Litanic Verse IV


by Magdalena Maria Kubas (Volume editor)
©2018 Edited Collection 408 Pages
Series: Literary and Cultural Theory, Volume 0000


Litanic verse is based on different syntactic and rhetorical devices, such as enumeration, parallelism, anaphora, and epiphora. Its Italian variants are not to be seen as a mere convention of versification, but as a multifactorial phenomenon, which involves semantic and performative aspects as well. The variants reveal their different faces within various periods, beginning with the Duecento. This book analyzes Italian poetry up until the first decades of the twentieth century, together with certain musical pieces that are closely related to the history of literature. The monograph is the fourth of five volumes devoted to the emergence and development of litanic verse in the literature of European regions.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Litany in Italy from the Latin Middle Ages to the Present
  • Marian Litanies
  • The Saints
  • A “Litany” of Seamen
  • Part I: Around the Lauda, Hymn and Spiritual Poetry
  • 1 Confraternities of Praise
  • 1.1 The Form of Lauda
  • 2 Francis of Assisi’s Laudes creaturarum
  • 3 Litanic-Enumerative Segments in the Early Anonymous Lauda
  • 3.1 Lauda-orazione
  • 3.2 Laudario di Cortona
  • 3.3 The Holy Spirit
  • 4 Jacopone da Todi
  • 4.1 An Authored Laudario
  • 4.2 Amor-Iesù
  • 4.3 Shorter Verses
  • 5 Laudario di Santa Croce di Urbino: Rhythmical-Metrical Formulas
  • 5.1 De Dulcedine Amoris Christi
  • 5.2 The Possibility of a Phrasal Versification in the Early Lauda
  • 6 The Condemned and the Saints in the Laudario di Santa Maria della Morte
  • 6.1 The “Lauda with Litanies”
  • 6.2 Idio Soprano
  • 6.3 The Marian Lauda
  • 6.4 Conclusions
  • 7 Text and Music in the Laudario giustinianeo
  • 7.1 Textual Litanic Characters
  • 7.2 Mystical Lauda
  • 7.3 The Marian Lauda
  • 7.4 The Holy Spirit and the Saints
  • 7.5 Some Musical Aspects
  • 7.6 Music and Litany in the Laudas of Giustinian
  • 7.7 “Vergine bella”
  • 7.8 Conclusions
  • 8 Between the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries
  • 9 Laudatory and Hymnic Poetry in the Heart of the Modern Era
  • 9.1 “Sentiments grands, nobles, et humains” in Alessandro Manzoni
  • 9.2 Giosuè Carducci’s Prayer to Satan
  • 9.3 Oropa and “oropee:” The Poetry of Giovanni Camerana
  • 10 D’Annunzio’s Laudistic Experiment at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
  • 10.1 Alcyone
  • 10.2 Elettra
  • 10.3 Maia
  • 10.4 Canti della guerra latina
  • 10.5 Conclusions
  • Part II: Around the Sonnet
  • 11 The Sonnet
  • 11.1 The Subdued Religiosity of the Sicilian School
  • 12 Poetry as an Authentic Expression of Love in the Stilnovo Authors
  • 12.1 Dante’s La Vita Nuova
  • 13 Petrarch’s Litanic Connectors
  • 14 Boccaccio’s Sonnet
  • 14.1 The Early Sonnet: Conclusions
  • 15 The Cinquecento
  • 15.1 Gaspara Stampa’s Love Commendation
  • 15.2 Veronica Gambara’s Rime Leggiadre
  • 15.3 Vittoria Colonna and Her Spiritual Petrarchism
  • 16 Tommaso Campanella: Sonnet and Philosophy at the Turn of the Seventeenth Century
  • 16.1 The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries: A Conclusion
  • 17 The Nineteenth Century: A Portrait of an Epoch
  • 17.1 Self-Portraits of Sonneteers: Alfieri—Foscolo—Manzoni
  • 17.2 After the Midcentury: Mameli and Carducci
  • 18 Attributes, Portraits and Landscapes: Towards the Twentieth Century
  • 19 The Persistence of a Form
  • 19.1 Corazzini’s and Gozzano’s Sonnets
  • 19.2 Giovanni Fiorini’s Chaplet of Sonnets
  • 19.3 Conclusions
  • Part III: Around the Canzonetta and Ode
  • 20 The Seventeenth Century
  • 20.1 Chiabrera and the Beginnings of the Canzonetta
  • 21 The Poetry and Opera Metastasiana
  • 21.1 The Poetry
  • 21.2 The Melodrama
  • 21.3 Singing in the Eighteenth Century: Words and Music in the Da Capo Aria
  • 21.4 Metastasio’s Profane Arietta
  • 21.5 Betulia Liberata
  • 21.6 The Azione Sacra
  • 21.7 Mozart’s La Betulia Liberata
  • 21.8 Conclusions
  • 22 Towards the Risorgimento
  • 22.1 Formal and Thematic Models at the Beginning of the Century
  • 22.2 Poets of the Risorgimento
  • 23 Recalling the Ancient Glories: Giosuè Carducci’s Odi barbare
  • 23.1 Invocative and Iterative Patterns
  • 23.2 Conclusions
  • Part IV: Around the Twentieth-Century Experimentations
  • 24 The Early Years
  • 24.1 Aldo Palazzeschi’s Repetitive Modules
  • 24.2 Corrado Govoni’s Low-Register Litanies
  • 25 Marinetti’s Litanic Layout
  • 26 The Profane and Sacrum of Giuseppe Ungaretti
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Subjects
  • Index of Names
  • Series index

