Literature and Identity in Italian Baroque Travel Writing
by Nathalie Hester

Reviewed by Gil Haylon

Nathalie Hester offers a thorough and unique look at 17th century Italian travel writing, a surprisingly rich time period for such work. An Associate Professor of Italian and French at the University of Oregon, Hester demonstrates a unique ability to combine thorough research with an engaging style in her book, Literature and Identity in Italian Baroque Travel Writing. Despite teaching multiple classes in both French and Italian, Hester has found time to contribute to many different academic journals, and write this book of her own. The five chapters fly past despite the seemingly dense topic of Italian literary history. From Pietro Della Valle’s Viaggi to the fate of Italian travel literature, there is not a more comprehensive book on this subject. The ability to discuss themes and questions with ease and clarity is what separates this book from a typical examination of literary history.

The heavily footnoted and quoted book offers many points of view on Italian travel writing history, as Hester quotes hundreds of authors. At times, this leads to an interrupted pace, yet it allows for complete history on the subject. Further strengthening the book was its ability to pass on expertise. I came into the book with zero knowledge of Italian Baroque travel writing, yet I came away as somewhat of an expert. While it is hardly possible to soak up every detail of the book, remembering as little as half of what I read will make me ten times more knowledgeable than a typical person in this subject. This “golden age” of Italian travel and exploration is explained with poignancy and simplicity, as something as intense as Francesco Belli’s Italian prose is dissected into a “kaleidoscope of narrative levels” in a distinctively simple way. (117)

Within her clear style, Hester argues that many of the distinguishing attributes of Italian travel writing can be seen in the context of Italian cultural identity during this time period. Examining travel writing in this period in Italy, Hester concludes that certain literary characteristics are used as a result of the lack of an Italian national political identity. She goes on to look at writing in the context of Italian religion and other influential factors in Italian history. Hester focuses on major authors of the time period, dividing chapters for each one, as Francesco Carletti, Pietro Della Valle, Franceso Belli, Francesco Negri, and Giovanni Francesco Gemelli Careri are all examined. Mastering the ability to examine such timeless writers, Hester dissects blocks of the famous writings, explaining the significance and offering questions for thought.

The introduction to the book tells all, as Hester begins her study of historic Italian travel writing by examining a cartoon from the New Yorker. Using the cartoon as a starting point to jump into discussion of Columbus, Vespucci, and the discovery of the New World, Hester inspires the reader with her excitement for Italian travel history. This is the perfect demonstration of her style, as she refuses to cave in to the methodical drone of typical historical literary analysis. Her refreshing attitude pulls the reader in, allowing for her clever and occasionally witty writing to maintain the readers’ interest. While Hester’s obsession with the footnote often pigeon holes her work as typical historical boredom, a reader should quickly see that her thorough research should not be intimidating. The book offers interesting insight into a subject and era that are seldom examined, especially not in this detail. Concise yet provocative style allows for a swifter read than one would think at first sight. In the end, the dense subject matter is no match for Hester’s personal style, as the book remains an interesting read throughout the footnotes and quotations.

Nathalie Hester
Literature and Identity in Italian Baroque Travel Writing
(Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, June 18, 2008).
ISBN-10: 0754661946. $99.95. 225 Pgs.

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