Essays in librarianship and bibliography/The early Italian book trade

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[Bibliographica, vol. i. pt. 3, published by Messrs.
Kegan Paul & Co.]

There are few inquiries more interesting than one into the character and tendencies of an epoch, as ascertained by their reflection in its literature. Such an investigation, if referring to modern times and extended beyond a single country, must generally be incomplete on account of the great mass of the materials, which defies any exhibition of the literary tendencies prevailing at any given period over the whole of Europe. In the first age of printing alone the number of books is not absolutely unmanageable, and their bibliographical interest has ensured their accurate description in catalogues. It would not be beyond the power of industry to make a digest of the incunabula of the fifteenth century, so far as to show the number of books printed in each country, their respective subjects, the frequency of reprints, the ratio of the various classes to each other, the proportion of Latin to vernacular books, and other particulars of this nature by which the intellectual currents of the age might be mapped out.

The present essay is to be regarded as no more than a very imperfect indication of the feasibility of such an undertaking. Observations, sufficiently desultory, on the general character of the literature published in Italy, from the introduction of printing into the country to the end of the century, have suggested some remarks on the kind of books which the early Italian printers found it profitable to produce, and some inferences respecting the taste of the day, and the classes which would be reached by the printing-press. To afford a really satisfactory ground-work for such an inquiry, all known publications should be enumerated (although the briefest titles would serve), and tabulated according to their subjects. Deductions regarding the intellectual aspects of the time might then be made with some confidence, and the apparently dry and unpromising ground-work would admit of rich illustration from the stores of contemporary literary history. Any such fulness of treatment is, of course, as incompatible with the space available in Bibliographica as with the time at the disposal of the writer. Enough, it is hoped, will have been done to show how interesting a detailed analysis of the subject might be made. The Roman and Venetian presses have been chiefly dwelt upon, inasmuch as these two cities, the first in Italy to possess printing-presses, also served to test the opposite systems of reliance upon patronage in high quarters, or upon the free life of a busy and prosperous community. The result is instructive, and has been confirmed by every similar experiment in later times.

In examining the literature of the age, as represented by the contemporary productions of the press, we are particularly impressed by its utilitarian, and, as a corollary, its essentially popular character. We do not employ this latter term as indicative of a relation between the printers and the mass of the people, who at that period were generally unable to read, but between the printers and their limited public. In our times a considerable proportion of the current literature of the day is produced without any reference to the needs and tastes of the reading public. The author knows that he will not be read, but it nevertheless suits him to put his opinions, his experiences, or his skill in composition upon record; for the gratification of his self-esteem, it may be, or the expression of his emotions, or as a document for future reference, or as an act of duty, or for the pleasure of friends, or for any one or more of these and many other conceivable reasons. Were it not for the safety-valve afforded by the periodical press, the number of books thus existing for the author's individual sake would be very much more considerable. Hardly anything of this is to be observed in the early ages of publishing. Scarcely a book is to be found for which a public might not be reasonably expected, and which, therefore, would not be produced without the expectation of profit. We know that this expectation was not always realised from Sweynheym and Pannartz's petition to Pope Sixtus IV., that he would indemnify them by some public appointment for the loss of capital sunk in their unsold publications, but the books were such as promised to command a sale, and the reason of their failure was probably the competition of other Italian presses. They were principally classical authors or Fathers of the Church, and it may be that exigencies of Papal patronage led Sweynheym and his partner to produce more of the latter class than was prudent on strictly commercial grounds. If so, the case was quite exceptional, and does not invalidate the general proposition that the Italian printers of the Renaissance looked entirely, and in the main intelligently, to the needs of their public. It is thus easy to discover the character of this constituency, and to estimate its requirements.

For long after the invention of printing the books produced consist mainly of four classes:– (1) Classical, (2) Grammatical, (3) Theological, (4) Legal. The immense proportion of these in comparison with other subjects demonstrates that the great majority of readers belonged to the professional classes—teachers, or at least students at the universities, divines, and practitioners of civil or canon law. Had a leisured and cultured class existed, as in our times, we should have seen more modern history and biography, more essays and facetiæ, more vernacular poetry and fiction—all departments very slenderly represented in the fifteenth century. Men evidently read for practical ends, and invested their money in the expectation of a substantial rather than an intellectual return. The class that now reads principally for amusement did not in that age read at all; but if it had, books could not then be produced at the cheap rate required to ensure an extensive circulation. If such books are costly, they must at all events be solid, to give the purchaser an apparent return for his money; or the expense must be distributed over a wide area by the agency of circulating libraries, an institution which implies a numerous reading public. Hence, a fact honourable to Renaissance literature, it includes hardly anything that can be called trash. Copious in the number of its publications, it is disappointingly meagre in their themes; many branches of human activity hardly exist for it, but, at all events, almost every one of its publications was produced in response to a real need. Most of them have inevitably become obsolete, few have ever been, or will be, utterly valueless.

