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Episode 6: Baudolino with Prof. Alessandra Bucossi and Alberto Ravani

For our February podcast, we were joined by Professor Alessandra Bucossi (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice) and Alberto Ravani (DPhil/PhD Candidate, University of Oxford), for a discussion of Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, published in 2000, which follows the adventures of a 12th-century character who roams the real and imaginary Christian world.

Anna Stavrakopoulou: Welcome to the sixth episode of the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Podcast Series.

I am Anna Stavrakopoulou, the Program Director in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks and we are joined today by Alessandra Bucossi.

Alessandra Bucossi: Hello, my name is Alessandra Bucossi. I’m associate professor at Ca’ Foscari in Venice.

Anna: Alberto Ravani.

Alberto Ravani: Hello, I'm Alberto Ravani. I'm a DPhil/PhD student at the University of Oxford in Byzantine literature.

Anna: Alessandra Bucossi is associate professor of Byzantine civilization at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. She is a philologist and works on critical editions of Byzantine theological texts. She published the first edition of Andronikos Kamateros’s Sacred Arsenal in 2014. Her second critical edition, Six Dialogues by Niketas of Thessaloniki, is in press now. Both books are published by Corpus Christianorum Series Graeca, Brepols Publisher.

She is also the coeditor of three books dedicated to Emperor John II Komnenos, the art of editing medieval texts, and the division between the Latin and the Byzantine churches in the Middle Ages. Her most recent research project is the “Repertorium Auctorum Polemicorum,” a survey of Byzantine literature dedicated to the schism between Eastern and Western Christianity. She was a Dumbarton Oaks fellow in 2007–2008.

Alberto Ravani is a doctoral candidate in medieval and modern languages at the University of Oxford. His main research interests are Byzantine poetry, especially of the 12th century: philology and textual criticism. For his dissertation, he is working on a new critical edition of Tzetzes’s Allegories of the Iliad, together with an introduction that prefaces and explains the edited text. He is currently secretary of the Oxford University Byzantine Society.

They will be discussing Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, published in 2000, following the adventures of a 12th-century character who’s roaming the real and imaginary Christian world. Baudolino from Alessandria, Eco’s birthplace, visits Constantinople in 1204 and bumps into Niketas Choniates, the prime Byzantine historian of the 12th century. Baudolino’s adventures take him through both known and unknown territories, where he encounters not only real characters, but also figments of Eco’s fertile imagination, presenting a thoroughly enjoyable narrative for all tiers of audiences.

They’ll answer questions like: how is Eco’s novel written for both well-read scholars and fiction aficionados, what kinds of texts have influenced his narrative, from which eras and traditions, and why is the novel a useful read for Byzantinists and medieval scholars more broadly?

Today, we will be discussing a novel, which is a first for our podcasts, that is to say, our other guests discussed articles, or chapters or books or scholarly books. Professor Bucossi had the wonderful idea to suggest a novel by Umberto Eco, Baudolino, which was published in 2000. I’m very curious, Alessandra if you could tell us why you selected Baudolino? I really liked the selection. Tell us more about your thoughts when you were selecting it for our discussion.

Alessandra: I have to be a bit autobiographical now. When I was doing my PhD in Oxford, the novel came out. It was published in 2000, so I started in 2001. I read it through in a couple of weeks, and I got very excited. Now that you asked me a book that was important during my life as a Byzantinist, I thought about that book. I thought it was something a bit different from the rest, amusing, funny, hilarious, and I thought it was a good idea to talk about Byzantine studies from another point of view. I decided to invite Alberto, who is in fact doing now his PhD in Oxford. I thought that was a good idea to have two people from different ages.

Anna: Wonderful. Alberto, was that the first time that you read the book, or have you read it before Professor Bucossi suggested this reading?

Alberto: No, it was the first time I read it. I read The Name of the Rose at school because in Italy it is a very famous book, like a school text that everyone reads. I've heard of Baudolino, but I never read it. I really enjoyed it, and I really enjoyed reading it. I'm glad to be here and to have had the chance to read it.

Anna: This is wonderful. I was wondering, if you could tell us more about the novel, if each of you would like to describe the novel very broadly, very, very broadly, including the effect it had on you a bit, in more details, in a sense to facilitate our conversation.

