Magicians and Captive Maidens: Oral Sources and the Croatian Renaissance Drama

Croatian Renaissance literature has long been considered a cultural pinnacle as relevant in the context of its own time as it was in the subsequent centuries. Comprising a range of diverse authors and original works, it reflected an awareness of both contemporary Western sources and local folklore heritage. The former influences have been thoroughly researched in particular by Croatian and Italian scholars, while the latter have remained more difficult to document. Aware of the abundant ties between oral tradition and the South Slavic literary output, Albert Lord devoted significant attention to the hallmark achievements of the baroque and national-revival era already in his seminal The Singer of Tales (Lord 1960). [1] It is in this line of inquiry that the present article seeks to examine the earlier, hitherto less explored Renaissance period. Connections between some of the most prominent texts of the Croatian Renaissance and traditional heritage are illuminating not only for the purpose of providing an additional line of interpretation to these works, but also as a path towards uncovering their hidden political messages.
I argue that traditional oral heritage supplies a key to understanding the principal works by the two central figures of the Croatian Renaissance: Robinja (The Slave Girl, ca. 1526) by Hanibal Lucić (c. 1485–1553) from the island of Hvar and Dundo Maroje (Uncle Maroje, 1551) by Marin Držić (1508–1567) from Dubrovnik. Both pieces belong to the dramatic corpus performed during the carnival season, but at the same time possess a politically provocative layer hiding in plain view and delivered at the locus of contested political power. In other words, they can be interpreted on two levels: in addition to the public text meant to offer an inoffensive narrative within literary frameworks, there also exists an underlying covert script that comments on the abysmal political situation in which the Croatian territories were engulfed. These plays push the literary frontiers while being cognizant of the previous practices – in Lucić’s case a rich history of love poetry written on the Croatian coast, and in Držić’s the vibrant resonances of commedia erudita from the neighboring Italian shores—but at the same time they draw on motifs and linguistic wealth preserved in the oral traditional corpus.
The staging of these works during the carnival season stemmed from older customs as various “forms of protocol and ritual based on laughter and consecrated by tradition existed in all the countries of medieval Europe; they were sharply distinct from the serious official, ecclesiastical, feudal, and political cult forms and ceremonials” (Bakhtin 1984:6–7). Mikhail Bakhtin claims that these practices offered an entirely different vision of the world which was highly divergent from the official discourse and essentially created “a second world and a second life outside officialdom” (Bakhtin 1984:6–7). Particularly important for the current discussion is the notion of duality harbored in the works of Renaissance writers, including Lucić’s and Držić’s contemporary Rabelais, on whom Bakhtin focuses in his analysis of the carnivalesque. Similarly, Bakhtin correlates laughter and the concept of freedom and locates the roots of the comical in folkloric communal experience, which are all conclusions highly relevant for understanding Lucić’s and Držić’s works. Temporarily discarding the established order and hierarchies, carnival, with its permission for laughter, destabilizes any closed, completed system and advocates for freedom, if not in absolute, then in relative terms (Bakhtin 1984:10).
In Bakhtin’s view, Rabelais, Cervantes and Shakespeare represent a radical shift in the history of laughter and import into it a profound philosophical meaning that uncovers essential forms of truth, history, and man’s existence in the world (Bakhtin 1984:66). Coming on the heels of rigid medieval visions which in their official discourses discounted laughter and called for timeless stability, the Renaissance literary corpus is additionally marked by the introduction of historical time and the questioning of “absolute truths.” While “[i]n the Renaissance, laughter in its most radical, universal, and at the same time gay form emerged from the depths of folk culture,” allowing for “shifting from top to bottom, casting the high and the old, the finished and completed into the material bodily lower stratum for death and rebirth” (Bakhtin 1984:72, 81–82), it also entered into dialogue with social and historical change. Again, as will be demonstrated below, both Lucić and Držić capitalize on this development and indirectly reflect on the specific historical moment.
By insisting on the relativity of all values, carnival of the Renaissance period questioned the immobile social order and introduced historicity and specificity that engaged the audience on a different level. Thus, from behind the carnival mask and its communal rowdiness, other voices also spoke that undermined a static picture of the world and celebrated not only its physical renewal rooted in pagan rituals, but also called for social and political reordering. As Bakhtin points out, the specific circumstances at which these verbal acts aimed were different in various corners of Renaissance Europe, but their common denominator is the communal inclusiveness of laughter and its renewing, re-birthing effect: “The cyclical character is superseded by the sense of historic time. The grotesque images with their relations to changing time and their ambivalence become the means for the artistic and ideological expression of a mighty awareness of history and of historic change which appeared during the Renaissance” (Bakhtin 1984:25). Upholding Bakhtin’s approach and insisting on adhering to concrete social reality, Bristol points out that “Renaissance drama is important in that it invites consideration of forms of collective life and of subjectivity other than those proposed and legitimated by a hegemonic culture” (Bristol 1985:5).
