Barbara Burns interviews Ronnie Ferguson, author of Venetian Inscriptions: Vernacular Writing for Public Display in Medieval and Renaissance Venice.

Ronnie Ferguson
Ronnie Ferguson

BB. Your recent book seems to be a labour of love in an academic tradition rarely seen nowadays. It is the impressive result of almost a decade of research and the first ever volume to document all the vernacular inscriptions in medieval and Renaissance Venice (c. 1300 to 1525) which are known to survive. How did you come to be interested in the history of Venetian language and culture?

RF. Thank you for these generous comments. How did my interest in Venice and Venetian come about? Thanks to my mother’s connections with the city, I was able to spend a series of summers there as a teenager absorbing Venice’s unique cityscape, culture and language. After taking up my first post in Italian at Lancaster University in the late ’70s, I began serious work on the origins of Venetian and how it was linked to the early history of the city – the only urban centre in Italy without a Roman past. By meshing what is known of the patterns of early population settlement on the lagoon islands with the surviving medieval documentation of Venetian I was able to come up with a hypothesis that explained how venexian was forged in the Middle Ages as a mixed language (or koine) with contributions of different weights from different areas of the mainland. I gradually refined the model with databases and was able to pinpoint key features confirming the koine origins of Venetian and revealing how the new language stabilized in the fourteenth century.

The result was my first book on Venice, A Linguistic History of Venice (2007). The wide range of this study led me to look at the testimony of inscriptions in the vernacular as a window on to early Venetian language, literacy, culture and history. I soon realised just how neglected this field was, possibly because of the combined palaeographic and linguistic skills needed to handle it. I also quickly came to see that alone among Italian cities Venice had left a legacy of public writing, not only in Latin – as is overwhelmingly the case of Rome, Florence, Milan, Bologna or Padua – but also in the everyday local language. I began by collecting and studying some early examples. This grew into a passion for finding, cataloguing and making sense of what remained of these artefacts from the medieval and Renaissance periods.

BB. In the title you use the phrase ‘vernacular writing for public display’. This doesn’t just refer to engravings on stone or metal, does it? What other types of ‘inscription’ do you include? And what types of things were these inscriptions used to record?

RF. You’re right. While most of the inscriptions in the collection are engraved on the hard materials that we traditionally associate with the term ‘inscription’, I was keen to open out the category to include any type of material carrying a deliberate public message. Some of the examples I found are perhaps surprising. The one piece of fabric featured is a beautiful processional banner in red silk taffeta commissioned by a devotional confraternity on the island of Torcello in 1366. It is exquisitely decorated in silver threads, with embroidered inscriptions in Venetian on both sides detailing where, when and by whom it was made. It carries painted images of the brotherhood’s patron saint and of the brothers themselves.

Ronnie Ferguson
Ronnie Ferguson
The guilds of greengrocers (above, 1508), weighing a very Mediterranean cornucopia, and the oar-makers (below, 1517), chopping and planing wood.

The last inscription in the book, from c. 1525, is a painted and glazed maiolica plate, still in mint condition, carrying a painted poetic dedication to a woman called Alda from her suitor. It bears Alda’s striking portrait in Renaissance dress. Of the painted inscriptions in the book perhaps the most visually attractive and verbally informative are the two wooden guild boards of the greengrocers’ and oar-makers’ guilds, from 1508 and 1517 respectively, with vivid portrayals of their members’ trade. The inscriptions themselves on these boards carry fascinating details about the guilds and their officers.

The two most culturally significant objects in the non-traditional inscription category are arguably Fra Mauro’s great mappa mundi of c. 1460 with its captions in Venetian labelling and describing countries, cities, landmarks, rivers and seas the world over: the most up-to-date globe of its time. The other is one of the best known, and certainly the most influential, depiction of Venice: the huge, stupendously detailed bird’s eye view on paper from 1500 by the Venetian artist Jacopo de’ Barbari. The 134 captions on landmarks on the map are in Venetian and have never before been recorded and studied.

BB. The inscriptions on which you focus are not in Latin, but in venexian, a vernacular language that predates standardised written Italian. What can you tell us about the use of this language and the growth of literacy at this time when Venetian was emerging as a significant commercial and cultural centre?

RF. The emergence of vernacular inscriptions in Venice from around 1300 onwards – in an inscriptional context where, elsewhere in Italy, Latin predominated absolutely for centuries to come – is indeed a remarkable phenomenon. It can be put down to three factors that came together powerfully in our period. First of all there was the increasing presence in administrative and literary documents in Venice, alongside Latin, of a written form of the local spoken vernacular understood and used by all in the city. This written Venetian rapidly achieved consistency of use and prestige in an increasingly prosperous and culturally self-confident city-state. The emergence of the written vernacular coincided with, and was stimulated by, complex forms of economic activity – in a city whose prosperity was based on commerce – requiring the ability to read and write. It’s important to remember that literacy in medieval Venice was not at all confined to the clergy, aristocracy or even lawyers in the city. It was a necessity for civil servants, clerks, bankers, merchants, tradesmen, shopkeepers, skilled artisans and, coincidentally, their wives. The city’s literacy levels were exceptional and probably not surpassed until the twentieth century.

