Venice: Going for Glory

The Death of the Child Valerio Marcello

by Margaret L. King
University of Chicago Press, 484 pp., $64.95; $19.95 (paper)

The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth-Century Venice

by Margaret F. Rosenthal
University of Chicago Press, 391 pp., $50.00; $18.95 (paper)

The central character in Margaret King’s book is a high official of the Venetian Republic who passed himself off as a military commander. The subject of Margaret Rosenthal’s book is a beautiful Venetian courtesan who wanted to be thought of as virtuous and cultured. Separated by a century, the lives of Jacopo Antonio Marcello (1398–c.1464) and Veronica Franco (1546–1591) had two things in common: they both lived when Venice was at the height of its splendor and they both wished to seem other than they were. Both the official and the courtesan tried to use literature to construct a new image of themselves. Marcello hired professional writers to celebrate, in fine manuscript Latin, the hero he would like to have been; Franco wrote about herself in the fresh vernacular that had recently taken over from Latin as the language of modern Italian culture, and she had her work published.

Constructed like a detective story, King’s book follows up every available clue to construct a portrait of a unique and enigmatic character. Not only, as it turns out, did Jacopo Marcello distort the facts to present himself as superior to his actual position in the Venetian Republic, but he also showed himself to be genuinely different from his contemporaries when he had to deal with life and death in his own family.

King’s inquiry starts with the story of Jacopo Antonio’s eight-year-old son, Valerio, who died on January 1, 1461, in a palazzo on the Grand Canal. Infant mortality of course was extremely high and the loss of a young child was a common event, seldom seen as important in the history of a fifteenth-century family. Moreover, Valerio was neither an only son nor the firstborn, and several of his brothers were alive to pass on the family name. But Jacopo Antonio reacted to the child’s death in a completely unexpected fashion. In a culture that considered tears a sign of weakness incompatible with manly dignity and believed that mourning beyond the appropriate period was a threat to public order, Marcello caused a scandal by flaunting his desperation over the loss of his son. “I disintegrate in sorrow,” he said, and he decided to immortalize his grief in an extraordinary book, whose manuscript is now owned by the library of the University of Glasgow. Though never completed with the illustrations planned for it, the book, King writes, includes “fifteen works by fourteen authors—letters, a poem, consolatory treatises, history, eulogy, and apology”—and it is “perhaps the largest and most richly textured of the funerary collections of the Renaissance.”

The Glasgow manuscript appears at first to be a solemn funeral commemoration produced by writers in honor of an exceptional child, at once handsome, intelligent, virtuous, and courageous. Valerio seems to have had an unusually close relationship with his father, while for his part Jacopo Antonio tended to see himself reflected in his son; he thought he saw in the boy’s features …

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