Similarly, Ivan Lozica discusses carnival’s subversive aspects and the broad divide that developed between the theater of the industrialized era and “primitive” forms of folk theater linked to carnival festivities. Echoing Bakhtin, he further stresses that carnival commentary on society, especially criticism of it, stems directly from folk culture, which is characterized by ambivalence and humor (Lozica 2007:201). In the Croatian theater of the Renaissance period this relation enters a complex stage, but the path of influence is still open from the traditional into the institutional and vice versa, which will be of particular interest with regard to Držić’s comedy. In some cases, as in Lucić’s play, scholars have been divided, with one camp emphasizing the precedence of the literary tradition, the other foregrounding the oral heritage. Given that Držić’s and Lucić’s most renowned pieces were both performed during the carnival season, the timing places them in a direct relation to the folklore tradition of the region and calls for an interpretation from this particular viewpoint. [2]
Moreover, it is possible to argue that these authors employ elements from oral tradition as a palimpsest which allows them, on the one hand, to entertain with festive content, and on the other, to provide a commentary on the state of political affairs in the reliquiae reliquiarum of what was once a prominent Croatian state. This palimpsestuous reading (Dillon’s term, 2007:4) weds the older ritual layer with the already institutionalized theater and its highly elaborate forms. However, rather than perceiving various cultural imprints as unrelated and mechanically superimposed on one another, the organic approach advocated by Gérard Genette is more suitable in this case. In his interpretation no text exists in its singularity but only as a transtextual entity since all literary works evoke one another in some way (Genette 1997:1–9). Given the proximity of the Renaissance theater to earlier folkloric practices built on the formulaic principles and fluidity of forms that belong to a vast body of communally remembered and transmitted materials (Foley 1991), it is only appropriate to extend this approach to the area in which traditional and written literatures cross-pollinate so effectively. Orality implies a coexistence of mutually interwoven motifs which, if perceived on a timeline, behave as palimpsests whose layers are directly related to and built on one another. It is thus possible to argue that the notion of transtextuality is first and foremost characteristic of oral forms and still intrinsic to the early modern theater to which both Lucić and Držić belonged.
Turning to the political-historical subtext of the plays, it is necessary to outline the circumstances in which Croatia (or rather, what remained of it) found itself in the sixteenth century. The rapid advancement of the Ottomans was swiftly engulfing most of the Croatian territory. One of the decisive clashes was the battle of Krbava (near Udbina) in 1493 led by the Croatian viceroy of Hungarian descent Emerik Derenčin (Imre Derencsényi) and the noble family of Frankopan, in which the Croatian army suffered a major defeat and lost some 13,000 combatants (Kekez 2009). [3] The Ottomans soon expanded their control to most of the Dalmatian hinterland and were endangering navigation in the Adriatic, clashing there continually with Venetian ships (Novak 2009:447–452). In 1537, the Croatian stronghold of Klis succumbed to the Ottomans after several decades of resistance. This opened the path for pillaging the middle Dalmatian region. Ottoman forces were in close proximity to the Venetian-ruled Zadar and Split, as well as the area surrounding Dubrovnik, which remained a free city-republic with tributary obligations first to the Hungarian court (from 1358 to 1526) and subsequently also to the Ottoman Empire (from 1442 to 1804). As Novak puts it, “[i]n the Renaissance Croats lived under three rulers, under the Venetian Doge in Dalmatia and Istria, under the Turkish Sultan in Slavonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and after the disappearance of the Hungarian Jagiellonians, under the Habsburg Empire in the continental area around Zagreb, Karlovac, and Varaždin“ (Novak 2009:469). [4] The neighboring area suffered a similar fate. In 1521 Belgrade fell to the Ottomans, while in 1526 the battle of Mohács effectively obliterated Hungary. The islands and the narrow Dalmatian coastline continued to be under Venetian control from 1420 until 1797.
Despite the fragmentation of the Croatian territories and an abysmal political situation, this was one of the golden eras for literary activity. In fact, it was exactly this period that marked the beginning of the literary canon, which during the nineteenth-century National Revival served as one of the principal components for the process of language standardization. Most of the literary activity in this period took place along the Dalmatian coast, which had strong cultural and economic ties with Italy, but resented its political presence. The intellectual elites, including writers, were commonly educated at Italian universities. One might therefore expect that in literature many influences would stem directly from Italian Renaissance models, but the picture would be significantly distorted if only these elements were emphasized.