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I would like to express my sincere thanks to Prof. Witold Sadowski, the leader of the research group “Litanic Verse in the Culture of the European Regions.” An excellent academic atmosphere has been created at the University of Warsaw during my collaboration on the project. My thanks go also to a highly co-operative administrative staff, who helped my tenure and supported my research.

My work would have remained incomplete, if I had not been able to spend time in a great number of Italian libraries, which make available to scholars their precious collections. I am grateful to the staffs of university, national, municipal, diocesan, conservatory, and art-school libraries in Bologna, Milan, Rome, Florence, Siena, Modena, Pordenone, Udine, and Trieste. I am also grateful to friends from the University for Foreigners of Siena.

I would like to express my gratitude to my mother Lucyna Kubas, together with Krystyna and Andrzej, my sister, and brother. Their presence and support are always important for me. Sincere thanks to my mother-in-law Savina Capuzzello, for having found for me old family books of prayer.

I am deeply grateful to my wonderful husband Francesco Galofaro, for both words of encouragement to go ahead and the intellectual stimulus—he is the most important source of inspiration to me.

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The purpose of the present monograph is to present a study of the influence of litanies on poetry written in the Apennine Peninsula from the thirteenth to the twentieth century. The litany, as a form of discourse characterized by specific qualities expressed through certain devices related to metrical, rhetorical, and semantic aspects of texts, manifests a long-term contaminating potential when it comes into contact with several genres of Italian poetry. In the present monograph, we analyze a relevant part of a very rich lyric tradition—an abundant heritage that requires a selection of material to be discussed, which is related to lyric poetry, especially to forms which are generally short. Naturally, the meaning and the limits of the “short” poetic forms would require further definition, but this is not the purpose of our study. We have not included in the present monograph narrative poetry, even if certain epic poems, especially medieval ones, take up in an interesting way some qualities and techniques from the canonical litanies.

We have selected poems composed in different epochs, so as to cover the entire period that starts with the poetry written in Italian vernaculars and ends in the 1930s. The next step was to choose the genres within which the litany exerted an influence in a particular way—this does not exclude wider studies on interactions between litanies and poetry—including, in this book, the lauda, the sonnet, and the canzonetta—ode. “Formal marks”—those discussed by Karl Viëtor1—related to litanic contaminations are created in the genres that receive different litanic elements. Now, among the forms which are here discussed the sonnet is the most successful in a general perspective, while both the lauda and canzonetta—ode present periods of arising, development, and stagnation. Against this background litanies left their traces. The purpose of our selection was also to convey the idea that certain genres together with the litanic traits they incorporate are current in the history of literature under certain circumstances. As will be clearly observable for the lauda, both the function and importance of this form can evolve or can become outworn in a literary system. Initially, the lauda accepts the highest number of litanic formal marks. This can be determined by a common field of interest, thanks to which topics and semantic elements permeate a different form with a certain facility. The second shared factor in this case is the musical-performative character of both the litany and ← 15 | 16 → the lauda. This particular component is absent in the sonnet,2 and only partially present in the canzonetta, for which the performance is relevant in the early stage and when it is used in the writing of religious arias. The collective character of litanic prayer and laudistic recitation is not a quality of the other genres that are here discussed.

