European studies blog

62 posts categorized "Italy"

26 September 2016

Il Decamerone – “Corrected” by Rome

Add comment

Giovanni Boccaccio, poet, Humanist, orator, narrator and ambassador, father of the Italian novel, is one of the greatest storytellers known. He composed Il Decamerone (The Decameron)  in the mid-14th century and it  was first circulated in manuscript form in the 1370s. Despite being one of the most meddled-with texts to have endured, its ‘Frame story’ structure – ten tales told by each of ten people gathered together for a fortnight – has become canonised as a model for literary prose. Two texts in particular, one prepared by Ruscelli in 1552 and one by Salvati in 1587, are notorious for their meddling emendations. The Decameron is also widely known for its erotic components and it has quite unfairly led to its author and his work bIl eing associated with ‘obscenity’.

A common perception is that it is this supposed obscenity which has led to the book having been banned and suppressed here and there by the usual powerful groupings of offended sensibilities. The Roman Catholic Church did indeed ‘ban’ The Decameron but knew that they could not simply obliterate such a well-known and widely circulated work; the 15th and 16th centuries saw an estimated 192 printed editions alone. Faced with the Reformation, the Catholic Church needed to defend itself and reconsolidate its position of authority. To this purpose, one of the several measures taken by the Council of Trent was to create a commission to assemble and manage a list of forbidden books resulting in the fabled Index Librorum Prohibitorum which  identified books which were heretical, anti-clerical or explicitly sexual.

But how was the Church to manage The Decameron? Quite craftily was how. In the early 1570s, under the leadership of Vincenzo Borghini, a team of clerical scholars in Florence set about emending its text. They cloaked their expurgations by trying to convince people that they had kindly corrected existing editions, enhancing the language and in the process arriving at the ‘true’ text written by Boccaccio; original authorial intent had been revealed, “By Order of the Inquisition”.

So in 1573 the Florentine printers Giunti issued Il Decameron ... Ricorretto in Roma, et emendato secondo l'ordine del Sacro Conc. di Trento, et riscontrato in Firenze con testi antichi & alla sua vera lezione ridotto da' deputati…

Decameron 1573 tp C.7.a.8. The title page of the 1573 Florence edition of Il Decameron (C.7.a.8).

Borghini’s approved edition implied that manuscripts of The Decameron had been mischievously distorted to include outrageous slights against the Church and its servants. The erotic elements, the ‘obscenity’, often key to a tale’s plot and meaning, remained but all the references to the clergy had been removed. The crux of the problem for them was the dignity of the Roman Catholic Church and they managed it by simply removing references to priests, monasteries and so on; generic terms served their purpose with nuns becoming ‘ladies’ or ‘dames’, abbesses becoming random figures of aristocracy.

The British Library has three copies of this ‘corrected’ edition.  One  exposes clearly the motivations of the Church expurgations and emendations. A century after its publication another scholar called Marco Dotto systematically went through it annotating the pages: re-inserting the censored details and re-correcting Borghini’s emendations. Dotto wrote a short explanatory essay voicing his outrage at the mutilation of Boccaccio’s great work by the ‘scalpel’ of the Inquisition. He viewed himself as a ‘physician’ repairing their butchery, healing it and restoring the text to its true, we could say, rude health.

Decameron Day 3 story 1 annotated Day Three, Story One (Masetto, gardener at a convent) annotated by Marco Dotto. ‘Garden of Ladies’, or Convent? (C.7.a.8)

The story of Masetto of Lamporecchio told by Filostrato on Day Three is a favourite tale from The Decameron and illustrates  how the book has been meddled with. Masetto, a handsome young man, schemes to get a job as a gardener at a convent by pretending to be deaf and dumb. Two nuns talk of what they have heard rumoured to be the best pleasure a woman can get and scheme to meet Masetto in the garden’s woodshed. Other nuns witness this and insist on their share also. One day, the Abbess passes Masetto, spent and asleep on a bank in the garden. The wind happens to blow his shirt up and reveals all his glory to the head of the convent; consumed with desire she takes him to her quarters believing she can sleep with the young gardener with impunity as, deaf and dumb, he can tell no tale. All this is draining for Masetto so he decides to reveal he is cured. It is claimed as a miracle, nurtured by his tending the convent gardens. We can see how Dotto’s annotations restore the expurgated ‘munistero di donne’ used by Boccaccio which the clerics had rendered as ‘giardino di damigelle’. Borghini frequently anonymised particular named locations to protect reputations and often removed them entirely to places in France.

The last uncensored Decameron of the 16th century was printed in 1558 and with so many early editions it is interesting to make comparisons between them. Here we can see a folio with the start of Masetto’s story in an edition printed in Venice by Manfredo Bonelli in 1498. The text and the woodcuts faithfully assert the setting as a convent and its characters as nuns.

Decameron Day 3 story 1
 Masetto of Lamporecchio in the ‘Garden of Ladies’, Day Three Story 1. (C.4.i.7)

But censorship comes from many sources, individual sensibilities may be offended as much as organised, institutional interests; a fact that can be seen in this mid-15th century manuscript of The Decameron where the concluding sentiment on Masetto’s tale, has been heavily censored and obscured by another hand.

Decameron Add MS 10297
Censored mid-15th century manuscript (Add MS 10297 f.46r)

Such are the fascinations with obscenity and censorship, the simple fact that Boccaccio is one of the greatest storytellers ever to be printed can be in danger of being overlooked. We can celebrate this year’s Banned Books Week  by appreciating a good read of unexpurgated editions of this great collection of stories; though it can be fun to read the censored efforts too. But do remember that original authorial intent should never be taken for granted – sometimes it is wrested away by the operations of power and can be lost forever because of some individual’s  or organisation’s disapproval and assault.

Christian Algar, Curator, Printed Heritage Collections.

