Italian printers

To know the future we have to understand the past. And of course there is also history repeating itself.

Gustave Flaubert would have loved these two sayings and he would certainly have used them for his dictionary of received ideas. Flaubert himself noted down a cliche that has some relevance for this lecture. It goes

photography: will make painting obsolete.

Karl Marx used the one about history for one of his funnier quips: history repeats itself, first as a tragedy, second as a comedy.

Still, there is truth in both sayings. History – or humanity – certainly has a tendency to repeat itself and we can only recognize these repetitions and learn something if we have some knowledge of the past.

At the moment we are in the middle of one of the greatest sea-changes the world of information has gone through. Therefore I want to take a look at what happened during an earlier era and share some ideas with you about the lessons of history.

What can we learn from the 15th century change from manuscript to printed book? Does it tell us something about the fate of the printed book itself? What lessons might the early heroes of printing have for the internet publishers of our days – and of course for us bookhistorians who are going through such interesting times. I will say something about design but more about the financial circumstances that influence design. During my research for this paper I came to the conclusion that these circumstances are perhaps more important than changes in design we see on the page – and may expect to see on the screen of our digital books.

Let me first say that I consider the codex a far more important, interesting and influential invention than the computer or the internet. The codex has now reached a venerable age of more than 17 centuries. About a hundred generations have used it’s unique features.

There is a difference between a codex and a pile of papers held together by a pin or glue. The uniformity of the size of the pages defines the accessibility of a book. Quick and random acces to information, that is what the codex is about.

Creating such a book in the middle ages was everything but easy.

For a medieval codex you would have to slaughter ten or twelve pigs or sheep and have vellum made of their skins. After that you had to find that rarest of species: a man or woman who could write down a text for you. Early medieval society was hardly organized and places where you could have a book made or actually see a book where few. Monasteries were scarce and wide apart.

Secular reading – for instruction or pleasure – belonged to the city. To be able to live in a city and do something else than menial work, you would have to be able to read. Once you could read you probably wanted to read more than bookkeepers records. You wanted to read books. Religious books, scholarly books, adventures and poetry.

And soon an industry came into existence that catered for this new market of readers. Scriptoria in great cities like Florence where well organized companies that produced high-quality manuscripts for a decent price.

Then, halfway the 15th century came the printing press – invented by the Man of the Millennium, Gutenberg. More than 29.000 titles were printed up to 1500. If we put the number of copies of an edition on the arbitrary number of 300 this would mean that about 9.000.000 books were made and sold during the first 40 years after Gutenberg. How many scribes would be needed to create such a mountain of books?

It is clear that here we have a genuine information revolution. At the same time it is a rather curious revolution! What everybody knows, but hardly anybody seems to realize, is that printers played a relative small part in the making of a book. In the days of Gutenberg the typesetters and printers realized far less than half of the value of a copy.

The materials of which books were made, claimed the major part, even when paper was about ten times less expensive that vellum. So the actual printing of a book may have been 50 times less costly than writing it down by hand, but the printers could only claim about 20% of all work done on a single copy. The rest was done – or supposed to be done – by rubricators, illuminators and bookbinders.

In the 15th century a paper copy of a printed book would be half as expensive as a handwritten one. It will be clear that the prime importance of Gutenbergs printing press lies in being a catalyst. Printers printed editions and editions had to be sold.

Gutenbergs artificial writing machine was certainly not meant to be a prime mover that made knowledge available to the masses and revolutionized the world. That kind of book emerged almost half a century later and was created by a totally different kind of man. The 40 years between Gutenberg and Aldus Manutius brought us the modern book.

The birth of the book as we know it is the result of typical capitalist development with its system of trial and error, fuelled by greed. It is important to remember that, while the price of a single copy of a book might be halved, the total investment needed to produce that copy as part of an edition would rise more than twohundredfold. The return of investment would be slow as it might take years to sell an edition. And before work on that edition could start, there would be an initial investment in the equipment of a printing house and the hiring of an expensive specialist workforce.

