Adriatic Peculiarities: a Case of “Poemetto Buffonesco” from the Early 16th Century by Zuan Polo Leopardi

Snežana Milinković

University of Belgrade

The Adriatic Sea, like a small Mediterranean, is a weave of various and diverse regions with their peculiarities, which continuously intermix and enrich each other. The area of the eastern Adriatic coast is one of the most complex in the Euro-Mediterranean zone, as it involves a permanent confrontation, reflected throughout the history of multiple forms, between the “Italian” elements and “Slavic” elements. This relationship must be explored in depth to understand the peculiarities of the national identities that coexist in the area. One of the historical examples that best show this complexity is the figure of Zuan Polo Leopardi, a Venetian buffone who lived in the first half of the 16th century. His personality, as well as his literary work, is full of contradictions, ambiguous limits and contrasts. All of this moulds a fascinating figure, wrapped in mystery, very present in the extremely rich socio-cultural life of a Venice that at the time was entering the Renaissance.  

If it is true that the Adriatic “in all respects, is a Mediterranean of smaller proportions” (Ivetic, 2013), then not only is it, as Fernand Braudel (1990:118) taught us, a legitimate and separate subject matter, like “nations” or “regions”, but, just like the Mediterranean itself, it can be regarded in the renewed fervour of studies as a narrative construct, as “a system of a system,” a “network” of influences between and interdependence of economies and cultures. This diverse Adriatic world, at some points directly opposed even within itself, is also felt to be a unique mixture of differences and a symbol of today’s overall, and also thus cultural, globalisation. It seems that only in different forms and assuming another meaning does this globalisation characterise other ages as well. Simultaneously, in the notion of “the Adriatic”, as well as in the notion of the Mediterranean itself, not only does the special, separate and different determine the general, and vice versa, but the very impossibility of creating a one-sided, monosemic and universally accepted historical and cultural image is seen as a specificum and a sine qua non definition of this small-large sea. A notable example is precisely the eastern Adriatic coast, one of the most complex areas of the Mediterranean. This area, with its constantly emphasised linguistic, cultural, national and other differences between what we can in general terms call “Italy” and “Slavia” (Ivetic, 2014), creates fertile ground for an attempt at a different, “transnational” reading of the alleged historical oppositions and the very idea of a “boundary/border”. This is not only because we today, observing the Adriatic, especially its eastern part, as a unique cultural region, feel the need to finally overcome arguments, clashes, disagreements, and one-sided historico-cultural interpretations of the past. It is also due to the fact that the very phenomena from the past require us to think in this way. In other words, if we ignore the existence of homo adriaticus, which, according to Sante Graciotti, is fruit of diverse origins of the variegated Adriatic culture, some – perhaps even many – phenomena and personalities from the distant and recent past will remain inaccessible for us. They will remain quite incompatible with the Risorgimento/Romanticist-national scheme of understanding and choosing past events, which to a great extent still defines not only the historiography as such, but the building/affirming of particular, national identities.

Such a “borderline” case from the past is reflected in the personality and work of Zuan Polo Leopardi/Liompardi, a Venetian buffone, from the first part of the 16th century. He has paid for playing with different “boundaries” within the system, in his time still considered unique, with his unenviable, modest presence in historiographic and litero-historiographic contributions. Not to mention that in many of them, consciously or not, the question of Zuan Polo’s transcending cultural, linguistic, literary and stylistic delimitations has been neglected. Polo himself, just like his work, has been included in one or another separated segment within the undifferentiated Adriatic cultural waters, and in accordance with premises that were not his own. Out of respect for a significant segment of our common past, perhaps we could today finally try to understand the meaning of these illusory contradictions that followed Zuan Polo in his litero-historiographic life.

