Fabulous Ireland- «Ibernia Fabulosa»

Imagining Ireland in Renaissance Italy

by Eric Haywood (Author)
©2014 Monographs X, 293 Pages


According to Petrarch, the Father of the Renaissance, Ireland was almost as well known to the Italians as Italy itself. Visiting Ireland from the comfort of their armchairs, his followers thus knew for a fact that the Irish ate their fathers and slept with their mothers, were welcoming and inhospitable, and were the best and the worst of Christians, and that Ireland was home to St Patrick’s Purgatory, where you could visit the otherworld, save your soul and your business, and locate your missing relatives.
This book examines Italian descriptions of Ireland in the context of the Renaissance rediscovery of ancient culture and reinvention of geography and historiography, the fashioning of the self and the other, and travel writing. The author argues that the intellectuals of the time were more interested in ‘truth for’ than in ‘truth about’ and that they imagined Ireland differently in different circumstances, populating it with their own fantasies, so that its otherness would pose no threat to their sense of self.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Apologies and Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One
  • Chapter Two
  • Chapter Three
  • Chapter Four
  • Chapter Five
  • Chapter Six
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Apologies and Acknowledgements

As the Introduction explains, this book is about language-games, but it is also a language-game itself, as are all our spoken and written communications. The kind of game it probably resembles most is an old jigsaw puzzle, which for a very long time has lain forgotten in the attic and from which, as a result, many pieces are still missing. I hope to have assembled the pieces I was able to recover in such a way that the puzzle makes sense to my readers. However I am fully aware that the pieces could well have been assembled otherwise, with the puzzle taking on a different shape. Indeed, it is my hope that at least some of my readers will attempt to do just that, for that is how language-games are to be played. We all construct reality differently.

Nevertheless, in order to be understood, there are rules we should all obey. Yet I must confess that there are some rules I find it very difficult to learn, or relearn. That may be due to my demographic profile. I therefore prefer to stick with BC and AD, to talk about the ‘discovery’ of the ‘New World’, and to use ‘he’ when referring to a person of undefined sex (for instance, the reader). But I do so for the sake of convenience, not out of malice or prejudice. I therefore pray my readers to bear with me, especially if their profile is different from mine.

I also apologize for any other shortcomings the book may have. They are possibly the fruit of my stubbornness. They are certainly not the responsibility of the friends and colleagues who were kind enough to read the book at various stages on its way to completion: Jennifer Petrie (of what used to be known as the Italian Department at University College Dublin), Corinna Lonergan FTCD (of what is still known as the Italian Department at Trinity College Dublin), Brian Richardson (of the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Leeds) and my friend and former student Paul Finucane. I am extremely grateful to them for their assistance. Their reactions, comments and suggestions, as well as those of anonymous readers, have been invaluable. ← ix | x →

I am also very grateful to John Richmond, Professor Emeritus of Greek at UCD, and Anna Chahoud, Regius Professor of Latin at TCD, for their patient and learned assistance with translations from the Latin, which was all the more appreciated for confirming my suspicions that the humanists’ grasp of classical Latin could sometimes be as hesitant as mine. But though they assisted me, they are not to blame. Unless otherwise indicated, all the translations in the book, from the Latin as well as from the Italian, are my own. Last but not least, I would like to extend heartfelt thanks to Christabel Scaife of Peter Lang. A better editor is impossible to imagine.

The book was born in Greece, on my beloved island of Spetses, where I had the privilege of spending a full sabbatical year. It is therefore dedicated to the island and its inhabitants. Perhaps it will encourage some of my readers to visit that other fabulosa place as well.

Eric Haywood
Head of Italian Studies
University College Dublin

December 2013
← x | 1 →


Whose World?
The Need not to Know

Usually, when we say that someone or something from the distant past is modern, we mean it less as a statement of fact than as a compliment. But it is a back-handed compliment, paid out of pique. What we really mean is: is it not amazing – and annoying – that someone or something from so long ago is so much like us? The realization is unsettling. It undermines our belief in our uniqueness and in progress, on which most of us have built our view of human history. The history of mankind, or at least its historiography, should mean a history of ever greater enlightenment, since those who live today know – or can know – so much more than those who lived, say, five hundred years ago. Their understanding or their insight should therefore be so much more developed. But if that is not so and if ideas we believe are original to us turn out not to be, then are we really who and what we think we are? And who, then, are They? Are They not Different? Are They not Other?

