Thomas Jefferson’s Italian and Italian-Related Library in the History of Universal Personal Rights (Video)



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  • [Music]
  • In a classroom in Newcomb Hall, what
  • in those days was one of the sort of newfangled electronic classrooms,
  • one afternoon in teaching a course on the history of Italian literature
  • I projected onto the screen part of the text of Boccaccio's Decameron
  • written in 1348. And the particular passage was a very
  • well-known one from Day 4 Book 1
  • in which Ghismonda justifies to her father, who is a prince,
  • her taking as her lover a young man who is basically a sort of assistant in
  • the stables. And she does so by saying that
  • our creator made us all from the same mass of flesh, we were all born equal.
  • And it struck me at that point how over 400 years before
  • the writing of the Declaration of Independence, Boccaccio had
  • given form to many- basically the same principles, many of
  • the same points. So because of the time I was traveling
  • to Washington DC regularly as a delegate to the National Council of
  • the American Association of University Professors.
  • On the next visit I went into the Library of Congress for a book room
  • and I asked the director, who is a Jefferson expert,
  • what research there was on Jefferson's Italian books because I was interested
  • in knowing if he might have had the occasion to read Boccaccio's
  • text. And he looked at me rather startled and
  • he said, well there is none. So for about the next 15 years as
  • I went twice a year to Washington DC, I was able to make some time especially
  • in the summer to conduct research on Jefferson's own library. And
  • the director was also kind enough to send me a copy of the four-volume
  • catalog of Jefferson's library. And what became
  • very clear was that he was a very sophisticated connoisseur,
  • not only of Italian works written by
  • Italians themselves, but by works published in Italy because Italy had
  • been a very important publishing center through the middle
  • ages and into the 18th century. And he was particularly interested in
  • the history of philosophy and in works that had to do with
  • self-government both of the individual and of the political entity and in
  • particular in the Venetian Republic, which was the
  • only one of the Italian medieval republics to remain
  • in existence through the 18th century, and in fact was studied by a number of
  • the Founding Fathers. And I was able to draw a number of
  • connections between Jefferson's ideas and precepts
  • and views about how governments should function to Italian works that he
  • owned. Now it's something of an open question
  • whether he already had these ideas and these works, reinforced
  • them, or further developed them, or if some of
  • these particular ideas he derived from the works.
  • But his choice of book shows his very deep interest
  • in these topics and his very great sophistication and knowledge about them.
  • And so I wrote a summary of my findings in the book that I published in 2019 on
  • Thomas Jefferson's Italian and Italian related library.
  • And I called it an overview because my intention and hope
  • is that people who have greater expertise in specific areas
  • that Jefferson collected books on will take this further and develop
  • more of our understanding of his familiarity with
  • Italian thought. And also to demonstrate that
  • Italian thought on many topics was at the center of developments in the
  • west and in many ways, in many instances
  • was also the the originator of a number of concepts.
  • [Music]