Hypertext and “Twitterature”

Massimo Lollini

T. S. Eliot once argued that a masterpiece of world literature “cannot be inherited” from the past. Rather, every new generation must obtain it “by great labour,” overcoming the historical distance that separates the present moment from the context of the work’s emergence (43). Francesco Petrarca’s Rerum vulgarium fragmentata (Rvf) is one such work. More commonly known as the Canzoniere, it collects 366 of Petrarch’s Italian poems, written over the course of forty years, between 1327 and 1368. Since its inception, the text has posed considerable difficulties for readers, editors, and scholars, who need to wade through not only a seemingly endless catalog of variant forms and editions but also the seven hundred years of criticism it has generated. This is also, however, the source of the text’s immense pleasure.

The resources of The Oregon Petrarch Open Book (OPOB), a working database-driven hypertext version of Petrarch’s magnum opus, opens up this marvelous text to new readers and to new styles of reading while keeping the dignity of the secret textual meaning susceptible to new interpretations. From a pedagogical point of view, it creates conditions for passive reception as well as for informed creative understanding of the different instantiations of Petrarch’s work. While Web-based literary projects tend to function like textual archives and repositories for commentary, this project enables readers to compare the various textual configurations of the Rvf and, in the process, participate in the seven-centuries-long tradition of actively reading, interpreting, and rewriting the text. The OPOB combines the virtues of the Web archive and the creativity of an innovative form of hypertext-induced and inspired “Twitterature.” In other words, the construction of the hypertext based on a rigorous philological approach is put at the service of a creative pedagogy aimed at creative rewriting of Petrarch’s text.

In our digital age, more and more readers are coming to understand that literary texts are subject to considerable change and that their reception is largely determined by the material form they take. This means that, in some sense, no text is definitive. Each is simply a variant of an unrealized ideal. As Joseph Dane writes in The Myth of Print Culture, “In the earliest printed books we have . . . there is not a single question in bibliographical or literary history that could not be considered a variant” (9). For this reason, we should be concerned with both the content of literary texts and their material form. Likewise, Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier, in their introduction to A History of Reading in the West, emphasize that “meanings of texts depend on the forms and circumstances through which they are received and appropriated by their readers” (2). That is, the crucial role of the reader in giving texts meaning depends on the forms and the materials by which the text is transmitted. Cavallo and Chartier go so far as to say that because form produces meaning and generates new ways of looking at a text, every change in the text’s material body produces new meaning. We do not read a manuscript in the same way we read a printed text. And our reception of a poem changes when it comes to us heavily annotated or brimming with scholarly commentary. Digital publication as well affects our reading of a literary text, and this is the impetus behind the OPOB. The digital edition makes possible new readings of Petrarch’s masterpiece and invites a new generation of scholars and casual readers to explore this rich, complex, and ever-changing text.

Reading Petrarch’s Rvf as Hypertext

Since 2003 this project has been connected to the actual teaching of Petrarch’s Rvf; it grew out of specific pedagogical activities, including textual collations, transcriptions, translations, and rewriting. The use of technology in teaching Petrarch and Petrarchism has provided the opportunity to integrate in the digital environment important library resources, removing them from the dust of the shelves and making them available to students and large audiences. Students were credited for their work as contributing authors of the hypertext; they were happy to be instrumental in the democratization of knowledge while they elevated their education. The meaningful activities that led up to the construction of the hypertext galvanized their participation, as well as their linguistic and literary learning.

For Petrarch, the Rvf was an endeavor that took many different forms, both throughout the author’s life and after his death. Petrarch was tinkering with this form even in his last days, when he rearranged the order of poems 336 through 366. This long history of edits and changes means that contemporary readers are confronted with significant variation among the extant manuscript editions. Add to this the profusion of critical and philological commentary, and modern readers may find themselves awash in a sea of confusing information. By digitizing and transcribing key manuscripts, however, the OPOB makes it possible to compare editions and establish a clear sense of this text’s complex evolution.

