Cromohs 2005 - Wolff - The Adriatic Origins of European Anthropology

The Adriatic Origins of European Anthropology

Larry Wolff
Boston College (MA)
L. Wolff, «The Adriatic Origins of European Anthropology», Cromohs, 10 (2005): 1-5
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1. In 1774 Alberto Fortis, the Paduan philosopher and natural historian, published in Venice his Viaggio in Dalmazia, including a chapter on the Costumi dei Morlacchi, which quickly made the Morlacchi famous all over Europe. [1] Fortis’s book was translated into German in 1776, and into French and English in 1778, and the individual chapter on the Morlacchi was also published separately in German as early as 1775 (Die Sitten der Morlacken). The Morlacchi were the pastoral people who lived in the mountains of Dalmatia, just inland from the Adriatic Sea, and Fortis’s account of their supposedly primitive customs made his work into a pioneering effort in the emergence of modern anthropology. On the one hand, Fortis was fully versed in the philosophical writings of Rousseau, and familiar with the model of the noble savage, which shaped the account of the Morlacchi. On the other hand, unlike Rousseau, Fortis was committed to the labor of empirical observation, both as a natural historian and as a witness of customs, so that his philosophical reflections were applied to carefully observed phenomena. Montesquieu created Persians but never went to Persia. Rousseau conjured the noble figure of the savage Carib but never came close to the Caribbean. Fortis’s account of the Morlacchi, however, was based on something like modern anthropological field research, and the Morlacchi of Dalmatia were accessible to his observations, because they were to be found just across the Adriatic Sea from Padua and Venice.
During the course of the Enlightenment, Europeans arrived at a new view of how their continent was structured and divided. Up until the Renaissance it was taken for granted that Europe was divided into North and South, separated by the Alps. This view of the continent dated back to Roman times and was based on the presumption of Mediterranean cultural superiority with respect to northern barbarism. Such a perspective was evident in the Germania of Tacitus at the end of the first century, and still meaningful at the beginning of the sixteenth century when Pope Julius II rallied Italians against the French with the slogan Fuori i barbari! During the eighteenth century, however, new centers of culture and economy, like London, Paris, and Amsterdam, created a new orientation of Europe in which a supposedly civilized West affirmed its priority over a relatively backward East. The French came to regard their society as the model of civilization — indeed, they gave the word its modern meaning during the eighteenth century — and dominated a European intellectual discourse in which it would have been difficult to label them as barbarians.

2. This reorientation of Europe, from North and South, to East and West, constituted the invention of Eastern Europe and its necessary structural complement, Western Europe[2]. That mental mapping of the continent into East and West would remain potent and meaningful throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, culminating in the period of the Cold War. During the Cold War the borders between Eastern Europe and Western Europe could be emphatically denominated as the Iron Curtain, but in earlier periods those borders were often uncertain, fluctuating, even imaginary. Yet, from the eighteenth century to the twentieth century, the Adriatic Sea remained one of the clearest points of reference for the demarcation of Eastern Europe and Western Europe. The Adriatic was invoked as a geopolitical boundary in Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech: «from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent». In the eighteenth century, already, the Adriatic came to be seen as an ethnographic boundary, separating Italians and Slavs, and thus dividing Western Europe from Eastern Europe. This was an issue of anthropological difference, made into a marker of continental orientation.
When Fortis linguistically identified the Morlacchi of Dalmatia as Slavs, he reflected upon their relation to the other Slavic peoples of Europe, and discovered the common ethnographic factor that seemed to lend coherence and plausibility to the invention of Eastern Europe:

L’origine de’ Morlacchi, che trovansi attualmente propagati pelle amene Valli del Kotar, lungo i fiumi Kerka, Cettina, Narenta, e fra le montagne della Dalmazia mediterranea, é involta nelle tenebre de’ secoli barbari, insieme con quella delle tante altre Nazioni somiglianti ad essi ne’ costumi e nel linguaggio si fattamente, che possono essere prese per una sola, vastamente distesa dal nostro Mare fino all’Oceano Glaciale. [3]

Fortis thus took nostro Mare as the southern reference point for sketching the eastern domain of the Slavic linguistic and anthropological domain (ne’ costumi e nel linguaggio). He might have meant Mare Nostrum, the Mediterranean, according to the Roman conception, but it was far more likely that, as a Paduan subject of the Venetian Republic, he was referring possessively to the Adriatic. In 1791, Johann Gottfried Herder would make the same anthropological mapping, discussing Slawische Völker in the fourth volume of his Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind. The Slavic domain extended «from the Don to the Elbe, from the Baltic to the Adriatic Sea».[4] Herder used the Baltic for his northern point of reference, rather than the Arctic, as Fortis did, but for both Herder and Fortis the Adriatic Sea was the southern coordinate of the Slavic world and, therefore, of Eastern Europe. Whereas the older conception of Europe divided into North and South could claim a meaningful topograpical boundary at the Alps, the division into East and West was less geographically evident, and the Adriatic, for both Fortis and Herder, seemed to offer a partial geographical and ethnographical boundary.

