Susanna Braund looks at some unexpected versions of Virgil in early modern times.
During the early modern period none of the classical epics exercised a greater influence on European literature than Virgil’s Aeneid. It was translated, imitated and reworked in Italian, Spanish, French, German, Dutch, Portuguese, English, Polish, Russian and more. The project of imitation and translation of Virgil had as one of its goals the creation of literary language in the European vernaculars and usually had a patriotic or nationalistic agenda. This nationalistic agenda involved appropriation of the original, which in turn explains why these early receptions of classical epic show little or no interest in drawing attention to the foreignness of the Latin text but sought instead to make what was foreign at once familiar and domesticated. The extreme end of domestication is, I suggest, the phenomenon of epic travesty, which is a weird form of translation and imitation.
The phenomenon of travesties of the Aeneid in the early modern period originated in Italy and spread to France and England, and later to Austria, Russia, Poland and Ukraine. Here I offer a brief comparative analysis of the domestications presented by Aeneid travesties in Italian, French and English, with a focus on the banquet scene from Aeneid 1 when Dido entertains Aeneas and the Trojans. This is because descriptions of food provide an excellent touchstone for understanding the degree of domestication, thanks to the rich potential for displacing classical material with national or even local foodstuffs. My comparative analysis of these three travesties reveals three very different domestications of the same original material.
But first, terminology. Travesty is one very particular form of parody. Both parody and travesty are dependent on the original text and usually assume the reader’s knowledge of it, but travesty closely reworks its source text, which is of high status, by retelling the story of heroes and gods in an undignified manner, while parody often works by treating a trivial subject in an elevated manner. Travesty creates a distance from its source text usually through humour, which can celebrate the original, or critique it, or both. The Aeneid, as the most prestigious text, became the prime target for travesty, and travesty thus becomes a reflection of patriotic self-confidence.
The fashion for travesty began in late Renaissance Italy. The first author of an Aeneid travesty clearly thought he was not doing anything radical or disrespectful but, rather, entertaining and popularizing. The poet Giambattista Lalli launched the trend when in 1634 he published Virgilio L’Eneide travestita. He had already published other burlesque poems, one on Domitian the fly-killer and another about syphilis, and a serious epic poem on the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. Then, realising that his talent inclined more to the humorous, he turned his attention to Virgil, producing his travesty. But he speaks of ‘translating’ (tradurre) Virgil and asserts that he has no intention of ‘debasing the grandeur of epic locution’.
In his letter to the reader prefixed to L’Eneide travestita, Lalli explains his intentions: ‘Virgil’s admirable poem had already been translated into the Tuscan [i.e. Italian] language … Given this, it seemed to me that in the case of such an eminent poem, it was wrong not to translate it in a delightful, playful style, to make the taste for it more universal, and for everyone to be able to take opportune relief when resting from serious occupations.’ We should note here Lalli’s deferential admiration for Virgil’s poem and his idea of filling a gap which will lead to a wider readership who will be drawn to the poem in their leisure time because it is entertaining. Lalli tells us that he wrote his poem quickly, in eight months, and ‘per ischerzo’, ‘for fun’. His method is to employ low and vulgar vocabulary, gibes and proverbs, all with the purpose of generating wit and laughter. Most important for me, he states that ‘…this translation of mine is not a word for word vernacularization of the poem; but it is, rather, a paraphrase of the essence of the author’s original sentiment.’ In other words, Lalli clearly conceives of his travesty as a form of free translation.
A couple of examples will capture the flavour of Lalli’s amiable version. First, the opening of the poem (with my translation):
Io canto l’arme, e ‘l bravo Capitano,
D’una Troja figliuol, che al Tebbro venne;
E per terra e per mar con tempo strano,
Fortune del gran diavolo sostenne:
Gli fe’ Giunone più d’ un sopra mano;
Portò i suoi Dei nel sacco, e gli mantenne:
I suoi fondaro, a rischio de le coste,
Roma, e fornilla poi di calde arroste.
I sing the weapons and the brave Captain,
son of a Troyllop who came to the Tiber;
by land and sea in a bizarre rhythm;
he endured the greatest devil’s trials
Juno played many a sleight of hand on him
He brought his Gods along inside a bag and kept them there:
His kin risked their ribs to found
Rome, and then supplied it with roasted chestnuts.
The tone here is essentially playful. There is a sudden descent from the elevated tone of ‘l’arme’ and ‘bravo Capitano’ in the first line, a line which itself reworks the opening of Tasso’s epic Gerusalemme liberata (1581), to the startlingly vulgar ‘una Troja’ in the second. The word ‘Troja’ certainly denotes ‘Troy’ elsewhere in Lalli, but here with the indefinite article it certainly means ‘whore’ or ‘slut’, which can nicely be rendered ‘Troyllop’ (as suggested by Joseph Sowerby Thomas at an oral presentation of this material). The bathos and specificity of the hero keeping his gods in a bag and supplying Rome with roasted chestnuts combines with casual or colloquial expressions such as ‘the devil’s trials’, ‘sleight of hand’ and ‘risked their ribs’ to render the tone amiable.
