09.02.02, Horodowich, Language and Statecraft

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Michael Knapton

The Medieval Review baj9928.0902.002


Horodowich, Elizabeth. Language and Statecraft in Early Modern Venice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. xii, 245. ISBN: 978-0-521-89496-8.

Reviewed by:
Michael Knapton
Università di Udine

Asking new questions of evidence definable as old, or anyway hitherto unused for that purpose, is an admirable means to historiographical innovation, and it is what Horodowich seeks to do in this monograph, based on her doctoral dissertation and partly anticipated by essays published in journals. Her scope comprehends the whole linguistic circulatory system of Renaissance Venice, and her main thesis is that the patrician government of the Republic sought to discipline the use of words in order to enforce a cultural Venetianness that sustained its regime: a concept she summarizes as "the centrality of spoken language and its control to the functioning of this state" (20). The volume is likely to have multiple appeal, to cultural, social and political historians and literary scholars, and it targets subjects much present in recent Renaissance/early modern scholarship: principally language, especially in the form of blasphemy, insults and gossip, as indeed is evident from much of Horodowich's text, footnotes and ample bibliography.

My overall evaluation of the book is less than favourable, for specific reasons I will now state, though they link to a more general problem, residing at least partly in the very reasons just given for its probable appeal. Stated crudely, today's north American scholars of late medieval and early modern Europe are hard put to it to find common ground amongst themselves in shaping and communicating their research interests, and in gaining attention and favour for career purposes. They are in greater difficulty still when seeking to do the same in relation to their very many academic colleagues in the humanities whose research relates to societies which are less long dead, all-white and thoroughly male-dominated. This risk factor becomes an operative peril when the common ground they strive for--in this case, as often, interdisciplinary, cultural history--is not properly matched by what the available historical sources--especially if archival--allow for, however ingeniously they handle them. This is why I consider parts of Horodowich's monograph better than the whole, despite the intrinsic interest of many of her ideas and the meritorious hard work of the research done, and also why I lay much of the responsibility for her partial success on others.

The Introduction links Gramsci's reflections on language to Renaissance culture's profound interest in it, especially its social function, and to "a crucial but largely unrecognized component of statebuilding, in Venice and perhaps in other states as well...the management of public speech" (5), something inspired by a variety of social, economic, political, religious and cultural motives (20-21). Speech is thus considered less as form and more as content, especially in terms of propriety and civility, i.e. as normative language conducive especially to social harmony and shared Venetian identity, disciplining the tongue just as early modern European culture strove to discipline the body in general. This latter affinity elicits comment by Horodowich on the difficulty of using "voices from the archives," rather than literary and art historical scholarship, to study "the discipline of the tongue and the body" (16)--not the only occasion when she admits weaknesses in her primary source material, but then presses on in using it. She claims to connect "discourses about speech" (laws, prescriptive and legal texts) to "the actual spoken words (or as close as we can come to them) of sixteenth-century Venetians" taken from trial records (20), but she is aware that historians of justice emphasize the extent to which such records construct a version of reality, including to some extent their reporting of public language (141-142, 146), and can actually use such reported speech only for parts of chapters 3 and 4. Similarly, though she denies that "the Venetian state acted as a single will" (18), overall the book argues for fairly concerted government action, and the Conclusion speaks of its interventions regarding language as "a coherent, institutional program" (211).

Chapter 1, "Defining the Art of Conversation", discusses how an ideology of correct, mannered speech, with rules, boundaries, and prescriptions relating to such opposing categories as sincerity and prudence, heart and tongue, "masculine" and "feminine," was developed in Italy at large by the likes of Castiglione, Della Casa and Stefano Guazzo via texts of conduct literature first published respectively in 1528, 1558 and 1574. Its influence is presumed--though direct proof is lacking (58)--to extend to thinking in Venice about speech and political control, on the assumption that ideas and debates circulated by the city's publishers, working for a European market, also related directly to the preoccupations and convictions of its ruling class. This discussion serves as one of the bases of subsequent, more specific analysis.

Chapter 2, "Regulating Blasphemy," and Chapter 3, "Insults," seek to examine the control of real urban speech principally by the magistracies of the Esecutori contro la bestemmia and the Avogaria di Comun. The former, created in 1537, are seen by Horodowich as concerned especially with enforcing both Venetian propriety of language and civic identity in general particularly on immigrants to the city, who were extraordinarily numerous in the 16th century, and with reinforcing respect for the nobility. She focuses her primary attention not on intentionally heretical blasphemy, by and large the judicial preserve of the Inquisition, but on "everyday, unruly verbal outbursts" handled by the Esecutori (75), plus not particularly impious commoners' insults of nobles (84-85): in her perception, "words...wielded...in an attempt to change culture" (58). An insuperable limit of this chapter is however the scant survival of judicial records: no trial papers, just registers of concisely formulated sentences never containing transcriptions of specific words pronounced, nor indications of where; it would anyway have been useful to offer summary, tabulated data about all the early sentences surviving (1548 onwards). Despite the interest of Horodowich's references to recent, more general scholarship, I'd also have appreciated more explicit comparison--rather than mere juxtaposition--between her interpretation and that offered by Cozzi's and Derosas' sound studies of the Esecutori, concerning e.g.: the nexus between repression of blasphemy, perceived divine displeasure and political/military worries like the Turkish war begun precisely in 1537; the creation of the Esecutori as a feature of the Council of Ten's 16th century proliferation of satellite magistracies; the overall "moralizing" nature of the responsibilities other than blasphemy progressively assigned to them; other states' similar concern about blasphemy.

