Elisabetta Caminer and the reception of English novels in Venice – 1

When Domenico Caminer, a famous journalist and publisher of the ‘Settecento’, left the co-direction of the Giornale Enciclopedico (formerly L’Europa letteraria) in 1776, his daughter Elisabetta took over the control of one of the most popular journals of the time. Elisabetta promoted a project which was more organic, moving the journal towards a deeper cultural and editorial engagement closer to the reality of the times. The Giornale Enciclopedico and others that were published under her direction (Nuovo Giornale Enciclopedico, Nuovo Giornale Enciclopedico d’Italia) sought to establish new relationships with prominent literary men and scientists of the era, while looking for new means and centres of distribution. Elisabetta had experience as an editor in the dissemination of foreign culture in the Italian peninsula: during her career her aim had always been to renovate and improve the intellectual milieu of the period, often attracting harsh criticism and opposition. Nevertheless, Elisabetta’s journals played an important role in the Italian reception of foreign literature during the second half of the 18th century.

Building on the studies conducted by Sama, Liuccio, MacMurran, Mangione, von Kulessa and most of all Parmegiani,[1] this essay aims at investigating how English novels were reviewed, censored, and introduced to the Italian public through an assortment of articles, reviews and announcements [often written by Elisabetta Caminer Turra] that appeared in the journals she supervised.

Undoubtedly, the Italian cultural and political horizons of the eighteenth century were extremely variegated. The editorial industry was no exception: many pre-Unitarian States possessed active publishing hubs, which engaged in the intellectual debates of the time and were attentive to various literary and reading trends. In this fragmented context, Venice certainly had the most prolific printing industry of the epoch. Over a third of all the books published in the peninsula came from the lagoon city, making it a point of reference within a growing inter-European cultural dialogue in the second half of the century on the continent. Instrumental in such dissemination was the periodical press: its popular appeal reflects, like no other medium, the perception of ‘other’ European cultures and European cultural diversity. The Caminer family played a major role in the development of Venetian journalism. As Parmegiani explains in her seminal work on eighteenth century Venetian journalism:

‘one of the longest-lasting, ideologically progressive and unconventionally run periodical ventures of the second half of the century was the Caminer-Fortis ‘project’. Rather than a laid out project from the start, it was a progressively evolving initiative that lasted three decades, despite the relatively short life of the individual periodicals of which it was comprised. The Caminer-Fortis project included five Venetian periodicals that from 1768 to 1797 formed a continuous publishing enterprise that positioned itself at the forefront of progressive ideas, promoted Enlightenment values and played an essential role in fostering a network of critically informed Italian readers. In 1768 Domenco Caminer […] founded the periodical L’Europa Letteraria. Among his collaborators, he appointed his seventeen-year-old daughter Elisabetta who was then just starting her career as a translator and director of French plays. In 1773 L’Europa letteraria was restructured and changed its title in Giornale Enciclopedico. In 1777 Elisabetta assumed its direction, moved the periodical to Vicenza (where she was living with her husband) and transformed it into a combative, progressive, and internationally-minded enterprise.’[2]

Parmegiani also stresses that Elisabetta was a member of the Venetian bourgeoisie, who found an ideal environment in the native city to fully exploit her intellectual work. Besides her activities as a journalist (the first female journalist in Italy), she eventually became an editor and a renowned translator, at the same time directly managing all her publishing enterprises. It is remarkable that her collaborators were predominantly male: under her management the journals developed a progressive view of society. The emancipation and education of women was one of the foundational ideas of the cultural initiative promoted by her journals (with some contradictions in the process, which I will point out below). Among the most important and active collaborators was the aforementioned Alberto Fortis, an enthusiastic promoter of the Enlightenment culture. During his appointment as a contributor to Caminer’s journals (and to a certain degree right-hand man), he produced many reviews, translations and original articles. The editorial team was particularly receptive towards cultural and literary news coming from abroad, and especially from France. The very name of the journal, Giornale Enciclopedico, and its variations illustrate that the debt of inspiration to trans-alpine journalism is rather blatant: Le Journal Encyclopédique was extremely popular in France, and played a fundamental role stretching as far as Italy (cf. details provided below). The French mediation is one of the most significant aspects that must be taken into account, when attempting to recreate the history of foreign culture reception through the periodical press of the late 18th century in the Italian peninsula. The reception of English novels is no exception: many of the reviews concerning this new literary object and published in the Venetian journals stem directly from reviews previously published in France. Mercure de France, Journal des Savants, Journal Encyclopédique are only a few examples of the many French journals that were an endless source of information for Italian journalists. In order to outline the history of the reception of the English novel through the periodical press, the most interesting and useful research approach is to trace the genealogical dimension of each review that made its way to Italian journals from English journals, via the French. This operation is usually quite easy: normally, once the Italian review is found, it can be assumed that a couple of months earlier a review of the same novel was published in one or more French journals. Our research reveals that in the journals directed by Elisabetta Caminer, almost 60 reviews and announcements about English novels were published over twenty years. Of these 60, the vast majority stem directly from the French press, and only a very small percentage may be traced directly back to the British press. Understanding and pinpointing in which way the Italian reviews differ from the French (and through which patterns) is crucial for the reconstruction of the Italian reception of the English novel in the literary press. In the aforementioned article, Parmegiani has already shown some significant examples of how the Venetian press dealt with the reviews of English novels and the French mediation. With a series of blog posts, we now aim to show some case studies, to analyse the extent of the phenomenon.

