The Bible in Italian—A Troubled History
“THE Bible is among the most widely circulated books in our country [Italy], but it is perhaps among the least read as well. The faithful still receive little encouragement to get acquainted with the Bible and little help to read it as the Word of God. There are those who want to know the Bible, but often there is no one to break the bread of the Word for them.”
This statement, made in 1995 by a body of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, raises a number of questions. How widely read was the Bible in Italy in centuries past? Why did its circulation lag behind that in other countries? Why is it still among the least read books in Italy? An examination of the history of Italian-language versions of the Bible offers some answers.
It took centuries for Romance languages—French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and so on—to develop from Latin. In various European countries with a Latin background, the vernacular, the tongue of the common people, gradually acquired a new dignity and was even used in literary works. Development of the vernacular had a direct bearing on Bible translation. How? At a certain point, the gulf between Latin, the sacred ecclesiastical language, and the vernacular, with its dialects and local variants, became so wide that Latin was no longer understood by those who had no formal education.
By the year 1000, most inhabitants of the Italian peninsula would have found it difficult to read the Latin Vulgate, even if they could obtain a copy. For centuries, the ecclesiastical hierarchy monopolized education, including that at the few universities that existed. Only a privileged few benefited from it. Hence, the Bible eventually became “an unknown book.” Yet, many desired to gain access to the Word of God and understand it in their own language.
In general, the clergy opposed Bible translation, fearing that it would encourage the spread of so-called heresies. According to historian Massimo Firpo, “use of the vernacular [would mean] demolition of a language barrier [the use of Latin] that safeguarded the clergy’s exclusive dominion over religious matters.” Hence, a combination of cultural, religious, and social factors lie at the root of the general lack of Biblical education that still prevails in Italy.
First Partial Translations of the Bible
The 13th century saw the first translations of Bible books from Latin into the vernacular. Such partial translations were hand-copied and very costly. With an increasing number of translations in the 14th century, almost the entire Bible was available in the vernacular, although its books were translated by different people at different times and places. Most of these translations, produced by anonymous translators, were acquired by the wealthy or the learned, the only ones who had the means to procure them. Even when printing considerably reduced the cost of books, Bibles, according to historian Gigliola Fragnito, were “accessible to few.”
For centuries, the vast majority of the population remained illiterate. Even at the time of the unification of Italy in 1861, 74.7 percent of the population were illiterate. Incidentally, when the new Italian government prepared to make free and mandatory public education available for all, Pope Pius IX wrote to the king in 1870 urging him to oppose the law, which the pope described as a “plague” aimed at “totally destroying Catholic schools.”
The First Bible in Italian
The first complete Bible in Italian was printed in Venice in 1471, some 16 years after movable type was first used in Europe. Nicolò Malerbi, a Camaldolese monk, produced his translation in eight months. He drew heavily on the existing translations, edited them on the basis of the Latin Vulgate, and replaced some words with those typical of his area, Venetia. His translation was the first printed edition of the Bible in Italian to attain a significant circulation.
Another man who published a version of the Bible in Venice was Antonio Brucioli. He was a humanist with Protestant leanings, but he never broke away from the Catholic Church. In 1532, Brucioli translated the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek. This was the first Bible to be translated from the original texts into Italian. Though not in fine literary Italian, the translation’s faithfulness to the original texts is remarkable, given the knowledge of ancient languages in those days. In some places and editions, Brucioli restored God’s name in the form “Ieova.” For nearly a century, his Bible was very popular among Italian Protestants and religious dissidents.
Other Italian translations—in reality revisions of Brucioli’s Bible—were published, some by Catholics. None of them achieved any notable circulation. In 1607, Giovanni Diodati, a Calvinist pastor whose parents had fled to Switzerland to avoid religious persecution, published in Geneva another translation into Italian from the original languages. His version became the Bible of Italian Protestants for centuries. For the period in which it was produced, it is considered an excellent Italian translation. Diodati’s Bible helped Italians to grasp the Bible’s teachings. But clerical censorship stood in the way of this and other translations.
