4.01 Transitions / Translations

Humanist philology, in the eyes of most Italians of the fifteenth century, was an Italian invention. It was a field in which non-Italians were either latecomers or simply did not count for much. For this reason, and perhaps also because most Northern humanists had relatively few direct relationships of patronage with Italian publishers, the Italian market of the late fifteenth and sixteenth century remained remarkably impervious both to printed editions of the medieval grammars popular in Northern Europe and to the many new teaching grammars produced there during the Renaissance. Such textbooks were known in Italy, even imitated there; but they were not as popular or as widely used as native products. Only after the middle of the sixteenth century did this begin to change.

Geographical writing for schools and popular audiences offers an informative parallel to the fate of these Northern European grammars. Italians felt they should own this genre of humanist writing too. As a literary pursuit, it was a tradition going back to the thirteenth century. The earliest humanists, Petrarch and Boccaccio, had tried their hand at didactic geography. Italians in the fifteenth century also pioneered in mathematical cosmology and cartography. (1) But, Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci notwithstanding, the European reconnaissance was not to be an Italian enterprise; and scientific geography would not be an Italian monopoly in the sixteenth century, especially with the decline of Venetian map making after 1560. Early Italian writers "imported" their understandings of geography from the ancient world and the Muslim East. Later, after printing made imports of books even easier, many Italian writers and publishers took inspiration from the European North.

Geography textbooks were unlike Latin grammars in two important respects. First, there were fewer scholarly prejudices. Northern writers on geography, unlike grammarians, were immediately studied and imitated in Italy. Some of the most successful basic textbooks for geography in the sixteenth century were widely imported from Germany and Switzerland and repackaged for the Italian market. Secondly, geography was of such great popular interest that learned lore in the field was translated into the vernaculars at all periods. Long before there were textbooks for Italian language study -- indeed well before printing -- there were elementary vernacular treatments of geographical matters. Geography and cosmology were multilingual fields before the invention of printing; and printers could find a variety of manuscript models for new treatments whether in Latin or the vernaculars. Latin grammar could never be so multilingual (even when taught with Italian phrases in parallel), and at the start of the age of printing there were no models of vernacular textbooks for language instruction.

In this chapter, then, we will explore several kinds of "importation," for it was as much a crossing of borders to translate classicizing Latin culture into colloquial Italian as to bring books from outside Italy and rework them for Italian readers. First we will consider a straightforward case of importation, the limited success of three Northern Latin grammarians on the Italian market. Then we will look briefly at the making of elementary geography books, also largely imports. Sometimes Italians imported them in fact, but almost always they "imported" basic geography in the larger sense of translating it from one cultural realm to another. In a later chapter (sections 6.01 and 6.10) we will take up this latter kind of cultural translation -- Latin to vernacular -- in greater detail in other fields of study.


  • Open Bibliography
  • (1) Durand 1943, 1-9; Auzzas 1986, 343-344; Cornish 2000, 167-171.
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