In modern Italy the great majority people were illiterate, and circulation of printed material was strictly controlled and viewed with suspicion. Nevertheless, even non-professional readers (manual workers, women, and children) managed to have contacts with books. This study unveils an intricate "Italian way" to the book universe. The obstacles to individual reading favoured others forms of consumption, supported by memory, voices, and images, which allowed even illiterates to approach great authors such as Tasso and Ariosto. The case of tales of chivalry - known and loved in princely courts and taverns alike, read aloud and narrated by cantastorie - shows how pieces of famous works, perhaps combined with popular legends, could penetrate beyond literary circles thanks to recitation, song, and verse. In the same way theatrical publications helped overcome longstanding cultural barriers and provide an opportunity for anybody hoping to undertake an adventure in writing.
Marina Roggero teaches Modern History at the University of Turin.