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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Luigi Pulci (1432–1484)

LITTLE creative work was done in Italian literature in the fifteenth century. Students loved rather to revive the ancient classics; and the Italian language came to be regarded as a tongue too plebeian for the expression of lofty conceptions. Luigi Pulci is one of the few poets of that century who held in honor the Tuscan dialect.

Pulci’s life seems to have had no importance in the political history of his times; but in literature he prepared the way for Berni and for Ariosto, and established for himself a firm position as the author of ‘Il Morgante Maggiore’ (Morgante the Giant), a burlesque epic in twenty-eight cantos. He was a warm friend of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Magnificent,—whose mother, Lucrezia Tornabuoni, he says, urged and inspired him in the composition of this work. The romances of Carlovingian chivalry had acquired at the time wonderful popularity in Italy; by which popularity Pulci was half maddened, half amused. With infinite delight he gave his mocking imagination free play; and in ‘Il Morgante Maggiore’ he turns into good-natured ridicule the combats and exploits which form the scheme of the mediæval epic.

The poem has three heroes,—Roland, Rinaldo, and Charlemagne; and a dramatis personæ of such proportions that adventures become as numerous as are the sands of the sea. Time and space are here more successfully annihilated than in these days of steam and of electricity. The journey to France from Persia or Babylon is accomplished with a speed which staggers the modern world.

‘Il Morgante Maggiore’ treats of the time when Roland, enraged by the relations which have sprung up between Charlemagne and Gano di Maganza, leaves the court of the Emperor, to which he is bound as a paladin, and journeys in foreign lands. At the outset of his trip he comes to a monastery assaulted by three giants of fabulous proportions: Roland confronts two of these and kills them; the third, Morgante, he converts to Christianity, and carries with him as a companion. Though not its principal personage, this giant, Morgante, gives his name to the epic. He and Roland proceed together; but in Persia, Roland is taken prisoner. On his liberation he becomes Sultan of Babylon, which empire he after a short time relinquishes, mastered by his old hatred of Gano, to fight whom he returns to France. Charlemagne, as soon as he learned of the flight of his dear Roland, sends in quest of him Rinaldo, Ulivieri, and Dodoni, each of whom has marvelous experiences. Ulivieri converts to Christianity a Saracen princess, Meridiana, who falls in love with him; Rinaldo wrests the throne from Charlemagne, and in deference to his advanced years, returns it to him,—forgiving, on the ground of senility, his faith in Gano. Morgante too has now set out in search of his lost Roland, taking with him a giant called Margutte. Their congenial companionship, however, is terminated by an unusual catastrophe. Margutte, after a lavish feast, falls into a heavy sleep. Morgante, for the sake of having a little sport when his companion wakes, takes off Margutte’s boots and hides them; but they are found by a monkey, who, enchanted by this new toy, amuses herself by putting them on and drawing them off. She continues this amusement so long that Margutte wakes and sees her; at which he is attacked by such violent laughter that his body bursts open. Morgante dies a less hilarious death, occasioned by the bite of a crawfish on his heel. This poem, with the disconnected paths of its heroes and its isolated events, can scarcely claim any unity of conception. The moving power of the story is, however, the malignity of Gano di Maganza; and this holds together with a slender thread the arbitrary incidents of the story, weaving them into a fascinatingly bizarre pattern. The climax of the poem is the death of Roland in the narrow valley of Roncesvalles, and the death by torture of Gano, whose infidelity Charlemagne can no longer doubt.

In the midst of extravagant buffooneries, Pulci often pauses, and by a line of finest pathos reveals himself a true poet. While ridiculing the troubadours with grotesque humor, he suddenly brightens his descriptions by a gleam of human philosophy. He is the author of a series of sonnets, of a parody on a pastoral poem written by Lorenzo de’ Medici, and also of a novel called ‘A Confession to the Holy Virgin.’ His reputation, however, lives entirely through his ‘Morgante Maggiore’; which is interesting as being the first romantic poem which Italy produced, as well as through the variety of its incident and the fascination of its style.