Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Alessandra Petrina, Machiavelli in the British Isles (Ashgate, 2009)

Alessandra Petrina, Machiavelli in the British Isles: Two Early Modern Translations of The Prince. Farnham: Ashgate, 2009. xvii + 289 pp. Hbk. ISBN 9780754666974. £60.00.

Reviewed by Michael Bath

[1]  This edition of two hitherto little-known translations, both in manuscript, of Machiavelli’s The Prince, may at first sight look like a rather specialised, marginal subject for publication in Ashgate’s Anglo-Italian Renaissance Studies Series, however the wider interest and importance of this edition, with its substantial Introduction and generous concluding ‘Critical Reading and Commentary’ on the two texts, should not be underestimated. The reputation and influence of Machiavelli in England have of course long been subjects of debate, with book-length studies from scholars such as Edward Meyer (1897), Felix Raab (1965), Robert Birley (1990) and Sydney Anglo (2005), and articles too numerous to mention, indeed it is difficult to imagine how any of us could get very far when discussing the politics of early-modern writers without, sooner or later, mentioning Machiavelli. These two English/Scottish translations will stand as vital witnesses to the reception of Machiavelli in the British Isles, and as this involves wider issues concerning the access of northern renaissance writers to Italian materials and sources the book deserves the attention of readers of JNR. The first English version of Machiavelli to appear in print only came out in 1640, which raises questions about readers’ access to the actual text of The Prince prior to this date, but the survival of a dozen or more earlier manuscripts shows that at least three different translations had already been attempted before Edward Dacres’ in 1640, and it is the status and circulation of these that are examined by Professor Petrina in this exemplary study.

[2]  The fact that one of the present two translations was written by Scots poet and courtier, William Fowler, is what will make this book of immediate interest to many of us. The other translation is an anonymous manuscript in Queen’s College, Oxford, which has not previously been edited or printed. Fowler’s translation of Il Principe in the National Library of Scotland was, however, edited by the Library’s principal librarian, Henry Meikle, for his three-volume edition of Fowler’s Works.  Edited over a period of more than twenty-five years, the intermittent publication of these volumes in 1914, 1936 and 1940 resulted in few libraries or individuals purchasing all three together, so that it can now be difficult to find copies of the whole set. This makes a new edition of Fowler’s translation most welcome to those of us who have struggled to find, or buy, copies of Meikle’s edition, and Professor Petrina’s substantial introductory ‘Life of William Fowler’ promises, at last, to place Fowler more securely on the scholarly map, complementing the work of recent scholars such as R. D. S. Jack, Margaret Sanderson, Sarah Dunnigan, Sebastiaan Verweij and Elizabeth Elliott on Fowler.

[3]  It is not just Fowler’s own writings which have attracted recent scholarly attention but also his contacts with a large number of individuals at home and abroad, ranging from Michel de Mauvissière, Francis Walsingham, Giordano Bruno, Samuel Daniel, Edward Dymoke, and  John Florio, to the Earl of Shrewsbury and Arbella Stuart.  Fowler travelled not only to Paris but also in Italy, and it was in Padua not in England that he made contact with Edward Dymoke and, possibly, with Florio and Daniel. He bought books in Venice from Giovanbattista Ciotti, a leading agent – at the Frankfurt book fair – in the circulation of books between Italy and northern Europe, and it might possibly have been Ciotti who supplied Fowler with the copy of Machiavelli that he used for his translation of Il Principe. Petrina’s meticulous textual editing does not, however, discover which version of Machiavelli’s text Fowler actually used, although she notes that Fowler repeats many of the misreadings which appear in the 1553 French translation by Gaspard d’Auvergne, a translation dedicated, as it happens, to James Hamilton ‘duc de Châtelherault’. It is probably worth noting that this dedication is anticipated by another, similar dedication around this time, when Hamilton was Governor of Scotland, having been given his French title in 1548, for in 1549 Barthélemy Aneau’s French translation of the emblems of Alciato had been dedicated to Hamilton’s son, the young Earl of Arran, at the suggestion of Scotsman Florence Wilson, a friend of George Buchanan and author of De Tranquillitate Animi. As I noted a few years ago, this dedication was almost certainly motivated by Aneau’s attempt to recommend Wilson as candidate for the position of tutor in France to Hamilton’s son, the young Earl of Arran, a position which was filled, as it turned out, not by Wilson but by George Buchanan’s brother Patrick.  Fowler developed a keen interest in emblems, though that does not mean that he had any knowledge of Aneau’s translation or of its Scottish dedication, but these coincidences might at least suggest something of the transnational context within which the early modern culture of Scotland needs to be studied, although whether or not we should now think of this as part of a ‘new globalism’ in early modern studies might still be open to debate.

[4]  The Queen’s College manuscript is anonymous and thus affords little scope for similar research on its authorship, circulation or motivation. It is likely to have reached the College in the seventeenth century as part of a substantial donation by ex-alumnus and Bishop of Lincoln, Thomas Barlow, whose library included, as it happens, editions of Machiavelli’s Discorsi and also the Florentine History. The prior ownership of the manuscript is unknown, although the spine does have the word Dee inscribed. The possibility that this might be mathematician and astrologer John Dee is, rightly, considered by Petrina, but finally dismissed as unverifiable if not unlikely.

[5]  It is therefore not only this book’s contribution to continuing research on the Northern reputation and circulation of Machiavelli that  leads me to recommend it to readers of JNR, but also the fact that it gathers together so much finely researched information on the wide circle of acquaintances and subjects that William Fowler was involved with. The two translations are studied in the context of recent work on the role of manuscript transmission and translation that have preoccupied many of us since the appearance of H. R. Woudhuysen’s Sir Philip Sidney and the Circulation of Manuscripts 1558-1640 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996). For these reasons this book deserves, and will surely gain, a wide readership in early modern studies and amongst students of the northern Renaissance in particular.

October 2010

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