More than a Matter of Words: Four Italian historical novels in translation

[This article appeared as the cover story in Solander, May 2009; copyright Lucinda Byatt, 2009]

More than a Matter of Words: Lucinda Byatt looks at four Italian historical novels in translation

Walter Scott is generally regarded as the “inventor” of the historical novel, but Alessandro Manzoni, a nineteenth-century Italian novelist, was its first theorist. Manzoni himself wrote a historical novel, I promessi sposi (“The Betrothed”, 1827/1840–42) – arguably Italy’s first modern novel and the bane of all Italian secondary school pupils – but he would not have used a historical setting without the example of Scott’s Waverley novels, particularly Ivanhoe which he read in French translation before the rest of the series began to appear in Italian in the 1830s (1). His theoretical treatise On the historical novel, which he finished in 1845, has often been seen as a condemnation of the genre owing to its failure to live up to historical truth and moral goodness:

Some complain that in certain historical novels or in certain parts of a historical novel, fact is not clearly distinguished from invention and that, as a result, these works fail to achieve one of their principal purposes, which is to give a faithful representation of history (2)

However, Manzoni’s prediction that future readers would reject historical novels was wide of the mark. Of all the examples of Italian historical novels – written in the past fifty years or so – and translated into English (because certainly not all have been), I have chosen four: The Leopard by Giuseppe di Tomasi Lampedusa, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, The Silent Duchess by Dacia Maraini, and most recently, Imprimatur by Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti.

First, though, a word about their translators and the translations. The translators who worked on the books included here – Archibald Colquhoun (3), William Weaver, Dick Kitto and Elspeth Spottiswood, and Peter Burnett – are masters of their art: try reading any of these works in the original and you’ll see what they had to contend with in the way of dialect and historical idiom. This is borne out by one of my favourite maxims about translation captured by Anthony Burgess: “Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture” (4). Goethe had words of comfort for the translator, too: “Whatever we might say about the inadequacy of translation, it is and will remain one of the most important and worthiest concerns in what goes on in the world” (5).

the leopardThe Leopard

Tomasi di Lampedusa’s first and only historical novel, The Leopard, has developed something of a cult following. It was published posthumously in 1958 and won the Premio Strega, Italy’s top literary award, in 1961. For a novel that was tragically rejected in its author’s lifetime, it has magnificently repaid Lampedusa’s toils, becoming the top-selling Italian novel in history and a classic of European modern literature, translated into 23 languages. The publisher who finally accepted the book described its “delightful sense of humour; true lyrical power; always perfect, at times enchanting, expressive creative work” (6). Lampedusa (1896–1957) based his historical novel on the life of his great-grandfather, but it is evident that he was also writing about himself as the last survivor of an aristocratic Italian family. The main characters of the novel are Don Fabrizio Corbero Prince of Salina, his nephew Tancredi, and the mayor of Donnafugata, Don Calogero, and his daughter Angelica. As the novel opens in May 1860, Garibaldi’s “1000” Redshirts have landed at Marsala, on the Sicilian coast, and are moving inland to overthrow the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and continue their movement to unite Italy. The story initially focuses on the events leading up to Tancredi’s marriage to Angelica, but it then jumps forward first to Don Fabrizio’s own death some twenty-three years later, and finally to a scene in 1910 when most of the venerated relics belonging to the Salina princesses are declared fake, thus humiliating the family further and destroying what is left of its prestige. However, Concetta, the Prince’s daughter, realises that a fresh start is the only thing left to her and she orders her room to be cleaned and the moth-eaten skin of her father’s dog to be throw out. As it is thrown out the window, “its form recomposed itself for an instant; in the air there seemed to be dancing a quadruped with long whiskers, its right foreleg raised in imprecation. Then all found peace in a heap of livid dust”.

In a sense the novel is profoundly anti-historical, with its cynical attitude to the cyclical nature of change and decay. Even during his own lifetime, the Prince realises that the substance of the old society, the old way of doing things is crumbling to dust in his hands, like the dusty wind of Donnafugata on the afternoon of the plebiscite when Sicilians voted in favour of the new government. His position, too, is crumbling, usurped by new self-made men like Don Calogero and his stunningly beautiful daughter. However, the Prince gradually finds “odd admiration” for the mayor’s upstart manners, “ill-shaven cheeks” and plebian accent, although he would always remain “a rat escorting a rose”. This passage gives a sense of the use of metaphor throughout the book and the beautifully measured tone of the prose that describes the rise and fall of a world and a social class described with irony and just a shadow of regret – “We were the Leopards and Lions; those who’ll take our place will be little jackals, hyenas” (7).