The aforementioned formal marks are first accepted within the contaminated genre. Secondly, they can become “infectious” and spread to other genres, or fall out of poetic use. The latter phenomenon applies, for example, to the metrical characteristics of the mystical lauda. The influence on this sub-genre is evident in the early centuries of Italian poetry, but when the innovative character of the lauda weakens, the litanic mark on versification is not transferred to other forms influenced by the lauda. While the metrical mark disappears, the rhetorical components associated with litanies do spread to other forms, such as the sonnet and, later, the canzonetta—ode.

Analyzing the sonnet, we distinguish the elements that come directly from both litanies and liturgical prayers. The sonnet accepts in a stable way only rhetorical devices which can be associated with litanies. Praising invocation and antonomasia are the most important points of contact. These elements survive through the centuries; they are present in different thematic areas, as in modern times the sonnet widens its field of interests and linguistic register. The contaminating components, mostly of a rhetorical nature, may give rise to richer ornaments, which manifest only a remote link with original litanic figures. Then we also observe the impact of the anaphoric-enumerative techniques, even if this factor does not create uniform patterns of stresses as occurred to some extent in the lauda.

The third part of our study is devoted to the canzonetta—ode, the “youngest” genre which enters aulic poetry. Here the situation is more complex, because of the initial character of the genre, which is interested in love praising, like the traditional sonnet. At the same time, both in religious and in secular types (love canzonetta and civil ode) we observe the influence of the spiritual lauda and litanic (together with other, non-litanic) prayers. A stratification of formal marks is here observable. In this perspective rhetorical devices, related to litany, are ← 16 | 17 → mostly associated with the secular canzonetta—ode, while semantic and lexical components tend to accompany the sacred topics. In the early canzonetta we observe an interest in the polyonymic quality of litanies, which in other genres and periods would hardly be found. This trait distinguishes the genre and demonstrates the autonomy of its litanic connections. In the love canzonetta, the semantics of praise is directly associated with a litanic origin. The link is established through either direct references, or a semantic memory of litany, lauda, and love sonnet. Once more, in the religious arietta, litany and canzonetta—ode find an area of common interest.

We conclude the present monograph with a shorter chapter dedicated to poetic experimentations at the turn of the twentieth century. The period which is here examined extends for about three decades. On the one hand, we observe an increasing interest in rhetorical-litanic devices; on the other, the sacralizing character of these references increasingly belongs to the past. Instead, litanies become an object and a stimulus for original artistic innovations, which go beyond what is traditionally considered as poetry. Especially, in the field of visual poetry these works—which involve fresh litanic references—would strongly influence further poetic experimentation.

The last question that is touched on in our study is the link between poetry and music. As litanies are a form which is recited or sung, under certain circumstances, we consider musical aspects of the lyric genres that are here discussed. The lauda and the canzonetta—which gives shape to eighteenth-century arias—are two forms which have only a poetic or both a poetic and a musical side. As our study concerns the poetry, we will provide only short analyses of the impact of the musical component on litanic characteristics, which we first distinguish in the poems. The music can either support or ignore litanic marks, which happens in the examples that we have selected to represent both lauda and canzonetta. In fact, musical repetition can very well emphasize certain rhetorical figures, for example, the anaphora. We are convinced—though this is not the object of our study—that music may express litanic characteristics even when the text lacks them entirely.

We hope that the present work will encourage further studies on the link between litanies and other forms of discourse and arts.

1 Karl Viëtor, “L’histoire des genres littéraires,” in Théorie des genres (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1986), 9–35.