There is one further factor that undoubtedly acted as a catalyst for the exceptional flowering of vernacular inscriptions in the period 1300-1525. This is the presence of a vast network of lay confraternities, the scuole, across the city. The scuole were either purely devotional or else guild based, but both types were run entirely by laymen and laywomen. Their activities were both devotional and charitable and they provided a health, social and spiritual safety net for their thousands of members and for the wider community. It is not surprising that the practical men and women who ran them were entirely literate and kept detailed written records of their activities. It is also no coincidence that they were great commissioners of vernacular inscriptions in our period, with almost half of those surviving stemming from their patronage. Their membership were for the most part only literate in the vernacular, of course, and they were clearly gratified to see their activities, buildings, achievements and aspirations immortalised for public view in the language of all.

BB. How does looking at public inscriptions enhance our understanding of the city’s history? Could you give us an example that conveys a flavour of life in Venice in the late medieval or Renaissance period?

RF. One remarkable inscription, from c. 1350, is carved in 18 lines of Venetian, in gilded letters 4 cm high, on a pitch-black semi-circular marble plaque (measuring 230 x 100 cm) surmounted by a glazed coloured relief of two angels bearing the symbol of one of Venice’s five major devotional lay confraternities, the Scuola Grande di Santa Maria della Carità. Practically unknown to the general public and completely off the tourist track it sits in the lunette of an archway in the former courtyard of the Scuola (now within the Accademia galleries). The longest inscription in the book, carrying a sustained and dramatic narrative account of the earthquakes and plague which devasted Venice in 1348, it provides a unique eye-witness record of one the great catastrophes in Venice’s history, effectively conveying the terrifying impact on the city, its population and the confraternity itself. Here is a brief translated extract:

In the name of God everlasting and of the blessed Virgin Mary, in the year of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ 1347, on the 25th of January — the day of Saint Paul’s conversion — around evening time there was a great earthquake in Venice and almost the world over. And many tops of belltowers fell, as did houses and chimneys and the church of San Baseio. And such was the fright that everybody thought they would die. And the earth did not stop shaking for 40 days. And then, after this, people began to die in great numbers. And people from all over died of all sorts of illnesses. Some spat up blood; some got swollen lymph nodes in their armpits and groin; and some got carbuncles on their flesh. And it looked like these diseases were caught from one person to the next, that is from the sick to the healthy. And people were so frightened that the father did not want to go to the son, nor the son to the father. And this wave of deaths lasted about 6 months, and it was said commonly that a good two thirds of the people of Venice had died. And at this time it happened that the warden of this scuola was Mr Piero Trivisan from Barbaria. And he survived around 2 months and he died with around 10 of his colleagues in the executive and with around 300 members of this confraternity. And the confraternity was in a sorry state.

All subsequent historical accounts of these events are based on this inscriptional text. There are many other examples among the vernacular inscriptions providing vivid testimony of events and groups for which we would otherwise have only sketchy knowledge. Notable, for instance, are the surviving guild inscriptions bringing to life the sizeable communities of German bakers, warehouse packers and shoemakers in the city.

BB. There seems to have been an element of detective work involved in tracking down inscriptions. Were there particular challenges or surprises?

RF. You’re right. There was a fair amount of detective work – mostly fun but occasionally frustrating. I had clues about the whereabouts of most of the inscriptions from previous scholars, but unfortunately some that had existed had by now disappeared, some had been destroyed or worn away and others had ended up abroad in the free-for-all sell-off of Venetian works of art in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A splendid inscribed and sculpted confraternity plaque of 1374 from Murano is now in Glienicke Park in Potsdam near Berlin, having been bought by Prince Karl of Prussia. Its outdoor location close to the ground means that it is being attacked by rising damp. An impressive stone altarpiece featuring life-sized coloured relief figures of St Peter, St Paul and John the Baptist, commissioned and inscribed by the sculptor himself, sier Girardo Taiapiera (literally, ‘stone cutter’ in Venetian), was once in the church of San Beneto in Venice where parishioners could read the long inscription running down the side when they approached the altar. It is now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, admirably well preserved as it happens.

