European studies blog

82 posts categorized "Italy"

11 May 2022

The Art of Noises

“In antiquity, life was nothing but silence. Noise was really not born before the 19th century, with the advent of machinery. Today noise reigns supreme over human sensibility.” Luigi Russolo

Photograph showing Luigi Russolo and his collaborator Ugo Piatti with their intonarumori

Photograph showing Luigi Russolo and his collaborator Ugo Piatti with their intonarumori, from Luigi Russolo, L’arte dei rumori (Milan, 1916). X.629/13035.

Futurism was a multidisciplinary artistic and social movement. Futurists wanted to reinvent all art forms: painting, sculpture, literature, photography, architecture, book production, dance, even cuisine... Futurist ideals were very radical, both artistically and politically.

Italian futurists, led by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, had a huge impact on the avant-garde of the twentieth century and gave popularity to art manifestos. Of the many futurist manifestos, the 11 March 1913 one titled L’arte dei rumori. Manifesto futurista (The Art of Noises. Futurist Manifesto), by Luigi Russolo, had a very long-lasting influence.

Portrait of Luigi Russolo

Portrait of Luigi Russolo, L’arte dei rumori.

L’arte dei rumori is a manifesto of futurist music. It was subsequently published as a monograph in 1916 in Milan by Edizioni Futuriste di “Poesia”, Marinetti’s own publishing house and official publisher of Italian futurists since 1905. The monograph, also titled L’arte dei rumori, expands on the 1913 manifesto and includes pictures and musical scores.

This book is the first to introduce the notions of noise as sound and sound-art. Noise was a product of the industrial revolution and therefore, for Russolo, futuristic. Onomatopoeic and cacophonic ‘words in freedom’ were already linked to the concept of noise as poetry in the early productions of futurist literature, so noise as sound appears a natural evolution of Marinetti’s Parole in Libertà.

The author of this book, painter turned musician Luigi Russolo, categorizes various types of noises and also created 21 rudimentary experimental noise making machines able to reproduce some noises for the futurist orchestra: intonarumori, including ‘howlers’, ‘bursters’, 'cracklers', ‘hummers’. These Leonardesque magic boxes with levers and trumpets were used for a composition, which reproduces the noise of the urban industrial soundscape: Risveglio di una città (Awakening of a city).

Concerts with intonarumori were organized in 1913 in Modena, and in 1914 in Milan and London, with 10 shows in the Coliseum. Most of Russolo’s instruments were destroyed during WWII and there is only one surviving phonograph recording of the instruments playing together with an orchestra. The full score of Risveglio di una città is also missing, apart from the two pages of notation reproduced below. Nevertheless, attempts to rebuild Russolo’s instruments and reproduce his musical performances happened in the course of the last century.

Score for Risveglio di una città

Score for Risveglio di una città, from L’arte dei rumori.

Russolo’s efforts to emancipate noises and to broaden the definition of music were truly revolutionary, but futurist music was not well received by the audience. The public was not ready at the time. However, the use of synthesizers, the invention of noise music, concrete music, soundscape art, sound-art, electroacoustic and electronic music, are all linked to Russolo’s production of writings, music, and instruments. Musicians who were directly influenced by his work include Pierre Schaeffer, Edgard Varèse and John Cage.

Valentina Mirabella, Curator, Romance Collections

Further reading

Claudia Salaris, Marinetti Editore, (Bologna 1990) YF.2009.a.20485

Luigi Russolo, The Art of Noise (futurist manifesto, 1913), translated by Robert Filliou, Originally published in 1967 as a Great Bear Pamphlet by Something Else Press, 2004 

Barclay Brown, ‘The Noise Instruments of Luigi Russolo’ Perspectives of New Music, vol. 20, no. 1/2, 1981, pp. 31–48 PP.8000.mn 

If you are interested in finding out more about our Italian collections, join us at the upcoming event: Italian Collections in UK Libraries: Past, Present & Future, on Friday 17 June, in person at the British Library. Bookings are open on the BL website

 

27 April 2022

Reframing the Tin Book

In 1913, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944), founder and chief promoter of Italian Futurism, extended the Futurist revolution to the field of typography:

My revolution is aimed at the so-called typographical harmony of the page, which is contrary to the flux and reflux, the leaps and bursts of style that run through the page. On the same page, therefore, we will use three or four colours of ink, or even twenty different typefaces if necessary […]. With this typographical revolution and this multi-coloured variety in the letters I mean to redouble the expressive force of the words, Destruction of Syntax –Imagination without Strings – Words in Freedom (1913).

The so-called ‘Tin Book’ is one of the best examples of the radical rethinking that the Futurists applied to the arts and the book in particular.


 

3D model of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti/Tullio d’Albisola Parole In Libertà Futuriste Olfattive Tattili Termiche (Rome, 1932). HS.74/2143, Courtesy of Archivio Tullio d’Albissola

The British Library's copy of the Tin Book, digitised as part of the AHRC funded project Interdisciplinary Italy 1900-2020. Interart/Intermedia, was manufactured in Savona in 1932. A selection of word-in-freedom texts by Marinetti are accompanied, on the verso, by a ‘chromatic-poetic’ Futurist synthesis by Tullio d’Albisola (1899-1971), a second generation Futurist whose activities spanned ceramics, poetry, and design. The arrangement has been seen by critics as a potential flaw of the project: we cannot read simultaneously Marinetti’s words-in-freedom and d’Albisola’s visual chromatic-poetic response. Be that as it may, this object-book is no less revolutionary in the way it invites an expanded multi-sensorial reading, signalled by the proper title of the book: Parole in Libertà Futuriste Olfattive Tattili Termiche (‘Futurist Words in Freedom - Olfactory, Tactile, Thermal’).

Portrait of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti

Portrait of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti/Tullio d’Albisola Parole In Libertà Futuriste

The act of opening the book and turning the pages is first and foremost an acoustic experience. Italian artist and critic Mirella Bentivoglio performed a reading in 1982 at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The performance piece was called Jouer la page. This is how she describes it: ‘air pressed between the pages at different times and distances from the microphone produced unexpected results. The tin book proved to be a regular instrument furnished with a sounding-box. The cylinder of the spine is an elementary flute through which the pages seem to materialize as sounds’.


 

3D model of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti/Tullio d’Albisola Parole In Libertà Futuriste

The Tin Book took an industrial material and turned it literally into poetry, fusing art and industry. The metallic sound evokes the ‘infinite variety of noises’ of modern life which Luigi Russolo (1885-1947) saw as part of the extraordinary diversity of sound (including music-sound and noise-sound) that would generate the new Art of Noises (The Art of Noises. A Futurist Manifesto, 11 March 1913).

The material and its sonic qualities de-familiarize the reader with the traditional sensorial experience of reading a paper (or digital) book. The association with industrial sounds, turns the book into a machine, and, on a more ordinary level, reminds the reader of the colourful packaging of tin boxes and glossy advertising metal plates that were part of interwar material and visual culture.

The smooth and rough surfaces of the pages have a visual equivalent in shiny and duller areas of the lithographed images, blurring the boundary between text, image, and object. The act of reading the Tin Book pushes meaning to the surface, allowing the reader to experience a multi-sensorial perception in which meaning is not principally held by the words in the book. The process recalls also the principles of the tavole tattili which Marinetti had composed in the later 1910s, especially during the war years. In the 1921 Manifesto of Tactilism, Marinetti introduced the new art of touch—tactilism—which was a means to reconnect with the sense of touch and use it as another important channel of communication and means to experience the world.

The introduction of concrete elements in poetry was a seismic shift in the concept of literature: the fundamental overlapping between word and image (and their connection to sound and touch) opened up new pathways to explore the boundaries between the arts, exposing the artificial separation between arts and media. The Futurist tin books, by playing with the sonic qualities of the book as object, took literature into the realms of sculpture, design and modern technology.

Giuliana Pieri, Professor of Italian and the Visual Arts and Executive Dean (School of Humanities), Royal Holloway University of London

Further reading

Futurist Manifestos, ed. by Umbro Apollonio (London, 2009).

Giovanni Lista, Le Livre Futuriste. De libération du mot au poème tactile (Modena, 1982).

Mirella Bentivoglio, ‘The Reinvention of the Book in Italy’, The Print Collector’s Newsletter, 24.3 (1993). 93-96. 6613.160000

'The Tin Book', European Studies Blog, 12 March 2014

If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, Prof Giuliana Pieri is among the speakers of the upcoming event: Italian Collections in UK Libraries: Past, Present & Future, on Friday 17 June, in person at the British Library. Bookings are open on the BL website.

17 February 2022

In Defence of Armchair Travellers

Stand up for bookworms. Sir Christopher Wren never went to Italy. But he did have a library.

When you see a gleaming white Wren building against a bright blue London sky, it’s easy to think that Sir Chris. was evoking his experience of a sun-drenched Rome. This is why I was surprised to learn from Campbell (p. 124) that he never went to Italy. He did visit Paris and Holland. The nearest he got to Rome was meeting Bernini in Paris.

Portrait of Sir Christopher Wren

Portrait of Sir Christopher Wren, 1713. John Smith after Sir Godfrey Kneller. Source: Wikimedia Commons

D. J. Watkin, introducing the sales catalogue of Wren’s books (1748), commented:

It is one of the wonders of architectural history that Wren could have conceived a classic architecture so huge and assured without ever having seen at first hand any of the monuments of ancient or modern Rome.

His library did however include ‘copies of Arberti, Serlio, Vitruvius, d’Alvier, Bellori, de Rossi, Desgogetz, Boissard and Bosio, as well as three editions of Palladio’.

Some Englishmen did of course go to Italy, and a number of them doubtless were absolute wastrels, but others fed their minds. A case in point is John Evelyn, who was in Italy in the 1640s, studied medicine in Padua and attended sermons and observed buildings and antiquities in Rome.

Wren’s books are in Cambridge, but a good number of Evelyn’s are in the British Library. Among them are:

Giulio Cesare Capaccio, La vera antichità di Pozzuolo (Rome, 1652) Eve.a.21

Johannes Baptista Casalius, De profanis et sacris veteribus ritibus (Rome, 1644-45) Eve.a.134
(which includes illustrations of antiquities)

François Perrier, Icones et segmenta illustrium e marmore tabularum quae Romae adhuc exstant (Paris, 1645 [1650?]) Ece.c.26

Antonio Zantani, Primorum xii Caesarum verissimae imagines ex antuquis numismatibus desumptae (Rome, 1614) Eve.a.108

There’s a lot to be said for experience, but even more for the assiduous conning of a good library.

Page from Giulio Cesare Capaccio, La vera antichità di Pozzuolo (Rome, 1652) Eve.a.21

Page from Giulio Cesare Capaccio, La vera antichità di Pozzuolo (Rome, 1652) Eve.a.21

Page from Giulio Cesare Capaccio, La vera antichità di Pozzuolo (Rome, 1652) Eve.a.21

Page from Giulio Cesare Capaccio, La vera antichità di Pozzuolo (Rome, 1652) Eve.a.21

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections

References and additional reading:

James W. P. Campbell, Building St Paul’s (London, 2007) YK.2009.a.8760

Gordon Craig, ‘John Evelyn and the theatre in England, France and Italy. Dedicated to the memory of Charles Stuart II’, The Mask. An illustrated journal of the art of the theatre, X;3 (July 1924), 97-115; X:4 (Oct. 1924), 143-60

Michael Hunter, ‘The British Library and the Library of John Evelyn, with a Checklist of Evelyn Books in the British Library’s Holdings’, in John Evelyn in the British Library (London, 1995), pp. 82–102. 2719.e.3064

John L. Lievsay, The Englishman’s Italian Books 1550-1700 (Philadelphia, 1969) YA.2002.a.8788

Giles Mandelbrote, ‘John Evelyn and His Books’, in John Evelyn and His Milieu, ed. Frances Harris and Michael Hunter (London, 2003), pp. 71-94. YC.2004.a.315

D. J. Watkin, Sale catalogues of libraries of eminent persons, IV, Architects (London, 1972) W77/0506

15 December 2021

Dante and Esperanto

Is Esperanto an artificial language? Yes, but neither more nor less than any other language spoken by humans. All languages are the result of an agreement between the members of a community – dating back to very distant times and evolving slowly and continuously from generation to generation – to communicate with each other by means of the voice.

Woodcut of Dante by the Hungarian artist Dezső Fáy

Woodcut of Dante by the Hungarian artist Dezső Fáy in Dante Alighieri, Infero, translated by Kálmán Kalocsay (Budapest, 1933). YF.2008.a.36795

Dante Alighieri, the great Florentine poet and author of the Divine Comedy, was aware of this distant origin of languages, connected to the multiform creativity of our remote ancestors. He recounts all this through the words of Adam, in Paradise, canto XXVI, verses 130-132:

Opera naturale è ch’uom favella;
ma così o così, natura lascia
poi fare a voi secondo che v’abbella.

Among the English translations of the poem, one of the most appreciated is that of Allen Mandelbaum (1926-2011), an American professor of literature. This has the advantage of being accessible online with Dante’s original Italian text alongside. Here is the tercet on the origin of languages, in Mandelbaum’s translation:

That man should speak at all is nature’s act,
but how you speak—in this tongue or in that—
she leaves to you and to your preference.

And what about Esperanto? Well, Esperanto was also ‘invented’, but that occurred much more recently than for any other language: Esperanto was created by Ludwik Zamenhof, a Polish ophthalmologist), who proposed it in a book published in 1887, as a possible international and ‘neutral’ language. Esperanto is also the result of an agreement among all those who accepted Zamenhof’s proposal and started to communicate in that language. Today Esperanto speakers are scattered all over the world and also transmit the language from generation to generation. There are probably about one million speakers.

Portrait of Zamenhof

Portrait of Zamenhof. Source: Wikimedia Commons 

Esperanto literature is particularly rich and has three different translations of the Divine Comedy. The British Library holds all of them. It is recognized that the best Esperanto translation is the most recent one: the complete version in terza rima written by Enrico Dondi (1935-2011), an Italian psychiatrist, and published in 2006. Here you can see the tercet on the origin of languages, in Dondi’s translation:

Por hom’ estas natura la parolo,
sed lasas la natur’, ke l’ manieron
oni elektu laŭ la propra volo.

Cover of La dia komedio. Infero

Cover of La dia komedio. Infero. Translated by Enrico Dondi (Chapecó, 2006). ZF.9.a.6610

Dondi’s Esperanto is an elegant language that has been gradually refined thanks to a literary tradition that has matured over the course of more than a century. Therefore, in this blog post we will follow a chronological order to illustrate how the language has gradually measured itself with the great Italian poem. And we will do that by considering the very famous opening lines of the Comedy:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Verses that Mandelbaum translates as:

When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.

We owe the very first translation of the Divine Comedy into Esperanto to Giovanni Peterlongo (1856-1941), an Italian lawyer and civil servant, who lived in Trento. The town was under Austrian administration until 1918 and is now part of Italy. In 1922, Peterlongo was elected mayor of Trento and he spoke in favour of the use of both German and Italian in Alto Adige.

Page from Peterlongo’s translation of the Divine Comedy (Canto VIII) with a reproduction of a drawing by Sandro Botticelli

Page from Peterlongo’s translation of the Divine Comedy (Canto VIII) with a reproduction of a drawing by Sandro Botticelli (Milan, 1979). YF.2010.b.1079

Peterlongo’s blank verse translation of the Comedy was completed in 1914, when Esperanto was still a very young language. The work was later revised by him and was published only in 1963, with a reproduction of Sandro Botticelli’s drawings. The British Library holds a second edition.

Here you can see the first tercet:

En mezo de l’ vojaĝ’ de nia vivo
en arbareg’ malluma mi troviĝis,
ĉar mi de l’ rekta vojo forvojiĝis.

Kálmán Kalocsay (1891-1976) was a Hungarian doctor, and worked at a major Budapest hospital, but also was an outstanding Esperantist poet, who considerably influenced Esperanto culture, through original poetry and translations of literary works.

Cover of Dante Alighieri, Infero, translated by Kálmán Kalocsay

Cover of Dante Alighieri, Infero, translated by Kálmán Kalocsay (Budapest, 1933). YF.2008.a.36795

Kalocsay had learned Esperanto in 1913, the same year in which the Hungarian poet Mihály Babits (1883-1941) had published in Budapest a splendid translation of Inferno into Hungarian, in terza rima. Kalocsay was impressed by Babits’s work and decided to follow his example by translating Dante’s Inferno into Esperanto, in the same original metre. The work was published in Budapest in 1933 and includes 14 woodcuts by the Hungarian artist Dezső Fáy.

