Illuminators Were in MORE Demand AFTER the Arrival of the Printing Press

(p. C9) In “The Bookseller of Florence,” Ross King relates the fascinating story of a bookstore run by Vespasiano da Bisticci, a Florentine born in 1422, whose shop on the Via dei Librai, or Street of Booksellers, sat at the center of Florence’s golden age and its valiant recovery of ancient knowledge.

. . .

Before long, Vespasiano established a bookshop selling beautifully made manuscripts of newly fashionable Roman classics for prosperous clients. He was well placed: Florence, “the new Athens on the Arno,” was a city where an astounding seven of 10 citizens could read.

. . .

Vespasiano’s life straddled two eras. Before the dawn of movable type in Europe, readers relied on manuscripts, painstakingly copied by hand with goosequills on parchment made from animal skins. After, they flocked to buy cheaper books printed on presses. Meanwhile, scribes either became early adopters—trading their inkpots for composing sticks—or found themselves surprisingly busy rubricating and illuminating innumerable books rolling off the new presses. By the time the presses made their way south of the Alps, Vespasiano was in his early 30s and, for whatever reason, chose not to embrace the new technology.

Printing came to Florence later than elsewhere, possibly due in part to Vespasiano, who continued to sell only books copied out on parchment. Still, competition from printed books began to tell on his sales. Then, just when it seemed he might be edged out of the market, there arrived a redeeming commission by the count of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro, for “the finest library since antiquity,” one that would keep Vespasiano’s team of dozens of scribes and illuminators busy for nearly a decade, well into the era of the printing press. Montefeltro, a wealthy mercenary—who at the age of 15 had seized a fortress long believed impregnable—was also a bookish man, like many in the Renaissance. He retained five men to read to him as he ate, and even a poet to sing his praises. Among the many books created for his library was Vespasiano’s masterpiece, the Urbino Bible, one of the most lavish illustrated books of all time.

For the full review, see:

Ernest Hilbert. “Wise Men Fished There.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 24, 2021): C9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date April 15, 2021, and has the title “‘The Bookseller of Florence’ Review: Manuscripts and Medicis.”)

The book under review is:

King, Ross. The Bookseller of Florence: The Story of the Manuscripts That Illuminated the Renaissance. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2021.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.