Tag Archives: Petrarch/Francesco Petrarca

A Poet as Petrarch: Going Through Home Archives

Иногда чувствую себя Петраркой: однажды ему так надоело разбирать свой архив, что он все бросил в огонь. Это напоминает, как мы иногда поступаем с накопившейся почтой: удаляем, и все! Но вот камина у меня нет, зато находятся то и дело всякие записки университетской поры. Вот, например, из переписки на лекции:

Утоли своя печали,
Посмотри на небо сине:
Видишь, солнце закачалось
В зеленеющей осине.
Твоей грусти нет причины,
Все пришло, и все проходит.
Утоли своя печали
И найди покой в природе.

А потом нашлось стихотворение от декабря 1998, здесь чувствуется впечатление от чтения ренессансной поэзии

Я ключ к судьбе найти пытаюсь,
Вопросы задаю. Она ж
Ответа будто бы не знает:
“Ma joie, mon âme – ah! quel dommage!”

Я все гаданья, гороскопы –
Всё изучил, вошел я в раж!
И день, и ночь я жизнь толкую,
Свихнуться, право, я рискую,
Но ключ к судьбе-таки найду я.
Ma joie, mon âme – oh! quel dommage!

Часы летели, лета, весны,
Обрел седины тайны страж
И умер, не решив вопроса.
Sa joie, son âme – ah! quel dommage!

На небесах же, где в лазури
Качался бога антураж,
Жизнь умиленная лежала,
И в своих кудрях мысль искала,
И зачарованно шептала:
– Ma joie! mon âme! non, pas dommage!

Felina Petrarcae (Petrarch’s Cat)

I don’t really now how many cats Francesco Petrarca had in his lifetime. Neither do I know much about the cat that was embalmed and put to stay in his house-museum in Italy. I did read his letters, and some passages were referenced in the story. It started in one notebook on a bus on my way home and finished in another book, when I was living on my own in Manchester. It was originally written in Russian in 2008 and appeared in print in early 2011. I finished the translation in 2012, of which I can say I am quite happy with it.

Felina Petrarcaehttp://www.scribd.com/embeds/115390200/content?start_page=1&view_mode=scroll&access_key=key-3eguodq5u4py0e9dinq


How I Write: Structuring a Narrative

This can be a never-ending story, and I saw other writers contributing posts on the topic… so I thought I’d add my two cents.

Doubtless, there is – and must be – some structure. Orwell said that the statement that art was for art’s sake was political, in that it asserted a specific idea. To paraphrase that, to render no structure to a text is also a political decision, for the structure will then rest in other, perhaps less obvious, components of the text. To take Memento for an example, it is seemingly without a structure, but as the film progresses, through multiples repetitions, the structure begins to manifest itself precisely through these repetitions that gradually help us to piece the story together. A broken structure, as in Bad Education, calls on our attention. To me, it was fascinating to notice that in Bad Education we had two films in one – but unless we pay attention, this fact may well escape us. In Vertigo, it is already in the middle of the film that we can see that the protagonist has stopped suffering from vertigo: Hitchcock points the camera down the spiral staircase, and we see that it is stale, yet the protagonist is too distressed to notice this – so we have the story starting anew. And, of course, Irreversible turns any conventional film structure on its head and gives us a narrative that unravels from the end to the beginning.

In literature, we can cite What Is to Be Done? by Chernyshevsky that started from the middle of the story; or Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Vargas Llosa that was interjected by excerpts from the young author’s scripts. Vargas Llosa is certainly fond of these complicated texts, as The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, with letters and fantasies that break a storyline just as much as they enrich and help understand it, loosely follows the technique he used before in other texts.

Thus, for all the importance of structure and its role in making a text coherent, readable and pleasant in one way or another, “order is not all“, to now paraphrase Edna St. Vincent Millay. Indeed, at the start of the things it is not particularly important how we fetch all parts of our text together – whether we begin with the middle, or with the end, or start at the very beginning and continue to the end, then stop (I think this has something to do with Lewis Carroll).

Apparently, many writers have either notebooks or pieces of paper, should the Muse visit them. Umberto Eco, answering the question about how he writes, notes that he finds himself jotting down the thoughts on pieces of paper, in notepads, which he then assembles and studies before embarking on a book. His much elder brother-in-arms and compatriot, Francesco Petrarca, once declared something of a “writer’s bankruptcy”: he was inundated with his own notes, so threw half of them into fire. Personally, I use both notebooks and pieces of paper, and although I diligently try and use some notebooks for nothing but taking notes in the library or business meetings, somehow I end up finding there extracts for future essays or poems.