Chapter 3 portrays other magistracies' action against insults as functional, like the action of the Esecutori, to ensuring underlings' respect for the state, its officials and social hierarchy in general, especially for the patrician ruling class's honour. Again the archival sources are very weak: virtually nothing survives for key magistracies involved--the Signori di Notte; the Censori (responsible for domestic servants' and gondoliers' behavior)--and Horodowich falls back on 58 records of trials handled between 1500 and 1625 by the Avogaria di Comun, whose greater institutional prestige perhaps channelled towards it many of the more subversive insults, as the data themselves partly suggest (105). However this hypothesis is mine, not hers, since she considers them an adequate base for "a general survey of insults" (99), and consequently draws conclusions I find more argued and speculative than demonstrated (117 ff.). Moreover, in my view the whole discussion of government's disciplining language as a means to greater social control and enhanced civic identity needed better linking to previous studies on social policy and ritual in Venice, starting respectively from Pullan's Rich and Poor... and Muir's Civic Ritual....

Chapter 4, "Conversation and Exchange: Networks of Gossip," based on Inquisition trial records, and chapter 5, "The Language of Courtesans," based on reference and comment by contemporaries, broaden the discussion of speech beyond state efforts at control, towards Venetian attitudes and beliefs about the way speech could both endanger and empower the state. Gossip is considered as central not only to such matters as group interaction and moral values, themes already explored by historians especially for England, but to a more specifically Venetian context of state-building and political culture. Using both general and specifically Venetian authors (jurists, etc.), Horodowich examines comments on the relationship between gossip and fama in court proceedings, and dwells on the stereotypically feminine gendering of gossip; she then explores the nature and function of gossip in a primarily neighbourhood context as reported in the Inquisition trial records, emphasizing its practice by men, too. Her discussion of gossip by men in the broader political context, drawing heavily on the early 16th century diarists like Sanudo (and also on ideas in Finlay's Politics in Renaissance Venice), considers its relationship to state secrecy and e.g. to unofficial electioneering, and indicates an ambivalent mix of distrust and credence in attitudes towards it, as well as the similarity of its de facto function to its use on a neighbourhood level.

Her account of courtesans' talk derives essentially from indirect sources, legislative and literary (especially Aretino), and she admits to scarce documentation of their actual spoken words, as too to the less than obvious connection between their talk and the state, however important their language was in both contemporary comment and later scholars' perception of their distinctiveness (166-67). Their speech was an ambiguous exception to women's general, chaste silence, and its practice and allure could threaten social stability and male domination, as proven, too, by Inquisition trials of women labelled as both witches and courtesans or prostitutes. However Horodowich also considers such talk a contribution to Venice's public image and economic strength, characterizing courtesans as "entrepreneurs and diplomats in Venetian political culture" (195): more prosaically, they were a tourist attraction, capable of seducing visitors out of their money both physically and verbally, and--in practically unique instances like Veronica Franco's entertaining King Henry III of France in 1574--a republic's next best for dynastic marriage alliances as a way of sweetening foreign policy.

In my view Horodowich much inflates the implications of this latter episode (204-05), and I find similar overemphasis in her Conclusion, which starts with a parenthesis on the Venetian élite's lasting penchant for foul language, especially in the theatre. Some general statements made here are stimulating but flimsy: e.g. examination of gossip shows "Venetian justice..as an extension of a kind of popular justice that paid careful attention to reports about reputation as they filtered up from the street" (211-12); study of gossip and insults shows that "the republic of Venice clearly attempted to resolve social or political conflict through politics rather than through the more violent means of dueling or bloodshed as in other political arenas" (i.e. societies ruled by courts: 212); "the punishment of the tongue in early modern Venice translated into action that centuries earlier had only existed in a more virtual way" (215: in my view Horodowich's limited availability of court records can't substantiate fully enough her notion that laws were now not only made but applied, while her desire to portray the 16th century as different owing to specific political and social changes entails some shortcuts on the late medieval situation). But she also hedges--as indeed in the Introduction (10-11)--about the extent to which Venice really was unique in the degree of government's attention to spoken language, given the insufficient availability of comparable research.

Lastly, human fallibility spares none of us, but this book has an annoying incidence of imprecision, mostly concerning matters Venetian, especially the nature, functions etc. of various organs of the state. The Cinque alla Pace were essentially a minor criminal court, not a council, while the Signori di Notte were involved in both policing and judging (61). A first mention of the Holy Office should specify its hybrid nature in Venice, as a court with both state and church members (62). The Esecutori contro la bestemmia weren't a council (63), and their plaques as reproduced (68-69) sought to enforce a great deal more than spoken decorum. Neither they nor the Censori existed in the 15th century (119). Domenico Morosini's treatise wasn't architectural (120). The word transcribed as facina should read farina (122), and the term terra should translate as city, not land (157). In the same vein, the period Horodowich covers is essentially the 16th century, though the less precise "early modern" occurs fairly frequently, and time references oscillate a bit. She answers her own rhetorical question--why Venice was more worried about blasphemy in the first half of the 16th century--by referring to the Counter-Reformation, which at best overlaps only partially (73-74); she also makes overfree use of works by Venetian jurists writing in the 17th and 18th centuries (67-70, 94-96).

Many of these matters could have been remedied before publication by better third-party critical reading, which could also have done Horodowich a great service by facing her with something resembling the more general objections raised in this review. I'm convinced she would have responded well, producing a book faithful to her ideas but more carefully argued and nuanced, a fitter recognition for her ability and work. Though better served by the more abundant archival material for a later period, Barbierato's recent monograph Politici e ateisti. Percorsi della miscredenza a Venezia fra Sei e Settecento is proof that themes akin to Horodowich's can be fruitfully examined for Venice using new historiographical approaches.

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Michael Knapton

Università di Udine