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Eighteenth-Century Life 26.3 (2002) 58-77
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The Exotic and the Normative in Viaggi di Enrico Wanton alle Terre Australi Incognite
by Zaccaria Seriman
University of Sydney
The Travels of Henry Wanton to the undiscovered Austral regions and the Kingdom of the Apes, in which are expounded the Character, Customs, state of Knowledge and form of Government of their extraordinary Inhabitants; translated from an English Manuscript, Zaccaria Seriman's diffusely titled Italian novel-cum-treatise on the European experience of the exotic, was published in Venice in 1749. 1 Better known, however, is the second edition of 1764, expanded to twice the length of the original by the addition of two extra books. This edition, retitled Travels of Henry Wanton to the undiscovered Austral regions and the Kingdom of the Apes and of the Cynocephali, newly translated from an English Manuscript, will be the basis of my discussion. 2
Though Marino Parenti's 1948 bibliographical essay 3 remains the chief source of reliable information on the successive editions of the work, it overlooks the particularly interesting edition of 1772 4 that added a 223-line allegorical poem in blank verse titled "The Looking-Glass: A Fable," in which the author somewhat maladroitly points out his novel's satiric intent. The reason that edition was noticed in the English press, however, was its dedication to the king and a false colophon giving London as its place of publication. A translation of one chapter is given in the course of the review [End Page 58] in the Monthly Review that year, 5 which—despite the novel's frequent republication in Italian—remains the only English translation of any part of the work.
Frequently included in surveys and bibliographies of utopian and hodoeporetical writings, Seriman's novel is a literary curiosity, historically and generically. It must be acknowledged that few claims can be made for it as literature in any narrow or pure sense. Many of its readers—as noted in uncritical surveys of fantastic literature—agree that it is shapeless, turgid, uneven, prolix, repetitious, and clumsily didactic. It does, however, exert some claim on our interest on account of the author's use of an emergent subgenre of fiction to point up some topics of debate and discussion current in the Venetian—and European—journals of his day. Further, a reading in its cultural context casts light on the margins of some significant Venetian publishing ventures in the midcentury in which Seriman was involved.
Besides, and much to the point of this volume, the Viaggi di Enrico Wanton is an exercise in an imaginative mode of fiction—the fantastic, a precursor of science fiction and speculative fiction—cultivated particularly in Venice in the mid-to-late eighteenth century, albeit in this case by a writer who was not particularly imaginative and not adept in the novel form he adopted. It is not necessarily the canonical works, however, that offer the most interesting or valuable insights into a genre. Seriman's imagination was clearly piqued to emulate fictitious and fantastic travel writings, particularly by a work published in 1726, when Seriman was in his late teens: Gulliver's Travels .
Insofar as the fantastic has concretized as a modern genre with its own internal rules and tools of criticism and analysis, it is a latecomer in Italian literature—that is, if we exclude the medieval dream-vision genre and its humanist successors. Inevitably, Dante's Divine Comedy in the early fourteenth century and Francesco Colonna's Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499) come to mind as notable examples in a list of putative literary ancestors. Though the latter could be ruled out as not fitting one of the criteria for assimilation to a modern genre—since it is written not in the vernacular, but in Latin—it remains an attractive example because it is Venetian. In addition, there is good reason to see a Venetian line in the Italian literature of the fantastic. 6 In citing such works as formal touchstones in placing Seriman's...