now she secretly marries him, which is to protect her from enslavement. Still, Scipio Africanus, representing the interest of the state, decides about her departure for Rome in the role of a hostage. Massinissa gives her poison, which allows her to commit suicide in order to avoid ignominy.

The plot is derived from Titus Livius’ History of Rome (Book V), which earlier had been the source of inspiration for, among others, Petrarch, for whom in his Latin poem Africa Virgil’s Aeneid became the literary model, while the story of Dido was the source of the episode above.

Both of these sources are present in Trissino’s work as well as Eurip- ides’ Alcestis. This is noticeable particularly in the scene suffused with lyrical dramatic quality preceding Sophonisba’s death, when she bids

27 Cf. S. d’Amico, Storia del teatro drammatico, ed. S. d’Amico, vol. I (Milano: Garzanti, 1960), 155.

28 On the Sofonisba, see for example M. Ariani, Tra classicismo e manierismo. Il teatro tragico del Cinquecento (Firenze: Olschki, 1974), 9–51.


farewell to her home and her little son (1650–1652; 1654–1560). As far as I know in criticism up to now it has not been noted that at a certain point her words echo those of Ajax in Sophocles’ tragedy of that name, where Ajax speaks to his juvenile son Eurysaces before committing sui- cide (550–551; 552–554). The function of the deed is similar to that of Sophonisba, since it is to protect the character from disgrace.29

In a letter to Leo X, to whom he dedicated the tragedy, Trissino in- cluded interesting remarks concerning such issues as the use of the vernacular (the Italian volgare) and explained his choice by means of the Horatian principle of “prodesse” and “delectare.” Another problem discussed in the letter is related to realism in the mode of represent- ing suffering: it may arouse pity (eleos) in the audience, which is per- ceived as the major goal of the tragedy by Aristotle, yet it may arouse it only when it is spontaneous and is expressed by means of natural (non- rhyming) language. Hence even though we are not dealing here with a masterpiece among tragedies that Aristotle evokes, reading Sophonis- ba may even nowadays evoke pity for the title character, which leads to a certain catharsis. Therefore it may obviously become the source of emotions deeper than those that result from the act of satisfying of one’s desire for knowledge.

To conclude this brief outline,30 it should be noticed that Sophonisba is not the only Italian tragedy related to the Greek models, even if the others do not deserve particular critical attention. It has to be added that a turn towards those models was not a phenomenon which rep- resented a break with Seneca’s model, which was to triumph again for some time in the second half of the 16th century, when a surfeit with the classicist manner and a partial abandonment of the three unities occurred. The somber atmosphere of the Senecan “tragedies of terror”

inds its fullest expression in perhaps the most famous of them, Orbecche (1541), which was written by an author of short stories and poetical treatises, the above-mentioned Giovan Battista Giraldi Cinzio.

29 In turn, Ajax’s monologue echoes that of Hector in Book VI of the Iliad, when he bids farewell to his little son Astianax.

30 I write more extensively about all the problems discussed in this article, and other related to the Italian tragedy of early modern time in my book entitled Powrót Melpomeny.

Tragedia włoska od średniowiecznego odrodzenia po renesansowy rozkwit [The Return of Melpomene. Italian Tragedy from the Medieval Rebirth to the Renaissance Acme] (Kraków:

Księgarnia Akademicka, 2013).




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