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The Giostre and the Etruscans 14/09/2011

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c. 1910

The giostre, still played by the peasants in remote villages of the Apennines, carry on the traditions of the ‘hister’ who brought the dramatic art to Rome and who we are told recited to the sound of a pipe. The giostra players declaim in a sort of Gregorian chant in a plaintive minor key, accompanied by a pipe or little fiddle. The subjects of these giostre are sometimes Bible stories, Joseph and his brethren or the story of David, but there are also some mythical legends that I have not been able to identify. They differ from the regular miracle plays, in that I could not hear that they ever represented the gospel narrative. The words would have to be taken down on the spot, as they have neither books nor MSS., and when asked say they learnt them in the winter evenings, from the old men and women, who all knew them. The public performances of these giostre have been for the most part discontinued, but I was present at the resuscitation of one after fifty years neglect, in the Pistoiese Apennines, where it was played out of doors, at the village festas of the region. It was entirely due to the enterprise of one old peasant, who had acted in his youth and drilled the new generation. When I asked him about the written text of the plays, he said he had never seen them nor anyone else in those parts, but that they were kept at Volterra, This traditional connection of Volterra, the Etruscan capital of the district, with the giostre seemed to me strange and perhaps significant.

Giostra at Riobuio 20/07/2011

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For some days we have been asked by our mountain neighbours, ‘Are you going to the Giostra at Riobujo?’ and we are much puzzled what these jousts can be. The name is suggestive of the Middle Ages, but as giostre in Italy have never been known since the Medici revival of them in the fifteenth century, when both Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici won laurels at a tournament, and their respective poets laureate, Politian and Luca Pulci, sang their praises, the mystery remains obscure, and we must go to Riobujo to solve it.

This village with the grandiose name ‘dark river’, is a cluster of peasants’ houses near the top of a pass over the Tuscan Apennines; the dark river resolves itself into a mountain stream running deep in a wooded gorge near. If there are any remnants of the past lingering on in attenuated old age anywhere, we may be sure to find them up in the remote mountain regions; therefore, full of curiosity to see what semblance the Giostre at Riobujo bear to the chivalresque jousts, we start in a calesse, on the day of the festa, for a long drive up the pass.

The calesse is a vehicle on two wheels, with a rope net instead of a foot-board, and a wooden seat slung across on leather straps. The shafts which are merely the cart frame continued, without hinges are fastened up high to a kind of Spanish mule-saddle above the horse’s back. The capacity of a calesse for jolting may be imagined from this – it can never be described.

As we toil slowly up the ascent, winding round clefts and projections in the wooded hills, and skirting fresh valleys, we overtake several walking parties, whole families of peasants in festal dress: young men in groups of six or seven, and young women in gay kerchiefs and coral necklaces, fluttering their fans as they stroll. Now and then a group disappears from sight, plunging under the flickering shadows of the chestnut trees to take a short cut, and comes out far before us at a higher turn in the zigzag road.

We all meet together at length at Riobujo, where a great crowd is assembled. It begins to dawn on us that the Giostra is not a fight, but a drama, for in front of a row of two or three houses a rough platform is erected level with the first-floor windows. This primitive stage (which is very similar to one I have seen represented in an old engraving of an Anglo-Saxon play) is adorned at the two corners with evergreens and flags on the supporting pole, and draped along the whole length of the back with quilts! They must have made a general collection of the counterpanes of the village; there are white ones with fringe, brown home-woven quilts, and ancient green and yellow ones hung on a line as if to dry. More quilts are suspended from the stage to the ground, making a screen to the prompter who stands on a table below the stage, his head and shoulders appearing above it covered with a cowl, made of a clever conjunction of willow sticks with an old yellow shawl.

The gallery of this primitive al fresco theatre is naturally formed by stone steps and a sloping ground rising to the level of the road in front of the houses. A clean-swept aia or threshingfloor has been roofed with evergreens stretched on poles, and forms the reserved boxes to which we are with great ceremony shown. We make use of our waiting time to gain some information respecting giostre, and learn that one or the other of the neighbouring villages holds one nearly every year, giving three representations on three following feste.

