In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Italian Cantari

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies and Reviews
  • Orality and Writing
  • The Canterini

Medieval Studies Italian Cantari
Maria Bendinelli Predelli
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0199


Appreciated by all strata of society on account of their entertainment, aesthetic, and cultural potential, the cantari can justifiably be defined as the “mass literature” of the Italian Middle Ages. Their themes, ranging from Carolingian and chivalric romances to classical and religious stories, retell traditional tales that represent the Italian version of a rich European narrative heritage, and are comparable in a way to the British romances, the German medieval Abenteuerromane, and the French lais. Somewhat later, however, the cantari also began to incorporate novella-type stories and to celebrate the epics of wars being fought in those days. The cantari genre is characterized by its mode of delivery, oral for the most part: the very word cantare is the infinitive form of the verb cantare (to sing) used as a noun. Like the old chansons de geste, these compositions were sung in public and were often accompanied by the sound of a viol, played by the canterino himself (the minstrel) or by a fellow musician. Popular with the burgeoning bourgeoisie of the Italian city centers, the cantari were presumably intended for a public too poor to purchase expensive books and who preferred to listen to a good story rather than read one. It was however the merchants and the notaries, people who could read and write, that pioneered the transcription of the earliest documented cantari. Although enjoying lesser status, the cantari genre was also well known to the seigneurial courts’ elites: one of the most important epic poems of the Renaissance, Luigi Pulci’s Morgante (a favourite at the court of Lorenzo de Medici), is in fact thought to be an elaborate rewriting of a popular cantare. Contrary to the opinion of critics of the 19th century, embued with the ideas of Romanticism, there is now consensus that writing and copying played a major role in the transmission of cantari, even if the practice of oral delivery still accounts for the significant mouvance (textual mobility) of the texts. The cantari were mostly written in ottave, eight-line stanzas or octaves (a strophe of eight hendecasyllables and an ABABABCC rhyme scheme), or occasionally in six-line stanzas or sestinas (with an ABABACC rhyme scheme). Despite the intense scholarly debate on the subject, a fully satisfactory and commonly accepted theory as to the origin of the octave meter is yet to be formulated. Other works were written in this metre, such as Giovanni Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato and Teseida (c. 1335–1341); and Agnolo Poliziano’s Stanze per la Giostra (c. 1475), but their obvious literary intent excludes them from the “popular” cantari genre and thus they are not included in this bibliography. Equally excluded are long poems in ottave which, beginning in the 15th century, were increasingly conceived for reading rather than reciting (as, for example, the poems by Pulci, Boiardo, Ariosto, and their imitators). The exact melody upon which the ottave were sung is unfortunately unknown: approximations of such melody or melodies might possibly be derived from Renaissance or modern musical records. Having first appeared in the mid-14th century (the earliest documented cantare was transcribed no later than 1345), the cantari genre remained popular for approximately two centuries, mostly among the less privileged classes. Inextricably associated with the cantare genre is the figure of the canterino, descendant of the old jongleur or minstrel and destined to evolve into a bona fide professional figure. The problems connected with the study of the cantari include: 1) the difficulty in text procurement since, given the oral nature of their performance, many cantari have been transmitted by way of a single and often fragmentary manuscript; 2) the variety of “subgenres”: our bibliography distinguishes between Carolingian Themes, Romances on Fairy, Arthurian, and Adventurous Themes, Classical Themes, Novella-Type Themes, Themes of Contemporaneous History, and Religious Themes, while a special section has been devoted to the cantari authored by Antonio Pucci, the only well known author of cantari; and 3) the length of many cantari, especially of the Carolingian variety: these were often extremely long poems that required several successive sessions to be completed, each cantare session covering approximately fifty or sixty stanzas in most cases. A poem like La Spagna, for example, is subdivided into forty cantos, or cantare sessions. In the language of the time every “canto” is called a cantare, the titles of the various poems being often labeled as “The Cantari of . . . (Lancillotto, Rinaldo, Aspramonte, etc.).” Apart from text editing, cantari criticism normally deals with: a) the placing of the edited cantare within the context of similar tales and the determination of the particular extant versions to which the cantare is connected; b) identifying the source or sources from which the cantare stems (very often a cantare is the versification of an Italian romance in prose, which is in turn the vernacularization of French sources); and c) establishing the chronological sequence in which the various cantari appeared in Italian lands. Much rarer are those studies that approach the cantare from an aesthetic point of view or try to establish how a given cantare relates to the values of the surrounding society. In keeping with the tradition (see Villoresi 2005, cited under Studies on Carolingian Cantari), this article employs the term cantare to indicate (1) shorter texts (two to three hundred ottave), or (2) the cantos into which the longer poems are divided, the term “poem” used for texts subdivided into tens of cantari and thousands of verses.