There were a number of pleasant surprises. A large inscribed stone beam from 1463 decorated the frontage of the carpenters’ guild at S. Samuel until the nineteenth century, but its present whereabouts were something of a mystery. Acting on a hunch, my wife Annie and I stumbled upon it one morning, overgrown with ivy, on a wall in the unassuming little garden of Ca’ Rezzonico used mainly by staff and toddlers from the nearby nursery school. Equally satisfying was the trip we made to thoroughly check out the picturesque deserted cloisters of the church of S. Francesco della Vigna, where all the many ledgerstone inscriptions once carpeting the pavement were reported to have been destroyed long ago when the monastery was commandeered by Austrian troops. Instead we found two splendid survivors, one of which was the inscribed gravestone from 1469 of a master mason, Marco de Fiorio who, it transpired, had carried out high-quality work in the nearby church of San Giovanni in Bragora. One of our most fruitful outings was our exploration of the great Arsenal complex in the east of the city, with its fifteenth-century inscriptions, carried out thanks to the kindness and help of the naval commander there. Two of the inscriptions in the Arsenal are genuinely ‘popular’ and semi-literate, carved as they were to commemorate completed boatsheds by the shipyard workers themselves.

BB. Are some of the inscriptions you include still exposed to the elements and therefore likely to deteriorate or even be lost forever? If so, do you see your work as a means not only of disseminating academic research, but also of preserving Venetian cultural heritage for posterity?

Plaque embedded in wall
A hospital appeal from c. 1350.

RF. You make an absolutely crucial point. A considerable number of the vernacular inscriptions I studied are still in situ. Although this is theoretically a good thing, it means that they are afforded no protection either from the elements or from vandalism. I sometimes shudder when tourists eat, drink or even play on and around the marble bench outside the entrance to the Doge’s Palace. The bench is right next to the fragile earliest surviving vernacular inscription in the city (from c. 1300). Alarming, too, is the sight of the crowds sweeping across the bridge that leads from Campo S. Stefano to Campo S. Angelo and brushing against the inscription from c. 1350 appealing for funds for the abandoned babies of the hospital of La Pietà (where Vivaldi would later train his choirs and orchestras of orphan girls). The earliest fully Gothic inscription in Venice – on the outer wall of a medieval hospice for women, that is now the headquarters of an activist collective – has come close to being vandalised. The wall on which it is embedded is daubed from top to bottom in graffiti.

I’ve used the entries in the book to try and alert the authorities, and the organisations dedicated to preserving Venice’s heritage, to these dangers and to the devastating effects of wear and tear, and sometimes potentially outright obliteration, caused by atmospheric pollution. A number of stone vernacular inscriptions (in particular on a commemorative plaque on Murano, on a tomb on Torcello, and on a charming lunette relief on the portal of the church of S. Caterina on Mazzorbo) are in danger of simply disappearing in the coming years unless the authorities intervene with urgently needed restoration work.

BB. The wonderful review of your book earlier this year in the Times Literary Supplement is evidence of the broader appeal of your subject matter for lay readers. Has this material provoked interesting reactions?

RF. I have been gratified by the number of positive personal responses and queries I have received about the volume from colleagues around the world. A question that often comes up in these messages is the role of women in the production of inscriptions and within the lay confraternities. While there is no evidence of any women stonemasons in Venice in our period, the senior roles played by women in the confraternities, as attested by the inscriptions, comes as a surprise to many. A good example is found on the commemorative plaque of 1359, from the confraternity of St Thomas, in a little courtyard just off Campo S. Tomà. Its inscription details the officers of the scuola, including the alderwoman Dona Nicolota and the dean Dona Chatarina dala Sosa.

BB. How are you finding retirement from teaching at St Andrews? Are you working on further research projects, or are you able to find time for some leisure activities?

RF. I’m enjoying retirement very much and have never regretted taking it when I did. I continue to focus on individual inscriptions in Venice, mainly Latin ones this time, and I’m attempting a chronology for some medieval inscriptions whose dating is controversial. I’m also interested in the medieval vernacular inscriptions of Verona and am getting to grips with them. I enjoy combining an inscriptional trip to Italy with my wife and the delights of such an attractive historical city.

On a different topic, but still related to Venetian language and culture, I’m working on an edition of the handwritten tax return of Gasparo dalla Vedova (died 1524) that I discovered in the Venetian archives, and on an unpublished vernacular letter that he wrote to a papal envoy in 1509 in defence of Venetian policy in the period leading up to the war of the League of Cambrai (1509-1517). Dalla Vedova was secretary of the all-powerful Council of Ten and one of the most important civil servants of his day in Venice.

Flamingoes in the Venetian lagoon
Flamingoes in the Venetian lagoon (photo: Wikimedia user pjt56).

My wife and I also enjoy birdwatching. We intend to find the flock of flamingoes that now summers in the Venetian lagoon but which has so far eluded us.

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