Erotokritos and Aretousa: the Cretan Love Story


 A Cretan Renaissance masterpiece, along with the great universal love stories

 It is less known to the general public that, more than four centuries ago, when Crete was under the Venetian rule, a masterpiece was born in the form of a versified romantic story that marked the beginning of modern Greek literature: ”Erotokritos and Aretousa”. Written by Vincenzo Cornaro around 1600, despite not being among the famous universal love stories, Erotokritos and Aretousa is a Renaissance monumental work often compared to ”Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare and also a living artistic theme in Cretan culture.

 The romantic epic poem, consisting of 10,012 rhyming fifteen-syllable couplets verses penned in the Cretan dialect, tells the story of the young nobleman Erotokritos (or Rotokritos) and his forbidden love for Princess Aretousa. With a remarkable refinement of language and literary technique based on the Greek poetic tradition (especially on the Cretan folk novels called "mantinades") Cornaro assembles the challenges and dramas suffered by the two young people in love and thirsty for life as in a theatrical play, through a succession of five acts whose intrigue, subtly sprinkled with dialogues and exploring the most subtle facets of the human soul brilliantly supports the reader's interest.

 The plot revolves around the love between Erotokritos, the main hero, and Aretousa, the daughter of the King of Athens. Erotokritos was the son of Pezostratos, adviser of the King. Knowing that his lower social rank will not allow him to openly express his feelings, Erotokritos disguises himself and starts singing serenades under her window in the evenings. And slowly the princess falls in love with the unknown singer. But the King attempts by any means to stop her from the blind and dishonorable love. Erotokritos, escaping from the guards sent to arrest him, flees into exile, to forget Aretousa. During a visit to the house of Pezostratos, Aretousa discovers the letters and songs written by Erotokirtos to her, realizing that he was the secret admirer. The king-father organizes knightly tournaments to drive her sadness away and find princely suitors to win her interest, but all his attempts fail. A cascade of dramatic events follows for the couple in love, which, unlike Romeo and Juliet, come to a fortunate close: the enamored re-unite and vow eternal happiness with the king's blessing, thus inheriting the throne of Athens.

 Cornaro borrowed the love tale idea from an Italian prose translation of a medieval French romance "Paris et Vienne" by Pierre de la Cyp├Ęde, but in a true Renaissance manner, he used the themes of love and war to emphasize moral virtues such as devotion, friendship, patriotism, heroism, faith, and honor, proving to be a skilled storyteller and a sensitive interpreter of the human heart. Serenades, gallantries, secrets and revelations, tears and desperation, hidden vows of love, imprisonment, fatal duels, and chivalrous tournaments, but also forgiveness and happiness serve as ingredients for composing the story of the brave, madly in love hero and the lady of his heart.

 

A 400 Years Old Romance Still Living in Peoples Hearts and Inspiring Greek Artists

 Vincenzo Cornaro (Greek: Vitsentzos Kornaros) (1553-1613 / 14) is considered to be the greatest Cretan poet and one of the most significant and influential poets of Greece. A successor of the Cretan branch of the noble Venetian Cornaro family, Vicenzo was born in the province of Sitia and received a good education, according to the customs of the aristocratic society of the time. After the marriage, he moved to Chandax (the Venetian name of the city of Heraklion), and together with his brother, the writer and scholar Andrea Cornaro, he founded "L 'Accademia degli Stravaganti" / Academy of the Weird, an Italian-oriented philological association that would consistently contribute to the flourishing of medieval Cretan culture. The masterpiece Erotokritos places Cornaro with his contemporaries William Shakespeare and Miguel Cervantes in the gallery of the great European Renaissance writers.

 The work circulated a lot in the 17th century, reproduced and multiplied in the form of transcripts of the original manuscript, which was unfortunately lost. After its first printing in 1713 in Venice, the epic poem Erotokritos is widespread in all territories inhabited by Greeks. A copy of this first printed series is housed in the Gennadius Library in Athens and a manuscript from 1710 is kept at the British Library of the British Museum in London, in the collection of precious documents that contributed to the founding of the institution. The 1713 edition was reprinted in 1737, of which today there is one copy in the National Library of Athens. The first modern reproduction of the work appeared in 1915, by Stefanos Xanthoudides, and since then, several important Greek and foreign authors have published translations in verse and prose.