The actors are all natives of the place except two from Cutigliano. The old peasant had no idea why they were called Giostre, unless because there was generally some fighting in them. ‘Ah!’ said a young man, ‘if you could have seen ours at Piteglio last year! We had the Emperor Constantine fighting forRomewith Maxentius, when he saw the cross in the air. There were the Turks in it, all as natural as life.’ What the Turks had to do withConstantineand Maxentius is a matter of conjecture, but it seems necessary for the Italians to connect the Turks with any ancient war, their idea of history being evidently bounded at its remotest era by the Crusades. There might be also a special connection of Turks with the Giostre on account of the Giostra al Saracino spoken of above, and that in its turn would seem a natural outgrowth from the Crusades.

We hear that Semiramide is to be represented, and are morally sure that the Turks will be inNineveh. Attention! The orchestra enters. Two youths embracing antique, stringed instruments pass through the audience, disappear beneath the quilts under the platform, reappear between those above, and, taking seats at the back of the stage, wipe their faces previous to performance. One has frizzy hair which compels his hat to stay curiously poised on the back of his head; he has very prominent eyes, and an expression which would be melancholy if it were not vacant. They begin a curious jig movement with a turn-turn accompaniment, by way of overture; the frizzy youth sawing away at his ‘viol-da-gamba’ like a butcher sawing a bone.

The violinist tucks a handkerchief under his chin, ostensibly to save a bright red necktie from friction, and, turning up his eyes, plays his instrument with as much energy as is compatible with the simultaneous consolation of a cigar. A sound or drums and trumpets in the distance! A shout of  ‘Eccoli!’, a rustle among the crowd; all the women who were nursing their babies comfortably on the steps are disturbed, and fourteen or sixteen performers march through the audience gleaming in coloured satin and tinsel. They disappear behind the screen, and the audience settles down in breathless expectation.

Of course there is a prologue, for is it not the ancient Roman custom? This is carried out quite in the classical way, as Terence says it should be. The prologue expounds the plot, and is spoken by a youth who is not an actor. A kind of herald enters solo; he is dressed in rose-coloured plush, slashed with green, a yellow sash and a turban of feathers, in the American Indian style. In one hand he holds a bouquet, and in the other a lady’s embroidered pocket-handkerchief!

He gives out the plot of the coming play, telling the audience in couplets, set to a curious pentatonic chant, what they shall see, each line ending with a long croon. It seems a tone come up from the remote past, and quite carries out Carl Engel’s theory of the ancient scale being pentatonic, i.e., five notes, leaving out our fourth and seventh, which gives a curious minor cadence. There are just these five minor notes, and no variation is made on them the whole time. This is the way in which the prologue is spoken. The herald, standing at the left end of the stage, croons out a couplet with an agonized expression of countenance; then the violins play a few strains while he walks the whole length of the stage smelling his flowers; he gives another distressed couplet at the extreme right, again retraces his steps, still smelling his flowers, and repeats the operation so long that it is a relief when the clown comes in and abuses him for disturbing his slumbers.

Now the drama begins in right earnest, for Ninus enters, preceded by his sword-bearer and followed by his soldiers, who according to our prophecy are Turks, for they wear the crescent! We might fancy the half-moons an emblem of Astarte or her Ninevite predecessor, were they not the adornment of turbans, and accompanied by Turkish jackets and trousers. As for Ninus, he has a red velvet cloak richly trimmed with silver tinsel, and a crown of towers (like that of ‘Italia’ on the national paper money) mounted on the top of a pink tarlatan turban.

There is a general darkness and veiny roughness about the hands of the performers, and a certain villainous expression in their features, which gaudy costumes have a knack of bringing out on honest working faces. The seams worn on a countenance by hard labour, take the appearance of sinister wrinkles when set in an incongruous costume. As there are no drop scenes the action is continuous; one set of actors disappears and the other appears between the curtains the whole time.

There is of course a rival king at war with Ninus, and the good arrangement is made that one comes forth always on the right, the other on the left, so that the audience is not confused as to which side they are listening. It certainly is a little surprising that having discovered Turks in the army of Ninus, we should also behold them in that of his rival but there they are! That glorious army is composed of two Turks and two nondescripts, who have the hats of jockeys, the frilled trousers of débardeuses at a Florentine ‘Veglione’, and some wonderful embroidered jackets suitable to the Giaour or the Corsair.

A great many scenes are taken up by the missions of ambassadors to the rival courts, each of which appears in its turn till war is declared, and the young general Almiro protests he is ready for death in the service of Ninus. In ancient history Almiro figures as Onnes.

