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23.11.06 Diakité/Sneider (trans.), The Eleventh and Twelfth Books of Giovanni Villani’s “New Chronicle”

23.11.06 Diakité/Sneider (trans.), The Eleventh and Twelfth Books of Giovanni Villani’s “New Chronicle”


If most general history students and non-specialists know any one source from late medieval Italy, it is probably Giovanni Villani’s Nuova Cronica, and in that work, the sections focusing on Florence. Most students of medieval and early modern literature will also know it through its associations with Dante, as a way-marker for many of the historical references in the Commedia. Scholars have long made sections of Villani standard for students of the trecento: the education system in Florence, the movement of Fra Venturino, the Beatific Vision controversy, Florentine legislation, the Guelph-Ghibelline struggle, Dante himself. Further afield, the beginnings of the Hundred Years’ War, including the Flanders campaigns and the battle of Crécy, and the great market collapse of the Florentine banks. Most will also know his work in the translation that has been the standard, really the only generally available one, in English: Selections from the First Nine Books of the Croniche Fiorentine. [1]

The Villani were a prosperous Florentine merchant family with widespread business and political contacts. Giovanni (c. 1280-1348) became a shareholder of the Peruzzi bank, traveling for them as an agent throughout Italy and as far north as Flanders. He served as one of the city’s priors, oversaw the mint and the reconstruction of the city walls, supervised construction projects on the Baptistry and the Badia, and coordinated famine relief efforts. By the 1320s, the Villani had shifted their banking investments to the Buonaccorsi firm, but the wave of bankruptcies that swept through Florence’s banking sector in the 1340s eventually led to Giovanni’s imprisonment in 1346. He died in 1348, a victim of the Black Death. His brother Matteo continued the chronicle until his own death in 1363. Matteo’s son Filippo carried it only to 1364.

His chronicle covers not only the history of Florence, but also that of England, France, and the Low Countries during the early phases of the Hundred Years War, the continued struggle of the empire and papacy, and much more. Villani demonstrates a strong Guelph affinity, an early interest in the classics and the works of contemporary classicists, including Dante and Brunetto Latini, and a moralistic sense of equilibrium that balanced Christian virtues and vices. As Louis Green noted, Villani’s work is unified by the theme of divine justice. [2] Every success and new height in human events would be followed swiftly by decline and ruin as God would punish sin as surely as he rewarded virtue and intelligence. Villani was heavily influenced by the classical notion of fortuna as well, and his Christian moralism often is indistinguishable from a sense of the turning Wheel of Fate. Villani’s extended recitation of every variety of historical and natural event, character, excursus on urban life and culture, all underscore his central theme of natural and civic balance disturbed and restored. He also reveals a keen interest in natural events and causalities, including a fascination with prodigies and monstrosities common to late medieval chroniclers, as well as a strong belief in the efficacy of astrology and the impact of planetary events on human actions.

This is the second volume of Diakité and Sneider’s translations from Villani. The first, The Final Book of Giovanni Villani’s New Chronicle(Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 2016), is chronologically later than the current volume’s coverage and offers the same high level of scholarship and translation. The volume reviewed here includes books XI and XII. Book XI begins in 1326 with the arrival of the Neapolitan Prince Charles of Calabria to assume power over Florence and to unite the Guelph affinity in Italy, according to Villani sparking the descent into Italy of Emperor Lewis IV and the re-ignition of the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict throughout the peninsula. Book XII ends in 1342 amid Florentine campaigns in Tuscany against Pisa for control of Lucca. Villani concludes with forward references (a standard device for him) to 1343 and the disastrous rule of the Duke of Athens, an agent of the Neapolitan Angevins, beginning Book XIII.

The translators provide two introductions. The first is historical and focuses on events and personalities in Tuscany and northern Italy, Villani’s sense of divine causality, and a summary of Green’s analysis of Villani’s apocalypticism. The second turns to textual analysis: the Cronica’s transmission, early readership, literacy and education, the manuscript tradition, Villani as a source for later medieval historiography, and a history of printed editions. There follow sections on Giuseppe Porta’s standard edition of the Tuscan text and notes on the translation. [3] All are well annotated.