General Overviews

Given the variety of subjects treated by the Canterini, studies that tackle the cantare genre as a whole are rare. An excellent one is Pasquini 1995–2005, where the genre is considered within the context of “popular literature.” Levi 1914 is the first comprehensive introduction to the social setting of the genre and is still useful for the information provided about single cantari. More recently, Balduino 1984 ponders and comments on the different questions that are put forward regarding the cantare genre. Although not tackling cantari directly, Vitullo 1980 provides useful insights into the chivalric literature expressed in other forms, which can also be applied to the cantari literature. Other studies offer overviews of the various subgenres. Villoresi 2000, concerned mainly with Carolingian literature, reflects a critical shift toward the study of the material transmission of chivalric literature and the poems composed in the 15th century. Everson 2001 provides a general overview of the “romance epic” in Italy, with emphasis on the early appearance of Classical Themes. Allaire and Psaki 2014 includes a chapter that traces Arthurian motifs in Italian cantari, within the context of Arthurian literature in Italy. Limited to the Carolingian cantari, Desole 1995 presents a repertory that is useful for its general overview and survey and may serve to quickly identify the characters appearing in the selected cantari.

  • Allaire, Gloria, and F. Regina Psaki, eds. The Arthur of the Italians. Cardiff, UK: University of Wales Press, 2014.

    This book provides an overview of Arthurian literature in Italy. It replaces the only extensive book on the subject, Gardner’s La materia arturiana in Italia (New York: Octagon, 1971). First published in 1930. It includes an essay on “Arthurian Material in Italian Cantari” by Maria Bendinelli Predelli, with a list of the manuscripts that preserve Arthurian cantari. Richly detailed general bibliography at the end of the book.

  • Balduino, Armando. “Letteratura canterina.” In Boccaccio, Petrarca e altri poeti del Trecento. By Armando Balduino, 57–92. Florence: Olschki, 1984.

    A review of critical issues pertinent to the study of cantari. Of particular relevance are the observations on the relationship between the stylistic features of the cantare and its communicative situation, and the cultural profile of The Canterini. It also argues in favor of the legitimacy of reinstating within the 14th century some of the cantari which have only survived through 15th-century documents, and reiterates the opinion that the ottava predates Boccaccio.

  • Desole, Corinna. Repertorio ragionato dei personaggi citati nei principali Cantari cavallereschi italiani. Alessandria, Italy: Edizioni dell’Orso, 1995.

    A dictionary of characters appearing in Italian Carolingian cantari, their genealogical trees, and the transformations they underwent in the course of their literary life.

  • Everson, Jane E. The Italian Romance Epic in the Age of Humanism: The Matter of Italy and the World of Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198160151.001.0001

    This book focuses on the apparent paradox of a typically medieval genre gaining favor in a period strongly imbued with humanistic culture. It includes an interesting chapter on the reception of epic literature, inferred through an analysis of printed editions and book ownership (pp. 127–160). The chapter on “Prehistory of the Romance Epic” (pp. 27–51) is a useful review of Italian literary production in the Carolingian, Arthurian, and classical traditions.

  • Levi, Ezio. I cantari leggendari del popolo italiano nei secoli XIV e XV. Turin, Italy: Loescher, 1914.

    Supplement to Volume 16 of the Giornale storico della letteratura italiana. A dated but still useful introduction to the genre, it assembles historical documents concerning canterini, and provides information (manuscripts, dating, previous editions, sources and analogues, author) on the cantari the critic calls “legendary”: Bel Gherardino, Pulzella Gaia, Liombruno, Istoria di tre giovani disperati e di tre fate, La donna del Vergiù, Gibello, Gismirante, Bruto di Brettagna, Madonna Lionessa, La Regina d’Oriente, Madonna Elena, Cerbino.

  • Pasquini, Emilio. “Letteratura popolare e popolareggiante.” In Storia della letteratura italiana. Vol. 2, Il Trecento. Edited by Enrico Malato, 921–990. Rome: Salerno, 1995–2005.

    Valuable overview of the cantari literature and of its subgenres, with abundant quotations from the texts. Cantari are interpreted as a genre that mediates between the ideology and taste of the aristocracy and the emerging cultural interests of the lower social classes. The proximity of the genre to Boccaccio’s minor works (novels and poems) is also underlined.

  • Villoresi, Marco. La letteratura cavalleresca: Dai cicli medievali all’Ariosto. Rome: Carocci, 2000.

    Concise information about the cantari is placed within larger chapters devoted to the history of chivalric literature in Italy, including the Franco-Italian output and the romances in prose. The cantari are separated into those of Arthurian material (chapter 1) and those of Carolingian material (chapter 4). A chapter is dedicated to the cantari printed in the 15th century.

  • Vitullo, Juliann. The Chivalric Epic in Medieval Italy. Gainesville: Florida University Press, 1980.

    Not a book on cantari. Nevertheless, it provides useful insights into the chivalric literature expressed in other forms, which can also be applied to the cantari literature: “The [Italian] city-states [. . .] fought for independence from traditional powers such as kings, emperors, and the Church; yet, they also adopted [. . .] elements of the myths which supported these established authorities to create a version of history that validated their own political power” (p. xi).

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