Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.07.55

Catherine J. Castner (ed.), Biondo Flavio's Italia Illustrata: Text, Translation, and Commentary. Volume I: Northern Italy.   Binghamton, NY:  Global Academic Publishing, 2005.  Pp. xxxvi, 385.  ISBN 9781586842550.  $36.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by William Hutton, College of William & Mary (
Word count: 2101 words


In the year that Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, Biondo Flavio, humanist and historian from Forlí, published his Italia Illustrata, a systematic topography of the Italian peninsula, in Latin, combining observations on history and contemporary affairs and exhibiting a strong antiquarian interest in the origins and early history of Italian localities. Until 2005 no substantial portion of this unique work had been translated into English, but that year saw the publication of the initial volumes of two independent efforts toward complete annotated translations with Latin and English on facing pages: Jeffrey White's treatment of Books I-IV in the I Tatti Renaissance Library series,1 and the volume currently under review, Catherine Castner's translation and commentary of Biondo's accounts of Northern Italy. While White is tackling Biondo's volumes in the order in which he published them (which describes a rather tailbiting and backtracking progress through the peninsula), Castner dismembers the text to deal with a contiguous chunk of northern Italy, with the more southerly books to come in a projected second volume. While one might argue with Castner's choice in this respect, one happy effect that it produces is that we currently have access to more of the work in English translation than we would have if the two authors had followed the same method: White gives us Books I to IV, while Castner, in addition to Book I, deals with Books VI-XI.

According to Castner, Biondo was "a key founder, if not indeed the father of modern historiography and archaeology," and "a pioneer in scientific method and critical judgment" (xiii). While not everyone would speak of Biondo's status so forcefully, he is a genuinely interesting figure worthy of greater renown than he currently possesses. Standing at a crucial period in renaissance scholarship, just at the point when a large number of original Greek texts were starting to enter the scholarly mainstream in Italy, Biondo provides a unique snapshot of the relationship between educated Italians and the classical past and an important testament to the reification of an "Italy", centuries in advance of political unification, with boundaries broadly similar to that of the modern nation-state. Italia Illustrata is an important source not only for Italian geography and political history but also for the intellectual history of the fifteenth century and for the reception of classical antiquity in the Renaissance. Since the bulk of BMCR's readership can be counted on to have some interest in the last of these topics, it is perhaps worthwhile to dwell a bit more on this aspect of Biondi's text in the current review.

As Castner describes the genesis of Italia Illustrata (xxi-xxiii), Biondo already possessed some repute as a historian when Alphonso of Aragon, King of Naples, commissioned from him a geographically arranged catalogue of contemporary leaders in the various regions of Italy. It was apparently Biondo's own initiative and predilection that led him to expand his purview back to ancient times, to follow classical precedents in the division and arrangement of Italy's geography (preface, 294E-295C), and to cast his efforts in the tradition of Fabius Pictor, Cornelius Nepos, Julius Caesar and others (293A). Biondo cites and quotes, often apparently from memory (with attendant imprecisions), a number of classical authors, including Pliny, Livy, Vergil, Florus, Pomponius Mela, Hyginus and Pompeius Trogus (via Justin's epitome). Though he possessed little Greek, Biondo did know, and cite, Ptolemy through Latin translations available at the time. He also was aware of Strabo (whom he calls "Strabo of Crete"), although no known translation of the complete work is known to have existed before Biondo's death. The availability of partial translations may explain why Biondo's references to Strabo cluster almost exclusively around the territory of Latium (not covered in Castner's volume). Biondo's relationship to Strabo is interesting because there is a certain congruity in the writing careers of the two men and in their conceptions of the relationship between geography and history: Strabo's massive Geography was written as a companion-piece to his even more massive Histories, whereas Italia Illustrata developed as a complement to Biondo's major historical work, the Decades. Another interesting intertext comes with Pausanias, an author mentioned neither by Biondo nor by Castner: at least one manuscript of Pausanias (apparently the ancestor of all surviving manuscripts) was known to scholars in northern Italy in Biondo's day, and there are striking similarities in the ways that the two authors combine topography and history in covering discrete parts of the oikoumene. In particular, Biondo's use of the rivers of Italy to provide an organizatory thread in his progress from place to place recalls Pausanias' organization of his descriptions of Greek sites along well-ordered land-routes. Any actual awareness of Pausanias' text by Biondo must remain a matter of speculation, but classical scholars who draw conclusions about the nature of Pausanias' work from its form and structure would do well to compare the similarly structured work of Biondo, who is much more upfront than Pausanias about what he is trying to accomplish. This is only one of many insights that classicists can gain by consulting Biondo's renaissance text.

