Saturday, July 26, 2014

BOOK: Teofilo Folengo, "Baldo"

Teofilo Folengo: Baldo. Vol. 1: Books I–XII. Translated by Ann E. Mullaney. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 25. Harvard University Press, 2007. 0674025210. xxiii + 471 pp.

Teofilo Folengo: Baldo. Vol. 2: Books XIII–XXV. Translated by Ann E. Mullaney. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 36. Harvard University Press, 2008. 9780674031241. xii + 544 pp.

This is a mock-heroical epic poem of almost 15000 lines, written in the early 16th century. It's somewhat similar to e.g. Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel, except that it's in verse instead of in prose. (As the introduction says on p. xviii of vol. 1, Rabelais was in fact influenced by Folengo's poem.)

The story

The story is rather picaresque but divides pretty naturally into two parts. In the first half of the poem, dealing with Baldo's childhood and youth, he terrorizes everyone around him, teams up with various other rogues and scoundrels, and eventually gets imprisoned; after that, much of this part of the book deals with the intrigues of his friend Cingar, who is just as bad a rogue as Baldo, but relies more on wiles than on brute strength. Cingar plays tricks on various people whom he regards as Baldo's enemies, and eventually succeeds in liberating him from jail.

In the second half of the poem, Baldo and friends set sail for the east; the team gains increasingly bizarre members (including a giant, a centaur, and a half-man half-dog character) and enters upon a series of increasingly surreal adventures, fighting pirates, witches, demons, devils, exploring vast subterranean caverns, spending time on an island which turns out to be an enormous enchanted whale, and eventually they descend into Hell itself.

I liked the second part of the poem better than the first part, probably because it feels somewhat more like a normal tale of adventure, in which you can sort of think of Baldo and his friends as heroes that you can root for. In the first half of the poem they simply come across as rogues and criminals that act like assholes towards people around them for no acceptable reason. (In the second half, they are still violent assholes but at least their victims are now various demons and monsters that you can imagine as being deserving targets of this sort of treatment.)

In which I don't get the joke

I suspect that either humor is one of those things that don't necessarily age too well (or, for that matter, travel across cultures even if there isn't a big gap in time between them), or that something is broken about my sense of humor — which might very well be the case; perhaps a steady diet of gross internet jokes does leave one a bit unprepared to appreciate the humor in the literary works of previous centuries. Whatever the reason might be, the fact is that whenever I tried reading supposedly important comical works, I rarely found them funny: ancient Greek and Roman comedies, Don Quixote, Gargantua and Pantagruel, most of Molière's comedies, there's also the ITRL volume of renaissance comedies that I read a few years ago (see my post from back then), etc.

So I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I mostly missed the humor in Baldo as well. Part of the humor of a mock-heroic epic usually comes from the fact that it uses the same high style that would be used in a serious epic, but applies it to decidedly non-heroic characters, actions and events. And as with any parody, in order to appreciate it, you should be sufficiently familiar with the thing that's being parodied. Some years ago, I read Alexander Pope's Rape of the Lock and enjoyed it a good deal, as I could feel that Pope is using the same pompous classicist style that he used in his translations of Homer, but now applied it to a much more frivolous and insignificant topic. But here in Baldo, I lacked this sort of familiarity; among the translator's notes there are many mentions along the lines of ‘here Folengo is alluding to such-and-such a passage from Virgil, or Ariosto, or Pulci, or some yet other tale of heroism and chivalry’, but I just wasn't sufficiently familiar with these works to be able to appreciate the parodying that's going on.

The language

Another part of the humor which I largely missed was that coming from Folengo's ‘macaronic’ language — that is, the poem is written in a kind of Latin with a copious admixture of various more or less colloquial Italian words. This is largely absent from the English translation, and I don't blame the translator for it as I imagine that this sort of thing is probably difficult or impossible to translate anyway. Occasionally the translation tries to convey a similar effect by resorting to modern-day colloqualisms (“I don't give a shit”, vol. 2 p. 99), but I guess it's still a far cry from what one could get from the original. Unfortunately I know neither Latin nor Italian, so I had to content myself with reading the English translation.

Incidentally, another downside of having to read the translation is that it's in prose, like most translations of poetry in the ITRL series. For me, a part of the charm is inevitably lost in the transition from verse to prose. The front flap of the dustjacket says the original is in hexameters, though my impression from trying to read a few lines and count syllables is that it's more pentameter than hexameter.

A rebel with a cause?

But maybe the biggest reason why I didn't find Baldo to be that funny is that I'm reading it in a very different context than the one it was written in. I imagine that Folengo was sick and tired of idealized, larger-than-life heroes of the ancient epics and chivalric romances which dominated so much of the literature of his day, so he deliberately went to the opposite extreme in his poem: his ‘heroes’ are really rogues and scoundrels, cunning and violent but mostly without a shred of honor; there's lots of violence (the more grotesquely over-the-top the better) but mostly without any redeeming higher purpose; its victims are for the most part not characters you can sympathize with either, being either too dumb or themselves bad enough that they seem to deserve what's coming to them. (This is particularly noticeable in the first half of the poem; in the second half, the enemies are a bit more traditional.)

And as if he was deliberately rebelling against all the unwelcome efforts to elevate mankind towards something higher and loftier, Folengo is downright obsessed with everything that is gross and disgusting, and everything that emphasizes the material aspects of human existence. His particular obsessions are eating (the more gross and gluttonous the better) and defecation — shit is mentioned on practically every page, his characters shit their pants on the slightest sign of alarm, etc., etc.

