totengässlein (basel)


Early urban culture and the invention of the printing press are intertwined. The diffusion of this technology encouraged activity in the city and stimulated commercial and intellectual pursuits. Printing was the catalyst. It made a huge impact on business skill and performance (bookkeeping and the calculation of exchange and interest rates for example) and allowed for the social ascent of new professional classes such as merchants, lawyers, officials, doctors, and teachers.


The Arte dell’abbaco (known as the ‘Treviso arithmetic’), the earliest known printed book on mathematics, is a textbook in commercial arithmetic written in vernacular Venetian and published in Treviso in 1478. It is significant that early places of printing excellence were either commercial centres (Venice, Bruges), university towns (Mainz, Louvain), or both (Leiden). The early modern city was a meeting place of traders, bankers, printers and intellectuals.


The city-state (civitas) of Rome has been the inspiration to our notions of civilization and ‘civility’ (literally, the way of life that belongs to the city). The Latin term ‘urbs’ implies a tradition of ‘urbanity’ in a sense of refined social intercourse. A history of Western civilization is largely a tale of urban development within Europe. Basel is one of those cities that take pride in a strong intellectual tradition. Scholars have always enjoyed considerable prestige here. John Foxe worked on his history of the persecutions suffered by the Reformers while in exile in Basel; Jacob Burckhardt, who was born in the city, became the celebrated historian of the Italian Renaissance; Nietzsche taught Greek philology at Basel University and wrote some of his philosophical works there; Jung studied medicine at the University; and Theodor Herzl addressed the first Zionist Congress in the old Municipal Casino.


At present, the city is home to a number of famous schools and museums and constitutes an international marketplace for art and antiquities. Totengässlein, located in the heart of historic Basel (the name translates as Little Lane of the Dead), houses the Pharmazie-Historisches Museum which was founded in 1925. Dedicated to pharmaceutical history, it holds one of the world’s largest collections on the subject that includes notable books such as Der Gart der Gesundheyt by Johann de Cuba (Augsburg, 1488) and New Kreüterbuch by Leonhart Fuchs (Basel, 1543).


The museum is located in the historical house ‘Zum Vorderen Sessel’ which dates back to the thirteenth century. The building once housed an important printing press owned by Johann Amerbach who had arrived in Basel from Germany in 1475. In 1507 the property, consisting of several houses and a yard, was bought from him by his pupil Johann Froben. Here, in 1514, a meeting took place that would shape the course of Europe’s intellectual history. 06 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, who encouraged the Dutch scholar to compile his Adagia. During his stay Erasmus met Thomas More and the two became lifelong friends. Apparently, their very first meeting 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 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 Johannes 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. 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. That same year painter Quinten Massys completed his famous portrait of Erasmus which was commissioned with a pendant portrait of Pieter Gillis, to be sent as a gift to Thomas More. In presenting themselves surrounded by their books, both men must have hoped these portraits would seal their bonds of intellect and friendship with a like-minded thinker.


On 25 August 1517 Erasmus sent a letter from Louvain to Johannes Froben in Basel. In it, he recommended the publication of More’s Utopia in combination with the Prolusions (the works were published together in 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 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. 13 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 ‘studia humanitatis’ was in mourning.