Gibbon all’italiana: The Italian Restoration Edition of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Maria Pia Casalena, University of Bologna

In the early 1990s, prominent translation studies theorists began to impose a rethinking of the relationship between source works and their translations. They identified the many processes of betrayal and manipulation adopted by mediators over the years in order to adapt texts to the public they intended to address. As highlighted by André Lefevere and Susan Bassnett in particular, in addition to the many strategies used by the translators themselves, there are also those –sometimes overlapping –adopted by the patrons of the cultural world: as publishers, academics, scholars, critics and reviewers.Therefore, whilst we can no longer consider a published translation to be merely a naïve transfer of an original work from one language to another, we should, however, continue to contextualise manipulation strategies in their cultural sphere and historical and political framework. What seems less important, is knowing the various mediators’ level of language knowledge given that strictly linguistic issues seem to be of secondary importance. As the field of translation studies indicates, translated books should be considered to all effects an integral part of national cultures. This points to a broader and more problematic approach to the cultural history of modern nations which will inform this article.

This article will seek to retrace the events surrounding the translation and publishing history of the Italian version of a very unusual work: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. So deeply imbued with scepticism, even before it reached the Italian peninsula Gibbon’s great work had already been singled out –both in his homeland and abroad –as a scandalous and dangerous composition. A relatively short period of time separated the conclusion of the original edition from the first Italian translation that appeared in Pisa, between 1794 and 1796, written by an ‘anonymous’ hand, behind which was the notorious figure of Monsignor Angelo Fabroni. When Gibbon’s first Italian translation appeared, the era of ‘beautiful and unfaithful’ translations, which had been the pride of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century literature, already seemed a distant memory. However, there was certainly some manipulation in the edition of the first eight volumes that another Pisan publisher printed between 1795 and 1799. What the readers in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany were offered then was a Gibbon that had been brutally censored, rebuked and corrected, and unwillingly returned to orthodoxy –moreover, to strictly observant Catholic orthodoxy.

There seemed to be a desire to offer it as a proof of the errors incurred by scepticism when not accompanied or corrected by vigilant Roman theology.However, if that was the operation conducted in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, how radically would Decline and Fall need to be corrected twenty years later, in the middle of the Restoration and in the Lombardy of 1821–24, troubled as it was by conspiracies and anti-revolutionary ideas? Moreover, what intervention would be made in the face not only of errors linked to the faith of the censors, but also Gibbon’s addition of a clear nostalgia for republican forms and mixed governments, accompanied by an anti-tyrannical verve? Yet, the 13 volumes of Decline and Fall, which in Italian had become Storia della decadenza e rovina dell’Impero romano and appeared in Milan from 1820 to 1824 published by Nicolò Bettoni, included the entire original work, without abridgements or semantic distortions.

This time even the name of the translator was known: the prolific but at the same time controversial Davide Bertolotti. His work was limited to volumes IX to XVI, as the first eight were merely the re-edition of the aforementioned Pisan edition achieved in 1799.As stated, the entire translation was faithful. Yet Nicolò Bettoni was certainly neither a revolutionary nor a non-believer, at least not in 1820 and was not seeking to stir up a scandal. Thus, in order to appreciate the Bettoni’s handling of Gibbon, we must once again take heed of the warnings issued by translation studies that linguistic faithfulness is not tantamount to ideological solidarity. In the paragraphs that follow, I will briefly cover the most scandalous sections of Decline and Fall, as read by a Catholic public. Indeed, the focus of my studies is the only complete Italian version of Decline and Fall that would see the light in pre-Unification Italy. Neither the Pisan translator first, nor Davide Bertolotti later, removed any of the irony that coursed through the original. I will then carry out a detailed study of this publishing operation, undoubtedly sensitive to the sirens of the market, in which extraordinary innovation and a conservative attitude managed to co-exist, at length and apparently unhindered, throughout the most troubled years of the early Restoration in Milan



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University of Florence

University of Florence


The University of Florence is an important and influential centre for research and higher training in Italy