1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Villani, Giovanni
VILLANI, GIOVANNI (c. 1275-1348), Italian chronicler, was the son of Villano di Stoldo, and was born at Florence in the second half of the 13th century; the precise year is unknown. He was of good burgher extraction, and, following the traditions of his family, applied himself to commerce. During the early years of the 14th century he travelled in Italy, France and the Netherlands, seeing men and things with the sagacity alike of the man of business and of the historian. Before leaving Florence, or rather in the interval between one journey and another, he had at least taken some part in that troubled period of civil contentions which Dino Compagni has described and which swept Dante Alighieri into banishment. In 1301 Villani saw Charles, count of Valois, ruining his country under the false name of peacemaker, and was witness of all the misery which immediately followed. Somewhat later he left Italy, and in September 1304 he visited Flanders. It is not well ascertained when he returned to his native city. He was certainly living there shortly after the emperor Henry VII. visited Italy in 1312, and probably he had been there for some time before. While still continuing to occupy himself with commerce, he now began to take a prominent part in public affairs. In 1316 and 1317 he was one of the priors, and shared in the crafty tactics whereby Pisa and Lucca were induced to conclude a peace with Florence, to which they were previously averse. In 1317 he also had charge of the mint, and during his administration of this office he collected its earlier records and had a register made of all the coins struck in Florence. In 1321 he was again chosen prior; and, the Florentines having just then undertaken the rebuilding of the city walls, he and some other citizens were deputed to look after the work. They were afterwards accused of having diverted the public money to private ends, but Villani clearly established his innocence. He was next sent with the army against Castruccio Castracani, lord of Lucca, and was present at its defeat at Altopascio. In 1328 a terrible famine visited many provinces of Italy, including Tuscany, and Villani was appointed to guard Florence from the worst effects of that distressing period. He has left a record of what was done in a chapter of his Chronicle, which shows the economic wisdom in which the medieval Florentines were often so greatly in advance of their age. In 1339, some time after the death of Castruccio, some rich Florentine merchants, and among them Villani, treated for the acquisition of Lucca by Florence for 80,000 florins, offering to supply the larger part of that sum out of their own private means; but the negotiations fell through, owing to the discords and jealousies then existing in the government (Chron. x. 143). The following year Villani superintended the making of Andrea Pisano's bronze doors for the baptistery. In the same year he watched over the raising of the campanile of the Badia, erected by Cardinal Giovanni Orsini (Chron. x. 177). In 1341 the acquisition of Lucca was again under treaty, this time with Martino della Scala, for 250,000 florins. Villani was sent with others as a hostage to Ferrara, where he remained for some months. He was present in Florence during the unhappy period that elapsed between the entry of Walter of Brienne, duke of Athens, and his expulsion by the Florentines (1342-43). Involved through no fault of his own in the failure of the commercial company of the Bonaccorsi, which in its turn had been drawn into the failure of the company of the Bardi, Villani, towards the end of his life, suffered much privation and for some time was kept in prison. In 1348 he fell a victim to the plague described by Boccaccio.
The idea of writing the Chronicle was suggested to Villani under the following circumstances: “In the year of Christ 1300 Pope Boniface VIII. made in honour of Christ's nativity a special and great indulgence. And I, finding myself in that blessed pilgrimage in the holy city of Rome, seeing her great and ancient remains, and reading the histories and great deeds of the Romans as written by Virgil, Sallust, Lucan, Livy, Valerius, Paulus Orosius and other masters of history who wrote the exploits and deeds, both great and small, of the Romans and also of strangers, in the whole world . . . considering that our city of Florence, the daughter and offspring of Rome, is on the increase and destined to do great things, as Rome is in her decline, it appeared to me fitting to set down in this volume and new chronicle all the facts and beginnings of the city of Florence, in as far as it has been possible to me to collect and discover them, and to follow the doings of the Florentines at length . . . and so in the year 1300, on my return from Rome, I began to compile this book, in honour of God and of the blessed John, and in praise of our city of Florence.” Villani's work, written in Italian, makes its appearance, so to speak, unexpectedly in the historical literature of Italy, just as the history of Florence, the moment it emerges from the humble and uncertain origin assigned to it by legend, rises suddenly into a rich and powerful life of thought and action. Nothing but scanty and partly legendary records had preceded Villani's work, which rests in part on them. The Gesta Florentinorum of Sanzanome, starting from these vague origins, begins to be more definite about 1125, at the time of the union of Fiesole with Florence. The Chronica de Origine Civitatis seems to be a compilation, made by various hands and at various times, in which the different legends regarding the city's origin have been gradually collected. The Annales Florentini Primi (1110-1173) and the Annales Florentini Secundi (1107-1247), together with a list of the consuls and podestas from 1197 to 1267, and another chronicle, formerly attributed, but apparently without good reason, to Brunetto Latini, complete the series of ancient Florentine records. To these must, however, be added a certain quantity of facts which were to be found in various manuscripts, being used and quoted by the older Florentine and Tuscan writers under the general name of Gesta Florentinorum. Another work, formerly reckoned among the sources of Villani, is the Chronicle of the Malespini; but grave doubts are now entertained as to its authenticity, and many hold that at best it is merely a remodeling, posterior to Villani's time, of old records from which several chroniclers may have drawn, either without citing them at all or only doing so in a vague manner.
