We no speak Latino

Carpaccio, Miracle of the Relic of the Cross at the Rialto Bridge in Venice, c. 1496, Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia

The ancient Romans were practising Know Your Customer guidelines long before these became a feature of financial services. They called it decorum, a word which captured, in ancient rhetorical theory, the adequacy of a speech’s style and subject to a given context, situation and audience.

Know Thy Audience, Cicero would’ve said to those who opened their mouth before they’ve had a look around to see who they were addressing.

According to an apocryphal story of doubtful authenticity, Dante found himself on the wrong side of decorum.

In a letter written in Florentine Italian and addressed to count Guido Novello da Polenta, ruler of Ravenna and Dante’s host, the poet writes how, while visiting Venice on a diplomatic mission, he began to publicly read a speech he had written in Latin for the election of the Doge, but had to stop since the Venetians didn’t understand Latin, ‘la facondia Romana in bocca’, the Roman eloquence he had in his mouth.

At a time when Italy was fragmented both politically and linguistically, and every region, republic and polity spoke its own language (today we call them, wrongly, dialects), Latin was the language of diplomacy and cross-regional communication.

Failing Latin, Dante switched to option number 2: Florentine Italian, his mother tongue, ‘that language I brought with me from my swaddling clothes, which was a little more familiar and domestic to them than Latin’. But that didn’t help either, as the Venetians ‘said they did not understand or, out of mockery, pretended not to understand’. And, in typical fashion, Dante dismisses the Venitian senate’s ‘dull and bestial ignorance’. As he had written Inferno by then, it was impossible for him to place the Serenissima and its monolingual subjects in Hell, as much as he had wished to. That is, if the letter is genuine, which probably isn’t.

With equal contempt, the disappointed poet, or whoever wished to pass the letter as Dante’s own writing (and a fine reader of Dante’s works, for sure), notes that it was logical the Venetians did not understand Latin or Tuscan because they were not, like him, descendants of Roman nobles, but came from “Dalmatians et Greeks and had nothing else but bad and very vile customs, together with the mud of every unbridled lasciviousness.’ And please, my lord, the letter concludes, don’t send me on similar missions.

Putting Cicero to shame, the letter introduces a new principle in rhetorical practice: if the audience doesn’t get it, change the audience.

*** the letter, dated to 30 March 1314, was first printed in 1547 by Anton Francesco Doni and continues to divide scholars as to its authenticity. It can be read in the original Italian here.

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