Thursday, February 8, 2007

Storia degli Italiani, vol. I: very, very good. I had despaired of finding a book like this, but volume I of Procacci's history is as good as I could have wished. Three things stand out:

One is the tenuousness of men's hold over the land: people have lived in Italy at least since the Neolithic age, but there were ages of retrenchment and ages of expansion (settlement). During the periods of retrenchment the population declined (huddled in towns and castles) and vast regions became malarial swamp. Sometimes the causes of the swamps' expansion were political. I lose sleep over desertification, and it was interesting to come across an analogous circumstance. (But swamps — even malarial swamps — don't scare me nearly as much as deserts.)

Apparently the Venice/Genova dichotomy is a commonplace, but I found it fascinating:

La fortuna di Genova si veniva però sviluppando su basi assai diverse da quelle di Venezia. Il suo armamento era prevalentement privato, i suoi convogli mercantili e, talvolta, le sue stesse spedizioni militari delle "maone" organizzate da privati, i fondachi dei magazzini appartenenti a privati e i suoi viaggiatori degli avventurieri che non esitavano a mettere le proprie competenze al servigio di chiunque fosse to disposto a pagarle. Marco Polo, davanti al khan dei tartari o in prigionia non cessò mai di sentirsi un cittadino veneziano, per Venezia egli combattè e a Venezia si ammogliò e morì. Ma già agli inizi del XIV secolo noi troviamo un genovese, Manuele Pessagno, ammiraglio del re di Portogallo e un altro, Enrico Marchese, costruttore di navi sulla Senna per conto di Filippo il Bello. Essi sono i capostipiti di una progenie di genovesi per il mondo cui appartiene anche Cristoforo Colombo, scopritore delle Americhe per conto del re di Spagna.
Questo "individualismo" genovese, del quale si è tanto parlato e del quale non si può fare a meno di continuare a parlare, si riflette nelle strutture stesse della città. (p. 46)

Rough translation:

The fortunes of Genova developed from very different foundations from those of Venice. Its arsenal was predominantly private, its mercantile convoys and at times even its military ventures were privately organized, its warehouses were privately owned and its travellers adventurers who did not hesitate to put their abilities at the service of anyone willing to pay. Marco Polo, before the khan of the Tartars or in jail, never ceased to consider himself a Venetian citizen, for Venice he fought, in Venice he was married and died. But already at the beginning of the XIV century we find a Genoese, Manuele Pessagno, admiral of the king of Portugal, and another, Enrico Marchese, ship builder on the Seine for Philip the Fair [of France]. They are the forefathers of a line of globe-trotting Genoese that includes Cristoforo Colombo, discoverer of the Americas on behalf of the king of Spain.
This Genoese "individualism," of which much has been said and which we shall go on discussing, is reflected in the very structure of the city.


The fates of the two cities seem to be contained in this difference in mentality: after a financial crisis in the fifteenth century, in which many small savers were wiped out, Genova became the fief of an oligarchy — creditors who sat on the board of one single bank; it suffered periodic uprisings, and was a prey to outside intervention — what else could you expect when the whole city was mortgaged? Venice, with its formidable cohesiveness and civic pride, its single-minded mixture of diplomatic cunning and bravery, lasted over three centuries longer. It finally fell to Napoleon in 1797. This is another moment in history that brings my father to tears: "The British navy was around the corner ready to help, but Venice didn't lift a finger in her own defense." It reminds me of what Hans Scholl said about Paris in 1941. I can't help having some sympathy for Venice and Paris: occupiers may come and go (they must have thought), but a city this beautiful happens only once.

I like the neat symmetry of the dichotomy: Venice in the northeast, Marco Polo, China; Genova in the northwest, Columbus, the Americas.

I used to be unsympathetic to Venice because I thought that women were much less free there than in other cities. I think I was misinformed. Now I love it for its cosmopolitanism — its openness to the Byzantine Empire, later the Ottoman, Germany, and everything in between — for Aldo Manuzio's press, for its policy of religious toleration, and for standing up to the Vatican. (The whole city was excommunicated several times, and nearly became Protestant.)

The last thing that struck me was the explanation for place names such as Villafranca, Francavilla, and Castelfranco. I'd always foolishly thought these had something to do with the Franks, but as Procacci explains, towns with these names began as settlements of newly enFRANChised serfs (usually founded around the year 1000). I'll think of those freedmen the next time I pass through a town with "franco" in its name. (There are many.)

This is kind of interesting (from Wikipedia):

The ethnonym has also been traced to a *frankon—"javelin, lance" (Old English franca, compare the Saxons, named after the seax, and the Lombards, named after the battle-axe—the throwing axe of the Franks is known as the Francisca) but, conversely, the weapon may also have been named after the tribe. A. C. Murray says, 'The etymology of Franci is uncertain ('the fierce ones' is the favourite explanation), but the name is undoubtedly of Germanic origin.' [2]
The meaning of "free" (English frank, frankly) arose because, after the conquest of Gaul, only Franks had the status of freemen.

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