Merchant Writers: Florentine Memoirs from the Middle Ages and Renaissance ed. by Vittore Branca (review)
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Reviewed by
Vittore Branca, ed. Merchant Writers: Florentine Memoirs from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Translated by Murtha Baca. University of Toronto Press. x, 414. $75.00

Here at last, after a wait of nearly thirty years, is an English translation of Vittore Branca's important anthology Mercanti Scrittori (Rusconi, 1986), with the unabridged writings of Florentine merchants Paola da Certaldo (fl. 1360–70), Giovanni di Paolo Morelli (1371–1444), and Bonaccorso Pitti [End Page 208] (1354–1432), as well as excerpts from half a dozen other sources. Although referred to in the volume's title collectively as "memoirs," (ricordanze or libri di ricordi), these writings are diverse in style and content. Variously characterized today as "egodocuments," "family books," or "memory writings," these books were intended to record memories of events that had special meaning for the writer and his family. Though arguably neither the collection of proverbs by Paolo da Certaldo, nor Francesco Datini's Last Will and Testament fit this definition, nonetheless, together these writings provide a revealing window into the minds of Renaissance Florentine merchants.

Described by Branca as "the masterpiece of the merchant writers," Giovanni di Paolo Morelli's Ricordi is the most sparkling jewel in this collection. Readers familiar with Christiane Klapisch-Zuber's analysis of the psychology of this "famous orphan" will finally be able to read Morelli's intimate revelations in their entirety. Like the other merchant writers in this volume, Morelli intended his work only for private family use and composed without any formal literary intent. That said, Morelli's "linguistic fabric," in Branca's words, is "the most sensitive, delicate component of his Ricordi."

Murtha Baca's translations are fluid; they are idiomatic without being slangy and accurate without being stilted, which is no easy feat. Here for instance is a selection from the famous passage where we encounter not Morelli the former orphan, but Morelli the grieving father, full of regrets and bittersweet memories after the death of his son Alberto:

the more I endeavoured to forget my son, the more fervently his image, his manner, his words, his adversities, his toils, my reproaches of him, my threats, the fact that I did not make him happy, my way of estranging myself from him, my having taken little or no consolation in him – all these things and even more cruel ones came into my mind, saddening me deeply. Moving swiftly up the mountain, unaware of the time or the path I was taking on account of my thoughts and all the images of my son, I lost all perception of reality. …

This is breathless writing, a stream-of-consciousness that stretches the limits of English syntax – Renaissance volgare is famously stingy with punctuation marks – yet Baca's stark, simple word choices lend the passage extreme pathos. If this sustained balance in style is not always pulled off, often it is because Morelli himself lacks that equilibrium. Describing his deceased sister Mea, Morelli writes: "Mea was of normal height, with beautiful blond hair, a very fine figure, and so amiable that she dripped with charm." This rather rote inventory is followed by an extended lyrical description: "Her hands were like ivory, and so shapely that they seemed to have been painted by Giotto; they were long and [End Page 209] soft, with tapering fingers and long, shapely nails, pink and clear." These two very different moods are bridged by the phrase "so amiable that she dripped with charm" (tanto gentile che cascava di vezzi). The choice of "amiable" to translate the ineffable "gentile" is a difficult one; however, "dripped with charm" somehow misses the mark. "Overflowed with charms" might have been a better rendering of "cascava," recalling a "cascata" or waterfall.

This is intended only as a demonstration of the vast complexities facing a translator of fifteenth-century Florentine prose; overall Baca's translation is superb. Unfortunately, a fresh bibliographic essay is needed to bring three decades of scholarship up to date, and a broader thematic index (rather than merely an index of names) might have been included. Cesare De Michelis's essay, "A Portrait of Vittore Branca," is illuminating and touching; however, facsimile reproductions of a few manuscript...


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