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CONTARINI, Gasparo

The commonvvealth and gouernment of Venice

London, Iohn Windet for Edmund Mattes, 1599.

£9,750

FIRST EDITION thus. 4to. pp. [xvi], 201, [vi], 206-230: [fleuron]⁴ A-2G⁴. Roman letter, some Italic. Grotesque woodcut on title, floriated woodcut initials, grotesque woodcut head and tail-pieces, typographical ornaments, “Hen. Stevens 1727” with price on verso of title, bookplate of the Fox Pointe Collection on pastedown. Light age yellowing, the very rare marginal stain. A fine copy, crisp and clean, on good thick paper, stab bound in its original polished limp vellum, a little soiled. 

First edition of Lewis Lewkenor’s important translation of Contarini’s major work, a source text for William Shakespeare. A Venetian patrician educated at Padua, Gasparo Contarini (1483-1542) was ambassador for Charles V and later appointed Cardinal by Pope Paul III. Among the numerous personalities he met whilst accompanying the Emperor around Europe was Thomas More. It is More’s ‘Utopia’, first published in 1516, which may have inspired ‘Della Repubblica et magistrati di Venetia’, composed in the years 1520s-1530s. Contarini’s influential work is a thorough description of the government of Venice celebrating the perfection of its Republican institutions (the Doge, Senate, tribunals and magistracies) in the age of absolute monarchies, but also suggesting changes to improve them. Its readers should ‘marvel’ at the location, origins and functioning of Venice, ‘the common market of the world’, where political ideal and reality meet to create an exemplary State run by the patriciate. ‘Della Repubblica’ was first published in Latin in 1543 and quickly translated into French (1544) and Italian (1545). 

“The Commonwealth and Government of Venice played a pivotal role in conveying the myth of 16th-century Venice to an English audience. First written in Latin by Cardinal Gasparo Contarini, it was translated into English in 1599 by Lewis Lewkenor. With a string of hyperboles, the book idealises the city as a perfect example of justice, tolerance, trade and imperial power. .. In his letter ‘To the Reader’, Lewkenor describes how travellers talk of Venice as the thing ‘most infinitely remarkable, that they had seen in the whole course of their travels’ (sig. A1v–A2r). Some people celebrate ‘the greatnes of their Empire’ and their ‘zeale in religion’ (sig. A2r). Others praise the justice system as ‘pure and uncorrupted’ (sig. A2v). However, Lewkenor also notes the ‘monstrously strange’ geography of this ‘glorious’ city. It is seated ‘in the middle of the sea’ with its ‘pallaces, monasteries, temples’ founded on marshy ‘Quagmires’ (sig. A3r). Lewkenor says many young travellers are particularly impressed by the Venetians’ ‘humanitie towards strangers’ (A1v). He describes the ‘unmeasurable quantity’ of merchandise coming from ‘all realms and countries’, but he is also struck by its multinational mixture of people. The ‘wonderful concourse of strange and forraine people … of the farthest and remotest nations’ makes Venice a ‘generall market to the whole world’ (p. 1).” BL. Shakespeare is most likely to have read this work and its influence is felt in two of his major works ‘The Merchant of Venice and ‘Othello’ “In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare seems to confront and complicate this idea of a tolerant, cosmopolitan city. The relationship between Shylock, the Jewish moneylender and the Christians of Venice is not defined by ‘humanitie’. The trial in Act 4, Scene 1 also raises questions about the Venetian reputation for exemplary legal justice. Kenneth Muir has argued that Shakespeare must have consulted Lewkenor’s book when he was writing Othello – another play exploring the complex role of a ‘stranger’ in Venice. Muir highlights Lewkenor’s pleasure in hearing travellers’ tales of ‘paineful inconveniences’ (sig. A1v). He sees parallels in the way Desdemona listens ‘with a greedy ear’ to the painful ‘story of [Othello’s] life’ (1.3.149; 129).” BL.

A fine copy of this rare work.

ESTC S108619. STC 5642. 

L2996