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The Improvvisatori

One of the figures that never ceased to stir the curiosity of travelers in every age was the improvvisatore, or improviser. Smollett (1765) noted: «such is the name given to certain individuals, who have the surprising talent of reciting verses extempore, on any subject you propose». He recalled hearing such a performance from the son of his landlord, Mr. Coversi, a Franciscan friar who was able to recite, without any preparation, “two or three hundred verses, well turned, and well adapted, and generally mingled with an elegant compliment to the company”. Rather than attributing all this to some prodigious gift, Smollett cites Tasso, Ariosto and Petrarch as the «great sources» from which the Improvisatori draw their rhimes, cadence, and turns of expression.

Dupaty (1785) paid homage to the famous Corilla, «the celebrated improvvisatrice, who has created such a sensation in Europe and who was crowned several years on the Capitol, where Petrarch had been crowned...» In addition to her talent at improvising verse, Burney (1770) emphasized her expressiveness in song.

De Brosses (1740) offered a description of the performance of Cavalier Perfetti, to whom the aurora borealis was proposed as a «quodlibetic» subject, and who responded, after sufficient meditation to the sound of the harpsichord, with an increasingly rapid declamation of octets that gradually rose in tone. De Brosses’ verdict was positive, and yet it «is impossible for the construction not to be often mangled and the verses not to turn into a bombastic jumble, » for it was more a question of words than of ideas.

Delpuech de Comeiras (1804), who defined them as a «sort of itinerant factory of verses», held that they were especially abundant in Siena. As was his custom, Valéry (1828) discussed them at length in terms of a tradition now in decline: the improvvisatori were «poor devils, a kind of mountebank» who based their performances on clichès or trivial stories.


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