In Italy, after Nicholas Cusanus’s rediscovery in 1429 of twelve previously unknown comedies of Plautus, and Giovanni Aurispa’s uncovering of Donatus’s commentaries on Terence, the Cinquecento saw a blossoming of theatrical activity, in particular the rise of commedia erudita (Brand 1995:xxx). Although resonances were strong enough across the Adriatic to gradually expel the sacre rappresentazioni for the sake of populist drama, a process parallel to the one in Italy, the rise of drama in Croatia had its own circumstances and path of development. A close examination of the language of Renaissance Croatian plays, as well as written lyric poetry of the time, reveals a heavy reliance on oral sources and the incorporation of numerous formulas in the written texts. Frequently the themes transposed from oral sources into written texts acquired not only a different aesthetic function but also additional layers of meaning, some of which clearly had political connotations.
Although this article is not primarily concerned with the linguistic features of the two plays, it is relevant to mention that Lucić, for instance, draws on the oral tradition in his descriptions of the maiden slave but at the same time uses a highly stylized form of expression and complex versification. [5] Držić, on the other hand, exploits not only some of the folkloric motifs recurring throughout the Western literary canon, but also in many of his plays adopts phrasing from oral poetry as a part of his expression (Vidan 2010:65–71). In Dundo Maroje and likely in his earlier lost play Pomet he ventures into prose thereby opening the gate for heteroglossia with his characters of versatile backgrounds and dialects. This choice reflects one of the central linguistic preoccupations of commedia erudita—the inability of commonly used versification patterns to convey comic dialogue (Brand 1995:xxxv)—and Držić, well aware of the demands of comedy, opts for a type of expression that allows him to bring the living language onto the stage. Bakhtin underscores the importance of linguistic democratization brought about by the Renaissance on the example of Rabelais’s flamboyant expression: “Such an active plurality of languages and the ability to see one’s own media from the outside, that is, through the eyes of other idioms, led to exceptional linguistic freedom” (Bahktin 1984:471). The same can be said for Marin Držić. It is thus evident even from these passing remarks that the language of the discussed plays has palimpsestuous features which go hand in hand with their complex artistic message.
Lucić’s Robinja (The Slave Girl, written ca. 1526) focuses on the motif of an abducted maiden, which is abundant both in the oral poetry of the region and in Renaissance literary writings: there are at least five other sixteenth-century texts in addition to Lucić’s which in their titles refer to a captive maiden, and many others which exploit this subject matter in some part of their narrative. Relying on Vodnik’s earlier research (Vodnik 1909), Novak brings to attention several literary precursors to Lucić’s play: Džore Držić’s poem Čudni san (A Strange Dream), Mavro Vetranović’s mascherata Dvije robinjice (Two Slave Girls), and two brief pastoral pieces by the same author (Novak 1976). [6] Džore Držić’s poem was included in the Kanconijer, a collection of Renaissance poetry, assembled by Nikša Ranjina in 1507 (Vodnik 1909:91). Novak further develops Vodnik’s interpretation of the motif of a captive maiden as a correlative to “the long-standing Croatian obsession with freedom and the impossibility of its realization in the given circumstances” (Novak 1976:190). He also cites Petković who recognized in this subject matter the imported Mediterranean theme of Moreška (discussed below), an elaborately choreographed sword dance in which two opposing armies, typically the Blacks and the Whites, fight over a captive maiden. Novak, too, underscores this component, but he rejects the focus on the origin of the motif and sets forth an important question: why, unlike any other European literature, is the Croatian corpus saturated with this motif? He perceives it as a logical development within the local tradition and explains its frequency as having a political motivation, showing a gradual shift from allegorical theme towards incorporation of specific circumstances in later texts (Novak 1976:186–194). In addition, he points out that the dramatic corpus built around the motif of a captive maiden is, along with Držić’s opus, the most important achievement of early Croatian theater. Analyzing the interplay between oral and written literatures in the Renaissance period, Ben-Amos similarly concludes that “[a]ny attempt to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between society and literature requires, first and foremost, the identification of the social trends that might have been the contributing factor for the emergence of a particular literary form” (Ben-Amos 2010: 441).
