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Death was everywhere in the Middle-Ages. The ‘danse macabre’ is a late-medieval allegory on the universality of death, produced with the intention to remind people of the vanity of our earthly life. No matter one’s social position, the dance of death unites all. It was a warning for the mighty, a comfort to the poor, …

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How does one define Renaissance humanism without getting trapped in soulless formalism? Let us make an unusual attempt: it is a call for clarity, a delight in discovery, the fun of friendship, the ideal of internationalism, the love of learning, the rage for research. Renaissance humanism equals the creative principle. It is the happy meeting of great minds which, at its purest form, is represented by the collaboration between Desiderius Erasmus, Thomas More, Johannes Froben, and Hans Holbein. In retrospect, it does seem like a Utopia.

In 1499, Erasmus of Rotterdam paid his first visit to England as guest of William Blount, his former pupil in Paris and the future Lord Mountjoy. The latter encouraged Erasmus to compile his Adagia which he dedicated to Blount. During his stay he met Thomas More and the two became lifelong friends. Apparently, the very first meeting of the two masters took place at the Lord Mayor’s table. They were seated opposite each other. Their debate was lively. Each was so impressed by the other’s intelligence and wit that Erasmus exclaimed, Aut tu es Morus, aut nullus (Either you are More, or no one), and More replied, Aut tu es Erasmus, aut diabolus (You are either Erasmus, or the devil). Whilst on a second visit in 1505, Erasmus was joined by Thomas More and together they worked on the translation of Lucian’s satires from Greek into Latin (published in Paris, 1506). In 1509 Erasmus visited England for a third time. During his stay he wrote Encomium Moriae (In Praise of Folly) which he dedicated to Thomas, jokingly including More’s name in the title.

The meeting between Erasmus and Johann Froben took place five years after the former’s 1509 visit to England. Froben was a printer in Basel who established the greatest Swiss publishing firm of the early sixteenth century. The house continued under the direction of his heirs and associates until 1587. A scholar himself, a master printer, and a successful businessman, he recognized the vitality of humanistic thinking. Froben had originally worked in Nuremberg, before moving to Basel in 1490. Three years later, he entered a partnership with Johannes Petri and the leading Basel printer of the preceding generation, Johannes Amerbach. A fine 1513 reprint of Aldus’s edition of Erasmus’s Adagia had drawn the humanist’s attention to the superb skills of the Basel printer. Moreover, Erasmus was intrigued by the work that was undertaken by Amerbach and Froben for an edition of the writings of Saint Jerome. Erasmus admired this early scholar and had been busy himself translating his epistles. His plan to restore the books of Jerome and add a commentary had been frustrated by a variety of problems. Basel offered the opportunity of joining a group of editors who were working on the same subject. In July 1514, he set out to meet Froben. He carried his notes on Jerome with him.

After the death of his partners, Froben took full control of the press. In 1500 he married the daughter of the bookseller Wolfgang Lachner, who entered into a partnership with him. She ran the commercial side of the business, while Froben handled the authors and editors and the process of production. By 1510 his press had become the centre of a large circle of mostly German and Swiss humanist scholars. The inclusion of Erasmus meant a major turning point for the firm. From about 1515, Froben was the main publisher used by Erasmus. In 1521, the latter moved from the Netherlands to Basel. It was Froben’s fine printing and humanistic scholarship that made him decide to make the move. It turned out to be a happy meeting of minds and skills. The greatest period of Froben’s work as a printer coincided with the years of his friendship with the celebrated scholar, the ‘prince of humanists’. Erasmus himself was delighted with the new environment in which he had settled. In a letter to Joannes Sapidus, he described his stay in Basel as ‘living in some charming sanctuary of the Muses, where a multitude of learned persons, and learned in no common fashion, appears a thing of course’. The vibrant intellectual climate and captivating atmosphere of the city inspired his finest work. The wandering scholar had found his home.

Froben could teach contemporary publishers a lesson or two. He was alert enough to offer Erasmus a fixed annual income of 200 gulden for his services and a fair share in the profits of the books produced. The two men entered into a proper business partnership. Working closely together, this relationship turned into a close friendship. What did these services consist of? Printing ancient texts demanded expert assistance. Manuscripts had to be obtained in the first place. When acquired, they needed to be evaluated (manuscripts were often in a poor state and before the invention of printing editors had not been particular careful with their texts), collated, and emendated. This task demanded scholarship of the highest level. Erasmus became the most eminent of ‘learned correctors’ at Froben’s publishing house. We think of Erasmus first and foremost as an author. Where did he gain his editorial skills?