Woodcut 'Alta Helpo' by Dezső Fáy

Woodcut 'Alta Helpo' by Dezső Fáy in Kálmán Kalocsay’s translation of Inferno

Here is the freshness of Kálmán Kalocsay’s terza rima in the first tercet of his Esperanto Inferno:

Je l’ vojomez’ de nia vivo tera
mi trovis min en arbareg’ obskura,
ĉar perdiĝinta estis vojo vera.

Thus we arrive at the 21st century, when Dante studies in Esperanto culture find their most important figure in Enrico Dondi, who masterfully translated all of Dante’s poetical works into Esperanto, in the same metre as the originals. The entire Divine Comedy, whose terza rima flows with an unparalleled lightness, appeared in 2006, preceded in 2000 by an edition of Purgatory. The Vita Nuova (New Life) appeared in 2003, and in 2007 the youthful work Il Fiore (The Flower).

Finally, here is the first tercet of Enrico Dondi's Inferno:

En mezo de la voj’ de vivo nia
mi trovis min en arbareg’ obskura,
de l’ rekta voj’ estinte fordevia.

Giuliano Turone, Editor of Dante Poliglotta 

References and further reading

Dante Alighieri, La dia komedio, el la itala tradukis Enrico Dondi (Chapecó, 2006). ZF.9.a.6610

Dante Alighieri, La dia komedio, el la itala tradukis Giovanni Peterlongo (Milan, 1979). YF.2010.b.1079

Dante Alighieri, Infero, tradukis Kálmán Kalocsay (Budapest, 1933). YF.2008.a.36795

Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio, el la itala tradukis Enrico Dondi (Chapecó, 2000). YF.2010.b.116

Dante Alighieri, La floro, el la itala tradukis Enrico Dondi (Chapecó, 2007) YF.2008.a.12615

Dante Alighieri, Vivo nova, el la itala tradukis Enrico Dondi (Chapecó, 2009).YF.2009.a.26102.

Vittorio Russo, Danteskaj itineroj (Naples, 2001). YF.2009.a.37689.

08 December 2021

Book Donation by Roberto L. Bruni (1945-2020): a collection on Italian Studies

The British Library recently accepted a generous donation of books belonging to the late Dr Roberto Bruni (1945-2020). The books have been catalogued and are available in our reading rooms. Roberto Bruni was a keen reader of the British Library, and his personal collection of books compliments our holdings on Italian and Renaissance studies well. In this blog post, Roberto’s colleague and friend, Prof Diego Zancani, remembers his extraordinary contribution to Italian Studies in the UK.

Roberto Lorenzo Bruni was a Florentine through and through, literally born quite near the Brunelleschi dome in 1945. He grew up and went to school in Florence and lived there while studying Medieval and Modern Languages at Pisa University. In November 1966 in the aftermath of the disastrous flooding of the river Arno, he helped rescue elderly people in Florence, and later salvaging works of art and rare books, many of them held in the National Library situated by the river bank. In 1969, he was appointed as a Lector in Italian at the University of Reading. The Faculty of Letters of this university hosted the largest department of Italian Studies in the UK, directed by Luigi Meneghello, a philosopher by training and a writer who had taken part in the Italian Resistance, and who reached literary fame in Italy.

Title page of Mostra di incisioni di Stefano Della Bella

One of the books donated by Roberto Bruni. Mostra di incisioni di Stefano Della Bella (Florence, 1973) YF.2021.a.14250

In 1973-74 Roberto took up a teaching position at the University of Victoria, in Vancouver. After one year he returned to Britain as a Lecturer in Italian at the University of Exeter. There he founded and edited an innovative series of “Italian Texts”, publishing numerous editions of rare poems and studies, mainly concerning Renaissance linguistic and literary debates. Roberto’s interests then slowly moved from literature and philology to the History of the Book, and he became an expert researcher and cataloguer of early Italian editions in British libraries. He worked together with his colleague D. Wyn Evans to produce catalogues of early Italian books in Exeter libraries, and later the massive catalogue (of some 5700 items) of 17th-century books in Cambridge libraries.

Roberto was interested in early Italian manuscripts, and together we wrote a monograph on Antonio Cornazzano, an Italian humanist who worked at the court of Francesco Sforza, in Venice and in Ferrara. Later, we worked again together on the writings by the late 16th-century popular poet Giulio Cesare Croce existing in British libraries. He was also a contributor to scholarly journals, especially La Bibliofilia, and Studi Secenteschi. In the 1980s he started writing poetry in English and in Italian, and he developed this interest even more after he retired from Exeter university in 2005.

Cover of Roberto Bruni and D. Wyn Evans, Italian 17th-century books in Cambridge libraries: a short-title catalogue

Cover of Roberto Bruni and D. Wyn Evans, Italian 17th-century books in Cambridge libraries: a short-title catalogue (Florence, 1997) YA.2001.a.4311

He also wrote some short stories in English that were printed privately in Florence, where he used to spend a few months every year, working on early books in Florentine historical libraries, and writing his own texts.

His poetical works are unique and quite extraordinary: most of them are in terza rima, and the language is essentially Tuscan with a vocabulary based on 15th- and 16th-century texts.
He published them in 2019 under the name of Guzzabruno (a name made up using the maiden name of his mother, Guzzo, and Bruni), this alter ego lived at the court of Elisabeth I and of King James, and was a friend of the great lexicographer John Florio. These were followed by a shorter volume of Rime di Guzzabruno, cantimbanco fiorentino, published in March 2020.

Roberto died on 9 July 2020, and left a substantial number of books in his house in Exeter. His heirs wanted his collection to be shared among his friends, and important cultural institutions, in accordance with Roberto’s wishes.

Over 150 books were donated to the British Library and these include numerous volumes on Florentine literature, art and architecture, important studies on 16th- and 17th-century authors, as well as scholarly catalogues and studies of books existing in historical libraries.