2 The debate about whether the sonnet, at an early stage, could have been a musical genre has not been settled among Italian scholars. If there was musical performance, it seems sure that the early sonneteers did not write the melodies by themselves. The task of composing music might have been committed to others. A recent recapitulation with new hypotheses can be read in the chapter “Osservazioni sulla metrica de Siciliani e dei Siculo-toscani,” in ed. Pietro G. Beltrami, L’esperienza del verso. Scritti di metrica italiana (Bologna: il Mulino, 2015; ebook ed.).

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Litany in Italy from the Latin Middle Ages to the Present

Litany presents several fields of reference in Italian language and culture. In its context, there is a medieval document from Venice in which celebrations with litanies are mentioned in a will.3 In a fourteenth-century conventual document from Lucca a “major litany,” recited for the feast of Mark, is recalled.4 We remark that spoken Italian does not treat the word “litany” favorably. Commonly the litany is deemed to be a long and monotonous listing of things.5 A dialect word, “santore” (from the Latin sanctorum), has a similar meaning.6 It is also defined as a long string of words.7 In the nineteenth-century dialect of Romagna the litany denotes a protracted reproach.8 Even if the present monograph does not discuss this linguistic use, the fact in some way draws our attention to certain characteristics of the genre. The study that underlies this book is interested in contacts and contaminations between litanies and various genres of Italian poetry. A short overview of litanic prayers which were in use in the Apennine Peninsula seems useful as a preliminary introduction. It can also be useful for other reasons. On the one hand, early litanic contamination seems to be related to the performative character of all the genres in close contact with the litany; on the other, the Apennine Peninsula is one of the places of origin of Marian litanies.

The main character of litanic prayer in the Apennine Peninsula is its relation to the procession, as it is acknowledged for that part of the Middle Ages, in which Latin was the main language of intellectual exchange and religious life.9 ← 19 | 20 → This factor applies also to pre-Christian celebrations, which are gradually transformed into litanies. The word “litania,” and older “letana” (a Tuscan variant), for a long time were synonyms of the procession. In the late Middle Ages, in Dante’s Inferno we find a mention of the slow progress of a group of condemned souls:

In medieval Europe, in cultures of the Romania, processions with litanies and acclamations were often organized to pray in the advent of natural disasters and other emergencies.11 This is also the purpose of the Marian litany which follows, as Alessio Persic asserts.12 This main function, which was supplication and prayer for deliverance, lasted throughout the Middle Ages.

The second trait that is worth noting is the place of litanies in the history of the liturgy. As Mario Righetti argues, litanies, as a collective, simple, and popular form of prayer, were part of the final part of early liturgies for catechumens, together with sequences of requests and deprecations.13 Also, the popular character of litanies is worth emphasizing. The formula of Kyrie eleison is associated with all litanic chant in the Middle Ages. It can be put this way:

Nell’alto medio evo il canto del Kyrie restò sempre assai popolare, perché era la risposta preferita alla litania delle processioni stazionali e penitenziali.14 ← 20 | 21 →

Benedict of Nursia defines these invocations as litanic supplications.15 Recalling this and similar facts both Righetti and Canziani address what we consider shorter, pre-litanic forms, which would build up, later, more complex litanies. We agree with Armando Cuva, who argues that the term “litany” in the history of liturgy is used in a very general way.16 In several important studies published during the second half of the twentieth century two medieval litanies were distinguished, the Litany of the Saints, which was known in Canterbury in the eighth century, and Marian litanies, or the Litanies of Venice and Aquileia (associated with Italy) and the Litany of Loreto, with attestations in Italy and France, both starting from the twelfth century.17 To the traits that have been already mentioned, like the performative and collective character of popular prayer, we have to add the extraordinary dissemination of this form in all its shapes and stages of development. Acclamatory formulas, which are part of litanies, are one of the reasons for this success. Because in the early confraternal processions, acclamations and responsorial prayers were in use, it is possible to associate these techniques, which are shared by litanies and laudas with the earliest stage of development of the lauda. From the lauda, and also independently, litanic elements could permeate other genres of poetry: this is the object of study which precedes the present monograph. The relevant fact is the presence of the aforementioned links at an ancient stage during which the early literary tradition of Italy was being formed.