The drawback to the generally sterling character of the early Renaissance printing was want of enterprise on the part of the printers, who were also the publishers. At the present day culture is greatly promoted by the ambitious and competitive spirit of publishers, who look far and wide for subjects likely to touch sympathetic chords in the breast of the public, are always ready to listen to new ideas, to which they frequently accord generous encouragement, compete among themselves for promising writers, and are continually devising new schemes to attract patronage by elegance, cheapness, artistic decoration, or the supply of some want which the public has not yet found out for itself. Very little of this is to be discovered in the fifteenth century. Publishers seldom cared to transgress the safe ordinary round of classics, divinity, and law. Occasionally there are symptoms of alertness to the events of the day: thus, as soon as Cardinal Rovere becomes Pope, his treatises on the Redemption and the perpetual virginity of Mary are printed at Rome; and when the Jews are accused of murdering a Christian boy, circumstantial accounts of the tragedy appear in different parts of Europe. But, notwithstanding the intellectual curiosity of the age, it would seem to have been a very unpromising one for the literary manifestation of original genius of any kind. Works of contemporary authors, other than of a purely utilitarian character, are very rare. One of the most remarkable exceptions is the publication at Naples in 1476 of the "Novellini" of Masuccio, a book whose scandalous character would be sure to obtain it readers. Towards the end of the century, works by living authors of eminence became more frequent, but even then they are most commonly those of men like Sanazzaro, influential in courts, and enjoying literary distinction long before they went to press. One of the press's most important functions, the encouragement of unknown ability, was hardly performed at all in that age, and the principal reason was that the printers, though sometimes of classical acquirements, were either too exclusively commercial in their views or too limited in their resources to promote literary activity outside of the beaten track. Our own Caxton appears a model of intelligent adaptation to the tastes of his public, but he never finds an author or exerts himself to give superior finish or elegance to a book. It cannot but be thought that if Italy had in the fifteenth century possessed a publisher of enterprising spirit and ample means, a powerful impulse might have been imparted to Italian vernacular literature. Such a person, indeed, would have perceived that the public for such a literature, apart from its few classical examples, did not then exist, but he would have deemed that the multitude of intelligent men who could not read Latin would read Italian, if Italian were put before them. Instead of hiring editors he would have hired authors, and his enterprise might have been attended by momentous consequences.

Another token of the lack of a far-seeing speculative spirit is the extraordinary period which elapsed before an Italian printer ventured upon the publication of a Greek book. The interest in Greek literature must have been very general, but instructors were probably scarce, and few Italians had taken the trouble to learn it. The educational value of the language, apart from the contents of the books composed in it, was utterly unsurmised, and the reader was fully satisfied if he could obtain a faithful Latin translation, which in the majority of cases was not yet to be had. Had printed Greek texts been placed in the way of readers, a vast impulse would have been given to the study of the language, and a publisher of genius, labouring to create the taste he did not find, might have greatly accelerated the course of European culture. Greek grammar, even, awaited the typographer until 1476, and Greek literature for some years longer. No originality was infused into the business of publishing until the advent of Aldus, almost as much the father of modern bookselling as Gutenberg is the father of printing.

Leaving the question of what the Renaissance printers and publishers of Italy might have done, we proceed to illustrate what they did by a brief analysis of the character of their productions during the first few years of their activity, especially in Rome and Venice. The survey is necessarily very imperfect, for a large proportion of their productions are not dated, and the exact year is usually a matter of conjecture. We must confine ourselves to the list of dated books given by Panzer, which might admit of considerable extension. It is not likely, however, that this would materially affect the mutual proportion of the various classes of literature, the point with which we are principally concerned.

