by Roderick Conway Morris

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Ca' Rezzonico, Venice
Il Mondo Novo by Giandomenico Tiepolo, 1791

No Zarlatan

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE, Italy 2 July 2010


Francesco Zorzi Muazzo's 'Collection of Venetian proverbs, sayings, maxims, words and phrases, enriched with some examples and little stories', is an extraordinary exercise in baroque lexicography: an amalgam of dictionary, thesaurus, autobiography, anthology of narratives factual and fictional, contemporary songs, opinions, and candid commentary on 18th-century Venice's social and sexual mores.

It was compiled between 1767 and 1775, during most of which time the author was confined to two institutions on islands in the Venetian lagoon, the monastery of Santo Spirito and the aristocratic bedlam of San Servolo. The manuscript surfaced in the Venetian State Archives in the 1960s. Its survival is something of a miracle, given that it appears to have been left at San Servolo when Muazzo died there, at the age of 43, in June 1775. It has taken Franco Crevatin of the University of Trieste and his team five years to transcribe and edit the 1500-plus pages of Muazzo's compendium (over three-quarters of a million words).

Muazzo primary motive for beginning the 'Raccolta' was his passion for the Venetian language and his wish to record it in all its manifestations although, as he himself notes on more than one occasion, it also served a therapeutic role in whiling away the hours of his incarceration. His position and personality had brought him in to contact with every echelon of Venetian society and every class of Venetian speaker, from his fellow nobles in the Grand Council and prosperous merchants to market traders, shopkeepers, artisans, boatmen, fishermen, porters and prostitutes, who frequented the low-class wine-shops, all-night drinking halls and gambling dens he himself so assiduously haunted. He had an exceptionally acute ear and a retentive memory.

As a dictionary the 'Raccolta' is eccentric. It was composed not on cards but bundles of sheets so although it is arranged alphabetically the order of words under each letter is haphazard, and there are repetitions. However, when a word or phrase recurs, we often learn more. Words are not only defined but frequently illustrated with extended dialogues and monologues, invaluable in illustrating their social contexts and nuances.

While Boerio's landmark Venetian Dictionary of 1829, subsequently revised and still in use today, was remarkable for its lack of prudery for its times, the 'Raccolta' represents a uniquely far-ranging record of Venetian slang, bawdy and obscene terms. To take but two examples: under 'cossa' (thing), Muazzo lists a further 25 synonyms for the female pudenda: and under 'cazzo' (cock), 26 for the male. Many of these synonyms (and others) are made liberal use of throughout the pages of the work, both literally and figuratively.

Unlike Boerio, where explanations are given in Italian, the 'Raccolta' is entirely in Venetian (save for the Preface and Dedication). Muazzo only uses Italian (or Tuscan as he calls it) in the text when comparing usages, or when quoting Italian literature (he also cites verses and tags in Latin). Muazzo's own prose style in his native tongue is colloquial, expressive, often witty and ironic. Indeed, his language is strikingly close to the modern spoken language of today, more so than, for example, Goldoni's Venetian-language plays (which Muazzo disliked and whose author he condemns as a 'zarlatan' and destroyer of Venetian comic theatre).

Muazzo was the eldest son of a family of Barnabotti, as indigent Venetian nobles were familiarly known after the San Barnaba district where the Republic had built state housing to accommodate them. Shortly after his birth, Francesco's father was elected to an administrative post on the Ionian island of Zante. Fearful that he was too young to make the voyage, his parents entrusted him to one Marianna, a singer (and his father's 'morosa', or mistress, according to Muazzo in the 'Raccolta') and her mother. Hardly had Francesco's the parents set sail, when these two 'harpies' (as Muazzo describes them) disappeared without trace, taking with them the funds entrusted to them for his care. He was rescued by a penniless uncle and found himself in an overcrowded household where food and comforts were scarce.