A second passage, from the banquet towards the end of Book 1, demonstrates the cheerful domestication of the Latin epic that is typical of travesty:
Mangiato a crepapancia, e tolti via
l primi cibi, ecco altre tazze appresso,
Marzapani, confetti , e malvagia,
E tartufi ben cotti arrosto, e allesso.
Un bere, un far de’ brinzi, un’ allegrìa ,
Un riso, un plauso geminato, e spesso,
Un accender de’ torchj intorno intorno,
Che già la notte avea mutata in giorno.
Having eaten their bellies full to cracking, and removed
The first courses, here more bowls come along,
Marzipans, sugared almonds, and sweet Malvasia wine,
And truffles well cooked, roasted and boiled.
Such drinking, toasting, such cheerfulness,
Such laughter, such thick twinned clapping,
Such lighting of torches all around,
Which quickly turned the night into daylight.
In travesties, banquet scenes offer potential for extreme domestication by including favourite foods of the receiving culture. Lalli’s is no exception. Besides the truffles (tartufi) ubiquitous throughout the Mediterranean, Lalli names three characteristically Italian foods: ‘marzipan’, which has particular associations with Venice; confetti, the Italian speciality of almonds coated with honey; and Malvasia wine, imported into Italy from Malta.
Lalli saw an opportunity to deliver a light-weight version of the Aeneid that had the potential to appeal to a wider audience than usual, in a domestication that involved adapting the material to his audience’s taste. In his apology for undertaking this, he declares that the Virgilian gold still shines through its new outfit of rags. This seems a fair estimate of his achievement. Most importantly for the later tradition, he characterises this project by using the image of a change of clothes, travestire: the notion that rags replace heroic gear inaugurates an emphasis on corporeality which takes off in subsequent travesties.
The first French travesty is something significantly different. Paul Scarron (1610-1660) was educated in Paris, visited Rome in 1635 and perhaps met Lalli; it is impossible that he did not come across L’Eneide Travestita, which was extremely popular then. In 1648 Scarron started publishing Le Virgile Travesty, en vers burlesques, one book at a time, and immediately created a fashion for travesty.
Scarron’s leisurely expansion of the Latin is the first striking feature; in fact, he has about four lines for every line of Virgil. For example, he opens his Book 1 with eight lines about himself and then delivers the opening 11 lines in 44 lines. An excerpt demonstrates how expansive and conversational he is (my translation, with assistance from Juliet O’Brien):
Petite muse au nez camard,
Qui m’as fait auteur goguenard,
Et qui, quoique mon mal empire,
Me fais pourtant quelquefois rire,
Dis-moi bien comment, et pourquoi,
Junon, sans honneur et sans foi,
Persécuta ce galant homme,
Sans lequel nous n’aurions pas Rome,
Ni tous ces illustres Romains
A qui nous baisons tous les mains.
Elle fit bien la furieuse
Contre personne si pieuse:
Ils se fâchent donc comme nous!
Little muse with the snub nose, who has made me into a mocking author, and who, despite my lack of self-control, still makes me laugh from time to time, tell me how and why Juno, lacking honour and faith, persecuted this gallant man, without whom we’d not have Rome, nor all these illustrious Romans whose hands we kiss. She was as a Fury towards this person so very pious: so, they get angry like we do!
Features of Scarron’s travesty include his rejection of the French alexandrine for iambic octosyllables; his reduction of Virgil’s elevated style to the familiar, even vulgar, level; anachronisms, amplifications and intrusive asides that reflect on the poet’s activity; and a notable corporeality in his treatment of Aeneas and the Trojans. This Bakhtinian element is frequently on full view. For example, he has Dido piss her chemise in distress after Aeneas has announced his departure, and then moon him after her angry speech threatening to haunt him, while Aeneas is left spitting, coughing and blowing his nose. And so it is in the banquet scene at the end of Book 1, for example:
Les beaux conviez sans soucy,
A manger faisoient des merveilles;
Chacun vuida plusieurs bouteilles,
Et branla si bien le menton
Tant sur le veau que le mouton,
Qu’il ne resta rien sur la table
Qui fût d’homme de bien mangeable ;
Si quelque os encore resta,
En levant les plats, on l’osta.
On mit sur table une bouteille;
A son aspect on s’emerveille ;
Æneas dit un chanson,
Et sans attendre en Echanson,
Lui-même emplit de vin sa coupe,
Puis à la santé de la troupe
Mit le tout dans son estomac :
Didon demanda du Tabac…
The fine guests without a care sat down to eat marvels. Each emptied many bottles, and so well wagged his chin as much on veal as on mutton that there was nothing left on the table that was eatable by man; if any bone was left it was removed along with the plates. A bottle was placed on the table which made everyone marvel. Aeneas uttered a song and without waiting for the butler himself filled his cup with wine, then with a toast to the company he put it all in his stomach. Dido asked for tobacco…
Although Scarron is more interested in the quantity of wine consumed than the types of food, he maintains the physicality typical of travesty by mentioning the chin and the stomach and, a few lines later, he has Dido throw up after smoking.