Although Novak is correct in his assessment that the sources will remain inconclusive, for the purpose of the current argument it is helpful to recall Vodnik’s findings with regard to the oral background of Lucić’s The Slave Girl. Vodnik’s close comparative reading of Lucić’s text and Džore Držić’s A Strange Dream reveals ties to the troubadour tradition and provides evidence that Lucić was likely familiar with Držić’s poem. Furthermore, Vodnik holds that the motif of a captive maiden was not an invention of Držić’s but had already become a convention by his time (Vodnik 1909:94), especially in light of the fact that much of the troubadour poetry is marked by the employment of ready-made motifs (“thus we have to point to folk poetry as the original source of the captive maiden motif”); nevertheless he concedes that it is impossible to know if this motif entered traditional poetry through a real event or whether it could be of international origin (Vodnik 1909:107). By contrast, he is less convinced of the connection between Lucić’s piece and Vetranović’s Two Slave Girls, citing narrative differences (primarily the appearance of the two slave girls captured by the pirates) as the main argument. Vodnik does not indicate that he was aware of Vetranović’s two pastorals, which Novak dates to before 1509, when Vetranović entered a Benedictine monastery—thus early enough for Lucić to have read them before writing The Slave Girl (Novak 1976:195; Novak et al. 2009:857). On the other hand, Vodnik dates The Slave Girl to around 1520 and definitely after the peasant uprisings of 1510 and 1514 on Hvar (Vodnik 1909:97). Given the strong literary and economic connections between Dalmatian cities, it is likely that Lucić was familiar with the works of his Croatian literary predecessors and also attuned to the local oral songs. After all, his contemporary from Hvar, Petar Hektorović (1487–1572), in his ecloga piscatoria entitled Ribanje i ribarsko prigovaranje (Fishing and Fishermen’s Conversation, 1556) included two bugarštice (oral songs) by local peasants. Although the stylistic features of Lucić’s The Slave Girl are much more elaborate than those found in oral poetry (its 1038 verses are doubly-rhymed dodecasyllables) and his language is a sophisticated literary idiom (Vončina 1976:154–176), in many instances the influx of oral elements is easily recognizable, especially, as already stated, with regard to descriptions of the maiden.
The play’s three acts unfold the story of a maiden of noble background captured by the Turks (also referred to in the play as gusari, pirates) who is brought to the Dubrovnik market where she is recognized by her former admirer. Unbeknownst to her, he pays a ransom for her to the Turks and tests her by not revealing his identity in order to learn why she had never shown any fondness towards him while living at the court. The most substantive part of the drama consists of the girl’s lament about her captivity and her explanation of how it was up to the young man to ask for her hand from the king (in whose care she lived after her father had been killed by the Turks). It all ends well, and the young man takes the maiden to his house where, as we later learn from the servants, the recognition takes place, the relationship is consummated, and preparations are under way for the wedding.
Both Radić (1899) and Vodnik (1909) insisted on the existence of ties between Lucić’s play and several traditional Dalmatian songs. Vodnik cites three examples: an oral song from the island of Hvar, one from the nineteenth-century song collection by Baltazar Bogišić (Bogišić 1878), and another from the collection by Baldo Glavić (1889). Despite these sources the question of influence remains open: did the motif originate in oral traditional poetry and move to written literature or vice versa? A century later and with a trove of oral materials from the region—including not only the Matica hrvatska corpus on which Vodnik relied (comprised largely of songs from Dalmatia), but also more than eleven thousand ballads and lyric songs collected in Herzegovina by Milman Parry and Albert Lord—we have a much larger basis for comparison, but a definitive answer is equally elusive. Still, it is of prime interest that the thematic category involving various forms of abduction of a maiden is one of the most popular in this corpus. For example, multiforms from the Parry Collection provide narratives that vary from the kidnapping of one girl to kidnapping a shipload of girls, such as in the song PN 2467a (“Zarobio beže Alibeže,” Notebook no. 13, written down by Hamdija Šaković) by Stoja Bjeloglav from Gacko. Similarly, the song Senjanin Ivo and Božo Rajković, recorded from Kate Murat, from the island of Šipan near Dubrovnik, by her son, is a narrative about a double abduction of a girl and her female servants (Murat 1996:50–60). Hasnija Hrustanović from Gacko provided a song (PN 2611, Vidan 2003:171–3) in which a maiden is captured by the Christians and given to their viceroy, who treats her like his own daughter (thus we have some similarities to Lucić’s maiden, who lives under the auspices of a king, although she is captured only afterwards). The viceroy hopes to get a ransom for her and prompts her to ask her family for help, but in the end only her former admirer responds and gets her back. Recalling that Croatia was then divided between Venice, Hungary (later the Habsburgs), and the Ottomans, it is hardly surprising that local authors were preoccupied with the topics of captivity and freedom and that this was reflected in both the oral and literary corpus alike.
Lucić’s play, however, has much stronger ties to historical circumstances than any of the oral songs, and it is worth looking into specific details in order to reach its hidden subtext. The principal character of his The Slave Girl, the rescuer-fiancé, bears the historical name Derenčin, and it is explicitly stated that he is related to the Croatian viceroy Derenčin who was, as already noted, the leader of the Croatian army against the Ottomans at the battle of Krbava in 1493, where he perished along with most of his soldiers. In addition to Vodnik’s analysis of the characters’ links to historical personages (Vodnik 1909), the most relevant discussion to date is that by Vončina, who, on the basis of historical clues given in the play, suggests 1527 as the year when it was written, after the fall of Belgrade and the battle of Mohács. He further offers a chronology demonstrating that the captive girl, named Danica in the play, is modeled on Benigna, the daughter of Majer Blaž (Blaž Podmanicki), who was Matthias Corvinus’ military leader and who defended Belgrade against the Ottomans after he became viceroy in 1470. Although Majer Blaž is mentioned, in The Slave Girl he becomes the grandfather. Danica/Benigna is given an imaginary father called Vlasko who apparently perished at the hands of Turks (Vončina 1976:140–150). In her exchange with Derenčin, Danica reveals that she comes from the area of “Savah i Dravah” (the Sava and Drava rivers), and Vončina points out that the latter was reached by the Ottomans only during the Mohács operation (Vončina 1976:137). It should be mentioned here that Derenčin, Majer Blaž, and many other historical names from this period, such as Matthias Corvinus’s father János Hunyadi (Sibinjanin Janko) and Vuk Grgurević (Zmaj Ognjeni Vuk) also entered the regional oral tradition.