Since that, in essence, is what this book is about – ideas about the Self, ideas about the Other, History that does not necessarily move forward, Progress that is not – there could be no better way to start than with a compliment of the sort, namely the account of a story told in the early sixteenth century that is so modern that, with great sophistication, it puts forward views regarding travel writing and encounters with or descriptions of strangers that some today would hold to be the brainchild of modern academics. It is a story told in the Novelle of the friar turned bishop Matteo Bandello (1485–1561), a latter-day Boccaccio whose work was to be almost as popular as the Decameron it sought to imitate, and it is a story which has as its protagonist the only Italian Ireland-watcher of the Renaissance actually to have visited the place. We will find out more about him in Chapter Four. His name is Francesco Chiericati (c.1480–1539). He was a bishop, ← 1 | 2 → originally from Vicenza in northern Italy, who in 1516 was sent as papal nuncio to the court of Henry VIII of England and who, the following year, took advantage of an outbreak of the plague in London to escape to Ireland and pay a visit to St Patrick’s Purgatory, on Lough Derg in what today is Co. Donegal, as he had been instructed to do by his friend and patroness Isabella d’Este, the imperious Marchioness of Mantua.

In the story it is another imperious lady, the ‘illustrious and valorous’ Lodovica Sanseverino Landriano, Countess of Pandino, who makes him give in to her wishes. The story is set on her country estate, Pandino, where Chiericati, a much-travelled gentleman, had stopped off on his way from Portugal to Rome, in order to pay his respects to his friend Alessandro Bentivoglio and to the latter’s wife, ‘the most virtuous heroine, the Lady Ippolita Sforza’, who were among the house guests of the Countess.1 Among them too was Bandello, and it is he who tells the story. It is thus presumably a true story. But truth, as we shall find out in the course of this book, is a moving target. More often than not it is fashioned according to the needs of those whose interests it is meant to serve. ‘Whatever pleases the most powerful is right’, as it says above, in the epigraph. Or in other words, might is right. And what is right is true.

In Portugal – where he had been sent by the pope, in 1521, with the charge of enlisting the support of the Portuguese to convert the Ethiopians – Chiericati had collected much information about ‘the voyages made every year on the orders of that king [of Portugal], to the islands that are in that new land, where day by day his empire grows happily’; and the Countess was eager to hear all about it. She therefore pressured Chiericati into deferring his return to Rome just a little longer, so that he could entertain the denizens of Pandino with his tidings of the ‘new’. At first Chiericati was reluctant to agree – after all, he was on urgent business for the propagation of the faith – but so insistent was the Countess and so inviting her estate, that in the end he gave in; and in order to make sure he could not change his mind and ‘would not think, that day, of leaving them’, the Countess then invited him, before beginning to recount his tales, to divest himself of his riding gear and partake of mass and luncheon with the other guests.2

Having thus been initiated into the collective rituals of the Pandineschi, Chiericati starts to talk of islands where all the men are handsome and all ← 2 | 3 → the women beautiful, even though their flesh is olive-coloured, and where, ‘be it summer or winter, both men and women always go naked’. To make the story come to life, he also showed his audience some ‘golden objects, precious stones and other beautiful things brought from those lands’, as well as ‘idols skilfully made of mosaics, which those peoples used to adore, who now for the most part have become Christian’. But ‘that which astounded us all’, Bandello remarks, ‘was that he told us of a very unusual and possibly unheard-of custom’. When a stranger comes to one of their villages, six or seven of the villagers, who are known to have the most beautiful wives, present them to the stranger so that he may choose the one he prefers and spend the night with her; and the husband of the one so chosen feels honoured and is held in great esteem by the other men, for ‘jealousy has no place among those very simple and unpolished people, nor does it ever put weapons into their hands’. So astounded are the Countess and her friends by such news that they burst out laughing – which is what they like to do the most. But seemingly the ‘unheard-of custom’ also touches a raw nerve in them, for no sooner has Chiericati recounted it than one of the other guests, Master Tommaso Castellano, in an act of unseemly discourtesy for such a civil gathering, interrupts him.3

