You never know what you’ll find at an artisan cheesemaker’s in Tuscany. I’d been meaning to visit I Taufi farm for several years, and finally made it last summer. I’m no longer surprised by the superwomen I meet at these farms, but Daniela Pagliai is exceptional, and I’ll tell her story another time.
In her farm shop, there was a shelf of pamphlets and leaflets. I took a selection to read at home. One turned out to be about a village woman, born in the late 1800s who improvised verses in ottava rima as she worked and in the evenings around the kitchen fire. I thought improvising poetry was a dead art; something troubadours did in the Middle Ages. Yet here was a woman who was doing it during my lifetime, and she hadn’t even gone to school. I did a little research on ottava rima and discovered that it has been traced back to Bocaccio in the 14th century and so may have originated in Tuscany. Interesting, but then I forgot about it.
On Tuesday last week I received an email from Stefano, the owner of Il Mecenate, one of my favourite restaurants in Lucca, announcing four classes on the improvisation of ottava rima taught by a master of the art Mauro Chechi. A native Tuscan born in the Maremma, he trained in jurisprudence (another improvisatory art?), but gave up practising in 1979 for a life in the theatre.
The lesson took place at the headquarters of the Partita Democratica* in Piazza San Francesco in Lucca. When I arrived at the bleak shopfront, after dinner next door at Stefano’s, there were about a dozen people milling around in the unheated room, lined with 1970s tongue-and-groove knotty pine wainscotting above which hung framed black-and-white photos of past party luminaries. The furnishings consisted of a long formica-topped table and green plastic stacking chairs. The class was billed to begin at 9 pm, and Mauro tried to start at about 9.15, but people kept trickling in until 9.30. In the end 18 men and women, old and young, stylishly dressed and carelessly clad were assembled. Many seemed to know Mauro and all had some acquaintance with ottava rima. Since I wanted to blend in, I didn’t take any photos or videos. One Italian who did got the evil eye from those around him.
Mauro told us that ottava rima is still practised in several regions of Italy including the Abruzzo, and there are practitioners in most of the countries where Romance languages are spoken. It’s particularly easy to improvise the rhyming scheme when many words have the same endings. It’s much harder in English, although some English poets have used it, a famous example being Byron’s Don Juan. Each verse has eight lines of 10 or 11 syllables with a rhyme scheme abababcc. The rhyming sounds at the ends of the lines are the anchoring landmarks that permit you to improvise, acting perhaps like chord sequences for a jazz musician.
After giving us a couple of examples, Mauro started going round the room asking each person to try it. Some people had obviously done it before. The youngest, a man in his 20s, was particularly adept. I was relieved that some people declined, as I did when it came my turn. I wondered whether the woman next to me wished I hadn’t attended, when Mauro asked her to improvise on the theme of the English visitor! But she made a good job of it and shook my hand warmly when I left. Some people wanted to go away and practise at home before trying in public, but Mauro said they’d never get better unless they practise with an audience. One man who excelled advised that you have to sing it in order for the words to come easily.
If you’re wondering why this is in my blog which is usually about food and gastronomic tours, then you’d better ask Slow Food who made this video at Slow Folk 3.
Only a few kilometres from Daniela’s farm this ottava rima show recently took place to a packed hall. The audience was having so much fun, it could have been a stand-up comedy routine. I couldn’t tear myself away, even though I only understood scattered words.
I probably won’t pursue the art any further myself, but I feel a world where people still have fun improvising in ottava rima is a better place to live.
*Centre left party whose member Enrico Letta is the current Prime Minister of Italy.
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