Early print editions offer similar challenges but also provide a distinct richness of textual experience. For instance, a marvelous edition published in Venice in 1470 by Vindelino da Spira includes extensive illustrations, which serve as elaborate visual glosses of the natural and psychological motifs in the poems. It also contains handwritten marginalia, offering readers insight into the reception of the text one hundred years after the death of its author.

Archiving separate editions together in the OPOB allows scholars and casual readers alike to enrich their encounters with the text by reading it alongside Renaissance and modern commentaries and by comparing the Italian original with translations into Spanish, French, and English and with partial translations in Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and German. Furthermore, readers may decide to experience the text along with artworks and musical renderings. Or, more concisely, they may read the entire Rvf in tweet format.

Beyond opening up the Rvf to new modes of reading and a new generation of readers, the OPOB introduces new hopes and possibilities for digital innovation in the humanities more generally. First and foremost, digital platforms make literary texts like the Rvf available to an audience far larger than the one retrieving books from libraries. These texts also become available through searchable databases, giving readers a new type of access and enabling new, integrated intertextual readings. This opens a path to exciting new research questions on the reception of the text throughout the centuries.

This move to digitization radically alters the experiences of reading a literary text. With the OPOB, readers may explore several different versions of the text side by side for a more immediate comparison. Readers can engage in either a deep, immersive style of reading or a multimodal, discontinuous reading style that can produce new insight into the text and its evolution. Recent technological changes have also radically modified the relation of reading and writing to the point that the reader may now be considered a coauthor. In the new era opened by digital texts, the reader may interact with the text not only by annotating, copying, and indexing but also by recomposing texts in new ways.

The specific aim of the OPOB is to enable the reader to appreciate the importance of the materiality of a work and to witness its complex evolution—its metamorphoses from manuscript to print to digital forms. Our hypertext construction helps make sense of the poems through an intertwined reading of multiple forms and textualities. As Italo Calvino writes, “The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say: ‘I am re-reading . . .’ and never ‘I am reading . . .’” (Why Read the Classics? 14). In the same perspective, he argued that classics are texts that a writer loves to rewrite and provided an extraordinary example by rewriting Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. Digital reconfigurations of literary texts and digital tools make rereading and rewriting easier for more readers than ever.

Rewriting Petrarch’s Rvf in the OPOB

The idea of translating Petrarch into “Twitterature” was developed and implemented for the first time during Re-reading Petrarca’s Rvf in the Digital Era, a seminar taught at the University of Oregon in winter 2011. This class created the first Twitter edition of Petrarch’s Rvf in Italian, now available in the OPOB.

The first step was to create a pedagogical apparatus that would facilitate an interpretation of Rvf that would make it amenable to translation into tweets. The six undergraduate and four graduate students in this seminar were motivated to perform this important task for three reasons. First, as advanced students of Italian, they felt that by creating paraphrases, summaries, keywords, and tweets for each poem they were improving their knowledge of the language; second, they sought to develop a comprehensive grasp of the individual poems and of the collection as a whole; finally, by actively engaging with the Rvf, they intended to incarnate the figure of the wreader popularized by George Landow, becoming both active readers and contributors to the creation of the hypertext around Petrarch’s Rvf (Hypertext 4–5; Hyper/Text/Theory 14). I provided a general introduction to the Rvf and presented a narrative account of the sequence of poems assigned. The students then collaborated on summaries and paraphrases of each poem.

