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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Unseen Beloved: Love by Hearsay in Medieval and Early Modern Italian Literature

  • Author(s): Asaro, Brittany Kay
  • Advisor(s): Ciavolella, Massimo
  • et al.

In this dissertation, I trace the development of love by hearsay both as a topos in narrative and as a point of polemic from the origins of Italian literature to the middle of the sixteenth century. I propose that the idea of love by hearsay occupies a highly significant position in Italian medieval and early modern thought, both fascinating and perplexing writers for hundreds of years. I highlight the transition of this theme from a courtly poetic motif, popularized by the Provençal troubadours, qualified by medieval Italian poets, and satirized by Giovanni Boccaccio; to a questione d'amore debated in sixteenth-century dialogues, treatises, and lectures. Italian writers were deeply divided on the subject, torn between, on one hand, cases of love by hearsay in some of the most influential works in their canon, and, on the other hand, the conflict between the notion of an "unseen beloved" and the dominant understanding of love as a reaction to a visual stimulus, supported by a long philosophical and medical tradition.

This controversy culminates in a dialogue devoted exclusively to the subject of love by hearsay, Luc'Antonio Ridolfi's Aretefila (1562). Ridolfi pits courtly ideals and scientific theories against each other through the ideologies of his two interlocutors. The outcome of the debate in this dialogue symbolizes the general victory of an academic, humanistic understanding of love over courtly erotic ideals in Italy by the mid-sixteenth century. At this point in Italian intellectual history, a kind of love that existed in great love stories but that could not be sustained scientifically could not be considered a realistic possibility. Ridolfi reinforces the division between what is poetically and realistically possible, effectively banishing love by hearsay to the literary realm, and concluding that its occurrence in the natural world would require nothing short of a miracle. The principal objective of this dissertation is to demonstrate that by tracing the development of the topos of love by hearsay throughout Italian literary history, we may analyze the displacement of courtly values by academic and humanistic scholarship as the supreme authority on eros.

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