Oscan in Early Modern Italy

One of my favourite things about studying an unusual language is that your research is very memorable. Once people associate you with a particular obscure language, they will immediately think of you whenever they hear about it elsewhere. And – even better – they will send you sources that you never could have found otherwise.

Now that everyone knows me as “Oscan Katherine”, I get sent all sorts of fascinating things. When I first started at Gonville and Caius, I quickly got used to explaining quickly what Oscan was and why I did my whole PhD on it. But the explanation was not always necessary: my fantastic colleague Melissa Calaresu simply said, “Oh yes, Oscan. I wrote an article about that once.” And, surprisingly enough, she had – about the use of Oscan and the Samnites in the political thought of Naples in the late eighteenth century.

In her article, Melissa explains that in the Enlightenment of the 1780s, the kingdom of Naples was renegotiating its connections with the past. Although the most obvious point of reference for any Italian kingdom was the greatness of Rome and the Roman Empire, contemporary rivalry between Naples and Rome meant that the kingdom of Naples often looked elsewhere for its ancient models, despite the word-famous excavations of Roman Pompeii that were happening at the same time.

While Neapolitans noted the attraction of the sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii for foreign visitors to the city who were making the Grand Tour, the excavations in fact had surprisingly little effect on intellectual life in the capital. Thus, while foreign visitors continued to flock to the Roman sites near Naples in order to understand better their common European past, Neapolitans began to look beyond Rome to what was perceived as their own particular native origins. In Naples the pre-Roman tribe which generated the most interest among Neapolitan historians and reformers were the Samnites, the inhabitants of the ancient region of Samnium.

Melissa Calaresu (1997) “Images of Ancient Rome in Late Eighteenth-Century Neapolitan Historiography”, Journal of the History of Ideas, p644-5

What I find so fascinating about this article is that it wasn’t until the 1790s that one of the most important Oscan texts – the Tabula Bantina – was discovered. And it wasn’t until well into the nineteenth century that any of the Oscan texts were identified as Oscan (rather than very strange Latin or Greek) and could be translated. One of the earliest major editions of Oscan texts was by Theodor Mommsen in 1850, although some were understood in the decades before that.

So the Neapolitan elite that Melissa discusses had very little to go on in their discussions of the Oscan-speaking Samnites, especially given that they recognised that the Roman view of the Samnites was unlikely to be accurate or flattering. In a way, this was helpful – the Samnites could be anything that Naples wanted them to be. In the writings of Giuseppe Maria Galanti (1743-1806), for example, the Samnites became a moral and political example:

[H]e depicts the Samnite tribe as a cultural and political unity, comparing their hard-working and sober life to the excess and extravagance of Italic nations and the Greek colonies. In fact Galanti was careful throughout the Saggio not to attribute the achievements of the region’s ancient inhabitants to the decadent influence of Greek culture, and he rejected the Greek colonies as any kind of native political model. He describes instead a civil society the character and development of which was determined, above all, by agricultural activity: “their fields were cultivated like gardens, they had populous cities and brave, courageous, and strong citizens who valued agriculture and honoured their patria.”

Melissa Calaresu (1997) “Images of Ancient Rome in Late Eighteenth-Century Neapolitan Historiography”, Journal of the History of Ideas, p651

He describes the Samnites as a powerful, democratic, fair and equal society, with a far greater sense of civic virtue than the Romans. By implication, this idealised past was the birthright of everyone in the Kingdom of Naples.

The Bay of Naples, Joseph Vernet, 1748

More recently, the excellent John Gallagher emailed me to say he’d found a reference to Oscan in the English translation of a sixteenth-century Italian courtesy book (and he was as surprised as I was about this). The book, published in London in 1561, is The Courtyer of count Baldessar Castilio divided into foure books. Very necessary and profitable for yonge Gentilmen and Gentilwomen abiding in Court, Palaice, or Place, done into Englyshe by Thomas HobyThe original Italian version was published in Venice in 1528.

The page looks like this:

oscan tunge

John helpfully transcribed it for me as follows:

Consider with your selves that we have no more any knoweleage of the Osca tunge. The provinciall tung, that (a man may say) the last day was renowmed of noble writers, now is it not understoode of the inhabitantes of the countrey. I beleave therefore (as the L. Julian hath said) that wer Petrarca, and Boccaccio, at this present in lief, they would not use many woordes that we see in their writinges. Therfore (in mine opinion) it is not well done to folow them therin. Yet do I much commende them that can folowe that ought to be folowed: but notwithstanding I beleve it be possible ynough to write well without folowyng, and especiallye in this our tunge, wherin we may be helped by custome, the which I wyll not take upon me in the Latin.

In other words, we shouldn’t try to imitate the vocabulary of authors from previous generations, because language changes over time – some words die out, while others are created, to the extent that sometimes languages die out altogether. Incredibly, the example used to illustrate this point is Oscan – a language which would have been mentioned occasionally in Latin literature, but would have been otherwise completely unknown to Italians in the sixteenth century.

In both Melissa and John’s examples, I was fascinated to learn about the kind of place Oscan occupied in Italian thought in the Early Modern and Modern periods, even before the language had been rediscovered in the nineteenth century. I had previously assumed that the resurgence of interest in Oscan was tied much more closely to the general growth of interest in local languages, language history and linguistics in the early nineteenth century, which was carried forward in particular by Mommsen, the brothers Grimm and other famous figures. In fact, it was part of political and linguistic writing much earlier.

I sometimes meet people in the south of Italy who are aware of Oscan and the Samnites, and feel some kind of connection to that society – for example, the Wikipedia article on Muro Lucano in Basilicata claims that the local dialect of Italian is based on Oscan. This is highly unlikely, because Oscan died out two thousand years ago, but it’s a brilliant example of people connecting themselves to their city’s past. (Someone has recently added a “citation needed” flag on the Wikipedia article, so maybe that description of Muranese is now doomed.) It is great for me to know that this kind of use of Oscan as a reference point for Italy’s pre-Roman past has its roots much earlier than I realised.

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