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Merchant Culture in Fourteenth-Century Venice: The Zibaldone da Canal.

John E. Dotson, ed. and trans. (Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 98.) Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1994. 2 pls. + xii + 228 pp. $25.

As Dotson notes in his introduction, the Zibaldone "is the earliest extensive [merchant's] manual," a genre whose minutely-detailed repertoires of commercial information are "extremely important sources for the economic history of late medieval northern Italy" (23). His edition/translation is enhanced with a gazetteer, map, note on the monetary system, compilation of weights and measures, and bibliography. The manuscript's appealing drawings have also been reproduced, enlivening the sometimes dry material.

One function of the notebook was to teach useful mathematical skills to fledgling merchants by posing practical problems, such as calculating the weight of a larger ball of wax from a smaller one. My favorite: how long will it take a dragon to climb a 50-braccia tower if each "day he climbs up 1/2 braccia (sic; read braccio) and in the night slips back 1/3 braccia (sic)." With rare diligence, Dotson has reworked all of the problems, noting errors and inconsistencies. And with even rarer and much appreciated candor, he acknowledges those instances in which a solution or explanation is unavailable (e.g., 200-01). His introduction puts into the perspective of merchant life such problems, along with the Zibaldone's lists of various Mediterranean weights and measures; further, by plotting the points of reference on a map, he is able to correlate information given in the Zibaldone with Venetian trading practices. Some gaps in relevant bibliography occur, however. No reference is made to Frederic Lane's astute observation, contained in an essay prefixed to Alfredo Stussi's edition of the Venetian text (Venice, 1967, LVII-LVIII), that such manuals came about because increasingly sedentary merchants needed information to protect themselves from distant agents. Nor does Dotson discuss the mutual implications of the Zibaldone and Roberto Cessi's essay "Politica ed economia di Venezia nel Trecento," in Politica ed economia di Venezia nel Trecento (Rome, 1952, 7-22), which links the growing centrality of commerce to Venetian interests with the consolidation of the merchant aristocracy.

Considering the utilitarian prose of the original, Dotson chose an English style that is neither "a modern American idiom" nor antiquated (xi), a choice that generally serves the text well. He deftly handles a number of difficult passages; the "Precepts of Solomon" (155-61), for example, is rendered in a style that is both dignified and lyric. However, at times Dotson's decision to translate literally "locutions that make understanding difficult" (xi) results in unnecessary obscurity. The Venetian passage "lo mill(ie)r de Venexia vien costado lo 6 men de quanto fosse costato lo mill(ie)r de Pullia" (18) is rendered "a thousandweight of Venice will cost six less than as much as a thousandweight of Apulia would cost" (43). A clearer translation: "the Venetian thousandweight costs 6 less than the Apulian thousandweight." In a few instances the translation misses the mark. The original "ben cognosciuto/e' t'azo in el spudare" (Dotson edition, 173 n. 329) is translated "knowing full well/that I have thee in my soul." The Glossario degli antichi portolani italiani, compiled by Henry and Renee Kahane and Lucille Bremner and translated by Manlio Cortelazzo (Florence, 1967, 42) defines conoscere as "riconoscere (soprattutto per mezzo dei punti di riferimento)." As for spudare, it is the homely "to spit," registered in its later form spuar by Giuseppe Boerio in Dizionario del dialetto veneziano (Venice, 1856). A better translation thus would read, "well did I recognize you / by the way that you spat," an earthy image expressing the embattled tone of the contralto in which it is found.

These minor cavils aside, Dotson is to be commended for his thorough-going edition/translation of this important fourteenth-century text, as is Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies for making it available to a wider audience of scholars and students.
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Author:Carroll, Linda
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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