Barnes, Nightwood, & 1468


Scholars of Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood (1935) have long puzzled over the historical accuracy of her reference to a medieval Papal ordinance. This edict forced Rome’s Jewish population to perform in races for the ‘amusement of the Christian populace’ (Barnes 4). Barnes evokes the decree in describing the character of Guido Volkbein, the novel’s Italian-Austrian and Jewish “Baron”; she introduces his racial history to evoke Volkbein’s melancholy and victimhood within a dominant Christian society. The first, and most evocative, instance of inherited Jewish pain occurs in the novel’s opening pages. Volkbein walks in Vienna’s Prater, clutching an,

exquisite yellow and black linen handkerchief that cried aloud of the ordinance of 1468 issued by one Pietro Barbo, demanding that, with a rope  about its neck, Guido’s race should run in the Corso for the amusement of the Christian populace, while ladies of noble birth, sitting upon spines too refined for rest, arose from their seats, and, with the red-gowned cardinals and the Monsignori, applauded with that cold yet hysterical abandon of a people that is at once unjust and happy; the very Pope himself shaken down from his hold on heaven with the laughter of a man who forgoes his angels that he may recapture the beast. (4)

The memory of these races and the linen memento symbolizes, for Guido, “the sum total of what is the Jew” (4), as they mark not simply Jews’ historical exclusion from society, but also the official record of Christian abuse. However, Barnes includes an historical error that has mystified readers. While many note that “Pietro Barber” took the name of “Paul II” when he became Pope, and they identify the ordinance as an 1466 edict compelling Jews to participate in footraces, other elements of Barnes’s historical references remain unexplained.

Pietro Barbo, a Venetian elected Pope in 1464, instigated the races as an element of the winter festival of Saturnalia in 1466 (Kertzer 74). Cheryl Plumb notes the discrepancy in Barnes’s dating of the event in 1468, and suggests that the 1466 races “appear to be the ordinance that Barnes refers to, though the dates are not exact” (Plumb 212). Lara Trubowitz also suggests that “Barnes likely modeled her description of the decree” of 1468 (331). Hanrahan further questions how Barnes arrived at 1468 and claims that “No explanation has ever been proposed for the enigmatic date of the ordinance, which corresponds to no recognizable historical referent” (36). However, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the date of 1468 appeared in numerous publications about Rome. One example, an unsigned article titled “The Story of the Ghetto,” appeared in an 1858 volume of Bentley’s Miscellany and states that Pietro Barbo “in 1468 ordered the Jews to take part in the Corso races” (84). Several years later, William W. Story wrote in his travelogue, Roba di Roma (1887), a description of the Corso races, that closely parallels that of Barnes:

It was Pope Paul II. (Pietro Barbo), however, who in 1468 first ordained the races of this wretched people in the Corso, and gave form and law to the cruelty of the mob [. . . .] Noble ladies, and purple-robed cardinals and monsignori applauded this degrading spectacle, while the Pope himself looked down from his decorated balcony, and smiled his approval, or shook his holy sides with laughter [. . . .] a piquancy was afterward added to it by forcing the Jews to run with a rope round their necks and entirely naked, save where a narrow band was girt round their loins. (440-41)

Story also notes the cries of “Roba Vecchia!” in the Piazza Montanara that Barnes refers to: “[Guido] felt the echo in his own throat of that cry running the Piazza Montanara long ago, ‘Roba Vecchia!’—the degradation by which his people had survived” (Barnes Nightwood 4). The similarities between Story’s historical descriptions and Volkbein’s “racial memory” suggest that Barnes may have encountered Story’s text, or one akin to it, at some point while she was preparing to write Nightwood, which, evidence suggests, she developed from a proposed work of historical fiction about a Viennese “Court Jew.” In late 1930, Barnes applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship in order “To visit Austria, Vienna, to make a study of pre-war conditions, intrigues, and relations then existing between the Jews and the Court, tracing the interweaving between the two, for a book in progress whose chief figure is an Austrian Jew” (qtd. in Trubowitz 311). Barnes also proposed a second project, “a creative religious history” (qtd. in Plumb x). These two projects appear to merge in Nightwood.

Works Cited

Hanrahan, Mairead. “Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood: The Cruci-Fiction of the Jew.” Paragraph. 24.1 (2001): 32–49.

Kertzer, David I. The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism. NY: Knopf, 2001.

Plumb, Cheryl, ed. Nightwood: The Original Version and Related Drafts. By Djuna Barnes. Ed. Cheryl Plumb. Normal: Dalkey, 1995.

“The Story of the Ghetto.” Bentley’s Miscellany. Ed. William Harrison Ainsworth. Vol. 44. London: Bentley, 1858. 79-88.

Story, W. W. Roba di Roma. Vol. 2 . Cambridge: Riverside P, 1887.

Trubowitz, Lara. “In Search of the Jew in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood: Jewishness, Antisemitism, Structure, and Style.” Modern Fiction Studies 51.2 (2005): 311-34.

Adapted from “The Gender of Belief: Women and Christianity in T. S. Eliot and Djuna Barnes” (69-70; n. 22 88-9)

Copyright 2009 Jacqueline A Pollard

Update:  Barnes did own a copy of Story’s text, albeit from a US publishing company.

At the time of my dissertation research, the Barnes Archive at University of Maryland hadn’t posted the contents of Barnes’s library online. They have since done so. Among the works in Barnes’s uncatalogued book collection: series 9.2, box 1, folder 1, item 674:

Story, William Wetmore. Roba di Roma, 2 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1887)

2 thoughts on “Barnes, Nightwood, & 1468”

  1. Hi, Ashley. Apologies for this incredibly late response. I have no idea which translation she preferred, but you might check on which translation she owned. That might give a clue? You might check the Barnes collection at UMD. You can see the catalog of Barnes’s library online (although you may well have to contact the good people at UMD for specific info). Good luck!


  2. Hey, I came across the name of your dissertation via my research on Djuna Barnes, though the library’s being ornery and I haven’t yet been able to access its content. I’m a PhD student at the University of Memphis currently working with Nightwood; have you come across any indication of Barnes’s preferred translation of the Bible, in your research? Thank you!


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