A Clandestine political manuscript from early modern Venice

A Clandestine political manuscript from early modern Venice

Amelot de La Houssaye, Abraham-Nicolas (1634-1706). La storia delle massime e governo della Repubblica di Venezia, descritto da un segretario di un ambasciatore di Francia a Venezia. Manuscript translation to Italian of Histoire du gouvernement de Venise, ca. 1680. Pp. 562. Small quarto. The text begins with a manuscript title page, lower 4 cm torn away. The text is preceded by two tables (6pp.); an address to the reader – “A Chi Legge” and three main sections, each of about 80 leaves each, followed by Osservazioni, folio 249-281. In all 282 folios. In original cartonnage binding with decoratively angled lacing; old insect damage to inner paper lining. Text block loose within case. Housed in a modern clamshell case.

     A clandestine manuscript translation of the 1677 expanded edition of Amelot de La Houssaye’s sharp critique of Venetian decadence, prepared independently of and probably earlier than the published Italian translation of 1681.

     Historian Jacob Soll has given us a wonderful portrait of Amelot – printer, bookseller, failed diplomat, and proto-Grub Street author – as a colorful member of the French literary underground working at the margins of classical humanism, “a sort of low-paid [Justus] Lipsius.” Soll argues that with his Histoire du gouvernement de Venise, first published in 1676, Amelot invented a new genre of political criticism. “Clearly creating a political methodology for the common reader … he would not only unmask the methods of political reason of state in the public arena; he would create a critical instrument with exceptional lasting power.” Amelot’s book claimed to “reveal the true political maxims of the Venetians,” which were hidden by “a veil of appearances, and pretexts far removed from reality.” As Paolo Preto and other scholars have observed, Amelot’s theme of political secrecy would develop into the trope of the “black legend of Venice” that would overshadow the opinions of travelers and writers for centuries to come.

     Soll notes that from the perspective of the history of dissent, Amelot’s topos of decadence was nothing less than revolutionary. “It was not simply a bad system that had overstepped its rights, [Amelot] insisted; it was a good system that failed due to its citizens’ lack of virtue.” Venice’s ruling elite were “perfidious, treacherous, guilty of ingratitude, envy, venom, treachery, dissimulation, a hatred of foreigners … licentiousness and vice.” Especially significant, Soll writes, was the fact that in addition to exposing the causes and extent of Venetian decadence, Amelot provided his readers with “a new and improved methodology for unmasking”:

Amelot showed through his own example that a simple individual, armed with the tools of erudition and reading, could attack a sick state and weaken it through the understanding of its flaws. It was a paradigmatic moment in the history of critical culture.

     In Venice, Amelot’s history “was considered immoral, improper, and even dangerous.” The Venetian ambassador vowed he would present Amelot’s severed head to the Senate. Though the French did not comply with this request, they did throw him in the Bastille for six weeks. As Soll explains, the book was published at a complex time for the Republic, which was involved in a struggle over papal authority and had just suffered a devasting loss to Turkey after a 43 year battle over Crete. It was little surprise that the Venetian authorities should seek to suppress the book. The present manuscript is a mark of their failure.

     As historian Federico Barbierato notes in his study of intellectual dissent in early modern Venice, the Republic boasted a lively market in forbidden books and clandestine philosophical manuscripts. In defiance of an extensive system of surveillance, bookstores sold a wide range of forbidden works (including those by Boyle, Machiavelli, Spinoza, and Boccaccio) under the table. An informal exchange network encouraged readers to transcribe prohibited texts for their own benefit or that of others. So if a printed copy could not be obtained, “it was not very difficult to procure heterodox material in … handwritten form.” Inquisition records reveal that prohibited manuscripts were sold through by unscrupulous entrepreneurs on the street, in houses and inns, and at a variety of botteghe – including hair salons and hat shops.

     There are many indications that the present translation of Amelot’s history of Venice is just such a samizdat production. The text appears to have been executed rather quickly – this is not the work of a careful scribe -- and a note on the title page remarks that this was “copiata a caffè” (copied in a café) -- a wonderfully evocative detail. The binding which bears no hint of the contents is another giveaway – this is the early modern analogue to the “plain brown wrapper” of the nineteenth and twentieth century pornographer.

     More telling still is the fact that the manuscript appears to be a direct translation from the French. As Barbierato notes, Venetian freethinkers regarded France as the home of intellectual dissent and prized French books highly. But many readers did not possess the linguistic facility to read books in French. This manuscript likely was prepared for the benefit of readers eager for the critical analysis Amelot offered but unable to tackle it in the original. 

     The Histoire du gouvernement de Venise was written simply enough to pose little difficulty for even a minimally skilled translator – Amelot was not a complex stylist. This manuscript contains ample variations from than the published Italian edition of 1681 to demonstrate that it was prepared independently and probably earlier. The first and clearest example of these variations is the title, which the manuscript has as La storia delle massime e governo della Repubblica di Venezia, and the 1681 edition has more simply as La Storia del governo di Venezia. Whereas the published edition identifies the author plainly, the title page of the manuscript rather garbles his name but spells out his qualifications in detail (“un segretario di un ambasciatore di Francia a Venezia”). We have not attempted an exhaustive comparison, but in general, the manuscript appears to sacrifice elegance for clarity.

     A final suggestive detail: the date on the title page has been abraded. Our guess is that this was done once a published Italian translation was issued. Once the prohibitions against the work were lifted, owning the text itself would no longer be dangerous, but a date that was too early would serve as evidence of lawlessness.

     The binding is also of interest. Nicholas Pickwoad's recent work on Italian laced-cased bindings with cartonnage covers includes several examples of decoratively angled support slips laced through the covers, but nothing so elaborate as the lacing on the binding of this manuscript.

     Although clandestine manuscripts of the philosophical works of the Enlightenment were once widely circulated, few have survived over the years. The present example is exceptional for not only being a banned work from the Venetian intellectual underground, but also for being a landmark of cultural analysis, offering a new and highly influential historical model for political critique. It is a remarkable find indeed, and worthy of further study.

Selected References

  • Barbierato, Federico. The Inquisitor in the hat shop: Inquisition, forbidden books, and unbelief in early modern Venice. (Farnham, Surrey; Burlington, VT: Ashgate. 2012)
  • Del Negro, Piero. “Forme ed istituzioni del discorso politico veneziano,” Storia della cultura veneta. Il Seicento (Vincenza: Neri Pozza, 1982), 4/II: 406-36
  • Del Vento, Christian and Xavier Tabet, eds. Le mythe de Venise au XIX siècle : Débats historiographiques et représentations littéraires (Caen: Presses universitaires de Caen, 2006)
  • Pickwoad, Nicholas. "Italian laced-case paper bindings," Journal of Paper Conservation (IADA) 20 (2019), pp. 122-51.
  • Povolo, Claudio. “The creation of Venetian historiography,” in John Martin and Dennis Romano, eds., Venice reconsidered: the history and civilization of an Italian state, 1297-1797 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), pp. 491-519
  • Preto, Paolo. Persona per hora secreta: accusa e delazione nella Repubblica di Venezia (Milano: Il Saggiatore, 2003)
  • Soll, Jacob. Publishing The Prince: history, reading, and the birth of political criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005)

We are grateful to Patricia Osmond, Ennio Sandal, and Jan H. Waszink for sharing their learned opinions. The conclusions presented here – and any errors – are ours alone.

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