Pagliacci is fueled by the crime of passion while Gianni Schicchi is powered by the sin of greed. Pagliacci’s origins were of the most mundane sort, but Gianni Schicchi sprang from a more literary source, one that also had roots in real life. In Canto XXX of The Divine Comedy, Dante and his guide Virgil arrive at the Eighth Circle of Hell, the place of falsifiers and forgers.
Schicchi is only one among many in this colorful, if horrific, scene. Among them is Griffolino da Arezzo (d. c.1272), a notorious sort who preyed on the weak and was burned as an alchemist. Capocchio, whom Dante may have known as a student, was another alchemist burned at Siena in 1293. While the alchemists’ crime of falsifying precious metals was serious, it was not as egregious as those who impersonated and gave false witness. Among the latter is Myrrha, a beautiful young princess from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, who was condemned for tricking her father, King Cinyras of Cyprus, into sleeping with her. (According to Greek mythology, Myrrha is so shamed by her deception that she begs the gods to release her. She is turned into a myrrh tree and under her bark grows a child who becomes the legendary Adonis.) The bestial Gianni Schicchi, another contemporary of Dante’s, ended up in a pit full of vipers for having conspired with Simone Donati to cheat Buoso Donati out of his property.
Buoso Donati himself makes an appearance earlier in Canto XXV in The Divine Comedy, condemned for dishonesty in public office and forced to suffer being bitten by a serpent, a lesser punishment accorded to a mere thief. Dante knew the Donati family well, having been betrothed to Gemma Donati when he was 12. The Donati family dominated the Black Guelph party that ruled Florence in the 13th century, a faction instrumental in sending Dante, who was allied with the White Guelphs, into exile in 1302. In addition to his resentment over being sent away from Florence, Dante also exhibited in his work contempt for the peasants who had begun arriving in great numbers in Florence during the late 1200s. By condemning Schicchi who victimized his wife’s family, Dante also avenged himself on the immigrants who, as he saw it, threatened the social and political order. By the time that Forzano was writing the opera libretto in the 20th century, xenophobia and class warfare had been largely replaced by nostalgia for the Renaissance and pride in a reunified Italy. When Rinuccio sings “Firenze è come un albero fiorito” (“A tree blooms in Florence”), we hear a call to civic pride and inclusiveness that also serves as a mild rebuke to the great poet’s narrow-mindedness.
Crime and retribution in Pagliacci are tempered with none of these literary trappings. In fact, things are rather more sordid among the clowns. Whatever entertainment value is promised by the masks and costumes, our last hope for a happy ending is abruptly dashed by Canio’s terse dismissal at the end. Powerful, yes. But don’t expect to leave the theater with a spring in your step.
Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of The Hedgehog Review and writes about the performing and visual arts. This article is taken from a larger work that appears in the program for Gianni Schicchi/Pagliacci performances.
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