Marian Litanies

A heterogeneous factor, which does not concern the Litanies of the Saints, made Marian litanies, at least in their Apennine version, poetically rich and important for the influence of this genre on literature. The Latin translation of the Akathist Hymn, which was made before 810 by Christopher I Damiata, a bishop ← 21 | 22 → of Olivolo,18 was an impulse for the rich development of Marian semantics in that area. As Alessio Persic argues, the same cleric included the hymn in the liturgies of the churches of the Venice Lagoon and the Ecclesiae Aquileiensis. One thousand years later, in 1820, in Saint Mark’s Basilica and in town processions, the faithful still recited a particular version of the Marian litany, directly related to the aforementioned akathist.19 What are the differences between the most well known Litany of Loreto and the Litanies of Venice (Aquileia)?20 In the second ones, the invocation “Sancta Maria” precedes each phrase describing the Holy Virgin. Then, the Litanies of Venice present longer sequences of Marian attributes, which provide a lyric touch going beyond the Marian devotion based only on the worship of the Mother of God (Theotokos, or Deipara), which had developed during the Middle Ages. Both traditionally known and less common expressions compare the Virgin Mary to flowers, stars, light, the moon, an empress and queen, a ladder and door to heaven, etc. We shall cite a few invocations from two Latin versions of the Litany of Venice.21 In the earlier versions, we have phrases such as “Sancta Maria, virgo dulcissima,” “fons dulcedinis,” “consilium caelestis arcani,” “stella caeli clarissima,” “preclarior luna,” “caelestis margarita,” or “oliva uber<rim>a.”22 The second text, from the first half of the fourteenth century, contains invocations such as “Sancta Maria, pulcritudo angelorum et dyadema sanctorum,” “porta paradisi,” and “ianua filii Dei.” A short sequence follows invocations without the formula: “Tu gloria Ierusalem” and “Tu exltacio tocius mundi.”23 In this latter version a further prayer, which recalls the ektenial part of the Litany of the Saints, is included as well.24 According to Persic, from this stock the modern litany of the Servants of Mary is drawn. Unlike the Litany ← 22 | 23 → of Loreto, it preserves the formula “Saint Mary” and rich Marian descriptions of light, flowers, and precious stones.

The Litanies of Venice must have spread beyond the Lagoon, perhaps together with the translation of the Akathist Hymn, as in the early, vernacular poetry of the Apennine Peninsula, references to the kinds of ornaments typical of these prayers, or in some cases even possible traces of contact, perhaps indirect, can be found.25 A second interesting version of Marian litanies was registered in the late nineteenth century. It is a fourteenth-century Tuscan codex containing a vernacular Marian litany,26 which derives from the aforementioned tradition. Following the remark of Giovanni Giannini, the text is placed among other, Latin prayers. We note that the Latin, present within the litany, accompanies the prevailing Tuscan. While the invocations to the Virgin are in the vernacular, the deprecatory prayer is in Latin. The complex origin of this litany is observable in a sequence of calls to saintly choruses, which follows the Marian invocations and precedes the deprecation:

Sancti chori delli spiriti celestiali or.
Sancto choro de’ patriarchi intercedite pro nobis Int.
Sancto choro de’ profeti Int.
Sancto choro de’ martiri Int.
Sancto choro degl’ innocenti Int.
Sancto choro dell’ anime Int.
Sancto choro de vivi, quelli che sono salvi Intercedite pro nobis27

Linguistic use is peculiar here too. The opening and final prayers are in Latin, a Latin Angelic salutation is inserted among the invocations, and the abbreviations of the formulas suggest Latin “miserere nobis” (but in one invocation it is recited in the vernacular too), “ora pro nobis,” “intercedite pro nobis,” and “libera nos domine” recited among the calls. This is an example of a litany which is a linguistic and structural mix. As far as the organization of the text is concerned, the Tuscan litany might be put close to the fourteenth-century version published by ← 23 | 24 → Persic.28 In fact, in both Tuscan and Venetian litanies, there are both the anaphoric formula “Sancta Maria,” and invocations in the form of longer prayers to the Virgin. The problem is that both the deprecation and prayer-like inserts are not the same. Nevertheless, the link with the Venetian branch is unquestionable. As Persic notes, the distinguishing character of the versions he publishes is the contemporary presence of invocations to the mother of both God and Christ. This connotes dogmas about the theotokos, related to both Ephesian and Antiochian spirituality.29 These combinations emerge at the beginning of the Tuscan litany, after the Kyrie eleison and invocations to the Father, Son, Spirit, and Holy Trinity:

Sancta maria ora pro nobis
Sancta maria madre sanctissima di cristo abbi misericordia di me
Sancta maria madre genitrice di dio or.

