Giovanni Villani

The Italian chronicler Giovanni Villani (ca. 1270-1348) wrote a history of Florence from its origins to the age of Dante.

Giovanni Villani was a Florentine merchant whose wide travels gave him an interest in Florence and the world around it. He traveled in Flanders and France from 1302 to 1308, and from 1316 until his death he held numerous political offices in the city of Florence. Caught up in the economic crises of the 1340s, Villani died of the plague in 1348. His life was devoted to commerce, politics, and the Chronicle.

In 1300 Pope Boniface VIII proclaimed a Holy Year, promising spiritual benefits to all who made the pilgrimage to Rome. Giovanni now saw Rome for the first time. He wrote: "Beholding the great and ancient things which are [in the city], reading of the great deeds of the Romans, and considering that our great city of Florence, the daughter and creation of Rome, was ascending to greatness while Rome was declining, [I decided] to bring together in this chronicle all the beginnings of the city of Florence and then to set forth in detail the doings of the Florentines." From 1300 on Giovanni worked intermittently at his chronicle. He framed his chronicle in customary medieval style. He began with an account of the Tower of Babel, and his first six books end with the arrival of Charles of Anjou in Italy in 1265. The next six books, however, deal only with a period of 80 years, from 1265 to 1348.

In the later books Villani's interests move from the party factionalism of Florence to wider issues, such as the newly contacted lands in Asia as described by Marco Polo, and the trade, industry, and religion of Florence. Villani also describes well-known figures from Florentine history, and his description of the poet Dante is often quoted. Villani was the first chronicler to remark that the barbarian invasions of the later Roman Empire were a turning point in European history. The Chronicle also follows the medieval pattern in giving an account of events strictly year by year. But the work is also original.

Villani wrote in the Tuscan vernacular, the language which Dante himself was so much to influence. He was not, like most chroniclers, a cleric, but a layman—and a man of affairs at that. His business and political life seemed to impart to him the expertise and wide range of interests which make the Chronicle extremely readable today. He possessed an astute mind, was capable of independent observation and judgment, and was a sufficient literary artist to incorporate lively and accurate portraits of contemporaries into his work. Giovanni's Chronicle was continued after his death by his brother Matteo and his nephew Filippo.


Further Reading on Giovanni Villani

R. E. Selfe and Philip Wicksteed translated Selections from the First Nine Books of the Croniche Fiorentine of Giovanni Villani (1896). There is no biography of Villani in English. The reader should consult a history of Italian literature. Some information on him can be gleaned from Philip Wicksteed, Early Lives of Dante (1898).