At this summer’s Festival del Mondo Antico in Rimini, I was struck by an Italian don from Bologna University reading out Virgil. He wasn’t your normal English don material – thin white blouson jacket, white drainpipe trousers, candy-striped shirt open to navel revealing a wiry chest tanned the colour of brown furniture by the Adriatic sun. He didn’t read Virgil like an English don either. ‘Arma virumque cano…’ came out less like a retired optician from Malvern trying to buy stamps in Rome – ie English schoolboy pronunciation – and more like romantic, rat-a-tat Italian spoken by a Naples street urchin chatting up Sophia Loren.
Among many engaging things in this masterly book, Nicholas Ostler explains this connection between the ancient, dead language of Latin and the living, changing one of Italian.
The change came surprisingly late, long after the invasion of the Roman Empire by the Goths, the Vandals and all that squad. They were surprisingly respectful towards Latin and all things Roman, principally because they too tended to be Christian and respected the language of the Church. At the same