A link with earlier litanies, which derive from the translation of the Akathist Hymn, is expressed through invocations such as “perpetua vergine,” and “madre disponsata et non maritata,” “del re eterno figliuola,” “scala del cielo,” “imperatrice nostra,” “fontana di dolceçça,” “genitrice del lume eterno,”30 “stella chiara del cielo,” “più chiara della luna.”31 These antonomasias do not appear in the Litany of Loreto, as it is published in Meersseman’s census of medieval litanies.32 Finally we would like to draw attention to the last important fact: in Marian litanies present in the Apennine Peninsula, the direct call to Holy Mary accompanies attributes and periphrases which concern the Mother of God. As in the canonical litanies the name of Mary is hidden,33 and we believe that this presence replaces the chairetic salutation of the Akathist Hymn. Nevertheless, from the point of view of rhetorical figures typical of the litany, it connotes a superabundance of means which are used in the prayers that are here discussed. At the same time (to make a marginal observation) this attitude often reemerges in later litanies.34 ← 24 | 25 →

Rich semantics which are developed in Marian litanies and devotion—we emphasize the autochthonous character of their role, which implies for example wide dissemination, and geographical linguistic availability—seem to have been an important factor in mutual influence between the genres. The Venetian branch, of all the litanic tradition, had a great influence on the early Marian lauda. Under this influence, starting from the thirteenth century, we find very rich descriptions of the Virgin, which are expressed through attributes and antonomasias. These can be a starting point to develop solemn periphrases, as we illustrate in the first part of the present book. Italian and Latin Marian sources are important for the evolution of ways of praising the woman, or the beloved, in all European poetry. The relevance of such topics in the evolution of Italian lyric genres is recognized.35

The Saints

Opinion on the great blossoming of Tuscan culture from the fourteenth century is shared by all scholars. Up to this point we have analyzed Marian litanies which are in relation with the tradition of the Akathist Hymn. As evidence of both the importance and diffusion of other litanies, we will see a version of the Litany of the Saints preserved in a codex belonging to the Curia of Florence. Gilberto Aranci edited a small, fourteenth-century laudario of a confraternity36 which has not yet been identified.37 It preserves a version of the Litany of the Saints which is linguistically Latin ← 25 | 26 → and culturally Tuscan. It belongs to a period in which litanic prayers were popular, widely diffused, and often originally interpreted. At the end of the sixteenth century, these prayers were standardized by Pope Sixtus V, and at the beginning of the seventeenth century allowed by the Catholic Holy Office. A canon was established at that time by the Roman Catholic Church,38 while the text that is here discussed is evidence of a previous stage. On the last two pages of the aforementioned codex edited by Aranci, we find a version of the Litany of the Saints. Its special character is related to the presence of local saints and to the structure. The Florentine version does not contain the deprecatory part, which is usually used in the liturgical books. It opens with the following formula: “Kyrie leyson. / Christe leyson. / Christe audi nos. / Christe exaudi nos.”39 The usual supplication to the Three Persons and to the Trinity and a list of saints follow. The sequence of enumerated names corresponds to the known order of the litany, while Miniato and Zanobi are extra, local names. The text ends shortly with the threefold Kyrie. The presence of litanies in a laudario shows close contact between litanies and the lauda, a relation which is part of the confraternal ritual and culture, which makes simple—almost unavoidable—the mutual interaction of the genres.

