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  • Cited by 2
Cambridge University Press
Online publication date:
October 2019
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Book description

A primary mode for the creation and dissemination of poetry in Renaissance Italy was the oral practice of singing and improvising verse to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument. Singing to the Lyre is the first comprehensive study of this ubiquitous practice, which was cultivated by performers ranging from popes, princes, and many artists, to professionals of both mercantile and humanist background. Common to all was a strong degree of mixed orality based on a synergy between writing and the oral operations of memory, improvisation, and performance. As a cultural practice deeply rooted in language and supported by ancient precedent, cantare ad lyram (singing to the lyre) is also a reflection of Renaissance cultural priorities, including the status of vernacular poetry, the study and practice of rhetoric, the oral foundations of humanist education, and the performative culture of the courts reflected in theatrical presentations and Castiglione's Il cortegiano.


Choice Outstanding Academic Title 2020, Choice Reviews.


‘For many years Blake Wilson has tantalised us with a string of articles on singers of improvised verse in Italy in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Now, with this important and wide-ranging book, we come to know the world of the cantarini, from simple street singers to accomplished improvisers of versified epics performing in public, to refined singers ‘to the lyre', without whom no festivity or banquet was complete. Drawing on a wide range of materials, Wilson is able to trace the lives of the famous canterini in surprising detail. Along the way, we learn of the longevity of the chanson de geste; the attraction of blind singers to the profession; the role of memory in improvisation; the art of performing extempore verse; the question of improvised verse as intellectual property; and above all, the central figure of Orpheus, in philosophy, religion, poetry, theatre, and music.'

Bonnie J. Blackburn - Wolfson College, Oxford

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