Utilizing a historical family name, whose significance was certainly known to Lucić, and appending it to a fictional figure was a firm signal to his audience that the play had political ramifications. Viceroy Derenčin is remembered in cultural memory as a defender of his homeland, and in the play his fictional relative appears as a defender of a captive maiden. Since the female element often stands as a metaphor for the country, the motif of an abducted maiden served Lucić well to carry the weight of both an inoffensive literary narrative and a disguised political metaphor for a land yearning for liberation. What is more, the play is situated in Dubrovnik, which unlike the author’s home island was unoccupied at the time, and this gesture is Lucić’s nod to the libertas so arduously celebrated by this city-state. His and Vetranović’s resentment towards the threat the Ottomans posed for Dubrovnik, the only free zone in the region, is very much in line with that of Marin Držić as demonstrated below. [7]
Given the carnival spirit, it is not surprising that the plays of both Lucić and Držić revolve around feasts: the former concludes with the captive maiden’s and her rescuer’s wedding party, and the latter includes numerous scenes in which food and feasting represent the essence of happy living. Držić’s principal character is named “Table Sweeper” and it is not by chance that he subsumes the author’s Weltanschauung. “In the act of eating (…) the confines between the body and the world are overstepped by the body; it triumphs over the world, over its enemy, celebrates its victory, grows at the world’s expense. This element of victory and triumph is inherent in all banquet images. No meal can be sad,” concludes Bakhtin (Bakhtin 1984:282). Additionally, he stresses that “the ritual of the feast tended to project the play of time itself, which kills and gives birth at the same time, recasting the old into the new, allowing nothing to perpetuate itself” (Bakhtin 1984:82). By making the feast one of the central narrative junctions Lucić and Držić underscore the material and the bodily principle which is inclusive of all people and functionally re-generative in nature. In the same vein, both plays are brimming with sexual connotations: in Lucić’s, characters discuss the stained sheets after the consummated marriage, while in Držić’s, the prodigal son succumbs to the charms of a courtesan while the others keep plotting how to win her attention. This focus on fertility and the life of “the belly and the reproductive organs” (Bakhtin 1984:19) is yet another act of defiance, which was in line with the carnivalesque spirit, subversive laughter, and the insistence on the rejuvenation of physical and social order.
Related to the motif of a captive maiden in literature is the traditional mock battle Moreška, which was recorded already in the seventeenth century on the island of Korčula and is still performed there. Wherever Spanish dominance reached (owing to Charles V, this included a great deal of the Mediterranean basin), these types of performances took root. Since Dubrovnik had strong ties with the Spanish-held Naples in the 16th century, it is conceivable that the Moreška could have reached Croatia from Naples or possibly some other Italian city. In a series of complicated choreographies, the Korčula Moreška depicts a fight between the army of the Black (Moorish) King, who abducts a bula (a Muslim lady), and that of the White King (typically dressed in red for enhanced effect), who in the end wins the maiden. Since Greek antiquity Korčula has been known as Korkyra Melaina (Black Korčula), owing to its dense pine woods. Harris and Feldman demonstrate that “a hidden transcript of resistance to external rule was insinuated into the imported narrative of Turks, Moors, and Christians” (Harris and Feldman 2003:299). In their interpretation “the Blacks were not Muslims but Korčulans, representatives of Black Korčula” (Harris and Feldman 2003:312), which is evident from poetic imagery that is highly sympathetic to the Black King: “the young woman’s opening speech pointedly undermines the ethical values with which ‘black’ and ‘white’ have traditionally been imbued in Europe” (Harris and Feldman 2003:311). Repossession of the maiden by the White King is viewed as a true abduction, and the White King with his soldiers recognized as a guise for the Venetian invaders who had held the island of Korčula for several centuries. The maiden is thus possibly a metaphorical embodiment of the violated island of Korčula. What was on the surface a simple evocation of the clash between Christians and Muslims could be also read, in Harris’s and Feldman’s words, as a “hidden transcript” of the fate of the island of Korčula itself. Discussing the Korčula Moreška in the context of the rise of dramatic genres in Croatia not only illuminates further the political ramifications of this custom, but also links it to an older layer of folklore tradition and to the Croatian secular theater.