A “Litany” of Seamen

In the Italian peninsula not only did litanic discourse influence genres of poetry but it also resulted in original, popular litanies composed to be recited on special occasions. As an example, we quote a geographical “litany” of seamen written in a Tuscan vernacular in the second half of the fifteenth century. The text was published by Antonio Ive in 1914.40 The prayer has an introduction, in which the context of recitation is explained: it is to be said when the ship is at sea and the sailors have not seen land for several days.41 Our “litany” is composed of ← 26 | 27 → 167 invocations. It opens with a threefold formula, “Die’ n’aì e ’l santo sepolcro.” This line comprises the anaphoric formula, which is always repeated in the remaining part, to which a list of names of saints who are patrons of ports is attached. Initially we have a kind of structural calque of the Litany of the Saints, in which the Virgin Mary, three archangels, apostles, evangelists, some martyrs, doctors, confessors, preachers, and hermits are listed. The order is not the same and all the categories are explicitly defined through proper words (“l’angiol,” “l’apostol,” “’l uangelista,” “’l martir,” “’l confessor,” “’l dottor,” “’l baron,” “’l predicator,” “’l corridor”). The remaining 133 saints are invoked together with their places of origin or death, which correspond to harbor localities in the Mediterranean and other seas. Here a short passage:42

Die’ n’ai e santo sidro di scio;

Die’ n’ai e santa foca di pera;

Die’ n’ai e santa soffia di costantinopoli;

Die’ n’ai e san francesco di caffa;

Die’ n’ai e san dimitri di salomecchi;

Die’ n’ai e l’angiel del cauo;

Die’ n’ai e san francesco di corom;

Die’ n’ai e san leon di modom;

Die’ n’ai e santa maria delle scanfarie

In the quoted excerpt we find references to an island close to Lemnos, the group of Strofades, the cities of Sinop, Feodosia, Thessaloniki, Cape Maleas, Corone, Methoni, and Constantinople.43 A geography of a universe—related to the journeys of Tuscan ships during the Middle Ages—is designated in this prayer. Searching for litanic qualities, we find polyonymic and chairetismic elements, and even the supplication. From the rhetorical point of view each line opens with an original formula. Metrically it bounds the lines on the left, while the names of the ports are listed on the right side. Nevertheless, this text should be considered as a free interpretation of a litanic scheme, as any internal order of hierarchy is lacking in this vision of the world. Moreover, God himself is called in the opening of each new line, and in fact the anaphora present in the quoted section means “God help us and saint…” In this formula, a rule which makes of litanies a supplication through an intercessor or intercessors is infringed.44 Now, in the ← 27 | 28 → Litany of the Saints, the ektenial part addresses not God, but the Lord, including Christ, as the following supplications recall the events of his earthly life.45 As Witold Sadowski writes, in a litany the names of saints are worthy of worship not because of the special virtues of those who were martyrs, but because they stand in for the name of God.46 The litanies, as one could infer, avoid directly naming God. Secondly, after the initial list of saints taken from the traditional litanies, in the prayer cited above there is no order of persons who are invoked. This factor is not irrelevant, as in litanies, such an order expresses a hierarchy and a worldview. The prayer of the seamen is based on the structure of one of the canonical litanies, but when the original part of it begins the rules of the genre are followed only partially. An interesting elaboration of the polyonymic quality of litanies, which nowadays allows us to reconstruct a map of journeys and patrons of ports, is the most important element. More than in any other case, we find here a popular extra-liturgical prayer, which is direct evidence of the spread of litany as a form of discourse.

Finally, the Tuscan “litany” emerges through short quotation in a twentieth-century collection of praising poems written by Gabriele d’Annunzio. The book of poetic laudi entitled Merope was published in 1912, and dedicated to the war then being waged by the Italian army in Africa. Our “litany” of sailors is here exploited together with other liturgical and extra-liturgical textual strategies in order to build up a semantics of the sacrum around the topic of war. We can see how in four centuries the function and the meaning of litanic prayers, at least those that influenced lyric genres, had changed.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (November)
Litany Italian poetry History of verse Literary genres Religious poetry Poetry and music Poetry and liturgy
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 408 pp.

Biographical notes

Magdalena Maria Kubas (Volume editor)

Magdalena Maria Kubas received her Ph.D. from the University for Foreigners of Siena, Italy. She specializes in spiritual poetry, the relations between poetry and music, and twentieth-century Italian literature.


Title: Litanic Verse IV