I imagine that writing (or reading) such things must have felt liberating to him and his original readership, as a big hearty fuck you to the annoying forces of order, religion, morality etc. that are constantly trying to get you to act better than your natural tendencies incline you to do. I can sympathize with that point of view, but things seem very different from the perspective of someone like me. All those references to shit and other gross bodily functions don't feel all that liberating to someone weaned on goatse and tubgirl, and raised on a steady diet of blue waffles and 2-girls-1-cup. Likewise, having scoundrels instead of heroes for your characters, and placing them in a generally shitty world in which almost nobody is particularly sympathetic, doesn't seem all that revolutionary and liberating nowadays, since pretty much no form of storytelling (with the exception of some of the clumsier sorts of political propaganda) has been taking heroism seriously for a long time now.

In short, what to Folengo must have felt like a welcome act of resistance to the oppressive forces of order and decency, simply doesn't have the same effect on us now since we aren't oppressed by those forces to nearly the same extent as he was. I can read his tale and sympathize with his views, but at the same time I can't help wishing that he'd finally stop mucking about in shit and tell us something nice for a change.

As another example, I suppose that the various mentions of corrupt priests and friars must have been fairly daring in Folengo's day, but they seem less shocking and impressive now when you practically can't open a news website without finding articles about how the church is harboring pedophiliac priests, opposing abortion, exploiting orphans and the like.

Interestingly, for all his rebelliousness in these matters, in some others he is remarkably conventional. For example, he comes across as a bit of a misogynist; nearly all the female characters mentioned in the poem are negative (with the exception of Baldo's mother, who however dies very early in the book). Many of them are witches, Folengo denounces them in the harshest terms as whores, sluts, bawds etc. for trying to seduce his characters, and they invariably meet their end in a grotesquely brutal way. He praises Baldo's friend Leonardo highly for resisting such temptations and preserving his chastity (book 17). In short, Folengo might be very much on board with gluttonous eating and defecation, but when it comes to sexuality, he's in no disagreement with the conventional authorities of his day.

Epic lists

Folengo's style has some other curious features which felt more like bugs to me. For example, he's quite fond of long, rambling lists that rarely contribute anything much to the story and often feel more like the sort of padding that we would expect if he had been getting paid by the line. For example, there's a long list of things that individual Italian cities are famous for (2.96–130); of tales of chivalry read by Baldo (3.102–9); letters of the alphabet (8.535–99); winds (12.317–99); an astrological lecture on the heavenly spheres and the seasons which extends over the better part of books 14 and 15; a list of about 40 diseases and ailments (15.361–74); etc., etc., etc.

Was there some phenomenon from bona fide epic poems which Folengo was trying to parody here? I remember Homer's famous “catalogue of ships”, but that at least had a purpose: it increased the chances that whatever local Greek magnate was listening to Homer (or some other similar bard) perform that bit of the Iliad would recognize one of the heroes there as one of his supposed ancestors, and therefore be more likely to reward the singer/poet generously. Here in Baldo, the lists just feel like pointless rambling; I suppose if you enjoy them, you'll be glad that they are there, but for someone like me they were for the most part just a nuisance.

(P.S. Judging by the wikipedia, there exists in fact the concept of an “epic catalogue”, of which Homer's catalogue of ships is just one example, so I guess this is what Folengo was trying to parody.)

The picaresqueness

Another thing that bothered me somewhat is the picaresque nature of the story. Much of it consists of various little episodes that are only very loosely linked to each other, and that could be rearranged without really changing anything. I don't doubt that this is deliberate, and probably some readers like this sort of thing; but I'd like the story better if the plot was a bit more coherent.

The way it's written now, you just have seemingly random things turning up out of the blue without any obvious reason, as if the poet was just improvising and blurting out whatever happened to fall into his mind at any particular moment. Occasionally I felt like ‘Oh, so the heroes, sailing down this underworld river, come across an old man riding a crocodile and accompanied by a bunch of nymphs, and after beating him up they move along, never mentioning him again? OK, great, I'm sure that makes some sort of sense...’ (23.38–101.)

Likewise, advancing the plot often depends crucially on characters turning up suddenly and magically, which ends up feeling like a cheap deus ex machina over and over again. The poet/seer Seraphus is probably the most blatant example (22.490, 23.704, 25.409). I can't help feeling that the author was simply too lazy to construct a proper plot, and he just enjoyed rambling a bit. Who knows, perhaps this whole thing is just a big piece of snark against the very idea of a plot, and I'm just too dense to get the joke.

The world-building

On a related topic, I was also a bit bothered by the ad-hoc nature of the fantasy world in which most of the second part of the poem takes place. Perhaps it's an unrealistic thing to expect from a 16h-century author; but modern fantasy authors try to at least pretend that the fictional world in which their stories are set is consistent and reasonably well planned-out. Some of them do in fact plan everything meticulously in advance (Tolkien would probably be a good example of that), others improvise but at least manage to give you the illusion that their world sort of makes sense.

But here in Baldo, I couldn't help feeling that the author is just making up random stuff as he goes along. You constantly keep getting random things which you had no reason to expect a moment before: a witch inhabiting an island which is really a giant whale (18.294–306); another witch in a giant underworld palace (book 23); the poet/seer Seraphus (18.257 and many subsequent times) and his order of long-dead ancient knights and heroes (book 18); a giant forge in the underworld, populated by naked devils (book 21); suddenly, an armory containing the arms and weapons of ancient heroes (book 22); etc. And the end of book 25 is completely psychedelic; he must have been smoking some really good stuff when writing it. I was reminded of the last scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

When Dante was descending into hell, you had the feeling that things are orderly and well-organized, into levels and various smaller departments, etc.; here in Baldo the only vaguely consistent thing is the sense of constant descent ever deeper into the underworld, towards hell, but apart from that it's just one damn random thing after another.

Folengo's improvisational approach to world-building reminded me somewhat of another early fantasy work that I read a long time ago — Lucian of Samosata's True Story (which, incidentally, also involves an enormous whale, except that Lucian's characters are trapped inside the whale rather than on top of it). I rather enjoyed Lucian's story back then, perhaps because it was shorter than Folengo's poem. In any case, I probably shouldn't be too hard on Folengo's work; there's nothing wrong with it, it's part of a peculiar but well established genre, it just isn't the sort of thing I like best.

So I guess that, as long as you don't demand a coherent plot and a world which makes sense, this can in fact be a very fine thing to read. You get an author exercising his imagination just for the sheer joy of it, generously throwing out his ideas and episodes by the bucketload, improvising and rambling and inventing stuff as he goes along. I found it tolerable enough in small doses, but for the right sort of reader I imagine it could make for a very enjoyable read.

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

BOOK: Pietro Bembo, "History of Venice" (Vol. 3)

Pietro Bembo: History of Venice. Vol. 3: Books IX–XII. Edited and translated by Robert W. Ulery, jr. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 37. Harvard University Press, 2009. 9780674022867. xi + 396 pp.

(Continued from Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.

Book IX

The war against Maximilian continues; towards the end of the previous book, the Venetians re-took Padua from him, and now he's trying to get it back, with the aid of numerous allies (9.18). Both sides spend plenty of time in getting ready for the siege, but eventually Maximillian gives up on it without accomplishing anything concrete (9.30). The Venetians remain on the initiative and conquer several other towns that used to be under Maximilian's control, such as Rijeka (9.33) and Vicenza (9.40); soon afterwards, Maximilian is ready to discuss a truce with them (9.54). On the other hand, they get involved in a war against the duke of Ferrara and suffer a heavy naval defeat (9.56). Meanwhile they are still at war with the pope (and under excommunication), and they decide to submit to his demands due to being unable to fight against so many enemies at the same time (9.60–1).

Bembo quotes “a poem of remarkable antiquity carved in stone” on a tower in Feltre (which was unfortunately destroyed during the war in 1509): “Feltre, thou art condemned to the harshness of snows without ending;/ Never perhaps, after this, will I approach thee — farewell.// Above the poem was inscribed the name of Julius Caesar.” (9.8.) I'm very curious is this is a genuine piece of ancient history preserved until 1509 and then unfortunately lost, or is it simply a medieval fake intended to attract tourists or inflate the locals' egos with a purported link to Caesar. The inscription is also mentioned in Feltre's wikipedia article.

There's an amusing story in 9.27–8, on the efforts to deliver wages to the soldiers that were defending Padua. This was a nontrivial amount of gold and the question was how to get it past Maximilian's forces; the Venetians loaded several mules with bags of sand and sent them towards Padua under heavy guard, thereby giving the impression that those are carrying the gold. The majority of Maximilian's forces went off to chase them and meanwhile other Venetian horsemen, carrying the gold in smaller amounts, were able to get into Padua safely.

Bembo describes yet another scary-sounding kind of siege weapon in 9.29: “It threw a stone ball eighteen inches in diameter up as high as the rooftops in a great arc through the sky.” A slightly more desperate kind of artillery appears in 9.30: “Maximilian took the further step of having letters wrapped around arrows shot into town, in which he urged the townspeople to desert the Republic”.

In each book I wonder if the Venetian financial situation can possibly get more desperate, and it always does. Now “all magistrates should serve for six months without pay or expense [. . .] They were indeed effectively unable to extract any further taxes as the citizens had been cleaned out by such frequent contributions to the treasury” (9.37).

The Venetians are apparently on good terms with king Henry of England; perhaps because they are so far away from each other :P In 9.54 he writes to their enemies, “asking them not to make war on Venice, which if it did not exist, would surely have had to be created by mankind as a whole for the public utility and ornament of the world”. I can't help thinking that this is the sort of quote which, if it hadn't been actually written, the Venetians would have been glad to invent it; and perhaps they did. (I'm not sure which Henry was that, by the way; Book IX covers the year 1509, and according to the Wikipedia, Henry VII died in the April of that year, and was succeeded by Henry VIII.)

There is a curious tale of hot incest action in 9.59, which unfortunately ends badly: Pietro Balbo, the podestà of Padua, “ordered the arrest of one of the commoners who was using his own daughter as a concubine, and of the daughter as well, the crime having been reported by an informer. When both confessed, he had them bound and beheaded, setting fire also to the father's corpse.” Silly commoners should have known that such things are reserved for the princes and the popes :)))

Book X

You probably won't be surprised to hear that this book contains yet more warfare :) Venice is still at war with the French, the Germans, and Ferrara, but on the other hand the pope is now on their side since they made peace with him at the end of the previous book (10.10). This also means they are now able to hire mercenaries from Rome and other areas under the pope's control (10.45). A new party enters the warfare in this book, namely Hungary, who is persuaded by France and Germany to declare war on Venice (10.62), even though it was earlier even getting subsidised by it (10.2). But it appears that Hungary won't actually fight, due to the lack of money (10.62).

