Saturday, September 08, 2007

BOOK: Biondo Flavio, "Italy Illuminated"

Biondo Flavio: Italy Illuminated. Vol. 1: Books I–IV. Edited and translated by Jeffrey A. White. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 20. Harvard University Press, 2005. 0674017439. xxvii + 489 pp.

This has got to be the most boring I Tatti Renaissance Library book I've read so far. It is basically a description of Italy. The author proceeds region by region (this volume covers Liguria, Tuscany, Lazio, Umbria, Piceno and Romagna; the rest of Italy will be covered in volume 2), and within each region he describes the cities, towns and various geographic features (usually in a fairly systematic way, e.g. by following the course of the major rivers). For the less notable places, he gives little more than the name, while for the more important ones he also includes a bit of their history (both ancient (his favourite sources being Livy and Pliny) and medieval or renaissance, all the way up to Flavio's own time) and mentions some of the famous people who lived or were born in that town or city. Thus, ultimately, this book is little more than a long list of detailed and terribly borring little factoids.

In this way it reminded me somewhat of many travel guides; they contain a lot of detailed information about all sorts of towns that nobody really cares about, except perhaps the unfortunate tourist that is stuck in that town for a day or two and desperately needs to find some way of occupying his time. And even he will be bored by the rest of the guidebook, i.e. the parts that don't deal with the specific town that he has been mired in. For me, who am not a traveller through 15th-century Italy, this means that basically the whole book is boring.

I'm not entirely sure to whom I could recommend this book. If you enjoy reading tourist guides for the sake of the factual details about obscure places, then this is the book for you. Otherwise, it's better to avoid it. I am very much not looking forward to volume 2 (except that I'm curious to see how much of the Adriatic coast he'll include in Italy — his region no. 11 is Istria; see p. xii).

Just as an illustration, here's a typical paragraph (4.4, p. 207): “As you enter Umbria from Scheggia along the flanks of the Apennines, you come upon Costacciaro, a town in the territory of Gubbio, and following that Sigillo di Perugia: between the two rises the river Chiascio, which comes down through the hills of Gubbio and Assisi and past the town of Cannara into the nearby river Tinia, or Topino as it is now called. Beyond Sigillo is the castle of Fossato di Vico, high on an Apennine hill. Four miles from Fossato is Vallidum, now known as Gualdo Tadino; Gualdo was built in place of a town, sited on the plain below, which the Lombards destroyed. A small stream flows from Gualdo which after a short while joins the Chiascio. The course of the Chiascio is the way to Perugia for those coming from Ancona and the region of Picenum, and crossing the Apennines from Fabriano via Fossato and Gualdo. Midway along this route, Casa Castalda looks down on the river Chiascio from a high hill. The road then continues to the village of Pianello in the plain, until it is carried across the Tiber by bridges at the villages of Ponte Pattoli, Ponte Valleceppi and Ponte S. Giovanni.” Now imagine this going on for almost 200 pages. Admittedly the above paragraph is perhaps one of the worse passages, and the text isn't quite this boring all the time, but nevertheless it's one of the best cures for insomnia I've ever read.


Although the book as a whole was boring, some of the individual factoids therein were interesting enough. Here are some of them:

From 1.1 (p. 3; Flavio cites Pliny 3.43): “Now the Italian peninsula is for the most part encompassed like an oak leaf”. WTF? I must agree with Obelix — these Romans are crazy indeed. Surely everybody knows that Italy is shaped like a boot, and nothing whatosever like an oak-leaf...

From 1.16 (p. 25): “Servius [. . .] says: ‘[. . .] All of the Ligurians, moreover, are liars, as Cato says in his Origins.’ ” This quotation has been proudly sponsored by the society for the promotion of fifth-hand slander against entire provinces :-)

Here's a priceless sentence from 2.49 (p. 99; it's actually a quotation from Livy 10.37): “Fabius slew 4500 of them and took 1740 prisoners, ransomed at 310 asses per head; the rest of the booty was given to the soldiers.”

Meet the emperor Clodius Albinus, glutton extraordinaire: “It is worth mentioning that Ostia had excellent melons. According to Julius Capitolinus the emperor Clodius Albinus sometimes devoured ten of them, among much else, at a single sitting.” (3.4, p. 123.) “Labici once had an abundance of fine grapes, of which Julius Capitolinus writes that Clodius Albinus devoured twenty pounds at a single sitting.” (3.31, p. 165).

From 3.22 (p. 153; Flavio cites Livy 8.21): “A more concrete and definite commendation of the Privernates came in the famous witticism of their ambassador to the Roman Senate: when asked what kind of piece it was that the Privernates were so keen to have, he replied, one that would last forever, provided the terms were good.”