Place aux Dames! Enter Semiramide with the general. Her costume is curiously modern; she wears a red silk skirt and Roman stays of black velvet, a silver chain large enough to adorn the Lord Mayor, while on her head is a common black straw hat with a bunch of blue and yellow flowers in it, and a black lace fall projecting from its wide brim. Till now the whole drama has been solemnly chanted to the same five weird notes with a croon at the end of each line. The feminine method of declaiming is different; she sings the same chant in a shriller key, with a shake, a quaver, or a turn ad lib. on each note!

We wonder whether the ancient Roman plays were sung to a pentatonic chant. It is known that those of the early Italian poets were recited in tone; the Semiramide of Metastasio was intended to be sung in this way. It might be a remnant of the old Saturnian canto which Micali… describes as a species of irregular iambic, without any other laws except a certain sonorous rhythm adapted to singing. The Canto Fescennino, or Fescennian song, was alternate, and still survives in the mountains in the alternate singing of the stornelli amongst the contadini. Whatever its origin, it is possible that in this rude chanting recitation we have the prototype of the Italian opera.

It is soon evident that we are not listening either to Metastasio’s mild poetical version of Semiramis, or to Rossini’s grand but wicked plot; nor yet exactly to the orthodox story given by mythologists, although it approaches nearer to this than any.

The contadini’s Semiramide is a different person altogether. She might be masculine, even cruel, but they maintain her conjugal virtue. She has a husband, and is faithful to him to the last! That husband is the young general Almiro, whose destiny she laments, and begs to be allowed to share, by going with him to the war. This affecting scene is regulated by the same etiquette which marked that of the herald; two couplets are spoken on the left, then the pair follow each other to the right of the stage, there to chant the next verse.

Then ensue several more political intrigues. The general gives orders of war to two officers; a spy hears all that passes, and informs his king, who appears to make counter-schemes on the right. The dulness of these war tactics is enlivened by the clown, who comes and volunteers his services with a sieve in his hand, saying, ‘lo per cento vaglio solo’. A comic pantomime of sifting grain gives point to this joke, the word vaglio meaning both ‘sift’, and ‘to be worth’.

‘Now we shall see the Giostra’, says the audience, and truly in the next scene fighting begins. Two armies of five men in each draw up in front of each other, the muffled drums beat, the two generals challenge in chanted couplets, of which we can only hear on one side the words, ‘dolce invito’ (‘sweet invitation’), and on the other something about ‘hopes of cutting you in pieces’ which sound rather contradictory.

The insulted king advances, still chanting his defiance in the same weird tones; the other replies in perfect rhythm. It reminds one of Homer’s heroes, who always speak good poetry when they attack their enemies. Thus singing they advance, cross swords three times, retire, and thrust at the air; this goes on over and over again, the time crescendo, till Semiramide, in a cuirass and helmet, rushes in, like Minerva on Achilles, and, pulling away her husband from the ranks, takes his place, with such effect that the enemy gives way, and the rival king humbly hands over his crown and sword to her; on which her husband, who had stood calmly in the background, comes forward to upbraid her with taking his place which shows a very manly ingratitude on his part.

In the next scene Almiro brings his captives to the king Ninus, who makes the rival king his tributary, and restores him his crown and sword. Almiro recounts his own ‘coraggio ed arte’, and his wife’s good fortune; on which Ninus makes a very original proposal to take Almiro’s wife for queen, and give him his daughter instead. The daughter stands by the throne, a tall girl in yellow and blue satin, and crown of red feathers, and does not seem at all horrified at this proposition. Great excitement ensues. Almiro cries, ‘Take my life, but not my wife’; the girl begins, ‘Padre amato’, but is told by Ninus to be silent. Almiro proving obdurate, his arms are taken, and he is banished. Several scenes are occupied by embassies to Semiramide, who refuses all overtures, and goes to seek her husband. The king flings away his royal mantle and crown, and follows her. It would take too much were we to follow all the scenes of this prolix drama. Suffice it to say, Almiro dies, or seems to die, and Semiramide weeps over him by applying her handkerchief to the outside of the lace veil. After which she abuses Ninus, telling him ‘he is more cruel than Nero’, a curiously prophetic saying from a Ninevite queen. Next she marries Ninus to gain from him the promise of a day’s supreme power, which, as soon as she has adjusted the crown on the top of her hat, she uses by ordering the guards to put Ninus to death. He falls in the midst of a torrent of entreaties, on being pointed at by two long swords. The daughter swoons, and is drawn out of sight behind the curtain, and the king awaits his burial alone.