But now to the question: how do we decide what structure is “right” for the text we’re writing? If we believe that writers are being guided by some external force, then one may say that the force also imposes the structure. This, however, would go against the grain in Journalism or academy: whether we’re writing a newspaper article or an academic article, both have a structure that cannot be changed. An academic article or a study would often even have a set of chapters that has to be followed precisely. This is not to say that this structure cannot be enlivened or otherwise “tweaked”, but if you’re writing for a result then expect some criticism, should your peer have a strong view on how things must be done.

Yet with a creative, literary text – how do we decide what structure it follows? I’ve said before that a visit to Heaton Park was inspiring, coupled with a visit to Subversive Spaces exhibition at The Whitworth Art Gallery. I’m now writing the text, in Russian, but the way things go, I have written the end, and I have one third of the first part. A complete text, as I feel it, will consist of three parts, first telling a fictional story (dream); second telling the story of real people; third is the part that will show how the first two stories are linked together, and this part will also “solve the problem”. The reason I don’t tell more isn’t only because the text is not even half-written, but because at the moment I, being my own reader and critic, find that there are too many references in my head, and I’m not yet sure which of them are more powerful than others. There may be some oblique references to Bunuel; references to Heaton Park will be the most obvious; same with Surrealists’ fascination for hysteria, dreams, sex, and death. So, right now I’m something of Lady Shalott who makes a conscious decision to not look into the window, lest all the various threads she’s intertwining get knotted upon her seeing Sir Lancelot.

Now, to answer my own question – how did I decide on the way of writing this text? The answer, frankly, is that I didn’t decide it. I don’t always write texts from the beginning till the end, regardless of what structure they eventually assume. This is simply because when something speaks with you it speaks quickly, and my task is often to pin the thought down before it vanishes. Similarly, with the text in question, the one third of its first part isn’t “coherent”, in the sense that it contains bits that will be included in different chapters.

All the above, of course, begs the question about reading and editing – but that is a topic for another post.


William Howard Hunt, Lady Shalott (1889-1902)

In Search of a Phoenix: Petrarca’s Servants

Francesco Petrarca (or Petrarch) is well-known to us as one of the major Italian poets, one of the “three fountains” of Italian Renaissance poetry as Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio are sometimes called. His unrequited devotion to madonna Laura is a subject of a vast critical research. However, much of Petrarca’s character may remain hidden from us, unless we turn to his letters. Rerum Familiarium (Letters on Familiar Matters), written between 1325 and 1366 and organised in twenty-four books between 1345 and 1366, is a living testament of intellectual and creative ability of this famous poet, but more than that, the letters show us a very witty, even humorous man. At the very end of the third volume of Rerum Familiarium there are over 10 letters addressed to the great men of the past, including Cicero, Seneca, Homer, and Livy; Petrarch was also known for giving antique names to some of his friends, whereby there are epistoles to Olympio and Socrates in this collection. One of the letters greatly reminded me of myself: in it Petrarch complained to his correspondent that he was inundated with his own papers and drafts that were scattered all over his house so much so that he decided to burn them. My own drafts are to be found absolutely everywhere, but I am yet to be inundated.

The collection may leave one wondering how good it must indeed have been in the 14th c. from the intellectual point of view. The letters reveal an important aspect of a shared scholarship, and although we do not see the letters by or from Petrarch’s correspondents, one has to assume that the current of quotations and references was flowing both ways. One can also not find enough praise for the translator, Aldo S. Bernardo, although, as he noted in the preface, this work was in part triggered by the deteriorating knowledge of Latin among the Renaissance students. On the other hand, thanks to him, everyone who doesn’t know Latin, can dive into the boundless sea of Petrarch’s epistolary work.

As I said, however, the letters also show us the “down-to-earth” Petrarch. Not in one of them does he compain about the age, the servants, and we even hear that his cobbler and taylor didn’t listen to him (much to his annoyance) when he requested that his garments should be of bigger size. The letter quoted below gives a great example of this “worldly” side of the poet’s character.