Alessandra: Okay, there are some basic things that I’d like to say about this novel; it’s an adventurous novel. You can travel if you read this novel, throughout real places, and fantastic places. You can meet real people and fantastic people. Some of them are invented by Umberto Eco, some of them were invented during the centuries.

What I like about this is that it's a book about the Middle Ages, and really gives you the sense of what a medieval author was doing; putting together different sources, different authors, different texts that he had read and creating something new. Umberto, I could describe it as a work of bricolage, which is a fantastic description. In fact, this is the creation of something new, but starting from pieces that we have in front of us.

I think this is really the essence of the Middle Age somehow. Even when we think about the cathedrals and all the remains from Roman art that were included in the big cathedrals, that is something that amazed me every time I think about it. I think Baudolino is exactly the superb representation of how you can be a medieval author, even in the 21st century.

Then there is something else that I'd like to say about Baudolino, but also about, let’s say, the experience of reading Baudolino being a scholar of Byzantine studies, and especially a scholar of Byzantine studies who deals with the 12th century. In fact, both Alberto and I, we deal with the 12th century. In that respect, we use the same material every day.

Eco himself said that the Middle Ages are a cultural revolution. I really think the 12th century is again, the century of the cultural revolution. I think Baudolino is an amazing and amusing portrait of this century. That’s what I loved about it because it takes into account all the most important people you can meet in the 12th century, both in the east and the west, both in the Latin realm and in the Byzantine Empire.

Then there is another point of view that I’d like to share with you, which is the one that of the philologists. I think the majority of the podcasts are done by historians. I love to listen to historians. There are very few occasions in which you listen to a philologist, because usually philologists do not talk about their studies, or not so much.

I think Alberto and I, we have been discussing the book in these days of course, because we both read the book and then we met and discussed it at length and we created even a Word file because we are both philologists and so we went through Baudolino’s sources. We created an apparatus fontium for Baudolino in these days, put together something like fourteen pages of references. That was really a funny way of doing our normal job, looking for sources but on a contemporary novel. That I think was also something that was strange and interesting at the same time.

We read Baudolino first. We enjoyed it. We laughed a lot because it’s fantastic, but then we thought about Baudolino again and we basically went through the book as a normal philologist does, doing a bit of textual criticism, looking for sources, looking for the places where Eco basically copied entire chunks from, for example, Niketas Choniates. For now, I think I’ll leave a bit of space for Alberto, and then I’ll go on.

Anna: Yes, it seems that you have the beginnings of the publication there. I think you should go ahead maybe and publish this because that could be interesting to other people as well, but I’ll let Alberto talk about his experience now.

Alberto: Yes, thank you. The things that I like the most in Baudolino is the concept of truth and lies and how those are intermingled through the whole novel. Baudolino is the story of a fictional character, but the setting is historical and really, really precise. Baudolino meets many historical figures like Frederick Barbarossa but also Niketas Choniates, who is not just a historian, but he’s also a real person.

Inside of that, sometimes, there are other imaginary characters and it’s really difficult to know which ones are—one has to research and do the work Alessandra and I did in the last few days to find out which ones are completely fictional, which ones are real historical characters. There are also some which are fictional in their name, but they are created or modeled on a real character.

One example is Abdul, who’s modeled on Jaufrev Rudel, who was a Provençal poet who lived nearly a generation before Abdul’s fictional character—the character of Abdul. This is also in the things that are told in the novel. Very often they make up entire legends, entire myths but always starting from real things or things they’ve heard.

I work on Tzetzes, on the Allegories of the Iliad; Tzetzes reads the Iliad as if Homer had written an allegorical text, which we know Homer didn’t, but I always wondered, did the Byzantines who read Tzetzes really think that Homer was allegorizing? This novel suggests an answer to this question. Eco imagines that medieval people didn’t really believe in what they wrote, but, in a way, if it was written, and this is a leitmotif of the novel, if it is written it must be true somehow; or, if something is there and it is written, it has a value.

Anna: You’re saying both of you that it’s clear that the novel has one dimension for the lay audience, for people who are not Byzantinists, who just like to read the novels or historical novels, Umberto Eco’s novels, and then there are so many other layers for people like you who know facts and dates and people and characters. One gets an extra thrill, isn’t it?