Another thing that repeats itself like a broken record are the increasingly desperate efforts by Venice to raise more money and manpower. People who had been exiled for manslaughter (but not premeditated murder) are offered amnesty if they agree to serve in the Venetian fleet (10.8). Civil servants could, by a one-time payment of five times their yearly salary, upgrade their temporary appointment into a permanent one; for twice as much, those with a permanent appointment could buy the right to have the job pass on to their son or nephew after the current holder's death (10.12). This strikes me as an interesting (and unorthodox) way of raising money; I find it hard to imagine something similar being done nowadays. Few people could raise that kind of money, at least not without selling their house; even just taking out a loan wouldn't be enough as they couldn't afford to pay instalments for a loan of that size.

Another curious law is mentioned in 10.16: “no citizen whose son, brother, or nephew was a priest could attend the Senate” when relations between the pope and Venice were discussed, as their association with the church might lead them to favor the pope's interests over those of Venice.

As always, there are occasional interesting anecdotes amidst the warfare. The Spanish soldiers occupying Verona (“men who by nature and training were plainly craftier and cleverer than the French and Germans”) used a trick to identify Venetian supporters by shouting pro-Venetian slogans at night and taking note of the houses from which people replied with approval. The soldiers would then return the next day and plunder the houses of such pro-Venetian townsfolk.

There's also the curious tale of the efforts to find a new captain-general of the Venetian army. They offered the post to Francesco Gonzaga; the curious thing is that this man was being held in Venice as a prisoner at the time, the Venetians having captured him after he had previously deserted from a similar post in the Venetian army and gone over to the German side. I would imagine that they would think twice before inviting him to command their army again, but I guess the endless switching of sides in these wars got everyone used to the idea that all loyalties are just temporary anyway. Admittedly, he said the Venetians could take his son as a hostage, but his wife then refused to hand the boy over, so nothing came of the whole plan (10.23–4). Later, on the pope's advice, they released him (10.53) and appointed him as their general anyway (11.2; and he eventually sent over his son as a hostage, 11.12).

Book XI

Warfare continues in this book, and by this time I was only very vaguely aware who was at war with whom at any particular moment :) It's still mostly Venice and the pope vs. France (and Germany, though the latter is starting to show some signs of being interested in concluding peace; 11.67, 11.80); and the pope manages to get England and Spain involved on his side (11.75, and see also 12.19). Even some of the participants themselves are starting to get a bit confused — the Hungarians declare that “they would not abandon their alliance with the Republic” (11.57), so I can only assume they had entirely forgotten that they had declared war upon it not long ago (see 10.62 above). :)

Even our indefatigable author seems to be getting slightly tired of all the warfare, and he decides to omit a few details in 11.44: “I have not felt it necessary to give an account of these battles.” Yay!

Bembo describes a rather hardcore law against electoral corruption, enacted in Venice in 1510: “henceforth any citizen who asked another to favor him or one of his people in casting his vote would be barred from all magistracies [. . .] for the space of ten years” (11.15). I've always been of two minds about this sort of things — on the one hand I suppose that corruption is bad, on the other hand corruption of this sort is probably the only opportunity for people to get anything from politicians at all. And I'm surprised that they made such a fuss about this, since the Venetian political system was thoroughly undemocratic anyway and all power was permanently concentrated in the hands of a small rich elite.

As usual, this book also chronicles various further desperate attempts by Venice to raise more money for their warfare. They impose a new “property tax of half a percent” (11.17). “Its six-month term having expired, the law about magistrates giving back half their pay to the Republic was extended for another six” (11.45); he says this as if he had forgotten that they had already extended it for several six-month terms and that in fact the previous extension required the magistrates to give back all of their pay, not just half of it (see book IX above). Eventually they reach this hilarious conclusion: “The only remedy that remained untried was that citizens indebted to the state should pay up and give the treasury what they owed” (11.60) :))) They also tried to strengthen this measure by kicking politicians from the senate if they failed to pay their debts, and on the other hand offering future tax breaks to those who did pay up (11.73).

I couldn't help feeling that Venice was stretching itself a bit too much at times. In 11.29 Bembo mentions that certain a Venetian naval commander, “getting nowhere with his repeated attacks of Genoa” was ordered to withdraw his fleet — to Corfu!

On the subject of odd news, there's another case of Siamese twins in 11.32 (see 1.37 for the earlier case): “a boy with two heads and four arms and hands, then four legs and feet [. . .] only one chest with one set of kidneys and the rest of the back. The child lived for an hour and a half”.

Bembo also mentions a big earthquake that struck Venice in March 1511. “A great many pregnant women miscarried and died in paroxysms of fear.” (11.42.)

There's an old proverb about not speaking ill of the dead, but clearly Bembo wasn't too keen on the idea. He doesn't hide his delight at the death of cardinal Alidosi: “Not long afterwards, with many a self-recrimination, he breathed his last, a man of shameful and criminal life, in whom there was no integrity and no religion, to whom nothing was ever inviolate, nothing chaste, nothing holy.” (11.53). :)))

On the occasion of promoting a certain deserving citizen to a senator, doge Loredan makes a curious speech in 11.82; I don't know whether to be touched by these quaint old-fashioned virtues, or to roll on the floor laughing: “he will find far more satisfaction in these labors of his than if he enjoyed every advantage and engaged in a life of endless pleasure with absolute freedom from care. For to be truly alive consists in this: to be useful to your country, to defend the Republic, to protect your fellow citizens, to set no value on a life without liberty, even to prefer death to servitude.”

Book XII

This book again consists mostly of warfare, and various small towns change hands once or twice, but I couldn't really be bothered to keep track of the details. There are some efforts to end at least some of the wars: the pope tries to arrange a peace treaty between Venice and Germany (12.17), though Maximilian (the German emperor) doesn't seem too keen to offer good terms to the Venetians (12.51); but they cave in to the pope's pressure and conclude peace with Maximilian after all (12.63–5, 12.98). Pope Julius dies soon afterwards, and the book ends with the election of a new pope, who by the way appoints Bembo as one of his secretaries (12.102–3).

There are of course also the inevitable new efforts to raise money, such as a new law to seize property of people who didn't pay taxes, and sell it at auctions (12.9); they would also be unable to become magistrates, and might even be sent to prison (12.14). In another example of haphazard and ad-hoc taxation, “lodgers should give the treasury a sum equal to half the income derived from letting out the houses” (12.26). And “[f]rom lack of funds, the Senate also suspended or held back from 13 November [1511] until 1 March all the pensions and payments customarily made by the Republic” (12.32).

There's an interesting passage about the siege of the fortress of Bastia (12.43). The attackers “made a breach in the wall, which was extremely thick. Within the breach they made a sort of little room, which they packed with gunpowder”. The resulting explosion blew up a stretch of the wall “and ten men standing on it, so that they looked like birds in flight” :))

There's another case of hot incest action in 10.84: “A citizen of Chioggia who had violated his three virgin daughters was burned at the stake by the podestà”. It's interesting how he emphasizes that they were virgins; because obviously if they had already been dirty sluts before dad started banging them, the whole thing would be completely unproblematic... </sarcasm>

I was pleased to see, in the index on p. 375, Istria described as an “Adriatic peninsula now in Slovenia”. Now we just need to convince the Croatians to agree with that :)))


I'm not sure what to say at the end of these three volumes. This history was not only boring (although perhaps slightly less than Bruni's history of Florence, which I read a few years ago) but also thoroughly unedifying. Not only is there almost nothing but fighting (and descriptions of various desperate efforts to raise money for it), but the belligerent parties are very fickle and unprincipled. There are no heroic personalities and events here from which you could draw inspiration or moral instruction, like you sometimes find in the work of ancient historians. There aren't even any clear good and bad sides; I'm accustomed to wars in which there are two pretty clearly distinct sides, ideally ones in which it is easy to tell which side are the good guys and which side are the bad guys. But here in Bembo's history there's nothing of that sort; at any given point, there are likely to be at least half a dozen various states involved in the war(s), in various configurations, and these arrangements are extremely unstable; you can easily be at war against someone this year, and welcome him as your ally the next year against someone who had been your ally the year before.

Well, I suppose there are some sort of lessons to be drawn from this sort of stuff after all, about cynicism and realpolitik and the like; and it isn't hard to imagine how Machiavelli got his famous cynical ideas — he lived through the entire period covered by Bembo's book.

Additionally, as far as warfare goes, the stuff described in this book is pretty unspectacular. If you expect big epic fights, large numbers of soldiers moving over large distances, you'll be sorely disappointed. It's just various more or less obscure Italian towns changing hands again and again, and the armies involved are small enough that sending a couple hundred horsemen to reinforce the defense of a city is apparently a sufficiently large number to (1) actually make a difference and (2) be worth mentioning in Bembo's history.

By the way, I'm not blaming Bembo for the story being boring; he simply had the bad luck that his chosen period consisted of almost permanent warfare. He made a decent effort to include various other bits of information to make his history a little more interesting, but obviously his manoeuvering space was limited. The thing that amazes me is how the renaissance Italians managed, amidst all this incessant warfare, to find the time to create all those works of art and literature for which that period is still so famous...

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Monday, July 14, 2014

BOOK: Pietro Bembo, "History of Venice" (Vol. 2)

Pietro Bembo: History of Venice. Vol. 2: Books V–VIII. Edited and translated by Robert W. Ulery, jr. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 32. Harvard University Press, 2008. 067402284X. xi + 407 pp.

(Continued from Vol. 1.)

Book V

This book is mostly about the war against the Turks in the years around 1500. The earlier part of the war seems to take place mostly at sea; the Venetians get a big fleet ready, but they aren't terribly successful, which rather surprised me as I didn't expect that the Turks would be much good at naval warfare. (The Turks conquer Lepanto in 5.12, which also surprised me as I remembered the battle of Lepanto as a big Turkish defeat; but as it turns out, that was on a later occasion, in 1571.) Later the war is mostly at land, involving various Greek islands and coastal towns, where the Venetians seem to be slightly more successful and manage to recover some of their earlier losses.

For some reason, I found this slightly less boring than most of the warfare in the previous books; perhaps because much of the fighting takes place at sea, or perhaps because it was easier for me to get emotionally invested in the war. In the previous books, I didn't really give a damn about the minor border adjustments between the various small Italian states, but here I could easily pick a side to cheer on: the Venetians, since I really didn't want the Turks to make further territorial conquests. Of course, this reading couldn't help being a bit melancholic since I knew in advance that these efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, and the Turks did in fact end up ruling over Greece and the Balkan peninsula for several centuries. Well, at least they were pushed out of most of those territories by the early 20th century or so, although I'm afraid that Asia Minor is theirs for good.

One of the few non-war related things in this book: “there was at that time a great fight between crows and vultures in the skies over Apulia; such was the violence of the clash, and so great the flocks of birds, that their carcasses filled twelve carts.” (5.1) :)))

There's an interesting description of the Venetians' efforts to raise money for the war by introducing new taxes in 5.3. I was surprised by the haphazard nature of much of this taxation. “[A] law was passed requiring all urban and provincial magistrates to return to the Republic half of a year's salary [. . .] Men were also chosen to levy an assessment based on the wealth of each individual citizen”, though the government promised to return part of this money afterwards, so that it would be more of a forced loan than a tax.

On the subject of curious laws: “by an ancient law no office could be given to those indebted to the treasury” (5.21). This despicable idea reminds me of the even more despicable proposals of some modern-day libertarians who proposed removing the right to vote from those people who receive aid from the state or are employed by it. There's something about taxes that drives many people ridiculously insane with whining about how ‘their money’ should be spent by the government, and who should be allowed to get it. That's why I always support the idea that 100% of everyone's income should be taxed, and the state can then distribute it according to what people want or need. That would hopefully get it through their thick skulls that it isn't actually ‘their money’ and it really belongs to the common good. In any case, the worthlessness of the Venetian law mentioned here is demonstrated by the fact that their government doesn't hesitate to introduce an exception to it so they can appoint a certain Tommaso Zen as the captain of the fleet (5.21).

There's an interesting story on the loss of the town of Methoni in 1500. It was surrounded by the Turks both at land and at sea; some Venetian ships managed to get through the Turkish blockade, aiming to bring supplies to the town; “[w]hen the townsfolk saw the ships coming to their rescue, they rushed to the harbor to carry off the supplies at once into the town” (5.33). This unfortunately included most of the defenders on the city walls, and the Turkish army was therefore able to get across the wall; by the time the townsfolk realized what was going on, the town was already full of Turks and the defenders were easily overwhelmed (5.33–4).

The nearby town of Navarino also surrendered to the Turks in the wake of this defeat, but the Venetians recovered it later in the same year, which provides another interesting story in this book (5.43). A certain Demetrio, a soldier in the Venetian fleet, had a friend in the Turkish garrison in Navarino, and persuaded him to hide about 50 Venetian soldiers in his “house near the town wall until the gates of the town were should be opened at daybreak. Once the gates were open, Demetrio broke into the town with his men and taking them unawares slaughtered about 50 Turks of the garrison”. Incidentally, I was surprised by the extremely low numbers of people involved in much of this warfare. Later in the same paragraph, the Venetians send 150 horsemen to guard the town. I guess my mental image of war is mostly based on what I had read about WW1 and WW2, which is probably not a good guide to what a war might have looked like a few centuries ago.

The translator's note on p. 379 includes an interesting passage from Bembo's manuscript (censored from the early printed editions of the book by the Venetian government), where he blames the Venetian defeats in this war on the fact that their commanders tended to be old men: “it was a very bad practice to put old men in command of fleets, for they are bereft of blood and passion owing to their length of years, and so unwilling to try anything. [. . .] citizens consumed by age should be reserved for the home or the grave.” This last sentence strikes me as a bit harsh but otherwise he has a point; even a careless reader like me couldn't help wondering, while reading Bembo's descriptions of various battles, why the Venetian commanders were so cautious and showed so little initiative.

Book VI

This is one of the most interesting books so far. Earlier I was complaining that Bembo hardly ever mentions the geographical discoveries of his age, but here he talks about them at length (6.1–14). The Venetian senate heard about the Portuguese discovery of India in 1501 and immediately realised it would be a disaster for their trade (6.1). (There weren't the only ones; in 6.12 he describes how the sultan of Egypt tried, unsuccessfully, to chase the Portuguese out of the Indian ocean.)

There's a nice summary of Columbus' arguments for geographical exploration in 6.2, followed by a short history of his voyages. Bembo says that the idea of looking for new lands on the [Atlantic] Ocean was already mentioned before Columbus: “it was much earlier the idea first of the philosopher Posidonius, the pupil of Panaetius, and then of the famous physician, the great Avicenna” (6.3). There are various bits of information about the Indians with whom Columbus got in touch, including a description of maize (6.3) and a mention of “a wild and fierce people called Cannibals, who fed on the flesh of boys and men they had captured in war or raids on other islands (the women they left alone)” (6.4). The Indians “lived for the most part in a golden age. They know no boundaries to their fields; they have no courts or laws; they have no use for writing or trade; they live not for the future but from day to day.” (6.5) “Their women who have known a man covered no part of the body except the genitals, the virgins not even that” (6.7). “[T]he dried bodies of their kings and potentates are kept in their houses and held in great honor. There is even a place where they grind them up when they have become dessicated and use the dust in food and drink to honor them.” (Ib.)

Bembo also describes how the Spanish and the Portuguese asked the pope to mediate in their dispute on how to divide the New World among themselves (6.6); according to the translator's note, this resulted in the papal bull Inter caetera, whose demarcation line seems to be a predecessor of the one from the better-known Treaty of Tordesillas.

Some of the things he reports strike me as a bit dubious: “an immensely broad river — more than a hundred miles wide — which was full of islands” (6.8); though now that I looked in the wikipedia, it seems that the Amazon is actually that wide: “the mouth of the main stem is 80 kilometres” wide, and the whole estuary 240 km. An even more surprising report is the following: “The forests support an animal the size of a rabbit which is a bitter enemy of hens; the female has a pouch of skin [. . .] in which it carries its young and from which it lets them out as and when it wishes.” (6.8) I would expect that sort of animals in Australia, but that wasn't yet known in Bembo's time; this paragraph is about South America. And in a certain part of the Caribbean, men who dive for pearls are “so at home in the sea that on occasion they stay underwater for the space of half an hour” (6.10).

A particularly hideous form of female genital mutilation is described from the shores of the Red Sea: “These men sew together the reproductive organs of girls as soon as they are born, just far enough to allow urination. When they have matured, they give them in marriage stitched up in this manner, and it is the groom's first concern to sever with a knife the girl's labia thus joined and grown together: so high a value do the barbarians place on unambiguous virginity when taking a wife.” (6.11) Eeeeeek :S

Bembo also mentions Magellan's expedition (6.13–14) and includes this surprising statement: “having completed with great difficulty a three-year circumnavigation of the entire world [. . .] they found that each of their years had been longer by a day”. Surely it should be obvious that you get one day of difference for the whole circumnavigation (regardless of how many years it took you to complete it), not one day per year.

The rest of the book, from §15 onwards, again deals with the usual topics, mostly warfare. The war against the Turks is still going on and eventually they conclude peace in 6.47; another frequent cause of warfare in this book is Cesare Borgia, who is trying to secure his place on the map of Italy in the wake of the death of his father, pope Alexander. (The latter's death, by the way, is delightfully appropriate: “By a mistake on the part of a servant, Alexander swallowed a poison which he had ordered to be secretly given to Cardinal Adriano, one of his household, in whose gardens he was dining with his son Cesare Borgia”; 6.49, and Cesare nearly dies from the poison as well.)

Some of the Portuguese ships seem to have been very curiously decorated: “The stern of each boat was then draped with coverings of various colors, so that the spread-out fabrics reache the water and trailed in the waves.” (6.16)

The problems with taxation to finance the endless fighting, which I already mentioned earlier (see book V), continue here; there's a very interesting debate on whether the civil servants should be required to give up half their pay again. A certain Gian Antonio Minio makes some good arguments against it in the Great Council, saying that this is an unfair sort of tax which hurts only the middle and poorer classes, not the rich ones (6.22–4) — which I suspect is true, as a rich person would derive only a small fraction of his income from his salary, no matter what a position he held in the government. The doge then speaks at great length in favor of the tax (6.25–31), in a typical politician's manner — with lots of words but without really saying anything. He mostly whines about how the country simply needs money to keep financing the war, and how the rich are in fact paying their fair share of taxes, it just isn't as obvious because (unlike the middle and poorer classes) you don't see them going bankrupt and selling off their furniture to raise the money for taxes (6.29). In modern-day terminology, I suppose you could say that the doge is in favor of a flat tax rate, and he pretends not to notice that the mere fact that the rich people aren't going bankrupt from the tax while some of the poor ones are is by itself a sufficient proof that the burden of taxation is too heavy on the poor and too light on the rich. Sadly, nobody seems to have thought of a properly progressive tax rate at the time; or more likely, the rich bastards that ran Venetian politics would't have allowed it anyway. In any case, the outcome of this debate is that, in another clear proof of what a hollow sham the whole idea of deliberative politics was in Venice, Minio's reward for his parliamentary speech is a strict exile to “Arba, an island in Dalmatia” (which I guess is modern-day Rab).

Book VII

This book mostly consists of, you guessed it, yet more warfare. Maximilian, the Holy Roman Emperor, wants to travel to Rome to get properly crowned by the pope, but wants to bring a suspiciously large army along for the trip, ostensibly for his own safety. Venice refuses to let him pass through their territory; a war therefore erupts, in which Venice is also supported by Spain and France (which is making war on Maximilian for its own reasons). Venice seems to be doing reasonably well in this war at first and after a while, Maximilian makes a truce with Venice and her allies (6.41); but then the treacherous king Louis of France switches over to Maximilian's side and soon afterwards, Venice finds herself alone at war against Germany, France, Spain, and even the pope (7.51–9). The pope even uses his influence to prevent various mercenaries from accepting jobs in the Venetian army (7.66), and eventually excommunicates the doge and the entire city (7.78; the senate tries to evade this last move by the curious expedient of refusing to “accept the papal leters or admit those that brought them”).

As always, descriptions of the fighting are mostly rather boring, though occasionally I was interested to see that some of this fighting took place in the area of present-day Slovenia; for example, the town of Vipava is mentioned in 7.38, Koper in 8.26, and Postojna in 7.39. Bembo refers to this latter town as Postoina, which slightly surprised me since in more recent times the Italians called it Postumia.

One thing that came to my mind while reading this book is how incessant all this fighting really was. I am of course aware that the fact that we've currently had almost 70 years of peace in most of Europe is a bit of an anomaly; but my vague idea was that before that, one war per generation would have been a reasonable estimate. But here in Bembo's time we see that warfare was continuous; there was a new war every year, likely concluded a year or two later and then new wars would erupt in its place, often with the same players, only in a slightly different arrangement. What a horrible time it must have been to live in; and how much more remarkable it is that they managed to get the renaissance going in the midst of such chaos...

Unsurprisingly, the frequent shifts in alliances during these wars could wreak havoc on the lives of ordinary people. Bembo describes (7.65) how the Milanese government ordered their citizens to leave Venice when a war between the two countries was getting started; then the Venetian government, alarmed at the prospect of losing so many valuable traders and artisans, forbade them from leaving. Both laws prescribed confiscation as punishment for those who disobeyed, so basically people who owned property in both cities were screwed no matter what they decided to do.

The story of taxation to finance the wars also continues in this book; whereas they previously only required the magistrates to give up 50% of their pay, they now require some of them to give up 100% (7.71). The situation looks desperate enough that this is accepted without much protest. Furthermore, many citizens lend money to the republic, with the doge leading by example (7.74). One of the penalties for tax dodgers was to “be removed from public office. These offices are not only very numerous but also carry considerable emoluments, so that a large part of the citizens support themselves very handsomely on them” (7.76).

Like usually, Bembo manages to liven up his tale of endless warfare by occasional bits and pieces of more interesting information. For example, an embassy from the city of Nuremberg arrives in Venice in 1506 “to ask the senators for a copy of the laws of the Republic, declaring that they wanted to make use of those laws themselves” (7.9). The Venetians are happy to grant their request; I wonder if Nuremberg actually made any good use of those laws afterwards. Copying other nations' laws is of course a time-honored tradition, but I'm always a bit skeptical of it; what works for one nation might not work equally well for another if it has different customs and a different temperament.

Another curious tidbit from the same year: apparently people had the habit of asking for various favors from the Senate while a foreign ambassador was present, hoping that the politicians would be embarrassed to refuse the favor in the ambassador's presence; the Senate made a law forbidding this practice (7.14).

An interesting law from 1508: they forbade people from offering rewards to those who would nominate them for public office. On one hand, this is a very commendable law; on the other hand, it strikes me as highly hypocritical and bizarre — the entire political system of Venice was basically an oligarchy in which a few hundred rich people ran the city; in a system like that, why would you suddenly try to set up laws that prevent rich people from using their money to influence politics?

Bembo describes a kind of very large cannon (called a basilisk) used on some of their ships: “each piece twenty-two feet in length [. . .] They could fire an iron ball weighing a hundred pounds a distance of 2,800 paces” (7.34).

He also describes a strong earthquake on Crete in 1508 (7.44); surprisingly, this earthquake doesn't seem to have its own Wikipedia page yet :), although it is mentioned in passing in one or two articles. Another disaster is a large gunpowder explosion in the Venetian Arsenal in 1509 (7.63).

On the subject of odd news, there's the tale of an strange vessel found in the Atlantic not far from Britain in 1508: “a small vessel made of wicker [. . .] covered all over with tree bark. In it were seven men of moderate height and rather dark complexion [. . .] clothing made from fish skin dappled with spots. They wore painted crowns of straw [. . .] fed on raw flesh, and drank blood as we do wine. Their speech was unintelligible. Six of them died; one young man was taken alive ot the king in Normandy.” (7.50) I wonder what, if anything, is the truth behind this tale. Could an Eskimo boat have been carried by some storm all the way from Greenland to Britain?

I was surprised to see a very casual mention of the pope's daughter, Felice, in 7.78; she was married to the head of the powerful Orsini family. Bembo mentions her as if the fact that the pope had a daughter was the most unremarkable thing in the world! This was pope Julius II, by the way; I would have expected that sort of thing from his predecessor, Alexander Borgia, whose daughter Lucrezia is well known, but I guess that wasn't quite so exceptional in those days :] On a related note, I have now discovered that the wikipedia has a suitably pedantic article called List of sexually active popes :)))


The war of Venice vs. everyone else, which we saw starting towards the end of the previous book, is now under way, and as one might expect, Venice isn't doing too well in it. In a mixture of cowardice and incompetence, their army practically melts away upon facing the French army, to whom Venice thus loses some of its territory; in a desperate effort to end the war and gain some time to recover, they offer to restore further bits of territory to Maximilian and to the pope. In a move that I found extremely unexpected (but really shouldn't have, given the endlessly shifting nature of alliances in those days), Venice gets an offer of help from the Turkish sultan of all people! (8.42), and they seriously consider taking him up on it (8.44). The pope seems to be unable to make up his mind: on the one hand, he is worried that if Venice collapses utterly, Germany and France might turn against him next, although he is their ally at the moment (8.35); on the other hand, he keeps treating the Venetian ambassadors very arrogantly and making increasing demands from them (8.39). Maximilian seems to be content with his early gains and is not keen to pursue the war further, and king Louis of France, now that he is deprived of his German ally, seems to be willing to call it a day as well (8.37). Thus things slowly start looking up for Venice again, and towards the end of the book they even recover some of the territories they had lost earlier, such as the town of Padua (8.61).

(Continues in Vol. 3.)

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