Till now the drama, though to us comic from its incongruities, has not been at all a burlesque. This scene, however, is decidedly meant to be comic, whether it be from the Italian inherent dislike of solemnity and pain I do not know, but the effort was certainly made to take away the horror of death by making it a farce. The clown, in a blue cowl, and bearing the Italian flag instead of a black one, comes in, followed by four men in white cowls. These place Ninus on the bier, where his arms stand out on each side stiff and stark. The requiem is sung in the usual chant, the words only being original: ‘Tibi, Tibi, tavi! sei morto, perche non hai piu fiato’ (‘You are dead because you have no breath in you’).

The processions consist in turning the bier round and round till they are all giddy, and the audience bursts into a chorus of laughter. It is a curious fact that in ancientRomethe buffoon (mimic) was always a personage in the funeral processions of great persons, so perhaps this is not meant for burlesque after all. After a few more minor scenes, the daughter appears, fainting in her chair, from beneath the quilts, just as she made her exit. Waking up, she begins to abuse Semiramide; after which she makes a passionless and business-like effort to kill herself with a dagger, but the ambassador, who has been too busy with the affairs of the state all the time to do more than look at her, now rushes forward, pulls the dagger out of her hand, and gives her the pleasant alternative of marrying him instead of espousing death, which she, smiling serenely, with her arms akimbo, accepts forthwith.

This scene might have been too touching had not the clown saved the sensibilities of the audience by exclaiming, ‘L’avevo fattamia’ (‘I wanted her myself’), and, tumbling down, rolls out like a ready-made mummy. The queen ultimately finds her spouse, and, in token of welcome, gives vent to her feelings in countless shakes on her five minor tones. He tells his adventures, and she relates hers; after which she arranges the crown on his head, and places him on the vacant throne, to the detriment of Ninus’s royal mantle. The crown is some trouble to him, till he goes behind the scenes to have it adjusted with twine. The old enemy crops up again: the tributary king refuses to pay tribute, and war is again declared. Almiro goes forth with his crown on the top of his helmet, and Semiramide dons her armour. The challenge is given in pentatonic numbers, the Italian flag waves in the hands of the Ninevites’ standard-bearer, and the rhythmic battle is carried on in the same methodical manner as the last, and with the same effect. The tributary king hands his crown to Semiramide, who returns it; all his men give up their swords, and receive them again, on which they all shake hands, and the drama is over.

The clown executes a pas seul. The herald appears with bouquet and handkerchief, and speaks the epilogue, in the same manner as the prologue, only with this difference, that now he tells them what they have seen, and then he informed them what they would see. He moralizes, shaking his agonized countenance and drawling out his verses, till the clown makes an end of it by proposing a dance, and the whole dramatis personae are soon threading the mazes of the ‘Trescone’, a national Tuscan dance, in which the clown does wonders of agility, and the king’s crown has to be dispensed with, the dance consisting in much winding of the arms above the head.

So that is what the chivalresque name of Giostra is given to in these degenerate times in sunnyItaly! Yet, through all its crudities and absurdities, there is a strong reminiscent interest. One seems taken back a few hundred years in the world; the wooden stage is not only like the scaffolding at Blackfriars, round which an open-mouthed crowd listened to the ‘Merchant of Venice’ and ‘Hamlet’ in the days of Shakspeare, but is like the wooden platform which was used inRomeandEtruriabefore the great theatres, whose ruins we know so well, were built. On such a platform the plays of the Tuscan tragedian Voltumnio, mentioned by Varro, might have been acted on these very Tuscan hills. On such a stage the more ancient Atellan plays might have been performed when first introduced by the Oscans. Micali speaks of the Atellan plays as being burlesque farces, where the manners and customs are exposed with that characteristic naturalness which pleases the people. The favourite comic characters were Macco and Bucco (Maccius and Buccius), the prototypes of the modern Pulcinello and Arlecchino. There is a scenic representation of these characters acting in company with a serious performer on the walls ofPompeii. It would be interesting to know if these classic comicalities have anything to do with the buffoon who takes the tragedy out of every scene of the Giostra of Semiramide.