This book, by Lester K. Little, is clearly a labour of love by a former Director of the American Academy of Rome. Just as clearly, the author’s heart lies not in Rome itself, but in the large swath of northern Italy whose rivers drain the Alps and Apennines into the Adriatic Sea. Ostensibly, it is the story both of the wine porters of this region and their patron saint, Alberto of Villa d’Ogna. However, it is more accurate to say that it is a book of all the information that Little has acquired that has anything to do, and sometimes very little to do, with either subject. At times delightful, frequently maddening, it is an unconventional and even peculiar book. Take for instance, the opening paragraph: ‘Our story is set in northern Italy within a rectangle of the earth’s surface that would fit comfortably within the bounds of Kansas ... Five million years ago a quarter of it lay under the sea … Our story though, will deal only with a bit over a 10,000th of that period, or about six centuries, and the action will take place mainly between sea level and elevations up to 1,200m’ (p. 1). For those like me, who enjoy accumulating minute facts about specific places, and especially about the history of wine, this will be an entertaining book. However, this is a book of pastiches, not a sustained and focused historical narrative. To be clear, the ‘action’ (such as it is), derives not from the life of St Alberto or from the history of wine porters, but instead from following the author as he turns over every stone in his attempt to explain how an obscure thirteenth-century Italian peasant could possibly have been made a saint—first unofficially, and then through the official process of canonisation. As Little acknowledges, the only things that are known about St Alberto are that he came from the village of Villa d’Ogna near Bergamo; he lived and worked as a wine porter in Cremona; he died there on 6 May 1279 and was buried in the church of Saint-Mattia. Everything else is speculation. This need for speculation poses a larger problem for a historical account of Alberto’s life. After all, how do you write the history of a man who left behind no contemporary evidence whatsoever, and about a group of labourers whose profession was itself scarcely documented and quite simple? Little’s solution is to fill in the gaps with sundry information and flights of fancy. Thus, he states that Alberto, in his walk from Vila d’Ogna to Bergamo, some time around ‘AD 1250, give or take’ (p. 4), ‘would not have been impressed to hear that Bergamo was at first a Celtic settlement and was thus part of Cisalpine Gaul—or Gaul-on-this-side-of-the-Alps from the Roman point of view—or that the Romans had conquered it in the third century BC and then connected it by road to Mediolanum (Milan) to the west’ (p. 5). But there is no reason to think that Alberto would have learned any of this as he, an illiterate peasant from the mountains, travelled down the valley probably in search of steady employment. Little acknowledges that these ‘varied sightings and impressions exist only in our imagination because we do not know whether Alberto has stopped off in the capital of his province (i.e. Bergamo); we know only that, visit or no visit, he continues some 75 kilometers across the flattest land he has ever seen until he arrives before another unimaginable mirage of walls and towers, named Cremona’ (p. 6). So why speculate about thoughts that Alberto may have had in a place he may not even have been? Why the present tense for events that took place over 700 years ago? And how was Cremona a ‘mirage’ when its walls and towers were made of solid stone? Despite these stylistic and methodological flaws, there is much information to be gleaned from this book. Little begins his query by examining the various legends surrounding St Alberto, and then shows with actual historical evidence that none of these legends is likely to be true. Indeed some are clearly false. For example, St Alberto could not have been a Dominican friar, as Dominicans later claimed he was, because the Dominican order was not founded until after his death. Little then turns to the history of wine porters to find out more about St Alberto, and here, too, the reader learns a great deal of information, some relevant and some irrelevant, for understanding how Alberto became a saint. For instance, after telling us that the wooden vessel used to carry wine was called a ‘brenta’, and thus a porter was called a ‘brentano’, we are told that the city of Brescia ‘offers a notable linguistic particularity, for even though the container used there was unmistakably the brenta, Brescians called it a zerla, their way of saying gerla, and called a man who carried wine in a zerla a gerulatus in Latin, or, in the vernacular, zerlotto’ (p. 39). In the course of this book we learn much about wine porters and migrant labour in northern Italy, and about the spread of the cult of St Alberto among wine porters. We even get a sense (although it is hardly proven) that the cult of Alberto ‘for sure at least gave the wine porters their group identity’ (p. 169). We also learn that it was only through the efforts of the powerful Dominican order that Alberto, allegedly one of their own, was officially canonised in the eighteenth century. Oddly, Little calls this event an ‘unnecessary charade’ (p. 169) on the grounds that the cult of St Alberto would soon die out along with the wine porters’ guilds that sustained it. But should canonisation cease on the grounds that a saint might, one day, fade into obscurity? If so, that would surely be news to the Vatican. However, after a long journey full of many meanderings, perhaps like Alberto’s journey down the valley to Cremona, Little succeeds in explaining how and why such an obscure man became a saint nearly 500 years after his death: his memory was carried by wine porters and elevated by Dominicans until the halo was official. © Oxford University Press 2017. All rights reserved.
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 21, 2017
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