Venice in Poetry – Final Report

Venice is undoubtedly a beautiful city with its renowned architectural masterpieces such as churches, bridges, basilicas, canals and so on. And beauty is also what inspired countless poets during all literary periods.
Poetry is in fact the highest expression of human imagination and has not been (and probably will never be) put aside, as shown by the notably example of ancient epic poems who survived up to this day, such as Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, or Virgilio’s Aeneid.

So, although poetry has no practical use whatsoever, mankind never stopped composing new verses or handing down old traditions to the new generations.
In this optic, we propose a way to analyze long epic poems in search of previously defined keywords that can be easily generalizable to any argument, in the form of an R script able to locate and report any occurrence of the keywords.

In this project we tried to find references of the city of Venice in two of the greatest masterpieces of Italian literature, the Commedia by Dante Alighieri (written between 1304 and 1321) and the Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (1505-1532), since they are both classical and internationally well-known poems, but also because they are metrically very different: the Commedia is composed of 100 cantos written in tercets, while the Orlando Furioso is composed of 42 cantos, each written in octaves. The final purpose of the project is to to understand how Venice and its inhabitants were perceived in the particular medium of poetry.

To obtain the complete text of the two poems we want to explore, we used, a website gathering many e-books available for free, to get the txt files.
The text is then cleaned out of the metadata, leaving only the verses and their numeration. Also, all letters are changed to their lowercase version to facilitate the exact search of words.
Once the whole poem is polished, the script searches for an occurrence of the
keywords venezia, venetiae, veneziani, viniziani, rïalto, rialto, san marco, vinegia, doge, mestre and venetia.

If one or more references are found, the script asks the user if he wants to visualize them and in the affirmative case it shows the exact location of the line in which the word is found, together with the four preceding and following verses of the poem. To search for the numeration of the exact line, in the case of the Commedia we search for the first line of text containing the words “canto” and one between “inferno”, “purgatorio” or “paradiso” in the 200 lines preceding our line. From there it suffices to take the number of lines between the line we just found and the one containing our reference to know in which line of the corresponding canto we are.
In the case of the Orlando Furioso, since every octave is numbered, in the nine lines containing the verse and the preceding and successive four, there must surely be the number of the octave we are in, or the next one. So, by going back a number of lines equivalent to the number we just found times nine (eight lines of text and one for the number) we will surely encounter a line beginning with the word “canto” that will allow us to easily detect the exact location of the reference.

Screen of the R console
Screen of the R console

Using our script we found three references of the discussed keywords in the Commedia and nine in the Orlando Furioso. Among them, we present here the two most significant ones.

In the Commedia, Inferno, Canto XXI, 7-18:

Quale ne l’arzanà de’ Viniziani
bolle l’inverno la tenace pece
a rimpalmare i legni lor non sani,
As in the arsenal of the Venetians,
all winter long a stew of sticky pitch
boils up to patch their sick and tattered ships
ché navicar non ponno – in quella vece
chi fa suo legno novo e chi ristoppa
le coste a quel che più viaggi fece;
that cannot sail (instead of voyaging,
some build new keels, some tow and tar the ribs
of hulls worn out by too much journeying;
chi ribatte da proda e chi da poppa;
altri fa remi e altri volge sarte;
chi terzeruolo e artimon rintoppa -;
some hammer at the prow, some at the stern,
and some make oars, and some braid ropes and cords;
one mends the jib, another, the mainsail);
tal, non per foco, ma per divin’arte,
bollia là giuso una pegola spessa,
che ‘nviscava la ripa d’ogne parte.
so, not by fire but by the art of God,
below there boiled a thick and tarry mass
that covered all the banks with clamminess.

Dante has reached the Fifth Bolgia, where the barattieri, i.e. those who in life misused the public money for their own purposes, are punished by in being eternally immersed in a sea of boiling pitch, with devils tormenting and pushing back inside those who tried to escape.

Illustration of the Fifth Bolgia by Gustave Doré

To describe the boiling tar, Dante utilizes a similitude with the pitch used in the arzanà, the Venetian arsenal build in 1104 and begins a description of the work of the Venetian carpenters: when in winter it is not possible to navigate, some build new boats, some close the leaks with oakum, some beat the bow and the stem, some produce new oars and shrouds and some repair the terzeruolo (the smaller sail) and the artimone (the larger one).

The other interesting reference is in the Orlando Furioso, Canto XXXVI, octave 3:

Tutti gli atti crudeli ed inumani
ch’usasse mai Tartaro o Turco o Moro,
(non già con volontà de’ Veneziani,
che sempre esempio di giustizia foro),
usaron l’empie e scelerate mani
di rei soldati, mercenari loro.
Io non dico or di tanti accesi fuochi
ch’arson le ville e i nostri ameni lochi:
What fierce Barbarian, Tartar, Moore, or Turke,
Could use more cruelty then now of late
In Latian land Venelian force did work?
Not by consent of the wise men of state,
But by the filthy nature that did lurk
In wicked hirelings, and a hidden hate;
I speak not of the dammage and defaces,
They did by fire in all our pleasant places.

Keep in mind the opus was written in Ferrara, a rival city of Venice in the time the poem was written. The chivalry of paladins and warriors is discussed, and Venice, despite being an enemy of Ferrara, is described as always having been an example of justice. All the cruel and inhuman actions perpetrated by the Venetian army are attributed by the author to the mercenaries Venice had hired. In the three successive octaves it is described a fact the author personally witnessed: once Ferrara’s army had pushed the Venetians back to their strongholds, two Ferrara’s warriors were caught and held prisoners. One of the two was also beheaded, in open disregard to the war’s laws. All these action are attributed to the Schiavoni, mercenaries of Venice and not to Venice itself.

Other results
These two poems are of course not the only ones containing references to Venice. An analysis on a larger database of poetry works could be conducted, but it exceeds the purposes of this project. Nevertheless, a Google search allowed us to get a non complete and non conclusive list of poems related to Venice, here summarized in the next image.

Timeline of some Venice-related poems

The image of the workers in Venice described by Dante is so detailed that some scholars believe he actually visited the city during his exile from Florence, although no confirmation of this fact was ever found. In any case, the meticulous depiction of the carpenters shows how the work of Venetians was perceived by Dante and his compatriots and reiterated this vision to the next readers of the Commedia, which became more and more popular as time passed.

In the Orlando Furioso, which is narrated by the eyes of a courtier of the noblest family in Ferrara, Venice appears mostly as an enemy, as long lists of battles are enumerated. There are however also references to alliances, such as the one in the last period of the War of the League of Cambrai (1513–16).
In what seems to be an attempt of political diplomacy, the author attributes the atrocities and pillages that accompanied the war to the hirelings of Venice, saying they operated without the consent of the “wise men of state”.

Almost all the other references are not so interesting, as they are used as spacial and time metaphors to refer to specific places and people. For instance, in the image of the R console above, the word vinegia is used to refer to Stefano Uros II, king of Croatia, who falsified the ancient silver coin of the Venetian Republic with an alloy of inferior value.

[1] D. Alighieri, Commedia, a cura di Giovanni Fallani, Nicola Maggi e Silvio Zennaro, Newton Compton editori, Roma, 1997.
[2] D. Alighieri, Commedia, translated by Allen Mandelbaum, 1984.
[3] Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso, a cura di Giuliano Innamorati, Feltrinelli, Milano, 1995.
[4] Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso, translated by John Harington, 1591.
[5] Collection of poems about Italy
[6] Code of the R script
[7] R Development Core Team, R: A Language and Environment for Statistical Computing, R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria, 2011. ISBN 3-900051-07-0