Some critics see Scarron’s travesty as harmless and as an indirect homage to Virgil, the most widely read and admired and cited poet of the age. On this view, Scarron writes out of rivalry, setting out to replace the heroic with the comic, the noble with the trivial, with the ambition of being more popular and more widely-read than the Latin original. Others disagree, appealing to criticism from Scarron’s contemporaries. For example, Cyrano de Bergerac described Scarron as an angry frog croaking at the foot of Parnassus. Was this, then, a form of sacrilege or profanation? Experts in seventeenth-century French literature see Scarron’s intention as a serious protest against pompous writing which was meant to give offence. Scarron is certainly more diminishing of Virgil’s gods and heroes than was Lalli, and he does not protest his deep respect for Virgil in the way that Lalli does. We are dealing with something qualitatively different here. He was delivering a type of literature that was anti-establishment, anti-authority and that took the side of the Moderns in the battle with the Ancients.
Scarron’s success exercised a direct influence on his English contemporary, Charles Cotton (1630-1687), who in 1664 published his travesty of Aeneid 1 and a year later his travesty of Aeneid 4. Cotton was a Cavalier now best known for his 1676 contribution to Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler. But for many decades his best-known work was Scarronides or Le Virgile Travesty, sub-titled ‘a mock poem, being the first booke of Virgill’s Eneis in English, Burlesque’. Like many other Royalists, Cotton resided in France during the Protectorate and returned to England for the Restoration. The Restoration court has been described as a carnivalesque world which saw a destabilization of divine and aristocratic authority and mythology. This suited travesty with its demystification of epic.
Cotton’s travesty was designed to appeal primarily to men like himself, classically educated Cavalier country gentlemen who would have enjoyed the transformation of the familiar Latin text. But the extreme irreverence extended its appeal beyond the target audience, thanks to its scatological and pornographic explicitness. In this it differs from its French model. Moreover, whereas Scarron often exploits the clash between the heroic and the vulgar, Cotton’s language is consistently colloquial and vulgar. This is evident from the very opening lines (1.1-6):
I Sing the man (read it who list,
A Trojan true, as ever pist)
Who from Troy Town, by wind and weather
To Italy, (and God knows whither)
Was packt, and wrackt, and lost, and tost,
And bounc’d from Pillar unto Post.
Everything here is diminished: Aeneas is just a ‘man’ and Troy just a ‘town’; ‘as ever pist’ introduces bodily functions immediately; phrases such as ‘wind and weather’ and ‘from Pillar unto Post’ are drawn from ordinary speech; and by saying ‘and God knows whither’ the author affects distance, disdain and lack of interest in his material. And bodily functions are ubiquitous: Dido belches at the banquet; Aeneas recognises Venus by ‘a certaine whiffe’ that came from her armpits; and after Dido’s suicide by hanging, her stream of urine soaks through to the floor below.
In his description of Dido’s banquet at the end of Book 1 Cotton domesticates his heroic source material wonderfully (1.1311-18):
There as she sate upon her Crupper,
She bad her Folks to bring in Supper,
And in they brought a Thundring Meal,
Great Joynts of Mutton, Pork and Veal,
Hens, Geese, and Turkies, Ducks, and Bustards,
And at the last, Fools, Flawns and Custards,
The Trojans eat, and make good Chear
Tunning themselves with Ale, and Beer.
Whatever his debt to Scarron, Cotton thoroughly Anglicizes his material here. It seems that Cotton is only interested in debasing the great through unremitting irreverence.
These three travesties, then, are very different beasts. Lalli’s L’Eneide travestita is a largely innocent domestication designed to be more entertaining than the original. Scarron’s French travesty, Le Virgile travesty, creates a clash between heroic and vulgar that was designed to critique serious literature. And Cotton’s scurrilously scatological Anglicized romp through Books 1 and 4 should be viewed in the context of the Restoration court of Charles II. The titles of the works make explicit the genealogy. Lalli sets it in motion by dressing Aeneas in new clothes: ‘travesti’. The French Scarron adopts this with his Le Virgile travesty, en vers burlesques. Cotton’s direct inspiration from the Frenchman is expressed in the title of his Scarronides: Or Le Virgile Travestie; where Scarronides means ‘son of Scarron’. This is clearly international literary traffic, but each case serves its own domestic readership distinctively and nationalistically. That is why I suggest that travesty is the ultimate domestication of epic.
Susanna Braund is Professor of Latin Poetry and its Reception at the University of British Columbia. Her book Virgil and his Translators, which she edited with Zara Martirosova Torlone, was published last year by Oxford University Press and her forthcoming volume A Cultural History of Translations of Virgil will be published by Cambridge.
Essential reading is Gérard Genette’s Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree (Lincoln, 1997). Linda Hutcheon is always worth reading: try her A Theory of Parody (New York, 1985). On Charles Cotton see V.C. Clinton-Baddeley, The Burlesque Tradition in the English Theatre After 1660 (London, 1952) and Peter Stallybrass & Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (New York, 1986). For an introduction to Paul Scarron see Frederick de Armas, Paul Scarron (New York, 1972).