Little can be said with certainty about this, to say the least, interesting protagonist of the eventful culturo-social Venetian life of the first half of the 16thcentury. We know almost for certain that he died in Venice in 1540, and that he was most probably born around the year 1454, given that there is no valid anagraphic data on that time. Based on some works, we can conclude that he lived in a Venetian parish, San Giovanni in Bragora a Castello, at least during his last years (Ancillotto, 90). He always lived in poverty, was “a close friend of vice’s” and prone to showdowns, left his wife “alone in bed / so that he could commit adultery and murder” (Caravia, 17-19).[1] Of course, most testimony of Zuan Polo concerns his “public” dimension as an official buffone. At the same time, it seems, precisely because of its alleged artificiality, this dimension is the only one able to draw our attention to some truths and their meanings.

He has paid for playing with different “boundaries” within the system, in his time still considered unique, with his unenviable, modest presence in historiographic and litero-historiographic contributions

Zuan Polo was one of those who significantly contributed to the official culturo-entertaining policy of the Republic of Venice, which – just like the other countries of that time – also very much cared about using this approach to offer a certain image of its own power. As Marino Sanudo notes in detail in his diaries, Diarii, in the period between 1504 and 1533, Zuan Polo, as a professional buffone or “entertainer”,[2] was regularly invited, among various singers, musicians and acrobats, to give his own performance: at the Foscari-Venier wedding (in April 1513), during Turkish legate Alibeg’s visit to the Venetian Arsenal (in February 1514),[3] during the intermissions between the acts of Plautus’s comedy Miles Gloriosus played at Ca’ Pesaro a San Benedetto (in February 1515), this becoming his specialty, at the Venetian Doge’s official lunch party (in April 1524). After this, he always participated in reception parties organised by Venetian patricians for private or politico-cultural purposes (if there was any difference at all), while from 1529 he performed with his buffone troupe, a group of close associates. There is no point in listing here all the numerous pieces of testimony by Marino Sanudo, as even these few can tell us that Zuan Polo was an entertaining star of the Venice of the time. No matter how familiar and clear it sounds to us, it is precisely this almost banal fact that requires an additional explanation. It also leads us into that world of transcending the boundaries in a culture, to which we have become accustomed by now, thanks to the final victory of “classicism” in the middle of the 16th century, not only in Italy. In other words, as Giorgio Padoan clearly put it (1996), we are the ones who have to overpower “the modern prejudice” against the decades we are talking about. In addition, we have to accept the fact that during these decades no essential difference was felt between those whom we consider today “the real artists” meriting scientific and other attention, such as Angelo Beolco Ruzzante or Cherea if we talk about the theatrical life, and buffones, such as Cimador or our Zuan Polo. They were equal and rightful parts of a unique cultural and life horizon, which found its main inspiration from what best, and with all possible parodic allusions, depicted and reflected the diversity, variety and unification of contradictions of the whole spiritual and material life of the first decades of the 16th century: of course, we are talking about plurilingualism. And not only about a kind of plurilingualism that in a literary expression transforms into pluristylism, or, for that matter, a type of bilingualism in the form of illustrious poetry, and the dialectal one, which was built into the bases and became a constituent element of Italian literature. We refer to the lived and experienced plurilingualism. This plurilingualism, as part of everyday life and its layers, clashes and collisions became the subject of different, and to the whole of society equally important, artistic and entertaining expressions, of both masterful works by Angelo Beolca and his Ruzzante, and apparently more frivolous performances by Zuan Polo.

