Monthly Archives: January 2016

Italian Characters in Search of an Author


Siena and its environs (Photograph by Gianmaria Bonari)

A few years ago, Petra Pertici, an expert on fifteenth-century Tuscan culture, published an article entitled Novelle senesi in cerca d’autore (Pertici 2011), in which she discusses the identity of the author of an important collection of novellas previously attributed to ‘Gentile Sermini da Siena’. Written in the early decades of the fifteenth century, these novellas (forty in total, preceded by a dedicatory letter) were the work of someone certainly familiar with the town of Siena, as well as with the culture and society of other parts of Tuscany and the Italian peninsula. The use that the author made of this familiarity, with significant if uneven literary results, has long given the Novelle a place in the history of Italian prose-writing. They lie in a chronologically intermediate position between earlier collections of greater reputation – those of Sacchetti and Sercambi, and especially Boccaccio’s masterpiece, the Decameron – and the later works of Masuccio Salernitano and others. The licentious nature of many of the Novelle attributed to Sermini, however, would seem to have hindered a full appreciation of this work, and perhaps also the identification of the text’s real author. Pertici recalls that previous scholars had obliquely indicated the possibility that the author was no less than Enea Silvio Piccolomini (1405-1464), better known as Pope Pius II. Along similar lines, she develops the hypothesis that the Novelle were written by the distinguished politician and military leader Antonio Petrucci (1400-1471), another member of the same culturally-advanced elite formed of sophisticated and socially-privileged Sienese of the time. In a series of recent publications, Pertici has supported this hypothesis by assembling and discussing a wide range of evidence (most of it persuasive, though not yet conclusive – see Caruso forthcoming).

Di Legami, Flora. Le novelle di Gentile Sermini (Rome: Antenore, 2009)

Di Legami, Flora. Le novelle di Gentile Sermini (Rome: Antenore, 2009)

Indeed, the collection contains various traces of a relatively uncommon intellectual independence and moral audacity. Some novellas include unconventional erotic triangles, where husbands who neglect their wives, or fail to treat them with sufficient courtesy, are finally forced to give them up to younger, more charming lovers. The female characters, meanwhile, are not passive goods for exchange, but often take on a much more active role. In other cases, the way in which characters are presented is influenced by another typical feature of early-fifteenth-century urban elites – namely, their sense of superiority and often ironic disapproval with regard to the manners and doings of those living in the countryside (clumsy peasants, self-indulgent clerics, and other members of the rural world). In the third novella, this urbane attitude takes a sinister, conservative turn when it combines with a more radical condemnation of the greed of individuals from the rising social classes: the curt and business-minded Scopone, who lives in the countryside but has no intention of obeying the cultural and economic rules set by the local landlord, is beaten up and publicly humiliated until he finally conforms to traditional values and social hierarchies.

Testa, Enrico. Simulazione di parlato. Fenomeni dell’oralità nelle novelle del Quattro-Cinquecento (Florence: Accademia della Crusca, 1991

Testa, Enrico. Simulazione di parlato. Fenomeni dell’oralità nelle novelle del Quattro-Cinquecento (Florence: Accademia della Crusca, 1991)

This taste for descriptions, attentive to the divergent behaviours of different social and geographical milieus, is also the basis of another feature that makes the Novelle a most valuable historical document. I refer here to the linguistic characterization – not only of individual speakers, but also of shouting gangs and crowds (as in the intermezzo, set in Siena, which appears after the sixth novella – see Pseudo Sermini 2012, pp. 194-200 – as well as in the first novella, set in Perugia). Especially in the case of characters from Perugia, the author would seem to have been extremely accurate in reproducing their variety, and to have done so not only in terms of lexical choices, but also at the level of phonological and morphological developments (especially diphthongization and metaphony – see Stussi 1993, p. 146; and for a more recent and detailed account, see Marchi 2010-2011). On the one hand, commentators have long pointed to the mimesis of various Tuscan and non-Tuscan varieties as a fascinating feature of Sermini’s Novelle (e.g. Vigo 1894, pp. xi-xii), all the more important as it pertains to a period for which we do not have many other works in which dialects are used to represent realistically – or to hyper-characterize – the inhabitants of particular areas. On the other hand, however, it is not easy to use this kind of information about Italy’s vernacular languages: as we shall see, attempts in this direction have led to some problematic outcomes, especially in the absence of an authoritative edition of the Novelle.