Decameron storytellers C.4.i.7
 The storytellers; the woodcut illustrated title page of Manfredo Bonelli’s Decamerone o ver Cento Nouelle, Venice, 1498 (C.4.i.7)

References/further  reading:

Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron. Translated with an introduction by G.H. McWilliam (London, 1972). X.908/23609

Pisanus Fraxi, Bibliography of prohibited books. Index librorum prohibitoru (3 Vols) (New York, 1962). RAR 808.803

David Wallace, Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron. (Cambridge, 1991)YC.1991.a.4224

Giuseppe Chiecchi, Luciano Troisio, Il Decameron sequestrato: le tre edizioni censurate nel Cinquecento. (Milan, 1984) ZA.9.a.636 (4)

Giuseppe Chiecchi, “Dolcemente dissumulando”: cartelle laurenziane e “Decameron” censurato (1573)(Padua, 1992)./WP.16966/53     

Giuseppe Chiecchi (ed.),  Le annotazioni e i discorsi sul Decameron del 1573 dei deputatii fiorentini. (Rome, 2001) YA.2003.a.9884

This blog is part of series for Banned Books Week 2016. See also Melvin Burgess’s blog on Censorship and the Author.

Banned Books Week was initiated by the American Library Association in 1982 in response to an increasing number of challenges in the US to books in schools, bookstores and libraries, and in particular, books aimed at children or young adults. For the first time in the UK we are holding events, activities and publishing a series of blogs, all on the topic of Censorship and Banned Books, made possible by the partnership between The British Library, Free Word and Islington Library and Heritage Services and in association with the ALA.


05 September 2016

Verdi and Shakespeare

Add comment

In a composing career spanning more than five decades, Giuseppe Verdi considered more than 100 works, including novels and plays by French, Italian, Spanish and German writers, as sources for potential operatic projects. Among them were several plays by Shakespeare, one of his favourite writers. Although he did complete three operas based on Shakespeare plays, several others – Hamlet, Cymbeline, Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet – were discussed at various times but never materialised. Of these unwritten operas, however, it was King Lear that held the greatest significance for Verdi and came closest to creation.

CM FIG.1Verdi 1872.c.15
Portrait of Verdi, from Verdi e Otello. Numero unico pubblicato dalla Illustrazione Italiana (Milan, [1887]) British Library 1872.c.15

Verdi successively approached three potential librettists for Lear: in 1845 he first mentioned the play to Francesco Maria Piave, the librettist of his Ernani, I Due Foscari and Macbeth. It was, perhaps, Verdi’s dissatisfaction with the last of these (he enlisted another writer, Francesco Maffei, to revise parts of the text) that made him commission, in 1850, a Re Lear from Salvadore Cammarano, another regular collaborator of his. 

After Cammarano’s untimely death in 1852, Verdi approached Antonio Somma. Recognising the difficulty of turning such a complex play into an opera, he kept advising Somma to reduce the number of scenes and principal characters (Gloucester and his sons were eventually removed). He also reiterated the need to avoid too many scene changes and to keep his text short. The extensive correspondence between the two men was first published in 1913 and, more recently, in a 2002 edition by the Istituto nazionale di studi verdiani which includes facsimiles of Somma’s manuscripts of his first and second drafts of the libretto (1853 and 1855), and of Verdi’s own transcription of the first version, with variants inserted in their proper place. The volume additionally includes a facsimile of Verdi’s letter of 28 February 1850 to Cammarano which contains a detailed outline of the plot. Transcriptions of all these facsimiles are also included.

The end of Antonio Somma’s second version of his libretto of Re Lear, showing Cordelia’s death. Reproduced in Giuseppe Verdi, Antonio Somma, Per il “Re Lear”. Edited by Gabriella Carrara Verdi (Parma, 2002). LC.31.b.1041 

Verdi’s continuing reservations about the libretto meant that the project was abandoned and there is no evidence that music for the opera was ever composed. This is all the more regrettable as some of the most poignant scenes in Verdi’s operas are those between fathers and daughters - Luisa Miller, Rigoletto, Aida, and above all, Simon Boccanegra are the most notable examples - and, judging from the final scene of the libretto of Re Lear, the death of Cordelia (‘Delia’ in the libretto) would have been a notable addition to the canon.

Verdi’s autograph of the first version of the final scene of the libretto of of Re Lear, reproduced in Per il  “Re Lear”

The three Shakespeare operas Verdi did complete – Macbeth, Otello, Falstaff – are all great masterpieces.

Macbeth (1847), one of his greatest early works, typically full of Risorgimento connotations (the fall of a tyrant and the liberation of the country under his rule), was extensively revised for the Paris Opéra in 1865, and it is this version, which is usually performed today. As well as a magnificent banquet scene at the end of Act 2, the opera also has one of Verdi’s greatest final scenes (the death of Macbeth and triumph of Macduff), and Lady Macbeth’s haunting and eerie sleepwalking scene. 

By the time he began composing Otello in the 1880s, Verdi had become the grand old man of Italian opera – a ‘national treasure’ in today’s parlance. The fact that he had not composed a new opera since Aida, over a decade earlier, added to the public anticipation for the new work. There was, consequently, extensive press coverage both before and after its premiere, including a special Otello issue of the popular weekly illustrated magazine L’Illustrazione italiana which discussed not only the subject of opera and scenes from its first production but also looked at Verdi’s life and works, including his collaboration with his librettist, Arrigo Boito.

Cover (above) and image of Otello's opening storm scene (below), from Verdi e Otello. 1872.c.15. 

CM FIG.5 Otello Act 1

A poet, critic and composer (his opera Mefistofele, for which he wrote the text and the music, is sometimes performed today), Boito first collaborated with Verdi on Inno delle nazioni, a cantata commisssioned to represent Italy at the 1862 International Exhibition in London, and, in 1881, on a revision of Simon Boccanegra.

CM FIG.6 Verdi and Boito at S.Agata
Verdi and Boito. Illustration from Verdi e Otello. 1872.c.15. 

Otello was Verdi’s and Boito’s first collaboration on a new opera and they were to work together again on Falstaff (drawn from The Merry Wives of Windsor, with insertions from Henry IV and Henry V). Premiered in 1893, when the composer was 80, and unusually for Verdi, a comedy, the opera was greeted with the same enthusiasm as Otello six years earlier, including another special issue of L’Illustrazione italiana. Falstaff was Verdi’s glorious and astonishing swansong, its final joyous fugue beginning with ‘Tutto nel mondo è burla’ (‘Everything in the world is a jest’).  