3. Fortis’s proto-anthropological study of customs also made him a pioneer in the field of folklore, drawing upon the popular culture of the Adriatic region. He published samples of South Slavic oral poetry as examples of Morlacchi folk songs, including the song Hasanaginica, which became famous all over Europe. Almost immediately after the publication of Fortis’s Viaggio in Dalmazia, Goethe was already composing a German version of the song that he claimed to be rendering aus dem Morlackischen. Probably he was using Fortis’s Italian version of Canzone dolente della nobile sposa d’Asan Aga, possibly with a French intermediary, to produce his German treatment of Klaggesang von der edlen Frauen des Asan Aga. This German version, together with other specimens of Morlacchi folk poetry, originally published by Fortis, was included in Herder’s famous collections of Volkslieder in 1778. The label Morlackisch which Herder used in the collection alongside such national labels as Englisch, Spanisch, Griechisch, and Schottisch, was fully accepted by the end of the 1770s as designating a cultural, even national, community. The power of early anthropology was such that Fortis succeeded in publicizing the Morlacchi as a nation — construed according to the coherence of their customs. The name Morlacchi would fall into disuse during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and today the Morlacchi would appear to have been a cultural community that became extinct, though it might be more plausible to argue that they were reclassified according to more persuasive national designations. An almost vestigial allusion to the eighteenth-century celebrity of the Morlacchi occurred in H.G. Wells’ science fiction tale, The Time Machine, published in 1895, when Wells imagined the future evolution of the human race into two distinctive species, the gentle and graceful Eloi and the primitive subterranean Morlaks. Thus the origins of anthropology on the Adriatic continued to exercise an impact upon Europe sinister fantasies of the primitive Other.
Even in the early eighteenth century, before Fortis’s voyage, Venetian administrators studied the Morlacchi with semi-anthropological interest. In the 1730s Zorzi Grimani, Provveditore Generale, or governor of Dalmatia, formulated the problem of governing the Morlacchi:

Il Morlacco pure che non é di molto antica sudditanza, si palesa d’ottimo cuore verso il suo Prencipe. Egli é di natura feroce, ma non indomita. Suol esser trattato senza eccesso. La troppa dolcezza lo fa impertinente, e l’estraordinario rigore lo rende fiero ed aspro. Non ama la fatica della campagna, inclina assai alla rapina, e riesce attissimo nell’armi. [5]

4. Administration thus attempted to study the anthropological character of the Morlacchi for imperial purposes. The Venetians sought a formula for governing them - not too gentle, not too rigorous - such that they might be tamed and trained to be loyal to the Venetian Republic.
Venetian administrators tended to frame the problem of the Morlacchi as a matter of discipline. They hoped to be able to subject primitive customs to the disciplinary administration of the state. For instance, Pietro Michiel, Provveditore Generale, wrote in 1765 about the indisciplinati Morlacchi.[6] With the anthropological account of Fortis in the 1770s, the problem began to be rephrased as a matter of civilization. Whereas the administrative question was whether the Morlacchi could be disciplined, the anthropological question was whether they could be civilized. Both perspectives were focused on issues of custom, and both could be adapted to the ideology of Venetian empire in Dalmatia. Fortis, in fact, was sufficiently anthropological to question whether the Morlacchi really should be civilized. When he observed their solemn rituals of friendship, he was full of admiration for the Morlacchi:

La contentezza, che trapelava dagli occhi loro, dopo d’avere stretto quel sacro legame, provava agli astanti quanta delicatezza di sentimento possa allignare nell’anime non formate, o, per meglio dire, non corrotte dall Società, che noi chiamiamo colta.[7]

Fortis sometimes seemed to recognize the Morlacchi as noble savages, in the spirit of Rousseau, and could formulate, in reaction, a critical perspective on the society that we call civilized. Whereas Rousseau had speculated philosophically about how a Carib might feel about civilized European life, Fortis actually made empirical observations in his study of the Morlacchi. He was aware that the distance that separated the world of primitive or uncorrupted customs from that of civilized society was no wider than the Adriatic Sea.
The paradox of proximity was evident in the anthropological novel of the Venetian writer Giustiniana Wynne: Les Morlaques, published in French in 1788, and based on Fortis’s account of the customs of the Morlacchi from 1774. Her book was probably published in Venice, and she attempted to map the gradient of civilization with respect to the Adriatic coast of Dalmatia.

