Eredità di Carta: Biblioteche private e circolazione libraria nella Parma farnesiana (1545-1731)

By Federica Dallasta. Milan: Franco Angeli s.r.l. 2010. 415 pp. € 38 (paperback). ISBN 978-88-568-3060-6.

Often overlooked as an inauspicious chapter in book history, the Counter-Reformation has been garnering increased attention from scholars of print culture in recent years. To this growing body of literature, Federica Dallasta contributes a masterfully researched, if occasionally dry, volume that considerably enhances our understanding of post-Tridentine Italy. In Eredità di Carta, or, A Heredity of Paper: Private Libraries and the Book Market in Farnese Parma (1545-1731), Dallasta undertakes an in-depth analysis of intellectual life in the Duchy of Parma, chronicling the gradual evolution of ideas and mentalities from the Council of Trent to the first glimmers of the Enlightenment. Her intent is to depict Parmesan society based on its books; principal areas of inquiry include the functions of reading, the evolution of the book market, the history of disciplines and their pedagogies, literacy rates, the reading habits of women, the book collections and publishing contributions of notable Parma intellectuals, as well as the effects of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

The materials Dallasta uses—primarily post-mortem inventories, booksellers’ ledgers, dowries, and lists of belongings of women entering the convent—were mined in four city archives as well as in the Vatican’s Archive of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Using random sampling to arrive at a pool of 1,815 legal documents, Dallasta presses her data in a variety of ways, yielding a picture of reading that alternately confronts issues of class, profession, gender, and socio-political influence. Based on the archival evidence she gathers, the author divides the era under consideration into three periods, which she explores in Chapters 3, 4, and 5: classical (Latin) literature predominates in the first period (1545-1622); in the second (1623-1680), the literature of antiquity is partially displaced by a growing number of titles published in the vernacular; in the third (1681-1731), there is a notable increase in scientific and historical publications, and a pronounced Francophilia in all disciplines. It is worth noting that her book does not visit the ducal libraries themselves in great detail, although in her second chapter Dallasta extensively reviews the work of authors who have explored this subject.

Dallasta’s book will be of high value to readers interested in the epistemological progression of individual disciplines, particularly of the sciences, medicine, law, theology, and the humanities, as she gives ample detail on the titles found in each discipline over the three periods she identifies. Her exploration of the private collections of the secretaries, preceptors, and theologians who served the Farnese dukes is particularly compelling. Figures like Ranuccio Pico, Giovanni Battista (Don) Paroli, and Pomponio Torelli emerge because of the worldliness of their collections; their desire to stay current with avant-gardist philosophy, science, and jurisprudence, even in the face of ecclesiastical interdictions; as well as their evident struggle to reconcile the imperatives of power with their Christian faith. In Chapter 5, she also gives a very successful account of the court patronage of Ranuccio II, who exploited the theater as a tool of hegemonic influence.

Dallasta’s most ambitious and novel work concerns the descriptions of the book market and the reading habits of women (Chapters 2 and 6, respectively), which she executes with mixed results. Although her discussion of the book market over the three periods is valuable for the information it provides on pricing and format, and consequently on the books’ intended audience, drawing conclusions based on 28 booksellers’ inventories spread over nearly a 200-year period is challenging work at best. She is, of course, well aware of the myriad of other influences that could be at play within the gaps of the archival record, and for that reason offers only hesitant analysis. Her sixth chapter shows similar problems. Whereas there is a presence of sensitive or banned titles in the collections of women of ancient aristocratic lineage, Dallasta acknowledges that compilers could easily omit such titles from the post-mortem inventories of humbler women whose families might be less able to evade ecclesiastical opprobrium. For this and other reasons, it is difficult to ascertain if one is looking at a record of women’s reading choices or rather of what society authorized them to read. In this chapter, however, Dallasta does open up an interesting avenue for potential future research in the collection of Countess Taddea Gambara, whom she tentatively identifies as an exponent of the so-called heresy of St. Pelagia, a Brescian manifestation of Quietism.

Among the fascinating bits of Baroque arcana that Dallasta uncovers, consider the section devoted to books about women in her sixth chapter. Amidst the titles inviting reflection on wifely duties and the best qualities to search for in a woman, there are a fair number of works like Womanly Defects, A Remedy for Female Vanity, A Discourse Against Women, and Treatise on the Wifely Weight, in the possession of some rather exalted men, like Pomponio Torelli, making this reader want either to speculate on their use as fodder for his plays, or to feel sympathy for Mrs. Torelli, Isabella Bonelli, grandniece of Pope Pius V (334). As an example of the extravagancies of the time, renowned preacher Paolo Segneri made a visit to Parma in 1674 and clearly made a lasting impression upon chroniclers when he processed through the city flagellating himself alongside his companion. And finally, in case readers are curious, the most popular cookbook author of the era is Bartolomeo Scappi, whose mighty Opera is found in the collections of several courtiers (255).

Eredità di Carta expands upon Dallasta’s doctoral thesis, which she completed in 2008 at the Università degli studi di Udine. This book joins a number of other publications Dallasta has written on the history and culture of Parma, most notably a work on the painter Bartolomeo Schedoni, several publications on capuchin monastic libraries, and a book she co-authored on the Papal Inquisition. Giorgio Montecchi, a respected authority on book history, writes an elegant preface. This book is advised mainly for dedicated scholars of print culture.

Francesca Giannetti, University of Texas at Austin

All translations are the reviewer’s.