CM FIG.7. Falstaff Hirsch 5213
Cover of the special issue of L’Illustrazione italiana, Verdi e il Falstaff (Milan, [1893]). Hirsch 5213

Chris Michaelides, Curator, Romance Collections


Verdi e Otello. Numero unico pubblicato dalla Illustrazione Italiana, e compilato da U. Pesci ed E. Ximenes. Milan, [1887].  1872.c.15.

Verdi e il Falstaff. Numero speciale della Illustrazione italiana. Milano, [1893]. Hirsch 5213. 

Re Lear e Ballo in maschera. Lettere di Giuseppe Verdi ad Antonio Somma, publicate da Alessandro Pascolato. (Città di Castello, 1913). X.439/1592.

Julian Budden, The Operas of Verdi (London, 1973-82) X.0431/75

Gary Schmidgall, ‘Verdi’s King Lear Project’, in 19th-Century Music, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Autumn 1985), pp. 83-101. P.431/268

Philip Gossett. ‘The Hot and the Cold: Verdi writes to Antonio Somma about Re Lear’, in Variations on the Canon: Essays on Music from Bach to Boulez in Honor of Charles Rosen on His Eightieth Birthday. (Rochester NY, 2008). YC.2009.a.6153.

Roberta Montemorra Marvin (ed.), The Cambridge Verdi Encyclopedia (Cambridge, 2013). YC.2014.a.2360.

Stuart Leeks, ‘Verdi and the lure of Shakespeare’ (Opera North Blog) 


Otello, complete 1976 live recording from La Scala, conducted by Carlos Kleiber, with Placido Domingo (Otello), Mirella Freni (Desdemona), and Piero Cappuccilli (Iago).

Falstaff,  a complete 1965 live recording from the Opéra de Paris of Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Falstaff, with Tito Gobbi as Falstaff.

Our exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts is open until  6 September, and you can continue to find out more about all aspects of Shakespeare's life and work on our dedicated Shakespeare webpages.

17 August 2016

Umberto Boccioni 1882-1916

Add comment

On 17 August 1916 the Italian artist Umberto Boccioni, who was stationed in an artillery regiment near Verona, died from the injuries he suffered after he was trampled by his horse in a riding accident.

Photograph of Boccioni in military uniform and on horseback
A photograph of Boccioni taken shortly before his death. Reproduced in Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), genio e memoria, Edited by Francesca Rossi. (Milan, 2016) LF.31.b.11722.

His untimely death – he was only 33 – deprived the Futurist movement of one of its key members. To mark the centenary of Boccioni’s death a major exhibition, “Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), genio e memoria”, was organised in Milan earlier this year, accompanied by a remarkable catalogue.

Cover of the catalogue 'Umberto Boccioni' with the name Boccioni in large coloured letters
Cover of the catalogue Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), genio e memoria

It was worthy tribute paid to the artist by the city he celebrated in some of his greatest paintings, making it the symbol of the modern metropolis. The rapid transformation and expansion of Milan can be seen in a series of works Boccioni painted between 1908 and 1911, which include his famous self-portrait showing him on the balcony of his apartment in Via Castel Morrone, in the Porta Venezia area.

  Self-portrait of Boccioni on a balcony overlooking a suburban street
Boccioni, Self portrait (1908) Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera.

In the background can be seen, in what were still the outskirts of city, several recently-erected buildings, one of them still under scaffolding. A similar urban landscape also features in two works painted in 1909 and 1910, Twilight and Factories at Porta Romana.

Painting of a landscape with building works at twilight

Above: Twilight (Crepuscolo) 1909. Private Collection; Below: Factories at Porta Romana (Officine a Porta Romana) 1909-10. Milan, Gallerie d’Italia –Piazza Scala.

Painting of a suburban landscape with ongoing construction work

Sharing an identical viewpoint, this time from the balcony of the apartment in 23 Via Adige, in the Porta Romana area, where Boccioni now lived with his mother and sister, but painted a few months apart, they show the rapid changes in the city. “The city rises” (to mention the title of one of Boccioni’s most famous paintings) so to speak in front of our very eyes. By the time Boccioni painted The Street enters the House (1911), showing his mother looking from the balcony into the the street below, the area has been even more dramatically transformed. The mood of this celebration of the modern city, full of dynamism, movement and activity, is not unlike that of several early Impressionist depictions of Baron Haussmann’s Paris.

Painting of a woman on a balcony overlooking a busy street
The Street enters the house
(La Strada entra nella casa), 1911. Hanover, Sprengel Museum. 

The exhibition in Milan demonstrated the enormous variety of Boccioni’s output both before and after he joined the Futurist movement in late 1909 or early 1910 becoming, with Marinetti, its major theorist. It also showcased two major recent discoveries of Boccioniana, both of them among the papers of Guido Valeriano Callegari, Boccioni’s brother-in-law, bequeathed to the Biblioteca Civica di Bologna in 1955 by his widow, Boccioni’s sister Amelia. Callegari was a noted scholar of Pre-Colombian America and the Boccioni material had remained unnoticed and uncatalogued among his papers for over half a century until it was discovered in 2009 on the occasion of a small exhibition the library organised to commemorate the centenary of the first Futurist manifesto. As well as books from Boccioni’s own library, it also includes a group of 22 large sheets pasted on cardboard, on which were mounted 216 cuttings from illustrated magazines reproducing works of art.

Page of Boccioni's 'Memory Album' with cut-outs of woodcut initials
A sheet from the ‘Memory Atlas’, reproduced in Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), genio e memoria

The images in this compilation – now called ‘Atlante della Memoria’ (‘Memory Atlas’) and reproduced in their entirety in the catalogue of the exhibition – a range from Medieval and Renaissance works of art to contemporary paintings and show the variety of visual influences on Boccioni between 1899 and 1909. Several works featured in the Atlas were included in the exhibition, where they were juxtaposed with works by Boccioni. After 1909 the compilation of the Atlas stopped and was replaced by a collection of cuttings of hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles about Futurist events, similarly pasted on large cardboard sheets. They were kept in three folders, the third of which was compiled after Boccioni’s death perhaps by his sister and brother-in-law.

Chris Michaelides, Curator Romance Collections


Chris Michaelides, ‘Umberto Boccioni, Milan and Rovereto’, The Burlington Magazine, July 2016, CLVIII, pp. 578-80. P.P.1931.pcs.

Maurizio Calvesi, Ester Coen, Boccioni (Milan, 1983). LB.31.b.279.

Roberto Longhi, Umberto Boccioni (Florence, 1914). 7875.dd.31.

04 July 2016

Continental Utopias

Add comment

2016 marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia, a book which gave a new word to the English language. But it was not until 35 years after that first publication that an English-language edition of the book actually appeared, also the first edition to be published in England. The early printing and publishing (and linguistic) history of Utopia is very much a continental one.

Woodcut map of the Island of Utopia with a ship in the foreground
The Island of Utopia, from the first edition of the book (Louvain, 1516)
British Library C.27.b.30.

More started writing Utopia in 1515 while in Antwerp as part of a diplomatic mission to Flanders to negotiate commercial treaties. When the negotiations stalled, he used his time there to renew his acquaintance with the Dutch humanist Erasmus and make contact with other scholars in his circle, including Pieter Gillis, who appears as a character in Utopia and to whom the book is dedicated. The work grew in part from their discussions, and More wrote it not in English but in Latin, the international language of scholarship. After finishing the manuscript back in London, he sent it to Erasmus, asking him to find a printer. Erasmus sent it to Dirk Martens, then working in Louvain, who printed the first edition. 

Title page of the 1st edition of Utopia (1516) with an inscription by the donor Thomas TyrwhittTitle page of the first edition of Utopia, with the Louvain imprint and Martens’ Latinised name (‘Theodoricus Martinus’).

A small flurry of editions followed the first one, all in Latin, and all from continental printers: Gilles de Gourmont (Paris, 1517; C.65.e.1.), Johannes Froben (Basel, March 1518; G.2398.(1.), and November 1518; C.67.d.8.; both in editions with More’s Epigrams), and Paolo Giunta (Florence, 1519; in an edition of Lucian’s works).

Opening of 'Utopia' with a woodcut showing three men talking in a garden, being joined by a fourth figure
Johannes Froben’s March 1518 printing of Utopia, with woodcuts by Ambrosius Holbein (G.2398.(1.)). The image here shows More and Pieter Gillis (‘Petrus Aegidius’) with the fictional Raphael Hythlodaeus who describes the Island of Utopia

The first vernacular edition of Utopia was in German, printed again in Basel, by Johann Bebel, in 1524. After this the work apparently went out of fashion for over two decades, with no new editions in any language appearing until an Italian translation was printed in Venice in 1548. In the same year the first Latin edition since 1519 appeared in Louvain (522.b.22).

Title-page of the first German edition of 'Utopia' with a decorative woodcut border
Above: The first German edition of Utopia (Basel, 1524). 714.b.38.

Below: The first Italian edition (Venice, 1548) 714.b.16.(1.)

  Title-page of the first Italian translation of 'Utopia'

Interest in More’s work was clearly growing again: in 1550 a French translation appeared from the press of Charles L’Anglier in Paris, and in 1551 Utopia at last appeared its author’s native land and language, in an English translation by Ralph Robinson published by Abraham Vele. These translations and other early editions of Utopia can all be seen in the current display ‘Visions of Utopia’ in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery.

The early printing history of Utopia reminds us that an international book trade is nothing new (and of course that English printing goes back to William Caxton’s first partnerships in Flanders: the first book printed in the English language came out of Bruges). It is also a reminder that international networks of scholars and writers were as alive and fruitful in the 16th century as they are today.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

18 June 2016

From Deluge to the Digital: Fifty Years of Research and Conservation in Florence since the 1966 Flood.

Add comment

On 27 June the Italian Studies Library Group’s annual lecture will be held at the British Library. Here the speaker, Dr Donal Cooper, introduces its subject, the Florence flood of 1966.

The majority of today’s visitors to Florence surely do not notice the modest plaques dotted around the city’s streets, set well above head height, marked with a simple horizontal line and bearing the same standard legend: “Il 4 novembre 1966 l’acqua d’Arno arrivò a quest’altezza”. Florentine history is peppered by repeated floods of the Arno – at once the silvery river, the “Arno d’argento”, of popular song and Dante’s “accursed ditch” – but 1966 was the highest and most violent. The grim hierarchy is inscribed on the corner of Via San Remigio, where the 1966 plaque stands well clear of the 14th-century inscription marking the 1333 flood. The human toll in 1966 is generally accepted as 101 fatalities, compared to the several thousand that are thought to have perished in 1333. The devastation wreaked on the city’s historic centre, artistic heritage, archives and libraries was severe and captured the attention of the international media.

Wall plaques marking the height reached by the River Arno in the floods of 1933 and 1966
The 1966 and 1333 flood markers in the Via San Remigio

This autumn marks a half century since the 1966 flood. Commemoration is more muted than the events staged for the 40th anniversary in 2006, a sign perhaps that the first-hand experience of the flood is gradually slipping from the city’s collective memory. Arguably, however, the flood remains central for understanding today’s Florence, for the catastrophe forced a new appreciation of the city itself as an historic artefact, with buildings and books, archives and artworks as an integrated and ultimately fragile whole. The scale and urgency of the conservation challenges in the flood’s aftermath also led to new approaches in the conservation of books, sculpture and paintings, areas where Florence has since developed world-leading expertise.

In my lecture I will return to the days of the flood as captured in photography, film – most notably Franco Zeffirelli’s Florence: Days of Destruction voiced by Richard Burton – and other contemporary testimonies as the so-called “angeli del fango” salvaged Florence’s past from the toxic mud. Beyond the immediate experience of the catastrophe, I also consider the international collaborations that were established with unprecedented speed in its wake to address the needs of the city’s libraries and museums. Both the Florentine Archivio di Stato, then located on the ground floor of the Uffizi, and the city’s Bibilioteca Nazionale, facing the river in the low-lying Santa Croce district, were badly affected. Well over a million books in the Biblioteca Nazionale had been submerged and the library became the focus of the British Italian Art and Archives Rescue Fund’s efforts in Florence. Historic books had to be carefully dried, unbound, washed folio by folio, resewn and rebound. The quantity of material and multinational personnel necessitated new procedures for standardising and prioritising the conservation effort, innovations that can now be seen to have had significant influence internationally.

