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Tacitus in Italy: Between Language and Politics

Salvador Bartera

Mississippi State University

After the discovery of the first Medicean manuscript, which contained Annals 1-6, Tacitus became extremely popular in Europe, receiving numerous editions and Latin commentaries. It was especially Lipsius’ edition (1574), and his subsequent commentary on the Annals, that can be singled out as the most influential edition of Tacitus in early modern Europe. Although Lipsius’ work was mainly philological, it is undeniable that one can already detect in Lipsius a certain “political reading” that was soon to become dominant among readers and commentators. The phenomenon of Tacitism, as it has been called, was not limited to commentaries and treatises, but influenced also Tacitus’ translators. Even if Latin was easily read (and spoken) by most of the European aristocracy, common readers were surely not equipped to read–and fully understand–Tacitus’ highly idiosyncratic Latin. Hence translations in the vernacular languages soon began to appear. The first printed translations appeared in the first half of the 1500’s, but their number increased considerably after Lipsius’ edition and commentary, upon which they were heavily dependent. The purpose of a translation is normally to popularize a text, yet it must be noted that Tacitus’ early translations were not “mere translations”. They were in fact more similar to commentaries, and they were also politically charged. In Italy, translations were also used to prove the superiority of Italian over other vernacular languages (e.g., to show how Italian was best suited to imitate Tacitus’ brevitas). Translators also competed among each other in the use of a particular Italian dialect, usually Florentine, thus taking a clear position in the so-called questione della lingua. Davanzati (1600), for example, expressly stated that his translation was in “volgare fiorentino”, in order to show how this language was “brief and sententious”. Similarly, Politi (1604) was translating in “vulgare Toscano”. Translators also used their works to show their knowledge of previous materials, with references to both earlier translations (even in another vernacular language) and scholarly commentaries, which continued to be used to illustrate particularly difficult passages. Thus, e.g., the multilingual translation of Canini (1st ed. 1618; 5th ed. 1665), which was based on Politi’s, purported to illustrate the most difficult passages by comparing several translations, and included also materials from Lipsius. Canini’s work was at the same time a translation, a commentary, and a treatise. It was, in other words, the vernacular equivalent of the Latin composite editions that were so popular in this period.  

Session/Panel Title

Translation and Transmission: Mediating Classical Texts in the Early Modern World

Session/Paper Number

60.6

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