It was clear from the start that this combination of philological and writing activities was an exceptional tool for reading and comprehending the text. In many ways, this style of reading recalled the early medieval practice of compilatio, in which people read in order to write and wrote in order to be read. For these readers, as for us, reading was not exclusively aimed at a simple comprehension of the text’s literal meaning. We did not incarnate the role of simple translators but performed as writers as well. Inevitably all rewritings, whatever their intention, reflect a certain ideology and a poetics; they re-create the original texts to function in a given society in a given way (Lefevere and Bassnett xi). In our class, meaning emerged in stages. First, we moved from the original text to a literal paraphrase. Then we provided summary of the poem’s general meaning, or sensus. Finally, in identifying key words and composing tweets, students were able to capture the sententia, or emotional and philosophical profundity, of the poem. We decided to tweet in the first person to draw out Petrarch’s emphatic style and were careful to avoid ironic or sarcastic renderings of his voice. As an interpretive tool, each tweet had to offer something different from a simple summary or collection of keywords. Each tweet had to contain some quintessential core of the poem and to allow our followers to grasp the text immediately and substantially in only 140 characters.

Throughout our class, we also aimed to reorganize the traditional terms of the classroom. In the computer lab at the University of Oregon’s Yamada Language Center we created a sort of SCALE-UP (student-centered active learning environment with upside-down pedagogies) to facilitate active, collaborative learning in a studio-like setting. In producing these new parts of the hypertext collaboratively, students relied on one another for feedback and help. They assimilated information and built their knowledge not through attending lectures but by participating in consequential activities organized around the OPOB. At the end of the course, the Rvf was reborn as a series of 366 tweets, which students performed publicly.

It was impressive to witness the lively and active reading of the long sequence of tweets that translated one of the masterpieces of Western literature into a language that was familiar to modern-day ears. Elena Cull, a writer and graduate student in the course, said that when she read the first poem aloud, she felt an unusual immediacy and intimacy with the speaker and his longing. She translated Petrarch’s famous opening poem, “Voi ch’ascoltate in rime sparse il suono,” so that it bore a familiar urgency: “Hey! Remember how it was to be young and in love? Then pity me! I am ashamed for I see the world is but transitory.”

Students agreed, however, that reading a tweet cannot substitute for reading the actual poem. They recommended that readers of the OPOB should explore the tweets after having read the Rvf itself so that the tweets trigger a deep and articulated engagement with the original text. Finally, they pointed out that they contributed to the construction of a creative pedagogical structure available to teachers and students around the world to enhance the comprehension of Petrarch’s poetic masterpiece and its creative receptions in different languages. In this perspective, the OPOB allows for readers to contribute tweets in several languages and submit them to the site, encouraging new, vibrant interaction with the text. In this way, the OPOB is just one example of how digital humanities are providing new and exciting ways to read, write, and engage critically with literature in its many forms.

Works Cited

Calvino, Italo. Orlando Furioso di Ludovico Ariosto: Raccontato da Italo Calvino. Einaudi, 1970.

—. Why Read the Classics? Translated by Martin McLaughlin, Vintage Canada, 1999.

Cavallo, Guglielmo, and Roger Chartier. A History of Reading in the West. Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane, U of Massachusetts P, 1999.

Dane, Joseph A. The Myth of Print Culture: Essays on Evidence, Textuality, and Bibliographical Method. U of Toronto P, 2003.   

Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The Sacred Wood, Alfred A. Knopf, 1921, pp. 42–53.

Landow, George P. Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Johns Hopkins UP, 1992.

—. Hyper/Text/Theory. Johns Hopkins UP, 1994.

Lefevere, André, and Susan Bassnett. General editors’ preface. Translation–History–Culture: A Sourcebook, edited by Lefevere, Routledge, 1992, pp. xi–xii.

The Oregon Petrarch Open Book. University of Oregon, 2018,

Massimo Lollini is professor emeritus of Italian at the University of Oregon. Since 2003 he has been the principal investigator of the Oregon Petrarch Open Book Web project and the editor in chief of the journal Humanist Studies and the Digital Age. He has coedited five monographic issues of this peer-reviewed e-journal, including Lector in Rete: Figures of the Readers in Digital Humanities (2015) and Networks and Projects: New Platforms in Digital Humanities (2017).


Published 22 March 2018

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