Tuesday, May 9, 2017


Jeffrey A. White, Biondo Flavio. Italy Illuminated, Volume 2: Books V-VIII. The I Tatti Renaissance library, 75. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2016. Pp. 627. ISBN 9780674054950. $29.95.

Reviewed by Oren Margolis, Somerville College, Oxford (oren.margolis@some.ox.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site

The first volume of Italy Illuminated (Italia illustrata, 1453) by Biondo Flavio (1392-1463), also edited and translated by Jeffrey A. White, appeared with the I Tatti Renaissance Library series in 2005. The intervening eleven years have witnessed something of a Biondo Renaissance, with the first volume of Frances Muecke and Maria Agata Pincelli's edition for the same series of Rome in Triumph (Roma triumphans [1459]) coming out also in 2016, an edition and French translation of Roma instaurata (1444-1456) by Anne Raffarin-Dupuis (2005-12), and especially the critical Edizione nazionale of his works published by the Istituto storico italiano per il Medioevo (ISIME), the fruits of which project have been emerging since 2008. A number of Biondo's minor works were published by Bartolomeo Nogara (Scritti inediti e rari di Biondo Flavio, 1927). But as for modern scholars many of his major works – which once included the likes of King Louis XI of France (r. 1461-83) amongst their readers – have had to be consulted in sixteenth-century editions, this publishing burst (including the present volume) is to be warmly welcomed.

A brief survey of Biondo's career demonstrates why this attention is so well-deserved. Born in Forlì in the Romagna in 1392, he shared neither in the sheer stylistic felicity of Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444) nor in the philological expertise of Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457), older and younger contemporaries respectively. Yet his role in the humanist movement of the early Italian Renaissance was no less significant. He claimed to have been the first to copy the rediscovered text of Cicero's Brutus in 1422; he went on to a career as secretary to various Venetian notables and then cardinals, before transferring to the Roman curia under Pope Eugenius IV (r. 1431-47), where he eventually held the important offices of protonotary, abbreviator, and Apostolic Secretary. Rome was the central fact of his historical works. But although Biondo, like his humanist peers, was committed to a revival of antiquity, he sought to evaluate what separated the Roman past from the present day. His studies, as he said in his preface to Italia illustrata, were intended to recover something from the cultural and political disaster that was the fall of the Roman empire: to '[haul] ashore some planks from so vast a shipwreck' (i, 4-5: 'perductis ad litus e tanto naufragio… tabulis'). In De verbis Romanae locutionis (1435), he argued against Bruni's claims for the antiquity of the Italian language, giving evidence for its evolution from Latin after the fall of Rome under outside (barbarian) influence; in Roma instaurata, he sought from the surviving evidence to bring the ancient city visually back to life; while in Italia illustrata, written during the pontificate of Nicholas V (r. 1447-55), a period when he was out of papal favour, he sought to chart the peninsula and bring ancient and modern names into alignment, 'to bring some light to bear upon the murkiness of Italian history' (i, 4-5: 'rerum Italiae obscuritatem illustrare'). He worked from 1439 until his death in 1463 on the Historiarum ab inclinatione Romani imperii decades, which, in a foretaste of Gibbon, charted 'Roman' history from 410 AD to the almost-present day. Roma triumphans) was a study of ancient Roman institutions, of which Biondo often found survivals in current practices. In such a way Biondo was very much the inventor of the 'Middle Ages' and also the founder of medieval history, as well as a certain strain of antiquarianism and something approaching anthropology.