The Bible—“An Unknown Book”
“The Church has always fulfilled its duty to keep books under surveillance, but until the invention of printing, it did not feel the need to compile a catalog of prohibited books because those writings considered dangerous were burned,” states the Enciclopedia Cattolica. Even after the onset of the Protestant Reformation, the clergy of several European countries did their utmost to limit circulation of so-called heretical books. A turning point came after the Council of Trent in 1546, when the question of vernacular translations was considered. Two distinct positions emerged. Those favoring prohibition held that the Bible in the common tongue was “the mother and origin of all heresies.” Those against the prohibition stated that their “adversaries,” the Protestants, would argue that the church prohibited the Bible in the vernacular to hide “fraud and deceit.”
Lack of agreement meant that the Council took no definite stand on the issue but limited itself to sanctioning the authenticity of the Vulgate, which became the standard text for the Catholic Church. However, Carlo Buzzetti, teacher at the Pontifical University Salesianum, Rome, notes that pronouncing the Vulgate “authentic” “favored the idea that, in practice, it was to be the only legitimate form of the Bible.” Ensuing developments bore this out.
In 1559, Pope Paul IV published the first index of prohibited books, a list of works that Catholics were forbidden to read, sell, translate, or possess. These volumes were considered evil and dangerous to faith and moral integrity. The index forbade the reading of vernacular translations of the Bible, including Brucioli’s. Transgressors were excommunicated. The 1596 index was even more restrictive. Authorization was no longer to be given to translate or print Bibles in the vernacular. Such Bibles were to be destroyed.
As a result, Bible burnings in church squares multiplied after the end of the 16th century. In the minds of the people in general, the Scriptures became a book of the heretics, and that image is still very much alive. Almost all Bibles and Bible commentaries in public and private libraries were destroyed, and for the next 200 years, no Catholic would translate a Bible into Italian. The only Bibles that circulated on the Italian peninsula—in secret, for fear of confiscation—were those translated by Protestant scholars. Thus, historian Mario Cignoni states: “In practice, Bible reading by laymen ceased completely for centuries. The Bible became virtually an unknown book, and millions of Italians lived their lives without ever reading a page of it.”
Later, Pope Benedict XIV, in a decree on the index dated June 13, 1757, modified the previous rule, “permitting readings of vernacular versions approved by the Holy See and published under the direction of bishops.” As a consequence, Antonio Martini, who later became archbishop of Florence, prepared to translate the Vulgate. The first part was published in 1769, and the work was completed in 1781. According to one Catholic source, Martini’s translation was “the first truly worthy of particular mention.” Until then, Catholics who did not understand Latin were unable to read a Bible authorized by the church. For the next 150 years, Martini’s was the only version approved for Italian Catholics.
A turning point was reached at the ecumenical council Vatican II. In 1965 the document Dei Verbum for the first time encouraged “suitable and correct translations . . . into various languages, especially from the original texts of the sacred books.” Shortly before, in 1958, the Pontificio istituto biblico (Pontifical Biblical Institute) published “the first complete Catholic translation from the original texts.” This version restored a few occurrences of the divine name in the form “Jahve.”
Opposition to Bibles in the vernacular has been devastating, and its effects are still felt. As stated by Gigliola Fragnito, it has had the effect of “inculcating in believers distrust of their own freedom of intellect and conscience.” In addition, there has been an imposition of religious traditions, which many Catholics view as more important than the Bible. All of this has caused people to become estranged from the Scriptures, even though illiteracy has virtually disappeared.
The evangelizing work of Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, has aroused new interest in the Bible in Italian. In 1963 the Witnesses published the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures in Italian. In 1967 the whole Bible became available. More than 4,000,000 copies of this version have been distributed in Italy alone. The New World Translation, which restores the divine name, Jehovah, in its text, distinguishes itself for its scrupulous adherence to the sense of the original texts.
Jehovah’s Witnesses go from house to house, reading and explaining the Scriptural message of hope to all who will listen. (Acts 20:20) The next time you meet Jehovah’s Witnesses, why not ask them to show you what your own Bible says concerning God’s marvelous promise that soon he will establish “a new earth” in which “righteousness is to dwell”?—2 Peter 3:13.
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Brucioli’s translation used the divine name Ieova in its text
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The index of prohibited books listed translations of the Bible into the vernacular as dangerous
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Bible title page: Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma
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Brucioli’s translation: Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma; Index: Su concessione del Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali