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On translating Francesco Guicciardini’s political writings

Sur la traduction des écrits politique de Francesco Guicciardini
Sulla traduzione degli scritti politici di Francesco Guicciardini
Alison Brown

Abstracts

In addition to the problems facing all translators – how closely should the translation follow the original and how up-to-date should it be –, Guicciardini presents special problems through his avant-guard use of Italian to discuss the concepts of classical republicanism and through his demotic use of colloquialisms. To ignore them or to adjust them to fit accepted political concepts is to ignore the radicalism that underlies his homely metaphors, which – I argue – provide a novel, flexible and non-normative vocabulary of power.

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  • 1 G. Leopardi, Zibaldone, 3 voll., Milan, 1997, I, p. 1318, § 1949: “l’esattezza non importa la fedel (...)
  • 2 See P. Carta, Francesco Guicciardini tra diritto e politica, Padua, CEDAM, 2008, ch. 8, pp. 89-100; (...)
  • 3 Citing his letter to Sigismondo Santi, 29 Decembre 1522, ed. P. Jodogne, Le Lettere, VII (Rome, 199 (...)

1“Accuracy does not necessarily entail fidelity”. Leopardi succinctly presents the principal problem faced by all translators: how closely to stick to the original language when doing so compromises one’s own.1 In the case of Guicciardini’s political writings, the problem is a double one because “the original language” in fact consists of two languages, vernacular Italian and classical republicanism. Guicciardini was one of the first Florentines (with Machiavelli) to use Italian, not Latin, for his political treatises and for his histories of Florence and Italy. And since he was also a practising lawyer, he was influenced as well by the language of Roman civil law.2 As a result, his vocabulary is full of normative concepts like liberty, tyranny, legitimate and illegitimate government ex defectu tituli and ex parte exercitii. This has encouraged the tendency, especially among English-speakers, to include Guicciardini as part of the long tradition of lofty republican idealists that stretches from Aristotle and Cicero to the eighteenth century Enlightenment. But by ignoring another striking feature of his language, his demotic earthiness and colloquialisms, we not only misrepresent his language but we also fail to appreciate the originality of his political thinking. For although the novelty of both Guicciardini’s and Machiavelli’s political lexicon is now widely acknowledged, Guicciardini’s colloquialisms — or what he called his practice ­of speaking “like a merchant” (a uso di mercatante) — are less so.3 For this reason they, and the challenge they pose to translators, will provide the focus of what follows.

  • 4 F. Guicciardini, Dialogue on the Government of Florence, ed. and trans. A. Brown (henceforth B), Ca (...)
  • 5 The History of Italy, ed. and trans. S. Alexander, New York, Macmillan Co., 1969, pp. xxvii, xxix. (...)

2Related to it is a second challenge for translators, that of aggiornamento, updating an earlier translation to modernize it. Since my translation of his Dialogue on the Government of Florence in 1994 was the first ever English translation of this text, I was not confronted with the problem of updating an earlier version — as the translators of his History of Italy and his Ricordi were.4 Nevertheless, the task of transforming Guicciardini’s long, involved sentences into readable English was not unlike that faced by Sidney Alexander in modernizing the “knotted Elizabethan English" of Geffray Fenton’s 1579 translation of his History of Italy. Guicciardini’s prose is scarcely less “knotted” than Fenton’s, and since the English language lacks the gendered nouns and adjectives that help to navigate his lengthy chains of related clauses, the problem for me, as for Alexander, was to preserve the flavour of what he calls Guicciardini’s “Ciceronian periods, his Proustian longueurs5 — but without traducing the “demotic earthiness” referred to above, that affects not only the language of the translation but the way we interpret it.

  • 6 Ed. R. Palmarocchi (henceforth P) in F. Guicciardini, Dialogo e Discorsi del Reggimento di Firenze, (...)

3The same is true of a third problem, that is the extent to which Guicciardini subjected his writings to revision. The Dialogue, like his Ricordi, exists in three versions, but although the earlier drafts were described by Roberto Palmarocchi in the notes to his 1932 edition of the dialogue, they have been little discussed.6 Even though they present no direct problem of translation, their variants and omissions need to be taken into account for the light they throw on the context as well as on the language of the Dialogue. For example, by comparing the 1521 and 1524 versions with the final version a year or so later, we can see how he modified both his republicanism and his criticism of the Medici after an abortive plot to kill Giulio de’ Medici in 1522 was followed by Giulio’s elevation to the Papacy in 1523.