Before moving to Basel, Erasmus had spent nine months in Venice with Aldus Manutius, the most famous printer in Europe. It was Aldus’s ambition to rescue from oblivion the work of the classical, especially Greek, writers. To this end he edited and printed those works for which workable manuscripts could be procured. His firm, named Ne-academia Nostra, employed many scholars who were involved with the deciphering of ancient manuscripts. Erasmus stayed with Aldus from January to September 1508. It was there that he learned the editorial trade by preparing an impressive number of texts, including editions of Plautus, Seneca, Terence, and Plutarch.

In December 1516, Louvain-based printer Dirk Martens had published one of the lasting highlights of European literature. It was Thomas More’s Utopia. Whilst on a trade mission in the Low Countries in 1515, the author had entrusted the publication of his book to Erasmus and to Pieter Gillis (Petrus Aegidius in Latin or Peter Giles in English), a town councillor (griffier) in Antwerp. The delightful introductory letter to the text itself is addressed to my ‘right heartily beloved friend Peter’ [Giles]. The book depicts the society of a fictional island and its religious, political and social customs. The quasi-Platonic debate in the first part of Utopia, in which a critique of a corrupt contemporary society is formulated, stands at the beginning of a long subsequent tradition of European socio-cultural criticism. A Paris edition was published in 1517, embellished with supportive letters from leading humanists to whom Erasmus had sent copies of the manuscript.

On 25 August 1517 Erasmus sent a letter from Louvain to Johann Froben in Basel. In it, he recommended the publication of More’s Utopia in combination with the Prolusions (the works were published together in the two 1518 – March and November – editions by Froben). If you think fit, Erasmus wrote, ‘let them go forth to the world and to posterity with the recommendation of being printed by you. For such is the reputation of your press, that for a book to be known to have been published by Froben, is a passport to the approbation of the learned’. Froben employed Hans Holbein to supply the woodcut borders to his edition. This border takes the form of a Renaissance niche flanked by columns in which putti play around a shield showing Froben’s printer’s mark with a bird perched on top. Holbein’s brother Ambrosius designed the alphabet letter within the text. The book proved to be an overwhelming success. By the middle of the century translations of the original Latin had appeared in German, Italian, French, and English. The first translation into Dutch entitled De Utopie van Thomas Morus, in zijn tijden Cancellier van Enghelant was printed by Hans de Laet in Antwerp in 1553. Within a time span of three decades the whole of Europe had taken notice of Thomas More’s masterpiece. Quality travels fast – even in those early days.

The close personal relationship between Froben and Erasmus is perhaps unparalleled in the history of authors and their publishers, although it was surely in keeping with the climate and ideals of the time. It was Renaissance humanism in its most perfect form. With the death of Froben in 1527, Erasmus expressed his personal loss and sorrow. His grief for the death of his close friend was more distressing than that which he had felt for the loss of his own brother. The world of science was in mourning.

Johann Herbst (1507-1578), using the Latinized name of Johannes Oporinus, was one of the outstanding printers of sixteenth century Basel. His fame rests on the first edition of Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica libri septem which was published in 1543 – a book on anatomy that would change the world of medicine for ever.Oporinus would have been an extraordinary figure even if Vesalius’s magnus opus had been printed elsewhere. He was the son of the painter Hans Herbst. Having completed his academic studies at Strasbourg and Basel, he worked as a teacher. He then acted as assistant to the erratic Doctor Paracelsus and, subsequently, taught Greek at Basel University before starting out on a career as printer and publisher.

De humani corporis is one of the most notable books of the sixteenth century. Both presswork and woodcuts are outstanding. The lay-out clearly indicates the significant progress the art of printing had made since the fifteenth century. The initials were produced specifically for this book. The reader is presented with putti that kill pigs, steal a female body from the gallows, operate on patients, or cook a skull. Their antics can be interpreted as a pun on the Galenic practice of medicine.

The mise-en-page of the book is superb. Oporinus used a roman letter that was typical for printers from Basel and a beautiful italic. The use of these typefaces in different sizes and the handling of titles give the text a rhythm of its own, one that naturally fits in with the woodcuts. This is undoubtedly one of the finest books ever produced.

One can but wonder what might have become of this work by Vesalius, and of the ground-breaking ideas it contained, if it had been handled by a printer of inferior skill and ability.

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