Diego Zancani, Emeritus Professor in Medieval and Modern Languages, University of Oxford, Emeritus Fellow, Balliol College, Oxford

References/further reading

Roberto L. Bruni and D. Wyn Evans, A catalogue of Italian books, 1471-1600, in the libraries of Exeter University, Exeter Cathedral, and the Devon and Exeter Institution (Exeter, 1978) 2725.bb.1

Roberto Bruni and D. Wyn Evans, Italian 17th-century books in Cambridge libraries : a short-title catalogue (Florence, 1997) YA.2001.a.4311

Roberto L. Bruni, Antonio Cornazzano: la tradizione testuale (Florence, 1992) YA.1993.b.10660

Roberto L. Bruni, Giulio Cesare Croce dall'Emilia all'Inghilterra : cataloghi, biblioteche e testi (Biblioteca di bibliografia italiana; 124 ) (Florence, 1991) P.P.6476.en.[124]

Poesie di Guzzabruno, Poeta Fiorentino. Vissuto a Londra a’ tempi della Regina Elisabetta e di Re Giacomo. Con una vita scritta da John Florio Prelettore di Lingua Italiana della Regina Anna e Valletto della Camera. E co’ Commenti alle Poesie, dove si dà compiuta Notizia de’ Significati de’ Motti. Parte Prima. (Florence 2019) Privately Printed.

See review by Prof. Luisa Avellini in Schede umanistiche: rivista annuale dell'Archivio Umanistico Rinascimentale Bolognese, XXXIII/1 (2019), pp. 248-252. ZA.9.a.9582

Rime di Guzzabruno, cantimbanco fiorentino (Florence, 2020) Privately Printed

03 November 2021

Venice: Tales of a Sinking City – an online event

On 8 November 2021 the British Library is hosting a free online event looking at the role of Venice in the current environmental, cultural and social global crises.

For centuries at the helm of a trading empire, the city of Venice has amassed wealth and culture in every palace, church, canal. Its lagoon constitutes a harmonious example of man-made transformation of the environment, conquered from mud, yet liveable and sustainable. A unique place for the circulation of ideas, home to fine printing, art and literature, a bridge between East and West. Venice is both a muse and a maker.

Still of flooded Venice from Homo Urbanus Venetianus

Still from Bêka and Lemoine, Homo Urbanus Venetianus, 2019 copyright of Bêka and Lemoine

After the decline and fall of the Republic of Venice, the city seemed the last Romantic fantasy during the industrial revolution. Nowadays, the number of inhabitants is diminishing, whilst tourism has reached its peak. The city is becoming a resort and is at risk of forgetting its own history, uniqueness, identity. Without its people, Venice might end up looking like one of its hundreds of replicas around the world.

There is not one way to describe Venice, nor 55. 55 is the number of fictional cities described in Italo Calvino’s 1974 work, Le Citta’ invisibili (Invisible Cities; Turin, 1978; X.908/86292) by Venetian explorer Marco Polo to Kublai Khan, Emperor of Mongolia. After hearing about all of them, Kublai Khan said:

‘There is still one of which you never speak.’
Marco Polo bowed his head.
'Venice,’ the Khan said.
Marco smiled. ‘What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?’
The emperor did not turn a hair. ‘And yet I have never heard you mention that name.’
And Polo said: ‘Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.’

Cover of Italo Calvino, Invisible cities, translated by William Weave

Italo Calvino, Invisible cities, translated by William Weave (London, 1974). X.989/29509

F.T. Marinetti and his futurist fellows did not like Venice. They repudiated it for its slavish devotion of the past. They suggest to “burn the gondolas” and fill the canals with the rubbish of the crumbling palaces. “May the dazzling reign of divine Electrical Light at last free Venice from her venal furnished room’s moonshine”, says a manifesto thrown in thousands of copies from the Clock Tower of St Mark’s Square, in 1910.

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Futurist Venice

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Futurist Venice (Milan, 1910). 1879.c.8.(24.)

Episodes of acqua alta, high water, have been recorded since the XIII century, but Marinetti would have never imagined that the rising sea levels would become a serious threat to the very existence of the city. The exceptional acqua alta in November 2019, when 85% of the city was covered by water, has been subject of a film by architects and film makers Bêka and Lemoine, Homo Urbanus Venetianus, observing the daily habits of tourists and venetians being disrupted by environmental contingencies. Is this an admonition for other cities?

The most imitated, the most celebrated, the most oneiric of all cities is menaced by water and global tourism.
Will Venice spark a creative response to its problems and find a sustainable way to survive, as it has done in the past?

As world leaders and experts are gathered in Glasgow to find a strategy against climate change, join our free online event on 8 November 2021 to look at how Venice embodies the emergencies we globally face and how literature and technologies can uncover these stories. Guests will be Bêka and Lemoine, Professor of Architecture and Spatial Design Sophia Psarra and Dr Giorgia Tolfo, writer and producer of the podcast The Fifth Siren (read Giorgia’s blog on the event on the Digital Scholarship Blog).

The event is supported by the Festival of Italian Literature in London (FILL) and the Italian Cultural Institute in London.

Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections

Additional reading and resources:

Piero Bevilacqua, Venezia e le acque: una metafora planetaria (Rome, 1998). YA.2002.a.20745

Sergio Pascolo, Venezia secolo ventuno : visioni e strategie per un rinascimento sostenibile (Conegliano, 2020). Awaiting shelfmark

Sophia Psarra, The Venice variations: tracing the architectural imagination (London, 2018). DRT ELD.DS.472744

Salvatore Settis, Se Venezia muore (Turin, 2014). YF.2016.a.2992

14 September 2021

700 years of Dante at the British Library

Today, 14 September 2021, we mark the 700th anniversary of the death of Italian poet Dante Alighieri. His main work, the Divine Comedy, is widely considered one of the most important works of literature. His vision still informs our idea of afterlife: how Hell, Purgatory and Paradise look like. His poetry still moves and inspires.

