Giangiorgio Trissino was a man of great intellect, erudition, and enterprise, who did not always choose well the topics and trappings for his creativity. He wished to be remembered as an innovator, but the innovations that he proposed were not always appropriate for his age. His epic poem, though born of the noblest goals, was a failure. Nevertheless, what was worthy of imitation in Trissino’s work was recognized. La Sofonisba stands today as the first secular tragedy of modern European literature, and the pattern of versification that was thereby introduced was widely followed by subsequent dramatists.
Trissino completed his tragedy La Sofonisba in 1515. Galeotto Del Caretto had written a more traditional (that is, medieval) version of the story in rhyme in 1502, but Del Caretto’s play was not printed until 1546. Petrarch had even used the story in one of his poems. Trissino’s play, taken directly from Livy, proved more erudite than stageworthy. Although it was not staged until 1562, after the author’s death, when it was lavishly produced by the Teatro Olimpico at Vicenza, it was printed at least ten times in Italy between 1524 and 1620 and was highly praised. In his dedication to Pope Leo X, Trissino, like Dante more than two centuries before him, felt it necessary to justify his having written in Italian rather than in Latin or Greek: He wanted to reach the common people.
Although Trissino liked to say that La Sofonisba was written according to Aristotelian theory, he was not yet so familiar with the theory at the time of the play’s composition as he was to become. As Marvin T. Herrick observes, if Trissino had had a good understanding of the Poetics of Aristotle when he wrote La Sofonisba, he would not have chosen the story of Sofonisba in the first place, for Livy’s original account does not lend itself to arrangement in the complex plot employing discovery and reversal of fortune that Sophocles and Euripides used in their best plays and that Aristotle recommended. In his La Poetica, Trissino confessed that the plot of La Sofonisba was not like that of Sophocles’ tragedy Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715) or Euripides’ Iphigenea en Taurois (c. 414 b.c.e.; Iphigenia in Tauris, 1782), but rather like that of Sophocles’ Aias (c. 440 b.c.e.; Ajax, 1729), which Aristotle called a “tragedy of suffering.”
Trissino wrote La Sofonisba in reaction against the vogue for Senecan tragedy. Following Greek models and eschewing the precedent of Horace and Seneca for a five-act drama, he arranged his play in episodes and choral odes, although if the prologue, incorporated as an integral part of the play as in the Greek fashion, is counted as an act, it and the episodes actually meet the five-act requirement. Although his followers preferred to continue using the traditional segmentation into five acts, Trissino did set a precedent when he chose to write La Sofonisba, not in the terza rima of Dante or the ottava rima of Boccaccio and the writers of the heroic romances, but in blank verse, which he deemed more appropriate for the poetry of tragedy, especially for a tragedy with a military setting. He used the eleven-syllable line, which bears some resemblance to the iambic trimeter of Greek tragedy. In a...
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