If Lucić’s political protest is only implied and Moreška’s embedded in a centuries old ritual, Držić’s attempts at subversion are much more robust and palpable—not only through his most important play Uncle Maroje (1551) but also his secret letters to Cosimo I de’ Medici in which he openly calls for the overthrow of Dubrovnik’s government. [8] The comedy itself is a rich fabric of linguistic textures and nuances, and an assembly of vivid and intricately related characters. It relies on the well-known narrative pattern of “the prodigal son,” who escapes from Dubrovnik to Rome on business, but falls victim to his hedonistic impulses. While courting a lady of questionable morals, he also competes with her other suitor, who happens to be of German origin. Having heard about his son’s profligate conduct, old Maroje comes to Rome to salvage what he can, as does the son’s fiancée with her escort. Typically for a Renaissance play, the principal characters have servants who are often the ones not only propelling the action forward, but also offering wisdom to the world. Many critics have commented on the seminal role that Pomet Trpeza (roughly translated, “Table Sweeper,” the German suitor’s servant modeled on the classical “hungry slave”) has both as a character and as the meta-textual encapsulation of the author’s own views. He is the one who rules over both the geographic and communicative spaces, and it is thus with good reason that he pronounces himself “the king of men.” He is the measure of wisdom and the one best able to understand and adjust to different situations. Arguably, Pomet’s most important statement in the play is: “Ma se je trijeba s brjemenom akomodavat; trijeba je bit vjertuozu tko hoće renjat na svijetu” (Držić 1964:223; “One needs to adjust to the times and be a virtuoso if he wants to rule the world”). [9]
While most of the comedy concerns money and the pleasures it can buy, the character of Pomet additionally occupies himself with philosophical questions, central among which is how to survive in volatile times and persuade fickle Fortune to stay on one’s side. Adjusting to circumstances is essential and it implies assessing one’s allies and enemies in order to be able to come up with the right strategy. Pomet’s ability to perceive the situation from someone else’s point of view and to direct events to his advantage not only makes him the supreme character but also ties his role to that of both the ruler (of the theatrical world) and writer (of the play itself). And indeed, the question of how to rule was weighing heavily on the minds of many kings and statesmen during the Renaissance. Držić’s text suggests his familiarity with Machiavelli’s Il Principe, but his obsession with the concept of ruling, the malaise called avarice, political alliances, and more specifically, the position of his native Dubrovnik on the turbulent map of sixteenth-century Europe comes forth with full force in Uncle Maroje’s first Prologue.
As others have demonstrated, this prologue serves as a literary overture to an actual political conspiracy that occurred fifteen years after the play’s premiere and involved the Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I de’ Medici, who, Držić hoped, would help him in bringing down Dubrovnik’s government (Kadić 1962:80; Jeličić 1976). [10] Although Dubrovnik was the only free Croatian territory at the time and its government was successfully navigating the political scene, the situation was precarious. The Ottomans’ looming presence, thought Držić, called for a strengthening of Dubrovnik’s ties with Western rulers, rather than succumbing to the Ottomans’ ever-increasing tributes and taxation. He believed that the governing policy of subservience was not so much rooted in Dubrovnik’s political interests as it was a source of easy profit for the members of the ruling caste. Kunčević discusses in detail Dubrovnik’s relations with the Porte and its tributary obligation which the city-state insisted was an economic rather than political arrangement (Kunčević 2015:99–111). Despite an ostensible image of political harmony, there existed a bifurcation of interests between the common citizens and the closed circle of Dubrovnik patricians from whose ranks Držić’s family fell out, a fact he deeply resented. Moreover, political discord arose even among some of the ruling members themselves (Senker 2009:151–154; Kunčević 2015:51–52, 151–155). Having lived in Siena as a young man between 1538 and 1545, where he enjoyed the high status of Rector of the Domus Sapientiae and thus had access to the social elite, and having traveled in the service of the Austrian count Christoph von Rogendorf to Istanbul in 1546, Držić experienced firsthand both the West and the East, but likely also had access to information available in diplomatic and espionage circles.
However, not being able to voice his thoughts openly, Držić used literature as a vehicle for alerting his fellow citizens. He begins his comedy with a prologue in which a magician named Long Nose tells a narrative, very much in the vein of tale-tellers, about his travels in the faraway lands of the Great and Small Indies, of New and Old Indies. The Old India was a utopian place of noble-looking, ethically superior people, but as creatures from the other Indies began mixing with them, the good “real” people (ljudi nazbilj) began to perish and the disfigured animal-like creatures, the “unreal, naught” people (ljudi nahvao) took over. It was avarice that triggered this situation, because the strange creatures were brought to the bucolic Old India for the purpose of trading. Money and greed are thus the source of many evils. In the concluding part of the prologue, it is also stated that the play will reveal who the good real people and who the “naught” people are, the latter clearly referring to the nobility populating Dubrovnik’s governmental structures and presumably sitting in the audience. Through the words of his Indian magician, Držić is evidently criticizing the fact that the Dubrovnik government was greedy first and foremost for its own profit. And what is more, the comedy was staged in the City Hall, Dubrovnik’s central locus of power, but the criticism was mitigated by the exotic cloak of an Indian tale and the time of carnival.