However, if in Angelo Beolco’s case “the modern prejudice” acts in his favour, not only because he definitely is an author of great talent worthy of “illustrious” literature but also because his plurilinguistic specificum – il pavano, the rural dialect of Padua – could easily and without much ideological reserve of extra-literary provenance enter the official narrative of the history of Italian literature, in Zuan Polo’s case, it was and has remained doubly fatal. Not only has he been removed almost beyond the margins of any culture, due to his ephemerism, orality and entertaining dimension, but he has largely been squeezed out of the Italian historico-literary narrative, because of the chosen linguistic and artistic identity, schiavonesco (the language of the Slavs from the eastern Adriatic coast). He has been allotted a modest marginal place meant for him within la letteratura schiavonesca (Cortelazzo, 1971-72), a few works with the Venetian linguistic base, into which Slavic words and forms are inserted. He has been thrown at times into wild attempts of those same Slavic peoples from the eastern Adriatic coast to prove, by appropriating a Zuan Polo, each individually but against the other, that their past also possesses talents such as those that imposed themselves on Venice, though perhaps not so extraordinary ones. On the one hand, thanks to two works, usually defined as poemetto buffonesco, published in Venice in 1533 (Libero del Rado Stizuoso and Libero de le vendette che fese i fioli de Rado Stizuoso), Zuan Polo has become the subject of a small number of works exclusively dedicated to providing an overview of the Slavic lexis present in the works. Thanks to this lexis, as we have said, there is la letteratura schiavonesca, while its usage is explained as ironically mocking intentions of the author. On the other hand, when we talk about the Slavic side, this same usage and the author presenting himself as a certain Ivan Paulavichio from Ragusa become proof of or a motive for searching for evidence that this very man and his family existed in Dubrovnik or its hinterland, also having in mind that Dubrovnik itself and this same hinterland are the subject of a disagreement between the Croatian and Serbian sides (occasionally the Italian side is included as well). In truth, there have been some befriending tones and magnanimous recognition of Zuan Polo’s Italianism-Venetianism. Still, this recognition is specific because, even with his “distinction” and unavoidable “not belonging”, he managed to catch “the real spirit of our Croatian man” (Zorić, 1999: 56).

However, all these views that regard Zuan Polo and his work in the context of a we-they system, of their opposition and their identities quite separate and “authentic” in a phantom way, do not entirely manage to capture and explain the phenomenon of Zuan Polo, let alone his works. The meanings of these works – but not their importance, of course – are exhausted neither by using several Slavic words, nor by ironic intentions, nor by the presented “spirit of the Croatian man”. It appears that only in an inverted perspective, in the deconstruction of the “boundaries” of any type, and in every negation of the we-they system of opposition, but not in the negation of the existence of separate, interdependent, and intertwined groups, lies the right key to interpreting all the given data and possible reconstructions, which is also the message conveyed to us by the work itself. 

It appears that only in an inverted perspective lies the right key to interpreting all the given data and possible reconstructions, which is also the message conveyed to us by the work itself

As an already proven entertainer of enviable fame, Zuan Polo addresses Bernardino de Vitali, a printer of Albanian origin, who became renowned for publishing scholarly works in Latin (Splitian Marko Marulić’s works, among other publications), and Skanderbeg’s biography. He referred to himself as “Venetian” and decided to publish in a short period of time in 1533 the two mentioned knightly-comic epics.[4] The author of these epics presents himself to the audience both through his own character, on the first page of the book, and through his “work”, in his own description of himself in the introductory octaves of Canto I. He presents himself here as a creator of a unique work within the tradition of Italian knightly cantares and epics we are familiar with. Known to everyone at the time, this buffone presents himself as a poet garlanded with laurels, in a long gown and with a viola in his hands, who is taking over the iconographic solution used in 1520 for an edition of Horace’s Works (Degl’Innocenti, 2011). He indirectly tells his audience that this small work should be read both as part of what the official, “serious” culture and literature stand for, no matter how much the very title suggests its estranging character –Ariosto’s Orlando[5], in the humanist-classicist setting defined as furioso, becomes a certain Rado, of a typical Slavic name, in a lower stylistic register and the lexico-orthographic dialectal form described as stizuxo. And the owner of this estranging character, as in the best Italian literary tradition and as, for example, in the aforementioned Ariosto’s case, becomes the author himself with his voice. His voice plays at the same time with constant literary places, with the established stylistic spectrum or plurilinguistic possibilities of a certain litero-linguistic system, and with the relationship of such a text with the “text” of a certain reality. However, the only problem is that precisely this “reality”, and then all the other factors that have been mentioned, disturb the usual distinctions, classical and modern. They feel the whole Adriatic, even the Mediterranean itself, to be their own natural, necessary and only purposeful context of traditions and cultures.

