The Italian translation of Giovanni Battista Castrodardo as published by Andrea Arrivabene (1547)
The first complete translation of the Qur’ān into a European vernacular language was printed in Venice in 1547. It is presented in a work entitled L’Alcorano di Macometto, nelqual si contiene la dottrina, la vita, i costumi, et le leggi sue. Tradotto nuovamente dall’Arabo in lingua Italiana (“The Qur’ān of Muḥammad, containing his doctrine, customs and laws. Newly translated from Arabic into Italian”). Contrary to the agenda stated in the title, this translation is not based on the Arabic text, but rather on Robert de Ketton’s Latin version, and is abridged. This Italian version contributed greatly to the circulation of knowledge about Islam in early modern Europe nonetheless.
Giovanni Battista Castrodardo, author of the Alcorano
The Alcorano was published by the Venetian Andrea Arrivabene. Over the last few centuries, several hypotheses have been raised as to the identity of the translator, who remained anonymous. It was not until the 2000s that his identity came to light, thanks to the thin autobiographical traces dispersed throughout the text. It is now known that this translation must be attributed to Giovanni Battista Castrodardo. Although few of the details of the latter’s life are known, they can be traced in broad outline.
Giovanni Battista Castrodardo was born around 1517 to a bourgeois family from Belluno, a city in the Republic of Venice. He was a nephew of the humanist Pietro Marenio Aleandro. According to the testimony of a contemporary, Castrodardo pursued literary and legal studies. However, no mention is made of any possible learning of oriental languages. From an early age he was destined for a career in the church. In 1534 he joined the chapter of the cathedral of Belluno and did not leave it until 1584, three or four years before his death, without ever having held any notable office. He was ordained in 1539. His path is apparently linear, but there is a significant break between 1543 and 1548, a period during which Castrodardo abandons Belluno and, collaborating with at least two Venetian publishers, seems to attempt a career in the field of letters. He started in 1544, with the translation of Nicolò Leonico Tomeo’s De varia historia, a scholarly work on the ancient world that was a major success at the time, published by Michele Tramezzino by,. In the preface, Castrodardo announces that he is undertaking a second project, namely the composition of a commentary on Dante’s Divine Comedy. According to what he wrote in a marginal note in the Alcorano, the writing of this commentary was near completion in in 1547, but this work would never be printed and the manuscript is lost. Between 1544 and 1547, Castrodardo also worked on the Alcorano, probably commissioned by the publisher Andrea Arrivabene. The publication of this third work seems to mark the end of Castrodardo’s collaboration with the Venetian publishing world. In 1548 he returned to Belluno and, although he composed a historiographical work on the local bishops and some poems in the following decades, these texts have remained in manuscript form, and are known to us only through indirect testimonies and fragments. The Alcorano is therefore the last of his works to have been completely preserved.
This insight into the life of Giovanni Battista Castrodardo raises some legitimate questions: as a translator of the Qur’ān, he apparently never studied Arabic or other oriental languages, and there is nothing to suggest that he cultivated any particular interest in Islam or, more generally, for the East. The Alcorano therefore appears to be an eccentric work, both in terms of its literary output and its cultural horizon. The choice of Arrivabene, who lacked the expertise needed to translate the Qur’ān, is no less confusing. In order to understand the reasons that may have led them to collaborate in such a project, it is necessary to reconstruct the context in which the book appears, and then consider its formal aspects, structure and content.
The Alcorano’s context of publication
The second quarter of the 16th century was a turbulent period on both sides of the Mediterranean. Europe, shaken by the Reformation from the end of the 1510s, was torn apart by clashes between Catholics and Protestants. It was no less troubled by the Italian Wars, which for decades opposed the France and the Holy Roman Empire. The precarious equilibrium of regions between the Eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf was shattered by the aggressive policies of Persia and the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman expansionist ambitions ended up directly affecting Europe. After conquering Mamluk Egypt in 1517, the Ottoman Sultan launched a series of military campaigns against the Balkans and Hungary, to the point of threatening the city of Vienna in 1529. Among the consequences of these operations on the Christian West, two were decisive for the publication of the Alcorano. One was political and military in nature: it was the alliance between the king Francis I and the Sultan Suleiman I against the Habsburgs, an alliance that was sealed in 1536 and then maintained thanks to intense and prolonged diplomatic efforts, the most significant of which was undertaken by the ambassador Gabriel de Luetz, Lord of Aramon (1547-1553), to whom the Alcorano was dedicated. The other is of a cultural and literary nature: it consists of a growing interest on the part of European readers in a power that is both threatening and fascinating, but which is still somewhat poorly known. From the 1530s to the 1540s, numerous works in Latin and vernacular languages began to circulate throughout Europe. These works were consecrated to the Ottoman Empire and its inhabitants, their customs, language, institutions as well as their religion.
It is within this context that Andrea Arrivabene, a Venetian publisher, author and translator active from 1534 to 1570, must be situated. Close to the heterodox circles of north-eastern Italy, linked to several characters accused of Reformist heresy, engaged in the dissemination and propagation of suspicious or forbidden works, Arrivabene was repeatedly threatened by the Inquisition during his career. During the early years of practice, his catalogue presents a great internal variety, including works on medicine, science, religion, philosophy, history, poetry, theatre composed mainly in Latin. Towards the end of the 1530s, however, Arrivabene refined his commercial strategy. His publications in Italian increased in number, and were mainly devoted to the Christian religion, as well as to ancient and contemporary history. Alongside the edifying works of Ephrem, Augustine, Savonarola and Comalada, he provides readers with others by Xenophon and the historians of late antiquity, Boccaccio’s historiographical and mythographical works, Giovanni Simonetta’s life of the Duke of Milan Francesco Sforza, Machiavelli’s history of Florence as well as Andrea Mocenigo’s history of the war between Venice and the League of Cambrai. Arrivabene thus targets a readership that is not scholarly but educated and curious, interested in popular reference works on both religions and in ancient and modern history. The Alcorano project is part of this editorial strategy.
While the specific process by which the Alcorano was conceived and produced remains unclear, we can identify some of the circumstances that probably contributed to the genesis and formatting of the volume. In the early 1540s, the publication of the Qur’ān was destined for mass dissemination. In 1543, Theodor Bibliander published his monumental edition of the corpus of Cluny, composed in the middle of the 12th century and which included the Latin translation of the Qur’ān by Robert de Ketton. In the same year, Johann Albrecht Widmanstetter published his Mahometis Abdallæ filii theologia dialogo explicata, which contains an edition with commentary of an epitome of the Qur’ān and of one of the pieces of the corpus of Cluny, the Doctrina Machumet. More generally, around the mid-1540s, the booksellers’ market was enriched by numerous new works on Islam and the Turks. However, whether they were militant pamphlets or scholarly tomes, these works were often available only in Latin. With the Alcorano, Arrivabene aims to fill a vacant niche in the Italian and European publishing market; he publishes a compendium in a vernacular language on the religion of the Turks, including an alleged first — the Qur’ān “newly translated from Arabic”. In so doing, he expanded his repertoire of works on the recent history of Venice and especially on the States with which Venice had the most complex relations: after the Republic of Florence (Machiavelli, Historie, 1539-1540), the Duchy of Milan (Simonetta, Historie, 1544) and the powerhouses united in the League of Cambrai (Mocenigo, La guerra di Cambrai, 1544), Arrivabene decides to focus on the Ottoman Empire (L’Alcorano di Macometto, 1547).
Placed in this perspective, the choice of entrusting the translation of the Qur’ān not to an orientalist but to a cleric with a passion for Latin certainly appears less incongruous, since the Alcorano’s project itself does not seem to respond in the first place to philological, exegetical, theological or apologetic ambitions. Moreover, the dedication of this book to the French ambassador Gabriel de Luetz, during his brief Venetian stay in February 1547, on his way to Constantinople, also testifies to the ideological and political implications of this publishing venture.
The Alcorano di Macometto: formal features and structure of the material
From the outset, regular customers of the bookseller Arrivabene would probably have guessed that the Alcorano, printed in italics, was not considered by its publisher as a religious work, in which case it would have been printed in round type. In his dedication, Arrivabene himself stresses that he considers this volume to be a history, a precious discipline for all those involved in government and state administration. Since relations between Christianity and the “Mohammedan nation” are particularly turbulent, he writes, Christian princes must know the fundamentals of this civilization in order to better regulate their relations with it, in times of peace as well as in times of war. They will be able to find these fundamentals in the Alcorano, “in which the religion, laws, customs and almost every aspect of the life of these people are amply described”. It is understandable that, for Arrivabene, the category of “history” encompasses and even privileges what we would call the ethnography, the history of religions and the history of institutions.
The Alcorano consists of two sections of unequal length. The first is a long ethnographic introduction of sorts, based on various recently published works: Juan Andrés’ Opera chiamata confusione della setta machumetana (1537); Bartoloměj Georgevič’s De Turcarum ritu et cærimoniis (1544); Luigi Bassano’s I costumi et i modi particolari de la vita de Turchi (1545); and Bernardo Giustinian’s Historia [...] dell’origine di Vinegia (1545). From the work on these sources, the author draws a first chapter devoted to the life of Muḥammad, followed by four chapters on the customs of the Turks and their relations with the Christians. This section is supplemented in the copies put on sale after 1548 by two chapters taken from Giovanni Antonio Menavino’s Trattato de costumi et vita de Turchi and Bartoloměj Georgevič’s Prophetia de maometani, et altre cose turchesche, both published in 1548.
The introduction is followed by the main section of the volume, which is divided into three books. It brings together the abridged translation of three pieces present in the corpus of Cluny (Primo libro) and that of the Qur’ān (Secondo and Terzo libro). In fact, it reproduces the structure of the collection composed on the initiative of Peter the Venerable four centuries earlier, in which the Quranic text is associated with a series of opuscules illustrating different aspects of the life of the prophet and his successors, as well as Muslim theology, laws and religious customs. The Primo libro dell’Alcorano aims to show how Muḥammad founded his political power and religious authority: it contains an epitome from the Chronica mendosa et ridicula Sarracenorum, the De generatione Machumet et nutritura eius, and the Doctrina Machumet. The next two books present “the law of the Saracens, which was imposed on them by Mohammed”: i.e. the Qur’ān. This is divided into two halves, following the tradition set in European reception by Robert de Ketton’s Latin translation. The Fātiḥa, or the opening sūrah, is isolated from the rest of the text and is not numbered. Castrodardo seems to translate this sūrah according to the second of the three Latin versions provided by Bibliander. Sūrah 2 begins the series of twenty-six chapters that make up the Secondo libro, or sūrahs 2 to 18 in the numbering now in use: the second sūrah is divided into three parts, the third into three parts as well, the fourth into four, the fifth into two, the sixth into three, and the seventeenth into two. The Terzo libro is composed of ninety-six chapters: these are sūrahs 19 to 114. Each chapter is introduced by an identical formula, which corresponds to the opening invocation Fātiḥa: “In nome di Dio Misericordioso, e Pio”. In Robert de Ketton’s Latin version, this formula only appeared at the beginning of the sūrahs of the second half of the Qur’ān.
Giovanni Battista Castrodardo’s translation of the Qur’ān
While the publisher Arrivabene repeatedly states in the frontispiece and in the dedication that the Qur’ān is translated from the Arabic text, the translator Castrodardo makes no secret of the fact that he worked from the Latin: in this regard, one can read his notes on the first verse of sūrah 107 and on the end of the text. Even assuming that he learned the rudiments of Arabic and that he read the Qur’ān in its original language, in a manuscript copy or in the Venetian Paganino edition prepared in 1537-1538, it must be admitted that his translation is based solely on the Latin version of Robert de Ketton.
