Published online by Cambridge University Press: 04 February 2011
This book explores the particular nature of vernacular translation, or volgarizzamento, in Italy in the time of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. While Italian literature, whose origins are squarely in the thirteenth century, is often described as ‘belated’, translation into Italian vernaculars, which begins at exactly the same time, has been admired as ‘precocious’. Elsewhere in Europe translation and commentary are associated with institutions and patronage, but in Italy around the time of Dante, widespread vernacular translation is mostly on the spontaneous initiative of individuals. Moreover these translations, which are largely anonymous and almost all in prose, are not finished works, but rather works in progress, as can be seen in their intricate manuscript tradition that comprises multiple versions and traces of interventions by many hands. Notaries, bankers and merchants of the northern Italian communes, whose dependence on the written word was unprecedented, became engaged in the transcription, domestication and circulation of ancient and foreign literature. As with the Internet today, Italians' sudden and wide access to reading and writing in this period had the effect of turning readers into writers. Vernacular translation, like Wikipedia, was an environment that lent itself to contributions by readers.
The phenomenon of vernacular translation in the first period of Italian literature (1250–1350) has been called ‘oceanic’. Of the 134 vernacular manuscripts dating from before 1350 catalogued in a recent census of the national library in Florence, 97 of them have content that can be described as volgarizzamento of classical or medieval material.