Alessandra: Yes, I think this novel is one of those fantastic novels you can read coming from very different backgrounds and perceive very different books. You live very different adventures, if you know the period. And it’s quite funny because Alberto and I, we know better the Byzantine sources than the Latin sources, so we had to go through all the Latin sources that, of course, we had a more general knowledge of.

We enjoyed also the fact that Eco is so precise in quoting his sources and so precise when he quotes events that you can easily follow, for example, Choniates because he goes through the history of the period. If you don’t know anything about the period, however, still it’s an amazing book because there’s plenty of fantastic monsters invented that are very funny.

One of the characteristics of Eco is that he’s a very serious scholar. I think in Italy he’s one of our . . . we are so proud of having had such a fantastic scholar with a knowledge of the Middle Ages that was superb. But he’s able to talk to everyone because you can read the recipes of the keftedes (κεφτέδες) in the book, you can read the recipe of the focaccia, the Genoese typical kind of bread. You can read everything about Greek wines, and it’s funny. It’s funny, and he’s able to talk to everyone at very different levels.

There are those parts like, you certainly remember, The Name of the Rose, these long philosophical discussions. For example, when he talks with Hypatia, his lover, they have a very, very long discussion, which is based on Gnosticism and is complicated, of course, like The Name of the Rose was. At the same time, in other parts of the book you just laugh like crazy.

For example, it talks about life in Alessandria. I don’t want to offend my fellow Italians but it’s not a big city. Today it’s not a big city. When he talks about it, it’s quite funny. When he talks about the fog, for example, because Alessandria is famous for being a very foggy place. When he talks about the Genoese and now, I will not offend anyone apart from myself because I’m Genoese, but he talks about us. He says, for example, that we are stingy, and we love money, and we are not very generous.

Even if you don’t know anything about the Middle Age or the 12th century or Niketas Choniates or whatever very difficult passage from Aristotle, however, this novel is funny. Yes, this is I think Eco’s magic touch. He can convert even very difficult things into something, into a book that can be enjoyable and readable by everyone.

Anna: Wonderful. I was wondering if Alberto would like to share something that you discovered when you compiled the list of the sources, something that really stood out and that you really enjoyed both the original source and what Eco did with it.

Alberto: The main discovery is probably towards the end of the book, when Baudolino starts his journey towards east to meet Prester John, which is the real quête, the real research of his life. He meets this deacon, Deacon John, at the end of one chapter, which is dedicated to the dialogues Baudolino and the deacon had. This is modeled on Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Invisible Cities is one of my favorite books, if not my favorite book. I loved it when I found out; just because I read it so many times and I know the quotes by heart, in a way.

Another one is the one I’ve already mentioned. The identification of Abdul with Jaufrev Rudel, but I had this in mind because it is Jaufrev Rudel, the one who sang the amor de lohn, the “far love” for the countess of Tripoli. In the book we have Abdul who sings, writes poems to “the faraway princess” who is a princess he will never meet. He just dreamed of her once.

I was finally convinced of this identification when Abdul dies. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but, at some point, he dies and the death of Abdul is reconstructed on the life, the manuscripts—Jaufrev Rudel’s manuscripts, say Jaufrev Rudel had. This is an imaginary life in a way, not fictional, but it’s really difficult that he could have done that. That was the proof that: yes, he must be. Those are the two ones. The Invisible Cites’ is probably is the one which struck me because it’s a book, which is really dear to me.

Anna: It seems that there is intertextuality with contemporary Italian novels as well because Italo Calvino is a 20th-century author, as we all know. The question I was wondering, whether Calvino had read medieval accounts as well. I remember I read this as a student. This is a favorite book for many of us, Alberto. I think there are lots of threads there, but you would know better. What about you Alessandra, do you have any passage or any of these patchwork, pastiches that he did in the book that you preferred if you would choose?

Alessandra: Well, yes, because I think Eco is the only scholar in the world who could render heresies something funny. I love that passage when he lists all these different fantastic people whom Baudolino meets the Skiapods, the Blemmyes, Panotti, the Giants, and for each one of them, he identifies a different heresy. Actually, is quite accurate. You can see those who are Sabellian and those who are Adoptionist, those who believe in the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father only, those who believe in the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and Son, those who are Donatist, those who are Arian, and it is very funny because you don’t expect anything like this.