Ivan Paulavichio thus presents himself as someone who was born in Dubrovnik/Ragusa, whose father was a Doge, that is to say from a patrician family, who speaks Paduan and Florentine dialects, even French, almost forgetting to mention schiavonesco. He is a man of great learning, in books he read the story about Orlando, Rinaldo, and the other paladins who, upon Charlemagne’s request set off to liberate the empire from an unheard-of plague, wolves/werewolves (at the time already present in literature as, essentially, the embodiment of authentic evil) marauding the Pyrenees area. This is precisely what Ivan Paulavichio will reveal to his audience. All those glorious heroes of the Carolingian cycle and all the knightly and cantare traditions need Rado in order to succeed in their mission. Rado is a Slavic hero, set somewhere on Pelješac/Sabbioncello, or near the River Bojana (in today’s Montenegro).[6] In his first presentation, he is short-tempered, but also hearty and loyal to the common mission. In addition, he is related to some famous heroes, as he is married to Archbishop Turpin’s daughter, Turpin being one of Charlemagne’s closest associates. In the story, and in the manner of shaping the story, the essential interpretative idea, as in the best Ariostian tradition, is provided by the aforementioned author’s identification with the protagonist. This story abounds in playing with constant structural places of works of a similar genre (leaving/abandoning the court as a motive for adventure, conflicts that make a chain in a spatio-temporal succession and delay the moment of the final clash/denouement, etc.), in repeated motifs and already established heroes (in the knightly and cantare traditions, unlike the original Carolingian one and its Christianly miraculous characteristic), in magic elements, or, for that matter, “giant” heroes, protagonist adjuvants, expressive possibilities of the language that become, at certain moments, the sole and true fabula, as in the best tradition of Pulci and his Morgante, in shaping the strategic narrative places in the tone of canterinos (a canto’s beginnings and endings, for example).[7] The fact that Orlando fell madly in love and that his author, unavoidably in love, as tradition requires, is also one step from madness, has made us realise that our, his audience’s, so-called common sense is also questionable. We are talking about a setting in which the author and his protagonist are of the common Slavic provenance, of the same social and cultural matrix, which is “another one” and “a different one”, but still close and expressed in a familiar language. Having this in mind, “we”, as an urban, Venetian audience, should understand that in this element we are also looking for something that could become a common denominator, a common definition, although not an all-inclusive one (this is not its intention). Both the author’s irony, expressed in several languages, and the protagonist Rado’s, shown through his great but spiteful and eventually comic braveries, suggest that this denominator, just like any other officially accepted, also has to mirror its own reverse side from time to time, in order to survive as such.

It seems that only in this kind of setting, and not in the national or nationalistic one does it become interesting and significant to notice that, as noted by Alexander Vesselovfsky (1879)[8] at the end of the 19th century, Zuan Polo/Paulavichio, named Rado perhaps, suggests that an oral, canterino tradition of songs dedicated to Rado/Radoslav might have been alive in the coastal areas. This protagonist appears in one of the first documented epic poems of the Slavic Adriatic, Fishing by Dalmatian humanist Petar Hektorović.[9] This poem could be connected to numerous apocryphal Radoslavs in Dubrovnik chronicles or chronicles from different periods dedicated to Dubrovnik, up until the Chronicle of the Priest of Duklja from the 12th century. It becomes interesting and significant as in this way we could rightfully conclude that Zuan Polo, this time, intended to point out the need to create a common Adriatico-Venetian context, whose conformity is also Mediterranean. He stressed this need by reintroducing, through Rado and all his associations, the oral production of the Slavic Adriatic into the “Western European” epic tradition, with which or out of which the former was definitely born. This Mediterranean feature is notably seen in the second part where Rado’s sons freely travel the whole Mediterranean, during their actions. We can also conclude that, simultaneously, through the “author” Ivan Paulavichio, this oral, undifferentiated tradition should have, like the Venetian-Italian one, its authorial, literary expression, which will revitalise the somewhat tired knightly context: to check the veracity of this, we only need to observe that Orlando, Rinaldo and the other paladins are presented as decadent, exhausted, bon vivant warriors, who more than eagerly allow Rado to impose himself and become the defender of the civilised world. This happens after we have been searching for him together with the paladins (he appears as late as after 100 octaves, in Canto II), after he has become the co-protagonist in the second part of the poem, and after he has become worth imposing himself, which occurs only in the third part, thanks to this almost allegorical, rising parabola. He imposes himself as a new/old campione on those who would like to pose a threat to the cultural and social models, now already made common.

