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).


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