The passage is very interesting because in fact Baudolino and his friends, they identify the different monsters according to their monstrosity. If you don’t have the head, or if you have only one leg or something like this, but they don’t identify themselves as somebody with something wrong in their body, but something wrong in what they believe. In fact, they don’t even see each other having the characteristic that is not normal in their body. They think in a wrong way, that’s what distinguish them.

On top of this, he was able to add, again, something that you don’t expect even if you are a Byzantinist, even if you know the heresies, even if you are laughing at everything, then you discover that he invents some, like the Artotyrites, those who believe that Jesus consecrates bread and cheese. That was for me, because I study heresies, I study the procession of the Holy Spirit, that was absolutely funny, and I thought he was genius for that reason.

That’s why I wanted to propose Baudolino because that part on the heresies is really a way to make us fall in love with our subject. Our friends ask us, why are you studying these things, and they think they are boring. In fact, Eco was a serious scholar who could see also a hilarious aspect, a funny approach to something that is actually extremely serious. Yes, that was my favorite part, in fact, I laughed like crazy when I read it. Both the first time and the second time.

Anna: I want to ask you, was there any glossary in the book? Are there any notes or is it just a novel? There are no notes, whatsoever and you’re expect to navigate all of that on your own?

Alessandra: No, there are no notes. That’s why we were laughing about ourselves doing the apparatus of the footnotes. Wow, we could propose it. La Nave di Teseo, the new publisher that, in fact, was created through the help of Umberto Eco before he died, perhaps would be interested. Who knows? Anyway, a new edition with an apparatus of the footnotes. That could be interesting, who knows? If you go to a library and you buy the book and you don’t know anything about this period, you cannot appreciate the fact that it's such a learned book.

Anna: You should definitely publish something then. All of this effort, I think should go into something, which would be also related to the reception of Byzantium, wouldn’t you say? The Baudolino is part of the 20th-century reception of Byzantium, for sure.

Alessandra: Sure, sure but one of the things I loved more than anything else is the new way to look at Byzantium, in fact. Usually, Byzantium is like the Far East in medieval studies. It’s something like, the center was in the western part of Europe and Byzantium is very far away and there are all these ideas about, you know, a big discussion about what we mean by “eastern,” by “Oriental.” That’s a long discussion that we are not going to do, of course, today but Byzantium is considered as something that comes from east and should stay in the east while Baudolino goes beyond Constantinople.

They want to discover the Kingdom of Prester John. They went far away from there. They follow Alexander the Great. So, from the new point of view, Byzantium is westerner. It’s really the west and is not the east anymore, and this is something that we really need even today, again. We need to restate the fact that we cannot conceive Byzantium and Byzantine civilization as Oriental, but it is part of European history. We need to remind ourselves of this important notion that it is a part of European history. Baudolino is a way to look at this in a funny way, in an amusing way, but still restating something that for our understanding is very important.

Anna: Wonderful. I would like to ask Alberto because you said, Alessandra, that you had conversations the two of you about the book. If you noticed during these conversations a different angle that has to do with the age difference that you and Alessandra have and the fact that you belong to a different historical moment altogether?

Alberto: A thing that I really liked of the book, which is connected to what I said, answering your first question. I said, the relationship between truth and lies and there’s also great emphasis in this book on utopias and on imagination. This pushes the boundaries forward. There is a beautiful quote in which—because the whole novel is structured as a dialogue between Baudolino and Niketas Choniates in 1204, so during, and just a bit after, the conquest of Constantinople. At some point, Baudolino tells Niketas, “I hadn’t realized that, imagining other worlds, you end up changing this one.”

Also, this quote was really powerful also thinking about my work as a scholar, and a scholar of literature essentially. We keep talking about ancient worlds, but also about imaginary worlds, the imaginary worlds of Homer, in a way, and of all the other authors, but this has an impact also in our life. This is something that I really, really enjoyed in the novel.