Castellano was afraid, it would seem, that the narration might get out of hand, or that the laughter could misfire. What do they believe would happen – he therefore enquires of his companions – if Gandino from Bergamo were to arrive in those islands with his wife? Do they think he could stay the course? ‘I for my part’, he ventures, ‘am inclined to believe that if the emperor, let alone a simple stranger, were to arrive over there, Gandino would never present his wife to him, nor worry about being more appreciated than the others’. This too causes everyone to laugh; but now they are on safer ground. They laugh not because what they are told is ‘new’, but rather because it is all too familiar: ‘because the strange and suspicious nature and the jealousy of the man from Bergamo was fully known’ to them. The ground is all the safer in that the Pandineschi are able to revert to their own lexicon, in which a stranger is so by virtue not of being an outsider looking in on newness with bemusement, or being looked at with bemusement, but by virtue of his strange behaviour. Better still, they have succeeded in turning the joke on Chiericati who, man of ← 3 | 4 → the world though he is, has never, by the looks of it, heard of Bergamo, which lies a mere twenty miles up the road from Pandino, nor knows anything at all about the ‘fully known’ antics of its strangest citizen. ‘Seeing the company full of laughter’, he is thus reduced to silence and can do no more than sit and listen, while a story of a different ‘new’ is now told to him. In the Italian of the day, it should be noted, nuovo [‘new’] also means unusual, strange, bizarre.4

The story has a very simple plot. It tells of how Gandino, ‘Mr Melon without taste’, was so jealous of his pretty wife, Zanina, that he tried as hard as possible never to lose sight of her or let her be in the company of other men, but how in the end Zanina, who ‘spent all day long in her room with Petrarch, the Decameron or the [Orlando] Furioso [by Ariosto], which had just been published’, still managed to dispatch him ‘to the Kingdom of Cornwall’ – to that metaphorical place, in other words, whose very name evokes the horns [corna] that grow on the forehead of a cuckold – although she did so, it must be said, with the assistance of the most unlikely of paramours: a big fat groom turned lute master who had smelly feet and bad breath. The real purpose of the story, however, is not so much to make fun of Gandino as it is to demonize the inhabitants of Bergamo. Gandino’s real failing is less that he is a jealous husband than that he is a Bergamasco.5

The Bergamaschi represent everything the Pandineschi loathe and fear. Today Castellano’s tirade against them would unleash upon his head the righteous indignation of the guardians of political correctness. The Bergamaschi, he says,

are for the most part overly suspicious, envious, contrary, riotous, badmouthed, snoops and gossips, and always full of strange ideas, with a thousand other faults and failings, of which just one would ruin any man, even though he were full of every other goodness; so much so that if two men from Bergamo were together at a court, they might easily cause conflagration and confusion and quite turn it upside down with their extravagances, their fanciful notions and their imaginary inventions.6

It is in the name of his own and his friends’ idea of political correctness, however, that Castellano dares to be so forthright. In their view what was most correct and guaranteed like nothing else to ‘raise earth to heaven’, as Giovanni Botero, one of the major late sixteenth-century cosmographers ← 4 | 5 → (whom we shall meet in Chapter Six), was to say, was life at court – a life which, even as Francesco Chiericati mingled with the Pandineschi, the famous writer Baldassare Castiglione (1478–1529) was setting out to eulogize in what was to become his enormously successful and iconic Book of the Courtier [Libro del cortigiano]. To live the perfect life of courtiers is what the Pandineschi strove to do, for in their mind, as indeed in the mind of the ruling class of the time, it was the only life worth living. The Bergamaschi, on the other hand, ‘rarely choose to become courtiers, for they do not really have what it takes to carry out courtly duties’. Instead they prefer ‘to weal and deal’. Worse still, where life at court is built upon the expectation of strict conformity (preferably imposed by an imperious lady, as happens in The Book of the Courtier), the Bergamaschi insist on having ideas of their own. They have ‘imagination’ and ‘invention’, which could only rhyme with ‘conflagration’ and ‘confusion’. Let a Bergamasco loose, and the whole world (of the court) would be ‘turned upside down’.7