As with their treatment of Book XIII, Diakité and Sneider’s English translation is excellent: contemporary, flowing, accurate, and matching Villani’s stylistics. Gone are the archaizing forms of Selfe’s translation or of many current academic translations that attempt to capture the “flavor” of a medieval text but only manage to recreate late Victorian style. The translators are to be commended for their strong command of Villani’s often run-on prose. Their translation of Villani’s account of the flood of 1333 and its aftermath in XII.1-4 (245-69) and of his famous summary of the state (lo stato) of Florence c.1337 in XII.91-94 (364-71) are exemplary.

The edition is accompanied by excellent textual and contextual notes, complementing their introductions and offering good insights into the composition history of the Cronica. The historical notes range from the minutiae of Italian politics to the broader currents of the English-French conflict that would devolve into the Hundred Years’ War and to events in the Low Countries. Most of the textual commentary has already been provided in Porta’s fundamental work; and the historical notes provided are well researched and draw on the best up-to-date scholarship. These, like annotations to Dante, provide context to persons, events, and places mentioned in the text and offer continuing analysis of Villani’s narrative, parallel sources, and modern historiography.

A brief sample of their translation. Here, for example, Porta’s text for one of the most famous sections of the Cronica: XII.94, the school population of Florence, put to such admirable use by Davis, Black, and Grendler:

“Trovamo che’ fanciulli e fanciulle che stavano a leggere del continuo da 8,000 in 10,000. I garzoni che stavano ad aprendere l’abbaco e algorisimo in sei scuole da 1,000 in 1,200. E quelli che stavano ad aprendere gramatica e loica in quatro grandi scuole da 550 in 600.” (3:198)

and Diakité and Sneider:

“We found that at any time, anywhere from eight thousand to ten thousand boys and girls were learning to read. There were anywhere from one thousand to twelve hundred youths who were learning arithmetic and calculation in six schools. And there were anywhere from five hundred fifty to six hundred who were learning grammar and logic in four large schools.” (369)

Although their notes and bibliography cite the most current scholarship for the political history of Italy, the introduction shows some lacunae: for example, some deeper analysis of the role of Marsiglio of Padua in Lewis’s court ideology or the large amount of material now available on trecento Rome both in primary sources and in deep analysis. The same applies to the large amount of research on the Regno of Naples, on trecento historiography (including Villani), on literacy and education (including of women), and on recent archival research into anthropological, social, and economic history. They also seem to follow the old consensus of focusing solely on Italian political history north of the Tiber as reflected, for example, in Dale’s Chronicling History, [4] which relied on a model encapsulated by Cochrane who either ignored or dismissed the historiography of the South in the trecento. [5]

This reviewer would have liked more in-depth analysis of Villani’s sources. We know that he had travelled widely and that his banking and diplomatic activities surely provided him with a large corps of informants outside Florence and Tuscany. It would have been useful to analyze what these sources may have been: whether in written accounts--official documents, personal correspondence, early ricordi--or in personal contacts, rumor, and report. What documentation, for example, did Villani have to support his lengthy discussion of the Beatific Vision controversy in XI.227 (242-44), XII.19 (279-81), XII.47 (307-8)? He seems to quote verbatim a treaty between Florence and Venice of June 1336 in XII.50 (310-13) and one between Florence and Arezzo in XII.60 (328-31). But the translators provide us with no leads into how or where he accessed these documents and which archives and editions might hold them.

The reader could also have been offered some deeper focus on Villani’s strengths and weaknesses as a historian: his misogyny, his reliance on astrological causality, his consistently pro-Guelph and anti-popolani stances, his tendency to narrate and not analyze, to count and not provide motivations and broader strategies, such as his contemporary the Anonimo romano does. Introductions and notations could have offered more on Villani’s style, his narrative forms and structure, rhetorical devices and strategies, and language use.

