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The Lies of Poets:
Literature as Fiction
in the Italian Renaissance
oets lie, it is well known. Vladimir Nabokov used to say that
poetry was born when men ﬁrst lied:
Do you know how poetry started? I always think that it started
when a cave boy came running back to the cave, through the tall grass,
shouting as he ran, “Wolf, wolf,” and there was no wolf. His baboon-
like parents, great sticklers for the truth, gave him a hiding, no doubt,
but poetry had been born – the tall story had been born in the tall grass.
Many centuries earlier, Aristotle had praised Homer for teaching other
poets how to lie: “Above all, Homer has taught others the proper way of
Renaissance poets seem to have followed Homer’s path. However, their
novelty lies in that they question poetry’s truthfulness within poetry itself.
The ﬁrst poet who did so was Ludovico Ariosto, who in Canto XXXV of
his Orlando furioso, ﬁrst published in 1516, had St. John the Evangelist raise
the issue of poetry’s truthfulness. Astolfo and St. John are on the moon
to recover Orlando’s mind, which he has lost because of his mad love for
Angelica; there they ﬁnd all the things that men lose and waste on the
earth. One of these is poetry, which is unreliable because it is made of
lies. When questioned by Astolfo about the reason why poetry is there, St.
John the Evangelist explains:
1. Vladimir Nabokov, in The Listener, 22 November 1962, pp. 856–858.
2. Aristotle, Poetics, 1460a19, trans. Hamilton Fyfe, London and New York 1927,
the lies of poets
tutta al contrario l’istoria converti:
che i Greci rotti, e che Troia vittrice,
e che Penelopea fu meretrice.
Da l’altra parte odi che fama lascia
Elissa, ch’ebbe il cor tanto pudico;
che riputata viene una bagascia,
solo perché Maron non le fu amico.
Non ti maravigliar ch’io n’abbia ambascia,
e se di ciò diffusamente io dico.
Gli scrittori amo, e fo il debito mio;
ch’al vostro mondo fui scrittore anch’io.
Poets (like swans up here) are rare on earth;
I mean true poets, who deserve the name.
The will of God, perhaps, ordained this dearth;
Or princely avarice may be to blame,
Which beggars makes of those whom at their birth
The Muses have endowed with sacred ﬂame,
And Good suppresses but on Evil smiles,
And every true and noble art exiles.
But God deprives such ignoramuses
Of intellect and so bedims their sight
That art to them abomination is;
And so the sepulchre consumes them quite.
Yet, notwithstanding all iniquities,
Their reputation would be lily-white,
More fragrant it would smell than nard or myrrh,
If they in life the friends of poets were.
Aeneas not so pious, nor so strong
Achilles was, as they are famed to be;
Hector was less ferocious; and a throng
Of heroes could surpass them, but we see
Their valour and their deeds enhanced in song,
For their descendants had so lavishly
Rewarded poets for their eulogies
With gifts of villas, farm-lands, palaces.
Son, come i cigni, anco i poeti rari,
poeti che non sian del nome indegni;
sì perché il ciel degli uomini preclari
non pate mai che troppa copia regni,
sì per gran colpa dei signori avari
che lascian mendicare i sacri ingegni;
che le virtù premendo, ed esaltando
i vizi, caccian le buone arti in bando.
Credi che Dio questi ignoranti ha privi
de lo ’ntelletto, e loro offusca i lumi;
che de la poesia gli ha fatto schivi,
acciò che morte il tutto ne consumi.
Oltre che del sepolcro uscirian vivi,
ancor ch’avesser tutti i rei costumi,
pur che sapesson farsi amica Cirra,
più grato odore avrian che nardo o mirra.
Non sì pietoso Enea, né forte Achille
fu, come è fama, né sì ﬁero Ettorre;
e ne son stati e mille a mille e mille
che lor si puon con verità anteporre:
ma i donati palazzi e le gran ville
dai descendenti lor, gli ha fatto porre
in questi senza ﬁn sublimi onori
da l’onorate man degli scrittori.
Non fu sì santo né benigno Augusto
come la tuba di Virgilio suona.
L’aver avuto in poesia buon gusto
la proscrizion iniqua gli perdona.
Nessun sapria se Neron fosse ingiusto,
né sua fama saria forse men buona,
avesse avuto e terra e ciel nimici,
se gli scrittor sapea tenersi amici.
Omero Agamennòn vittorioso,
e fe’ i Troian parer vili ed inerti;
e che Penelopea ﬁda al suo sposo
dai Prochi mille oltraggi avea sofferti.
E se tu vuoi che ’l ver non ti sia ascoso,
the lies of poets
claiming a higher degree of truthfulness to his own poetry, since he
proves that he is conscious of the falsity of his own poetry.
With this intriguing game, Ariosto gives to his poetry a different status
with regard to truthfulness: it is only when poetry admits its own falsity
that it can be taken seriously. Not even the major classical epic masterpieces,
such as the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid can be taken as reliable sources
of the way things are; instead, their main value lies in the questions and
the suspicion they raise in the minds of the critical readers. History and
poetry are unequivocally separated. No problem, thus, in making St.
John the Evangelist the means to this reﬂection on poetry: Ariosto is not
discrediting John’s Gospel, but claiming that even the truth of the Gospels
should be understood on a different level rather than in the mere facts.
The same ‘game’ with poetry’s truthfulness was conceived by Teoﬁlo
Folengo in his Baldus, a macaronic poem ﬁrst published in 1517. At the
end of the poem, in book 25, Baldo, the protagonist, enters a huge gourd,
“or you may call it a pumpkin”, which is “the abode of poets, minstrels
and astrologers who invent, sing and interpret people’s dreams; they have
ﬁlled books with fables and worthless novelties”. They who made up
“so many whoppers” just to please “their masters by the parasitic art”,
emasculating and diddling them thoroughly, will be punished there
tremendously: “as many lies as they have told, so many teeth must they
lose, day after day”.
Why does Folengo, who is a poet himself, blame poets for their
falsehood? Is he denouncing their hypocrisy, thus denouncing his own
hypocrisy? Is he just teasing poetry’s pretensions to truth? Baldo is the
counter-ﬁgure of the author, and in the “pumpkin” he ﬁnds all the things
that are useless, exactly as, in Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, Astolfo found on
the moon all the things that were lost or wasted on the earth. The idea
that poets are liars implies that Folengo himself is a liar. On the other
hand, since he denounces the falsehood of poetry, he is the only one
who can be reliable. The paradox is the same we ﬁnd in Ariosto: it is
only when the poet lies, but at the same time shows that he is lying, that
poetry achieves its truthfulness. This truthfulness is, of course, not to be
4. All quotations in this paragraph are from Teoﬁlo Folengo, Baldo, trans. Ann E.
Mullaney, II, Florence 2008, p. 481.
Not so beneﬁcent Augustus was
As Virgil’s epic clarion proclaimed.
His taste in poetry must be the cause
Why his proscriptions were left uncondemned.
No one would know of Nero’s unjust laws,
Nor would he for his cruelties be famed
(Though he had been by Heaven and earth reviled)
If writers he had wooed and reconciled.
Homer makes Agamemnon win the war;
The Trojans cowardly and weak he shows.
Although the suitors so persistent are,
Penelope is faithful to her spouse.
But if for truth you are particular,
Like this, quite in reverse, the story goes:
The Greeks defeated, Troy victorious,
And chaste Penelope notorious.
Consider Dido; she, whose heart was pure,
Was faithful to Sichaeus to the end;
But she is thought by all to be a whore,
Because Vergilius was not her friend.
And do not be amazed that I deplore
The fate of writers and on them expend
So many words: I love them, and I do
But pay my debt: I was a writer too.
“Tutta al contrario l’istoria converti”: Ariosto is suggesting that poets
write what their patrons want. Intellectuals are not free speakers, but
write according to the prescriptions set by their protectors and sponsors.
Independence does not belong to the literate. Consequently, however,
Ariosto is also arguing that his own poem is not entirely true, because
it depends on his pleasing his patrons, the Este of Ferrara. Yet, while
denouncing the lack of truthfulness of the other poets, Ariosto is also
3. Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando furioso, XXXV.23–28; trans. Barbara Reynolds,
Orlando Furioso (The Frenzy of Orlando): A Romantic Epic by Ludovico Ariosto,
Harmondsworth 1977, pp. 341–343.
the lies of poets
de l’alme cose a noi celar si suole
e stassi in maestà de la natura:
ella il fece, ella il sa, ella n’ha cura.
Of arms and love the truthful ﬁctions
I come to sing in plain and simple words,
but saying nothing of the birth of thunder,
the wanderings of the moon, and the Sun’s toils,
because the secret of the lofty causes
of holy things is hidden from us, by and large,
and rests within the authority of Nature:
she made it, she knows it, she cares for it.