Castrodardo certainly used one or more manuscripts from the Cluniac corpus, as well as a copy of the Bibliander edition published in 1543, to carry out his work. This is attested to by a marginal note in the Primo libro noting the existence of variations in the spelling of Arabic names: variations that he refrains from harmonizing because, “it does not matter to know the names of the Arabs, since they do not share our [religious] law”. In this note, he suggests that he had access to both handwritten and print sources. There are several indications that the text of the Primo libro is based on a manuscript’s text, whereas from at least sūrah 4 until the end of the work, the translator relies on the text established by Bibliander. Occasionally, however, two different sources are called upon in the treatment of a single textual locus. Most of the approximately eight hundred notes inserted in the margins are taken from the Bibliander edition: they are destined to provide thematic reference points for readers and to clarify obscure points or to comment on passages in the text. About forty of these notes originate directly or indirectly from the manuscript tradition, via the annotations that follow the Quranic text. About sixty were borrowed from Widmanstetter’s aforementioned work. Widmanstetter’s glosses, nourished by notions of Kabbalah, abound in the margins of La dottrina di Macometto, in the Primo libro; they are less numerous in the margins of the Secondo libro and are rarer still in the Terzo libro. About ninety notes have been written by Castrodardo himself or have been taken from sources other than those just mentioned. Finally, in about sixty cases, the translator significantly modifies or adds to the notes translated from his main sources. Moreover, sometimes the relationship between the notes and the text is problematic: the system of reminders in the chapter on La Dottrina di Macometto is very faulty, making it impossible to identify the correspondence between text and notes; similarly, in the Terzo libro, the notes in verse 15 of sūrah 29 and verse 5 of sūrah 70, borrowed from Bibliander, comment on passages from the Qur’ān that have not been translated into Italian. This last point makes the gloss in the first verse of sūrah 107, also borrowed from Bibliander, quite interesting: Castrodardo points out that the text is incomplete – whereas in fact it is the entire the translation that is incomplete!
If the one hundred and fourteen sūrahs of the Qur’ān are translated, they are not completely and equally rendered. The first few are translated in their entirety, with the exception of a few segments that are occasionally abridged or deleted probably because they were perceived as being contradictory, redundant or inappropriate. But from sūrah 4 onwards, Castrodardo appears to be in a hurry to move forward. He deletes a few words, then a verse, and then increasingly deletes more extensive sections, generally of a narrative nature. In some cases, sections of over a hundred verses are removed, including about one hundred and thirty verses are thus erased in sūrah 7, and approximately one hundred and fifty in sūrah 26. With few exceptions, Castrodardo translates the openings and conclusions in extenso: it is mainly the central parts that he shortens. As he progresses, especially from sūrahs 50-60, he seems to isolate textual cores for translation, according to the indications contained in Bibliander’s marginal notes and in certain internal references, such as the apostrophes to God and to believers. However, it should be pointed out that Castrodardo does not provide summaries for the abbreviated sections. The amputations in which he indulges consequently result in a kind of impressionistic writing that proceeds by the accumulation of disjointed sentences. In the Italian text, a single sentence can be composed of elements several verses apart: see, for example, the sentence formed by verses 12 and 32 of sūrah 36. And the resulting centos can deviate markedly from the meaning of the Latin text, as in verses 8 to 10 of sūrah 59. In Bibliander we read:  Pauperes in Dei nomine peregrinantes, et e domibus suis atque pecuniis exeuntes, ac Deo suoque prophetæ subuenientes, ueraces existunt.  Quorum primi credentes, diligentes ad se uenientes alios sibi præferunt, bonaque sua diuinitus sibi commissa cæteris tribuendo sibi subtrahunt, licet eos fames atque necessitas premant.  Horum autem successores Deum taliter exorant […]. In Castrodardo, who translates only the words we have italicized, we read:  I poveri peregrinando in nome di Dio son veraci,  i successori de tali orano Dio. In the Latin text, “the poor” is the subject of verse 8, “the first believers” is the subject of verse 9 and “the successors [of the first believers]” is the subject of verse 10; in the Italian text, with verse 9 removed, “the successors” referred to in verse 10 become successors of the poor.