The Name of the Rose

the name of the roseJumping forward some twenty odd years we come to Umberto Eco’s Il nome della rosa (1980), which also won the Strega prize for fiction. The English translation was published in 1983 and promptly became a publishing phenomenon, making Eco world famous overnight and also winning the translator a PEN award in 1984.

“In translating a work that feigned to be an Italian version of a 19th-century French version of a 17th-century version of a story written in Latin by a medieval German monk…the skilled translator must have felt unusually covered against accusations of “translationese”, since that is precisely what the source text frequently required.” (8)

The book is sometimes criticised for its weighty “interludes” on history, doctrine, canon law, philosophical and scientific debate that interrupt and slow down the pace of the story. However, this is no ordinary whodunnit, just as Eco is no ordinary historical thriller author. Eco himself described it as “a textile of other books … a book built of books” (9). It is this extraordinary blend of virtuoso literary work with “a modern refutation of the medieval worldview, a semiological reply to the question of Universal Truth in the form of a roman a clef” that makes it so unique (10). Moreover, the characters of a Franciscan friar William of Baskerville and his secretary Adso (a young novice at the time, although he narrates the events as an elderly monk) are magnificently drawn, as are the evil Bernardo Guidoni, the dreaded Inquisitor, and the sinister blind librarian Jorge of Burgos (a cheeky reference to Jorge Luis Borges). The story is set in 1327, in a Benedictine abbey in the north of Italy which is usually assumed to be the extraordinary abbey known as the Sacra di San Michele, not far from Turin. William of Baskerville is a disciple of William of Ockham and Roger Bacon – both early proponents of the scientific method and causality – and his religious convictions coexist with his love of philosophical enquiry and investigative science. These “modern” views contrast starkly with the darkest facets of the medieval mindset: the monks’ obsession with heresy, apocalyptic visions and forbidden knowledge. William brings humour to his investigations, and occasional flashes of brilliance like the illuminated images on the manuscripts labouriously produced in the library by the monks. Instead of preparing for the meeting between representatives of the Franciscan order and representatives of the Pope, William and Adso find themselves investigating a series of hideous murders and are led through a maze of clues, arcane puzzles and false leads, to the heart of the labyrinthine library where, at the eye of the storm, lies a secret heretical book, Aristotle’s On Comedy, which declares laughter to be the only escape. The culmination of this discovery is dramatic and unforgettable.

The Name of the Rose has been the subject of such extensive scholarly analysis – literary, linguistic and historical – that I cannot pretend to add anything else. However, this erudite novel will continued to be enjoyed for many years, offering its heady brew of compelling mystery, history, philosophy and linguistics: as Richard Ellmann wrote in the New York Review of Books: “[This book] succeeds in being amusing and ambitious at the same time. It can be regarded as a philosophical novel masked as a detective story, or as a detective story masked as a historical novel, or even better as a blend of all three” (11).

The Silent Duchess

The_Silent_Duche_48fa732c0507cLa lunga vita di Marianna Ucrìa by Dacia Maraini was published in 1990; in the same year it won the Premio Campiello (one of Italy’s major literary awards) and in 1992 an English translation by Dick Kitto and Elspeth Spottiswood was published by Peter Owen, London, under the title The Silent Duchess.

Set in early 18th-century Sicily, the novel opens with a harrowing but extraordinarily memorable scene: Marianna Ucrìa, who is seven at the time, travels by coach with her father, Duke Signoretto Ucrìa, to witness the public hanging of a twelve-year-old boy, in the mistaken belief that the trauma might shock her into “opening that accursed fish’s mouth”. In the novel Marianna’s deafness and muteness is the result of a childhood rape by an uncle whom she is later forced to marry because her father cannot afford a dowry. For the next twenty years of her life, she refers to him or so as her uncle husband, a “sad, grumpy man, always dressed in red and known in the family as ‘the prawn’.”

Set apart from the world by her disability, Marianna searches for knowledge and fulfilment in a society where women face either forced marriages and endless childbearing or a life of renunciation within the walls of a convent. Maraini draws our attention to “women’s enforced silence in society as well as in literature, and on the alternative ways in which a female voice can manifest itself” (12). Indeed, Marianna communicates with everyone around her using a writing tablet attached to a string round her waist.