This summary should give an idea of the importance of Italia illustrata within Biondo's wider project. In his notes to the first volume, Jeffrey A. White justified his decision to base the text for his translation primarily on the 1474 editio princeps prepared by Biondo's son Gaspare and printed at Rome by Johannes Philippus de Lignamine, despite his hesitance and the text's instability. The present volume is also based on the 1474 edition. In the meantime, the first two volumes (2011, 2014) of Paolo Pontari's critical edition for ISIME have appeared, though encompassing only three regions – Liguria, Etruria/Tuscany, Latium/Lazio – that were included in White's first volume. Pontari and White disagree on the extent to which the editio princeps represents Biondo's intentions, but suffice it to say, White's edition is not a critical edition (and White does not intend it to be). Given the thorniness of the textual problems and the general usefulness of the work for a wider range of scholars and indeed students, having an easy-to-use Latin text with an accompanying English translation would be a great advance at any rate; but in fact, simultaneously to White's 2005 effort, Catherine J. Castner published another translation of Italia illustrata, which work was completed with a second volume in 2010, and which she based on the version of the text published in 1559. 1 The differences between these two editions have been discussed elsewhere, not least in the BMCR 2009.07.55. Although both provide the Latin text with the accompanying English translation, Castner provides more expansive introductory and explanatory notes. White's translation has the merit of often reading more naturally (and, in the example cited immediately below, more faithfully) but also 'completes' Biondo's work in places by providing modern Italian place names where Biondo does not. This is not necessarily helpful. Compare their treatment of the following passage from the start of Book VI, on Venice, 'Sed cum ab ultimis Padi ostiis 'Ad Fornaces' appellatis ad stagnantes ad mare Adriaticum Aquas Gradatas… fines Ducatus Venetiarum Urbis aquae salsae obtinant' (72):

(White): But seawater forms the boundary of the duchy of Venice from the furthest mouth of the Po (called 'Ai Fornaci') to the lagoons of San Canzian d'Isonzo on the Adriatic'.
(Castner): But from the farthest mouth of the Po, called 'The Ovens', salt waters occupy the territory of the dogado of the city of the Venetians, the Aquae Gradae (Grado) marshes to the Adriatic. (145)

Another possible reason for preferring White's edition – especially among those who can read the Latin text opposite—is simply his decision to follow Biondo's order of the regions of Italy; Castner instead rearranges them into an admittedly more rational order of her own, separating Northern from Central and Southern Italy – at least more rational to the modern reader, who encounters Italy by autostrada. Biondo meanders, but nevertheless understands the peninsula as a series of coasts, river valleys, and mountainous hinterlands. While the textual problems remain unresolved (at least unresolved by Castner and White), White's edition at least undeniably offers something of what Biondo intended.

White's 2005 volume included Biondo's first four books encompassing six regions: Liguria, Tuscany, Lazio, Umbria, Piceno (the Marches), and Romagna. Here, the last four books encompass eight regions: Lombardy, Venice (by itself), the March of Treviso, Friuli, Istria, Abruzzo, Campania, and Puglia. These regions line up with no precise political geography, past or present, though there is often a great deal of political history in Biondo's descriptions, not least that of Venice. This volume also includes an appendix based on Vienna, ÖNB, ser. nov. 2960 and Florence, Riccardianus 1198, containing a dedication to Pope Pius II (r. 1458-64) and Biondo's addenda to Liguria and Tuscany until 1462. Apart from indicating Biondo's continual process of revision and including a lengthy discussion of the building of Pienza, Pius's birthplace of Corsignano in the Sienese countryside transformed into a Quattrocento ideal town, the interest of this appendix is largely for the insights into intellectual and book culture found in the dedication, where Biondo recounts how an (unnamed) dastardly bishop had got his hands on a previous version of the text and threatened to circulate a 'mutilated' version of it, forcing Biondo to counter him by publishing the text prematurely (362-7).

What of the content of Biondo's work itself? Biondo was a pioneer in his use of different kinds of evidence. The number of classical authorities cited is so extensive that, as Angelo Mazzocco said of Biondo's Roma triumphans, 'at times [it] does in fact become a reproduction of classical works'. 2 The case of Parma and Padua may serve as an example of his method. In a dizzying few lines, Biondo cites Livy, Horace, Macrobius, Pliny, and Martial as authorities on everything from Parma's foundation to the quality of its grazing land to curious notabilia; but he also diagnoses its political and factional order (13). His description of Padua, 'the oldest and most famous [city] in Italy', begins with its foundation by the Trojan Antenor, for which he cites Virgil and Livy, continues with an assessment of its good character and early history on the authority of Cicero, Macrobius, Asconius, Martial, and Catullus, and includes his own eyewitness testimony of the inscription from the so-called tomb of Livy, a native son. It also includes descriptions of the city's travails (under both the Huns and Ezzelino da Romano), its architecture, the great works of the Carrara family, and the famous university with its notable scholars.