From 3.42 (p. 183; actually a quotation from Pliny, 7.137), of one Lucius Furius, who managed to switch sides at the right moment during a war: “He is the only individual who, in the same year in which he had been its enemy, enjoyed the honour of a triumph in Rome, and that too, over the people whose consul he had previously been.”

There's an amazingly lurid paragraph about the supposed abominations practiced by the fraticelli, a heretical offshoot of the Franciscans, in 5.13 (pp. 255–9). What is worse, Flavio reports it all as if it was all the simple and obvious truth. They enjoy orgies, roast the resulting babies alive, eat them, etc. Well worth a read.

He mentions Sigismondo Malatesta in 6.7 (p. 285), but quite calmly, calling him “the famous military leader”. This is an interesting contrast with the mention of Malatesta in Pius' Commentaries, where Pius goes to great length to describe what a tyrant Malatesta is and what horrors he has committed.

Here's a priceless note by the translator, referring to a passage (5.1) where Flavio describes the borders of the region of Piceno: what is on the north, what on the east etc. The translator adds charitably: “Biondo's compass points here are more or less 90 degrees different from ours.” (P. 422.)

In 1.30 (p. 37) Flavio mentions the Ordelaffi family of Forlì; I find this interesting because I've heard of a similar name once before, in the History of Venice by J. J. Norwich, who mentions the Venetian doge Ordelafo Falier and writes as if this name was the most unusual and unheard-of thing in the world: “nor has anyone ever provided a satisfactory explanation of his Christian name, unique in Venetian and indeed Italian history — Ordelafo. It has been pointed out that Falier is only a Venetian variant of the more usual Faledro, in which form his full name would be virtually a palindrome; perhaps therefore, it can be ascribed merely to some fantastic whim on the part of his parents” (Norwich, ch. 7, p. 81). But here it seems that the name has also appeared elsewhere, e.g. among the above-mentioned Forlivians; if it appears somewhere as a surname, surely it isn't that surprising that it is occasionally also used as a first name?

In 6.32, he discusses the quality of the wines of Ravenna; he reports that Pliny (14.34) praised them while Martial (3.56) put them down. I found this really weird — Ravenna is not exactly at the end of the world; instead of reporting, inconclusively, the opinions of two ancient authors, why didn't he simply buy some Ravenna wine and try for himself? Or ask somebody who had been to Ravenna and tried it for himself? (In the same paragraph he also discusses asparagus, but here both of the above-mentioned worthies are unanimous in praising the asparagus of Ravenna, so I guess it must really be good :-))

He often mentions the foreign mercenaries that were involved in the numerous wars in Italy during the late middle ages and the renaissance. Interestingly, many of them were Bretons (see e.g. 6.44). I found it curious that this small region gave so many mercenaries.

Apparently there exists a town named Adria, from which the Adriatic Sea derives its name (6.75, p. 353).

In 3.11, there's an interesting quotation from Pliny (Natural History 3.57) about the earliest mentions of Rome in the Greek authors: “Theophrastus, the first foreigner who treated of the affairs of Rome with any degree of accuracy (for Theopompus, before whose time no Greek writer made mention of Rome, only spoke of the capture of the city by the Gauls, and Clitarchus, the next after him, only of the Roman embassy to Alexander)” (p. 135).

There's an interesting discussion in 6.30 on the progress since the beginning of the Renaissance: “We can see that the benefit brought to our countrymen by so many books — the tinder of eloquence itself — resulted in our age having richer and finer resources of expression at its disposal than Petrarch enjoyed. The arrival of Greek letters was no small help in the acquisition of eloquence;” etc. (p. 307).

I was rather shocked by this immodest passage from 6.53, discussing the important things achieved by people from the region of Romagna: “Following these, I hope that the same Romagna has given Italy a third glory in a great entreprise through this work of mine. I am putting my hand to a history that has been hidden for more than a thousand years” etc. (p. 327).

The acronyms of the various books cited by the editor's notes are remarkable for their inconsistency: some use roman type, some italic; some use periods, some don't: “CIL”, “RIS”, “R.I.”, “S.H.A.” (p. 381).

Generally the ITRL books use American spelling, but “honour” appears here once in 3.42 (p. 183). Interestingly, it's written as “honor” just one sentence earlier.

There are quite a few typos in the book. Yes, I know that I'm pathetic for remarking on things like this, but sheesh — this is the Harvard University Press, don't they have a reputation to uphold and so on? Can one be blamed for being a bit annoyed to see them being so sloppy? Here we have “he become” (instead of “became”, p. ix), “bngs” (for “brings”, p. 213 — could it be an OCR problem?), “fame of mind” (for “frame”, p. 259), “the Germans kings” (p. 319), and a bevy of missing full-stops.