Printing was established at Rome in 1467 by the removal of Sweynheym and Pannartz from Subiaco. Five books are recorded to have been printed there in that year; two classics (Cicero's "De Oratore" and "Epistolae ad Familiares"), two editions of the fathers, and one grammatical work. In 1468 six more make their appearance, one classical, three patristic, one theological, and one medical. In 1469 commences the great run upon classical writers, which continued for some years. Of the twelve books enumerated by Panzer as produced in this year, all but one are classics, and the apparent exception is a defence of Plato by Cardinal Bessarion. All but one are printed by Sweynheym and Pannartz, with prefaces by the Bishop of Aleria as editor-general. This striking development of activity indicates the first organised attempt to monopolise a special department of the book-trade, which might possibly have succeeded if Rome had then, as now, been the capital of an united Italy. The other Italian cities, however, had no intention of being excluded from the practice of the new art, and the same year witnessed the introduction of typography into its true Italian metropolis, Venice, combined, however, with an audacious attempt to obtain a monopoly. Joannes de Spira, the first printer in Venice, not content with obtaining protection for his publications, claimed and obtained the sole right of printing books in the city for five years. Men had evidently as yet but little conception of the importance of the new art; but the death of the printer within the year released the Venetian State from the obligation it had so inconsiderately undertaken, and it was by this time sufficiently enlightened not to renew it in favour of his brother Vindelinus, who, however, remained for some time among the most distinguished of Venetian printers.[1]

Before leaving the year 1469, we should mention the first Italian instance of a printed translation of a Greek classic, the Italian Strabo, published by Sweynheym and Pannartz without date, but which is known to have belonged to this year. In 1470 the run on classics continues, the same number as in the previous year being printed, mostly by Sweynheym and Pannartz, but a revival is apparent in other branches of literature, the number of books in theology being nearly equal to that of the classics. Another translation from the Greek appears, that of Plutarch's Lives, rendered by various hands, with the preface of J. A. Campanus. The most remarkable production of the Roman press for this year, however, is a small tract, which affords the first example of recourse to printing by a Pope for an official purpose. It is the brief of Pope Paul II., enacting that the Jubilee shall henceforth be celebrated every twenty-fifth year, and consequently in 1475, which he did not live to see. This interesting document has been recently acquired by the British Museum. In 1471, as is most probable, another Government publication appeared, "The Civic Statutes of Rome," as revised by Paul II.; and the election of his successor Sixtus, in the same year, produced the first two examples of official publications, afterwards very frequent, the congratulatory harangues

pronounced by ambassadors upon occasion of their tendering homage to the Pope.

Twelve classical publications grace the year, mostly from the press of Sweynheym and Pannartz, as well as the first volume of their great edition of the "Biblical Commentary" of Nicolaus de Lyra. The remaining four volumes appeared in the year following, and the last was freighted with the memorable appeal to Pope Sixtus IV., composed by the Bishop of Aleria in the name of the printers, which throws so vivid a light on the vicissitudes of the book-trade in Rome. They have printed 12,475 sheets, acervum ingentem, for which it is marvellous that paper or types should have been found. Their spacious premises are choked with unbound sheets in quinions (quinterniones), but void of victual and drink. Will the Pope give them some little office, by aid of which they may be able to provide for themselves and their families? Rome was manifestly no place for classical publishers, even under a Pope who did so much for the encouragement of learning as Sixtus. The forlorn estate of Sweynheym and Pannartz, contrasted, as we shall see, with the flourishing condition of the Venetian book-trade at the time, shows that even at a period when reading, to say nothing of the scholarship required to master the literature of the day, was not a general accomplishment, the bookseller's best patron was the public. Probably, however, the hardships of the firm may have been somewhat exaggerated by the eloquent pen of the Bishop of Aleria; for in this very year they appear as printing ten books, and in the following year seven. Two of these are new editions of works previously issued by them, showing not only that the original impression was sold out, but that it was thought profitable to undertake another.

In 1474 the names of the printers entirely disappear as partners. Sweynheym is known to have died before 1478 (when the Ptolemy, which he had begun to prepare for the press, was published by Arnold Buckingk), but at what particular time is uncertain. Pannartz comes forward by himself in December 1474, and in the following year he occurs as the printer of eight books, chiefly classical. In 1476 he prints three, but his activity abruptly terminates in March, a period coinciding with a collapse in Roman publishing, best illustrated by a comparative table:–

1475 53 books 1478 15 books.
1476 24 " 1479 11"
1477 14 " 1480  9"

No doubt many undated books were published in these years, and after 1480 some revival is apparent, but the quality of the publication is greatly lowered, Classics continued to be printed, but they retire into the background before canon and civil law, and the apparent number is greatly helped out by ephemeral pamphlets, such as papal briefs and addresses on public occasions. The endeavour to render Rome an intellectual centre had manifestly failed, nor has she deserved this character at any subsequent period, except for the few years during which wits and scholars gathered around Leo X. Before leaving the subject, nevertheless, a tribute should be paid to the merits of Joannes Philippus de Lignamine, a native of Messina, apparently a man of good family, and not improbably the first native Italian to exercise the typographic art, in whose productions may be traced rudimentary ideas of a higher order than were vouchsafed to his mercantile contemporaries. It can hardly be by accident that the same man who in 1472 prints the first vernacular book that had appeared in Rome, should in the same year publish, although in Latin, the first biography of an Italian contemporary, his own memoir of his own sovereign, Ferdinand of Naples; should in 1473 issue the vernacular poetry of Petrarch; and in 1474 a book of such national interest as the "Italia Illustrata" of Flavio Biondo. His publications are always of high quality, and it would be interesting to learn more respecting him. He is described as a member of the Pope's household, and was certainly something more than a professional printer.

The establishment of printing at Rome had naturally ensued upon the migration of the printers from the small adjoining town of Subiaco, and the choice of the latter place as the cradle of Italian typography had probably been determined by the German nationality of the majority of the inmates of its celebrated monastery. The introduction of printing into Venice, two years after Rome, was probably less the effect of accident. Joannes de Spira, who, as we have seen, so promptly secured a monopoly of so much value as the exclusive exercise of printing for five years, must have been an enterprising and far-seeing man, to whom the opulence and comparative freedom of Venice would offer greater attractions than the doubtful patronage of an Italian despot. This view of his character is confirmed by the boldness of his first undertakings. Before obtaining any privilege he had produced two of the most voluminous works of antiquity then accessible–Pliny's Natural History and Cicero's Epistolæ ad Familiares. The soundness of his judgment was evinced by the demand for a second edition of his Cicero within four months, an unusual occurrence in the history of early printing. Tacitus followed, and the German printer's patriotism is indicated by his description of the Germania as "libellus aureus." His brother and successor, Vindelinus, displays even greater energy, producing fifteen books within the year 1470, among them so important a work as Livy's History, and gaining especial honour as the first printer of Petrarch. The rest are almost entirely classical, and so are the few books printed in this year by his rival, Nicolas Jenson, the most elegant of all the Italian printers. In 1471 Venetian printing takes a wider range; law books increase; Jensen produces books of morals and of religious edification in the vernacular; Christopher Valdarfer publishes the Decameron of Boccaccio. More important still is the appearance of two independent Italian translations of the Bible, one from the press of Vindelinus, one without name of printer. As no other Italian city emulated the example of Venice, an example frequently repeated by her before the close of the century, we are justified in assuming that in no other Italian city could such a thing be done. Interesting too is a vernacular translation of Cardinal Bessarion's exhortation to the Italian princes to take arms against the Turk, showing a public for productions of contemporary interest, outside the ranks of those who could read Latin. In the following year, 1472, printed editions of no fewer than six classical authors make their appearance at Venice, Cicero's Tusculan Questions; Catullus, with Tibullus and Propertius, and the Silvæ of Statius; Ausonius, with a considerable appendix of minor poets; Macrobius's commentary on the "Somnium Scipionis," and the authors of "De Re Rustica." Although some of the cities dependent upon Venice–Padua, Treviso, Verona–were beginning to have printing-presses, their typographers were not equal to such undertakings, and Venice must have been the headquarters of production and distribution for her extensive and opulent territory, and probably for many of the neighbouring states. Her abundant capital and industry, liberal administration in non-political matters, and the confluence of strangers must be reckoned among the principal causes of this activity, to which Mr. Horatio Brown adds another, the abundance and excellence of paper, which the Venetian senate had protected a century before by prohibiting the export of rags from their dominions.

The extent and growth of the Venetian booktrade will appear by the following notice of the number of works printed from 1469 to 1486, which would be considerably augmented if dates could be safely assigned to undated books:–

1469 4 books 1478  64 books.
1470 22 " 1479  16"
1471 48 " 1480  71"
1472 36 " 1481  79"
1473 28 " 1482  74"
1474 40 " 1483 104"
1475 37 " 1484  66"
1476 52 " 1485  84"
1477 55 " 1486  71"

By 1495 the number of publications has risen to 119, the general character of the books remaining much as before. The productions of the Venetian press from 1469 to 1500 occupy more space in Panzer's catalogue than those of Rome, Florence, Naples, Milan, Bologna, Brescia, Ferrara, Padua, Parma, and Treviso put together.

