The Venetian Qur'an: A Renaissance Companion to Islam

The Venetian Qur'an: A Renaissance Companion to Islam

The Venetian Qur'an: A Renaissance Companion to Islam

The Venetian Qur'an: A Renaissance Companion to Islam


An anonymous book appeared in Venice in 1547 titled L'Alcorano di Macometto, and, according to the title page, it contained "the doctrine, life, customs, and laws [of Mohammed]... newly translated from Arabic into the Italian language." Were this true, L'Alcorano di Macometto would have been the first printed direct translation of the Qur'an in a European vernacular language. The truth, however, was otherwise. As soon became clear, the Qur'anic sections of the book--about half the volume--were in fact translations of a twelfth-century Latin translation that had appeared in print in Basel in 1543. The other half included commentary that balanced anti-Islamic rhetoric with new interpretations of Muhammad's life and political role in pre-Islamic Arabia. Despite having been discredited almost immediately, the Alcorano was affordable, accessible, and widely distributed.

In The Venetian Qur'an, Pier Mattia Tommasino uncovers the volume's mysterious origins, its previously unidentified author, and its broad, lasting influence. L'Alcorano di Macometto, Tommasino argues, served a dual purpose: it was a book for European refugees looking to relocate in the Ottoman Empire, as well as a general Renaissance reader's guide to Islamic history and stories. The book's translation and commentary were prepared by an unknown young scholar, Giovanni Battista Castrodardo, a complex and intellectually accomplished man, whose commentary in L'Alcorano di Macometto bridges Muhammad's biography and the text of the Qur'an with Machiavelli's The Prince and Dante's Divine Comedy. In the years following the publication of L'Alcorano di Macometto, the book was dismissed by Arabists and banned by the Catholic Church. It was also, however, translated into German, Hebrew, and Spanish and read by an extended lineage of missionaries, rabbis, renegades, and iconoclasts, including such figures as the miller Menocchio, Joseph Justus Scaliger, and Montesquieu. Through meticulous research and literary analysis, The Venetian Qur'an reveals the history and legacy of a fascinating historical and scholarly document.


Some years ago, as a graduate student at the Scuola Normale Superiore, I began to consult on a daily basis the exemplar of the Alcorano di Macometto in the University Library of Pisa. More than one spring afternoon was spent reading and transcribing a Renaissance companion to Islam, the second half of which contained the first printed translation of the Qur’an in a European language. Published by Andrea Arrivabene in Venice in 1547, this book is well known to experts on a number of subjects. Carlo Ginzburg’s essay on the cosmos of the miller Menocchio, The Cheese and the Worms, brought it to the attention of historians and made it known to a wide readership. European scholars of Oriental languages have been familiar with it for some time. Beginning with the European proto-Orientalists of the second half of the sixteenth century, the Alcorano di Macometto was considered fraudulent, an act of plagiarism, an imposture. It was seen as a partial, arbitrary, and awkward translation of the Qur’an, in actual fact translated from the medieval Latin version by Robert of Ketton (1143) and not at all what the publisher stated on the title page: “Newly translated from the Arabic into the Italian tongue.”

Given my background in linguistic and philological studies on medieval Italian poetry, the exemplar before me, marked D’Ancona 16.7.10, was a novel object. Half bound in green leather and marble paper, the book revealed visible traces of its history and its owners: on the title page, the stamp of “Dono D’Ancona” to the University Library of Pisa and, on the back of the front cover, a printed ex -libris that read: “Ex libris Jacobj Manzoni.”

As I read and transcribed the text during the spring of 2004, enjoying the breeze that blew in through the library windows overlooking Piazza Dante, I paid little attention to those notes of ownership. I

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