When his parents returned, they nursed the malnourished infant back to health. At 20 Muazzo became a full voting member of the Serenissima's Great Council, and at 22 elected to his first official post. A number of sinecures were used to prevent the Barnabotti from sliding into complete destitution and he held a series of them, maintaining his constitutional rights even when effectively treated as insane, until his death.

In 1765 Muazzo's addiction to wine, gambling and unruly behavior invited an admonition from the the Council of Ten. His failure to reform led to his confinement on the island of Santo Spirito. From this year on - with brief spells of liberty, during which he unfailingly returned to his increasingly uncontrollable and violent ways - he was incarcerated at his family's expense.

Conservative in his politics and a patriotic supporter of the Republican status quo, Muazzo nonetheless can write witheringly about members of his own class, declaring that there are more robbers among the nobility than among the poor, but it is the poor that end up in prison and in the galleys. Indeed, it is difficult to reconcile the observant, articulate and engaging author of the 'Raccolta' with the unbalanced individual described in the surviving papers of the State Inquisitors to whom his despairing parents reluctantly found themselves appealing to have him confined for his own safety and that of others.

Muazzo's numerous digressions throughout the work are frequently sparked off by a single word or association. They are often autobiographical and can run into thousands of words, making it possible to read sections of the 'Raccolta' as single narratives. Other digressions deal with particular subjects, such as food, drink, jewels, pearls, coral, baskets, music, dance, owls, doves, plants, Gypsies, Jews, gestures, the uses of 'ti', 'vu' and 'ella' as modes of address, palm trees, commodes, confessions (and the comic confusions caused by confessors unfamiliar with Venetian), nicknames, refuse removal, different sweets made in convents, nude bathing, masturbation and condoms. Other digressions consist of anecdotes, jokes and stories of varying degrees of plausibility.

Sex seems seldom to have been far from Muazzo's thoughts, although his descriptions of his own erotic activities and those he witnessed from childhood onwards (privacy clearly not being a priority in the various circles he moved in) have a picaresque, comic quality.

A leitmotif running throughout is Muazzo's championing of all things English, which he invariably describes in glowing terms. Among them he cites English captains, sailors, guns, steel, knives, coins, silk, flannel, hats, walking sticks, beer, liqueurs, underwear, funerals and miniatures of beautiful women (which he finds sexually arousing). Conversely he condemns just about anything and anybody from France and Spain.

He writes regularly and with admiration of Canaletto's patron Consul Smith, 'mio padron, difensor, prottetor, e anzolo qua a terra' (angel here on earth). As a child Muazzo lived for a time close to Smith's Palazzo Balbi at Rialto, but evidence for any later personal acquaintance is lacking. On the other hand, Muazzo's godfather Pietro Gradenigo, a distinguished noble and scholar, knew the Consul well. When Muazzo was released from Santo Spirito for a period in October 1770, Muazzo records Smith as having been in attendance (the Englishman died less than a year later). It is possible that Gradenigo had acted as in intermediary in involving Smith. The undated Dedication of the 'Raccolta' is addressed to a so-far unidentified 'Capitan Inglese XX'.

Remarks in the course of the 'Raccolta' indicate that Muazzo clearly intended that others should read it. The language was too explicit and the content to risque for it to be published in Venice at that time. But he may well have hoped that it would circulate in manuscript which, as Professor Crevatin points out, would not have been unusual. Both Giorgio Baffo's famously ribald verses and more sober essays, memoirs and scholarly works by the likes of Muazzo's godfather Gradenigo were shared in this fashion. Muazzo would also have been aware that such manuscripts were then seen as valuable contributions to future works by other hands. And this will undoubtedly be the case now that Muazzo's 'Raccolta' is at last in print.

Raccolta de' proverbi, detti, sentenze, parole e frasi veneziane, arrichita d'alcuni esempii ed istorielle

by Francesco Zorzi Muazzo, edited by Franco Crevatin

1160 pp. Angelo Colla Editore.

First published: Times Literary Supplement

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024