chapter  14
17 Pages

The battle for the piazza: Creative antagonism between itinerant preachers and street singers in late medieval and early modern Italy


Erasmus of Rotterdam’s satirical masterpiece begins with Folly introducing herself and requesting the audience’s attention. She asks her listeners to lend her their ears, but ‘not the ones you use for preachers of sermons’, rather ‘the ears you usually prick up for mountebanks, clowns, and fools’.1 Erasmus clearly had in mind the Italian charlatans and street singers when referring to these piazza performers, as the Praise of Folly, published in 1511, was composed just after the period the humanist spent in Italy (1506-09).2 References to street singers or mountebanks performing in the public square are recurrent in the work and often associated or contrasted with preachers. In the section devoted to friars and priests the humanist observed that the performative style of the mendicant orders resembled that of itinerant singers: ‘in fact their entire performance might have been learned from the [charlatans] in the market squares, who are a long way their superiors, though the two types are so alike that they must have learned their rhetoric from each other’.3