“Feels positively sumptuous” – The Bookseller of Florence by Dr. Ross King

IMG_16Apr2021at111450The Bookseller of Florence is one of the most beautifully produced books it has ever been my pleasure and privilege to hold in my hands. Printed on thick, high quality paper, turning its pages feels positively sumptuous. There are eight pages of excellent colour plates at the centre of the book and the jacket design for the UK market is gorgeous. Finally, there are the lovely endpapers, featuring a reproduction of a view over Florence, created in 1493, by the German historian, physician and cartographer, Hartmann Schedel (1440 – 1514). Not only is the book’s presentation impressive, it is also a remarkable feat of research and writing which it took its Canadian author and art historian four years to complete.

Using the story of the Florentine bookseller, Vespasiano da Bisticci, as a linchpin the book is essentially a celebration of Italy’s Golden Age and Renaissance during the fifteenth century. Florence, at the time, was considered the most cultural and cultured city in the whole of Europe and was the place where all intellectual knowledge converged. Art and philosophy were discussed everywhere by the elite and educated. Intellectuals, young and old, would meet daily on street corners and in city squares to debate the theories of Aristotle, Cicero, Plato and others.

Vespasiano took advantage of this thirst for knowledge. Born in 1422, he learned his trade — bookbinding and bookselling — from Michele Guarducci, entering his employment at only eleven years of age. By the time of Guarducci’s death, in 1452, he had become known as  the “king of the world’s booksellers”. In the twenty years Vespasiano worked for Guarducci, the bookshop on Florence’s ‘Street of Booksellers’ had gained a reputation as the ‘go-to’ place for scholars, theologians and the city’s wealthy to obtain exquisitely produced manuscripts. In fifteenth century Florence it was fashionable, among the rich, to own a personal library. Often they didn’t actually read the books, but merely displayed them as a symbol of their position within society. King writes:

“Bookmaking was a trade in which, like wool and banking, the Florentines excelled. The cartolai found a buoyant local market, because many people in Florence purchased books. In Florence, more than anywhere else, large numbers of people could read and write; as many as seven in every ten adults. The literacy levels of other European cities, by contrast, languished at less than twenty five per cent.”

King goes on to say:

“Even many girls in Florence were taught to read and write despite the warnings from monks and other moralists. “

He quotes a wool merchant, named Giovanni Morelli, who is said to have boasted that “his two sisters could read as well as any man.”

Vespasiano travelled throughout Italy, sourcing rare manuscripts from churches, monasteries, universities or the estates of deceased noblemen from which to produce copies for his clients. These included popes and kings, as well as powerful families, such as the Medicis.

King explains:

“Classical texts and ideas were especially valuable, because they could be applied to concrete political and social problems. If the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans could be found, and if these works were then properly studied and understood, they might teach modern Italians how to better educate their children, how to write more inspiring speeches, how to rule themselves more wisely and temperately and how to conduct more judicious and successful wars.”

One of the largest personal libraries was that of the copyist, Niccolò de’ Niccoli (1364 – 1437), with eight hundred manuscripts. This was mainly due to the patronage of Cosimo de’ Medici (1389 – 1464), an Italian banker and politician, whose family effectively established themselves as rulers during the Renaissance period. He generously lent out his books to anyone interested and, in his will, stated that after his death he wished for his personal library to be open not only to scholars, but to the general public as well.

Vespasiano employed numerous scribes who painstakingly copied out the text from the master manuscripts onto parchment. Once done, the pages would be illuminated and decorated according to the wishes of clients and the size of their pockets. Then, they would be bound in leather or velvet, in line with customers’ preferences.

King describes in intricate detail the process of preparing the parchment and how quills were filed to the right type of point for the job in question. He explains the production of the various colours and types of ink. He talks about the art of illuminating and decorating manuscripts. Contrary to expectation, King tells us:

“Gold was not the most expensive colour used in manuscript illumination. Even more precious was the beautiful blue known as ‘ultramarine’, made from lapis lazuli, a semi-precious gemstone coming from ‘beyond the sea’ (oltremare) — from the forbidding terrain of the Hindu Kush mountains in north-east Afghanistan, where it had been mined for thousands of years, and as early as the sixth or seventh century AD, used in cave paintings.”

Sadly, for Vespasiano, once Johannes Gutenberg (c.1400 – 1468), the German goldsmith, printer, and publisher, invented the printing press with its mechanical movable-type, it meant the days of his business were numbered. News of the clever new machine that revolutionised the printing process rapidly spread through Europe and also reached Italy. It quickly became clear that it was anything but a boon for traditional publishers and bookbinders, like Vespasiano. No longer was there a need for scribes, as customers flocked to the new printing shops which sprang up along the Street of Booksellers and elsewhere in Florence. The art of illuminating manuscripts was dying out. In 1480, after nearly fifty years in business, Vespasiano closed his shop and retired to the country to write his gossipy memoirs of the people — customers, friends, and even some enemies — he had known.

King not only vividly depicts Vespasiano’s life, his professional activities and the people he interacted with, but he also provides an extensive overview of Florentine and Italian politics of the day. Furthermore, we learn  about other major figures of the period, such as the historian and statesman, Leonardo Bruni (c.1370 – 1444), often recognized as the most important humanist historian of the early Renaissance. He explores the writings of Petrarch and Pliny, the Elder, and talks about Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s letters to his friend, the publisher, Titus Atticus (c.110 –  32 BC), which had been presumed lost for almost three centuries. Besides the theories of Aristotle and Plato, King also discusses the work of scholars, such as Giovanni Boccaccio, Poggio Bracciolini and Coluccio Salutati. He uses these men to put Florence’s history into context and always returns to Vespasiano to complete the circle.

The Renaissance period, of course, was not only about renewal, technological advancement and intellectual enlightenment, it was also a period of political turbulence: from the conquest of Constantinople through to the Pazzi Conspiracy. Vespasiano dedicated his life to learning about lost ideas and thinking by hunting down rare and antique manuscripts for his scribes to copy for the clients he enticed to buy them.

Any Cop?: For anyone interested in the Italian Renaissance, in general, and the art and history of illuminated manuscripts, in particular, Dr. King’s wonderful book is essential reading.

Carola Huttmann

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