Yet though the Pandineschi loathed and feared what the Bergamaschi stood for, they also needed it, more so than anything else. The Bergamaschi were the reassuring Other which confirmed the Pandineschi in their opinion of themselves. They were the guarantee that there could be no other place worth looking for beyond the walls of courts and estates, and that curiosity could not but spell deception, only ever leading one to the Kingdom of Cornwall. It is for that reason, above all, that the Pandineschi cannot bear to listen to tales about those ‘islands that are in that new land’. Such tales, and such islands, and such newness, threaten to expose them to a dangerously subversive Other, which might truly spell the end of their illusions about the rights of the ‘noble minds’ living in the world’s ‘noblest part’, to use Botero’s words once again. That Other was all the more subversive for being like a clone of the Self. ‘Jealousy’, according to Chiericati, ‘has no place among those very simple and unpolished people’, but the lack of jealousy is precisely what the Pandineschi congratulate themselves about and use as a gauge by which to distinguish themselves from the Bergamaschi. What is more, by their own admission the Pandineschi engage in the very kind of wife-swapping which causes them to burst out laughing when they hear Chiericati calling it a ‘very unusual and possibly unheard-of custom’. ← 5 | 6 →

‘Now, you know very well’, Castellano reminds his audience at one point,

that when the ladies’ maidens, on feast or other days, are not doing anything and an honoured guest comes to the house, so as to honour and to entertain him we dance, we play an instrument, we sing, we play amusing games and we have a good time, chatting happily together of various things; and though there is no love, it is nevertheless the custom, ordinarily, for all the gallant gentlemen to be the servants of the maidens and to serve and honour them, taking one as a sister, another as a sister-in-law, yet another as a daughter, and another as an aunt or sometimes, for a joke, as a wife, and, with roles of the sort, to entertain one another and give each other favours.8

For their part, the Bergamaschi consider such behaviour unacceptable. Why, Gandino will not even allow his wife to ‘converse with strangers’ on such occasions and – believe it or not – he will complain loudly to his employer that ‘it is not right that [wives] become so intimate with strangers and with others’.9

There is much worse than that however. If Chiericati is to be believed, the inhabitants of that ‘new’ land ‘now for the most part have become Christian’ and the ‘empire’ of the king of Portugal, having converted them, is now growing ‘happily’. But if it is possible to be happy over there – a there, significantly, which is never named: for to have a name is to exist – what then about Pandino? And if the Other is so like the Self, does that mean the Self is an illusion? No wonder Chiericati had to be shut up and be initiated into the petty coterie of ‘illustrious, valorous and virtuous’ heroines and heroes of Pandino through the rituals of disrobing, attending mass and partaking of a meal. It had all been a ploy in fact. Before going back to Rome it was necessary for him to be de-briefed, for he threatened to tell fables in a spirit which could not be coutenanced (as indeed he had been in danger of doing, we shall find out in Chapter Four, in his letter to Isabella d’Este about Ireland).

Nonetheless the spirit would not be silenced, and it is a Pandinesco who actually unleashes it. Twice, at the beginning and at the end, Castellano warns his fellow inmates that ‘this world is like a pleasant cage full of numberless fools of different kinds, and very often those who are convinced they know the most are the least wise’. The warning could not be starker. Who ← 6 | 7 → can really tell – Castellano asks the other Pandineschi to ask themselves – what the world is really like? What is new and what is not? Who is on the outside of the cage laughing, and who on the inside being laughed at? Who tells the truth, and who the master narrative belongs to? To drive the point home, at the very end Castellano turns to Chiericati and says to him, with curious logic:


X, 293
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (April)
otherworld soul business geography travel writing
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. 293 pp.

Biographical notes

Eric Haywood (Author)

Eric Haywood is a senior lecturer at University College Dublin, where he is Head of Italian Studies and Director of the UCD Foundation for Italian Studies. He teaches Italian, trains teachers of Italian and lectures and researches on Renaissance and contemporary Italy. He was educated in Montreux and Lausanne, at the universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh and at the European University Institute in Florence. He is a Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Stella d’Italia.


Title: Fabulous Ireland- «Ibernia Fabulosa»
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306 pages