Another thing that annoyed me is that in the section with the translator's notes at the end of the book, the page headers don't say to which region the notes apply. This makes it more difficult to quickly find the note you're looking for. On the other hand, I must praise the notes themselves — the translator has really taken the trouble to find precise references for all the (very numerous) passages where Flavio cites something from some ancient author. The book also has a nice and extensive index.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am truly puzzled by this review. You write as if Flavio had satellite technology and didn't come from a very different world from our own. Your ignorance in hermeneutics is astounding.

You remind of a line from Chesterton: there are no uninteresting subjects, just disinterested people. Perhaps it bored you because you are far too stupid to see its importance.

Friday, February 22, 2008 10:21:00 PM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

I am truly puzzled by this review.

Maybe you came to it with some mistaken expectations, e.g. that it would be written by someone involved in academic study of this subject, someone with a background in the humanities, etc.? Anyway, I'm sure you can find a genuine review of this book in some journal from this area, if that's what you're interested in.

You write as if Flavio had satellite technology and didn't come from a very different world from our own.

I admit, there probably is something to that. But even if I try to imagine it from the point of view of Flavio's contemporaries, I don't really see what sort of readers would enjoy reading a book such as this (or would benefit from it in some other way). Suppose that I live in a time with no satellite technology, no airplanes, no TV documentaries, and when few people travel, especially to long distances. What good will it do me to read that, in some remote corner of Italy, if you follow the course of river A, you encounter the obscure towns of B, C, and D, and the castle of E, and that there are the ruins of an ancient Roman villa nearby? Much of this information is of the sort which it would be better to present on a map, and surely in Flavio's time they were quite capable of producing maps, even if they didn't have satellite technology. The other aspect of Flavio's book, namely the little bits of information about history and famous people from each town, was more interesting (to me at least), but I would prefer to read that kind of things from a book specifically about history, or about this or that famous person -- that way it could tell a nice coherent story, rather than just a few disconnected factoids. Just because Flavio didn't have access to modern technology doesn't mean that it has to have been impossible for him to write in a more interesting way and do something else besides enumerate facts.

Well, anyway, maybe the problem is that the book was different from what I expected. I was hoping it would read more like a travelogue, not a gazetteer. I agree that both kinds of works are valuable, but I frankly have a hard time imagining how the latter would make interesting reading.

Or, let me try to put it this way. Suppose that you were a stay-at-home type of person, and a friend of yours had just returned from a year-long journey all over the length and breadth of Italy, and is now telling you about this country, with which you were until now only very vaguely acquainted. Will you really want him to enumerate to you the names of all the rivers and the towns, and tell you which ones produced a famous lawyer or orator in the last one or two hundred years? That's not the sort of presentation of a country that I'd be particularly keen to listen to.

Your ignorance in hermeneutics is astounding.

That's true — I didn't even know what this word means :)

there are no uninteresting subjects, just disinterested people.

That's an interesting sentence -- thanks for pointing it out. I don't think I've read any of Chesterton's works yet. Anyway, I agree that it's perhaps not fair to say that a subject is inherently interesting, but still one should admit that there are things that a lot of people are interested in, and then there are things that very few people are interested in. I think that Flavio's book belongs to this latter group, and that it isn't unreasonable to refer to these things as boring, but of course I don't want to quarrel with you about this if you don't agree.

Perhaps it bored you because you are far too stupid to see its importance.

I agree, that's entirely possible. And even if I'm not too stupid, I'm definitely too uninformed. Either way, if you cared to write a sentence or two about why this book is so important (or why it was important in its own time), I would be interested to read it.

Saturday, February 23, 2008 7:44:00 AM  
Anonymous vania said...

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Monday, December 22, 2008 11:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Anonymous of 22 Feb 2008.
But your response to her/his comment is even more contemptible.

Two questions for you:

1) Why do you write what you clearly consider a serious review of a serious academic publication, if it's not "a genuine review"?

2) Why should anyone explain to you what people in the fifteenth century found interesting? (Re: "Either way, if you cared to write a sentence or two about why this book is so important (or why it was important in its own time), I would be interested to read it.")

If you really want to know why Biondo is important, do the work yourself and investigate. (You could start by asking yourself what was important to people in the world Biondo came from? What did THEY want to know?) Or at the very least avoid posing as an authority on things you clearly know nothing about. As Anon. 22 Feb 2008 said, it only makes you look stupid.

Monday, January 26, 2009 2:25:00 AM  

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