Without mentioning printing errors, the places where Castrodardo alters the meaning of the Latin text are very numerous, and the causes of these alterations are multiple: misunderstanding or misreading of Latin or Semitic words; improper paraphrasing; omission of segments indispensable for maintaining the meaning of the sentence; ambiguities due to the tracing of Latin syntax, especially in the translation of absolute ablatives; free interpretations of syntactic links; confusion of enunciative instances; integration into the text of elements taken from marginal notes; probable attempts at amending textual places perceived as corrupt. In a few instances, going against his ordinary approach, the translator adds elements absent from his source: whole sentences are inserted in particular in sūrah 2, after verses 142, 177, 192 and 215, and in sūrah 11, after verses 121 and 123; similarly, in verse 72 of sūrah 55 and verse 33 of sūrah 78, the description of the virgins that believers will find in paradise is augmented with new details.
Nor does Castrodardo clarify or correct passages whose translation proves to be manifestly ambiguous or aberrant. This is particularly noticeable in the verses of sūrah 3 devoted to the battles. These battles are designated in Robert de Ketton’s version by the Latin word lis: Castrodardo translates the first occurrences as “contentione” (v. 111) or “lite” (v. 121), i.e. “disputes, litigations”. In verses 142 and 143, however, it becomes evident that there is indeed talk of armed confrontations, which is why he begins to use the word “battaglia”; and yet he neglects to rework sentences already translated. Sūrah 2, verse 214, offers an even more striking example of such carelessness. The Latin “quousque prophetæ uirisque bonis cum eo uindicem quærentibus intimatum est, uindictam propinquam esse” (“until the prophet and the good men seeking vengeance with him were told that vengeance was near”) gives a meaningless translation: “fino à che i Propheti, e con lui i buoni huomini cercando d’un vendicatore, fu annuntiato, che la vendetta era vicina” (“until the prophets, and the good men with him seeking vengeance, it was told that vengeance was near”). No doubt this is due to a hasty reading, the dative “prophetæ uirisque... quærentibus” being considered a plural nominative and an absolute ablative.
In conclusion, it can be stated that the questions which seem to matter most to Castrodardo are of theological and doctrinal nature, since the passages which develop them are the least abridged: on the other hand, sections of a narrative or prescriptive nature are willingly omitted. Furthermore, it may be assumed that, at least in some parts, this translation was not revised properly. Finally, a certain uneasiness on the part of the translator is perceptible in the apprehension of a text whose rhetoric is foreign to his educational background and sensitivity. Confronted with a passage from the Qur’ān that underlines the inherent complexity of the text (10, 39), Bibliander was content to gloss: “Difficulty in understanding the Qur’ān”. Castrodardo’s comment on the same verse tells us about his opinion of the text he was translating: “One cannot understand the Qur’ān because it is intrinsically confused”.
Reception of the Alcorano
Despite the blacklisting on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum of the Latin Qur’ān in 1559 and its vernacular language versions in 1564, and in spite of the harsh judgments of many orientalists on the second-hand translation published by Arrivabene, the Alcorano was widely disseminated in Italy and beyond the Alps. This circulation is noticeable by the survival of many printed copies, as well as at least one handwritten copy; by the long series of testimonies left by the readers and owners of the volume; and last but not least, by the re-appropriations and re-elaborations to which it has been subjected over the years. In fact, material from the Alcorano has been rewritten, copied or translated in several works, most of them from the 16th and 17th centuries. In some cases, sections of the introduction and of the Primo libro are reprinted: in 1560, for example, Francesco Sansovino included a large part of the Primo libro in his summa in Italian on the Turks, the Historia universale dell’origine et imperio de’ Turchi. In other cases, it is the Italian version of the Qur’ān or the entire work that is translated into other languages: in 1616, the contents of the three books of the Alcorano were translated into German by Salomon Schweigger; this German version was reprinted several times and in turn served as the basis for the anonymous Dutch translation that appeared in 1641. But that is not all: in the 17th century, the Alcorano also circulated among the Jewish communities of Europe, from which two new translations were made, which remained handwritten, in Hebrew and Castilian.