  • 7 Dialogue, tr. B, pp. 61 and n. 174, cf. 38, 41; ed. P, pp. 63 and 321, cf. 40, 43.
  • 8 Dialogue, tr. B, p. 126, cf. 9, 65; ed. P, p. 130, cf. 10-11, 68 : “Lettere non ho io e voi lo sape (...)
  • 9 Dialogue, tr. B, pp. 107, 157, 158; ed. P, pp. 110, 161, 162.

4Guicciardini also modified his colloquialisms when revising the text — as when he replaced the vivid expression “so that one has never time to capture anything but lame hares” [in modo che non si ha mai tempo a pigliare altro che le lepre zoppe] with the bland “the occasion will have gone.” [… sarà spenta].7 But we should not think them unimportant. Not only do they characterize the popular language of one of the protagonists, the lower guildsman “Bernardo del Nero”, who professed he “had no learning” and read the classics only in translation,8 their demotic realism is also used to convey novel political truths. This is especially true of his medical analogies. On one occasion, for example, he says that the head of state should never use illegal measures unless he were very sick, or “had a totally ravaged stomach” (lo stomaco ben guasto). On another, he compared Florence’s chronic problem in controlling Pisa with the difficulty of curing a very sick patient, who “has need of strong medicines and, to speak plainly, cruelty” (questo male […] arebbe bisogno di medicine forti, e per parlare in vulgare, di crudeltà), and this in turn produced his famous dictum that “it is impossible to control governments and states if one wants to hold them as they are held today, according to the precepts of Christian law” [perché è impossibile regolare e’ governi e gli stati, volendo tenerli nel modo si tengono oggi, secondo e’ precetti della legge cristiana].9 By enabling him to adopt a scientific, rather than a moral, approach to politics, these medical analogies served to distance his political realism from the normative language of classical republicanism that del Nero professed to know only in translation.

  • 10 “Del modo di ordinare il governo popolare”, Logrogno, 27 August 1512, in Dialogo e discorsi, ed. Pa (...)
  • 11 Eg. Dialogue, tr. B, pp. 10, 17, 96, cf. xxv-xxvi); ed. P, pp. 11-12, 18, 99.

5The same effect is achieved by the use of another vivid colloquial image, not in the Dialogue on the Government of Florence, but in the earlier “Logrogno” discourse that Guicciardini wrote in Spain in 1512. In it, he compares the task of reforming the government on the fall of the republic to being like making pasta: one or two laws, he wrote, would be inadequate, it would be necessary to mix everything up into a mound and then break it up again into pieces, “like someone making things to eat from pasta” (a uso di chi fa cose da mangiare di pasta); and if the first attempt didn’t work, it could be mixed up again to produce new shapes.10 As well as making the discourse more readable, this homely image also reveals Guicciardini’s empirical approach to reform: avoiding the strict classifications of philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, he experimented instead with different combinations in order to discover what worked best. So despite frequent allusions to the classical typology of government in his later Dialogue — on the one, the few and the many, each with good and bad forms11 — his colloquialisms suggest it is as innovative as the earlier writing.

  • 12 Dialogue, ed. B, pp. 43, 55 (and 195-196, Glossary); ed. P, pp. 45, 57: “si stava a bottega a quest (...)
  • 13 See A. Brown, “Offices of Honour and Profit: the Crisis of Republicanism in Florence”, in ead., Med (...)

6For example, in the Dialogue Guicciardini frequently refers to the Medici regime as “the trade in which the Medici had set up shop”, as though it was their bottega or workshop for which they kept accounts and information about everything.12 To compare the state to a bottega was a common expression at the time to imply that the Medici made a profit out of the state, as though it was their own business enterprise, but here in the Dialogue and especially in Guicciardini’s earlier dialogue Del modo di eleggere gli uffici nel Consiglio Grande, the comparison is introduced not as a criticism but as a novel argument for allowing experts to govern the state, updating Plato’s ship analogy (that the knowledgeable captain, not the crew, should govern the ship of state) with a contemporary argument for allowing the owner of the business, not the boys on the shop floor, to govern the enterprise.13

  • 14 Eg. Dialogue, tr. B, pp. 23, 26-27, 55, 94; ed. P, pp. 25, 27-28, 57, 97; see also A. Brown, “Loren (...)
  • 15 See the introduction and his article in Patronage, Art and Society in Renaissance Italy, ed. F. W. (...)

7This alerts us to the political importance of Guicciardini’s business analogy, for in calling the Medici “bosses” (maestri della bottega) and “Big Men” (grandezze moderne), he was adopting the language of patronage to describe their power. In fact, the Dialogue is full of vocabulary that we now associate with Mafia methods of control, calling the Medici not only bosses but also chiefs (capi), who gave signs or signals (cenni) to their friends and hangers-on (satelliti) and who demanded favours or considerations (rispetti) in return for jobs for the boys (pascere gli amici).14 Recent work on patronage as a system of power, especially by the late F. W. Kent,15 enables us to see more clearly the extent to which these words constitute the vocabulary of a distinct language that Guicciardini used to describe and explain the Medici’s exercise of power in Florence. Some modern words seem particularly appropriate as translations of it, thanks to the Mafia analogy; if we use them, we may be accused of being too modern (speaking what Alexander calls “Hemingwayese”), but if we don’t, we may fail to recognize them for what they are, important constituents of a rival system of exercising power.

  • 16 See J. Toscan, Le Carnaval du Language, 4 voll., Lille, Presses universitaires de Lille, 1981, I, p (...)
  • 17 Dialogo, ed. B, pp. xxv-xxvi, 203-204 (Glossary); Ricordi, ed. Spongano, pp. 25-26 (note to C 21), (...)
  • 18 F. Gilbert, Machiavelli and Guicciardini, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1965, pp. 60-61, 6 (...)
  • 19 A. Moulakis, “Civic humanism, realist constitutionalism, and Francesco Guicciardini’s Discorso di L (...)

8This is even more true of two other colloquialisms used by Guicciardini to define contrasting types of government, narrow (stretto) and broad (largo). Both were widely used at the time, especially with sexual connotations.16 Guicciardini uses them to contrast the restricted Medici regime and the enlarged republican regime of 1494-1512; and because they consciously avoid the six-fold, normative typology popularized by Plato and Aristotle in favour of a mobile sliding-scale that shifts its balance between the extremes of one-man government and government of the masses, it is important that the translator retains his flexible and morally neutral vocabulary. So I consistently translate stretto as “narrow” government — instead of misleadingly calling it “despotism”, as Mario Domandi does in his translation of Guicciardini’s Ricordo B 180 (“non si potendo più tenere uno stato stretto in Firenze se non col favore caldo di pochi”); much nearer to my mine is Ninian Thomson’s 1890 translation of this term as “close government”.17 Other interpretors of Guicciardini, such as Felix Gilbert, John Pocock or Quentin Skinner, prefer to leave stretto untranslated, as they do its antonym and counterpart largo, which I translate as a broad or an open regime.18 The term uomini da bene is similarly fraught. It is passed over in silence by these writers or it is described (as by Moulakis) as “the standard term in partisan usage for the adherents of the regime” that for Guicciardini had “meritocratic connotations”, whereas I translate it literally — if inelegantly — as “men of worth” (and sometimes as “leading citizens”) in order to convey the double meaning of bene and beni as moral worth and material possessions.19

  • 20 See Dialogue, tr. B, pp. 195-205 (Glossary); J.-L. Fournel and J.-C. Zancarini, Grammaire (note 3 a (...)
  • 21   “Voi non mi date questo luogo per farmi onore, ma perché la obiezione vi pare facile, e cognoscen (...)
  • 22 Dialogue, tr. B, p. 159, ed. P, p. 163.
  • 23 Dialogue, tr. B, pp. 16-17, 85, 92, ed. P, pp. 18, 87, 94 (cf. the passage added in version A at an (...)

9Other key words in the Renaissance political vocabulary that need careful translation, such as libertà, fortuna, virtù and stato, are more familiar and have been widely discussed.20 Guicciardini showed he was well aware of what Quentin Skinner defined some time ago as the “constraints” of this “normative vocabulary”, from which he attempted to free himself not only by deconstructing “the name of liberty” [il nome della libertà] — showing the reality to be very different from what the name suggests — but also by repeatedly contrasting “how philosophers talk about government” with the experience of practical politicians, comparing the former to “the light cavalry” and the latter to “the men at arms”.21 Nor did he limit his realism to book 1 (which Gilbert and Pocock readily admit is more pragmatic than book 2) since, as we have seen, it is in the second book that Bernardo del Nero shockingly states that it is impossible to govern states in his day and age according to Christian principles — something that could be admitted among friends but not more widely, nor in public.22 This is not to argue that there is no debate within the Dialogue. Rather, the debate is between, on one hand, the sceptical realism of del Nero and the bookish idealism of “Piero” Guicciardini, Francesco’s father, a former student and spokesman of the platonizing Ficino, and on the other between del Nero and the increasingly outdated political idealism of the republicans Piero Capponi and Pagolantonio Soderini, who praise the ancient ideal of Florentine libertas and the city’s public interest in “honour, magnificence and majesty” in contrast to private self-interestedness.23

  • 24 See A. Brown, “Piero in Power, 1492-1494: A Balance Sheet for Four Generations of Medici Control”, (...)

10So for me the problem of translating Guicciardini’s political writings consists in reconciling his down-to-earth colloquialisms with his apparently lofty republican idealism. By trying to retain the impact of these colloquialisms instead of forcing them “into ill-fitting classical clothing” (as I wrote in my introduction to the Dialogue, p. xxvi), I hope to have conveyed the novelty of this flexible and non-normative language. Through it — using the pragmatic and market-wise del Nero as his mouthpiece — Guicciardini was able to argue that what Florence needed was not “a lord who rules” but “a superhead” (sopracapo) who would devote the care to the city’s affairs that bosses give to their trades.24 To reflect this novel vocabulary of power was what I understood by Leopardian “accuracy.”

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Notes

1 G. Leopardi, Zibaldone, 3 voll., Milan, 1997, I, p. 1318, § 1949: “l’esattezza non importa la fedeltà”, English trans. ed. M. Caesar and F. D’Intino, London, 2013, p. 865.

2 See P. Carta, Francesco Guicciardini tra diritto e politica, Padua, CEDAM, 2008, ch. 8, pp. 89-100; Id., “Guicciardini scettico?”, in Bologna nell’età di Carlo V e Guicciardini, ed. E. Pasquini and P. Prodi, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2002, pp. 265-281.

3 Citing his letter to Sigismondo Santi, 29 Decembre 1522, ed. P. Jodogne, Le Lettere, VII (Rome, 1999), p. 312; J.-L. Fournel and J.-C. Zancarini, La Grammaire de la République. Langages de la politique chez Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540), Geneva, Droz, 2009, esp. pp. 34-40, 225-231; G. Pedullà, Machiavelli in tumulto, Rome, Bulzoni, 2011, esp. pp. 148-149 on the “processo di ‘tecnificazione’ ancora imperfetta del lessico”.

4 F. Guicciardini, Dialogue on the Government of Florence, ed. and trans. A. Brown (henceforth B), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994. On his English translators, see V. Luciani, Francesco Guicciardini and his European Reputation, New York, K. Otto, 1936, pp. 31, 339-362, and P. Guicciardini, La Storia Guicciardiniana nelle traduzioni inglesi. Quarto contributo alla bibliografia di Francesco Guicciardini, Florence, Olschki, 1951.

5 The History of Italy, ed. and trans. S. Alexander, New York, Macmillan Co., 1969, pp. xxvii, xxix. Cf. G. Nencioni, “La lingua del Guicciardini”, citing Leopardi on Guicciardini’s “vaste e complicate architetture periodiche”, Francesco Guicciardini 1483-1983. Nel V centenario della nascita, Florence, Olschki, 1984, pp. 215-216.

6 Ed. R. Palmarocchi (henceforth P) in F. Guicciardini, Dialogo e Discorsi del Reggimento di Firenze, Bari, Laterza, 1932, pp. 1-172 and 285-357 (notes). For the drafts of the Ricordi, see R. Spongano’s edition, Florence, Sansoni, 1951, discussed by M. Phillips, Francesco Guicciardini: The Historian’s Craft, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1977, pp. 38-80.

7 Dialogue, tr. B, pp. 61 and n. 174, cf. 38, 41; ed. P, pp. 63 and 321, cf. 40, 43.

8 Dialogue, tr. B, p. 126, cf. 9, 65; ed. P, p. 130, cf. 10-11, 68 : “Lettere non ho io e voi lo sapete tutti; ma ho avuto piacere di leggere e’ libri tradotti in volgare quanti ne ho potuti avere, donde ho imparato qualcuna di quelle cose che ho allegato oggi.”

9 Dialogue, tr. B, pp. 107, 157, 158; ed. P, pp. 110, 161, 162.

10 “Del modo di ordinare il governo popolare”, Logrogno, 27 August 1512, in Dialogo e discorsi, ed. Palmarocchi, cit., p. 219.

11 Eg. Dialogue, tr. B, pp. 10, 17, 96, cf. xxv-xxvi); ed. P, pp. 11-12, 18, 99.

12 Dialogue, ed. B, pp. 43, 55 (and 195-196, Glossary); ed. P, pp. 45, 57: “si stava a bottega a questo mestiero”.

13 See A. Brown, “Offices of Honour and Profit: the Crisis of Republicanism in Florence”, in ead., Medicean and Savonarolan Florence, Turnhout, Brepols, 2011, pp. 158-160, citing Guicciardini’s Del Modo (ed. P, esp. 176-177, 195) and Domenico Cecchi’s Riforma sancta et pretiosa, Florence, 1496/97; see also F. W. Kent in note 15 below.