From the beginning Aretino shows his awareness that poetry is not
only ﬁction, but “true ﬁction”. Aretino’s poetics begins to question the
humanistic assumption of poetry’s truth by admitting the possibility that
poets can hide the most important things because these things are not
part of poetical discourse. Claiming the separation between poetry and
philosophy, Aretino goes a step further towards the idea of the autonomy
of poetry. In so doing, he does not deny poetry its truthfulness, but places
it on a different level, which does not depend on facts. Thus, with his
Marﬁsa, traditionally considered a parody rather than a continuation of
Ariosto’s poem, Aretino shows his awareness that modern poets have to
deal with the issue of poetry’s truthfulness raised by Orlando furioso.
Later, in the proem of his Orlandino, another chivalric poem, published
in 1540, Aretino himself will stress the matter:
Le eroiche pazzie, li eroichi umori,
le traditore imprese, il ladro vanto,
le menzogne de l’armi e de gli amori,
di che il mondo coglion s’inebria tanto,
i plebei gesti e i bestiali onori
9. Pietro Aretino, Marﬁsa, I.1, in idem, Poemi cavallereschi, ed. Danilo Romei,
Rome 1995, p. 48. There is no published English translation; my special thanks go to
Yulia Ryzhik for her invaluable help with the translations from Aretino in this essay.
intended literally, but on a different level, which is allegorical: “veritade
ascosa sotto bella menzogna” (“a truth hidden under a beautiful lie”) was
the meaning of literature for Dante in his Convivio.
Dante himself advised the readers of his Divina commedia that in
poetry falsity is only apparent on a superﬁcial level, but under the veil
of lies there is a deeper and more substantial truth: poetry is a “ver ch’ha
faccia di menzogna” (“truth which has the face of a lie”).
remember this verse by Dante when he deals with the idea that lies will
be understood by the readers who know how to read poetry: “A voi so
ben che non parrà menzogna, / che ’l lume del discorso avete chiaro”
(“I know that you, my sharp, clear-headed listeners, will see the shining
truth of my tale”).
Poetical truth lies in discourse rather than in matters of
fact or historical evidence: it depends on poetical construction.
Once more, lie is only apparent, but clever readers can get to the
meaning beyond the surface. Dante will be explicitly quoted later on in
the poem: “E se non che pur dubito che manche / credenza al ver c’ha
faccia di menzogna, / di più direi; ma di men dir bisogna” (“Did I not
fear to go beyond the span / of what can be believed, I would say more, /
but here the truth the face of falsehood wore”).
Ariosto advises the reader
that the more he says, the more he would appear as a liar; yet, in so doing,
he is showing his awareness of the ﬁctitious nature of poetry’s ‘truth’.
One of the ﬁrst revolutionary followers of Ariosto, Pietro Aretino, will
remark on this mixture between falsehood and truthfulness in the proem
of his Marﬁsa, a chivalric poem ﬁrst published in 1532:
D’arme e d’amor veraci ﬁzioni
vengo a cantar con semplice parole,
tacendo come in ciel nascano i tuoni,
gli error di Cinzia e ’l faticar del Sole,
perché ’l secreto de le gran cagioni
5. Dante Alighieri, Il convivio, II.1.3; trans. Christopher Ryan, The Banquet,
Stanford 1989, p. 42.
6. Dante Alighieri, La divina commedia, Inferno, XVI.124; trans. Charles Singleton,
The Divine Comedy, Princeton 1970, p. 171.
7. Ariosto, Orlando furioso, VII.2, 3–4, trans. Guido Waldman, Oxford 1974, p. 60.
8. Ariosto (as in n. 3), XXVI.22, 6–8.
the lies of poets
every poet and worthy charlatan
tells so many lies in the high style
that Truth is ashamed to open her mouth.
Because of you, you ignorant chronicler,
ﬂat broke, to boot, archbishop Turpin,
Pulci’s Morgante and Boiardo and the divine Furioso
leave us in the dust chasing after them;
because of your many prattles and fables
the great Pietro Aretino (an evangelist and prophet, no less!)
is forced to sing of Marﬁsa – and such a lie
that a monsignor would be ashamed of it.
Aretino is like an evangelist, but he is forced to lie because he needs to
follow the ﬁctional source of all romance tradition, Archbishop Turpin.
However, like Ariosto’s St. John the Evangelist, Aretino knows that his
poetry’s truthfulness does not lie in facts, but should be found at a deeper
level. Poetry is ultimately similar to religion, with the difference that it
has its own truth rather than religious truth.
His poem will succeed in delivering the truth, because it is a poem. Only
in poetry can the very form and structure of sentences be manipulated
to express signiﬁcance. Only in poetry are single words able to create an
image that changes the meaning of a harmless tale to something deeper.