Novelle di autori senesi (2 vols.) (London: Riccardo Bancker, 1796-1798)

Novelle di autori senesi (2 volumes) (London: Riccardo Bancker, 1796-1798)

The Bodleian Libraries – and the Taylorian in particular – hold various items that help trace the editorial history of Sermini’s Novelle. These include partial editions published in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some of which are also digitally available, as well as complete editions (Sermini 1911 and 1968) and the recent critical edition by Monica Marchi (where the name of the author is finally given as Pseudo Sermini 2012).* The earlier editions were largely based on a manuscript held at the Biblioteca Estense in Modena (It. 282 = α. H. 8. 15), which bears palaeographic and linguistic traces of a non-Sienese origin. According to Pertici (2013), this version of the text of the Novelle was copied by Masolino da Montolmo, who was born in what is now Corridonia (in the Marche region, close to the Adriatic coast) and then went on to become one of Petrucci’s assistants.** Linguistically, the Biblioteca Estense manuscript has various northern Italian features, but occasionally also preserves forms which seem compatible with the author’s Tuscan background: for instance, at the beginning of the twelfth novella, this manuscript has m’allogiai ‘I stayed’, which in Marchi’s edition is replaced by the less distinctive synonym m’albergai. The second manuscript containing the Novelle (Biblioteca Marciana, Venice, It. VIII, 16 = 6167) is more recent (it dates from the second half of the fifteenth century) and shows traces of linguistic normalization; but it has the advantage of being written in Tuscan as well as offering a far more accurate transcription of the text in comparison to the Biblioteca Estense version. Marchi has therefore decided to use the Biblioteca Marciana manuscript as the basis for her critical edition.

A modern edition of the Novelle (Sermini 1911)

A modern edition of the Novelle (Sermini 1911)

As we have already seen, scholars in historical linguistics have long been encouraged to take notice of Sermini’s work. Even in the absence of an autograph (and of sufficiently certain information about the real author), the available manuscripts provide reliable attestations of non-standard words and expressions that can still be heard in Siena, and/or in the surrounding countryside, at least in the speech of the older generation. Examples include: mira ‘look!’, rovito ‘red-hot’, molle ‘wet’, catrasta ‘stack of wood’ (cf. Standard Italian catasta), banca ‘bench’ (St. It. panca), gattivo ‘bad’ (St. It. cattivo), the double consonants in doppo ‘after’ (St. It. dopo) and robba ‘stuff’ (St. It. roba), the assimilation in portallo ‘to bring it’ (St. It. portarlo), the past volse ‘(s)he wanted’ (St. It. volle) and fusti ‘you were’ (St. It. fosti), second person singular imperatives ending in -e (e.g. scende ‘get off’, as opposed to St. It. scendi), and personal pronouns with the addition of -ne, as in tene ‘you’.