It becomes even more interesting when this again typically humanistic metamorphosis of the characters, the works and their meanings is placed within an environment outlined by both poems. The symbolic meaning of this environment becomes even clearer in the second part, in Rado’s sons’ revenge. In the first part, the paladins and Rado during their actions encompass a part of France, Spain, the Adriatic, the Balkan peninsula, all up to the Hungarian boundaries – as, needless to say, the first successfully resolved conflict occurs with the Hungarians – and, in the third segment, something which would be Northern Africa and the Near East. They outline the space which, despite the clash, sees itself as unique, because it possesses its natural centre, Venice. Venice is present in the work both directly, as the point where the paladins’ journeys start, and indirectly, in constantly addressing the audience, as a place capable of “assuming” and understanding this story and the way in which it has been told, which is especially visible in the second part. Further on, however, this geographical context, precisely due to being geographical and historical, becomes even more specifically defined, that is, it gets what actually is its specificum, according to Zuan Polo. More precisely, the main course of the fabula, apart from those marginal clashes, concerns the conflict between Rado’s sons and a “posthumous child”. This child is in fact the devil’s offspring, Iatilo. Through his own name and also by later becoming Atila’s double (as, in the story, Atila is introduced as his model/teacher and his alter ego),[10] Iatilo turns into a personification of a barbarian, destroying force par excellence, which swoops on what is the bearer and the base of civilisation and culture – the city. Of course, the paradigm of the city is Venice itself. However, even more significant is the fact that all clashes, both with Iatilo/Atila and with Rado’s sons’ other antagonists, in the aforementioned space, take place in and around cities as the holders of the essential dimension of the Adriatic, the Mediterranean, and their culture. The city is the one that introduces historyand its relativism into the rural-mountainous world of the hinterland. This relativism can only be lived and experienced, and it makes it possible for solutions to be found, even for, at first glance, irreconcilable differences: therefore, it is not at all surprising that Rado’s son will embrace Islam, unlike all those traditional knightly heroes who did the opposite. He will do so for pragmatic reasons, and in order to preserve the existence of the city as the centre of culture. He will become a “paladin” of Islam, who, as the city’s culture, most harmoniously lives, shares and cooperates with the city of all cities, Venice, the heart of the Adriatic-Mediterranean world and its perfect melting pot. This happens not only in Zuan Polo’s imagination but, in those years, also in historical reality, as the rich historiography has already shown.

