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The success of the Italian romance or chivalric epic between the mid-14th century and the 17th century constitutes a striking paradox. The flowering of the genre, between the composition of Boccaccio's "Teseida" and the "Irlando Furioso of Ariosto" occurred in precisely the same period as the emergence of Humanism and the revival of classical culture and literature based on re-readings of ancient texts. The two cultural phenomenon - of medieval, vernacular narratives and the imitation of classical texts, veneration for classical antiquity - seem antithetical. Through an analysis of aspects of both the cultural context and major literary texts, this text aims to show that the traditional distinction of popular versus elite culture cannot be maintained. The study reveals a process of syncretism and symbiosis through which the romance epic adapted to the challenges posed by the classical revival, absorbing and rewriting elements of classical texts into the tradition of the matter of France and the matter of Britain to create a new "matter of Italy" - texts which appealed to all levels of society.
Jane Everson is Senior Lecturer, Royal Holloway University of London