As for Biondo's preoccupations, the greatest is his analysis of language and name change – the evidence of the cultural and political decline that his project aims to reverse. A notable example includes his discussion of the transformation of the ancient Samnium into the modern Abruzzo, which he denounces as 'absurd' and misleading (regularly confused with the land of the Bruttii in Calabria), and which name he deduces comes from a corruption 'by the ignorant' of the name Ager Praetutinus (sic.; Praetutianus), a 'small and unimportant fragment [particula] of the extensive Samnite region' (204-5). A similar case is his discussion of the Terra di Lavoro north of Naples, discounting its connection with 'work' and asserting one with the ancient Leborini (298-301). His discussion of Venice (72-101) – its origins, its expansion, its power, and its illustrious men – is an excellent and early source for a humanistic presentation of the city's characteristic and much-studied 'myth', though with less emphasis on its republican constitution than many later treatments will give. Perhaps the finest example in this volume of Biondo's commingling of geography with culture, politics, and self-promotion is in his treatment of peripheral Istria and its most famous son, St Jerome (170-7). The identity of Jerome – the Church Father closest to the heart of Renaissance humanists – as Italian and not Dalmatian is of utmost importance: 'The town of Stridon, where the glorious St Jerome was born, was located in Italy – Italy as it is today, and as it was at the time of the birth of the emperor Augustus, and more importantly, of Pliny and of Jerome himself too'; 'this great man was an Italian and not a foreigner'. That Jerome was credited with creating the Slavonic alphabet and liturgy for his countrymen is both legitimized by its confirmation by Pope Eugenius IV 'per nostras manus' at the Council of Florence, and by a comparison with other regions unmistakably of Italy where Greek, French and German are respectively spoken. When Biondo ends his survey of this extremity of Italy with 'this stretch of the Alps which was thrown up by nature to protect her against foreigners', he again invokes Jerome: 'may he protect her, and me his devotee, from all adversaries, as I in turn have shown that he was born on these frontiers of Italy' (177). No less than the mountains, scholarship, according to Biondo, is Italy's bulwark against barbarism.

Biondo often cited from memory, a marvellous feat but an added complication to any assessment of his accuracy. White notes some of the errors made by Biondo – over the founder of Bobbio, for instance (18-20); or the identity of the river Brenta (134) – while missing some others – although it is only my personal fascination with this issue that made me notice how Biondo cites Livy incorrectly as an authority on the foundation of Milan by Brennus and the Gauls (56). White also introduces a few historical errors of his own, notably on the naming and numbering of rulers: so Serravalle (Lombardy, now in modern Piedmont), quod oppidum Philippi Mediolanensium tertii ducis dono, was held by Biagio Asserato as a gift of Filippo [Maria Visconti], third duke of Milan, not 'Filippo III, duke of Milan' (22-23); while, despite the ambiguity of the passage, the tertius Robertus 'who is best remembered for his friendship with Francesco Petrarca' may be the third son of King Charles II of Naples or the third in the list of sons following Charles Martel and St Louis of Toulouse, and incidentally he was third king of Naples of any name, but he wasn't 'Robert III' (202-3). In the example cited above, 'dogado' (offered by Castner) would have been preferable to 'duchy' as the translation of 'ducatus' in the case of the portion of the Venetian state contained by the lagoon, for being more historically sensitive to the difference of Venice, visible already in Biondo's locution 'Ducatus Venetiarum urbis' (72).

Although we are approaching the moment when experts will have a critical edition of the text at their disposal, the I Tatti edition makes the complete Italia illustrata immediately available to scholars and students in a form that not only will suit most needs but also has the advantage of replicating the text in at least one of the ways it was preserved and read through the later fifteenth century and into the next. White's work is a welcome addition to an essential series.


1.   Catherine J. Castner (ed.), Biondo Flavio's Italia Illustrata: Text, Translation, and Commentary. Volume I: Northern Italy. Binghamton, NY: Global Academic Publishing, 2005; Volume II: Central and Southern Italy. Binghamton NY: Global Academic Publishing, 2010.
2.   Angelo Mazzocco, 'Biondo Flavio and the Antiquarian Tradition'. Acta conventus neo-latini Bononiensis. Ed. by R. J. Schoek. Binghamton NY: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, 1985. P. 129.

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