In Between the Lines: An Exploration of 16th and 17th Century English and Italian Poetry

The poems and images used in this exhibit can be found in the Special Collections and Rare Books Holdings at Tulane University.

One can hardly question the beauty in the versatility of poetry as a means of private and public expression – from William Shakespeare’s sonnets to ancient Tibetan monastic prayer cantations, poetry allows for the creation and embodiment of the people’s language. Poetry is often employed to explore notions of identity, religion, death, relationships, and nature. Moreover, like any other creative endeavor, poetry has the particularly fascinating ability to remain alive and serve as a window into the past, offering readers a glimpse into the world of the poem and its creator. It is no surprise then, that the poetry produced during the European Renaissance of the 16th and 17th centuries, an age of intensely vibrant humanism as well as nationalism, remains as some of the Western world’s most beloved verses.

England experienced a transformation in politics, religion, and the English arts in a way that forever changed its course of history. From Queen Elizabeth I to James I and over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries, the English government went through immense and radical changes including a civil war. In addition to the ever changing political turmoil, the role of the Catholic Church and religion in general caused a stark divide and dissent among the English as the Reformation swept across Europe and the nation. However, the country also witnessed a flourishment in the arts with the rise in popularity of literary figures such as William Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, Christopher Marlowe, and Edmund Spencer, some of which ultimately enjoyed Royal patronage under several crowns. It is within literary works produced during the English Renaissance, such as Shakespeare’s historical plays (Henry I, II, IV, etc.), that the English really began to reference themselves and English culture (nationalism). In the poem “Listen Jolly Gentlemen,” one sees a celebratory poem in honor of King James I; similarly, in “Delight in Disorder,” one senses a political allegory woven into the seemingly romantic poem, which was not uncommon as many authors and poets hid their true feelings of the monarch at the time (a majority focus on Elizabeth I, James I, and Charles I/II) through metaphors and puns that the public would have surely been able to pick up on.

During its Renaissance, Italy likewise went through an almost complete transformation in nearly every area of life: many cities formed their own governments or republics, (i.e. The Republic of Florence, The Republic of Venice); the Catholic church underwent its own reformation (the Counter-Reformation) as a response to the Protestant Reformation; cities began to experiment with their architecture (Brunelleschi’s duomo in Florence and il Duomo di Siena with its alternating color scheme); and most importantly, the quantity of ‘master’ artists and creations produced at this time is innumerable. Recognizable names, then and now, from the Italian Renaissance include artists such as Raphael, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Dante, etc.. Contrary to the English, Italian literature produced at this time often explored more humanist interests such as love, mankind, sexuality, and God. For example, Michelangelo’s poetry focuses heavily on his relationship with God as well as his struggle with his sexuality, (it is theorized that Michelangelo was homosexual due to some of his love poems as well as pieces of art being dedicated to Tommaso de’ Cavalieri). Similarly, in the Paolo Rolli poems, the speaker explores love through different aspects of nature and man.

Of course not all poetry or any literary work will fall into such categories or can even be assessed on such terms. More importantly, one must always remember that each reading will vary with its reader, but that variance is what ultimately makes it unique.

Note: The translation of poetry, especially poetry written in another language, varies with each interpretation and translator. The Italian poems in this exhibit have not been translated in their entirety.

Curated By: Daryan Rose-Havens

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