Published online by Cambridge University Press: 04 February 2011
One of the troublesome things about the fortunes of literature in the vernacular, from the perspective of textual critics and jealous authors, is that it can be manipulated, masticated, copied, adapted and changed by people of different walks of life. Not just passive ‘readers’, Sacchetti's blacksmith and mule-driver are engaged in emending and interpolating the text. One adds a refrain of ‘giddyups’ and the other interlaces verses of his own making into tercets of the Commedia. The choice of a fabbro as an example of a vulgar amplifier of poetry might well depend upon Dante's own description of the Provençal poet Arnaut Daniel as the best smith of the mother tongue (‘fu miglior fabbro del parlar materno’). It would seem that the volgare is a linguistic medium that lends itself to the hammer and anvil. The fact that the chastized fabbro of Sacchetti's novella moves on to the chivalric material of the cantari, and lets Dante be, suggests that his sort of improvisation was less offensive to that genre than to a work of the poetic pretensions of the Commedia.
The texts we have of the cantari are thought to be relatively late written records of storytelling songs that had long circulated orally. Because Carolingian and Arthurian stories came from France, singers of cantari were often translators as well as improvisational poets. We have an early portrait of a cantare performance in a letter written in Latin by the very early humanist Lovato dei Lovati.