sehepunkte 17 (2017), Nr. 5

Wojciech Tygielski: Italians in Early Modern Poland

Wojciech Tygielski's book is a translation of his monograph Włosi w Polsce XVI-XVII wieku: utracona szansa na modernizację from 2005 and deals with the role of Italian immigrants in the Early Modern Polish-Lithuanian State in the 15th-17th centuries. The 18th century is taken into consideration to a lesser extent, because of its specific political and cultural conditions. According to the point of view of Early Modern Poles, Italian immigrants are treated as a homogenous group, independently from both regional provenience and former stays in other foreign countries.

The aim of the study is to analyze 'the mutual interaction between the immigrating national group and the [...] Old Polish society, dominated by nobility' (24). Italians represented a relevant group for many reasons. Their immigration occurred on a relatively large scale. Due to the lack of sources allowing a statistical analysis, Tygielski suggests on the basis of Italian compendia that there could have been something more than 1000 ennoblements in the early Polish-Lithuanian State. In Cracow the number of Italians who became citizens or simply served the royal court may included a couple of hundreds people from the 16th till the 18th century. (257-258). Secondarily, Italians came from a developed region and could therefore contribute to the modernization of Poland. Moreover, they represented a highly diverse group in regard to their skills. Finally, Italian immigrants preserved a separateness in relation to the rest of Old Polish society. This depended on the fact that they were considered as providers of services and goods and not as equal partners to the nobility, which was in Poland the strongest social layer.

Tygielski's monograph is based mainly on edited sources and historiography. Among sources one should mention travel diaries, political pamphlets, guilds' and towns' records, diplomatic and personal correspondence. Within historiography the role of Italians has been discussed by specialists of different fields: from economic, social and political history to musicology, art, literature and theatre history. Due to the general character of the work, one should not blame the author for using archival sources only to a small extent.

An evidence of the author's reliability is that the bibliography has been updated in comparison to the Polish edition. For example Tygielski includes the findings of Alina Żórawska-Witkowska [1] about the Italian musicians at the court of Augustus III. However, in some issues he could have undertaken a bigger effort. For example, while stating that the influence of Italian cuisine in Poland was limited, Tygielski relies on old and general statements of Janusz Tazbir (371), whereas detailed studies and source editions by Jarosław Dumanowski appeared in recent years. [2]

The construction of the book is clear. In the first chapter the author sketches the Italian presence in Poland on the basis of highly significant narrative sources: historical works, correspondence and diaries of noblemen as well as texts produced by Cracow burghers.

The second chapter deals with the knowledge and opinions of Italian people about Poland. The image of this country began to change in the end of 15th century, as the Polish-Lithuanian State turned from an exotic and backward country into an attractive political and commercial partner. An important role in forming the expectations of future Italian emigrants to Poland was played by foreign students and diplomats staying in the Peninsula as well as by Italian scholars, entrepreneurs and artists that had already emigrated to Poland.

The third chapter sketches the activity of Italian immigrants, among whom there were artists, merchants, physicians, bankers and financers, diplomats and political advisers, servants, scholars and religious dissenters. In this regard the author stresses that Queen Bona's stay in Poland particularly contributed to the deepening of Polish-Italian contacts. Attempts at quantitative assessment of the Italian presence in Poland bear a hypothetical character due to the lack of systematic sources. However, based on the example of the city of Cracow, Tygielski points out that the period 1550-1651 was the most favourable for newcomers. From a social point of view, the royal court as well as those of the magnates played an important role in recruiting and employing Italian immigrants.

The fourth chapter mainly investigates the interplay between immigrants and the receiving society, understood as a two-way process: Polonization of Italians and Italianization of Poles. First, Tygielski analyses the relationship within the Italian community, pointing out that the immigrants felt a sort of group responsibility. Differences in regional provenience became less important while being far from home. In spite of collaboration and mutual help, conflicts also occurred. Tygielski poses the question whether Italians could enter Polish elites. In this regard, otherness and (generally) non-noble status were unfavourable for immigrants. However, some of them achieved ennoblement or the so called indygenat (id est the bestowal of local noble status to foreign nobility). After considering the role of the Italian language, which remained more popular than French until the end of the 17th century, Tygielski focuses on literary influences and presents the reception of authors who were particular important for the creation of an Italian stereotype, such as Callimachus and Machiavelli and the treaty Il cortegiano by Baldassarre da Castiglione.

