John Miles Foley, Founding Editor

Performance and Text in the Italian Carolingian Tradition


The Italian chivalric-epic tradition is based primarily on medieval Carolingian lore from France. Oral and written manifestations of this tradition influenced and enriched each other across the centuries. This essay explores the dialectic between oral and written Carolingian epic in Italy. It focuses on the medieval cantari poems and on the Sicilian cunto, which was a type of oral performance that survived into the twentieth century.


Peppino Celano Audio Clip

This recording from 1962 is of Peppino Celano, one of the last cuntastorie (recorded in Palermo by Roberto Leydi, in La canzone narrativa e lo spettacolo popolare. Vol 2. Albetros, n.d.). The climaxes of the cuntu performance were the combat scenes (duels or battles) when the cuntastorie would narrate in an animated and syncopated rhythm. This technique demonstrates a beautiful confluence of narration and parlalinguistic elements in performance: The storyteller's words narrate the sequence of events, while the rhythm of his voice - accompanied by the occasional whack of his wooden sword - conveys the action. The cuntastorie's manner of recitation also suggests panting from physical exertion. This excerpt represents a common motif wherein the two superhero cousins, Orlando and Rinaldo, fight over the beautiful Angelica, but neither can (or is willing to) ultimately subdue the other. Extending slightly the excerpt quoted in the article:

Orlandu era forti e valurusu, ma per da scherma vinceva sempre 'ddu ladruni di Montalbanu che cummannava a settecennu ladruni. (My transcription of Celano's performance language, which is a Sicilian-Italian hybrid.)

Orlando was strong and valorous, but when it came to swordplay that thief of Montalbano who commanded seven-hundred thieves always won.

(Parallel syntax: Orlando was strong and valorous, but for swordplay always won that thief of Montalbano who commanded seven-hundred thieves.)

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