Natura narrans: Landscape as Literature in Early Modern Italy
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This dissertation uncovers literary self-consciousness in the forest settings of early modern Italian narratives, which exploit the symbolic and ecological properties of forest environments to fashion meditations on various aspects of narrative composition. The first chapter presents the etymological associations between woods, words and metaphysical generation solidified by Aristotelian commentators and applies these to the selva oscura of Dante’s Commedia. A reading of the opening forest as reflective of the poem’s still unrealized potential illuminates a sequence of metaliterary settings and throws into relief a character in the forest of suicides who seems aware both of his transformation into a poetic device and of his limited role within Italian literary history. A Dantesque pastiche tinges a haunted pine forest in one of Boccaccio’s novellas that expounds a spirit of inspired opportunism synonymous with the Decameron itself. The other narrative exploitations of the forest treated in the second chapter betray Boccaccio’s understanding of the randomness and believability necessary to hold the literary work in tension between nature and artifice, city and country, safety and danger, as emblematized by that other perennial symbol for the macronarrative, the garden. The final two chapters examine the same features of the forest in later works that imagine literary composition as a far less balanced operation. The plot of Ariosto’s Orlando furioso depends on its forest settings so much that it allows the trees to narrate its most momentous episode. By fully immersing the romance in the rhythms and vulnerabilities of the forest ecologies the author reveals the complexity and, indeed, vitality of literary worlds. Eager to clear the Ariostean woods from the morally legitimate realm of narrative poetry, Tasso devises a highly organized drama in which the forest is exploited for every material, spiritual and narrative functionality that can serve the pious and conservative hermeneutics demanded by counter-Reformation academics. Despite a lexical rigor that views trees as machines, the Gerusalemme liberata still gives room to explore the pathetic, personal potential of trees, especially those that share the poet’s name. While unique to the works containing the various forests, the four studies together trace the use of a particular construction to effect metaliterary commentary and in so doing confirm the general tendencies of early modern Italian literature, especially those concerning the complication of literary communication, through the relatively unexplored subfield of setting.