Because she is spared the chaos and distraction of noise, Marianna finds that she can read people’s thoughts; her other senses are hyper-developed, in particular her sense of smell. Riding as a child behind her father, she “lowered her eyelids so as to rest her eyes for a while, and her nostrils have begun to draw in the air, recognizing the smells and meticulously noting them in her mind: the overpowering scent of lettuce water that impregnates her father’s waistcoat, below that the scent of rice powder mingled with the grease on the seats, the sourness of crushed lice, the smarting from the dust on the road that blows through the joints of the doors, as well as the faint aroma of mint that floats in from the fields of the Villa Palagonia” (13). Colour and texture, too, play an important role both in her dress and personal belongings: for example, in the jewel-like theatre Marianna builds to celebrate her recovery from pleurisy, she chooses a riot of brilliant hues to “compensate for her deafness”, “the boxes lined with yellow damask with borders of blue velvet” (14). Synaesthesia, or the intermingling of different sensory perceptions, is a fundamental trope of the Baroque sensibility that pervades the Sicilian culture of Marianna’s time. Maraini uses these impossible images to evoke the landscape seen through Marianna’s eyes: “The jasmine and the orange blossom send their perfume upwards like diaphanous wisps of smoke that evaporate between the roof tiles… Nearer, at the bottom of the sloping valley, the outlines of the olive trees, the carobs, the almonds and the lemons give the impression they are all asleep” (15).

It is not until the death of her “uncle husband” that Marianna at last gains freedom from her life of subservience: she learns to manage her estates and to love a younger man as she had never loved her husband. Eventually, she chooses the liberation of travel, accompanied by her servant Fila, who had been given to her as a gift from her father. Marianna, who questions the right of anyone to gift another with a human being, supports Fila’s desire to leave her and marry, but this will leave her alone. When she reaches Rome, she questions her “wish to wander” and instead longs for “something that belongs to the world of wisdom and contemplation, something that deflects the mind from its foolish preoccupation with the senses.”

In the afterword to the edition printed by The Feminist Press, New York (2000), Anna Camaiti Hostert suggests that Maraini chose to set her story in 18th-century Sicily – which the author describes as “that island of jasmine flowers and rotten fish, of sublime hearts and razorsharp knives” – not only because of her childhood memories of the island, but also because it was dominated by a peculiarly “arrogant and hypocritical aristocracy, remarkable . . . in the cruelty of its oppression of both the poor and women” (16).


imprimaturThe last and certainly the most controversial of the Italian historical novels chosen for this round-up of translated works: Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti’s Imprimatur. This authorial duo are experts in their fields: Rita Monaldi in religious history, her husband Francesco Sorti a musicologist. Both had been journalists before they decided to write a novel “a quattro mani”. The months that followed were taken up with painstaking research before they actually started to write. They became “topi d’archivio”, archive mice, mining the documents for period detail: menus and recipes, medicinals, maps, the structure and appearance of palaces on a particular street corner. The results can be overwhelming at first, but the extraordinary picture that emerges provides the equivalent of a sensory immersion in the colours, textures, smells, tastes and sounds of 17th-century Rome, both above and below ground.

Harking back to Manzoni, Sorti noticed that a problem of many historical novels was that it was difficult to gauge where fact (“realta’ storica”) ended and fiction (“fantasia”) began. They set out to remedy this, inspired by their favourite authors. In an interview Sorti confirmed that the book does indeed draw on Boccaccio’s Decameron (if only by dividing the narrative into days and the use of storytelling as a means of whiling away the time), as well as other Italian authors, notably Alessandro Manzoni and Eco (particularly, the device of discovering a manuscript that reveals the story – Eco goes as far as to dedicate The Name of the Rose “Naturally, to a manuscript”!). Francesco also mentioned their debt to Agatha Christie, presumably for general structure and dramatic tension created by the enclosed setting of the tavern rather than for any plot lines.

However, the real inspiration for Imprimatur was a real-life historical figure, Atto Melani (1626–1714), a castrato spy and composer who, during the course of his 88-year-long life, acted as secret agent for popes, monarchs and cardinals and played a key role in Italian and European politics during the 18th century. Sorti said that he first came across Melani in his work as a musicologist, but the true scope of this man’s activities only became clear later. Melani was much more important as a political figure than as a singer. His real vocation was to become a spy and diplomat. He entered the court as a castrato and this enabled him to build a reputation as one of the select voices of the period, as well as gaining an entrée to circles that would otherwise have been beyond his reach. It was the injustice of history’s treatment of Melani – he rose from poverty to become one of the richest and most influential men in Italy, but then sank back into complete oblivion again after his death – that prompted Monaldi and Sorti to start writing in the first place.