The fifth chapter focuses on the attitude of Poles towards Italian immigrants. In this regard a major change occurred by mid-17th century. Even though Italians had already been criticized much earlier, the worsening of the economic situation caused a wave of xenophobia. In spite of this Italians were generally not perceived as a danger by the high nobility, since they provided fundamental services to this social layer. According to common stereotype, Italian immigrants were considered as cunning, greedy and sensual.

The sixth chapter answers to the general research question of the book, namely, why Old Polish society proved to be resilient to models and inspirations coming from Italy. While focusing on this question, the author takes into consideration other minorities functioning in the Commonwealth as well as Italians in other European countries. Thanks to both diplomatic stays and studies at Italian universities, the Peninsula was seen by Poles as an attractive place and the cradle of an ancient civilization. However, Polish noblemen and clergy were interested more in observation and selective adaptation of Italian models than in the transformation of Old Polish society according to Italian solutions. In this regard the social inferiority of immigrants may have played a decisive role. Moreover, Polish nobility proved to be more closed than analogous social layers in other countries. Changes also occurred in qualitative terms. As the economic situation in Italy started worsening, impoverished people with low qualifications mostly became immigrants. Artistic inspirations were particularly strong. In the civilisational sphere Italians contributed among other things to the organisation of banking and post services. Almost no influence occurred in politics and models of social behaviour. Even though the presence of Italian newcomers in Poland represented a lost chance for modernization, it still had deep effects in comparison to other ethnic minorities.

The duty of a reviewer is also to draw attention to a few inaccuracies. For instance the Theatines did not belong to the Franciscan Order, but represented a distinct congregation of the regular clergy (150). Even though the critical apparatus matches the requirements of scientific monographs, some flaws can be observed. References to Polski Słownik Biograficzny and Dizionario biografico degli Italiani in the footnotes lack the name of the author and the year of publishing. Moreover, Tygielski sometimes mentions other historians with no exact bibliographic references, for example Gottfried Schramm (380). A major defect of the book is the lack of indexes. A 500-pages monograph, filled with personal and geographical names, simply should not be published without them.

In conclusion it must be said that Tygielski masters a huge amount of literature and makes a proper use of diverse sources. The work provides a synthetic view on the activity of the Italian immigrants in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and interprets it originally and convincingly. At the same time, the author hints at less investigated issues and sketches a road map for further research. The translation is accurate, elegant and respectful towards Polish historical terminology. This book proves to be extremely useful not only for readers versed in Polish history, but also for specialists in other fields. It represents therefore an important achievement for the popularization of Polish culture and history abroad and should be warmly welcomed by the scientific community.


[1] Alina Żórawska-Witkowska: Muzyka na polskim dworze Augusta III [Music at the Polish Court of August III], part 1, Lublin 2012.

[2] See e. g. Jarosław Dumanowski: Tatarskie ziele w cukrze czyli Staropolskie słodycze [Calamus in Sugar, i. e. Old Polish Candy], Warszawa 2011; Stanisław Czarnecki: Compendium ferculorum albo Zebranie potraw [Compendium ferculorum or a Collection of Dishes], ed. by Jarosław Dumanowski and Magdalena Spychaj, Warszawa 2009.

Rezension über:

Wojciech Tygielski: Italians in Early Modern Poland. The Lost Opportunity for Modernization? Transl. by Katarzyna Popowicz (= Polish Studies - Transdisciplinary Perspectives; Vol. 11), Bruxelles [u.a.]: P.I.E. - Peter Lang 2015, 539 S., ISBN 978-3-631-64134-7, EUR 84,95

Rezension von:
Andrea Mariani
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