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Fabulous Ireland- «Ibernia Fabulosa»

Imagining Ireland in Renaissance Italy

Eric Haywood

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.
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Mad WorldForever Imagining Ireland

Authors and works discussed in this chapter (in chronological order):

To avoid having to surprise the readers is probably the reason why in his epic poem Jerusalem Delivered [Gerusalemme liberata] Torquato Tasso (1544–1595), arguably Italy’s greatest poet and the writer whose words serve as an epigraph for this book (‘Whatever pleases the most powerful is right’), decided to coin what is surely the most memorable definition of Ireland, besides Ariosto’s Ibernia fabulosa, to have emerged from Renaissance Italy: ‘furthest Ireland divided from the world’ [‘la divisa dal mondo ultima Irlanda’]. To his readers the expression would not only have evoked Virgil’s ultima Thule, with its dream of seeing Rome’s imperial destiny becoming manifest in the fullness of its glory, as we said in Chapter One, but it would also have added to the verisimilitude of the poem, and verisimilitude, or realism, was one of Tasso’s obsessions. The poem is set at the time of the first crusade (1096–99), which for its promoters, as well as for Tasso, was ← 245 | 246 → indeed an enterprise aimed at realizing and glorifying (Christian) Rome’s imperial destiny, and at that time Ireland – in this case sending troops to assist the Christian forces, in a replication of Ariosto’s recruiting of ‘hairy beasts’ from ‘beyond’ to help Charlemagne (‘Here come the English archers, and men with them who dwell closest to the pole; covered in hair, they have been sent by the woods of furthest...

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