Petrarca to Sennuccio di Firenze (Rerum Familiarium, IV, no. 14)

I have in my home three pairs of servants, or, to speak more modestly, of lower class friends, or, to tell the truth, of domestic enemies. Of the first pair one is far too simple and the other is far too shrewd. Of the second, one is rendered useless by his childishness and the other by his age. Of the third, one is mad and the other is shamefully lazy, and as in Cicero’s saying in a letter to Socrates, one is in need of a bridle, the other of a spur. Faced with such opposition I used to attempt to correct the situation, but now I sit as a simple spectator, nor can I stop wondering at the minds of those who regard mobs of servants as something glorious, and are commonly found in the company of those whom they feed, delighting, that is, in the company of their domestic underminers. It is enough for you to know my need, nor do I believe that you expect me to beg you for help. If by chance there should appear anywhere in rather humble straits a spirit whose age and conduct are moderate, you will have found a man in whom such qualities as I seek are to be found – I would not say perfectly but tolerably – and who could be not my servant but my colleague, friend, and master. Yet I fear that I seem to be committing you to a search for a Phoenix which usually is reborn only after 500 years, exists singly in all the world, and isn’t known to us in the West. Farewell.


Visiting London-8 (London Book Fair)

Yet another seminar at the LBF was just as important, interesting and thought-provoking, not least because I could relate to its subject as an author, translator/interpreter, and historian. The seminar ‘Globalisation, Translation, and English’ had two questions to answer: how to make publishers commission translations from other languages into English, and how to make them, as well as the public, to acknowledge the role of a translator?

To begin with, where is a problem here? Foreign literature is not being translated into English, so what? Surely, there’s enough English-language books around – in fact, there’re so many of them that the authors of guides like ‘How To Write a Novel’ start with discouraging a budding author from ever dreaming of making it big (they do so by reminding you that to get ‘ad astra’ you need to drag yourself ‘per aspera’ many times).

To use Prof Eco’s powerful thesis, a translation is a negotiation between the cultural milieu of the source text and that of the destination text. Elsewhere in Mouse or Rat: Translation as Negotiation Eco says that “translation is a process that takes place between two texts produced at a given historical moment in a given cultural milieu”. There are many gains and losses to be accepted, but ultimately every good translation serves to enrich the language of the destination text by exploring its ability to communicate all the aspects of the original text. Translation is also important in keeping us connected to the past. It is especially vital today, when fewer and fewer people learn classical languages.

The enrichment of the language, however, is mostly important in hindsight. At present, if we care to learn our language better, we can simply scour The Oxford English Dictionary and the like. This would be much like striving to improve oneself by living on one’s own and never interacting with other people. Such belief in one’s uniqueness often leads to alienation and decline.

Translation therefore is the way to enrich the culture of the country of the destination text. It is the acquisition of knowledge about a country and a period where we do not live (and often never will). It can also be a source of inspiration: not necessarily an impetus to write, but rather to learn more about the author, his country, or the country and the period in which the novel was set, etc. In the end, literature exists everywhere, but our knowledge of foreign languages is always limited, so we constantly need to negotiate the development of our literature and culture by producing literary translations.

For instance, the development of English language and literature in the 16th c. was much fostered by the boom in translations from the classical and European languages. (I include the translation of the Bible in this list, since it was written in vulgata). Arguably, where this process was concerned with translating the antique historical texts, it was sometimes instigated by the acquaintance with the works of Machiavelli. Together with translations from Petrarch by Thomas Wyatt, followed by many other renderings of purely literary works of both antique and contemporary authors, this boom in translations was as much a means to enrich the English language, as a very important part of the English Renaissance.

The trouble is, and this has been highlighted at the seminar, a translation is often being treated as not. This means that all its educational and artistic merits are being treated on the same scale as those of an originally written text, which can lead to costly misconceptions. Once I came across an article, in which a scholar was comparing a 16th c. translation to a 20th c. translation from Latin, almost disregarding the original Latin text. Several times in his short study he concluded that the 20th c. translator was rendering the text into English better that his 16th c. colleague, – whereas his first purpose should’ve been to determine why it was exactly this text that had been translated. In addition, the scholar did treat the translation as an originally composed text. Given the blossoming of such discipline as Translation Studies in the past 15-20 years, you (myself at least) would have expected its findings to influence the academic community. Alas, this isn’t always the case. 

One of the first things to do when a translation is being chosen for an academic study is to undertake its textual analysis by comparing it against the original text. This is a painstaking and time-consuming procedure, which requires a lot of knowledge and research. If it is done, however, then we’re likely to obtain a very fine example of an academic study which will shed tons of light on the cultural and intellectual process in the given country at the given time.

