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A Spectacular Failure: Translating the BCP into Italian

Making Italy Anglican:
Why the Book of Common Prayer Was Translated into Italian

By Stefano Villani
Oxford, pp. 322, $99

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Stefano Villani’s Making Italy Anglican is much more than an account of the textual history of Italian translations and editions of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), though Villani has meticulously reconstructed that history. The book is also more interesting than the story of English attempts to turn Italy Protestant, though the extent to which that (probably foolhardy) project was attempted is also expertly traced in these pages.

Making Italy Anglican is an exhaustively researched and densely footnoted study of a text’s translation. But in the telling of this tale — befitting the nature of Anglophile Italians and Italianate Englishmen — all manner of eccentric, fascinating, scandalous, and sometimes even funny historical phenomena are brought to life and woven together with surprising cohesion. In telling a story of spectacular failure (translations of the BCP had very little influence on Italian religion), Villani’s book illuminates our knowledge of Italian and English religion and culture from the Gunpowder Plot (1605) through Vatican I (1870) and beyond.

The backdrop is a long history, spanning over three centuries, of British-Anglican religious and political relations with Italians, usually either anti-papalist Italian Catholic reformers or Italians interested, for whatever reason, in finding spiritual nourishment and a church community outside Roman Catholicism. Villani proceeds from the early 17th to the late 19th century via an analysis of Italian translations.

As a history of translation and as a close textual study of these many editions, Villani’s study has inherent worth. Widening the book’s appeal are some detailed discussions of various translators’ choices for key terms, and the theological presuppositions and agendas behind such choices: e.g., priest, presbyter, or minister.

The story begins with a fascinating point of Anglo-Italian contact, during the great ecclesiological crisis that gripped Roman Catholicism in the early 17th century. As the anti-papalist Servite Fra Paolo Sarpi crossed swords (or pens) with Cardinal Bellarmine over the ecclesio-political policies of the Republic of Venice (put under Interdict, with limited success, by Pope Paul V), English Catholics reeled from the Gunpowder Plot and the oath imposed in its aftermath by King James I.

The story of English Protestant encouragement of a (Catholic) Venetian schism with Rome is one of the great what-ifs of history. From this violently anti-papalist “Sarpian tradition” emerged the first Italian translation of the BCP, the work of William Bedell (ch. 1). Part I of the book  recounts these well-known ecclesiological crises from the fresh angle of Anglo-Italian contact and the first translations of the BCP. As with all good accounts of this era, Villani recounts the antics of the Croatian Catholic archbishop — turned Anglican polemicist, turned Catholic penitent — Marco Antonio De Dominis, one of the most entertaining eccentrics in all of Church history.

Part II is more diffuse, running from the first Italian edition of the BCP (Edward Brown’s) in 1685 to polyglot editions in the 1820s. Part III shifts focus to the BCP as an engine of imperial propaganda, and runs from the 1831 edition of George Frederick Nott to a final chapter on the use of an Italian BCP by immigrants in the United States.

Villani’s story of “failure” takes readers all the way from opportunistic English Protestants in Sarpi’s Venice to John Henry Newman in court, sued for libel by an Italian rogue ex-Catholic priest in 1851. By then, readers have been made aware of little-known precursors to Newman and the Oxford Movement’s well-known claim of the Anglican or Anglo-Catholic tradition as a via media between Roman Catholicism and Reformation Protestantism.

Probably the most interesting insights in Villani’s book are the different reasons that Italian editions of the BCP were made, and the values and goals they reflected. While there were sincere attempts to convert Italians to Protestantism, BCP translations were also undertaken for a wide range of other reasons: as an aid to the English upper classes learning Italian for their grand tour; as a demonstration of the reasonable, dignified, and biblical religion of the British Empire; and to encourage anti-papalist reform within Roman Catholicism (rather than to convert Catholics).

The fruit of immense erudition, Villani’s book manages to take readers on a grand tour of their own, all the way from the machinations of Stuart diplomats in 1605 to a tearful abjuration of heresy made by Fr. Enrico Campello before the Inquisition in 1902, returning from a schismatic venture to London. Villani’s work, unlike that of his protagonists, is a rousing success.



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