It was the end of a particularly taxing day, and Canal, a prominent 14th-century Venetian merchant, was baffled. A friend had posed him a simple-sounding mathematical problem, but he still couldn’t figure it out. The problem went like this: the distance between Venice and Ancona is 200 miles, and there are two ships, one in each port, leaving on the same day. The trip to Venice takes 30 days, while to Ancona, 40 days. When will the ships come together?
Canal scratched his head. “Perhaps it will be easier to solve if I write it down,” he thought and jotted down the problem in a notebook he kept with him at all times. Thus, among his thoughts and notes on the day’s events, a mathematical problem was added, and the zibaldone was born; the precursor to the modern blog, with random thoughts and images that detailed a person’s life.
As Atlas Obscura explains in a fascinating post by Cara Giaimo, over 600 years later, you can still open that notebook and see that day. Written in spidery loops are daydreamy calculations regarding how large a particular tree is, and how long it might take to get to Rome. There’s a sketch of a pair of colorful ships, and another of two tradesmen in green hats, examining a meal of bread and fish. Personal anecdotes and hard-won lessons nestle alongside gathered material, including prayers, copied quotations, and lists of spices.
The zibaldone was a strange melange of diary, ledger, doodle pad, and scrapbook, also called “hodgepodge” and “commonplace book.” It served as a pattern for interior life from the 14th century onward.
Zibaldones helped citizens of a rapidly changing world to make sense of what they were reading, seeing, and becoming, opening the way for more contemporary recording forms, like blogging, tweeting, and social media sharing.
The 13th and 14th centuries saw a sharp increase in literacy among middle-class merchants, accountants, and artisans. Unlike their upper-class counterparts, who mostly stuck to Latin, these tradesmen wrote in the Italian vernacular. They called their diaries a zibaldone, Italian for “a heap of things,” possibly after a type of mixed-up stew.
As the merchants traveled Europe, so did this invention—which, like most good ideas, fused with others that had arisen elsewhere. In Ancient Greece, Aristotle had suggested his students keep scrolls of notes from their studies, organized by subject so that they could return at will to any topic’s “place.” Renaissance-era teachers resurfaced this idea, and by the 17th century, students at Oxford were required to keep “commonplace books,” organized notebooks stuffed with useful texts from elsewhere.
A good idea
Since all you need to start your own zibaldone is a blank notebook, a pen, and an open mind, the idea rapidly took off. In 1512, Erasmus of Rotterdam muses in his De Copia on the possibilities a zibaldone offers:
Whatever you come across, you will be able to note down immediately… be it an anecdote or a fable or an illustrative example or a strange incident or a maxim or a witty remark or a remark notable for some other quality or a proverb or a metaphor or a simile.
By the 19th century, a young poet named Giacomo Leopardi lent the genre a new whiff of literary integrity. Leopardi, who died young, was both brilliant and gloomy—at least one modern scholar has compared him to Kurt Cobain—but mostly, he was prolific.
His Zibaldone di pensieri begins with a moonlit encounter with a barking dog and launches into 2,000 pages of frustrations, insights, poetic fragments, and copied passages.
It was a time when everyone was keeping a zibaldone, from Thomas Jefferson to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll and even H.P. Lovecraft.
And Virginia Woolf refers in her 1917 essay “Hours in a Library” to “those old notebooks which we have all, at one time or another, had a passion for beginning.”
Much like today’s blogs, then!
You can find out more about Canal’s zibaldone on MAA, or pre-order Atlas Obscura’s book for more fascinating tales from all over the world.
Seems to me more like a diary, a personal way to work things out, document your day etc. I wonder how many people actually keep diaries any more.
Yes, it’s just like a diary, albeit a shared one: zibaldones were commonly shared among friends. I used to keep one as a teenager. Haven’t done so in ages, unless you include this blog 🙂
Fascinating stuff – just goes to show, there’s nothing new under the sun.
Quite so 🙂
I always thought that the notebook used to jot down thoughts or ideas was called a “Wade Mecum.”
Book title for future generations: “The Collected Blog Posts of Nicholas Rossis” 🙂
Lol – that would be one big book 😀
Wade Mecum – I was unaware of the term. Thanks for that!
Would love to see Oscar Wilde’s! Of course these writings were private, while we share our blogs with the world.
Well, this sort of books were actually meant to be shared among friends. Granted, the Internet has changed the definition of “friends,” but there are certain commonalities regardless 🙂
You post the most interesting blogs.
Ah, you! Thank you 🙂
Fascinating stuff. And now we know. Thanks for sharing, Nicholas.
BTW – How’s that little one doing?
A pleasure; I’m glad you enjoyed the post. The little one is teething, so we’re struggling to get her to sleep at the moment (it’s 9 pm over here). Apart from that, she’s a cutie-pie 🙂
Fascinating insightful post Nicholas. Lovely new word and perhaps I should buy a book worthy of it!
Lol – thank you, Philippa 🙂
Very cool. Though, I’m having trouble getting around the stereotypical math problem. Never liked that one whether it be planes, trains, cars, ships, bikes, trucks, horses, or pogo sticks.
I saw a kid on a pogo stick the other day. They weren’t around when I was his age, so now I wonder if I could pull it off.
Love the word, and more, the concept. Have kept notebooks for a lifetime. The blog came much, much later. Thanks for this one. ?
A pleasure! Glad you enjoyed it 🙂
Fascinating post! I haven’t heard the term “zibaldone” before. I like that the word might come from a hodgepodge type stew.
I think Audrey Driscoll makes a good point about a difference between private diaries and public blogs, but I know 18th century commonplace books, at least the more literary sort, were often shared amongst friends and family members.
Exactly. Nice trivia knowledge, I’m impressed! 🙂
Sometimes blogs start as little more than a diary, or personal reminders to store electronically. But as we know, they tend to get away from you, and can become too big a part of life.
(That sort of mathematical problem was the stuff of nightmares during my schooldays. I never could work them out, hence poor exam results in the subject.)
Best wishes, Pete.
Lol – I know what you mean about the math problem! When I read it on Canal’s zibaldone, I tried to figure it out, then swiftly changed the subject 😀
And yes, blogs do take a life of their own!
The main difference between these commonplace books and blogs is the former were private, while most blogs are public. I had never heard the term “zibaldone,” though. Thanks for an interesting post.
That’s a good point. Even though many used zibaldones to share their thoughts with their friends, their primary target group was the author themself.