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Giovanni Villani

From Academic Kids

Giovanni Villani (ca 1275-1348), the Florentine writer of the famous chronicles (the Cronica) is the greatest Italian chronicler of his own times and the cornerstone of the early medieval history of Florence. His interest in economic details makes him the most modern of the late medieval chroniclers.

Villani was born into the Florentine merchant middle class, the son of Villano di Stoldo, and during the early years of the 14th century he gained political perspective travelling in Italy, France and Flanders for the Peruzzi bank, of which he was a shareholder until 1308. He wrote in Italian of events beyond those he was directly concerned with as a leading merchant personally involved in Florentine diplomacy and the city's public life.

In 1316 and 1317 he was one of the priors of Florence and shared in the crafty diplomatic tactics that resulted in peace with Pisa and Lucca. In 1317 he also had charge of the mint, where he collected its earlier records and had a register made of all the coins struck in Florence. In 1321 he was again chosen prior, deputed to inspect the rebuilding the city walls. He went with the army to fight against Castruccio Castracane, lord of Lucca, and was present at its defeat at Altopascio. In 1328 famine visited Tuscany, and Villani was appointed to guard Florence from its worst effects. His record of what was done in Florence shows the progressive economic wisdom of the medieval Florentines. In 1340 Villani superintended the making of Andrea Pisano's bronze doors for the Baptistry. In the same year he watched over the raising of the campanile of the Badža. The following year Villani was sent with others as a hostage to Ferrara, to ensure that Florence made good on a debt; there he remained for some months. Involved through no fault of his own in the bankruptcy of the Bonaccorsi, part of the larger failure of the Bardi, Villani was imprisoned for debt in 1338. In 1348 he fell a victim to the Black Death described by Boccaccio, which carried away almost half of Florence.

The idea of writing the Chronicle was suggested to Villani under the following circumstances:

"In the year of Christ 1300 Pope Boniface VIII made in honor of Christ's nativity a special and great indulgence. And I, finding myself in that blessed pilgrimage in the holy city of Rome, seeing her great and ancient remains, and reading the histories and great deeds of the Romans as written by Virgil, Sallust, Lucan, Livy, Valerius, Paulus Orosius and other masters of history who wrote the exploits and deeds, both great and small, of the Romans and also of strangers, in the whole world... considering that our city of Florence, the daughter and offspring of Rome, is on the increase and destined to do great things, as Rome is in her decline, it appeared to me fitting to set down in this volume and new chronicle all the facts and beginnings of the city of Florence, in as far as it has been possible to me to collect and discover them, and to follow the doings of the Florentines at length... and so in the year 1300, on my return from Rome, I began to compile this book, in honor of God and of the blessed John, and in praise of our city of Florence."

Villani's work is an Italian, even European chronicle, written from the perspective of the political class of Florence just as the city rose to a rich and powerful life of thought and action. Nothing but scanty and partly legendary records had preceded Villani's work, which rests in part on them for the early years.

Villani begins the Cronica Universale conventionally Biblical times, but moves swiftly into the events that transpired in his own time, of which he has an insider's very exact knowledge: he is perhaps unequalled for the value of the statistical data he has preserved. He relates events with clear serenity and a certain detachment, just as he heard them. He was Guelph, but his book is much more taken up with an inquiry into what is useful and true than with party considerations. By writing in Italian he depicts what he saw with the immediate vividness natural to a clear businesslike mind accustomed to the observation of mankind, without the self-consciousness imposed by composition in Latin. His chronicles are intercut with historical episodes also reported just as he heard them, with little interpretation. Villiani was a chronicler, not a historian. The Cronica is cut off by his own death 1348.

Villani's Chronicle was considered an important work at the time, valuable enough to be continued by two other members of his family. Matteo Villani, his brother, of whom nothing is known save that he was twice married and that he died of the plague in 1363, continued it down to the year of his death. Wordier and less acute as a human observer, Matteo is well informed in his facts and is one of the most important sources of Italian history.

Filippo Villani, Matteo's son, flourished in the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th century, bringing the Chronicle down to 1410.

External links

  • Fordham's "Medieval Sourcebook" (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/villani.html) gives illuminating and flavorful excerpts from the Florentine Chronicle.
  • Villani's Chronicles (http://www.elfinspell.com/VillaniStart.html) full text, translated into English by Rose E. Selfe.


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