Flood waters in front of the Church of Santa Croce in Florence
The Basilica of Santa Croce in the flood waters (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Numerous paintings and artworks were damaged, the great Franciscan basilica of Santa Croce being particularly badly hit. In response, new laboratories for the conservation of paintings were established in 1967 at the Fortezza da Basso, the vast and previously vacant sixteenth16th-century fort that became a hub of activity in the wake of the flood. Known since 1975 as the Opificio delle Pietre Dure (so named after the hard-stone workshops established by the Medici during the Renaissance), this institute now leads the world in the conservation of historic panel paintings and frescoes. Its most iconic flood-related project was the great crucifix by Cimabue from Santa Croce, restored using the ‘chromatic abstraction’ method. Cimabue’s cross became the international face of the ongoing conservation effort as it toured a number of international venues, including London’s Royal Academy in 1983. The Opificio’s work – which has since broadened beyond projects associated with the 1966 flood – has been especially important for our knowledge of Italian panel painting, transforming scholarship on Giotto through its conservation of the artist’s Santa Maria Novella cross, unveiled in 2001.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the flood, the Opificio with help from the Getty Trust are completing one of the most difficult conservation challenges bequeathed by the waters of November 1966: Giorgio Vasari’s vast Last Supper from the Museo dell’Opera at Santa Croce, whose five poplar panel boards were submerged for over 12 hours. The project has a digital dimension in the form of a virtual reconstruction of the original setting for which Vasari painted the image in 1546.

This project and a number of similar initiatives bring the story into the digital present, but the application of new technologies still draws on the legacy of the flood, especially the awareness in the face of destruction of the full scope of the city’s heritage and records, which has consolidated the sense of Florence as a unique laboratory for historical research, as well as a city of art and culture.

Dr Donal Cooper, University of Cambridge

References/further reading

Franco Nencini, Florence: the days of the flood (London, 1967) X.802/894.

Umberto Baldini and Ornella Casazza, The Cimabue crucifix  ([Italy, 1982?]) m02/22395

Giotto : la Croce di Santa Maria Novella, ed. Marco Ciatti e Max Seidel. (Florence, 2001).  YA.2002.b.3931. (English edition YD.2007.b.26.)

Conservation legacies of the Florence flood of 1966 : proceedings of the Symposium commemorating the 40th anniversary, edited by Helen Spande. (London, 2009). m10/.26687.

Illustrated flyer advertising the 2016 ISLG lecture

25 May 2016

All the World’s a Stage: Shakespeare in Europe and the Americas

Add comment

No writer’s work has been translated, performed and transformed by as many cultures across the world as Shakespeare's. As part of the programme of events accompanying the current British Library exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts, the British Library is holding a seminar ‘All the World’s a stage: Shakespeare in Europe and the Americas’ on Friday 10 June from 10.15-17.15 in the Conference Centre.

Painting of travelling players in costume and carrying torches and props
A troupe of travelling players in 17th-century Germany. From the Album Amicorum of Franz Hartmann, MS Egerton 1222. 

This study day brings together leading specialists to explore Shakespeare’s global cultural presence from Europe to the Americas via the Indian Ocean. Themes include Shakespeare's source material; postcolonial adaptations; performance on stage and film; and the cultural politics of European Shakespeare.

The programme for the study day is:

10.15-10.45 Registration; Tea/Coffee

10.45-10.55 Welcome: Janet Zmroczek (Head of European and Americas Collections, British Library)

10.55-11.40 Keynote: Presentation and Interview (Chair: Aleksandra Sakowska, Worcester)
Jerzy Limon (Gdańsk), ‘“The actors are come hither” - 400 years of English theatrical presence in Gdańsk’

Photograph of the Gdansk Shakespeare theatre
The Gdánsk Shakespeare Theatre 

11.40-11.45: Break

11.45-12.35 Panel 1: European Sources and Settings (Chair: Line Cottegnies, Sorbonne Nouvelle)
Stuart Gillespie (Glasgow), ‘Shakespeare’s European Sources: Epics, Essays, Romances, Novellas'
Graham Holderness (Hertfordshire), ‘Shakespeare and Venice’

Title-page of 'De gli Hecatommithi' with the printer's device of an elephant
Giovanni Battista Giraldi, De gli Hecatommithi (Mondovì, 1565), G.9875-6, a collection of stories including sources of Othello and Measure for Measure, from our Discovering Literature Shakespeare site

12.35-13.00 Julian Harrison (British Library) ‘“Our Shakespeare” exhibition at the Library of Birmingham’ (Chair: Janet Zmroczek, British Library)

13.00-14.00: Lunch.  A sandwich lunch will be provided.

14.00-14.50 Panel 2: Translating The Tempest: Postcolonial Adaptations (Chair: Charles Forsdick, Liverpool/AHRC)
Philip Crispin (Hull), ‘Aimé Césaire’s Une tempête’
Michael Walling (Border Crossings), ‘Storm-tossed in the Indian Ocean - from Indian Tempest to Mauritian Toufann’

14.50 – 15.40 Panel 3: Shakespeare in Performance (Chair: Ben Schofield, King’s College London)
Paul Prescott (Warwick), ‘Bard in the USA: the Shakespeare Festival Phenomenon in North America’
Mark Burnett (Queen’s University Belfast), ‘Shakespeare on Film: Europe and Latin America’

15.40-16.00 Tea/Coffee

16.00-17.15 Roundtable: The Cultural Politics of European Shakespeare (Chair: Erica Sheen, York)
Short presentations followed by a roundtable discussion with Keith Gregor (Murcia), ‘Shakespeare in post-Francoist Spain’; Nicole Fayard (Leicester), ‘Je suis Shakespeare: The Making of Shared Identities on the French Stage’; Emily Oliver (King’s College London), ‘Shakespeare Performance and German Reunification’;  Aleksandra Sakowska (Worcester), ‘Shakespearean Journeys to and from Poland’

17.15- 18.00 Wine reception sponsored by the Eccles Centre for American Studies

The study day has been organised by the European and Americas Collections department of the British Library in partnership with the AHRC ‘Translating Cultures’ Theme, The Polish Cultural Institute, and the Eccles Centre for Americas Studies at the British Library.