Imprimatur is set in September 1683, a precise date that marks an outbreak of the plague in Rome and led to a multifarious group of individuals being quarantined inside the Locanda del Donzello. Sorti and Monaldi based their characters on a real document listing the names of the people staying at the inn, a building that still exists. Outside the microcosm of the inn, rulers across Europe are waiting for news from Vienna which has been besieged by the Turkish armies of Kara Mustapha. Benedetto Odescalchi, now Pope Innocent XI, has embarked on a mission to save the city and Christendom from the menace of Islam with the help of Catholic Europe. However, among those incarcerated in the inn is Atto Melani, a spy in the service of the French king Louis XIV. Once Melani has enlisted the services of the dwarf apprentice who narrates the story, the two succeed in escaping the inn through a secret labyrinth of underground tunnels, and with the darkly comic help of Rome’s untouchables, the corpisantari, they reveal a plot to assassinate the pope himself. One aspect to the book that will appeal particularly to music lovers is that the events are cadenced to the music of Luigi Rossi, Robert Devizé (De Visée), Lully and, of course, Corbetta’s rondeau “Les Barricades Mystérieuses” which plays such a crucial part in the plot.

But what makes this book stand out was the discovery of documentary evidence for papal underhandedness of spectacular proportions. Prior to becoming pope, Benedetto Odescalchi financially backed William of Orange, a leading Protestant ruler and Stadtholder of Holland and Zeeland, so that in effect, funds from the Odescalchi coffers resulted in the invasion of England in 1688 and the deposition of the Catholic monarch James II. This discovery is woven into the story as the motive that prompts Dulcibeni’s assault on the pope. However, this is fact not fiction and the present-day effects have proved infinitely more devastating than either author could ever have imagined – literally reaching across the centuries to affect the publication of their work.

Without going into too much complex detail, this discovery – according to Sorti – “seriously annoyed” the Vatican which – in the wake of the 9/11 atrocity –- had been searching for a symbolic act and had decided to canonise Pope Innocent XI for his triumphant stand against the Turks and Islam in 1683. It is not clear why the Vatican was so surprised to discover this link to William of Orange given that a loan of some kind has always been rumoured to have existed. What this book does, however, is to give actual details of the pope’s two-faced wheeler-dealing and, moreover, of this most “unsaintly” sin, namely aiding heretics! In an annotated appendix, Monaldi and Sorti describe the Vatican accounts in detail and provide archival references. One wonders whether the documents have now been secreted away, as has long been the practice with so many other “sensitive” documents?

When the manuscript was accepted for publication by Mondadori, there was no suggestion that this was anything other than a first novel by two unknown authors. Indeed, after its publication in March 2002, the book quickly rose up the bestseller lists, reaching fourth place by mid April in a list printed by the Corriere della Sera. It soon sold out. It was at this stage that events took an unusual turn: a second print-run was ordered but was delivered four weeks late; bookshops complained of readers clamouring to get hold of copies to no avail and internet booksellers were flooded with enquiries. Then, in the summer of 2002, a well-known Catholic historian published an unusually hostile review in a Milan-based newspaper, Il Giornale. It was, say the authors, as if the lights went out and all Italian media coverage ceased. The Vatican boycott was in full swing. By March 2003, given that the book had disappeared from the Italian market and no copies were being sold, Monaldi and Sorti asked Mondadori to terminate their contract and decided to take the book abroad (17).

Since then Imprimatur has become an international bestseller, published in 45 countries and 20 languages. Like all bestsellers, even Imprimatur has given rise to a secondary wave of “anecdotal” publications trying to account for this publishing mystery and clamorous example of political and religious censorship (18). Imprimatur is the first of seven books. The second and third have already been written and published in Italian (outside Italy) and other languages, although not yet English; meanwhile, the authors are working on the fourth (19). The titles of all the books are taken from the saying “Imprimatur secretum, veritas mysterium. Unicum …” The authors translate this as follows: “Even when a secret is printed, the truth is always a mystery. It remains only –”: the rest of the phrase is a conundrum waiting to be solved! All the books feature Melani’s involvement in various key events. The books continue to be bestsellers in the rest of Europe, but bookshops in Italy refuse to stock a single copy. Tancredi’s famous comment in The Leopard (“if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”) certainly did not refer to censorship, but in this instance it seems appropriate since the Vatican’s Index of Prohibited Books, instituted in 1559 and formally abolished in 1966, is clearly still in operation.