As follows from the above, translation is a critical act, which again was mentioned at the seminar. Yet it is evident that no translation can be purely theoretical. A text is a rhetorical act which appeals not only to our understanding, but also to our feelings. I firmly believe that it is a mistake to disregard or to avoid translating this emotional message. This means, in turn, that a translator is always a writer or a poet (depending on exactly what is being translated), which further stresses the importance of his role.

Translation is a difficult subject to discuss, a tricky business to run, and a Titanic labour to undertake. But when one considers how many people across the globe have been influenced by the works of William Shakespeare, it is obvious that all the efforts of his translators have not been in vain.

O Felici Occhi Miei, Arcadelt, and the Lute-Player

Last year the Victoria and Albert Museum hosted two exhibitions that were linked together thematically, as geographically, and were of immense importance to all “Italianised Englishmen”, if we are to use the 16th c. slang. One was on Leonardo da Vinci; another on Italian Renaissance household; and I wrote about both on my blog in early November.

Now, I got somewhat interested in the piece that I recommended in the mentioned post purely because it was composed in the 16th c., which I studied in great depth. The piece is called Divisions of Arcadelt’s O felici occhi miei, and was composed by Diego Ortiz.

The piece in question is a madrigal by Jacob Arcadelt, a Flemish composer born between 1504 and 1505, who spent a lot of his time in Rome and then in Paris, where he died in 1568. Immensely popular for his madrigals and chansons, he also composed masses and motets. The very first printed madrigals appeared in 1537, and the year 1539 saw four out of six volumes of Arcadelt’s madrigals.

The madrigal I’m looking at is called O felici occhi miei (Oh, my happy eyes), and this is the text:

O felic’ occhi miei, felici voi,
che sete car’ al mio sol
perche sembianz’ havete
de gliocchi che gli fu si dolc’e rei.

voi ben voi sete voi,
voi, voi felici et io,
io no, che per quetar vostro desio,
corr’ amirar l’onde mi struggo poi.

(My word-for-word translation:

Oh my happy eyes, happy you
That you can behold dearly my sun,
For [this is what] the face
To the eyes, to which it was so sweet and regal.
You are beautiful, glowing,
You are happy, and I,
And I am not, for to quieten my longing desire for you,
I look up at you whereby I then suffer).

The comparisons we find in this madrigal are typical of the Renaissance poetry; the most prominent poet who comes to my mind is certainly Petrarch (Canzoniere); but similar motives we can find in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 24. Face is the Sun (the term can be extended to include God); a lover cannot stop looking at the face of his beloved, like a man cannot stop looking at the sun; but the beauty of both bedazzles the viewer, bringing him to tears (strictly, as figuratively, speaking). Such motive, I am sure, goes well back in the dawn of history of literary figures.

Caravaggio - The Musicians (1595)
In this painting by Caravaggio we see one of the boys holding a sheet music with Diego Ortiz’s work
You can follow the links below to see the score sheets for this madrigal. What is interesting, however, is that a few years ago art historians have identified the Arcadelt’s manuscripts as being included in Caravaggio’s paintings. O felici occhi miei apparently features in this painting, The Musicians (1595, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Which only proves how popular was the work of Arcadelt even quarter of a century after his death.
(The image is taken from Florence Symposium Program page).

Below is a video with the madrigal recorded by Ernst Stolz and Trond Bengston, featuring the piece of art by Andrea Previtali. It is followed by Pro Musica Antiqua ensemble from Milan singing O Felic’ Occhi Miei a-capella.



Biography of Jacob (Jacques) Arcadelt at Wiki.
Biography of Arcadelt at HOASM.
Music of Renaissance Italy – Florence Symposium Program.

Previously on this post there was a link to O felici occhi miei music score in a .pdf file. I discovered recently that the link was no longer working, but the file is still available on the original site. Flauto Dolce has been created by Andrea Bornstein and has already amassed a marvellous collection of music score sheets and ‘is dedicated to the publication of original music and arrangements for recorder made available in various formats‘. Students of both Renaissance and Baroque music will be pleased to find a wide selection of compositions from these periods, some available in MP3. Mr Bornstein also indicated on his website that he was interested in collaborating with musicians who would consider to ‘realise the continuo of pieces from the XVII and XVIII centuries‘. No money offered, but the work will be licensed under the Creative Commons Licence. If you are such musician reading this post, don’t hesitate to contact Flauto Dolce.

You can go to Jacob Arcadelt’s page on Flauto Dolce, where you will find not one, but five of his compositions. Please note that you will need to register on the site to access any content.