Mirabilia

Margaret Visser

Reading this plethora of recent translations of Piero Camporesi’s work is rather like getting a book out of a library and being forced to read only the passages heavily underlined by a previous borrower, together with all the angry or thrilled exclamations peppering the margins. Camporesi is professor of Italian literature at the University of Bologna. He gleans quotations from many (justly) obscure Italian works from the past and sorts them into subjects: food, blood, hell, insanity, mutilations and mortifications of the body, carnival customs, the way beggars used their calamities – real or fake – to cause people ‘with bad consciences’ to give them money. Out of this matter he puts together his collections of essays, listing examples and quoting relentlessly, both in snippets and at length. A typical result is this litany from The Land of Hunger:

The faker of illness, the boaster of the putrid sore or deformed organ, put on a show in which the centre of attention was the verminous gangrene, the pus-filled wound, the infected abscess, the missing or withered limb; or perhaps, in a technically different but related area, a ‘professional hysteria’, a sudden fall, an unexpected crisis, a lightning convulsion. The repertory of the great virtuosi, the epileptic fit, the dance of the tarantula, the howl of the rabid.

In principle we should all feel deep gratitude to Professor Camporesi for going where no one else has cared to go, in search of new light to cast on the mentalités of the past. Italy must be at, or near, the top of most lists of countries that we would want to hear from in the area of culinary history. In addition to food, Camporesi is interested in the peasantry: the huge, ancient majority of the population of Italy, the people who have had no voice to tell their story, people whom we, too, have learned only fairly recently to be interested in. It is bitterly disappointing, therefore, to find that he is an unreliable guide to the literature he has combed with such zeal. His own sources are wide-ranging: sermons, sonnets, forgotten plays, scientific and medical treatises, pleas from Church figures for the amelioration of the lot of the poor. But none of these are discussed in their entirety or put in any sort of context. The horrifying and the repulsive are pored over with adolescent relish; the prose becomes overwrought, at times incomprehensible. There is often no discernible structure to the essays: they merely present undigested quotations in no particular order, and then stop. Camporesi sweeps through huge spans of time, looking for ‘blood’ or ‘bread’ or ‘the hatred of town people for country people’. His main focus may be the 16th and 17th centuries, but he will turn back into the Middle Ages or project forward into the 19th century with no sense of incongruity if there’s any chance of enlisting material.

Contemptuous of the pettifogging exactitudes of the historian (‘Let us leave to historians the exercise of dating and differentiating between the various seasons from’ – I suspect the text should read ‘reasons for’ – ‘the long, interminable post-Renaissance crises in Italy and later distinctions between urban and rural crises’), he prefers displays of verbal fireworks: indeed, his style is infected by the baroque effusions from which he quotes. The titles of his essays are in the mode made popular by the Annales school of historians, bizarre and attention-getting, and usually taken from one of his sources: ‘Mad and Startling Names’, ‘The Strange New Adoptions of Listless Gluttony’, ‘A Blissful and Drinkable Eternity’.

The essays are undisciplined and self-indulgent, both in spite and because of the arcane references and scores of footnotes:

The mirabilia of the charlatans, the ‘secrets of deception’ (‘they make people appear without heads or with asses’ heads,’ noted Pietro Passi, author of Della magic’arte overo della magia naturale [Of the magic art or natural magic], Venice, G. Violati, 1614, p. 99), are clothed in demonic fascination in certain ‘exotic’ and oriental romances such as Il magno Vitei [The great Vitei] (1597) by Lodovico Arrivabene, almost vying with the spells and ‘conjuror’s tricks’ which fill the pages of books on magic, like the circulator [charlatan] or praestigiator [sic] magicus [magic conjurer] who ‘... can be seen rising up into the air with a small horse’.

and so forth, for page after page.

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