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.

Zibaldone di Canal | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

A mathematical problem from the Zibaldone da Canal (A page from the Zibaldone da Venice, a 14th-century hodgepodge. (Image: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Source: Atlas Obscura)

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

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.

Leopardi Giacomo | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Leopardi, Giacomo (1798-1837) -ritr. A. Ferrazzi, Recanati, casa Leopardi (source: Wikipedia)

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.

Thomas Jefferson's zibaldone | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Thomas Jefferson had two commonplace books—one for legal matters, and one for literary ones. This page from his literary book contains a painstaking copy of Homer’s Odyssey. (Photo: Library of Congress/Manuscript Division. Source: Atlas Obscura)

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!

Pre-order Atlas Obscura's book! | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Atlas Obscura’s book, now available for pre-order

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.