To judge Castner's contribution to making this fascinating author better known to the English-speaking world, it is useful to compare her work with that of White, her closest competitor. Castner's introduction is somewhat longer and meatier, and gives more of a sense of the scholarly give-and-take on the issues it discusses; whereas White's introduction, though impeccably erudite, seems more designed to communicate the basic facts of Biondo's career and milieux in a readable fashion (this impression is increased by Castner's use of rich, discursive footnotes vs. White's more laconic endnotes). Similarly, Castner's running commentary on the text tends be more content-rich. For instance, when Biondo tells us that the territory of Genoa possessed few notable intellectuals (292G), Castner points out that this was not a unanimous opinion in Biondi's day, and summarizes a work of modern scholarship on the point. White is silent on the topic. When Biondo quotes the Historia Augusta in relation to a site he believes is the birthplace of Pertinax , White gives the citation for the HA, while Castner quotes several sentences of context and adds that Cassius Dio gives information at odds with Biondo's interpretation (240-241). In addition Castner provides an extensive bibliography, whereas White's is sound but quite selective. Castner also offers a separate index for place names, which is quite useful to have in a work of this sort, and a number of interesting illustrations, such as a color plate of a fifteenth-century map of Ravenna (271) and a photograph of a book-keeping record found in the state archive at Modena recording Biondo's sale of building materials for the construction of a fortress. The masters of this fortress, Niccolò d'Este and his son, are praised highly by Biondo in his text without reference to his relationship with them (351A). This is the sort of enlivening material that one will not find as often in White, who offers no illustrations and -- a singular omission in a work of this sort -- no maps (Castner provides some maps, though it is to be hoped that they will be more legible and detailed in her next volume). This is not, of course, to say that what White does provide is not very good, and he frequently manages to impart information that Castner omits. For instance, many readers will probably be puzzled by Biondo's cryptic statement that some ancient authorities derive the name of Italy from the many cattle it produced (nonnullos a bobus quos gigneret multos 294E). Castner's notes do not explain this remark, but White's do ((V)italia < vitellus).

Moreover, White is clearly more informative on textual matters. Despite the fraught and complicated condition of the manuscripts (Biondo kept working on Italia Illustrata, and publishing revisions, up until his final years) Castner is largely content to follow the Froben edition of 1559. White (who has published elsewhere on the textual tradition) follows basically the editio princeps published by Biondo's son Gaspar in 1474, but checks it against five manuscripts and reports variations not in a running apparatus but in a separate series of endnotes. In the part of the text covered by both of the authors in these initial volumes, however, this leads to few significant differences. The chief variance is that White includes some substantial chunks which are not in the editio princeps, distinguished by italics in his text and translation. Indicative of the varying approach of the two authors is that while White follows the editio princeps and Castner doesn't, it is from Castner that we learn that Gaspar's edition "was one of the very earliest books printed at Rome, issuing only nine years after what is considered to be the first printed book in Italy" (xxxiv).

When it comes to the translation, a comparison of the parts translated by both (the preface and Book I: Liguria) shows that Castner tends to hew more closely to the Latin where White, while remaining faithful to the sense of what Biondo's wrote, strives for more fluid English prose. This means that Castner imparts more of a sense of Biondo's frequently quirky efforts at classicizing diction, a fact that to my mind makes Castner's translation a more interesting read, although that is surely a subjective matter, and casual readers may find White's translation more amenable. For example Biondo's clunky phrase a maioribus traditum viderimus (295D) is rendered into clunky English by Castner ("I have seen it handed down by our ancestors..."), whereas White smooths out the rough edges ("We have it as a matter of tradition..."). At the same time, where Biondo succeeds in turning a well-hewn phrase, Castner is capable of following suit; for instance Biondo's succinct Liguria autem Plinium secuti duximus inchoandum (295C), is captured succinctly by Castner: "I thought that I should begin as Pliny does, with Liguria," while White is distinctly more flaccid: "I have determined that I ought to begin my survey with Liguria, following Pliny."

I detected few outright errors in either translation, but where they did occur they were more frequent on Castner's part. For instance, Biondo's description of Jordanes of Constantinople, qui Iustiniani imperatoris temporibus rerum a populo Romano gestarum epitoma confecit (295D) does not mean "who wrote an epitome of the emperor Justinian's account of the deeds transacted by the Roman people" but (as White puts it) "who compiled a digest of the achievements of the Roman people in the times of the emperor Justinian." In the passage cited above, the sequel of "I have seen it handed down by our ancestors..." is not handled well by Castner: " established fact that the Apuani were Ligurians from the territory of Pisa." Better is (again, as per White) "...that the Apuani are Ligurians -- the Apuani being a people of the Pisan territory, as is well known" (Biondo: Apuanos Ligures, quos agri Pisani populos esse constat, a maioribus traditum viderimus). White's choice of tenses in the following: "Genoa has enjoyed her greatest expansion, in fact, over the last four hundred years, and ... she has eclipsed the fame of Liguria (whose mistress she has become)" more accurately transmits the sense that Biondo is talking about a condition that still prevails in his time (298F: a quadringentis vero annis maximum Genua habuit incrementum quae ... Liguriae cui imperat nomen obscuravit). Castner's translation obscures that sense: "Four hundred years ago Genoa had its greatest period of growth ... and it ruled Liguria and eclipsed its name." On the other hand, there are also times where Castner's translation is to be preferred. For instance, when Biondo writes plerique Lucam Liguriae ultimam posuere (295D) White overinterprets in his translation: "most authorities made Lucca the southernmost city of Liguria." Preferable is Castner's: "Most people identify Lucca as the last city in Liguria." By sticking more closely to the Latin, Castner allows the text to reflect an important point: that Biondo, like other early geographers, conceived of Italy as running more west-east than north-south.

In sum, Castner has provided a very useful aid to the study of an underappreciated renaissance author. Her volume offers readers the Latin text, a readable translation, impressively wide-ranging and thoroughly researched comments and a number of helpful ancillary aids to the study of Biondo and his world. Researchers and aficionados of the many subjects that Biondo's text touches upon have an embarrassment of riches in the nearly simultaneous appearance of Castner's effort and that of White. The casual reader will be well served by either volume; the more serious researcher will do well to consult both for the different strengths that each possesses.


1.   Biondo Flavio, Italy Illuminated. Volume 1: Books I - IV. J. A. White, ed., trans. The I Tatti Renaissance Library no. 20. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2005.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2009
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 09:20:10, Monday, 20 July 2009