Spaghetti alla Machiavelli? Don't think so.

The Plague Doctor in full regalia

Another side of the Plague Doctor

Portrait of the artist as a young man

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AN ITALY WITHOUT TOMATO SAUCE

November 3, 2013

Tags: Italian food, Renaissance

Although Machiavelli was an indisputable Italian, a card-carrying, board-certified Florentine, never in his life did he eat a bowl of spaghetti with tomato sauce. Food allergies? A gluten-free diet? We need not resort to such fantastical (and 21st century) explanations. Personal taste or distaste? Nothing could be further from the truth.

Neither did our (more…)

The Plague Doctor

September 29, 2013

Tags: Words or phrases to categorize this post for the tags section

Near the end of the novel (chapter 48, p. 671), Niccolo and Giuditta are fleeing Rome ahead of the plague, when they’re confronted with an odd sight in front of the Hospital for Incurable Diseases. Among the dead and dying, they see, “one bizarre, solitary figure that moved among them. It looked not so much like a man as a giant bird, a black bird with black gloves and a black hood and a big yellow beak.”

Behold the Plague Doctor (pictured at right). (more…)

DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN?

September 15, 2013

Tags: Machiavelli Bibliography

I suppose the most honest answer would be, at least for me, not exactly. I’ve done my requisite years of research, and I really do know what happened and when. But then you take liberties. Historical novelists dabble in history. Even if they’re obsessed by a certain character or period and know everything there is to know about it, they’re still novelists. Not historians. Not biographers. (more…)

NICCOLÒ OR NICCOLO?

September 1, 2013

Tags: Accents in Italian

My detractors, and they are legion, have not failed to point out that Machiavelli himself, his contemporaries and indeed the entire Italian tribe to this day all write and spell our man’s first name with an accent on the final vowel, thus: Niccolò.

And they’re right. But throughout my book I have spelled it Niccolo, without the accent.

There is an obvious reason for this. Applying the principle of Occam’s razor, I have opted to lay out, as always, the simplest, the most direct and the most sub-philosophical of explanations. At the time of the writing of this book. I just didn’t know how to do accents in Microsoft Word. Embarrassing, but true.

I figured I could always go back later, do a global search and replace, and fix the problem, but the more I thought about it, the more I began to suspect that inserting that final accent was a fussy, literal-minded affectation.

I am certainly no slouch when it comes to the Italian language and the placement of accents therein. As a board-certified professor of Italian, I had for years drilled accents and other painful and unfamiliar grammatical truths into my students. Here’s a quick primer on the use of accent marks in Italian.

Unlike French, Italian does not use accents to change the pronunciation of a letter, but merely to indicate which syllable of a word receives the emphasis. Ordinarily, about 99% of Italian words have an emphasis on the penultimate syllable, You’re probably familiar with such stereotypical Italian words as spaghetti, macaroni, and pizza, all with the stress on the next to the last syllable.

An accent, always placed only on a vowel, indicates that another syllable in that particular word is stressed and usually that entails a change in meaning. For example, ancora means again or still. Àncora with the accent means anchor. The word porto used as a noun indicates a place where ships dock and unload their goods. Porto is also the 1st person singular of the verb portare, and it means I carry. Portò, however, with the accent, is the third person singular of our verb in the past tense, so it would mean, he, she or it carried. It is pronounced with the stress on the final syllable, not the penultimate.

That’s it in a nutshell. No big deal. Not very complicated unless you have an English language typewriter and keyboard.

So why did I choose not to deploy the accent in Niccolò? Because I was writing in English for an English-speaking readership, and we don’t use accents in English (except for the occasional foreign word--touché).

St Ambrose (Archbishop of Milan, IV century) was famous for reading without moving his lips. Apparently this was considered unusual at the time and probably the work of the devil. I trust that most of my readers today read without moving their lips and spitting out all sorts of plosives and hissing their fricatives. Nor can I conceive of an American or English reader who would pronounce Niccolò, no matter how I wrote it, in any way other than as the equivalent of the familiar English name, Nicholas. With the accent firmly on the first syllable.

So that’s my reasoning. Besides, Machiavelli himself was flexible about his name, often signing his letters and dispatches, written in Latin, as Nichlaus Maclavellus. Poetic license. If you really want to have some fun, try envisioning our hero in a kilt and call him MacIavelli.


Note on accents in MS Word: a practical consideration

To place a letter with an accent in your text, go to the Insert menu at the top of the page. Select Symbol and then Symbol Browser. A box will appear with all the symbols known to man. Scroll down until you find what you want, select it by clicking and it will be inserted into your text wherever you left the insertion point.

You can get a circumflex, a cedilla, a tilde, even a Norwegian o with the cross through it!

JØ MARKULIN

Selected Works

Historical Fiction
Machiavelli is a big, obstreperous historical novel set in Florence during the Italian Renaissance. This epic piece of storytelling brings the world of fifteenth-century Italy to life as it traces Machiavelli’s rise from young boy to controversial political thinker.

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