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.
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
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
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
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
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
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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