Also, in the passage that Alessandra just mentioned about all the different heresies and how there was a utopia that Eco invented, and all those different heretical, people with different beliefs could live in peace all together. They didn’t like the fact that they believed in different things, but still there was peace. It’s a way of creating a new world, imaginary world, and, using Eco’s worlds, improving the one we are living in.

Anna: Maybe after asking you all of these questions, I was wondering if both of you wanted to say something that we haven’t discussed yet and that you really wanted to share with our audience?

Alberto: Yes, the two—just a couple of things. First of all, it’s something that Alessandra already said and I wanted to stress it in another way. If we look at the book, Constantinople is central because, as I said before, it’s set in Constantinople, and it starts from where Baudolino was born, in Alessandria in northern Italy, and then it goes up to the eastern land of Deacon John.

Constantinople is at the center of this world, which is half imaginary and half true. It brings the city we study and Byzantine culture at the center of the Medieval world, which as Westerners we tend to see everything, like Germany, Italy, more based in central Europe, but the actual center is a bit more east. This is one thing that I really like in the novel. The other one is the emphasis, especially in the end, on research, which is also connected to the utopia because doing research is doing utopia.

At some point during the novel, they start to look for the Holy Grail, and in the end, even if they somehow—I don’t want to spoil it—but even if they are close to the solution or to having found it, two of Baudolino’s friends say that they still have to go on and keep doing research and keep looking for the Holy Grail. One of the friends says, “I realize this evening that I must not have this Holy Grail or give it to anyone but only keep alive the flame of the search of it.” Which is what we do, in a way, with our tradition, with what we study. We keep alive the flame.

Anna: Wonderful, wonderful. Thank you very much, Alberto. And you, Alessandra?

Alessandra: Well, yes. There is a passage or better a part of the book that I think is very interesting. You ask us what is the difference between Alberto and me according to our age in reading this book? I think that Alberto is still focusing on his future, further research. Well, I’m going to say something about teaching, so probably we have two different approaches now, researching and giving to the students what we have researched.

There is a nice passage about the famous letter of Priest John, but Eco proposes a solution for a passage that is unclear actually in the letter because there is a word that doesn’t mean anything, which is “yerarcam” and Baudolino resolves it in the book dividing it into veram arcam, so talking about the Holy Grail again. I think that we should also use something like this to explain to our students what an edition is, for example.

When we don’t understand words because during the transmission there was a mistake, somebody who copied the manuscript made a mistake because he couldn’t understand one word, and so we have the production of different variants and mistakes. I think we should always try to find a nice way to explain the work of a philologist to our students. An example like this could be something funny because in those pages Baudolino explains exactly the fact that the letter was tampered with and was copied in a way that in fact was a clear sign of the hand of a new author who changed a bit the text, so that is very interesting.

Also, in fact when he talks about the letter and Frederick asked what is this letter—true letter or not—and Baudolino said, “Well, I put together the membra disiecta.” That’s also something that is interesting for us. The medieval author who puts together different pieces and creates something new, although the pieces are the old ones. I’m going back to what we said at the beginning of our conversation, but I think it’s something very important, especially for Byzantine literature that somehow, by some approaches, is considered like a repetition of old knowledge, it is not a repetition, it’s the new way to put things together.

This is done typically in the Middle Ages, so this is the typical medieval approach, and we should think about it in what it is. This is the medieval approach, it’s not something that is similar to what we do now when we create a text, it’s something different, but it’s something new if we compare with what we do, because this is something different. Umberto Eco was really I think a medieval man in this respect because he was able to put together all things and to give a new product using bits and pieces from the classical literature, the medieval literature and also, as we said, the contemporary literature.

Also, all those who studied this text said that there is influence from film, I don’t know, Mario Monicelli’s films or from cartoons. I mean Umberto Eco was really a person interested in every cultural aspect of our life. He was really able to put everything together, and I think this is something that makes this book very interesting.

Anna: Have you ever, Alessandra, used the book—have you suggested it or recommended it as a reading in one of your classes? Do Byzantinists do that?

Alessandra: I do every time I teach the Sack of Constantinople, the Fourth Crusade. There is a passage in which the description comes exactly from Niketas Choniates and so I usually read both of the Italian translation by Anna Meschini Pontani, who actually published the three books of the translation of Choniates and are superb, plenty of footnotes and really give the sense of what a fantastic author was Choniates.