The British Library holds outstanding Dante collections, dating from the Middle Ages right up to the present day, which you can find out about in the following video made especially to celebrate this anniversary. The video has been made by European and American Collections in collaboration with Western Heritage Collections.


This video offers the rare opportunity to look at the circulation of one work of literature across seven centuries. Nothing survives in Dante’s own hand. The manuscripts of the Divine Comedy are, for this reason, even more important. The invention of printing shows how Dante was very popular in the 15th and 16th centuries in Italy, and his limited fortune during the Baroque and Enlightenment eras.

The Romantic era, the Risorgimento and the Italian unification sparked a new and increased interest in Dante as national poet. The Divine Comedy was acknowledged as the greatest work of poetry in Italian and became the subject of studies in Italian schools and universities. Translations started to become popular outside of Italy (we have editions of the Divine Comedy in about 40 different languages in our catalogue) and Dante studies became a subject in itself.

Plate by Amos Nattini depicting purgatory

Amos Nattini, Purgatorio, Canto XXVIII

Dante became popular in the mass media: for example, the first Italian feature length movie, commissioned in 1911 for the 50th anniversary of Italian unification, was inspired by the Divine Comedy and titled Inferno.

The political importance of the Divine Comedy is shown by the number of editions published in the 20th century, many directly sponsored by the Italian government.

Two of them are shown in the video. La Divina Commedia novamente illustrata da artisti italiani a cura di Vittorio Alinari (Firenze, 1902-3; 11420.k.11.) is the first. This lavish edition includes works of 59 young artists who had won a contest to produce new illustrations for the Divine Comedy. Two of them, Duilio Cambellotti and Alberto Martini, both in their early twenties at the time of the competition, distinguished themselves with a work of great graphical interest that shows their Symbolist style and anticipates the development of Art Nouveau.

Illustration by Duilio Cambellotti depicting Inferno

Duilio Cambellotti, Inferno, Canto X

The second work that I show is La Divina Commedia / illustrazioni di Dalì ([1963-64], awaiting shelfmark). On the occasion of this anniversary the British Library had the opportunity to acquire a precious edition of the Divine Comedy illustrated by the Spanish painter Salvador Dalì. This edition was commissioned on the 700th anniversary of Dante’s birth, in 1965. The painter took nine years to complete this work. In this collection of 100 watercolour woodcuts, Dalì adds elements of his iconic and unique imagination to Dante’s vision: desolate landscapes, crutches, spiders, figures with drawers.

Watercolour woodcut by Salvador Dalì depicting purgatory

Salvador Dalì, Purgatorio, Canto I

We couldn’t include them all in the video, but here are some other remarkable editions:

La Divina Commedia. Illustrazione su cento cartoline eseguita da artisti fiorentini, ideata e diretta dall’ingegnere Attilio Razzolini. (Milano, [1902, 03]). 11421.e.23. This is a collection of 100 postcards, one for each canto, in Gothic revival style. Each of them is decorated with miniatures by the illustrator.

La Divina Commedia, with plates by Amos E. Nattini. (Turin, [1923-41]). Cup.652.c.

La divina commedia. Introduzioni ai canti, di Natalino Sapegno. Disegni a colori di Antony de Witt. (Firenze, 1964). L.R.413.w.37.

Interested in learning more on Dante? Join us tonight for the online event Dante in the British Library: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven (Tuesday 14 September 2021, 19:30 - 20:30).

Valentina Mirabella, Curator, Romance Collections

10 September 2021

Celebrating 700 years of Dante at the British Library

Tuesday 14 September 2021 will be the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death. The British Library holds extensive Dante collections, with some richly illuminated manuscripts and precious printed editions of Dante’s masterpiece, the Divine Comedy.

To celebrate the Italian poet (c. 1265-1321) we have organised an online event, Dante in the British Library: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, presenting original research on the Divine Comedy. Dr Alessandro Scafi of the Warburg Institute will focus on Dante’s vision of the Garden of Eden against the backdrop of medieval tradition, seen through maps. The second lecture will be given by Elisabeth Trischler, who is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds. Elisabeth will be speaking about the expansion of Florence during Dante’s lifetime and how it influenced the Divine Comedy. She will look at two examples: medieval representations of cities, and towers.

Title page of Dante con l’espositione di Christoforo Landino et di Alessandro Vellutello sopra la sua comedia dell’Inferno, del Purgatorio, & del Paradiso

Dante con l’espositione di Christoforo Landino et di Alessandro Vellutello sopra la sua comedia dell’Inferno, del Purgatorio, & del Paradiso (Venice, 1564) C.78.d.13.

We will also be sharing something really exciting about Dante and the British Library’s Dante collections in the coming weeks!

In the meantime, I would like to share some of my favourite lines from the Divine Comedy. It is a quote from Ulysses’ ‘little oration’ to exhort his companions to set sail towards the unknown. This sums up Dante’s own desire for knowledge, which he passes on to all his readers:

Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.
(Inferno 26.118-20)

Consider well the seed that gave you birth:
you were not made to live your lives as brutes,
but to be followers of worth and knowledge.

Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections

07 July 2021

Euro 2020: What to Read (Part II)

With Euro 2020 in full swing, we've come up with a few football-related titles from the collections. Next up, France, Italy and Poland... 

