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Reviewed by:
  • Language and Statecraft in Early Modern Venice
  • Matthew Lubin
Elizabeth A. Horodowich . Language and Statecraft in Early Modern Venice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xii + 246 pp. index. illus. bibl. $85. ISBN: 978-0-521-89496-8.

Elizabeth Horodowich argues in Language and Statecraft in Early Modern Venice that the sixteenth century saw unprecedented attempts to regulate speech in Venice through new laws and institutions. Chapter 1, "Defining the Art of Conversation," highlights a paradox that marked early modern writing in Venice: conversation was regarded as a desirable good, one that could breed refinement in the courtier and cement relationships among the rich and powerful, but it was also dangerous, and excess or religiously subversive speech was discouraged. In her discussion of conversation, Horodowich leans on three works: the Courtier (1528) by Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529), the Galateo (1558) by Giovanni della Casa (1503-56), and the Civile Conversazione (1574) by Stefano Guazzo (1530-93), to argue that comportment manuals presented a confusedly mixed message: conversation was both necessary and salutary, yet also presented potential dangers. In this reviewer's judgment, Horodowich attacks these writers unnecessarily. This may be because she starts from the assumption that they attempted to be prescriptive, rather than descriptive. It seems likely, in fact, that they adopted the dialogue form to avoid having to support any single position as the truth.

As part of the context she provides for such comportment manuals, Horodowich provides a welcome exegesis of The Civilizing Process by the German Norbert Elias, first published in 1939. On this subject, Horodowich rightly cautions that if we wish to speak of a civilizing process in Venice, one marked by an increased control of every affect of the body, from table manners to governance of the tongue, plenty of evidence attests that this was no teleologically linear or smooth process. Horodowich investigates in chapters 2 and 3, "Regulating Blasphemy" and "Insults," the records of two magistracies, the Esecutori contra la Bestemmia and the Avogaria del Comun (though the Tre Savi sopra l' Eresia , since that board, too, paid close attention to language, might have been included). She returns repeatedly to the anxiety that the Venetian government felt over immigration, class, and gender. With immigration, her readers would have benefited from some numbers, even if inevitably imprecise, to give some idea of whether a basis existed for this anxiety or not. The historiographical trope of the century from 1550 to 1650 or so as an "iron century" of anxiety, war, famine, and fanaticism has been well established in Britain and America since the 1950s (as in the work of Henry Kamen), but there is little discussion here of possible political contexts of this anxiety in Venice after Agnadello in 1509: little about the Ottomans, and but one mention of Paolo Sarpi. One wonders whether the pendulum is not now swinging too far in reaction against the older ideas, running from the sixteenth century writers themselves (Gasparo Contarini and Donato Gianotti) through at least Frederic Chapin Lane (1900-85) that Venice presented in these centuries an exceptional island of stability and concord. The general picture one finds in these central chapters, instead, is of a city rife with selfish individuals (a word she favors) [End Page 1235] pursuing their own interests willy-nilly, torn by insults, and ignoring writing that enjoined silence and respectful speech.

Chapters 4 and 5, "Conversation and Exchange: Networks of Gossip" and "The Language of Courtesans," attempt to grasp what we can understand of how knowledge was transmitted through the city, the latter chapter assigning great importance to the informal cultural and even political roles enjoyed by courtesans, who were extremely numerous in Venice. Horodowich here builds upon her argument, following Walter J. Ong, that Venice enjoyed a "residually oral" culture in this period (25), in which the spread of the printing press coexisted with oral transmission and, to judge from the court records Horodowich discusses, an ingrained habit of assigning great weight to verbal pronouncements, perhaps greater, even, than that allowed written documents. A natural comparison might be with Venice's Eastern Mediterranean rivals, the Ottomans, since the Islamic legal tradition in the premodern period has often been understood...


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pp. 1235-1236
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Archived 2009
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