CONTI, Niccoló di Giovanni (c. 1395-1469)
Originally from Chioggia, a costal town near Venice, like many other Venetian merchants of the time, traveled and did commerce in the Near East, where he learned Arabic and Persian. In the year 1414, departing from Damascus, Conti began a long voyage in which, in the course of twenty five years, he reached the Euphrates, near the city of Baghdad; he crossed Mesopotamia to the city of Basra; he then passed through the Persian Gulf to Khalat, while finally reaching the port city of Cambay, in the Gujarat, on the western coast of India. He stayed in the innermost regions of the Indian continent of which, as opposed to Marco Polo, he had a profound knowledge, reaching the kingdom of Vijayanagar. He then visited the Kingdom of Ava and the Mon kingdom of Hanthawady Pegu in Burma, the Kingdom of Champa in nowadays Vietnam and the islands of Borneo, completing the circumnavigation of the Indian Ocean. From the Kingdom of Champa he returned by sea to India, sailed up the western coast and from Cambay, crossed the Indian Ocean toward the west, finally reaching the island of Socotra along the Horn of Africa, the cities of Berbera, Aden and Jidda in the Arabic peninsula. Returning along the Red Sea, Conti ultimately reached Egypt, and from there he returned to the Mediterranean.
While returning to Venice in 1439, he stopped in Florence where, sometimes between 1439 and 1443, in the context of the Ecumenical Council, he encountered the humanist Francesco Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), from 1431 Apostolic Secretary of Pope Eugenius IV, who interrogated him on the long voyage he had undertaken. According to Bracciolini, Conti went to Florence to ask Pope Eugenius IV to be re-admitted to the Catholic faith after having been forced to recant, in order
to save his wife and four children, while en route on their return voyage in Muslim hands.
Niccolò de? Conti?s phenomenal voyage, well beyond the limits of the oikumene of ancient geographers, brought Poggio to elaborate the story, and to include it as the fourth and last part of a work that he was completing, the De varietate fortunae (The Vicissitudes of Fortune). Although Book IV is attributed to Conti, it is doubtless the product of much editing and organisation by Poggio Bracciolini. As the title of the work states, at the centre of the De varietate fortunae is the concept of Fortune that moves the great theatre of the world, a theme highly debated by both classical and medieval authors. For Poggio Bracciolini the world is subject to the endemic and irresolvable disorder: Divine Providence and the cardinal virtues of both Platonic and Aristotelic philosophy are not necessarily enough to protect from fortuna, fatum and casus even those who, stoically, know how to measure their own limits and cultivate wisdom and virtue.
The De varietate fortunae was made public in 1448; however, Book II (dedicated to the history of the popes from Urban VI) and Book III (on the affairs of Eugenius IV) were already ready in 1442-1443. Between 1444 and 1448 Poggio completed Books I and IV, on the ruins of Rome, and on the voyages of Niccolò de' Conti, respectively; narratives that, throughout the centuries, received the highest praise.
Thirty manuscripts of the De varietate fortunae were censured. Among these, twenty-one remain of all four books; twenty three others leave us only Book IV or its fragments that seem to have had a striking success, before the diffusion of all four books joined together of the De varietate fortunae in 1448. The oldest vulgarizations of the De varietate fortunae are datable around 1460-70 and of Tuscan origins. Book IV alone was translated twice in the Tuscan vulgate and once in the Venetan vernacular. Only one codex from the fifteenth century of this last translation is known, the manuscript A III 37 of the Biblioteca Universitaria at Genoa.
The editio princeps of Book IV only was published in Milan and given the title India
Recognita (The Indies Rediscovered) by Cristoforo da Bollate in 1492 (India Recognita. Christoforus bullatus ducis Isubrium senator Petro Carae ducis alobrogum Senatoris. Poggii Florentini de uarietate Fortunae [The Indies Rediscovered. Printed by Cristoforo da Bollate, Senator of the Duke of Milan, for Pero Caro, Senator of the Duke of Savoy. Poggio of Florence?s De Varietate Fortunae (The Vicissitudes of Fortune)], Milan, Uldericus Scinzenzeler, 1492. This 2 edition is extremely rare: the only known copies are in the British Library and Harvard University Library).
Poggio?s composition was translated from Latin into Portuguese and published in Lisbon in February 1502 (Marco Paulo. Ho livro de Nycolao veneto. O trallado da carta de hum genoves das ditas terras [Marco Polo. The Book of Nicolò the Venetian. A Translation of a Letter of a Genoese of the Said Lands]. Imprimido per Valentym fernandez alemao. Em a muy nobre çidade de Lyxboa, 1502). It is relevant to underline that the main text published in this edition is the account by Marco Polo: Bracciolini?s recount of Conti?s voyage is appended to provide verification of Polo?s claims about southern Asia.
The tale of the voyage of Niccolò de? Conti is extremely rich. It contains descriptions of countries visited, customs of the populations, information about plants and animals, personal anecdotes that happened to the traveller, including all the interesting details that could occur on a voyage to faraway lands, as well as being a true mine regarding geographical knowledge of the East. The travel memoir of Niccolò de? Conti thereby constitutes a fundamental source of information, above all on India and the many islands of the Indian Ocean of which he describes rituals and traditions that until that time remained unknown.
BRACCIOLINI, P. , De varietate fortunae; critical edition with an introduction and commentary ed. by O. Helsinki Merisalo, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1993 (Annales Academiae Scientiarum Fennicae, Ser. B) P. Bracciolini, De l?Inde. Les voyages en Asie de Niccolò de? Conti. De varietate fortunae livre IV, ed. by M. Guéret-Laferté, Turnhout, Brepols, 2004.
SURDICH, F. , ?Niccolò di Giovanni Conti? in Dizionario biografico degli italiani, vol. XIII
(1971), pp. 640-46.
Viaggio di Niccolò di Conti, in G. B. Ramusio, Navigazioni e viaggi, ed. by M. Milanesi, Turin, Einaudi, vol. II, 1980, pp. 781-819.
Autor: Angelo Cattaneo