I read her translation and at the same time I read Eco’s version of it and I usually ask the student which one is the original one. The true one, as Baudolino would say, but now we know that in fact both of them are true in the sense that one is Baudolino’s invention or Eco’s invention, and the other one is the Choniates’s version.

Some students recognize Baudolino, so it’s still a book that is enjoyable.

Anna: Yes, so this is the translation that Eco read. The Pontani’s translation was there before he wrote Baudolino?

Alessandra: Well, not the third volume, so I’m not sure if they were in contact or something like this because in fact the third volume was not out because it came out in 2014. The other two, the first two volumes of the Fondazione Valla, Mondadori translations were already published. Yes, I would say that in fact in some cases it seems that it he is quoting word by word even without footnotes, which is something that students shouldn't do.

Anna: Of course. Do you have any concluding thoughts? What I can say for myself is that I learned a lot about Baudolino, and it seems that Eco is using this method that he used in other books as well where he dealt with the Middle Ages. He used his vast knowledge of the sources, of history, combined with his wild imaginations. This seems to be a unifying thread in his novels.

But I will let the two of you finish the podcast with your own—I’ll give the last word to the two of you.

Alessandra: There is one thing that I’d like to say, really, and this is, do read Baudolino but do read also Choniates because reading the two together is amazing. It helps you in approaching Choniates from a completely different point of view, because we usually read sources because we want to check that the details we know about the period or about an event or some of person, whatever, are correct. We want to create a footnote, and we want to be precise in our references.

In these days, looking for the passages where Eco was, in fact, copying Choniates, I went back to Choniates and I read it as if it was a novel, as it was what it is, something written to be read, not only to be cut into pieces because we need to demonstrate something or to back our opinion. It was written also to move your thoughts and your impressions. It gives you an impression of what was living in the city, a city that Choniates loved so much and the stress that he lived in those days, and also the fear.

It’s really touching. It is. And probably for the first time, I read something from the Byzantine period like it was really written by a human being when, usually, we have this kind of distant approach to our sources because are instruments, tools of our jobs. That’s my suggestion at the end of the podcast.

Anna: This is truly wonderful. Thank you so much. Eco’s inspiration might have come out of Choniates maybe. I don’t know how he read the text, and how fascinated or inspired he was by Choniates’s text.

Alessandra: Well, I think he was. I think he was really inspired by Choniates. In fact, we discussed also about the fact that every time he talks about Choniates, he describes Choniates eating or wanting to eat something, always hungry, always talking about food, or things like this, which is probably—in fact, when you read Choniates, you find a lot of passages about food and was actually thinking that we should put together all of them.

Choniates became the guide of Eco in Constantinople in fact, also because he describes all the fires during the Fourth Crusade, he goes through Constantinople. Choniates said that was burned, that the other court or neighborhood was burned, and then there were damages here, damages there. There is a continuous description of the city that I think Eco enjoyed.

Another thing, in fact, that related to the fact that it's a good description of the 12th century, it is also a good description of the fact that the 12th century is an international century. People are moving around, are meeting, are talking to each other. The Crusades, let’s say a good part of the Crusades, is that people were moving. They were meeting, learning about, although in some cases, in a traumatic way. Baudolino introduces you to the medieval Paris and the philosophers in Paris, and then to medieval Constantinople, to medieval Rome, to medieval Milan, to medieval Alessandria. You travel around Europe with this book, and that’s so very interesting actually.

Anna: Wonderful. Wonderful. Alberto, would you like to add something?

Alberto: Yes. I agree with all Alessandra said. I’ll just say that I also encourage to read Baudolino and to look at it as a fresco of the 12th century, of this beautiful age. I think that the most important thing you need to get out of the book is the feeling of that age, as also Alessandra said earlier in the conversation. This is probably the most important thing for a scholar who works in the 12th century, a scholar who works on Byzantium.

Anna: Thank you. Thank you both. This was truly fascinating. Thank you.

Podcast musical theme is from the Concerto in E-Flat “Dumbarton Oaks” by Igor Stravinsky, recorded by the Smithsonian Chamber Orchestra, Kenneth Slowik, conducting. As always, thank you for joining us, and we hope you join us again in the next episode.