Materials on Tuscan linguistic varieties in the Taylorian Collections

Materials on Tuscan linguistic varieties in the Taylorian Collections

In addition to the linguistic features mentioned above, some scholars have also claimed to have found something less predictable, and therefore potentially even more significant. In the twelfth novella, the narrator tells us that, while in a hilly area near Siena, he overheard a conversation between a man named Roncone and some other peasants, all of them grossi et materiali ‘uneducated and coarse’ (Pseudo Sermini 2012, p. 282). He then incorporates their conversation in his narration, reporting the words of these local peasants as they were uttered. Focusing on Roncone’s direct speech, Testa (1991), Franceschini (1996) and Romanini (2014) highlight the presence of the sound [d] in brigada ‘group of friends, folks’, and most notably in the participial ending of semenado ‘sown’. Modern Standard Italian, which is largely based on medieval Florentine, retains [t] in brigata and seminato. So Roncone’s words suggest that the medieval varieties spoken near Siena had been affected by voicing of intervocalic consonants to a higher degree than the varieties spoken in Florence (the term voicing is used here to refer to a phonological process fairly similar to what we find in varieties of English in which a word such as British almost sounds like Bridish). This would probably add a crucial piece of evidence to what we know about the history of Italian consonants. (On the much debated topic of voicing in Tuscany, and on its importance for Italian and Romance linguistics, see among others Weinrich 1958, Contini 1960, Maiden 1995, and Canalis 2014.) However, the reconstruction of pronunciation (i.e. oral speech) on the basis of written records is always a problematic task, whose results are inevitably exposed to various types and degrees of contradiction. In this case, moreover, the problem becomes particularly acute in the light of Marchi’s recent edition, in which brigata and seminato are both spelt with t (see Pseudo Sermini 2012, p. 289). The variants with d come from the Estense manuscript, and may be due to those northern linguistic incrustations which, together with other factors, led Marchi to favour the manuscript of the Biblioteca Marciana.

In any case, this last methodological point is only one of the many examples that confirm the potential interest of the Novelle – a treasure trove of materials that can be usefully mined by the historian of Italian culture and literature, and of Italy’s dialects alike.

Alessandro Carlucci
Postdoctoral Research Assistant
Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages


* There is also an English translation of some of the Novelle in Thomas Roscoe, The Italian novelists (4 volumes) (London: Septimus Prowett, 1825).

** The Bodleian’s Special Collections (at the Weston Library) also hold Petrucci’s zibaldone containing Latin and vernacular texts (MSS. Canoniciani italici 50; see Pertici 2011, pp. 701-703).


Angelini, Alceste (1995), ‘Saggio di lessico montalcinese’, Studi Linguistici Italiani, 21, pp. 155-194.

Bencistà, Alessandro (2012), Vocabolario del vernacolo fiorentino e toscano (Florence: Polistampa).

Borromeo, Antonio Maria (1794), Notizia de’ novellieri italiani posseduti dal conte Anton-Maria Borromeo, gentiluomo padovano, con alcune novelle inedite (Bassano: Remondini).

Cagliaritano, Ubaldo (1975), Vocabolario senese (Florence: Barbèra).

Canalis, Stefano (2014), ‘The Voicing of Intervocalic Stops in Old Tuscan and Probabilistic Sound Change’, Folia Linguistica Historica, 35, pp. 55-100.

Caruso, Carlo (forthcoming), Review of Pseudo Gentile Sermini 2012, Giornale storico della letteratura italiana.

Castellani, Arrigo (2000), Grammatica storica della lingua italiana (Bologna: Il Mulino).

Contini, Gianfranco (1960), ‘Per un’interpretazione strutturale della cosiddetta “gorgia” toscana’, Boletim de Filologia, 19, pp. 269-281.

Di Legami, Flora (2009), Le novelle di Gentile Sermini (Rome: Antenore).

Franceschini, Fabrizio (1996), ‘Tra lingua e dialetto: censura linguistica, mimesi dialettale e rappresentazioni “blasoniche” nella Toscana del XV secolo’, in La Toscana al tempo di Lorenzo il Magnifico (Pisa: Pacini), pp. 505-608.

Giannelli, Luciano (2000), Toscana (2nd edition) (Pisa: Pacini).

Maiden, Martin (1995), A Linguistic History of Italian (London: Longman).

Marchi, Monica (2010-2011), ‘Le novelle dello Pseudo-Sermini: un novelliere senese?’, Studi di grammatica italiana, 29-30, pp. 53-90.