“Sports and politics both thrive on hope, and both largely consist of disappointments”, wrote Laurent Dubois in his fantastic Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France. The book takes the French national team as its subject, following a nation whose political and footballing reality is “firmly rooted in Empire”. Victory at the World Cup for the first time in 1998 occurred against a vitriolic criticism of the squad, most prominently from the leader of the far-right Front National party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who claimed in 1996 that the national team had “too many players of colour”. The team included Guadeloupe-born Lilian Thuram and Zinedine Zidane, whose parents had immigrated to Paris from northern Algeria before the start of the Algerian War, and whose histories feature prominently in the work.

Cover of Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France with a photo of the French team celebrating

Cover of Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France by Laurent Dubois (Berkeley (California), 2010) YC.2010.a.7769.

Dubois traces how the 1998 victory did not silence the racist discourse. In 2007, Georges Frêche of the Socialist party echoed Le Pen’s sentiments and was thus excluded from his party. Blame for Les Bleus’ disastrous 2010 World Cup mutiny was placed firmly on the black and Muslim players by Le Pen’s daughter and current leader of far-right National Rally party, Marine, who declared that the World Cup was not a success because many of the players had “another nation in their hearts”. In the immediate aftermath of the 2010 competition, the French Football Federation attempted to place a 30% cap on players with “certain origins” in football academies across the country, while national team coach Laurent Blanc argued for selecting players with “our culture, our history”

A second World Cup victory in 2018 has not ended the constant racism levelled at French national team players. They are forensically examined by a commentariat who question their every move - from performances on the pitch to their supposed heartiness when singing the French national anthem. However, despite their shock penalty exit to Switzerland in this summer’s Euros, a new set of superstars including Kylian Mbappé, a Parisian banlieusard of Cameroonian and Algerian descent and Paul Pogba, born in Paris to Guinean parents, will continue to inspire people around the world. They fluently speak what Lilian Thuram described football to be: “the language of happiness”.

Anthony Chapman, CDP Student at the British Library and Royal Holloway, University of London

Cover of the 1977 edition of Azzurro tenebra with a photo of a footballer running

Cover of Giovanni Arpino, Azzurro tenebra (Turin, 1977) X.909/83737

Sports journalist and prize-winning writer, Giovanni Arpino (1927-1987) is the author of one of the most beautiful novels on Italian football. A story of defeat, Azzurro tenebra is a fictional account of the unlucky participation of the Italian national team, the azzurri (‘blues’), in the 1974 World Cup in what was at the time West Germany. Some legendary names feature in the book: coaches Ferruccio Valcareggi (‘the Uncle’) and Enzo Bearzot (‘Vecio’), Gigi Riva (‘the Bomber’), Gianni Rivera (‘the Golden Boy’), and goalkeeper Dino Zoff (‘San Dino’). Arpino joins the Italian delegation and is acutely aware of the difficult position of the team, struggling to find an identity and lost in the transition between the old stars, who had won Euro 1968, and the new talents, who would end up winning the 1982 World Cup in Spain a few years later.

Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections

If asked to name a Polish football player, the one that instantly springs to mind for most people will be the current captain of the Polish national team and star striker at Bayern Munich, Robert Lewandowski who also holds the record of most goals scored for Poland at national level. Those with longer memories may however come up with another name – Włodzimierz Lubański, who held this record before Lewandowski.

Cover of Włodzimierz Lubański’s autobiography with a portrait

Cover of Włodzimierz Lubański’s autobiography, Włodek Lubański: legenda polskiego futbolu (Katowice, 2008) YF.2011.a.19125

Lubański’s career from 1967-1975 had been spent at the well-nigh invincible Górnik Zabrze where he played a key part in winning six Polish Championships and six Polish Cups as well as reaching the quarter finals of the European Cup in 1968 and being beaten only in the final of the European Cup Winners Cup in 1970 by Manchester City. In his autobiography, he recounts that on an evening out with Spanish players, following a UNICEF fundraising match in which he had participated, he was pursued by Real Madrid whose representatives arrived in Poland and offered a million dollars for Lubanski. Apparently discussions took place at ministerial level and in the Central Committee of the ruling Polish United Workers’ Party who decided they would not let him go. He comments that, as was common at the time, he knew nothing of this and only found out after the event. So different from the modern business of football!

Cover of Kazimierz Górski, Pół wieku z piłką with a portrait

Cover of Kazimierz Górski, Pół wieku z piłką (Warsaw, 1985) YL. 1988.a.19

England fans may also remember Lubański as one of the players in the fateful England v Poland World Cup qualifier that ended in a 1-1 draw at Wembley in October 1973. This heralded the first of Poland’s two World Cup 3rd places in 1974 and 1982, under the leadership of Kazimierz Górski and England’s first ever failure to reach the World Cup Finals.

Janet Zmroczek, Head of European and American Collections

More European Studies blogs about Euro 2020:

Euro 2020: What to Read (Part I)

The mystery link between The Brass Bottle and Soviet football revealed 

Euro 2020: Orange Madness

11 June 2021

I libertini - Same-Sex Desire in Italian Baroque Literature

‘Italy is full of libertines and atheists’, records French scholar and librarian Gabriel Naudé in the early 17th century. The philosophy of libertinism involves the disregard of authority and convention, especially in religious or sexual matters. Libertine ideas in Italy survived the Counter Reformation and were still in circulation in Europe until the Enlightenment. Sexuality –including homosexuality – was considered in positive terms.

The multiple dynamics of sexual desire emerged in vernacular literature in Italy from the beginning, despite being overlooked by literary criticism. Homosexuality in ancient Rome is a popular subject of studies, with Petronius’s Satyricon considered as ‘the first gay novel’ (Byrne Fone, 1998). Neri Moscoli and Marino Ceccoli, contemporaries of Dante and Petrarch, were leading exponents of the homoerotic Perugian school, sodomiti perugini, but their genre was assimilated by the traditional critics to comic poetry. They were not alone. Numerous authors of the Italian canon celebrate same-sex love in their works: Boccaccio, Poliziano, Boiardo, Ariosto, just to mention some names influential or active around the historical period I am focussing on.