It was only in the 16th that being a publisher or even a printer became a sure way to riches. In the early days the infrastructure to sell 500 copies of a book was non-existent. Early printers seem to have thought and act like the makers of manuscripts. The first printing press in Italy was up in the mountains and days away from Rome. It was rather difficult to print in Subiaco and still expect to sell a lot of books in little time. So Sweynheim and Pannartz moved their bussiness to Rome. And even then life was difficult. To be able to sell books printers and publishers had to create a close knit community that was parochial and international at the same time.

The advent of the printed book made rubricating and illuminating a booming business and that is perhaps the reason why the quality of manuscripts detoriated so much in the last decennia of the fiftheenth century. It was only in the fiftheen-seventies that printers started to experiment with printed initials and woodcuts, thus streamlining the production and reducing the costs of a single copy with at least another 20%.

Aldus Manutius established his firm in the great merchant city of Venice, had sound financial backers and reduced the size and thus the price of books. But he hardly used the woodcut initials that would have reduced the price of his books even more, although he did so in his most famous publication: the Hypnerotomachia.

It seems clear that most 15th century printers did not realize the real potency of the printing press and indeed saw it as a form of artificial writing. There was no break with the past. They saw their activities in no different light than the makers of manuscripts.

Even today paid writers exist who ply their trade on the streetcorners in Mexico or India. They write letters but also newspapers. The investment for such a trade is small. You have to know how to write, which may take some years to learn and that is it. I will come back to these writers later on when I will discuss the impact of the internet on the publishing industry.

Many books have been written about how the layout of the page had to be reconstructed to conquer the oceans of information that suddenly became available. Pages had to be numbered. The paragraph had to be invented, just as notes and bibliographical references. Running titles. And most important of all: the title-page.

Most of these innovations come together in the work of Erhard Ratdolt, the Augsburg and Venetian printer already mentioned. He was an early adapter: he used a title-page, printed in color and so on. I especially mention the way he placed woodcut illustrations in the margins in one of the most beautiful and well-structured books ever published: his first edition of Euclid that dates from 1482.

Why did changes that were clearly great innovations not find their way immediately and sometime took ages to get accepted. Why did not all printers started to use woodcut initials right after they were invented – why did it take almost a century for such a simple but effective innovation to be generally accepted?

I have a few assertions that will play a role in the second – smaller – part of this lecture when I will discuss the digital age.

The first one goes like this: what we see as typographical innovation is often a ressurection of something older. Most typographical inventions of the 15th century are in fact reinventions.

My second obervation is that almost all real innovations come from outsiders. The power of tradition is very strong, especially in the field of printing and publishing were innovation is stultyfied by the conservatism of the trade and the consumers.

What does this mean for the future of publishing and more specifically for the future of design? I love the term Information Architecture as it covers perfectly what modern design is really about.

It will be clear that the internet and searchmachines have changed the way we look at information and how we use it. Will we need footnotes when all books have been digitized? I can imagine a searchmachine that analyzes texts in depth: a researchmachine. Now information is anchored to a page but digitized it can have any form – especially as we do not need to refer to a given page any more.

On the other hand the way we organize and read texts will not change. Writing and reading is about rhetorics and expectations and these are deep undercurrents that were probably hotwired into the human brain long before we were able to notice them. We will always need art and need to create art, or science and scholarship.

Digital information will always be expressed in books and these books will be more beautiful and better made. More people than ever before are active as designers, of typefaces and of books. They are counted in tens of thousands where there used to be hundreds. Of course beauty and taste have nothing to do with numbers. But more practitioners create more choices for a public that has become more critical in its appraisal.

And perhaps more important the costs are low. In fact everybody with a computer can create a book and have it printed. We have – again – arrived in an age where the costs are counted per single copy in stead of editions. The modern bookdesigner is in fact a publisher and can be compared to those writers in India I mentioned earlier who still write newspapers in longhand – and even more with the scribes of the early 15th century. And so it seems that we are in fact swinging back to an earlier age, on a different, higher level.

How does this work out in the real world? A few months ago I had the great honor to participate in the creation of a new and beautiful magazine on typedesign, called Codex. The publisher, John Boardley is well known for his blog He lives in Japan, the editor somewhere in Canada, some of the authors are in fact here in this room, but they can also be found in California and Brazil. It was printed and shipped by a German firm. All 5000 copies were sold, most of them directly to readers of blogs on typography, a few by specialist bookstores, none by the great chains like the Dutch Selexyz.

I think that a few years from now there will be less books than there are now, but they will be better edited, better designed and better printed. Part, perhaps even the greater part, of the mass market will go digital. This will make books less interesting to the kind of publisher or bookseller that now fill the great chains of bookstores with endless and depressing repetitions of soulless and bad designed books. The independent bookseller will rise again and so will the independent publisher. I think that this is the future, an interesting and humane future and certainly our future as book historians.

Italian humanist Pomponius Laetus – the Latinized name for Giulio Pomponio Leto (1425-1498) – edited the first edition of De lingua Latina (1471) by Marcus Terentius Varro for Georg Lauer, the German printer who had settled in Rome. It was the first of Varro’s works to be printed.

Marcus Terentius Varro was born at Reate, north-east of Rome. Following his studies at Rome and Athens, he engaged in a public career that culminated in the service under Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great) during the Civil War. After the Pompeian defeat in the battle of Pharsalus, Varro received Caesar’s pardon. He was requested to organize the first public library at Rome. However, he never completed the task. The assassination of Caesar intervened. Varro was sent into exile. His private library was plundered, but he himself escaped. He dedicated the rest of his life to scholarship. In the Noctes Atticae, Aulus Gellius states that Varro, at the age of seventy-eighth, had completed 490 books. In spite of that phenomenal output, only two works survive: a treatise on farming written in dialogue form, De re rustica, and a study on aspects of the etymology, morphology and grammar of the Latin language, De lingua Latina. Dedicated to Cicero, this treatise – of the original twenty-five only books 5 to 10 survive (with considerable gaps) – is of interest not only as a work on linguistics, but also as a source of incidental information on a wide range of subjects. The manuscript of the book was produced at the Benedictine monastery of Montecassino in the last decades of the eleventh century. The same manuscript contained Cicero’s Pro cluentio, and Ad herennium. In 1355, Boccaccio visited Montecassino and obtained a copy of the manuscript which, transcribed in his own hand, he sent to Petrarch. Regrettably, this manuscript is not extant and scholars, including Laetus, had rely on more unreliable copies made in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Laetus had studied in Rome under Lorenzo Valla whom he succeeded in 1457 as Professor of Eloquence in the Gymnasium Romanum. He was the founder of the Academia Romana which was set up in the style of an ancient priestly college. Laetus was styled ‘pontifex maximus’. Members adopted Greek and Latin names and met at his house to discuss the Classics and study the fragments, inscriptions and Roman coins which Laetus had collected. In 1466, he spent some time in Venice. To his dismay, he was arrested and investigated by the Council of Ten (a secretive governing body of the Venetian Republic) on suspicion of having seduced his students. The ardour of poetic praise for some of these young men was frowned upon. Charged with sodomy he was imprisoned. At the same time, in Rome, Pope Paul II ordered an examination of the Academia Romana on suspicion of heresy, republicanism, and paganism. Arrests were made and Laetus was sent back to Rome to be imprisoned, questioned, and tortured. He refused to admit to charges of immorality and infidelity. He was acquitted in the end and resumed teaching at the University of Rome. He is first and foremost remembered as a teacher. Amongst his pupils were many of the most famous scholars of the period and also included Alexander Farnese, later Duke of Parma.

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.