Space allows only a brief glance at the typographical productions of the five most important of the seven Italian cities which possessed printing-presses by 1471–Bologna, Ferrara, Florence, Milan and Naples. Bologna, as might be expected in a university city, especially produces erudite books, particularly in philosophy, mathematics, and medicine. Petrarch and Boccaccio, however, relieve the general aridity, and there is a fair sprinkling of classics. Ferrara's taste lies much in the same direction, but it is remarkable for a school of Hebrew printing, and does itself honour by the editio princeps of Seneca's tragedies, and even more so by that of Boccaccio's "Teseide," the first publication of an Italian epic poem other than the "Divina Commedia." Florence appears more tardy in developing the new art than might have been expected under Medicean rule; and hef early productions would seem comparatively unimportant but for Bettini's "Monte Sancto di Dio" (1477), the first example of a printed book containing copperplate engraving, and the famous Dante of 1481, partly illustrated in the same manner. The artistic eminence of Florence renders the production of this work within her precincts especially significant; and in 1490 a school of wood-engraving arises which surpasses the Venetian, and often confers great artistic value upon typographical productions otherwise of little account. Another interesting feature of Florentine typography, from about 1480 until the end of the century, is the number of original publications by native men of letters, such as Politian, the Pulcis, and, in quite a different manner, Savonarola. Florence understood the duty of encouraging contemporary talent better than any other Italian city; yet, although she was the Athens of Italy, and possessed its Pericles, the comparison between the extent of her typographical production and that of Venice shows that the public is the better patron. When, at a much later period, wealth and public spirit departed from Venice to an extent which they never did from Florence, the lead passed to the latter city.

Milan is, for the first few years, principally devoted to the classics, upon which law and theology gradually gain ground. Its great glory is the first book printed in Greek–Lascaris's Grammar, 1476. Simoneta's "History of Francesco Sforza," put forth by the authority of Lodovico Sforza about 1479, is also a memorable book. Naples, where printing was never very active, does little for classical literature, but produce numerous works by local writers of distinction, from Archbishop Caraccioli to the licentious Masuccio. The number of Hebrew books is a remarkable feature.

This slight degustation–analysis it cannot be called–of the fruits of Italian Renaissance literature confirms the proposition with which we began, that it was far more utilitarian than that of ages often stigmatised as matter-of-fact and prosaic. The reproductions of classical authors were not in general stimulated by enthusiasm for their beauties, but by their utility, either for the information they contained, or as books for school or college. Outside their circle very little of a fanciful or imaginative character appeared, and this chiefly in the shape of impressions of vernacular authors, such as Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. Original genius was at almost as low an ebb as it has ever been, although a band of most gracefully accomplished men of letters surrounded Lorenzo de' Medici, and Ariosto and Machiavelli were growing up. In partial explanation of this circumstance, it may be remarked that the fifteenth century, brilliant in its inventions and discoveries, was, in a literary point of view, one of the most unproductive periods in European history. Petrarch and Boccaccio in Italy, Chaucer in England, left no successors; with the exception of Æneas Sylvius, it would be difficult to point to any writer of the first half of the century eminent by his achievements in elegant literature. Had printing been invented in the thirteenth century, or in the age of Elizabeth, we might have had a different story to record; but it must now be said that for a long time it did little for the encouragement of genius, hardly even of high talent. Yet the age as a whole was by no means flat or prosaic, only its imagination was more powerfully attracted to art than to letters, and a spiritual charm is chiefly recognisable among its books in proportion as art has influenced them, whether in the design of exquisite type or of beautiful illustration. This utilitarian character of literature, as we have remarked, tended to discourage readers for amusement or for the love of letters ; and this in turn discouraged printers and publishers from any serious effort to provide vernacular reading. Literature accordingly remained for a long time the property of the humanists, which is as much as to say that it was imitative and not creative. The merits and defects of this excellent class of men cannot be better exhibited than by their attitude towards Greek. It was not one of indifference, they translated Greek authors into Latin with exemplary pains; but they thought this quite sufficient, and made no effort to render the originals accessible. They valued Greek authors for their information, not for their style, and had no idea of the value of the language as an instrument of education. A creative epoch was required for this, such as speedily came with the overthrow of the old order of Italy, with the discovery of America, above all, with the Reformation. No age can bestow so great a boon upon literature as the fifteenth century did by the invention of printing; but it was not an age in which the hero flourished conspicuously as man of letters.

  1. It seems to have been afterwards sought to imply that Spira's monopoly was intended only to protect his copyright in books actually published by him, but the language of the original document is clear. It may be remarked that, did not other arguments abundantly suffice, this transaction would prove the date 1461, in Nicolas Jensen's Decor Puellarum, to be a misprint, as if he had printed before 1469 he would have acquired a locus standi which could not have been ignored in Spira's favour.