Let us start with the only case of completely original reviews and advertisements. As I hinted at the beginning of the article, Venice was the most active publishing hub in the entire peninsula. This means that the city was receptive towards literary novelties coming from abroad in terms of foreign publications, and some publishers were starting to circulate Italian translations of those novelties. This is the case of the Venetian publisher Pietro Valvasense. Sandra Parmegiani has already pointed out how:

‘the early 1780s were the years in which the Venetian publisher Pietro Valvasense printed two collections of Fielding’s and Richardson’s novels, and Elisabetta Caminer translated for him the History of Sir Charles Grandisson. Since she had no knowledge of English, Elisabetta based her translation on Prevost’s heavily abridged version published in Amsterdam in 1755, according to a well-established practice, and legitimized well into the nineteenth century. There is, however, no extended review of this work to accompany the several announcements of the new translation that appeared in her press, where the old masters of the English novel were, as a rule, acknowledged as such, without too many words spent to justify the relevance of their work or their significance for the Italian readership. Though certainly great novels, they were well established in the second half of the eighteenth century and not often in need of many journalistic remarks.’[3]

The fact that well-established authors did not seem to need extensive comments is a pattern that we will have the opportunity to further investigate later on. In an article about Venetian editorial initiatives, Richardson is for instance introduced to the readership as ‘l’autore immortale, la di cui penna è stata condotta dalla natura, dalla virtù, dalla morale più fina, e dal sentimento più delicato’ [the immortal author, whose pen was steered by nature, by virtue, by the finest morals, and the most delicate feeling] Nuovo Giornale Enciclopedico (1786, pp. 111–112): a simple yet truly meaningful description. Not many words were used to describe his work, either: ‘Crediamo inutile il rinnovare gli elogi di quest’Opera, che nel suo genere può dirsi eccellente’ [We believe it is unnecessary to repeat our praise of this work’s worth, which can be said to be excellent in its genre] (Nuovo Giornale Enciclopedico, October 1785, p. 125). Richardson’s reputation was already established, and his work was quite popular among the Italian readers. Some more stylistic remarks will integrate Parmegiani’s words. While introducing the news of the imminent publication of a collection of ‘Operette galanti’ [gallant works] by Valvasense in May 1781, the Giornale Enciclopedico states that the publisher would always opt, in this regard, for works in which the dominant feelings are Love, Virtue and Truth. Immediately after, the ‘ultimi Romanzi del famoso Fielding Inglese’ [the last novels of the famous English author Fielding] are named as the first books to open the collection. It seems quite obvious that the audience, after reading this announcement, was immediately brought to associate the concepts of Love, Virtue and most of all Truth with Fielding’s works, and by extension with the literature coming from England. On the one hand, the journal was showing an early appreciation for the sentimental novel, on the other, it was pinpointing some of its key concepts, which will prove to be fundamental in the change of the literary paradigm that the reception of the English novel, often investigating the dialectics between love, decorum and virtue, will bring into the Italian cultural horizon of the time.



[1] Catherine Sama (editor and translator), Selected Writings of an Eighteenth-Century Venetian Woman of Letters. Elisabetta Caminer Turra. University of Chicago Press, 2003; Michaela Liuccio, Elisabetta Caminer, la prima donna giornalista italiana. Il Poligrafo, 2010 ; Mary H MacMurran, The Spread of Novels: Translation and Prose Fiction in the Eighteenth Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010; Daniela Mangione, Prima di Manzoni. Autore e lettore nel romanzo del Settecento. Salerno Editrice, 2012; Rotraud Von Kulessa, Elisabetta Camniera Turra e L’Europa letteraria. Riflessioni sulla traduzione, in “Circula”, 2, 2015, pp. 18-30; Sandra Parmegiani, Textual Mobility in the Eighteenth Century: English Novels and the Venetian Press, Crossways Journal, 1, 1, 2017, 11 pp.

[2] Id., p. 2.

[3] Ibid., p. 3.


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