For more information
The edition presented in our website was initially entered by Datactivity. The XML-TEI encoding was done by Paul Gaillardon and Maurizio Busca. The latter then parallelized, edited and annotated the text. In order to provide contemporary readers with an easily readable text u and v dissimilation was adopted, abbreviations were developed, apostrophes integrated into marginal notes, and the most common misprints, such as the inversion of n and u, improper duplication of letters, etc., were corrected. On the other hand, it seemed advisable to retain ambiguities and inconsistencies in the text when they posed problems for the first readers or translators: tonic accents were not regularized, nor were the graphic variants of Semitic names harmonized. The most complex textual problems are nevertheless indicated and commented on in notes, as are the most aberrant and counter-intuitive translations.
The source of each marginal note of the Alcorano has been indicated by a letter inserted in square brackets at the end of the note: [B], [A], [M], [W], [C] or a combination of two or three of these five letters. A note ending with the abbreviation [B] is the translation of a marginal note from the edition of the corpus of Cluny published by Bibliander in 1543. The abbreviation [A] marks the notes of the Alcorano translating one of the notes attested by the manuscript tradition that Bibliander collected in the section entitled Annotationes eruditi cuiusdam of his edition; the abbreviation [M], on the other hand, marks the notes attested by the manuscript tradition that were not collected by Bibliander. The abbreviation [W] identifies notes taken from the Mahometis Abdallæ filii theologia dialogo explicata by Johann Albrecht Widmanstetter. The abbreviation [C] indicates the notes written by Castrodardo or taken from sources other than those mentioned above. Finally, when a note includes the contents of different sources, the five letters can be associated: for example, a note merging a gloss from Bibliander and one from Widmanstetter is indicated by the abbreviation [BW], while a note from Bibliander significantly modified or expanded by Castrodardo is indicated by the abbreviation [BC].
The Alcorano has been studied by historians and literary historians in recent decades. The most important recent works are those of Pier Mattia Tommasino, who discovered the identity of the translator, as well as careful analyses of the context of publication and circulation. The information provided in this introductive note on the author, the context of publication and the reception of the Alcorano is largely due to his research. For initial bibliographical guidelines, please see:
Adorni Braccesi (Simonetta), « Andrea Arrivabene », in Dizionario storico dell’Inquisizione, Pise, Edizioni della Normale, 2010, vol. 1, p. 101-102.
Bobzin (Harmut), Der Koran im Zeitalter der Reformation : Studien zur Frühgeschichte der Arabistik und Islamkunde in Europa, Beyrouth / Stuttgart, Steiner, 1995.
Burman (Thomas), Reading the Qur’ān in Latin Christendom, 1140-1560, Philadelphie, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.
De la Cruz Palma (Óscar) and Ferrero Hernández (Cándida), « Robert of Ketton », in Christian-Muslim Relations. A Bibliographical History [CMR], Leyde, Brill, 2009-2020, vol. 3, 1050-1200, p. 508-519.
Gordon (Bruce), « Theodor Bibliander », in CMR, vol. 6, Western Europe (1500-1600), p. 675-685.
Hamilton (Alastair), The Forbidden Fruit : The Koran in Early Modern Europe, London, London Middle East Institute, 2008.
Tommasino (Pier Mattia), L’Alcorano di Macometto Storia di un libro del Cinquecento europeo, Bologne, Il Mulino, 2013 [translated in English by Sylvia Notini : The Venetian Qur’an : a Renaissance Companion to Islam, Philadelphie, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018].
Tommasino (Pier Mattia), « Giovanni Battista Castrodardo », dans CMR, vol. 6, Western Europe (1500-1600), p. 506-511.
The original version of this introductory note is in French. The English translation was done by Mouhamadoul Khaly Wélé.