I rarely buy new books. I know that sounds a bit odd considering this blog is mainly about the relentless crazed acquiring of books, but I’m a sucker for a bargain, a second-hand book or something on sale, and I’m far less likely to go out and buy a new book at full price. An exception to this has been Alison Cornish, Vernacular Translation in Dante’s Italy: Illiterate Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2011), published in the series Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature. It is an extremely stimulating read and well worth every penny. She talks about the remarkable flourishing of vernacular translation in the early fourteenth-century, volgarizzamenti, and then makes some excellent observations on the ways that Dante establishes himself as a vernacular writer, seeking to downplay the richness of these volgarizzamenti in setting his own poem as the work of vernacular writing.
The book comprises six chapters. In the first, ‘Dressing down the muses: the anxiety of volgarizzamento’, she takes a cue from Sacchetti’s story of the Florentine citizen reading Livy’s history of Rome (no. 66) and talks about the enormous project that was the reconstruction of Livy in the fourteenth century. Chapter 2 is entitled ‘The authorship of readers’ and talks about the myriad ways in which traditional stemmatic recension does not allow us to take sufficient account of the interactive reading done in the Middle Ages, and that volgarizzamenti was a place where readers felt comfortable and creatively involved. Chapter 3 is called ‘Cultural ricochet: French to Italian and back again’ talks about the huge cultural presence of Old French in northern Italy and looks especially at vernacular Cicero and texts such as the Li Fait des Romains etc. Chapter 4 is called ‘Translation as miracle: illiterate learning and religious translation’, and talks about the very remarkable Italian tradition of vernacular translation. Particularly interesting is the observation here of how much of this vernacular tradition was powered by women, transcribing sermons for example. The fifth chapter, ‘The treasure of the translator: Dante and Brunetto’ is about the the relationship of these two figures and explores Brunetto as a translator choosing to write in French. She argues that Dante’s condemnation is the project of volgarizzamenti. The final chapter, ‘A new life for translation: volgarizzamento after humanism’, has a few excellent pages on Petrarch’s Latin translation of Boccaccio’s story of Griselda, and then goes on to talk about Landino’s translation of Pliny produced in Naples.
This isn’t so much a review as a segnalazione, but I do want to accompany it with a strong endorsement. This book will be obligatory reading for anyone interested in the contours of vernacularity in fourteenth century Italy, an exciting and stimulating exploration of its riches and manifest aspects.