The Historie Florentine, or Cronica universale, of Villani begins with Biblical times and comes down to 1348. The universality of the narrative, especially in the times near Villani's own, while it bears witness to the author's extensive travels and to the comprehensiveness of his mind, makes one also feel that the book was inspired within the walls of the universal city. Whereas Dino Compagni's Chronicle is confined within definite limits of time and place, this of Villani is a general chronicle extending over the whole of Europe. Dino Compagni feels and lives in the facts of his history; Villani looks at them and relates them calmly and fairly, with a serenity which makes him seem an outsider, even when he is mixed up in them. While very important for Italian history in the 14th century, this work is the cornerstone of the early medieval history of Florence. Of contemporary events Villani has a very exact knowledge. Having been a sharer in the public affairs and in the intellectual and economic life of his native city, at a time when in both it had no rival in Europe, he depicts what he saw with the vividness natural to a clear mind accustomed to business and to the observation of mankind. He was Guelph, but without passion; and his book is much more taken up with an inquiry into what is useful and true than with party considerations. He is really a chronicler, not an historian, and has but little method in his narrative, often reporting the things which occurred long ago just as he heard them and without criticism. Every now and then he falls into some inaccuracy; but such defects as he has are largely compensated for by his valuable qualities. He was for half a century eyewitness of his history, and he provides abundant information on the constitution of Florence, its customs, industries, commerce and arts; and among the chroniclers throughout Europe he is perhaps unequalled for the value of the statistical data he has preserved. As a writer Villani is clear and acute; and, though his prose has not the force and colouring of Compagni's, it has the advantage of greater simplicity, so that, taking his work as a whole, he may be regarded as the greatest chronicler who has written in Italian. The many difficulties connected with the publication of this important text have hitherto prevented the preparation of a perfect edition. However, the Chronicle has been printed by L. A. Muratori in tome xiii. of the Rerum Italicarum Scriptores (Milan, 1728), and has been edited by I. Moutier and F. G. Dragomanni (Florence, 1844). Among other editions is one published at Trieste in 1857 and another at Turin in 1879. Selections have been translated into English by R. E. Selfe (1896).
Villani's Chronicle was continued by two other members of his family, (1) Matteo Villani, his brother, of whom nothing is known save that he was twice married and that he died of the plague in 1363, continued it down to the year of his death. Matteo's work, though inferior to Giovanni's, is nevertheless very valuable. A more prolix writer than his brother and a less acute observer, Matteo is well informed in his facts, and for the years of which he writes is one of the most important sources of Italian history. (2) Filippo Villani, the son of Matteo, flourished in the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th century. In his continuation which goes down to 1364, though showing greater literary ability, he is very inferior as an historian to his predecessors. His most valuable work was a collection of lives of illustrious Florentines. Twice, in 1401 and 1404, he was chosen to explain in public the Divina Commedia. The year of his death is unknown.
See P. Scheffer-Boichorst, Florentiner Studien (Leipzig, 1874); G. Gervinus, “Geschichte der Florentiner Historiographie” in his Historische Schriften (1833); U. Balzani, Le cronache Italiane nel media evo (Milan, 1884); A. Gaspary, Geschichte der italienischen Literatur (Berlin, 1885); O. Knoll, Beiträge zur italienischen Historiographie im 14. Jahrhundert (Göttingen 1876), and O. Hartwig, “G. Villani und die Leggenda di Messer Gianni di Procida” in Band xxv. of H. von Sybel's Historische Zeitschrift. (U. B.)