Folk and Popular as "National": The Invention of the Italian Unity through Poetry and Music

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Before and after the territorial unity of Italy in 1861, some scholars concentrated all their efforts on unifying the language and the culture of the country, without taking into consideration both the regional inner division and the dialects. The investigation on the studies about vernacular poetry accompanied by music testifies that there was a passage from a research phase based on the regional songs to a phase devoted to the general survey of the new state. For instance Costantino Nigra (La poesia popolare italiana, 1876) and Alessandro D’Ancona (La poesia popolare, 1879) promoted some comparisons among different dialects and languages whose unity was partially based on the Medieval strambotto in hendecasyllabic lines, sung by heart and performed by popular singers and courtesan poets during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Despite any evidence that these intellectuals traced the way of folk strambotto which, migrating from Sicily to Tuscany as the cultivated poetry of the time, became the basis of the modern Italian language of Dante and Petrarch – it is necessary to remind that the Sicilian literati engaged at the court of Friedrich II wrote some poems on the patterns provided by the French trobadours, which were firstly transcribed in Bologna and then in Tuscany, thus stimulating the work of the great Tuscan poets. In view of a self-making tradition, the ethnologists and the historians of Italian literature emphasized this paradigm and transformed it into a symbol of a common origin of the Italian people. Besides the comparative method established by D’Ancona, Ermolao Rubieri distinguished three directions in creating the popular songs: songs invented by people for people as a folk level, songs composed for people as a popular level and, finally, cultivated songs adopted by the people as another type of popular genre (Storia della poesia popolare, 1877). At the end of the 19th century other researchers, influenced by Nietzche’s and d’Annunzio’s ‘philology of history’, rejected these categories, embracing the theory of folk/popular as unwritten tradition of the present and of ancient times. Ezio Levi recognized the roots of the Italian spirit in the oral poems and legends of mountebanks and lutenists, i.e. the heritage that was seen in opposition to the elitist written tradition of the court and the church, which represented a minority (Poesia di popolo e poesia di corte nel Trecento, 1915). At the same time, the ethnomusicologist Alberto Favara collected hundreds of Sicilian folk items, refusing any comparison with other Italian lands because he was not interested in the historical reconstruction and in the contaminations among cultivated and folk songs (Il canto popolare nell’arte, 1898). From this point of view, Favara applied a synchronic method showing that there has not been any change between past and present in refernce to the spontaneous creation of folk songs.
Lingua originaleEnglish
Numero di pagine8
Stato di pubblicazionePublished - 2013


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