Shakespeare and Italy: Thomas

Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University

Shakespeare and Italy:

Thomas, William. The History of Italy. 1549. Ed. George B. Parks. Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 1963.

The edition is much abridged (162 of the 445 original pages) since “Thomas can claim no authority / as a historian” (xxiii-xxiv) and is not credited with any original material concerning the early history of Italy, even though this is very likely material de Vere would have read and obviously was very interested in.

Parks’ Introduction notes Thomas’ dates (c. 1507-1554) and the political vicissitudes of his life — taking part in Wyatt’s rebellion, for example (xi). “He published, within a year of his return from Italy, The History of Italy (1549; reprinted 1561). In the next year he published the Principal Rules of the Italian Grammar (1550; reprinted 1552 and 1567). Both were pioneer works” (xi).

“We may guess that the death of King Henry made travel abroad easier. We may guess that the example of Thomas Smith, who came back to Cambridge in 1542 with a degree from Padua to become Regius Professor of Law, may have encouraged Cambridge students to follow him” (xvii).

Thomas provides regional Italian stereotypes, “doubtless to provide a human touch” (xxii).

“Nor was Thomas obviously a scholar, for he has nothing to say of that Italian learning which had drawn students from all parts of Europe to find there the intellectual treasures of antiquity” (xxiv).

But “His description of Italy was modest and truthful, and his book is still the first book to read for those who wish to study the long history of English attraction to Italy” (xxviii).

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Thomas dedicates the work to “John, Earl of Warwick, Viscount Lisle, knight of the most noble Order of the Garter, Lord Great Chamberlain, and High Admiral of England” who became Duke of Northumberland in 1551. His daughter-in-law was Lady Jane Grey (3).

“For surely more praise shall that prince deserve that leaveth his realm quiet and wealthy unto his successor than he that for the conquest of other countries impoverisheth and disturbeth his own” (4).

Thomas describes Italy and its commodities. He turns to food: “And it is not to be marveled at though (as the fame goeth) the Italian be a small eater of flesh. For though herebefore I have commended the temperature of Italy to be comparable with any other country, yet you must understand that in summer the sun is somewhat fervent, and in time of that heat the lightness of those sweet / fresh fruits is better to be digested than the heaviness of flesh or fish, which would not there be so lightly digested. As I myself have proved, that beforetime could in manner brook no fruit, and yet after I had been awhile in Italy I fell so in love withal that as long as I was there I desired no meat more because methought nothing more wholesome, specially in summer” (10).

“This last winter, lying in Padua, with diligent search I learned that the number of scholars there was little less than fifteen hundred; whereof I dare say a thousand at the least were gentlemen” (11).

“So that if a conte (which is as much to say as an earl) have twenty sons, every one of them is called conte” (11).

“And yet it is not to be forgotten that these gentlemen generally profess three things: the first is arms, to maintain withal his honor; the second is love, to show himself gentle and not cruel of nature; and the third is learning, to be able to know, to understand, and to utter his opinion in matters of weight” (13).

Thomas describes Rome at length, then Venice. Venetians are supposedly cheap (80-81), and he offers invented quotation of a representative one defending himself: “If I be proud, I have good cause, for I am a prince and no subject. If I be spare of living, it is because my commonwealth alloweth no pomp, and measure is wholesome. If I keep few servants, it is because I need no mo. If I buy my meat myself…. If I gain, I gain / upon my money and hide not my talent in the ground. If I love, I hate not; if she be fair, I am the more worthy. If I spend little, I have the more in my purse. If I spend largely with my daughter, it is because I will bestow her on a gentleman Venetian to increase the nobility of mine own blood” (81-82).

Naples, Florence, Genoa, and Milan follow.

Revenues and buildings in Mantua are not as impressive to Thomas (119).

“By agreement of most authors, I find that the people of Mantua are descended of those ancient Tuscans that before the siege of Troy departed out of Lydia in Asia and, under the leading of their prince, Tirreno, came and inhabited the region of Italy. Part of which Tuscans, choosing afterwards the place of Mantua for their habitation, builded the city before the coming of Aeneas into Italy and before the edification of Rome more than 300 years” (119).

The origin of the name and the history of rulers “down the long line of the Gonzagas” (120) is omitted in this edition, that is, up to current times and Federico’s sons: Francesco, Guglielmo, Lodovico, and Federico (120).

Ferrara and other places follow with a conclusion apologizing for omitting smaller locales.

Italian Bibliography