Pertici, Petra (2011), ‘Novelle senesi in cerca d’autore: l’attribuzione ad Antonio Petrucci delle novelle conosciute sotto il nome di Gentile Sermini’, Archivio storico italiano, 169, pp. 679-706.

— (2011-2012), ‘Lo Pseudo Gentile Sermini agli Intronati’, Bullettino senese di storia patria, 118-119, pp. 487-491.

Pseudo Gentile Sermini (2012), Novelle, ed. by Monica Marchi (Pisa, ETS).

Romanini, Fabio (2014), ‘Forme brevi della prosa letteraria’, in G. Antonelli, M. Motolese and L. Tomasin (eds), Storia dell’italiano scritto, vol. 2: Prosa letteraria (Rome: Carocci), pp. 203-254.

Sermini, Gentile (1911), Novelle (Lanciano: Carabba).

— (1968), Novelle, ed. by Giuseppe Vettori (Rome: Avanzini e Torraca).

Stussi, Alfredo (1993), Lingua, dialetto e letteratura (Turin: Einaudi).

Testa, Enrico (1991), Simulazione di parlato. Fenomeni dell’oralità nelle novelle del Quattro-Cinquecento (Florence: Accademia della Crusca).

Vigo, Francesco (1874), ‘Agli amatori delle novelle italiane’, introduction to Le novelle di Gentile Sermini da Siena (Leghorn: Vigo).

Weinrich, Harald (1958), Phonologische Studien zur romanischen Sprachgeschichte (Münster: Aschendorff).






Breton oral literature at the Taylorian

We continue the Breton theme with a post by a Breton scholar, Dr Éva Guillorel, who discusses the Taylorian’s wonderful collection of material relating to Breton oral tradition.

In the last ten years, I have had the opportunity to work regularly with three of the best library collections related to Celtic studies in the world. I was based in Brest when I completed my Ph.D. on Breton ballads and their connections with the history of early modern Brittany.

Some of the work of Dr Eva Guillorel held in the Taylorian.

Then I moved to Harvard for a post-doc on the mechanisms of transformation, renewal and transmission of oral traditions in Celtic countries. After a second post-doc in Québec on a totally different topic, Oxford was my final long lasting research experience abroad before obtaining a position as Associate Professor at the University of Caen in Normandy. The Oxford project entitled ‘Song and Social Protest in Early Modern Europe: Acts of Rebellion, Performance of Memory’, funded by the British Academy and supervised by Hertford College Lecturer David Hopkin, was based on a broad geographical area that exceeded Celtic countries. However, Breton oral literature as a source for early modern history has remained at the heart of my interests; that is why the collections of the Taylor Institution Library  rapidly caught my attention. My first reaction as I went down the narrow staircase giving access to the Breton stacks for the first time, was surprise. Breton is usually considered as the fifth wheel on the wagon of Celtic studies outside Brittany: Irish, Welsh as well as Scottish Gaelic are much more studied in Celtic departments, and I was expecting a small shelf dedicated to Breton books. But when I discovered the richness of the collection and the dynamism of acquisitions, I spent much more time in that library for my research.

A particularly rich repertoire of songs has been preserved in Breton-speaking Brittany until the present day. The most fascinating among them are certainly the ancient ballads which relate local historical events – murders, infanticides, rapes and other tragic stories – that took place from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.

Gwennole Le Menn, Le vocabulaire breton du Catholicon (1499) (Skol, 2001)


They are known as gwerzioù, a name which appears in old dictionaries like the Catholicon, the oldest Breton dictionary written in 1464 by Jehan Lagadeuc (the Taylorian Library owns four printed editions of this precious dictionary), or the detailed eighteenth-century Dictionnaire de la langue bretonne by Dom Louis Le Pelletier (shown below).