A strong case could be made--based exclusively on Villani’s obsessive detail beginning with his very first sentence in Book XI into the penultimate chapters of Book XII--that the two chief protagonists in early trecento Italy were King Robert of Naples and the German emperor and his agents (whether Lewis IV, John of Bohemia, or the della Scala). Whether discussing the governance of Florence, the Guelph forces in Tuscany, or the broader Ghibelline-imperial threat, Villani’s attention is on Robert and his unsteady alliance with Florence and the Guelph affinity, most especially Robert’s supposed avarice as a cause for Angevin under-funding and under-supporting Guelph campaigns. Villani’s text also demonstrates that the Angevin king’s forces were everywhere, from Tuscany to Liguria and Piedmont to Lombardy and the Veneto, now projecting power, now on the defensive and withdrawing to the borders of the Regno itself. His agents--Prince Charles of Calabria, Bertrand and Raimond de Baux (del Balzo), Filippo de Sanguinetto--were the leaders of the Guelph forces both in Florence and in campaigns against neighboring Ghibelline cities in Tuscany. As the action broadens and more powerful alliances are forged, Villani records that the Angevins also played a key role in diplomacy and war in Liguria, Lombardy, and the Veneto in an emerging Italian balance of power.

Villani was also keenly interested in events and personalities in the Regno, both from his desire to write a comprehensive history and include its chief protagonists and because of both Florentine and specifically Villani family connections to Naples. The Villani had been papal tax collectors and bank agents for the Buonaccorsi there. They knew many of its chief players personally; and Giovanni also understood--and later spelled out--the financial risks for Florentine bankers and merchants in doing business with and extending credit to the Angevins, rivaled only by the irresponsible war finances of their English counterparts and their Capetian cousins. These very obvious themes are sometimes followed in the notes, but not always or consistently, and are missing in the introduction. Again, this highlights this edition’s dependence on an older historiography focused solely on Florence and the North as paradigmatic of Italian history in the trecento.

De Gruyter’s handling of this edition also needs to be addressed. While many aspects of Villani’s life and writing were covered in the introduction to the translators’ edition of Book XIII (pp. 1-20), they are missing from this volume. This was no doubt the publisher’s and not the translators’ decision. Yet readers will access this work not in its publication, but in its chronological, order and so will most likely miss these well informed and important pages.

The Index fails to follow the standard “10 +” rule: that is, to break out into subsections any topic that takes up more than ten references. What use, for example, is an entry on “Florence, Florentines” (459) that merely lists about 250 page numbers without any distinguishers, such as buildings, churches, disease, famine, floods, food supply, military, population, schools, etc.?

Pricing is a troublesome issue that nowadays bears little relationship to monograph manufacturing costs. At $135.00 (Kindle e-book at $108.00), this fundamental source is certainly inaccessible for any undergraduate teaching, throwing instructors back on the old practice of excerpting from such standard and well known aggregations as the Internet Archive (https://archive.org/details/villanischronicl33022gut ), Project Gutenberg (https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/33022), and Fordham’s venerable Internet History Sourcebooks Project (https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/villani.asp), or to brief excerpts from Dale’s Chronicling History. It is also most likely out of reach for most MA curricula, even in specialized historiography classes and seminars. Why offer such an excellent translation when it is inaccessible to most readers? While specialists will certainly use Porta’s edition for their research, the whole point of translation is to get these texts into the hands of students, non-specialists, and any remaining general reading public. A generation ago such texts would have been readily available as Penguin paperbacks; two generations ago also as Harper Torchbooks.

Again, these issues have nothing to do with the translators and are all about the current economics of publishing, in which the merger of De Gruyter and Brill--bringing together enormous resources--seems far more important than going the small extra distance for authors. But, given the dramatic shrinkage of the audience and curricula for such works, we should be grateful that De Gruyter has undertaken to publish this fine edition by Diakité and Sneider. Their translations here and of Book XIII are and will remain standard English editions for years to come. We hope that the two translators and their publishers continue their excellent project into Villani’s earlier books.

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Notes:

1. Rose E. Selfe, trans.; Philip H. Wicksteed, ed. (London: Archibald Constable, 1906).

2. See, e.g., “Historical Interpretation in Fourteenth-Century Florentine Chronicles,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 28.2 (1967): 161-78.

3. Giovanni Villani, Cronica Nuova, Giuseppe Porta, ed., 3 vols. (Parma: Guanda, 1990–91).

4. Sharon Dale, Alison Willams Lewin, and Duane J. Osheim, eds., Chronicling History: Chroniclers and Historians in Medieval and Renaissance Italy (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007).

5. Eric Cochrane, Historians and Historiography in the Italian Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).