Because it is a poem, it encourages readers to look for meaning and so is
ideal for conveying truth.
No surprise, therefore, when Giovan Battista Pigna, in his treatise on how
to write romances (I romanzi, 1554), proclaims that “una bugia di un buon
poeta ogni verità seppellisce” (“a lie of a good poet buries every truth”).
Poets have the licence to lie because their lies are not without truth.
Some years later, when writing his Gerusalemme liberata, Torquato Tasso will
have no doubts. Lies are always more beautiful than bare truth: “Magnanima
menzogna, quand’è il vero / sì bello che si possa a te preporre?” (“Oh noble
lie! Did ever truth presume / to claim with fairer title virtue’s throne?”).
11. Giovan Battista Pigna, I romanzi, ed. Salvatore Ritrovato, Bologna 1997, p. 27.
12. Torquato Tasso, Gerusalemme liberata, II.22, 3–4; trans. Max Wickert, The
Liberation of Jerusalem, Oxford 2009, p. 26.
de’ tempi antichi ad alta voce canto,
canto di Carlo e d’ogni paladino
le gran coglionerie di cremesino.
Sta’ cheto, ser Turpin, prete poltrone,
mentre squinterno il vangelo alla gente;
taci, di grazia, istorico ciarlone,
ch’ogni cronica tua bugiarda mente.
Mercé vostra, pedante cicalone,
ciascun poeta e ciarlatan valente
dice tante menzogne in stil altiero
che di aprir bocca si vergogna il Vero.
Per colpa tua, cronichista ignorante,
nulla tenensis, vescovo Turpino,
drieto carotte ci caccia il Morgante
et il Boiardo <e ’l> Furioso divino;
per le ciacchiere tue e fole tante
fa dir Marﬁsa al gran Pietro Aretino,
vangelista e profeta, [e] tal bugia
che un monsignor se ne vergognaria.
The heroic madnesses, the heroic tempers,
the treacherous deeds, the thieving pride,
the lies both of arms and of loves,
on which the asshole world gets drunk so much,
the plebeian acts and the bestial honors
of ancient times I sing in a loud voice,
I sing of Charlemagne and of every paladin
great bits of bullshit bedecked in crimson.
Keep quiet, sir Turpin, you idler priest,
while I ﬂing open the Gospel for the people;
shut up, for God’s sake, babbler historian,
since every chronicle of yours falsely lies.
Thanks to you, pedantic prater,
10. Pietro Aretino, Orlandino, I.1–3, in idem, Poemi cavallereschi (as in n. 10),
pp. 217–218. There is no published English translation.
Aesthetics overcomes history. Poets have a duty to follow beauty rather
than truthfulness. Whether this beauty can contain some truth, different
from what appears at ﬁrst glance, Tasso does not say; but he is clearly
building his poetics in the tradition of the previous liars, his predecessors
and fellow poets.
Whether today’s intellectuals are also liars, and whether their lies can
pave the way to new truths, is still a matter of debate. Here I would
like to suggest to all patrons that the homage they receive from poets or
intellectuals, however false it might be, can still open the road to new
truths, which go beyond the homage itself. This truth is to be found not
in the bow and the reverence to those in power, but in the feelings that
facts cannot express. As Roland Barthes wrote in 1961:
We can make literature into an assertive value – either in repletion,
by reconciling it with society’s conservative values, or in tension,
by making it the instrument of a struggle for liberation; conversely,
we can grant literature an essentially interrogative value; literature
then becomes the sign (and perhaps the only possible sign) of that
historical opacity in which we live subjectively; admirably served by
that inconclusive signifying system which, to my mind, constitutes
literature, the writer can then at one and the same time profoundly
commit his work to the world, to the world’s questions, yet suspend
the commitment precisely where doctrines, political parties, groups,
and cultures prompt him to an answer. The interrogation of literature
is then inﬁnitesimal (in relation to the world’s needs) and essential
(since it is this interrogation which constitutes it). This interrogation
is not: what is the meaning of the world? nor even perhaps: does the world
have a meaning? but only: here is the world: is there meaning in it? Literature
is then truth, but the truth of literature is at once its very impotence to
answer the world’s questions and its power to ask real questions, total
questions, whose answer is not somehow presupposed in the very
form of the question: an enterprise which no philosophy, perhaps, has
brought off and which would then belong, truly, to literature.
13. Roland Barthes, “Literature Today: Answers to a Questionnaire in Tel Quel”
, in idem, Critical Essays, trans. Richard Howard, Evanston 1972, p. 155.