And why India of all places? Using a hidden narrative stemming from the fourth-century Indian oral collection Pañćatantra, which was supposedly designed as a manual for rulers, Držić condemns tongue-in-cheek Dubrovnik’s government from its own throne. [11] As mentioned previously, his stay in Siena exposed him to Italian literary currents and it is quite likely that he became acquainted with some of the works that were structurally and thematically modeled on Pañćatantra. In the course of the early to mid-sixteenth century there appeared a remarkable number of collections which were influenced by Giovanni di Capua’s Liber Kalilae et Dimnae: Directorium vitae humanae (ca. 1270), a version of Pañćatantra based on Abdullah ibn al-Moqaffa’s Arabic version entitled Kalila wa Dimna, which di Capua began translating into Latin in Italy from Rabbi Joel’s twelfth century Hebrew rendition and completed from the Arabic (Beecher et al. 2003:14–27). Di Capua’s translation served as the basis for the Spanish version called Exemplario contra los engaños y peligros del mundo, which was also the first one to be published in 1493 with nine successive editions (Beecher et al. 2003:26). Not surprisingly, its moralistic tales, which often served as a model for prescribing certain types of behavior, easily entered the works of Renaissance writers as attested in Agnolo Firenzuola’s La prima veste de’ discorsi degli animali, written in 1540 (thus around the time of Držić’s stay in Siena) and published posthumously in 1548 (A. Seroni in Firenzuola 1958:441–443). Similarly, in 1552 the Florentine Anton Francesco Doni published in Venice his La filosofia morale del Doni: Tratta da molti degni Scrittori Antichi prudenti, which in its opening recalls India as the tales’ source. [12] Another author drawn to animal and magic tales stemming from oral tradition is Giovanni Francesco Straparola, who published his Le piacevole notti in the period from 1550 to 1553. [13] It is, I believe, beyond any doubt that Držić was familiar with either di Capua’s translation, Firenzuola’s manuscript, or some other work relying on the Indian collection of oral tales. However, Držić utilized its basic narrative to depict a local political situation, in the process giving the oral narrative a double functionality: public and hidden.
Fifteen years after the Prologue was written, Držić traveled to Florence with the goal of overturning the Dubrovnik government; there he sought the help of Cosimo I de’ Medici. In his six letters to Medici written in summer 1566 (five of which survive, while one is referred to in a subsequent letter), he chastises Dubrovnik’s ruling nobles and reveals his hope for intensification of the city-state’s Western orientation. [14] The link between the Prologue and Držić’s later political activities in Italy is essential, as first suggested by Živko Jeličić (Novak et al. 2009:850). However, the Prologue can be fully understood only if read in the context of the Indian oral collection that found such wide dissemination in Italy (and elsewhere) and which provided Držić with sophisticated tools of political activism.
This context of transtextuality opens up a question of reception which looms large because of insufficient data pertaining to the earlier period. It is reasonable to ask which layers of these palimpsestuous texts the audiences addressed by Lucić and Držić were able to discern, as well as to what degree they could relate to the potentially subversive political messages. As Senker underscores, the performance of Uncle Maroje (and this is true for The Slave Girl as well) was open to the general public and set in the main square, although it was noted that it was eventually moved to the City Hall because of the bad weather (Senker 2009:148). The profile of Držić’s audience is discernible from his inclusive gesture in the play’s two prologues: the first in which Magician Long Nose addresses not only Dubrovnik nobles, but also “the old folks, women, the old and the young, the tall and the tiny, the folks with whom peace resides and who stay away from warfare” and the second which mentions “the gentle and good-natured assembly, folk old and wise.” The author was thus aware of the broadest spectrum of spectators but aimed his central message at those who did not have power in their hands. What is more, Držić concludes Long Nose’s speech by saying that for the audience the origin of the evil people disturbing the world should be more important than the comedy they are about to see. Although the question of reception cannot be answered in a satisfying way, the context of the plays as well as their timing indicate that “by entering carnival and becoming public, theater symbolically returned to all Dubrovnik citizens the rights which political changes of the late Middle age took away” (Senker 2009:160). Despite different circumstances, much of the same could be said for Lucić’s Hvar.
