“The Land of the Muses.” How Sardinia Became Italy’s Island of Poets
Jeff Biggers on the Centuries-Old Tradition of Poetry in Sardinia
Sardinian poet Nanni Falconi watched as translators zoomed in from Paris, Montreal, Iowa City and numerous parts of Italy for the multilingual kickoff of his new book of poems, Su Cantu de su Ciddicoa.
“You do not understand that my stubby hands also take care of the flocks of words, in the wild countryside of your consciences,” the former shepherd and award-winning poet had admonished in one of his poems, written in his native Sardinian language.
The global celebration of Falconi’s new collection, published by the Archivi del Sud Edizioni, served as a reminder of the island’s long-standing role as a wellspring of poetry that has transcended borders for centuries—actually, for millennia.
“The Sardes are almost all born poets,” Charles Dickens’ Household Words magazine declared in 1856. The British magazine reminded readers that virtually every traveler noticed the deep-rooted place of poetry and song in the daily ways of the second-largest island in the Mediterranean, as if Sardinia was a floating island of narration.
The Sards were “enthusiastic” for poetry, wrote British writer William Smyth in 1828. They “cheer the poets,” Goffredo Casalis added in 1833; clergyman Giovanni Spano exclaimed that poets were “heroes” in the villages in the 1850s.
A decade later, pioneering anthropologist Paolo Mantegazza was astonished by the “sublime” role of the improvising poets in society. Mantegezza exclaimed in a near breathless note that the shepherds excelled in the arts of erotic and love poems. To hear the shepherds is to know you “are in the land of the Muses,” wrote Jesuit author Antonio Bresciani.
British traveler John William Warre Tyndale found the women poets and singers at wool-plucking sessions and competitions to be more compelling than the male suitors. The poets sang their extemporaneous works to overrule their rival on stage, backed up by the tenore quartets, now recognized by UNESCO as an “intangible cultural heritage of humanity.” They dealt with issues of class, politics, love, and war, or whatever theme was agreed on by the judges.
Even with the unification of Italy in 1861, those traditions continued to flourish in the native language and define much of Sardinia. “My grandfather was a poet,” one of the characters exclaims in Grazia Deledda’s novel Cenere, at the turn of the twentieth century. Deledda went on to become the first woman in Italy to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926. As soon as a poet repeated their works in the street, Deledda added, “all the people learned them and repeated them with enthusiasm.”
Sardinian journalist and Communist leader Antonio Gramsci wrote his sister from prison in 1927, asking her to “send me some of the Sardinian songs they sing in the streets, by the descendants of Pirisi Pirino,” the legendary wandering poet on the island in the early nineteenth century.
This crossover element to Sardinian poetry weaved the written and oral poetry traditions together in “ancient and new ways,” wrote Jesuit priest Matteo Madao, following harmonic cadences, rhymes, and meters. Each region of the island had its own set of rules and metrical forms, and names for oral poetry—the Mutetus in the southern Campidano, the Repintina in the west, the Mutos in the central Barbagia, and the Otada in the north.
Some historians trace the Sardinian fervor for poetry to the Bronze Age period of the Nuragic civilization, when the island served as a nexus of exchange throughout the Mediterranean. A 3,000-year-old bronzetti statue, for example, wore an ornate cape, with intricate designs, a speaking stick gripped in one hand, bells on his ankles, as if he was sa cantonàlzu, the storyteller or poet.
A thousand years later, Tigellius the Sardinian was such a famous lyric poet in the time of Julius Caesar, during the first century B.C. in Rome, that his songs and proximity to power irked Cicero, the great Roman statesman. Cicero complained that the Sardinian’s satirical poems were as pestilent as his malaria-ridden island.
In truth, the powerful tradition of poetry and song permeated Sardinia like myrtle; it laced through every village like a sacred bond, as if the lyrical word, as much as the written text, maintained the natural order of all things. By the 1590s, Sardinian poet Hieronimu Araolla, who had already written works to “exalt and enrich” the Sardinian language, issued his own defense of poetry, declaring Sardinian was as dignified as any language and needed more writers.
A decade later, Miguel de Cervantes singled out a poet from Alghero, in the northwest of Sardinia, for his romantic verses in one of the dialogues of Don Quixote—except the Spanish author was likely writing in jest. The barber in Don Quixote refers to Antonio Lo Frasso’s Los Diez Libros De Fortuna De Amor, which included poems in the “Sardinian mountain language,” as “the best and most singular” of absurd romances.
Far from silly romances, poets like Peppino Mereu from Tonara took on the devastation from deforestation in the late 19th century in his seminal work, “A Nanni Sulis II.” Salvatore Poddighe, a miner from Iglesias, composed a brilliant ode on the mistreatment of workers in the early twentieth century in his landmark poem, “Sa Cummedia Mundana,” a satire on Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Still today, gara poetica, an oral poetry competition that functions like an ancient poetry slam circuit, thrives across the island. The small town of Silanus features its own Sa Cantada museum for oral poetry; the town of Macomer has murals dedicated to its beloved poet Melchiorre Murenu, the “Homer” of Sardinia; poet Stefano Susini even served as mayor in his town on the island of Sant’Antioco.
The Ozieri Prize, founded in the village where famed oral poet Antonio Cubeddu had organized official poetry tournaments in the 1890s, has become a prestigious award for works in the Sardinian language. Publishing houses abound on the island, including the fine work of Ilisso, Carlo Delfino, Il Maestrale, Condaghes, Edizioni della Torre, Arkadia, Centro di Studi Filologici Sardi, Domus de Janas, CUEC, and Alfa Editore, among many others that specialize in Sardinian writers and themes.The powerful tradition of poetry and song permeated Sardinia like myrtle.
Every town, in fact, seems to showcase it owns poetic traditions, from the port of Alghero and its Catalan-influenced Alguerés poets to the village of Desulo, the Barbagian home of Antioco “Montanaru” Casula, the mountain poet, to the capital city of Cagliari and its urban poets like beloved author Sergio Atzeni and cantadora Paoletta Dentoni.
In 1904, poet Pompeo Calvia from Sassari, exhorted his fellow writers to invoke their native language and reclaim its name: Poeta, tu chi sai, parchì non giri in tondu / Tutta chista Sardigna, e in mezzu e drentu e fora? Poeta, la Sardigna / No, no è iscuberta ancora. Abà iscobbrila tu, chista Sardigna amadda, terra dimintiggadda. “Poet, you who are good, / why don’t you go through / All this Sardinia, / of the interior and the coasts? / Poet, Sardinia / No, it has not yet been discovered. / Now you discover it, / this beloved Sardinia, / forgotten land.”
A century later, award-winning poet Anna Cristina Serra responded in her poem “Tempus Nostru”:
E imoi ses dònnia cosa
chi mi ndi torrat una stòria arrèscia
de ancà si spannat
un’ àlidu ‘e memòria.
Now you are everything
that brings me back
to an entangled history
that opens like a breath of memory.
In Sardinia: An Unexpected Journey in Italy by Jeff Biggers is available from Melville House Books.