Even though the accusation of sodomy was broadly used against artists and writers, not many were actually charged. Goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571) proudly proclaimed his love of men in his art, in his life and in front of a Florentine court, as he was condemned to prison in 1557. His wonderful autobiography was published in 1728 with a false imprint, i.e.: a fake foreign place of publication to escape censorship. The first English translation, by Thomas Nugent, appeared in 1771.

Portrait of a bearded man

Cellini, Benvenuto. "Portrait of a bearded man" graphite, paper. Royal Library Turin, Public Domain

The two main centres of circulation for libertine ideas in the Italian peninsula at the time were Venice and Rome.

In papal Rome, despite theological condemnation of sodomy, homosexuality was popular behind closed doors. The son of Lorenzo ‘il Magnifico’ de’Medici, Giovanni, fosters a homoerotic and homosocial culture at his court when he becomes Pope, under the name of Leo X.

In Venice, the Accademia degli Incogniti was active in the mid-17th century and the most freethinking intellectuals of the period would meet under its name.

Antonio Rocco (1586-1652), a priest, philosopher and libertine, was a member of the Incogniti. Known for the L’Alcibiade fanciullo a scola, (‘Alcibiades Schoolboy’), a bibliographic rarity, of which the British Library owns the first edition, once again, with false imprint. This was part of the Private Case collection, a collection of erotic printed books that were segregated from the main British Museum library in the 1850s on grounds of obscenity. L’Alcibiade fanciullo a scola, published anonymously (it was initially attributed to Pietro Aretino), was censored for a long time for being an apology of pederasty and very few copies survived.

The book, in form of a Platonic dialogue, describes a schoolmaster’s efforts to seduce his young student, Alcibiades:

Sono naturali quelle opera a cui la natura ci inclina, de’ quali pretende il fine e l’effetto.
Those acts to which we are inclined by nature are natural, and she has seen to their end and their effects.

Front page of L’Alcibiade fanciullo a scola

Front page of L’Alcibiade fanciullo a scola, (Oranges [i.e. Geneva], 1652) P.C.23.a.12.

More political is the literary production of another member of the Incogniti, Ferrante Pallavicino. Pallavicino leaves his noble family in Piacenza to live a picaresque and, sadly, short life. He writes against the Pope and the Catholic Church, against the Jesuits, against the Spanish Inquisition and the Spanish domination. He was only safe in Venice, where he wrote his irreverent novels and satires. The Pope deceived him and had him beheaded in Avignon in 1644, aged 28. The anticlerical Il Divortio celeste ('The Celestial Divorce', Italy, Villafranca; 8005.a.47.(1.)) became incredibly popular in Italy and in Protestant countries.

Pallavicino also wrote Il principe hermafrodito, (‘The Hermaphrodite Prince’ Venice, 1656; 246.a.13.(3.)) a novel which explores the theme of transvestitism and cross-dressing, both common ingredients of the Baroque theatre and the Venetian opera, together with a more nuanced approach to issues of gender.

Portrait of Ferrante Pallavicino

Portrait of Ferrante Pallavicino, from Le glorie degli Incogniti; overo, gli huomini illustri dell’Accademia de’Signori Incogniti di Venetia. (Venice, 1647) 132.b.3.

The Hermaphrodite Prince discovers that they are, in fact, a Princess. They take a male lover and dress as a woman to facilitate their encounters. The Prince will take the throne and govern as a Queen, with the lover on their side:

Io sono la Principessa e il Principe nel composto medesimo. Sara’ estinto il Principe, […] Rimarra’ la sola Principessa, per felicitarsi con quella maggior copia di piaceri […] Rinuncio a mentito nome e a mentite spoglie, per non piu’ mentire negli amori.
(I am the Princess and the Prince in the same body. The Prince will no longer exist […] only the Princess will remain; to enjoy abundant pleasures […] I surrender my name and my disguise, so that I will no longer lie to my love. [my translation]).

Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections

References/Further Reading:

Franco Mancini and Luigi M. Reale (eds.), Poeti Perugini del Trecento: Codice Vaticano Barberiniano Latino 4036 (Perugia, 1996) ZA.9.a.9677(2)

Marco Berisso, La Raccolta dei poeti Perugini del Vat. Barberiniano Lat. 4036: Storia della Tradizione e Cultura Poetica di una Scuola Trecentesca Studi (Accademia Toscana Di Scienze E Lettere “La Colombaria”; 189). (Florence, 2000) Ac.82/2[Vol.189]

Benvenuto Cellini, Vita di Benvenuto Cellini ... da lui medesimo scritta ... Tratta da un’ottimo Manoscritto (Colonia [i.e. Naples] 1728) 673.h.15.

Benvenuto Cellini, The Life of Benvenuto Cellini: A Florentine Artist ... Written by Himself ... and Translated from the Original by Thomas Nugent, (London, 1771) 786.g.4-5.

Giorgio Spini, Ricerca dei libertini: la teoria dell’impostura delle religioni nel seincento italiano. (Rome, 1950) 4606.m.4.

Gary P. Cestaro (ed.), Queer Italia: Same-sex Desire in Italian Literature and Film (New York, 2004) YC.2006.a.3655

Edward Muir, The Culture Wars of the Late Renaissance: Skeptics, Libertines, and Opera (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2007). YC.2007.a.13138

Maurette, Pablo. ‘Plato’s Hermaphrodite and a Vindication of the Sense of Touch in the Sixteenth Century.’ Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 3, 2015, pp. 872–898. 7356.866000 JSTOR [subscription only] 

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