14 Eg. Dialogue, tr. B, pp. 23, 26-27, 55, 94; ed. P, pp. 25, 27-28, 57, 97; see also A. Brown, “Lorenzo and Guicciardini”, in Lorenzo the Magnificent: Culture and Politics, ed. M. Mallett and N. Mann, London, Warburg Institute, 1996, pp. 289-290.

15 See the introduction and his article in Patronage, Art and Society in Renaissance Italy, ed. F. W. Kent and P. Simons, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1987, pp. 1-21, 79-98, and F. W. Kent, “Patron-Client Networks in Renaissance Florence and the Emergence of Lorenzo as ‘Maestro della Bottega’ ”, repr. in Id., Princely Citizen. Lorenzo de’ Medici and Renaissance Florence, Turnhout, Brepols, 2013, pp. 199-224.

16 See J. Toscan, Le Carnaval du Language, 4 voll., Lille, Presses universitaires de Lille, 1981, I, pp. 373-374, no. 196; Trionfi e Canti Carnascialeschi Toscani del Rinascimento, ed. R. Bruscagli, 2 voll., Rome, Salerno, 1986, II, p. 380, v. 32 and note, 472, vv. 31-32.

17 Dialogo, ed. B, pp. xxv-xxvi, 203-204 (Glossary); Ricordi, ed. Spongano, pp. 25-26 (note to C 21), trans. M. Domandi, Maxims and Reflections (Ricordi), Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972, p. 141, and trans. Thomson, Counsels and Reflections, London, 1890, p. 169, no. 402. In his Selected Writings (Oxford, Oxford Library of Italian Classics, 1965, pp. 25-26), M. Grayson, omitting B 180, translates “a uso di stato” in C 21 as “methods of absolute government”.

18 F. Gilbert, Machiavelli and Guicciardini, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1965, pp. 60-61, 64-66, 85, etc.; J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1975, pp. 231, 233; Q. Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, I, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1978, pp. 159-161.

19 A. Moulakis, “Civic humanism, realist constitutionalism, and Francesco Guicciardini’s Discorso di Logrogno”, in Renaissance Civic Humanism, ed. J. Hankins, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 215; cf. Dialogue, tr. B, Glossary, pp. 204-205.

20 See Dialogue, tr. B, pp. 195-205 (Glossary); J.-L. Fournel and J.-C. Zancarini, Grammaire (note 3 above), and the Postface in their translation of Guicciardini’s Écrits politiques, Paris, 1997, esp. pp. 342-351.

21   “Voi non mi date questo luogo per farmi onore, ma perché la obiezione vi pare facile, e cognoscendo essere stata messa da Bernardo piú per tentare che per farvi fondamento. Osservate el costume de’ buoni capitani che nel principio de’ fatti d’arme mandano innanzi e’ cavalli leggieri per spignere, di poi quando le cose stringono, gli uomini d’arme e di mano in mano el nervo dello esercito.” Dialogue, ed. P, p. 12, tr. B, pp. 11, and (on liberty) 23, 35-37, 97; ed. P, pp. 25, 37-38, 100; see A. Brown, “Demasking Renaissance Republicanism”, in ead. Medicean and Savonarolan Florence, pp. 225-245, esp. 241-243; Q. Skinner, Foundations, I, p. xiii.

22 Dialogue, tr. B, p. 159, ed. P, p. 163.

23 Dialogue, tr. B, pp. 16-17, 85, 92, ed. P, pp. 18, 87, 94 (cf. the passage added in version A at an earlier juncture, tr. B, p. 86, note 235, ed. P, 330). On the debate’s “two codes of value”, see Pocock, Machiavellian Moment, p. 232.

24 See A. Brown, “Piero in Power, 1492-1494: A Balance Sheet for Four Generations of Medici Control”, in The Medici: Citizens and Masters, ed. R. Black and J. Law, Cambridge, Ma., Harvard University Press, 2015, pp. 113-125.

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References

Electronic reference

Alison Brown, « On translating Francesco Guicciardini’s political writings », Laboratoire italien [Online], 16 | 2015, Online since 02 December 2015, connection on 29 April 2017. URL : http://laboratoireitalien.revues.org/923 ; DOI : 10.4000/laboratoireitalien.923

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About the author

Alison Brown

Royal Holloway, University of London (Emerita Professor)

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