Friday, October 3, 2008

The Long and Woven Road: Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Sheep

The Long and Woven Road:

Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Sheep

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

The interweaving threads of literature, art, history, politics, commerce, and chance form a dazzling and labyrinthine tapestry filled with an amazing array of figures and narrative strands. In studying the Renaissance, one of the most fascinating realizations is that the creative literature in Italy didn’t come anywhere near the high peak that its visual arts reached during the “High Renaissance”—let’s give it an arbitrary summit date of 1504, the year Michelangelo dismantled the tiny womblike shack that he’d been laboring in for four years and presented his David to the world. Most of the great Italian writers of the time were the philosophers, historians, and political theorists who along with the great visual artists were rediscovering the marvels of ancient Rome and Greece, and in fact none of these writers can really be called “great” at all when compared to the Italian writers of the late Middle Ages who circled around and trailed Dante.

Conversely, the English Renaissance came to a peak about a hundred years later with Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, and the dizzying William Shakespeare and for some reason didn’t have a corresponding summit in the visual arts. It’s fairly easy to isolate the literary connection between Dante (& co.) and Shakespeare (& co.): The link is Geoffrey Chaucer, who seems to have absconded with Florence’s literary fire and taken it back with him to London. But in studying who influenced whom, the threads of circumstance reveal themselves to be as dizzying as the peaks that they connect.

The Triumph of Fame, from a set of
The Triumphs of Petrarch (1502–4), Flemish
(probably Brussels), wool and silk tapestry
Great artists almost always arise in centers of economic wealth and power, and the wealth of medieval and renaissance Florence came from its woolworking methods, which were the finest in Europe. Once the Florentines carded the wool, they exported it north to cities in Flanders, where it was used to make tapestries, which were some of the most exquisite and in-demand decorative works in the Western world. The catch was that although the Florentines had developed the best woolworking techniques (and networks) of the time, the sheep in Italy produced coarse wool, and so wool had to be imported from England, whose sheep have always been one of their most famous resources. Thus complex and fluctuating trading alliances and treaties connected these three areas to each other and to all of Europe.

A portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer, c. 1410s
in Thomas Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes
Enter Geoffrey Chaucer. A budding young poet and a favorite of the English court, Chaucer became a diplomat and was granted many offices, including “Comptroller of the Custody and Subsidy of Wools, Skins, and Tanned Hides.” He was granted this office directly after a two-year diplomatic mission to Italy (1372–3), where he negotiated many of the political and economic alliances that bonded London to Genoa, Pisa, and Florence. As an insatiably curious man of about thirty, Chaucer marveled at medieval Italy and delved deeply into the literature of Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch, perhaps even befriending the latter two in Florence. Returning to England, his poetry shifted from his earlier French influences to a distinctly Italian-influenced style. While still in service of the court, he wrote many works that were considered to be masterpieces, particularly Troilus and Criseyde, but while on temporary leave (1386) and then in full retirement (1391 until his death in 1400), he worked on what became his true masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales.

An illuminated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales,
c. 1410, 
featuring a portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer
Deeply influenced by the storytelling structure and bawdy nature of Boccaccio’s Decameron, which was patterned both on Dante’s Comedy and Apuleius’ second-century Latin novel The Golden Ass (properly, The Metamorphoses), Chaucer infused the Italian influence with a wit and liveliness and vivacity of characterization whose depth of field was simply astounding. Having probably met Petrarch, he would have been familiar with Italy’s nascent interest in ancient literature, which had been brought about in part because the scholars of Constantinople had fled the invading Turks and taken their books to Italy, which hadn’t known Greek for a millennium and was eager to rediscover the wonders that had been lost to them for so long. Even Dante (who died in 1321) had never read Homer or Sophocles, and although Chaucer was never able to match Dante’s staggering greatness, his devilishly witty observations of human nature and his rich interplay of characters was unlike anything that even the ancients had produced.

He never finished his masterpiece, but after his death the fragmentary Canterbury Tales foisted Chaucer to a poetic status that England had never known. He became London’s state and world poet, as Homer had been for the Greeks, Vergil had been for Rome, and Dante was for Florence and then for all of Italy (and arguably for all of continental Europe). He was buried in a corner of Westminster Abbey in what has come to be known as Poet’s Corner, with him as “first poet,” and he remained first poet of England until, by some amazing combination of historical vicissitudes, intellectual influences, pure chance, and pure genius, a tanner’s son named William Shakespeare came along and filled his Globe theater with a world never seen before or since.

Detail from The Joust, from the Valois Tapestries
series (1560s–1570s), looking suspiciously like
William Shakespeare
In part, it was Chaucer himself who gave birth to the English Renaissance that produced Shakespeare, but there were many other midwives along the way. The Humanists of the Northern Renaissance, particularly Erasmus and Sir Thomas More, helped bring Greek thought to England, lifting the milieu that Shakespeare was born into just a little bit higher out of the Middle Ages. Then with Shakespeare’s stage thrusting him up to a peak that was surrounded by paths as elaborately woven as any tapestry made from English wool, the entire terrestrial globe was lifted even higher. What’s perhaps even more fascinating, though, is that these paths keep weaving themselves and never end. It’s only been 400 years since Shakespeare, and it’s possible that even greater peaks lay ahead.

—David Wiley

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