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main index        © Jeff Matthews      entry Apr 2012               

Giambattista Marino
(1569-1625)

If you plunge into the sea of what I know of literary criticism, you will break your neck because the water is very shallow. I am nervous around language such as this: "Giambattista Marino (1569 —1625) was an Italian poet born in Naples and held to be one of the greatest Italian poets of all time. He is considered the founder of the school of Marinism, later called Secentismo, characterised by its use of extravagant and excessive conceits, exaggerated artificiality and extensive use of antithesis." (A "conceit" in literature is a fanciful and/or bizarre figure of speech.) I am allergic to that language. If you are not, please lend me your immune system for the remainder of this article. I recently discovered that Marino, whom I had not heard of, lived almost next door, so I felt compelled to find out about him.

I have always wanted to believe that there were easy parallels in music, literature and art & architecture when we described them in terms of Age—that is we speak of Renaissance architecture, Baroque music, Romantic literature, by which we mean that those terms describe a particular discipline (1) obviously, by century, but (2) more importantly, by certain characteristics. In the same way that I can trace the Baroque music of, say, A. Scarlatti, back to the "simpler" music of very early opera in the late 1500s, or perhaps trace ornate Neapolitan Baroque architecture back to simpler forms in the Renaissance, I wanted there to be an analogous device for judging literature, something having to do with complex to simple as we regress in time. That is, our Giambattista Marino is more complex than Tasso who is more complex than Ariosto who is more complex than Boccaccio who is more complex than Petrarch who is more complex than Dante. Thus, the "extravagant and excessive conceits" of Marino might be seen as some sort of inevitable, almost Darwinian, procession moving from simple to complex. That is, I am happy to report, absolutely wrong.
(Happy because it didn't make much sense, anyway. I was trying to pile unnecessary definitions onto "change." There may be reasons for change, but one of them is not because there is an inexorable progression from, in this, case, simple to complex. It's not even true in music; modern music is not more complex than medieval music, but it is different. You could even make a case that medieval music has complexities such as an overabundance of church modes and even micro-tones that were simplified out of later music. In literature, stories get told in different ways for different reasons, but the language of Shakespeare is not more complicated than that of Chaucer, just different, and the language of Marino is not more complicated than that of Dante, just different.)
Marino was part of a Europe-wide movement which included préciosité in France, Euphuism in England and culteranismo in Spain, all going more or less at the same time (1600) and all characterized by similar flights of language fantasy in which how you say something is more important than what you say. The extravagant "Baroque" language, however, of Marino is less of a chronological development than it is a function of the "post-Council of Trent cultural politics pushed by the Vatican as an antidote to the various austerities demanded by the differing forms taken by the Protestant Reformation" (Kidder). Naples, of course, was particularly vulnerable because of the Spanish presence (1500-1700).

David Sharp has written:

Marino expanded the scope of material fit for presentation within poems and literature in general...[he] however, did not merely seek to break with tradition on a thematic level, but on a linguistic plane as well. His poetry greatly expands upon traditional notions of language and its limits; he uses refined Latinisms and conflates archaic language with popular language. As a way to display his own wit or argutezza, he created complex and ingenious metaphors and conceits in rather unprecedented combinations. Furthermore, he capitalized on his ability to astound the reader by using word play, inverted syntax and hyperbole. Indeed, the very elements he used to react against the classical, academic tradition become the basis of his own style within his own sonnets and madrigals, and further inspired the important literary movement of “Marinism” practiced by other Italian poets in the seventeenth century.

And my friend, Richard (Kidder, below), reminds me that "Marino like Lyly and Nashe and Sidney were working in a period that was making hay with the recent exhumations of the Latin and Greek rhetoricians, and they were having a good time at it."

Maybe "having a good time" is what it was all about. This, for example:

How frantic are those lovers which are carried away with the gay glistering of the fine face? The beauty whereof is parched with the summer's blaze and chipped with the winter's blast: which is of so short continuance, that it fadeth before one perceive it flourish.

John Lyly (1554-1606) certainly had a good time writing that. It is from his Euphues (1580) from which we have the term, itself, euphuism, to describe that type of prose, inflated with its own sense of wit and delight.

