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Middle Ages without borders: a conversation on medievalism

Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri
Pierre Savy
Lila Yawn

a) Le Moyen Âge du long romantisme. France, Italie

3) Johannes of Hauvilla’s Architrenius and Giacomo Leopardi’s Dialogue of Nature with an Icelander

Lorenzo Carlucci et Laura Marino

Texte intégral

1What can Architrenius by Johannes of Hauvilla, an obscure poem in Latin hexameters from 1184 Northern France, classified by modern editors as a “satyrical allegory,” have in common with one of the most famous and characteristic prose works of the Italian nineteenth-century poet Giacomo Leopardi, his Dialogue of Nature with an Icelander? The latter is considered the main expression of Leopardi’s original anti-providentialistic, anti-anthropocentric, anti-Christian—if not plainly materialistic and proto-nihilistic—views and commonly regarded as an original reading of ideas from the Enlightenment through the lens of Leopardi’s genius. Nothing seems more distant from anything “medieval.” Moreover, Leopardi’s interest in the Middle Ages seems, according to his critics, to have been quite limited.

2It is all the more surprising then, that upon closer inspection, the two works reveal extensive structural, thematic, and linguistic correspondences, whose sum and quality makes it hard to believe that they are the product of chance. To start with, the two works share a common plot. A man, having convinced himself of the vanity and misery of the human condition and blaming Nature as responsible for it, embarks upon a pilgrimage around the world, all the while confirming his initial view, and finally meets Nature, personified as a majestic woman, whom he engages with in a vivid debate around the themes of evil, providence, and anthropocentrism. The fact that Architrenius (the eponymous hero of Johannes’ poem) travels the world to seek out Nature and inquire about the reasons of her hatred towards man while the Icelander travels the world to escape from Nature is not enough to shade the deep similarity of the two quêtes, which is also apparent in the very linguistic formulations of the protagonists’ intentions: “Profugo Natura per orbem / est querenda michi,” says the medieval man; “Vo’ fuggendo la Natura per cento parti della terra,” echoes Leopardi’s Icelander.

3“La mia filosofia fa rea d’ogni cosa la natura, e discolpando gli uomini totalmente, rivolge l’odio, o se non altro il lamento, a principio più alto, all’origine vera de’ mali de’ viventi”; so writes Leopardi in his Zibaldone on January 2, 1829. Such a declaration also happens to capture the most specific character of Architrenius, whose eponymous protagonist, archi-threnius, i.e. princeps lamentationum, overlooks the most traditional Christian orthodox doctrines on original sin and instead accuses Nature of the misery of the human condition, addressing to her not only his lamentations but also his invectives whose harshness finds no match in any of Johannes’ predecessors or contemporaries. In his final invective, Architrenius accuses Nature of being a hateful “step-mother” (noverca), and a “Procne,” that is, a slayer of her own progeny, prefiguring the accusation of the Icelander to Nature, “carnefice della tua propria famiglia,” as well as Leopardi’s distinctive concept of “Natura di voler matrigna” in the poem La Ginestra.

4The two works are structurally congruent in their epilogues: in both cases the protagonist enters the cycle of perpetual creation and destruction that, as Nature declares, constitutes the essence of her law. Architrenius is pushed to marry in order to procreate before dying, while Leopardi concludes his Dialogue with the account of the Icelander’s death. Leopardi’s epilogue, moreover, contains a cryptic allusion to his hidden source. As Eva Viani has discovered, the death of Leopardi’s Icelander strictly matches the narration of the death of Heraclitus in the Suidas Lexicon. What is the meaning of this allusion to the ancient Greek philosopher? The answer might be stunningly simple: Heraclitus is traditionally known as “The Weeper,” the philosopher who weeps at the miseries of human life (Heraclitus lugens). By implicitly identifying his Icelander with Heraclitus “The Weeper” Leopardi is pointing to the source of inspiration of his operetta: Architrenius, the Arch-Weeper, the weeper par excellence.

5Leopardi never mentions Architrenius in his works. Yet, he could have known about Johannes’ poem from a large number of sources he was acquainted with and that were present in his family library or easily accessible to him, among which Fabricius’ Bibliotheca, Ravisius’ Epitheta, Gibbon’s History, Pio’s commentary on De Rerum Natura, the Histoire Littéraire de la France, and many others. Leopardi—a well-known bibliophile—could have then read Johannes’ poem in manuscript form either in Perugia’s Library, or, more likely as we believe, during his stay in Rome, exactly at the time of composition of his Dialogue. Two manuscripts of Architrenius are in the Biblioteca Vaticana, where Leopardi worked while in Rome, and a very readable cinquecentina is at the Biblioteca Vallicelliana.

6If one looks for a common ideological framework for Architrenius and Leopardi’s Dialogue, the best fit seems to be a category that was very central to the intellectual debate both at the time of Johannes and at the time of Leopardi: Manichaeism, the dualist doctrine according to which the world is the work of an evil power distinct from God. This heretical credo was attributed to the so-called Albigeois or “Cathars” by theologians contemporary with Johannes (in particular Alan of Lille). Revived by Bayle in his Dictionnaire, this doctrine counted a number of illustrious sympathizers during the Enlightment, before giving rise to various forms of medievalism during the Romantic Era.


7Bayle, Dictionnaire
Carlucci – Marino 2019
Giovanni di Altavilla, Architrenius
Johannes de Hauvilla, Architrenius
Leopardi, Dialogue
Leopardi, La Ginestra
Leopardi, Zibaldone
Suidas Lexicon


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Università degli Studi di Cassino

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