Perspectives

The spirit of the terrible, accursed witch still walks the earth

Spotlight on Il Trovatore — By Henriette Asséo and Simon Hatab

If there is one fascinating character in Il Trovatore, it is Azucena. A gipsy accused of having kidnapped and burnt a child, she is at the root of the drama, generating its tragic destinies. Gipsy specialist Henriette Asséo looks at this figure, and through her retraces the history of the people who constructed an identity in the face of deep-seated prejudices.

Terms often seem rather vague where Gitans (gipsies) are concerned: people talk about Tsiganes, Bohemians and Roma… Can you enlighten us?

Henriette Asséo: I'll start with Verdi's opera. When the libretto of Il Trovatore is translated from Italian to French, the word Zingari is often replaced by Gitans. This simplification can lead to confusion, when Verdi himself makes play with the two terms in the original language. In reality, from the end of the 15th century, the Zingari were Italian and the Gitanos Spanish, while in France people spoke of Bohémiens.

This lexical variation and adaptation of the word to the language is interesting because it proves the presence of these nomadic peoples at a time when these national languages were developing in Europe. And this historical linguistic fact undercuts the subsequent myth that they were foreigners: gipsies were part of the history of European societies at the very moment they were forming, and were a common element in the emergence of Western societies.

The term Roma, or Rroma, appeared much more recently. It was established by politically committed intellectuals of Eastern Europe, thus doing away with the discriminatory terms of Tsigani, Tcigani and Ciganie.

What population are we talking about when we use these terms?

H. A.: They were a nomadic people involved in the migrations that took place between the late Middle Ages and the total disappearance of Christians in the Ottoman Empire.

Gipsies were part of the history of European societies at the very moment they were forming, and were a common element in the emergence of Western societies. Henriette Asséo

In Il Trovatore, the gipsy is an ambiguous figure: she is despised and hated while playing a key dramatic role – and in the end, she determines the narrative.

H. A.: Yes, in literature the figure of the gipsy had a very precise function: enabling social movement from one caste to another, from the aristocratic to the plebeian world and vice versa. As far as I know, this function goes back to The Little Gipsy Girl by Miguel de Cervantes (1613), a seminal work in modern literature. Here Preciosa, a young girl, who turns out to be of noble birth, is brought up by a Bohemian woman. Her suitor Juan then has to disguise himself to join the Bohemian company and be with his beloved. At a time when the Spanish monarchy was establishing the myth of pure blood, the gipsy opened the door to disguise, concealment and changes in identity or affiliation, without departing from the rule. From this point of view, the gipsy, especially in Il Trovatore, is the very metaphor for the dramatic construction: she is the Deus ex machina. This is why the figure of the Bohemian woman turns up so often in all the aesthetic play of forces in the history of Western culture.

Il Trovatore is haunted by another wandering figure: the troubadour. How are these two figures linked?

H. A.: In the 19th century, there was a clear connection between the figure of the poet and that of the gipsy. This was a time when artists saw themselves as outcasts and scapegoats for the hostility of a bourgeois materialist world. The artist stood against conventional morality by proclaiming art for art's sake, occupying an ambiguous position both on the margin of society and above it. The Bohemians' life became confused with artistic Bohemian life. When Baudelaire created the figure of the modern poet, he certainly used the well-known image of the albatross, but we forget that he also based it on the figure of the gipsy in "Bohémiens en voyage" (1857)":

The men walk with their shining weapons

Beside the wagons where their families huddle,
Gazing into the sky, their eyes leaden
With bleak regret for their lost dreams.

Interviewed by Simon Hatab


Historian and teacher at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Henriette Asséo's work mainly involves the history of gipsies in Europe, migrations within the European area and the construction of nations. She is the author of Les Tsiganes, une destinée européenne, published by Gallimard – Découvertes, 2010.

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