Giambattista Marrino has given us, in turn, Marinismo. Mirillo says

Marinismo first appeared in the last [19th] century as a label for the themes and techniques of Marino and his followers. It continues to be used synonymously with secentismo and concettismo...[and is characterized by]...Latinate inversion and displacement...Non-standard syntax of various kinds, separating nouns from their adjectives, or putting a subject after its verb...chiasmus and antithesis...Repetition of words, and echo effects...Alliteration, assonance, and consonance...[and that]...the Marinist poet never hesitated to embark on a long string of comparisons with nature, most of them couched as metaphor rather than simile because this allowed for more striking statements...Nevertheless, Marino leans heavily on both classical mythology and Christian imagery, adapting it freely to create a huge number of memorable word-pictures: gems, minerals, and precious metals...flowers...birds, fire, snow, the seasons, the sea, and, above all, sun and stars ...milk, ivory, parturition, the arts and sciences, and a variety of actions and emotions useful for personification.

Marino's best-known work is L'Adone (Adonis), which was published in Paris in 1623 and dedicated to the French king Louis XIII. It is a mythological poem dealing with the love of the goddess Venus for Prince Adonis. It is one of the longest epics in Italian literature, made up of 5123 eight-line stanzas (40,984 verses). There is little pretense to narrative unity; the whole thing is a vehicle for language virtuosity rich in hyperbole and containing rewritten passages from Dante, Tasso, and French literature and challenging the reader, among many other things, to a sophisticated game of name-that-quotation. The poem is also sensitive to the latest scientific discoveries and contains a eulogy to Galileo, certainly evidence of the time Marino spent in the company of Giambattista della Porta (1535-1615), the early Neapolitan scientist and natural philosopher.

Translations of poetry are always risky, but unless you can read the original, it's all you have. Here is part of a short poem by Marino from The Penguin Book of Italian Verse with a prose translation by George Kay.

Donna che si lava le gambe

Sovra basi d'argento in conca d'oro
io vidi due colonne alabastrine
dentro linfe odorate e cristalline
franger di perle un candido tesoro.
O (dissi) del mio mal posa e ristoro,
di Natura e d'Amor mète divine,
stabilite per ultimo confine
nel'Oceano de le dolcezze loro.

              - - - - -
Woman Washing her Legs

In a shell of silver upon golden base I saw two columns of alabaster amid perfumed and crystal currents breaking a white treasure of pearls. O (I said) resting-place and balm of my suffering, divine ends of Nature and Love, set as the utmost bounds in the ocean of their own delights.

Besides the enormous influence of his poetry among his contemporaries throughout Europe, Marino's verse was also very popular with contemporary Italian composers, including Claudio Monteverdi who set to music several of Marino's poems in his collections of madrigals.

Ages of literature, like ages of anything else, come and go. The fashion for such inflated poetry of the 1600s passed. But criticism evaluates and reevaluates, as it does, such that you now find praise (Pozzi, 1988) of Marino's poetry as "bilocal and elliptical" (come on, immune system! Hang in there for a few more seconds) reflecting the "hesitation of 17th century man between two contradictory models of the universe, the Ptolemaic and the Copernican". I think I agree with that, but maybe that's just me.

Marino had such a "good time" that he spent some time in jail in Naples. He left Naples and went to Rome, Turin and then Paris. He was admired by French literary circles and eventually returned to Naples in triumph. He died in 1625 and is entombed in the church of the Holy Apostles.


sources:
-From Marino to Marinetti: an anthology of forty Italian poets. Translated into English verse and with an introduction by Jospeh Tusiani. New York: Baroque Press, 1974.
-Kidder, Richard. Private correspondence.
-Mirollo, James V. The Poet of the Marvelous. Columbia University Press, New York, 1963.
-Pozzi, Giovani. Adone, edizione rivista, Adelphi, 1988.
-Sharp, David. "Inheriting Antiquity: Giambattista Marino’s Rime Boscherecce, Luis de Góngora’s La fábula de Polifemo y Galatea and the Baroque Literary Aesthetic" in Journal Language & Literature, CUNY.
-The Penguin Book of Italian Verse. Introduced and edited by George Kay. Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1958.




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