by Roderick Conway Morris

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Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice
Detail of Fra Mauro's Mappa Mundi, c.1450

Venice Comes to Life in its Vernacular Inscriptions

By Roderick Conway Morris
PORTHMADOG 21 January 2022


Of books about Venice there seems to be no end, but few offer significant new insights. One that does is Ronnie Ferguson's Venetian Inscriptions: Vernacular writing for public display in medieval and Renaissance Venice. Ferguson, Emeritus Professor of Italian at the University of St Andrews, is the author of A Linguistic History of Venice (TLS, December 12, 2008), the best book on the subject in any language, and his profound knowledge of Venetian, along with his paleographic skills, were prerequisites for this latest volume, the first ever to bring together and lucidly explicate every known surviving vernacular inscription in the city.

Ferguson has embraced in his definition of inscriptions not only lapidary writings but also those in the vernacular on frescoes, paintings and such spectacular works as Fra Mauro's mid-fifteenth century 'Mappa Mundi' and Jacopo de' Barbari's astonishing woodblock-print bird's-eye view of Venice of 1500. The rigorous standards of the author's nearly decade-long project will certainly satisfy professional historians, but lay readers too will find themselves thoroughly engaged by the manner in which he uses each inscription vividly to evoke multiple aspects of Venice's social, religious, cultural and political life, as well as the characters of some remarkable individuals.

Venice was exceptional in Italy in producing large numbers of vernacular inscriptions during the period from around 1300 to the early sixteenth century. This was predicated on an unusually high level of literacy in venexian (also written as venezian or venessian), the local vernacular that had developed from the late Latin spoken in that region. Literacy was an essential tool in this burgeoning mercantile republic with its complex, long-distance trading routes. It was nurtured by the intense involvement of almost the entire adult population in the city's numerous scuole, or charitable confraternities (which included women members) with their mariegole (statute, membership and record books) regularly updated and, by 1300, invariably written in venexian. The extent of literacy is also witnessed by a plethora of other vernacular signed documents, such as wills.

Indeed in 1340, one Angelo Piarini a wealthy landlord on Murano, who clearly had no trust in notaries (or anybody else) had his entire will and testament set in stone on the façade of his house, with a proviso that any who tried to alter it should face 'the wrath of God'. The hospice he endowed was established in the same year and continues to house elderly women in need on the island. His testament can still be seen, relocated to the cloister of the Museo del Vetro.

The scuole were responsible for nearly half of all surviving vernacular inscriptions, Ferguson shows. One lengthy example, still in situ in a lunette above a portico of the former Scuola Grande di Santa Maria della Carità (now the Accademia Galleries), gives a dramatic account of the earthquake of January 1348 – collapsing houses, chimneys and campanili – with a luridly detailed description of the symptoms of the ensuing plague, which wiped out 'a good two-thirds of the people of Venice'.

Venetian was the language used in the Great Council and the city's administrative affairs, and increasingly replaced Latin in government documents. A unique example of a Papal Bull being translated into a vernacular and then memorialized in stone can be seen in its original location in the loggia of the Doge's Palace. Issued by Pope Urban V from Avignon in 1362, its rendering into venexian demonstrates the vernacular's ability accurately to translate complicated Latin syntax and vocabulary. At the other end of the scale are some jokey inscriptions by building workers of the Arsenal boat sheds, who contrived to allow the first of a series of pillars to speak for itself, recording on an Istrian marble plaque set in the brickwork: '1456, on 20th of January, I pillar was made ahead of my companions'.

One of the delights of these vernacular inscriptions is their extraordinary variety and sometimes the sheer beauty of their lettering. This Ferguson perceptively attributes to the 'dazzling array of western and Byzantine scripts that adorn the walls and domes of St Mark's at the religious heart of the city state' and whose 'sumptuous and authoritative diversity can be said to have sanctioned the eclectic freedom which informed Venetian epigraphic choices right into the sixteenth century'.

Venetian Inscriptions: Vernacular Writing for Public Display in Medieval and Renaissance Venice
434pp. Legenda
Ronnie Ferguson

First published: Times Literary Supplement

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024