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Renaissance Italy

A new book on the theory of lyric poetry

Munich, 08/09/2012

Literary scholars remain fascinated by the challenge of formulating a comprehensive theory of lyric poetry. A new book traces early efforts to define the lyric in Renaissance Italy –and ponders their significance for modern emulators.

Attempts to frame a general theory of the lyric form began in Renaissance Italy –a cultural landscape that beguiled the rest of Europe. These early efforts were not very successful, but continue to influence theorists today. In their book, “Lyriktheorie(n) der italienischen Renaissance”, LMU philologists Professor Florian Mehltretter and Professor emeritus Gerhard Regn, together with Professor Bernhard Huss of Friedrich-Alexander Universität (Erlangen-Nürnberg), review the theory, or rather theories, of the lyric put forward in 16th century Italy.

As a literary genre, lyric poetry in the vernacular was an important, and widely appreciated, element of Renaissance culture in Italy.In a society increasingly dominated by courtly culture, it was a perfect vehicle for the display of literary skill, a talent much prized among the cultivated elite. Competence in the composition of verse and prose was most highly valued when it expressed itself in poesia amorosa, as witty reflections on love, together with music-making, were an integral component of convivial gatherings at court.

Say it like Petrarch
The popularity of the lyric in Italian society was closely bound up with the popularity of its greatest practitioner – Petrarch. Francesco Petrarca’s lyric poetry in Italian was of a captivating elegance, clearly structured and relatively easy to grasp.The poet soon came to epitomize the genre, and the ability to emulate his style became a matter of prestige. Annotated editions of his works were published, in which Petrarca’s vocabulary, his stock of rhetorical figures and his similes and metaphors were discussed and cataloged – as a ready inventory of devices for aspiring imitators.

The main aim of such volumes, however, was to show Petrarca’s work in the best possible light, and the commentators were seldom concerned with defining the lyric as a genre.“In order to understand how lyric poetry was conceptualized during the Italian Renaissance, we have to look beyond the Petrarchan canon,” says Mehltretter. In so doing, the authors of the new book have been able to discern the main currents in theoretical treatments of the lyric in Italy during this period –and show that none was satisfactory.

Diversity trumps unity
For the pioneers came up against a problem that continues to plague efforts to pin down the lyric as a literary category: The great diversity of its themes defies all efforts to subsume them into a unified theory.“The extent of the lyric’s field of view and the intensity of its focus were, and still are, extremely difficult to encompass within a single framework,” says Regn. And yet, there remains an – often unstated– belief in the unity of the lyrical, even though the characteristics that define its identity cannot be sharply delimited.

Nowadays, this tension is usually resolved by invoking the idea of “family resemblance”. Like the members of a family, lyrical forms and themes can be usefully compared without insisting that all must be reducible to a lowest common denominator.“Nevertheless”, Mehltretter insists, “the goal is still the same– to define an unambiguous identity for the lyric. As we have shown, modern efforts to accomplish this Sisyphean task remain indebted to the early attempts to devise a theory of the lyric during the Italian Renaissance." suwe

Lyriktheorie(n) der italienischen Renaissance
Bernhard Huss, Florian Mehltretter and Gerhard Regn
De Gruyter Verlag, 290 pages, 16. May 2012

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