You can book by following the link to our What’s On pages or by contacting the British Library Box Office ( +44 (0)1937 546546; Full price is £25 (concessions available: see ‘What’s On’ for full details).


20 May 2016

Seminar on Textual Bibliography for Modern Foreign Languages, Monday 6 June

Add comment

The annual Seminar on Textual Bibliography for Modern Foreign Languages will take place on Moday 6 June in the Eliot Room of the British Library Conference Centre. As ever, we have a varied programme covering a range of countries, themes and periods. The full programme for the day is:

11.00   Registration and Coffee

11.30  CARLO DUMONTET (London) Some thoughts on format identification, or Cataloguers vs Formats.

12.15  Lunch (Own arrangements)

1.30  CARMEN PERAITA (Villanova), War of Readers: Territorial Licensing and Printing of the First Editions of Quevedo’s Política de Dios (1626)

2.15 ALESSANDRA PANZANELLI (London) Illustrations in Early Printed Books From Perugia: Imitation, Re-Use and Original Production.

3.00 Tea

3.30 DAVID PAISEY (London) Peasants, Fragments of the Reformation in Germany and England, and Peter Schoeffer the Younger, Printer in Mainz, Worms and Strasbourg 1512-1538

4.30 KATYA ROGATCHEVSKAIA (London) ‘A Beautiful Tremendous Russian Book and Other Things Too’: An Overview of Rare Russian Books from the Diaghilev-Lifar Collection in the BL

The Seminar will end at 5.15 pm.

The Seminar is free and open to all, but please notify us if you are planning to attend.

Barry Taylor (; tel 020 7412 7576)
Susan Reed (; tel 020 7412 7572)

Woodcut of a man with glasses and a fool's cap surrounded by books

20 April 2016

Here, there and every Eyre: Charlotte Brontë goes global

Add comment

Although the British Library is rightly proud of its unique collection of manuscripts relating to Charlotte Brontë, including the four letters which inspired Chrissie Gittins’s poetry collection Professor Héger’s Daughter, its European collections also contain a number of volumes which reflect the worldwide reputation which this modest and retiring author achieved after her premature death in 1837.

Opening of a manuscript letter from Charlotte Bronte to Constantin HegerManuscript of one of Charlotte Brontë’s letters to Constantin Héger, dated 18 November 1845 (BL Add.MS 38732)

Throughout her life Charlotte Brontë travelled farther in her imagination than in reality. After two brief periods in Brussels at the boarding-school run by Constantin Héger and his wife, she did not leave England again until her visit to Ireland in 1854, where she encountered not only the family of her new husband Arthur Bell Nicholls but the country from which her father originated. Her first sojourn in Belgium was cut short by the death of her aunt, which compelled Charlotte and her sister Emily to return to Haworth; the second was marked by growing homesickness and a strong but unreciprocated attachment to Héger. Back in Yorkshire, she addressed to him a series of increasingly anguished letters which make it clear that she felt intellectually as well as emotionally starved and stifled there despite her ability to range far beyond her immediate surroundings through the creative power of her mind.

Map of the imaginary land of AngriaA hand-drawn map of the imaginary country of Angria from Branwell and Charlotte Brontë’s notebooks (Manuscript of The History of the Young Men from their First Settlement to the Present Time; BL MS Ashley 2468)

 As a young girl Charlotte and her brother Branwell had invented the country of Angria, and for years wrote detailed chronicles of its inhabitants and history. In 1846 she and her sisters Emily and Anne paid for the publication of a joint collection of their poems. This sold only two copies, but undeterred by that and the fact that her first novel The Professor did not find a publisher, Charlotte completed a second novel, Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. Published on 16 October 1847 by Smith, Elder & Co. under the pseudonym Currer Bell, it achieved immediate commercial success and acclaim. To a certain extent this was a succès de scandale, as some critics found the novel crude and even anti-Christian. This did nothing to halt its sales, though, or to deter translators or adapters from spreading interest in the author’s work abroad. 

Among early versions of Charlotte Brontë’s writings in other languages, the British Library possesses a Danish translation of Shirley (1851; RB.23.a.16151), a German one of The Professor (1858; RB.23.a.2077) and a Hungarian Jane Eyre (1873; 12603.ff.17). Besides direct translations, the latter’s dramatic quality had also inspired interpretations (with varying degrees of fidelity) for the stage. A German translation of the novel, Jane Eyre: die Waise von Lowood, had already gone into a second edition in 1864 (12637.a.7.), and in 1892 the ‘orphan of Lowood’ appeared on the German stage in a play with a similar title (11746.df.11.) by Charlotte Birch-Pfeiffer, ‘freely based’ on the original. Even earlier, in 1874, she had made her Italian theatrical debut in L’orfanella di Lowood, a drama in a prologue and three acts by R. Michély, ‘adapted from the German’, which received its première in Naples at the Teatro dei Fiorentini on 27 April 1871, ‘replicato sempre a richiesta e con entusiasmo’.  

Title-page of 'L’orfanella di Lowood'Title-page of L’orfanella di Lowood (Naples, 1874).

We may wonder whether the author would have recognized her creation in ‘Giovanna Eyre’, whom we first meet as a girl of 16, humiliated and slighted by her odious cousin John and her aunt, ‘la signora Sarah Reed’, who is determined to send her to the orphanage of Lowood despite the protests of her own brother, ‘Henry Wytfield, capitano’, whose debts prevent him from taking charge of his niece. In the first act, eight years later, the scene changes to ‘Fhornfield’ [sic], the estate of ‘Lord Rowland Rochester’, where a glittering company is assembled, including not only Rochester, his eight-year-old ward Adele, Lady Clawdon, ‘Baronetto Francis Steensworth’, ‘la signora Giuditta Harleigh’  (a relative of Rochester),  Lord Arturo and Mrs. Reed, but also the latter’s daughter , now the widowed Lady Giorgina Clarens. The housekeeper Grazia Poole is also in evidence, implicated in a series of strange events which culminate in an attempt on Rochester’s life.

Giovanna saves him, but responds to his overtures with such coolness that he exclaims ‘Creatura insopportabile!’ as she makes her escape. The Ingrams are nowhere to be seen; instead Giovanna mistakenly believes her cousin Giorgina to be the object of Rochester’s attentions, providing still more opportunities for noble expressions of forgiveness and self-sacrifice. And while there is indeed a madwoman locked in the tower, she is not Rochester’s wife but Lady Enrichetta Rochester, the fiancée who had betrayed him by marrying his elder brother Arturo, the heir, while he was away in London. Trying to kill her, Rochester was thrown into chains and transported to the Indies, while, tiring of Arturo, the evil Enrichetta eloped with a Pole. Rochester caught up with them in Paris, where he slew the seducer before Enrichetta’s eyes, a shock which drove her mad.  She and Adele, the offspring of her liaison with the Pole, were entrusted to Rochester by his brother as the latter died of remorse, and the action ends with the revelation that Giorgina cares not for Rochester but only for his riches, as Giovanna throws herself, crying ‘Io t’amo…son tua!’,  into the arms of Rochester, who responds ‘Mia, mia per sempre!’ and presents ‘lady Giovanna Eyre’ to the assembled company as ‘my betrothed…my wife, my treasure, your cousin, Lady Clarens, the worthiest and most virtuous of women who from now on will be the pride of my family and of yours!’

Perhaps Charlotte Brontë might have been somewhat startled at such outspoken transports of passion on the part of her heroine, but whatever she might have thought of the twists of a plot more tortuous than any she herself had conceived, she might well have rejoiced to see her creation travelling far beyond her native land, and much farther than she herself had ever done.

Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities and Social Sciences), Research Engagement

01 March 2016

Portraits of Ariosto, or not?

Add comment Comments (0)

One of the greatest portraits in the National Gallery in London, Titian’s familiarly called Man with the Blue Sleeve (ca 1509), was for some three centuries thought to represent Ludovico Ariosto. Reproduced in editions of Orlando furioso, Ariosto’s most famous work, it became, for generations of readers, the best-known image of the poet. This painting is not, however, likely to feature in any books published this year, the 500th anniversary of the first edition of Ariosto’s epic poem as, after years of uncertainty about the Ariosto connection, the sitter was identified in 2012 as a member of the Barbarigo, an aristocratic Venetian family.

  Painting of a bearded man in a blue doublet  Cover of a copy of 'Orlando Furioso' with a portrait supposedly of Ariosto
Titian, Portrait of Gerolamo (?) Barbarigo ca 1510 (National Gallery, London) and as reproduced on an editon of Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando furioso. Ed. Lanfranco Caretti. (Turin, 1966)

Another painting in the National Gallery, Palma Vecchio’s Portrait of a Poet (ca 1516),  has also, at various times, been proposed as a portrait of Ariosto. When it was acquired by the gallery in 1860 it was also thought to be a portrait of Ariosto by Titian. A few years later, however, it was recognised as a work by Palma Vecchio and later attributions tended to alternate between the two artists, though other artists have also been proposed. As there is no written evidence that Ariosto ever sat for Palma Vecchio, the identification of the sitter as Ariosto was dropped each time the work was attributed to him, only to reappear when reattributed to Titian, as it was known from contemporary or near-contemporary sources that he had painted a portrait of Ariosto. 

Painting of a bearded man against a background of laurel leavesPalma Vecchio, Portrait of a Poet. ca 1516. The National Gallery, London.

The Palma Vecchio painting is thought to represent a poet because the arm of the sitter is resting on a book and his head is framed by laurel branches,  the  traditional attribute of the poet and an allusion to Petrarch’s Laura. Though there is no consensus among scholars, it is usually said to have been painted around 1516, the date of the first publication of Orlando furioso. Hence the temptation to identify the sitter as Ariosto even though the poet was by then in his mid-forties whereas the portrait is obviously that of a much younger man. There has also been a suggestion that the painting may not necessarily be a portrait and, worse, that the laurel may be a symbol of charity or faith, rather than poetry.

As Titian’s portrait of Ariosto mentioned by contemporary sources, has never been identified with any certainty, other portraits by the artist have at times been proposed. They include a portrait in the Indianapolis Museum of Art, one attributed to Titian, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and a portrait discovered in 1933 in Casa Oriani, Ferrara and attributed, in quick succession, to Dosso Dossi (by Giuseppe Agnelli) and to Titian (by Georg Gronau).

Black-and-white photograph of a lost portrait by Titian of a bearded man
Titian, Portrait of Ariosto. Present whereabouts unknown. [Image from Fototeca della Fondazione Federico Zeri, Università di Bologna]

Gronau elegantly demolishes the attribution to Dossi and in his description of the portrait he amusingly says: ‘The painter, with true insight, chose this not very usual “lost” profile, for only in such position could he do full justice to the very characteristic and beautiful curve of the nose…If he had moved the head ever so slightly towards the front, the line of the nose would have been indistinct’. This portrait was lost in the Second World War, but there are two copies of it in the Biblioteca Ariostea di Ferrara, one by Carlo Bononi (1569-1632), the other an anonymous 17th-century work. More importantly, another copy was painted by Cristofano dell’Altissimo (ca 1552-1568), a Florentine artist who copied numerous portraits of famous men for Cosimo I de’Medici, now all in the Galleria degli Uffizi. Giorgio Vasari used this portrait in a fresco in the Palazzo Vecchio where Ariosto is seen in conversation with Pietro Aretino (also based on a portrait by Titian).