Venice is present in the work both directly, as the point where the paladins’ journeys start, and indirectly, in constantly addressing the audience, as a place capable of “assuming” and understanding this story and the way in which it has been told

Still, these “modern” findings of Zuan Polo and his appeal for drawing the borderline, if we really need it, on the axis city/non-city, history/non-history, culture/non-culture, will soon be sidelined. As early as in 1533, in his work Della poetica in generale, Benedetto Varchi’s authoritative voice was able to say about, Luigi Pulci, today a classic author, that he had written with no sense at all, offering what the plebs/people liked and were amused by. On the other hand, in that increasingly exclusive understanding of literature and culture in general, there was no room for Zuan Polo and his works, not even in the context of negative criticism.[11] From the middle of the 16th century on, there was no ear for all tones offered, nor was there any enjoyment of their dizzily interwoven differences. Still, the sole fact that Zuan Polo Leopardi/Liombardi, like many others, was able to build his life and work precisely on this interweaving which transcends canons gives hope to the Adriatic and Mediterranean worlds.                                                                                 


[1] As stated by Paola Ancilloto, while relying on Marino Sanudo’s notes, the murder quite certainly took place sometime before March 1523, at Carnival time; since there is no other mention of Zuan Polo after that news, it is quite possible that his protectors and lords liberated him not only from prison, but also from any prosecution.

[2] On the figure of the buffone and on what we can call the performative dimension of Zuan Polo’s career, see a useful overview by Daniele Vianello, L’arte del buffone. In addition, there are many, especially theatrical, texts from the 1970s and 1980s, when this segment of theatrical life in Italy and Europe becomes popular with researchers.

[3] This occasion would, according to Marino Sanudo, mark the official status of Zuan Polo as an acknowledged Venetian “state” buffone, cf. Ancillotto 92. 

[4] This edition, which was not reprinted, is today known to us by means of four preserved copies: three of them are kept in Italian libraries, Marciana, Biblioteca di Parma, Biblioteca Alessandrina in Rome, while the fourth one is kept in the British Library in London. The quality of the print itself clearly tells us that the whole process was finished very fast. Moreover, since three out of the four copies are nearly the same (the London one remains to be checked), all of them almost certainly belong to a simultaneous printing job. Let us only mention that the fact that Zuan Polo’s works are either presented as “short” or in a diminutive form, poemetto, should be understood cum grano salis: the first part has eight cantos, the second one has 12, but, on average, each canto is 80 octaves long (the average number in cantares is 40, for instance).  

[5] The famous Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto was first published in 1516, while the third, revised and last edition, appeared in this same year, 1533.

[6] That is, the first encounter between the paladins and Rado takes place somewhere around the River Bojana, after which Rado becomes the protector of a city on Pelješac/Sabbioncello.

[7] We will not on this occasion talk about the more than interesting historico-theoretical literary problem (almost in the light of a “historical poetics”) raised by the genre definition of Zuan Polo’s work. It would take us too far, although this problem also deals with certain “boundaries” and differentiation. Nor will we list the criticism, especially rich in recent years, which increasingly turns towards studying the “anthill” as well, as Carlotta Dionisotti termed it, those so-called smaller authors, who are still equally important for an attempt to create an ordered, perhaps even a clear, image of what the knightly-canterino production was and meant during the second half of the 15th and in the 16th centuries. As an example, we could at least use Marco Villoresi’s book La fabbrica dei cavalieri. Cantari, poemi, romanzi in prosa fra medioevo e rinascimento.

[8] Although it should be noted that Vesselovfsky had no opportunity to read the whole of Zuan Polo’s text and that he drew conclusions in an indirect way.

[9] The beginning of the poem was documented in the second “song” of Fishing and Fishermen’s Talk by Petar Hektorović, a work published in Venice in 1568, of a typical humanist setting (for instance,Pontano’s Dialoghi) – the educated author listens to wise conversations of ordinary fishermen.

[10] We will only mention that, in the second part, there are very interesting motifs and narrative segments that can be connected to the most various mythical traditions and stories, which becomes a true challenge for the critic.

[11] There  have been quite negative judgements about Zuan Polo’s work for a long time, as almost all of them – similar to or following Melzi’s words written in Bibliografia dei romanzi e dei poemi cavallereschi italiani – claim that the work is illegible, vague and impossible to follow. This judgement contains a degree of truth, yet it simultaneously testifies – as we mentioned at the beginning of the paper – to the depth and consequences of “the modern prejudice”.