Venice: Cità excelentissima, eds Patricia H Labalme and Laura Sanguineti White, trs Linda L Carroll

A Venetian Pepys is freed from the archives

Marin Sanudo was a compulsive diarist who lived at the height of the Venetian Renaissance. With the publication of this sampling of his writings, lovers of Venice finally can acquaint themselves with riches that have previously been available only to scholars with a working knowledge of the Venetian language. Sanudo knew that he was living in a period of incomparable excellence for his beloved city – whether understood in terms of the glory of empire, the satisfactions of wealth, or the creations of the arts – and he determined early to record, and comment on, the passing show.

Like his fellow diarist Samuel Pepys, writing a century later, Sanudo was privileged by his closeness to the governing classes (of which he was a minor member) to see exactly how his society and its imperial possessions were ruled. Also like Pepys, he was an eyewitness to natural disasters, such as the spectacular 1509 fire at the Arsenal and the 1511 earthquake, which shook the statues from the roofs of the buildings.

Sanudo too confides his personal disappointments and his hopes to his diary, but these are restricted to career and finances; he has none of Pepys's desire to speak of his emotional and sexual encounters. Sanudo takes a detached view of the charms of Venice's famous courtesans and prostitutes; he does not say if he sampled their wares. Sanudo had a way of being present – and when not, of searching out reliable informants – at many key historical moments.

For example, he reports, on 26 March 1516, as "news of the morning", that Senator Zacaria Dolfin has proposed confining the Jews of Venice to an area then known as the Ghetto Nuovo [the new foundry], a suggestion that soon led to the world gaining a new term for one of its less attractive customs, the confining of unwanted persons, and thoughts, in separate spheres.

The Venice we see today, for all its beauty, is like a bare stage that once contained a vivid drama. To read Sanudo is to fill that stage with actors, costumes and sounds, so that the reader seems to see and hear the people who once walked its narrow streets, sailed its winding canals and erected the exotic buildings that continue to excite a wondering admiration.

Sanudo is at his most vivid in his employment of the telling detail. Here for example is the arrival of a Turkish ambassador at the Ducal Palace: "He made his entrance into the Collegio dressed in a gold tunic ... Behind him one of his attendants brought a dried head stuffed with straw on top of a pole, which is said to be that of a captain of the Egyptian ruler, the Sophì subjugated by the sultan, that is by his army, which the ambassador brings to the Signoria as a token of [their] victory."

Sanudo's diaries stretch from 1496 to 1533; in printed form they comprise 58 volumes. Amazingly, although the original manuscript has been the property of the Venetian state since Sanudo's death, it was not available in print until its publication by Italian scholars between 1879 and 1903. Since then, it seems fair to say with Sanudo himself, that "no writer will make much of modern history who has not seen my diaries, within which is contained every event." They are quoted in practically every guide book and every essay that mentions the salient happenings of early 16th-century Venice.

Having chosen to present their material in thematic, rather than chronological, form, the book's editors have constrained themselves to shoehorn Sanudo's observations into chapters with headings such as "The Venetians Govern", "Society and Social Life" and "Humanism and the Arts". In the main, their method makes for a readable introduction to the man and his times, although it does obscure the interdependence of social and political events as they unfolded.

Labalme and White have also contributed a running commentary which, in total, is roughly as long as Sanudo's own words. Although what they have to say is always salient and to the point, this practice has reduced their 600-page anthology to about 300 pages of Sanudo himself, a pity in the case of a seminal author who is not otherwise available to the English-speaking public. We can only hope that other scholars are labouring to present the full 58 volumes in English some day soon.

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