On a closing note, it was interesting that in an interview both Sorti and Monaldi remarked on the difficulty of making the leap from Europe to the Anglo-Saxon markets. This is backed up by the figures: Imprimatur, their controversial first novel appeared in Italian in March 2002; it was then translated into Dutch and French (2002), into Spanish, Czech, Hungarian, Portuguese, Bulgarian, Greek and Romanian in 2004, into Polish and German in 2005, and finally – six years later – into English in May 2008 (20).

So, what should we make of these historical novels translated from Italian? In an excellent introduction to a recent edition of The Name of the Rose, David Lodge writes: “only a very few novels (…) have become major bestsellers not only in their own countries, but in translation as well, and it is a particularly difficult feat for books translated into English from other languages to achieve since Anglophone readers (…) tend to be lazily incurious about new work from other cultures” (21). These are just a handful of the best in translation, and all that is needed is a little curiosity to discover many more.

The article is covered by copyright Lucinda Byatt


1. The Cambridge Companion to the Italian Novel, Peter E. Bondanella, Andrea Ciccarelli (eds), Cambridge University Press 2003, p. 7
2. Alessandro Manzoni, On the Historical Novel, translated and edited by Sandra Berman, University of Nebraska Press, 1984, p.60. []
3. Archibald Colquhoun died aged 51 in 1964 (The Times, Obituary, 24 March 1964, gives details of his extraordinary life). Prior to translating Lampedusa’s masterpiece, which was published in 1960 and revised in 1961, he wrote a life of Manzoni: Manzoni and his times (1954). Colquhoun went on to be the dialogue consultant for Visconti’s lavish film version in 1963 starring Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale.
4. Word, Text, Translation: Liber Amicorum for Peter Newmark, Gunilla M. Anderman, Margaret Rogers (eds), Multilingual Matters, 1999, p. 124.
5. The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation, Peter France (ed.), OUP 2000, p. 315.
6. O. Classe (ed.) Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English, p. 799; Giorgio Bassani was the editor who accepted the book for Feltrinelli.
7. Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard, London 1960, pp.126, 201, 173.
8. O. Classe (ed.) Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English, p. 799.
9. David Lodge, “Introduction” to Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, Everyman edition, 2006, p. xiv.
11. Interesting companions to a reading of Eco’s work include Adele J. Haft, Jane G. White, Robert J. White, The Key to “The Name of the Rose” (University of Michigan Press, 1999); Judy Ann Ford, “Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose”, in Ray Broadus Browne, Lawrence A. Kreiser (eds), The Detective as Historian: History and Art in Historical Crime Fiction, especially pp. 96-99.
12. Dacia Maraini, The Silent Duchess, trans. Dick Kitto, Elspeth Spottiswood, Feminist Press, 2000, p. 237.
13. Ibid., p. 11.
14. Ibid., p. 173.
15. Ibid., p. 55.
16. Ibid., p. 250-3.
17. Details of the boycott and much else can be found on the website set up by Monaldi & Sorti’s fans,
18. Simone Berni,  Il caso IMPRIMATUR (The IMPRIMATUR Case) (Macerata, Biblohaus: 2008)
19. The second novel, Secretum, is due to be published in English by Polygon in May 2009.
20. These figures are taken from Unesco’s Index Translationum (available online at
21. David Lodge, “Introduction” to Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, Everyman 2006, p. vii.

7 Replies to “More than a Matter of Words: Four Italian historical novels in translation”

  1. I just wanted to thank you for doing me the undeserved honour of listing me in the company of such distinguished translators.

    Although I don’t concur with his every intervention, the editor, Sean Costello, made an important contribution to the translation of Imprimatur and Secretum. He helped me to discover that translators, given their familiarity with two languages and cultures, sometimes can’t see the wood for trees. Well, I speak for myself…

    1. Thanks for getting in touch, Peter. I agree with what you say about wood and trees! The problem is that I (speaking personally!) often don’t have enough time to stand back from a translation, and then re-read it carefully after letting it settle for a few weeks… it needs time to decant and for the lees to sink!
      very best wishes

  2. Lucinda – I’m interested on your take on the way Vintage have repackaged Colqhoun’s translation along with new material but without offering a new translation of the whole Italian version [ as is now available to Italians]? Do you know if anyone is working on a new translation?

    1. Hi Janette, thanks for your comment. To be honest I don’t know anything about a new translation. It’s strange isn’t how some books get re-translated every 30 years or so, but The Leopard has only ever been translated once. Now that you raised the subject though, I’m certainly going to look at the Vintage edition and I’ll come back with some thoughts!

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