The interplay between the oral and the written in these examples renders a complex dialogic exchange of the public and hidden narratives which presented audiences with differing sets of communicative codes. A written text that assimilates oral components as a part of its narrative spectrum can superimpose an intention to convey different layers of reality in a more intricate fashion than is evident in the oral narratives it relies upon. However, as the example of the Moreška illustrates, the true polyphonic nature of traditional materials is set forth when the oldest layers are resurrected to accommodate new patterns of reality. What is at play here is a strong sense of collective memory in which oral and written emerge as cultural palimpsests, as different manifestations of the same experiences, and share the type of multi-functionality that allows for preservation of both aesthetic values and collective identity.


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[ back ] 1. In particular, writers such as Ivan Gundulić (1589–1638), Andrija Kačić Miošić (1704–1760), Ivan Mažuranić (1814–1890) from Croatia and Petar Petrović Njegoš (1813–1851) from Montenegro, who all drew their inspiration from the local oral tradition both in terms of the subject matter and versification, have been a focus of numerous studies.
[ back ] 2. Based on the information provided in the plays themselves, we know with certainty that both Držić’s Uncle Maroje and Lucić’s The Slave Girl were performed during the carnival season. For more details on Držić’s plays see the relevant entries in Novak et al. 2009; for discussion of the carnival components in Lucić’s The Slave Girl see Tomasović 1988 and Mrdeža 1987.
[ back ] 3. Recent research points to the fact that viceroy Derenčin and Bernardin Frankapan (Frankopan) had opposing views on the military strategy in battling the Ottomans. The viceroy’s tactics were used at the battle of Krbava which resulted in a complete defeat of the Croatian side. In the months prior to the battle Derenčin and Frankapan clashed over other issues such as the ownership of the port of Senj and it was only the looming danger of the Ottoman conquerors that brought them to the same side (Kekez 2009).
[ back ] 4. Unless otherwise noted in the bibliography, all translations of sources published in languages other than English are my own.
[ back ] 5. Vončina examines the linguistic characteristics of Lucić’s poetic expression in The Slave Girl and points out that although Lucić’s doubly-rhymed, dodecasyllabic verse is not imported from oral tradition, which favors the decasyllable, there are many stylistic elements clearly derived from oral tradition (Vončina 1976:172–173).
[ back ] 6. Both Džore Držić (1461–1501) and Mavro Vetranović (1483–1576) were born and lived in Dubrovnik.
[ back ] 7. Vončina points to the ambiguous passage in Lucić’s The Slave Girl which may be hinting at Dubrovnik’s reluctance to oppose the Turks (Vončina 1976:151–2), while Vetranović’s Pjesanca slavi carevoj (A Poem in the Emperor’s Honor) explicitly discusses the question of Dubrovnik’s tribute to the Ottomans and the fear that the city may be taken by them.
[ back ] 8. For discussion of dating of Uncle Maroje see Tatarin 2011:85–96.
[ back ] 9. The continuation of Pomet’s monologue is as follows: “The King is his people’s man if he knows how to rule. It’s not about riches because I see many miserable ones with riches; it’s not about learnedness because I see many strange ones in this company; it’s not about being a hero with a sword in one’s hand because many times these are killed or fill the dungeons; it’s not about being a poet or being able to write comedies because these are harassed by everyone and made to work like porters at every wedding, and instead of thankfulness they are told ‘Wasn’t good at all’ and gain enemies; it’s not about being a peasant because others make these sing when they’d rather cry. One has to be patient and give the bad times their due in order to enjoy the good times.”
[ back ] 10. A survey of interpretations of the Prologue to Dundo Maroje is offered in Tatarin 2009, while Držić’s subversive activities are detailed in Kunčević 2007 and 2009. [ back ] [ back ]
[ back ] 11. The Pañćatantra (“five books”), comprising didactic tales featuring animals, is presumed to be of folk origin and is among the most widely disseminated folktale collections.
[ back ] 12. In Doni’s words: “Il presente Libro honorati lettori, su ritrouato scritto ne la India, con titolo di SAPIENZA MORALE: & di quella lingua su tradotto ne la Persica, chiamandolo ESSEMPIO DEL BEN VIVERE.”
[ back ] 13. Straparola’s case is particularly revealing as it generated a heated scholarly debate on interactions between oral and written literature. Prompted by Ruth B. Bottigheimer’s perception of Straparola as the “fairy godfather” who invented the “rise tale” in the 1550s, scholars such as Dan Ben-Amos, Jan Ziolkowski and Francisco Vaz da Silva argue quite the opposite: that Straparola, having lived at the point of convergence of oral and written, drew on preexisting oral sources and in essence built on these as any gifted oral storyteller would have, with the difference that in the sixteenth century the transmission channel became a printed book (Ben-Amos 2010: 430; Ziolkowski 2010: 394; da Silva 2010: 401).
[ back ] 14. For more on Držić’s conspiracy see Dayre 1938; Delić-Gozze 2007; Kunčević 2007, 2009.