These narrative songs are especially notable for the number of historical details they contain concerning names, events, beliefs or material culture, and for the quality of their oral transmission over several centuries. These songs have been preserved mostly without the support of handwritten or printed documents: contrary to close linguistic areas like French or English, there is very little evidence of written secular broadside ballads or chapbooks in Breton before the French Revolution. For those interested in learning more about gwerzioù and who are neither Breton nor French speakers, I strongly recommend Breton Ballads by Mary-Ann Constantine.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, some educated gentlemen started to get interested in what was not yet called “oral literature” and wrote down folktales, legends and songs heard from oral performance from beggars and poor craftsmen and women in the countryside. Théodore Hersart de La Villemarqué’s Barzaz-Breiz, whose first edition was published in 1839, was the first attempt to publish an anthology of such folksongs in France. The Taylorian library owns two of the successive editions of this book, including the last and most complete one in 1867. The anthology had such a success that French writer George Sand compared the “diamonds of the Barzaz-Breiz” to the Iliad and the Odyssey. It deeply influenced the whole wave of song collecting in France, although the methods of his author were criticized. A series of studies about the “controversy of Barzaz-Breiz” followed, and the Taylorian Library holds all major works on this question, mainly three Ph.D. theses completed in Brittany: the first one written by Francis Gourvil in 1960, the remarkable work by Donatien Laurent in 1989 and the more recent analysis by Nelly Blanchard in 2006 (see pictures below).

Following La Villemarqué, many folklorists continued to collect songs, tales and legends in Brittany from the nineteenth century to the present day. In  recent years, the publication of songs in Breton with translations into French has been very active, particularly in the Vannetais area (South-East of Breton-speaking Brittany) with songs collected by Yves Le Diberder, Augustin Guillevic and Jean-Mathurin Cadic or in the Trégor area (North-East of Breton-speaking Brittany) with for example the very recent 2015 publication of Constance Le Mérer’s manuscripts  (Constance  Le  Mérer ; textes et musiques présentés par Bernard Lasbleiz et Daniel Giraudon, Une collecte de chants populaires dans le pays de Lannion (Dastum 2015), a recent Taylorian acquisition.

l'enquete fortoul

L’enquête Fortoul (Rennes, 2010)

Both volumes also of L’enquête Fortoul, edited by Laurence Berthou-Bécam and Didier Bécam, give documented and detailed access to extensive  fieldwork carried out throughout Brittany in the mid-nineteenth century.




When one works on songs, one must also study legends, folktales, proverbs and other forms of Breton oral literature. The Taylorian  holds  a broad  range of books in this field, like the volumes of  François-Marie Luzel’s tales, legends and letters edited by Françoise Morvan or the Contes et légendes de Bretagne gathered by François Cadic and edited by Fañch Postic.

When I think about my research experiences in the different libraries mentioned above, I realize how different the atmosphere is in each of them. The library of the Centre de Recherche Bretonne et Celtique in Brest has certainly the most complete collection of Breton material, not only books but also exceptional written and sound archives; however it is really focused on Brittany, and the collections on other Celtic countries are poorer. The Widener Library at Harvard is a huge, fascinating place where one can walk for hours among stacks as far as one’s eyes can see: the Breton collections are remarkable, although dispersed in many places throughout the library. When I try to characterize what makes the Taylorian different, two words spring to mind. The first one is “accessibility”. In a space that is compact but freely accessible to researchers, one has access to a very large collection of books all kept in the same room, with a remarkable coherence in the contents. Working in this intimate underground place on the tables near the rolling stacks is one of the great memories I will treasure of my time in Oxford. The second word is “dynamism”, I mean the dynamism of the Celtic department and the librarian in constantly improving the collections by acquiring the best new publications. How couldn’t one be surprised and impressed to discover such good provision for a language, today spoken in Brittany by fewer than 200 000 people,  in a university library across the Channel? Oxford libraries are amazing!  Once discovered, it is certainly difficult not to direct one’s steps to the Breton collections of the Taylor Institution Library…

Dr Éva Guillorel, Université de Caen Basse-Normandie