Italy has been on my mind a lot recently. The world’s hardest-hit country by COVID-19 and epicentre of the outbreak in Europe, the sheer number of people succumbing to the coronavirus overwhelms hospitals in northern Italy. I would like to pay tribute to Italy by exploring books in the Trust collection that have an Italian connection.
The first full-length translation of a Shakespeare play into Italian was Julius Caesar, Il Giulio Cesare, published 1756. The translator, Domenico Valentini, a professor of church history at the University of Siena, who didn’t know any English, translated this play with assistance from English friends who explained the play to him. Valentini included a preface in which he commends the cultural contributions made by English migrant communities who settled in Venice, Turin and around Tuscany. In his preface, he discusses translation practice and highlights the translator’s role as a conduit and disseminator of texts and ideas.
Bound in seventeenth-century vellum, with gold-tooled borders and marbled endpapers, Giovanni Battista Giraldi’s (1504-1573) collection of tales entitled Hecatommithi, not only looks precious but also has a special connection with Shakespeare. Published in 1580, two tales Desdemona and the Moor and the story of Epitia provided the source materials for Shakespeare’s Othello and Measure for Measure. Also known under the names Cynthius, Cinzio or Cinthio, the author was a poet, dramatist, professor of natural philosophy, rhetoric and literature, and writer of the first modern tragedy and tragicomedy.
The third book I would like to introduce is a European co-production. It’s a Midsummer Night’s Dream translated into French by Victor Hugo and illustrated by the Italian artist Umberto Brunelleschi (1879-1949). Born in Montemurio, Italy, Brunelleschi studied at the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Florence. In 1900 he moved to Paris where he worked as a printer, book illustrator and costume designer for theatres and opera houses, including Folies Bergère and La Scala. He designed costumes for the American-born French singer and dancer Josephine Baker. One of Europe’s best-known book illustrators, his work was exhibited in the Paris salons and at the Venice Biennale. Brunelleschi’s gouaches are marked by brilliant, jewel-like colours and are sought after collector items.
These are just a few examples of our Italian books. They show how interconnected we are and it is this connection with others that will sustain us in the weeks and months ahead.