Painted portrait of Ariosto  Detail from a painting with a portrait of Ariosto in a crowd
Left, Cristofano dell’Altissimo (1525-1605),  Ludovico Ariosto, before 1568 (Image from Wikimedia Commons); Right, Detail from Giorgio Vasari, ‘The entry of Leo X into Florence’, Palazzo Vecchio, reproduced in Palazzo Vecchio: officina di opere e di ingegni, a cura di Carlo Francini. (Milan, 2007) LF.31.b.3647

The features of the poet – high forehead, hair receding at the top, aquiline nose, thin lips, lively eyes, and straggling beard – correspond to those of the woodcut after a lost drawing by Titian (engraved by Francesco Marcolini), published in the 1532 edition of Orlando furioso, the last revised by the poet

Woodcut engraving of Ariosto in a decorative border
Portrait of Ludovico Ariosto, after Titian. Woodcut, with a decorative border by Francesco de Nanto, from Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando furioso (Ferrara, 1532)  C.20.c.11

This woodcut, the most reliable likeness of Ariosto, has been described as the archetypal portrait of him and was copied in a variety of media and in later editions of his works. Two examples will suffice – the bronze medal produced by Pastorino de’ Pastorini (1508-1592), one of the most prolific medallists of the Italian Renaissance  and the frontispiece in the monumental 1730 edition of the poem.

  Bronze medal with a portrait of Ariosto
Above: Bust of Ludovico Ariosto. Cast bronze medal (obverse) designed by Pastorino de’Pastorini, ca 1555 (The British Museum) Below: Frontispiece portrait of Ariosto by C. Orsolini from vol.1 of Orlando furioso (Venice, 1730) 835.m.11

Portrait of Ariosto in a decorative border

Traditions, however, die hard and the identification of Ariosto with Titian’s ‘Man with the Blue Sleeve’ is still strong in popular imagination as can be seen from a recent edition of Italo Calvino’s retelling of  Orlando furioso in which the introductory double-spread illustration by Grazia Nidasio wittily combines the portrait of ‘Ariosto’, his blue sleeve resting on manuscripts of his work while he is adding corrections to the proofs of his text, with that of a mischievous-looking Calvino, and various knights on horseback riding over the Palazzo Estense in Ferrara.

Chris Michaelides, Curator Romance Collections

References/Further reading:

Giuseppe Agnelli, ‘Ritratti dell’Ariosto’, Rassegna d’arte, 1922. P.P.1931.plg

Giuseppe Agnelli, ‘Il ritratto dell’Ariosto di Dosso Dossi’, Emporium, lxxvii (1933), 275-282

Georg Gronau, ‘Titian’s Ariosto’, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs,  Vol.63, no. 368 (Nov. 1933), 194-203.  PP.1931.pcs

Harold E. Wethey, The Paintings of Titian: complete ed. Vol.2. The Portraits. (London, 1971). fL71/4158

Cecil Gould, National Gallery Catalogues: the Sixteenth-Century Italian Schools. (London, 1987). YK. 1994.b.9553

Philip Rylands, Palma Vecchio. (Cambridge, 1992). q92/05892

Paul Joannides, Titian: the assumption of genius  (New Haven; London, 2001) LB.31.b.23190

David Alan Brown [et al.], Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian painting. (New Haven, Conn.; London, 2006). LC.31.b.2948

Orlando furioso di Ludovico Ariosto, raccontato da Italo Calvino, illustrato da Grazia Nidasio. (Milan, 2009) YF.2012.a.5411

A. Mazzotta, ‘A ‘gentiluomo da Ca’ Barbarigo’ by Titian in the National Gallery, London’, The Burlington Magazine, CLIV, 2012, 12-19. PP.1931.pcs

Giovanni C.F. Villa (ed.), Palma il Vecchio : lo sguardo della bellezza. (Milan, 2015). YF.2015.b.1072

Gianni Venturi, ‘Ludovico Ariosto: portrait d’un poète dans les arts et dans les arts visuels’, in  L’Arioste et les arts, 61-72.  (Paris, 2012).  YF.2012.b.2238.

27 January 2016

Crossing European Borders with Diego Marani’s ‘The Interpreter’

Add comment Comments (0)

As in previous years, the British Library will host 2016’s European Literature Night on 11 May. As a taster, we look at a newly-translated work by an author who featured in 2014’s event.

Diego Marani’s The Interpreter (original Italian L’interprete, Milan, 2004y YF.2004.a.24136) begins in Geneva at the United Nations where an interpreter has developed a strange malady and starts speaking gibberish while claiming he has discovered the primordial language of mankind. Before he can be sacked he disappears, then his boss develops the same illness and goes to a sanatorium in Munich for a language cure. While at the sanatorium he decides his only chance of being cured is to find the missing interpreter and find out about the mysterious illness which has taken over his life. There now begins a journey through Europe which takes him as far as the Crimea. This is no travelogue but an exploration of cultural diversity, language, identity and crime.

Front cover of 'The Interpreter'

It is a very entertaining novel with a lot of humour but also dark and frightening. It shows how easily all the certainties of life can disappear and how an individual can be left defenceless to the buffetings of external forces beyond his control. The narrator in the novel loses everything but the power of the human spirit keeps him alive and he fights back. For him life is an obstacle race where the obstacles can change from day to day, and where you must adapt to survive.

As with Marani’s earlier novels, New Finnish Grammar and The Last of the Vostyachs, the importance of language and identity are at the heart of the novel:

Languages are like toothbrushes: the only one you should put in your mouth is your own. It's a question of hygiene... it's dangerous to let yourself be contaminated by the germs of another tongue.

It is your language and your culture which give you your identity and make you what you are. When times get tough it is a bulwark against chaos and adversity. Your language and culture help you belong in society and connect you to both the past and the future. Whatever journeys we undertake, we take with us our language and culture and we do not lose them however much our life changes. We can learn new languages and immerse ourselves in new cultures, but we still retain the language and culture which surrounded us in our formative years and in which we were educated. This is why exile is so painful for most adults. Indeed, people who have left their homes for work in foreign countries remain truer to the traditions that they grew up with than people who remain behind in a changing society. For the exile, a country can’t change as it exists only in his mind, frozen in aspic, and it is to this country of the mind that he wants to return. Indeed, as many returning immigrants discover, the country they left behind no longer exists and they can’t readjust to the country which has taken its place.

The themes of the novel are carefully embedded in a thriller plot and do not interfere with a cracking yarn rich in event and the unexpected. Diego Marani shows that he is at home with the detective story, so it is not a surprise that he has gone on to write detective fiction with God’s Dog. The issues raised in The Interpreter are answered, but what the narrator has learnt does not seem worth the price that he has paid and will continue to pay.

Covers of three of Marani's novels
Books by Diego Marani from the British Library's collections

Eric Lane, Dedalus Books