From the outset, printers were like merchants – they travelled far and wide to set up shop. Their skills were valued. The clergy had hailed printing as a divine art. Churchmen crowded the book-markets, they ‘sponsored’ publications, and they gratefully received the printed word as a powerful means of teaching and explaining religion. Many high-ranking prelates were patrons of the new art. Printing was a cosmopolitan enterprise from day one – but not necessarily a lucrative one. Unlike merchants, printers did not understand market forces. The idea of a target audience was alien to them. It took a while before they realized that printing is both a skill and a business. Rome offers a perfect example of the mismatch between books produced and books desired, between titles on offer and subjects in demand.
In Italy, the invention of printing was enthusiastically embraced. More presses were established there than anywhere else. The first printers, however, were all Germans. Before 1480 over a hundred German typographers were or had been at work in various Italian cities. I was like a closed shop. These immigrant printers kept the secrets of their trade to themselves. As late as 1500, only two Italians and two Frenchmen had become printers in Rome. It was not until 1471 that, from Venice, any Italian printing was recorded. In May of that year Clement of Padua printed the De dedicillis ulliversalibus of Mesua. In Rome, Joannes Phillipus de Lignamine had started printing at around the same time. Chronologically, they are the first Italian printers on record. Venice emerged as Italy’s leading printing centre, and humanists congregated at the Aldine press. Rome, however, did not prove to be a profitable centre for the new art.
Printing had arrived in Italy in 1464, hardly a decade after the invention of the press, when two clerics, Conrad Sweynheym from Mainz and Arnold Pannartz from Cologne, set up their press in the Benedictine monastery St Scholastica at Subiaco, in the Sabine mountains near Rome, where they lived as lay brothers. As a consequence, credit for bringing the first printers to Italy has generally gone to the Spanish Cardinal Juan Torquemada, Abbot of Subiaco. Chief amongst the innovations of Sweynheym and Pannartz was the development of a more rounded typeface than the Black-letter or Textura introduced by Gutenberg. It was modeled on the formal Italian handwriting known as humanist script. In 1465, they issued the edition princeps of De oratore by Cicero, the first book printed in Italy. In the same year they issued the works of Lactantius, the first dated book executed in Italy. It is also one of the earliest books to adopt a more elaborate punctuation than the simple oblique line and full stop that was in general use at the time. Both these books are printed in a type that is neither Gothic nor Roman, but somewhere in between the two scripts.
Sweynheym and Pannartz printed just three books in Subiaco before moving their press to the Palazzo Massimi at the Campo dei Fiori, the populous centre of Renaissance Rome. Several cardinals had palaces built near the Campo. Pilgrims and political visitors found shelter in the square’s forty-one inns. Criminals were executed in the square. At the Palazzo, they printed twenty-eight volumes in editions of up to 300 copies. These included the editiones principes of, amongst others, Caesar, Livy, Virgil, and Lucan. In fact, it is a first case of an over-production of books. The market for such publications was not there and they failed to sell their stock. In 1472 they sent their assistant, Bernhard von Merdingen, with a shipment of books to sell at the Nuremberg fair. In that same year, encouraged by their editor, Johannes Andreas de Bussi, librarian at the Vatican, they addressed an unsuccessful supplicant letter to Pope Paul II. Sweynheym dissolved the partnership in 1473 and returned to his former profession as an engraver, while Pannartz struggled on alone until his death in 1477.
Printers in Rome found it hard to make a living. There were reasons for that. The city did not flourish in the way that Venice prospered and the size of its educated middle class was relatively modest. Moreover, it was a rather small city. At the outset of the fifteenth century, Rome was under-populated owing to its abandonment during the time of the Great Schism. After his election, Pope Martin V returned to Rome and made it one of his objectives to attract residents to the city. He tried to encourage foreigners to settle in Rome. Several thousand German artisans and clerics responded to his call and moved there during his pontificate. They formed the core of a resident German community. These immigrants created numerous guilds and confraternities. They tended to live, pray, and socialize together. Such close bonds assisted the first printers in surviving an initially unfavourable market.
The output of early printers was predominantly classical texts that appealed to humanists, but not in the least to Roman ultramontanists who were far more concerned with legal matters and other affairs at the papal court. Interestingly, another German printer, Ulrich Han, had produced classical texts from 1467 to 1471, by which time he was overstocked with Cicero, Livy, and Plutarch. He formed a partnership with Simon Nicolai Chardella, a merchant who knew nothing about printing, but a great deal about the way in which the city functioned. He instructed Han to print books on Roman and Canon law, theology, and brief pamphlets pertaining to affairs at the court. The new and market-orientated direction meant that Han’s business began to prosper. Other publications that sold well were guides to Rome’s sights and indulgences. Large numbers of pilgrims journeyed to the city and many of them were German nationals. Few of them would have been able to read Latin. They were eager to purchase a travel guide, a Renaissance Baedeker (to maintain the German connection) in their native language. Adam Rot, perhaps at one time partner of Pannartz and Sweynheym, had his own press in Rome from 1471 to 1474. He was the first printer to publish books for Rome’s pilgrims, issuing several guides to the city informing visitors about the marvels of Rome, and how many indulgences could be gained by visiting specific churches.
The lukewarm reception awarded to Pannartz, Sweynheym, and other colleagues, did not deter German printers from moving to Rome. The papal physician Johannes Philippus de Lignamine owned presses and hired Germans to print books that might sell. He was active in the printing industry from 1470 to 1476, and again from 1481 to 1484, at which time he housed his presses in the monastery of St Eusebius. Among his employees was Georg Lauer. Lauer had been among the first printers in Rome, and may have worked for Pannartz and Sweynheym. Arnold Pannartz died in 1477 after completing one volume of St Jerome’s Epistolae. The second volume of letters, using the same type, was produced by Georg Lauer. It is not known where in Germany the latter acquired his knowledge of printing. From 1472 to 1474 he was in partnership with Leonhard Pflugl (most printers moved through a series of fleeting partnerships). Neither of them had made any money from printing ancient authors. They were wisely advised by their editor, the Italian humanist Pomponius Laetus, to reduce the number of classical editions. Lauer and Pflugl were the first to print legal and canonistic texts, which fared better in a market dominated by members of the Curia Romana (the Court of Rome), the administrative apparatus of the Holy See. It was not until such market-awareness became more common among printers and publishers, that the art of printing established itself with all its potential and possibilities.