 Transmitted orally from one generation to another, the love story between Erotokritos and Aretousa has earned its place in folk erotic poetry and music, giving rise, even today, to many theatrical performances, musical concerts, or visual art exhibitions. Erotokritos became a revered folk hero, and the medieval masterpiece that stood the test of time, played on lyre chords and sung by well-known voices such as Nikos Xylouris, continues to gently caress hearts wounded by unfulfilled love. The story was also a source of inspiration to the national poet Dionysios Solomos (author of the poem Hymn to Liberty, which became the National Anthem of Greece) and influenced various Greek poets such as Kostis Palamas, Kostas Krystallis, and George Seferis. At the beginning of the 19th century, the famous Greek humanist scholar Adamantios Koraes called Vincenzo Cornaro, "The Homer of Popular Literature."


 In Kornarou Square in Heraklion, so named in honor of the great poet, for two decades, an impressive statuary ensemble made by the artist Yannis Parmakelis depicts Erotokritos on horseback, ready to leave, saying goodbye to his beloved Aretousa. Surrounded by a small green space, the huge statue dominates the landscape, offering a corner of reverie to those who cross the intersection always crowded. The dramatic scene and the intensity of the feelings are expressed by the moving silhouettes of the hero and his horse. Time seems to stand still and the two characters, with their hands outstretched to each other and tears in their eyes, seem to be at the same time, close and far away. The pain of separation and the covenant of eternal love remained frozen in bronze for eternity…

 In the video below, you will hear the legendary Cretan singer and songwriter Nikos Xilouris in a famous interpretation of the poem Erotokritos. With his unique voice and dramatic style that resonates with the Greek soul, Xilouris turned the magnificent verses into a masterpiece of folk music, singing them like the marinades of shepherds in the Cretan mountains.


 Most likely, Erotokritos, although recognized as one of the great European epic poems, remained unknown outside Greece due to the Cretan dialect in which it is written and its daunting dimension for a translator, 1000 verses longer than the Homer's Odyssey. Despite this, a complete translation to English verse was made by Theodore Stephanides, published in 1984 in Athens by Papazissis Publishers, and still available today. 

Here are some translated verses from Stephanides version:

”Who in this world has never glimpsed Love's face?
Who has not yearned, who has not joined the chase?”
 
"When headstrong passion wills to win a race,
Wisdom will ever lag in second place;
No power has reason, nor can it strike back
When love and passion lead the same attack"
 
"Rotocritos is Eros without wings –
How was it that he lost these pretty things?
To my poor heart his wings he tightly bound,
And they obey and follow him around!"
- Canto I, verses: 267-270
 
“Of all the gracious things upon this earth
It is fair words that have the greatest worth,
And he who uses them with charm and guile
Can cozen human eyes to weep or smile.”
- Canto I, verses: 887-90
 
“Begin your lesson now. It is a rule
That he who starts in time soon leaves the school.”
- Canto II, verses: 1871-2
 
“There are full many, sweet, whose tongues are bland,
Who hide a poison phial in the hand.”
- Canto III, verses: 141-2
 
You straighten easily a fresh-cut stake,
Yet when it dries it will but split and break.
- Canto III, verses:  279-80 
 
True is that adage: “He who yields to rule
by woodenheads, becomes himself a fool.”
- Canto III, verses: 967-8 
 
Man shapes his plans as he intends and deems,
And not because of visions and of dreams;
The future is not yet, dreams cannot sway,
Man’s destiny this, that, or any way;
As each one makes his bed, so does he sleep;
The foolish only trysts with shadows keep.
- Canto IV, verses:  139-144 


When you arrive in Heraklion, remember Erotokritos and Aretousa and their immortal love story!

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