Les isles, le littoral & les villes se ressentent des avantages de la civilisation, que la société nombreuse & le commerce attirent a leur suite; partout ailleurs ce vaste pais, quoique si pres de l’Italie & en grande partie sujet a la république de Venise, offre l’image de la nature en société primitive, telle qu’elle a du être dans les temps les plus reculés, & telle qu’on l’a trouvée au milieu des habitans les plus inconnus de quelques isles de la mer Pacifique. [8]

5. Dalmatia, of course, was very close to Venice, just across the Adriatic Sea, but, from an anthropological perspective on the customs of the Morlacchi, the width of the Adriatic might appear as vast as the oceanic extent of the Pacific. Wynne’s Pacific point of reference for Adriatic anthropology suggests that interest in the Morlacchi occurred in the context of the Enlightenment’s broader geographical horizons, notably the fascination with the voyages of Captian Cook between 1768 and 1779. This was precisely the period in which Fortis made the much less adventurous, but no less anthropological, voyage to Dalmatia.
Wynne’s purposes in Les Morlaques involved combining the agendas of anthropology and sentimental fiction. She addressed the public, and appealed to its anthropological engagement.

La suite naturelle des événements ordinaires dans une famille Morlaque va nous mettre au fait des moeurs & usages de la nation d’une manière plus sensible que la relation froide & methodique d’un voyageur. On n’a pas cru avoir besoin de recourir au romanesque ou au merveilleux. Les faits sont vrais & les détails nationaux fidelement exposés. . . C’est peut-etre la plus agréable façon de donner l’idee juste d’un peuple, qui pense, parle & agit d’une manière tres-differente de la notre.[9]

Thus, Wynne, the novelist, formulated her anthropological purpose with respect to the Morlacchi, who filled the role of the Other: «a people who think, speak and act in a manner very different from ours». Even at a time when the imagination of the Enlightenment was being stimulated by farflung explorations of the Pacific Ocean, with reports from Tahiti and Hawaii, Europe’s early anthropological discourse of the eighteenth century also found relevant subjects much closer to home on the Adriatic Sea. The differentiation between Eastern Europe and Western Europe hinged on the Adriatic, as an ethnographic frontier between the Slavic and Italian spheres. At the same time, the philosophical distinction between civilization and primitive customs was also mapped along the shores of the Adriatic, stimulating the Enlightenment’s anthropological fascination with the customs of the Morlacchi.


[1] See L. WOLFF, Venice and the Slavs: The Discovery of Dalmatia in the Age of Enlightenment, Stanford University Press, Stanford 2001.

[2] See L. WOLFF, Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment, Stanford University Press, Stanford 1994.

[3] A. FORTIS, Viaggio in Dalmazia, Milocco, Venezia 1774, republished by Jovan Vukovic & Peter Rehder (a cura di), Verlag Otto Sagner, Munich & Sarajevo 1974, vol. I, p. 44; see also L. CIANCIO, Autopsie della terra. Illuminismo e geologia in Alberto Fortis (1741-1803), Olschki, Firenze 1995.

[4] L. WOLFF, Inventing Eastern Europe cit., p. 312.

[5] L. WOLFF, Venice and the Slavs cit., p. 131.

[6] L. WOLFF, Venice and the Slavs cit., pp. 144-145; on Venetian rule in Dalmatia see also F.M. PALADINI, Un caos che spaventa : poteri, territori e religioni di frontiera nella Dalmazia della tarda età veneta, Marsilio, Venezia 2003; F. VENTURI, Settecento riformatore, V, L'Italia dei lumi, t. II, La Repubblica di Venezia (1761-1797), Einaudi, Torino 1990.

[7] L. WOLFF, Venice and the Slavs cit., p. 160.

[8] L. WOLFF, Venice and the Slavs cit., p. 193.

[9] L. WOLFF, Venice and the Slavs cit., pp. 193-194; see also M. DUCHET, Anthropologie et Histoire au siècle des lumières: Buffon, Voltaire, Rousseau, Helvétius, Diderot, Maspero, Paris 1971; N. THOMAS, The Extraordinary Voyages of Captain James Cook, Walker and Company, New York 2003.


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