I was recently given one of the most infuriating books it has ever been my misfortune to read. Bound in Venice: The Serene Republic and the Dawn of the Book, by Alessandro Marzo Magno, translated from the Italian by Gregory Conti, and published by Europa Editions, is so full of typos, repetitions, bad grammar and outright incomprehensibility that one can only assume that it went from typescript to print without being sullied by any kind of copy-editorial activity, which is frustrating, because there’s a very interesting book inside there struggling to get out.
It has one review on Amazon: ‘brilloiant book, and spot on delivery’ [sic]. Other online reviews are less kind, pointing out the publisher’s statement on the imprints page that this is a work of fiction (which most of Europa’s books indeed are), and various infelicities of style, accuracy, etc. in the text. Among my favourites (and I gave up noting them after the first 70 pages) are: ‘a catalogue of the books […] generally three of four pages, folded in half’; ‘held together by strips of lead came’; ‘the city is a sort of year-round book fair all year-round’; ‘Aldine’s nephew’; ‘his coffin his put on view’; ‘all the major powers of the age untied against it’; ‘a perfectly conserved copy of the twelve volumes of Bomber’s Talmud’ (it should be Bomberg’s). There is no bibliography, so the source footnotes are welcome, but laid out in the manner condemned by Butcher as completely otiose: ‘Author, Short Title, spaced three-point ellipsis, op. cit.’ The index consists entirely of proper names: ‘Albania, 123, 125, 130-31, 217; Albanian, 224’ … And the many statistics about the output of the various Venetian printing houses are rendered opaque because the words ‘book’, ‘title’, ‘edition’ and ‘work’ are used almost interchangeably.
How much of this is the translator, how much the publisher and how much the author, I don’t know: except that one passage reads exactly as though an author’s note to self has been left in: ‘Even the Venetian fondacos, like the one created in the sixteenth century for the Germanic nation, were modelled on structures where Christian merchants customarily lived in Islamic territories. Actually, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi existed as early as the thirteenth century; it was the Fondaco dei Turchi (for Turkish merchants) that was instituted in the sixteenth century.’ (In fact, other sources date the transfer of the thirteenth-century palace to the use of Turkish traders to the seventeenth century: but this again may be an issue of translation: seicento = 1600s = seventeenth century?)
However, this very frustrating exercise in reading brought me back (via Aldus Manutius, the doyen of Venetian printing) to Giovanni Battista Ramusio, of whom I was vaguely aware as a result of the Cambridge Library Collection’s reissue of the First Series of publications of the (British) Hakluyt Society. Ramusio (1485–1557) came from a family which had moved in the middle of the fifteenth century from Rimini to Treviso. (This was at the time when the notorious Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, condottiere and probable wife-murderer, was ruler of the former city, so the Ramusi were perhaps seeking a safer environment.)
They were a learned family: Giovanni’s father and uncle both graduated from the university of Padua, the former becoming a local magistrate, and the latter a physician, who was exiled for some reason and settled first in Damascus and then in Beirut, where as well as practising medicine he learnt Arabic and produced a translation of Avicenna (not the first, in spite of a grandiloquent claim by the nineteenth-century city fathers of Rimini).
Giovanni himself moved in the circle of Aldus Manutius and Pietro Bembo.
A public servant like his father, he rose to the post of secretary to the Council of Ten, the effective rulers of the Serene Republic.
His interest in geography, cartography and travel narratives appears to have developed early: he was active in unsuccessful efforts to persuade the Council to commission Sebastian Cabot to carry out exploratory voyages on its behalf, foreseeing that the rise of the Turkish navy in the Mediterranean on the one hand, and the western and southern voyages of the Portuguese, Spanish and English on the other, would lead to Venice, the greatest trading centre in Europe, becoming a backwater.
Ramusio’s most famous work, part of which was published posthumously, was the three-volume Navigationi et Viaggi (1555–9), a compilation (with illustrations and maps) of classical, medieval and contemporary travel narratives, from Diodorus Siculus’ almost certainly fictional account of Iambulus’ experiences to his own essay on the inundation of the Nile. It includes Marco Polo’s story of his travels, Leo Africanus’ account of his homeland, and the journeys of diplomats such as Giosafat Barbaro, as well as an account of Sebastian Cabot’s voyages.
The volumes, published by the Venetian branch of the famous Giunti firm (originally from Florence), were hugely influential across Europe. John Florio (1553–1625), half-Italian, half-English (his father was a Franciscan friar who converted to Protestantism), was educated in Switzerland and Germany; on his return to England, as a teacher, lexicographer, translator and writer, he moved in aristocratic circles (he probably knew Shakespeare via the earl of Southampton), ending up as tutor in French and Italian to Henry, prince of Wales.
In 1580, Florio published an English translation of Ramusio’s account of the Atlantic voyages of Jacques Cartier, describing the Italian author as ‘that famous learned man’, ‘a learned and excellent Cosmographer’, and declaring that his books, ‘if they were translated into English by the liberalitie of some noble Personage, our Sea-men of England, and other, studious of Geographie, shoulde know many worthy secrets, which hitherto have beene concealed’.
In his Diverse Voyages Touching the Discovery of America (1582). Florio’s friend and probable collaborator, Richard Hakluyt, the great English proponent of voyages of discovery, lists Ramusio among his sources, with the annotation ‘hee gathered many notable things’. Both this book and his multi-volume Principal Navigations Voyages Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589) (as well as his successor Samuel Purchas‘ works) are clearly organised on Ramusio’s principles of geographical area and chronological order, so that it seems safe to assume that Hakluyt decided to do the job himself (and better?) rather than waiting for further translations from others.
Ramusio, scholar, politician, diplomat, and arguably the first modern historian of geography, deserves to be better remembered. I’ll make use of Marzo Magno’s notes to read more – but hopefully in properly copy-edited books!